Thursday, July 17, 2008

The grass may be greener….

These are indeed depressing times for U.S. newspapers. Seemingly with each day comes morebad news. However, the situation elsewhere in the world can be much more favorable.

I just returned from a week in Dubai as a guest of the Arab Media Group (AMG). The company is growing and progressive. AMG owns three daily newspapers, nine radio stations and a growing portfolio of satellite TV channels. In just one year, AMG built a $150 million printing facility that rivals any in the world.

At the morning editorial meeting of the Arabic-language newspaper Al Bayan, Randy Covington (left) speaks with Business Editor Ibrahim Totonji.

In places like Dubai, India and much of Latin America, there is a spirit of optimism that is painfully absent in so many newsrooms here in the U.S. Of course, newspaper circulation is still strong and growing in these regions. As a result, there is a willingness to take risks and invest in the future, characteristics that are painfully absent at so many media organizations here.

The irony is that in most of the world, the U.S. is viewed as the model for best practices and most advanced techniques. While that once may have been true, it does not seem to be the case any more.

At a time newspapers in the U.S. desperately need to reinvent themselves, many are hunkered down, trying at all cost to make the number this quarter. There is much we can learn from the rest of the world.

In Dubai and elsewhere, one can see models emerging for cross media news organizations, which I would contend are our hope for the future.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

What is fair about fair use?

The blogosphere is abuzz about the question of fair use. The Associated Press filed a take down notice against a blogger (the Drudge Retort--that's Retort, not Report) under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which has prompted a groundswell of criticism. Writing in her influential Poynter Institute blog, E-Media Tidbits , Amy Gahran, suggested the action could have "a chilling effect on journalism and free speech."

The Poynter blog drew a number of comments, mostly critical of the AP. This one is fairly typical: "Have they lost their ever-loving minds? Yes, Amy, I believe they are hurting journalism, and they need to think long and hard about this."

Gahran raised a number of questions, trying to ascertain the press agency's policies on fair use. I certainly don't have the answers, but I may have some insights. Earlier this year, I researched this issue as part of a study on Internet regulation in the U.S., Korea and Japan. The project was led by Dr. Yong-suk Hwang, a Korean academic, and funded by Naver, the big Korean portal.

The AP's position essentially is if someone is making money from AP content, the wire service should benefit as well. While on the surface, it would seem there is nothing wrong with posting short excerpts from AP stories, the wire service argues that new media must share with old media its cost of operation. As Jane Seagrave, a top AP executive pointed out, “We have had people killed and jailed in Iraq. We support their widows and children.” (If you would like to read more about the AP's point of view, follow this link to the U.S. portion of the Korean study, which was released in Korean in April)

Friday, February 15, 2008

Why broadcasters struggle with the Web

Sid Bedingfield, a visiting professor at the University of South Carolina School of Journalism, wrote an insightful story for the School's Convergence Newsletter on TV Web sites. You'll find an excerpt below. (See Full Story)

"NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams launched its new Web site with a splash last month at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Designed for the broadband world, the site focuses almost exclusively on video. Users land on a home page dominated by an elegant player that delivers a near seamless stream of clips from the newscast. As a means for watching broadcast news on the Web, the NBC player is first-rate. It is easy to navigate and delivers crisp, clear video. What’s more, NBC Nightly News seems serious about building an audience on the Web. The program’s content goes up shortly after airing on television and is available for free (with advertising). The site breaks the tyranny of the clock by allowing viewers to watch the newscast when they want to. And it lets them choose only the segments they want to watch. Sounds like a news junkie’s dream, right? So why do I often find the site stale and unsatisfying?

"The Nightly News site is designed to bring the traditional broadcast news format to the Web. And therein lies its problem. Much of the content consists of an anchor lead-in followed by a reporter package. You know the drill: An anchor tossing to a video report that unfolds something like this –narrator track, sound bite, narrator track, sound bite, narrator track, reporter stand-up, sig-out. The package format has been the workhorse of broadcast news since the days of Murrow and Friendly. It is an efficient means of visual storytelling. In skilled hands, it can pack an emotional wallop. In the passive environment of television, where viewers “lean back” to watch the news, the package works well. On the Web, however, users “lean in” to engage with the content. There, the broadcast format falls flat."

(See Full Story)

Saturday, January 5, 2008

2008: The Year for Culture Change

There are a lot of smart people who write about media issues. One of them is Steve Outing, who writes a column for Editor & Publisher.

In his first column of 2008 (See Column), Outing asked news executives what they would do if they had a magic wand and could solve their companies' problems.

Outing reports one theme kept coming up: "change the culture at our company and in our newsroom, because it's holding us back and ensuring our ultimate failure." Let me add, Amen!

In Newsplex, we have been helping news organizations change their cultures since 2002. So much has happened in the last five years. Yet the fundamental problems linger. I would divide them into two categories:

1. Lack of commitment from the top. Of course, most publishers, general managers and media executives want to move forward, embrace new technologies and formats and generate new revenue streams. But talk is cheap. Making the tough decisions to transform traditional news organizations into true, cross media operations is not cheap. Plus it requires stepping on a lot of toes--taking away cherished titles and assignments, imposing new work rules and confronting a host of legacy issues that exist in almost every newsroom. I see many executives who want it all--but who do not seem to realize that if everything is a priority then nothing is. If one were to survey the most successful convergence initiatives around the world, the common denominator is strong leadership from the top.

