January 30, 2006

What do newspapers do????

by tolles at 6:43 PM

What do newspapers do???? *WHAT* do newspapers *DO*?

For chrissake.

The job of newspapers is to inform the public about what’s happening on their beat – be that a town (SF Chronicle) an industry (Financial Times), or the world at large (NY Times). Their job is to inform the public to what’s going on – They can be objective or opinionated – but they need to speak to their audience wherever that audience lives (online or offline). If they earn a large enough audience, they can connect that user base to advertisers, and make a fair profit. Newspapers connect audiences with advertising events like sales, or opportunities correlated to the audience – a sale at the local hardware store, a new branch of a restaurant opening, or a new arriving at the local dealer. Things you don’t know to search for, but interesting nonetheless.

Whether they use journalists, or bloggers, the role of the newspaper is quite clear – The big change is to the economics of the offer. Decades of high profit margins have shielded papers from hard decisions involving unions, printing costs, the rise of online readers and a decaying demographic for their products. Looking for future of the newspaper? Look to the past – when there were no monopolies and the advertising business was harder – papers worked to build audiences, and were amongst the most competitive and cutthroat businesses out there – not above making the story to sell papers and not above having a point of view to keep audiences.

Nick Denton runs a newspaper. Jason Calacanis runs a newspaper. They don’t call them that, but that’s what they are.

The folks on the business side of the newspapers all seem to be working overtime to try new stuff. What’s funny is that the folks who don’t get it are, for the most part, journalists. The ones who most vociferously defend the separation between advertising and editorial are now surprised that when 2/3 of your revenue dries up, and your industry is in the middle of the biggest shift since the invention of moveable type, that their jobs are going to change.

A lot.

(To be fair, there are a lot of journalists who seem to get it…but a lot of folks need to wake up and smell the Napalm.)

The title and meat of this comes from a my reaction to a rhetorical question we got from a reporter trying to frame up the changes in revenues and business in the newspaper industry. I realized I had a pretty strong viewpoint here…

The newspaper of the future needs to fight for audience –- fight for its life, before someone comes and takes it from them. Similar to the strategy of the American auto industry, to rely on its capacity, and sell Americans the cars they build, when smaller and more nimble rivals are instead, building the cars that Amercans want, newspapers need to build the products their audiences and advertisers want, rather than basing their strategy on a capacity for great journalism and printing pages of classifieds.

The successful newspaper business of 2010 might look a lot like the successful newspaper business of 1910 – and the connection to Pultizer won’t be his prize, but rather his business methods.


January 29, 2006

So you want to take on the incumbent

by skrenta at 12:56 PM

Yahoo in 1998 had 100's of features, but the best way to take it on turns out to have been to focus on a single feature. Not put up a portal with email, photos, news, chat, but just to focus on one great product -- search result quality. In fact Larry and Sergey said that the time that they didn't want to build Yahoo, it was too cluttered. Doing just one thing was the best way to build a new Yahoo competitor, not duplicating them feature for feature. Others tried to duplicate Yahoo piece by piece and got nowhere.

Collections of random features rarely achieve takeoff.

Once you get big, of course, you lose focus and brand extend until you've obliterated the meaning of your original branding, but your distribution is so big that it doesn't matter anymore (except maybe in the long term?)

Or is my Al Ries view of branding out of date? I was happy to see Yahoo keep Flickr as a separate brand, instead of erasing it by calling it Yahoo Photo Sharing or something. eGroups was a stronger name than Yahoo Groups, IMO. I can't remember the new name for Overture, Yahoo something Services I think. Maybe I'll have new opinions on this after working through Kellogg on Branding, which just arrived. It was highly recommended by the Economist a few issues ago. We'll see..


January 28, 2006

Is it a value chain or an attempt to buy community?

by skrenta at 12:43 PM

Mike Arrington asks "Is [paying users for contributed content] a gimick to generate attention or is it a viable long term strategy to generate user adoption?"

Sometimes when a web model takes off the economics flip 180 degrees. Instead of sites that want content paying to get it, content producers pay sites with traffic for distrubition. Steve Case in the early days of AOL famously told a group of content producers that, in the future, they'd be paying him to be on AOL instead of him paying for content. They laughed but Steve's prediction came true.

