Save the whale!

February 20, 2009

We simply had too little time this morning to unpack or even fully introduce The Long Tail this morning. I will try here to follow up on just one of the key threads this morning and on a lingering question on at least one of the discussion evaluation sheets: What are the implications of a long tail economy on or for the news biz?


I have good news and bad news. Let’s begin with the good news.A diminishing value on “cultural buckets,” as Anderson refers to the hits and the hit makers, means an end to monopolies. This is good for entrepreneurs, for single-voice publishers, for new news organizations just starting out. The era of “one size fits all” is over because the scarcity model (analog) has given way to the abundance model (digital). Consumers (and readers/viewers/interactors) are networked, and this network is choosing more non-hits than hits.

The bad news: Competing on the tail means facing a dizzying, daunting number of competitors. Because of printing, paper, ink and distribution costs, the print news industry is  a “hit”-driven business — it has to be. Remove those costs, which could also be seen as barriers to entry into the marketplace, and you get what we’ve seen online – everyone and his or her mother publishing online (the giant 90% crap model I drew on the whiteboard).

So we end up competing not only against the New York Times, and the Rome News-Tribune, hypothetically here, but also with each and every blogger on any one of the topics we’re reporting on, on all the topics we’re reporting on. Imagine the long tail of competition re-configuring for each and every story or multimedia package we publish online, as we compete within a new niche each and every time we publish.

Print is dead, or at least it’s dying. When, therefore, should a print newspaper, facing the worst fiscal year for the industry since the depression,  consider moving all of its assets online? The question is how to replace enough of the revenue streams that have long-supported print fast enough to continue to fund news and editorial operations, and do it while facing new competition on every front. The AJC, to cite just one of hundreds of potential examples, appears to be losing this battle.

Not all newspapers need wholly migrate to online, but many will have to in order to survive. And online needs these newsgathering, original reporting enterprises. A study in 2007 determined that more than 95% of blog content is derivative, leaving less than 5% that includes or delivers original reporting.

I’ve described this ecosystem before as a whale, with the whale metaphorically representing good, old-fashioned, boots-on-the-streets reporting and newsgathering. An entire ecosystem of dependent organisms (advertisers, reporters, editors, ad reps, newspaper delivery people, printing plants, even bloggers) feeds off this whale. The 95% of commentary, media criticism and observations based on original journalism is part of this dependent ecosystem.

The whale is ill, perhaps critically so. It needs to adapt to its new digital ocean. The questions: Can the analog, hit-driven whale evolve fast enough to stay alive, to become digital and keep this whole ecosystem alive? Can it grow a long tail? I await your responses as you look to the long tail for an answer to last week’s question, how to save journalism.

“Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” — Thomas Jefferson

The future of the news

February 12, 2009

As news organizations face declining advertising revenues and rising costs, as they reduce the numbers of boots on the ground, of reporters out there gathering the news and watchdogging government, as government grows, we as a democracy face a difficult question: Who’s going to pay for quality journalism? How?

networkssinking1Missing in the Internet age, as empowering as it is for individual voices, is a sustainable online-only revenue model that can pay for the expensive enterprise of reporting, of good journalism that operates on the principle of verification. This is where you come in. I want your ideas, your thoughts, your perspectives on how to save journalism in an era of free digital content. We (the general public) don’t want to have to pay for anything, including copyrighted content, including full-length movies. But content isn’t free, or at least it isn’t produced without cost.

I will first present some models, including two you read about and heard of this week, but then I want to get your proposals. Help save journalism!

  • Isaacson’s micropayment model that was discussed on The Daily Show, which would operate something like 99-cent songs on iTunes
  • A nonprofit model, like NPR or the St. Petersburg Times newspaper, perhaps even government-subsidized
  • DisneyWorld theme park model: An interactor pays a super-aggregator, like Google or TimeWarner, for a pass to ride all the rides, read all the content, for some determined period of time. Berry’s online databases are on this model.
  • Start from scratch: Build up an online-only news organization absent the costs of print production and distribution or studios and broadcast equipment. Examples: New West,, TalkingPointsMemo and
  • Branded, personality-driven stables of writers, like the, which draw visitors/interactors
  • Your ideas HERE: So let’s apply the wisdom of the crowds here and generate some new ideas. Build off of each other’s ideas. By midnight Sunday.

Storytelling with a purpose

February 6, 2009

Thank you, Dustin, for another excellent discussion. I couldn’t be happier with our Friday morning sessions so far. They have been rich, and I noted that each and everyone participated this morning. That’s a good discussion.

I would like to build on our froth of engagement by bringing up a few things we simply didn’t have time for this morning, in particular what journalistic storytelling is and for what it should strive.

kovachKovach and Rosenstiel write on page 188 of The Elements of Journalism, paraphrasing Roy Peter Clark and Chip Scanlan of the Poynter Institute, that “effective newswriting can be found at the intersection of civic clarity, the information citizens need to function, and literary grace, which is the reporter’s storytelling skill set.”

I want to explore this skill set, begin unpacking it, because it is precisely this skill set with which the course endeavors to equip you.

First, what is journalism? In this course, as in many if not most instances, it is storytelling with a purpose. What’s the purpose? “To provide people with information they need to understand the world,” Kovach and Rosenstiel write (page 189). First we have to find the information, then we seek to make it meaningful, relevant and engaging. This is our task with the AIDS Resource Council. We will gather information, then we will make connections, reveal how relevant this information and cause are, and engage site visitors with the plight of AIDs survivors, showing them how they can get involved.

To that end, I point us to the advice on the book’s page 197, that “better storytelling doesn’t begin after you sit down to edit a story on video, write a script, or pull up to an empty screen to write a narrative story. It begins before you ever go out to report. And it involves reporting differently, going to different sources and asking different questions.

The book suggests a few questions to guide this story-planning process:

  • What’s this story really about?
  • Who is the audience for this story and what information do these people need to know to make up their own minds about the subject?
  • Who has the information?
  • What’s the best way to tell this story?

How do we tell our story? Again, Rosenstiel and Kovach have us covered (page 199):

  • A profile
  • Explanatory piece
  • Issues and trend stories
  • Investigative
  • Narrative
  • Descriptive day in the life
  • Voices or perspective story
  • Visual story

Which of these make the most sense for us working with ARC? Specifically, we have these events coming up:

On Feb. 12 here at Berry, HIV testing will be offered free to anyone at Berry. This will be done 10am-2pm in the Ladd Center. We’re welcome to be there and to interview, photograph, etc., but we need to be sure to ask each and every individual’s permission before proceeding. I will put a consent form together. How are we going to tell this story? Brainstorm.

On March 3, another HIV testing event, from 9am to 1pm.

On March 7, the Latino community is having a health fair in West Rome. This opportunity is golden – two marginalized communities, Latinos and AIDs survivors. Hundreds came to this event in October 2007. How are we going to tell this story?

Finally, on March 10, Women and Girls HIV/AIDs Awareness Day, with free testing and some other events. More on this later.

ARC also delivers and otherwise provides food/groceries on Wednesdays. How do we tell this story, which is part of a larger story about the services ARC provides?

So, for each of these pieces of our overall, what is the story, and how do we tell specifically that story? Which medium or media should we use? I await your brainstorms.

BTW, Sanna’s Swedish for “Lies, damned lies and statistics”:
Löngn, törbannad löngn och stateshic.

And, finally, a pointer to Jon Stewart on CNN’s now-defunct Crossfire making many of the same points you all so aptly made this morning in discussion.