2. Lack of grass roots involvement. Newsroom reorganization plans simply do not bubble up from the ranks. But once someone at the top makes a true commitment to change, then successful implementation of the plan depends upon getting everybody involved. When news organizations send journalists to Newsplex, I ask that they include a few of their curmudgeons. Sometimes these skeptical journalists can make our lives as trainers more difficult. But from our experience, they almost always can be won over. And when they go back to the newsroom supporting change, they have enormous credibility.

If I had a magic wand, I would use it to erase the fear that I see in so many newsrooms. This is a time of great opportunity for established news organizations, whose reputations mean something. But that opportunity, unfortunately, is being jeopardized by the problems Outing's column summarizes so well.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Myths of citizen journalism

Is the concept of citizen journalism fatally flawed? That is the question in a recent posting on a World Association of Newspapers blog.

“The fad journalism model is being brought down by poorly written and poorly presented content that is greatly inferior to content produced by experts,” it explains. “To put it bluntly, if you need information on a subject, would you rather rely on the edited and proofread opinion of an expert, or the misspelled musings from some guy sitting in his basement?”

Okay, that is a pretty easy question to answer, but I don’t think it really is that simple. Citizens have much to contribute, though it probably is not in taking our jobs as professional journalists.

I recently read of the accomplishments of a newspaper in Poland, the Gazeta Wyborcza. In 1996 in producing a guide to maternity wards in its community, the newspaper asked its readers for their experiences. It received 2,000 letters.

In 2006, the newspaper did the same survey online and received 40,000 responses! Needless to say, the survey was a huge success.

The Gazeta Wyborcza’s special projects editor, Grzegorz Piechota, has what I think is an intelligent view on the phenomenon of citizen journalism and how it relates to traditional news organizations.

“Readers are not journalists,” Piechota explained to the Ifra magazine newspaper techniques. “But readers are experts in real-life issues that we, the editors, often miss. We would be stupid not to ask them for help.”

Journalists have a tendency to dismiss citizen contributions and to put them in a separate area of their websites. They seem to be saying, you can post the pictures of your pets and children here, but we will keep the real journalism to ourselves.

There is much wisdom in this insight from Lawrence Picard at Harvard University: "News organizations that align themselves closely with their audience...and that allow their audiences to participate… will be able to create the value needed to sustain themselves and financially benefit..."

Monday, November 19, 2007

The Megan Meier Case

The Internet is abuzz with debate over the death of 13-year-old Megan Meier. She committed suicide after being jilted by a boy named Josh who had shown interest in her in the virtual world of MySpace. As it turns out, there was no Josh. He was a cruel hoax, the work of a neighbor whose daughter had had a falling out with Megan.

Authorities say no law was broken, so no charges can be filed. Many in the online forums are unconvinced and outraged. This post from "Cindy" is typical: "She is the DEVIL, evil beyond words and if she does not pay for this crime, she will when she burns in the hottest of hells when her soul goes to hell. Hell is not even hot enough for this lowest form of scum on the earth." (Read more>)

In reviewing coverage of the case, both online and in traditional media, the web has more passion and more information. Online posts have identified the woman, her husband, his employer, their business and its customers (complete with addresses and phone numbers). Meanwhile, traditional news organizations so far have withheld the name of the neighbor.

In one posting, someone who identified himself as a newspaper journalist wrote: "Every day newspaper journalism as we know it gets one step closer to death, as readers turn to blogs and TV and other media for information. This wimp of an editor, who doesn't have the guts to name the wrongdoers involved, has just hastened our eventual demise by at least another week or two."

There is a common assumption that traditional journalists do the reporting and the blogosphere sits back and provides commentary. In this case, as in so many, most of the reporting is being done online by private citizens. But the lingering question remains, are they journalists, vigilantes or both?

It is obvious from my review how much private citizens can contribute to a story. However, one is reminded of the importance of journalistic ethics and an understanding that in the U.S., we are supposed to be innocent until proven guilty.

Monday, November 12, 2007

The increasing importance of multimedia content

A common theme in the online world is the growing importance of multimedia content. Just about every newspaper with whom we work now offers video in some fashion and just about all of them are reporting significant increases in traffic for it.

So I am rarely surprised when I talk to a newspaper and they tell me about the explosive growth of multimedia usage on their sites. However, I learned something last week at The New York Times that took even me by surprise.

During the recent California wildfires, 10 percent of all site traffic was for multi media content, according to Fiona Spruill, editor of The Times' web newsroom. This percentage represents a staggering number. is a hugely successful website that counts its page views in the billions. That's with a "B."

The Times' success with multimedia underscores the importance of a video/multimedia strategy for almost any news website as well as to companies and other strategic communicators. The simple truth is if you don't offer multimedia content, your visitors are going to be drawn to other websites that do.

Video usage has transcended the young who led the charge to YouTube. Now thanks to increasingly pervasive broadband connections, we all are watching stories that include pictures and sounds. We do indeed live in a multimedia world.