We saw this economic flip happen in the web directory space. In 1998 portals like Lycos and AltaVista were paying to have a web directory on their front page. Directories cost $1-2 per URL to create. Lycos licensed Looksmart's directory, this was how Looksmart made money. When we started giving the Open Directory data away for free at Netscape, portals that had been paying for a directory before ditched Looksmart and started putting up the ODP. But -- surprise -- Looksmart found that they could actually afford to pay sites to host their directory. Looksmart charged webmasters to be included in the directory, then paid high-traffic sites for distribution. And the whole economics of the directory space flipped around.

Raw Sugar could very well end up with something like this with their federated directory building model. That would be cool. The web needs a new model to build organized, tagged directory collections, and it's time for a new one to come along. Raw Sugar could be onto something here.

On the other hand, paying individual contributors piecemeal or through lotteries or contests for content creation often seems like an act of desperation at social software companies that aren't seeing takeoff.

Someone on the board says why don't you pay everyone a dollar a post and that will prime the pump. But the motivation of working for a buck compared to participating for fun or just out of sheer interest in some web playground or social space or a straighten-things-up game are so different, that even if you successfully prime the pump, your selection method bred for the wrong sort of user base -- folks that want to get paid instead of participating because they just like participating. Once the freely-motivated subgroup that you hoped to attract catches a whiff of the off-smell of paid bait content, they stay away.

It also demeans the contribution. If I'm going to post about local city politics, or write a review of Friday's dinner out, it's borderline offensive to suggest that I'll only do so if I get a dollar. On one hand, professionals who do these things for a living get paid a lot more. But nonprofessionals aren't producing this content for the money at all. They talk politics because they want to have a local effect, or review a restaurant to warn people away after getting bad service. Not to earn a cup of coffee. It feels sorta like the street hustlers who squeegee your windshield and then ask for money, in reverse. Eww. I don't want to squeegee the web for pocket change.



by skrenta at 9:51 AM

If we can make a UI change (e.g. shrinking ad unit slightly, moving the position, changing the color) which yields a lower ad CTR but keeps the eCPM at the same level, does that mean we increased the user utility of the site?

January 27, 2006

News 2.0 is not Journalism

by skrenta at 2:12 AM

Om's right. He says that the news 2.0 startups aren't doing journalism. But News 2.0 isn't about journalism. It's about news.

The key to understanding what is working in "Citizen Journalism" is that they're first-person accounts. Journalists are professional observers and interpreters; they watch, and report back to the wider audience. But just like stockbrokers and travel agents, the Internet is again cutting out the intermediary.

The best examples of CJ, such as Jeremy Hermanns reporting on a cabin depressurization on Alaska Airlines, or the London bombing photo taken with a cell phone, are first-person accounts reported straight to the public.

Tinfinger's Paul Montgomery says

Stories are things that happen to other people, but in CJ the issues affect you directly. You're not a dispassionate reporter, you're the subject.

He argues that the dot-com deathpool FuckedCompany is actually one of the best examples of CJ success recently, because it gave a voice to

disaffected dot-com employees who had nothing much to do at their doomed jobs other than posting gossip on message boards with funny headlines like 'Ruckus soon to become fuckus'.

When your industry is facing Clay Christensen's Innovator's Dilemma, the threat comes, not from a better product, but from a worse one.

The quality of journalistic output today is, for the most part really really good. In fact it's too good. The product costs a huge amount to bring to market, and what the Internet enables is a an alternative product built for zero, and providing a different value proposition. Citizen journalism is going to be more Citizens and less Journalism.

We were told by a New York Times insider that the staff at the NYT hates their online forums, but they wouldn't ever get rid of them because they're so popular. I'm not surprised that professional writers wouldn't be happy with the level of discourse in a typical forum, especially one involving hot issues. But you know what? That's your public in the forums, like it or not. When your readers get riled up and want to rant online, that's what it looks like.

The future of news isn't going to be a new Watergatish nirvana of investigative journalism. It's going to be BYOJ -- bring your own journalism -- on top of a much richer set of sources: everybody.


So what about our efforts here at Topix... We launched community participation features across our site six weeks ago. What's unique about our News 2.0 experiment is that we have 5 million unique visitors each month reading local news on our site. So if audience participation requires some audience to get started, well we do have some.

Our participation architecture is essentially a giant integrated message board and comment system, with various features to aid initial take-off and avoid the "empty room" problem inherent in booting up conversation in a new online space. We also invested from the start in robust anti-spam and moderation tools. Any remotely successful participatory site immediately attracts spam, and after the initial launch social scalability becomes the biggest issue, and is hard to retrofit if it hasn't been designed in from the very beginning.

Creating a local news page for every town in the US provided us with a set of local audiences for thousands of towns... towns where people who use AOL and have never heard of Web 2.0 live. These people want to tell their stories too. You don't need to know what a blog is to want to tell your story online, and you don't need a journalist to tell you how either, it turns out.

We've been astonished at many of the posts we've had. There is much of the normal chatter you'd find on message board comments (which we think is just great), but there are also many first-person accounts of news events from across the country. More than we expected, frankly. In places like Valley Center, CA, Hickory, NC, Redford, MI, Hillborough, NC, Lake Butler, FL, Hershey, PA, and Livermore, CA. Some of these reports are very raw and heart-wrenching. But we're glad we were able to offer a place for these conversations to occur.

Jeff Jarvis is absolutely right, local is hard. So is our approach reasonable? How about something like Baristanet instead, a hyperlocal journalism site in New Jersey. Baristanet is so good it makes me want to read about fender benders in a suburb on the other side of the country. But it's run by two professional journalists. Debbie Galant writes for the New York Times. Liz George writes for the New York Daily News. Liz has a degree in journalism from NYU. They're doing great journalism here, but I wouldn't call it grass roots, or "citizen".

I'd say the same about Mike Orren's Pegasus News, which just launched a great-looking new hyperlocal site in Texas. Mike's a journalist too. These are examples of professionals shrewdly adapting their trade to adapt to shifting media patterns.

As Barry Parr posted in the comments to the Baristanet vs. Backfence analysis (well worth a read),

Top-down sites have some big advantages in resources and scalability, and they can nourish thriving online communities. Yahoo Groups does this very well. It's possible that the citizens will take over one of these sites and make it habitable.

There are a number of competing News 2.0 designs in the market, ultimately it will be up to the users to decide what works and what doesn't. I'm finding this application of technology to a social system one of the most interesting projects since booting up dmoz. Fortunately, regardless of which models work and which don't, the public will be the real winner here.


Followup from Paul Montomery: CJ is not "model citizen" journalism.

Comments over here.

January 25, 2006

Feature Fight?

by skrenta at 5:38 AM

Paul Montgomery of Tinfinger did a visual matrix of News 2.0 startups listing their features (Yes, "News 2.0" may be a silly term but at least you know what I'm talking about.) Everyone loved his chart.

What's eerie to me is how this sort of feature chart is standard practice in enterprise software startups, but I haven't seen them much on the web/consumer side. Enterprise product battles are often a matter of sales, distribution, and the all-important feature checklist. The sales team scurries over to engineering after each call, waving a list of new, unchecked feature boxes. These boxes must be checked by the next release or there will be no sales! "They really want remote admin." "It needs to allow you to export your config." "The browser UI doesn't support Linux." "The IETF is going to require XYZZY.7 encoding and the customer wants it for interoperability."

After a shudder of horror remembering my days working in enterprise software, I thought how cool it would be if features and distribution actually were the defining metrics of success for web consumer product development. As opposed to insurmountable network effects, pesky first-mover advantages (for the 2nd-nth movers), and and bafflingly successful viral marketing experiments.

"Of course it's about features and distribution", I'm thinking. But I see feature breakdown's like Paul too seldom in the web 2.0 coverage that I read.

Paul has an update where he digs further into the features around News 2.0 and ponders which will ultimately define success.

January 24, 2006

Give the reader (just) want they want

by skrenta at 12:49 AM

Jarvis's plan to fix the print paper -- he argues for cutting commodity sections, and having papers focus on what they do uniquely well in their markets -- local news.

Jeff says

Newspapers also have to have the guts to stop trying to produce one-size-fits-all products that serve every possible reader and interest in one edition
but then proceeds to suggest parts of the paper we all aren't supposed to need anymore. It's solid reasoning as usual but I say don't decide for everyone, let each subscriber decide.

Give readers a web form and let them uncheck sections they don't want. Don't want the TV guide? No problem. Only wants Sports and the Sunday circulars? Ok.

There'd still be plenty of ads, of course, but readers would be more likely to want to see them.

The carrier already assembles some of the sections. If Safeway can put fruit in a bag and get it to my door I should be able to opt-out of the parts of the newspaper that go straight to the blue recycling box in my garage.

Yeah, it's unlikely to happen. But it would be great. The per-section readership data would give print an ability to track what their readers really wanted as well as websites can, and would make a great platform for test-marketing and upsells.

January 21, 2006

New local relevance algorithm on Topix city pages

by skrenta at 7:50 PM

We've been working hard to improve the relevance of our news channels, and this weekend deployed some algo changes to our local city and subject news pages. We're trying to promote bigger stories above the fold, rather than just chronologically sorting the news. The above-the-fold stories should now be a combination of recent, relevant stories. The goal is to have really good stories in the first few positions on the page.

There should also be fewer off-topic posts on our local pages. We've had a devil of a time, for example, with Silicon Valley tech business stories ending up on our Palo Alto page, since so many tech companies are located here. Technically we're getting the location of the subject of the stories right, but they're not local news. Local news is about sandbags to prevent San Francisquito Creek from coming in your front door, not Google's earnings. That's another channel. The same sort of thing happens in LA with celeb stories, DC with world news, NY with "wall street", etc. We can remove much (but not all, alas) of this off-topic material now.

This is an interim update, but I'm blogging it anyway. This update has been more about getting bad stories off our of our pages (precision), rather than finding addtional stories we might we missing (recall). We're going to work on precision first, then increase recall. It's not perfect, there's more things we know how to fix but haven't applied the programmer-time yet, but overall the quality should be a big improvement over a few weeks ago.

I'd be interested in any feedback on the quality... feel free to email me, rich-at-topix-dot-n-e-t if you have any comments.

List of Top 25 Cities on Topix.net

Top Stories from the Blogosphere

Google et. al. industry news

January 20, 2006

Why does pro-content have to be anti-Google?

by skrenta at 4:08 PM

I'm late to the BusinessWeek story Putting the Screws to Google, but someone just asked me about it so I'm posting my thoughts.

...picture this: Walt Disney (DIS ), News Corp. (NWS ), NBC Universal, and The New York Times (NYT ), in an odd tableau of unity, join together and say: "We are the founding members of the Content Consortium. Next month we launch our free, searchable Web site, which no outside search engines can access." (A simple bit of code is all it takes to bar all or some major search engines from accessing a site.) "From now on we'll make our stuff available and sell ads around it and the searches for it, but only on our terms. Who else wants to join us? Membership's free."

Many others have written about this story, for a good summary of opinions see Jeff Jarvis.

I'm going to take a different view and say that what Jon Fine describes in his article is exactly what the news industry should build, except for the google opt-out. Acknowledge and respect that Google is the home page of the Internet and the source of new trial users (and a heck of a great ad channel too). Beyond that, having a coherently organized and searchable quality content store is a great idea. All the content on one site was and still is the holy grail of the news industry.

Keep in mind that pratical considerations include successfully building a great product to house the great content. Success isn't guaranteed, and is entirely unlikely if left to consultants and outsourcing which all-too-often is the implementation path for media co's online. Building a decent search-based site is harder than it looks. It's not "just put up a search". Online product development, esp. when search technology is involved, is not "just" anything.

January 19, 2006

Tabitha Soren Interviews Wonkette

by tolles at 11:28 PM

The Commonwealth Club of California hosted an interview of Ana Marie Cox -- Wonkette -- by Tabitha Soren this evening in San Franicsco.

While I'm kind of burned out hearing about Web 2.0 -- it was cool hearing Tabitha Soren talk to Wonkette about the blog, her new novel and life in DC -- figured even though that this wasn't Topix related it was too good not to blog...

Some of the highlights of the interview, to the best of my recollection:

AMC: "The novel means my parents finally know what I do for a living"

AMC: "Wonkette gave me a second row sea at the 2004 election..while I wasn't in the bubble, I was close enough to smell the Bourbon on the breath of the people who were in it"

On Jessica Cutler and the interest of the DC audience with the Washingtonienne:

AMC: "The combination of blogging and women being paid to have sex was very exciting"
TS: "Didn't you have a role in this"
AMC: "I linked to her"
TS: "Didn't you also put up pictures and have people guess who she was sleeping with"
AMC:"Well, after I linked to her, she ended up getting a book deal bigger than the one I got..."

On sex in DC:
AMC: "It's the Special Olympics of Sex, where everyone's a winner"

On policy & Gossip & DC
"Gossip is easy, politics is hard...knowing policy does help make the gosip more understandable"
"Caring about policy is important...people in washingtom forget the line item you leave in our take out has a real effect, and it becomes just a game"

On the success of Wonkette:
"I'm surprised and disappointed in American culture"
"I've been told I'm a player, but people still don't always return my calls"
"When I was a freelancer, I *thought* that this journalism thing was a racket, and now that I'm where I am now, I *know* it's a racket."\

Tabitha's Proustian Quiz of Ana:
Her personal hero: Joan Didion
Favorite politician: John McCain
Colbert or Jon Stewart: tie
Jennifer or Angelina: Angelina
Art or Commerce: Art
Woody or Scorsese: ewwww
Least favorite way of being described: Saucy or snarky
Favorite blog: BoingBoing

Her next project will be a non-fiction anthropological study of young conservatives. (Tabitha remarked that "they're cute and they bathe"). When asked why, she responded that "they fascinate her", and that she would treat the subject seriously, but that "there would be mocking when mocking was appropriate".

She spent some time talking about how being a blogger was like playing the piano with one finger "one note over an over", and that her work on the current book was like" using the entire orchestra".

It was also great to see Tabitha Soren, who know lives here in the Bay Area. She seems to be involved mainly in her photography lately, and it wa s treat to see her back in the interviewer's seat this evening.

Wow the news startup space sure has heated up

by skrenta at 5:18 AM

I count at least 15 news startups trying to tag, aggregate or community-edit the news. And the VC funds sure are flowing. Topix had funding offers back in 2004 when we started but about half of the vc's we talked to were just starting to take an interest in the web again, and some of them hadn't thought much about news as an interesting space. That's obviously changed since there's at least $30M in funding here and we don't have details about everyone.
Newsvine: $5M
Gather.com: $9M, 23 employees
Memeorandum: ? Hints Gabe may have taken some funding
Digg: 2.8M
Associated Content: $5.4M
Jeff Jarvis/Upendra Shardanand/Craig Newmark news startup
Backfence: $3M
Pegasus News
Inform: 55 employees(!)
Bayosphere (dead?)
and of course for completeness topix.net
I haven't counted stuff like Attensa getting $9M or Pajamas Media or blog search like Technorati/Feedster which is in a related space but not focused specifically on news.

When we started we were pretty much alone working on applying technology to news, there was Google News and MSN Newsbot but no startup activity, now the space is really humming. All of this activity makes it much more exciting to work in the space although if Steve Rubel is right and there is a coming Web 2.0 crash it could be ugly. Or maybe it looks like the social software space of a few years back, when there was a lot of press about Friendster/Linkedin/Ryze/Spoke/Zerodegrees/etc. but some unknown upstart MySpace ran away with the prize in the end.

Not included above but worthy of watch are efforts by the existing news industry to build out new cool stuff on their own sites. A lot of web2.0 startups are using fancy open source tech but there are bright creative (and often idealistic) folks at mainstream places applying this stuff too. These folks are using technology not for tech's sake but simply as tools to enhance the journalistic mission to inform and educate the public and shine lights in dark places (if you're snickering you have no business being in the news startup space btw).

Rob Curley now at Scripps is insanely creative and has shrewdly built an open source platform to extend traditional news sites with all sorts of crazy dive-down features. I watched Rob brainstorm up a new product at an industry event and the sand-hill road vc's would make this guy their startup vp product in a nanosecond. But he's a real news guy and is down in florida so you won't see him at xcamp or posting in GFY's comments. Wash Post beat out other bidder's to take one of Rob's previous team, Adrian Holovaty, author of ChicagoCrime.org among other stuff and has set him loose to juice up washpost.com. He even has his own playground domain there to build apps on their site. Keep an eye on these guys too if you want a complete picture of product movement in the space.