Web Publishist

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The news and online journalism industry through the eyes of a young Web publishist.

Hyperlocal media in the future: my vision

Large touch screen monitors will become more widespread as prices drop

Large touch screen monitors will become more widespread as prices drop, which would enable big breakthroughs in hyperlocal journalism

I have a vision for what I think hyperlocal media will look like in, say, 15 years. It could be much sooner, however with the recession, innovation has been pushed back considerably.

My vision involves large touch-screen monitors, push notifications, news feeds/RSS, augmented reality and metadata. Oh, it also involves news on the Web.

Please excuse me, as this will probably sound very pie-in-the-sky right now. But it’s only a matter of years before we’re seeing this technology – or something like it – realised and utlilised.

Here’s the scenario I’m envisioning:

You’re sitting in your home when suddenly you hear a beep. The beep you’re hearing is coming from the touch-screen monitor sitting in your kitchen (0r sitting room, or bedroom). The beep is a push notification sent to your screen. You approach the screen and see a geographic overlay of your community/state/country.

Touch the blinking icon and a new screen appears. It tells you what has happened within the area that you’re interested in monitoring. It will give you a headline and possibly a photo. If it’s something you’d like to know more about, you “click-thru” to the full story.

Once you’ve clicked through, you’re brought to an augmented reality viewing of the area in question. It shows you the address and all relevant information about the area that is legally available in public records. It also shows you the story in different mediums. If you want to watch a video of it, tap the video. Want to read the story? Tap away. There’s even a soundslide available. Tap, tap, tap.

The idea is you’re giving the reader the option of seeing the story in whichever way they want, and ensuring that they are finding out what’s happening in their community and areas of interest. You’re bringing the information to the user, but also asking them to define the parameters of delivery.

Like I said, very pie-in-the-sky sounding. But at the rate technology is evolving – iPhone to Kindle to Tablet – I suspect it’s not as far away as we might think.

Here’s how I think such media would be packaged by the news outlet:

Once a story is finished, the next step before sending into down the pipeline and to your customers/readers is to encode it with the relevant metadata. Find out exactly where the story is based. Encode the text, video and soundslide files with metadata of country, state, city, “tags” and latitude/longitude.

After it’s encoded, it’s sent down the pipeline and delivered to the end user. It shows up on their map as an icon if it’s within their pre-determined search parameters.

I don’t think I’m crazy. We’re not there yet, but we will be soon. Be prepared.

Filed under: Aggregation, design, newspaper websites, , , , ,

News: Everywhere you are

twitter_logo

By now it’s cliche to say that there are parallels between Twitter and the news industry. So I’m going to go ahead and abuse the cliche a bit more.

Twitter spread like wildfire across the world because it was a very new kind of service – of the Didn’t-Know-I-Needed-It-Until-I-Had-It variety. In its eary days, Twitter was available on the Web. No Tweetie. No Twhirl. No TweetDeck. Just Twitter.com. Obviously that changed quickly.

People realized they wanted to use Twitter in different ways. They wanted to be able to manipulate it. At its core, it’s still just 140 characters. But people wanted the power to do what they wanted with their 140 characters. Now Twitter is available pretty much anywhere where there is electricity and some kind of Internet connection.

Since Twitter’s API is so accessible, developers all over the world have gotten to work developing applications to show your Tweets. There are the popular ones, but there are also the lesser-known ones. Take a look and you’ll see just how many there are.

News organizations could learn from Twitter. By being so available, in so many different ways, it was able to grow exponentially. News organizations should embrace each and every technology that comes up as a way of distributing its content to readers.

GuardianOpenPlatform_Graphisc_NoHeader_1

Not long ago, The Guardian released Guardian Open Platform for developers. Though even that’s restricted – they have an “API bucket” where only some stories go.

Take the Kindle for example. There was talk a while ago about a number of newspapers teaming up to offer subscriptions on Kindle. Not a bad idea. But the Washington Post’s executive editor said something that I found disconcerting:

You can subscribe now to The Post and a number of other newspapers on Kindle. We’re intrigued by the possibility of reaching a large audience through such hand-held readers, although so far the number of people who are reading The Post on Kindles is relatively small.

When I read this, I thought: Why does it matter how small the audience is? There’s obviously an audience. It might not be huge, but it’s how these people want to read your publication. News organizations are not in the position to be shedding readers because they don’t provide their content in the ways that their readers want to read it.

kindle

There aren’t that many options right now, so it isn’t inconceivable to have all of those bases covered. Some bases:

  • A developer platform. Be in contact with these developers. Who knows, one of them might write an application that could change your business.
  • Many, many Twitter accounts. In addition to each writer, have it for each section
  • Digg accounts
  • FriendFeed accounts (actually manned by someone)
  • Facebook accounts (maybe two – one “profile” and one “fan page”)
  • Podcasting
  • Vidcasting
  • Kindle publishing
  • Functional mobile Web application
  • Possibly a freesheet once a week at places people congregate (concerts, parks, etc)
  • Google Reader account, to let people know what writers/editors are reading. Mixture of your own content and from others

That’s just some of it. Things are changing every day. But you’ve got to be pushing your content, your brand, your writers – everything. You’ve got to be everywhere.

Your readers will decide how they want to read your content. It’s not for you, the news organization, to decide. If you don’t give your readers the content they want, in the way they want it, then they’ll look elsewhere for it.

Filed under: design, newspaper websites, social media, , , ,

J-school & Web development: A perfect match

An interesting article was floating around Twitter a few days ago. It appeared in Editor & Publisher and was written by Seth Porges, who is currently an editor at Popular Mechanics magazine.

The subject he addressed was whether j-schools are adequately preparing students for the real world – and in it suggesting they’ve misstepped.

His thesis statement is that j-schools are too quick to adopt new media standards, such as basic Web coding, and are in the process throwing out pre-existing elements of core curriculum that should remain.

In this blog post I take chunks of what Mr Porges said, and give my thoughts and opinions.

Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: design, newspaper websites, social media, student journalism, , , , ,

The next newspaper crisis: poorly designed Web sites

Before CityOnline Magazine went live I decided to test it on a few people. It was a pretty level-one design then (and still is) but it was more or less what the site would look like when it launched.

Each time I would show it, I noticed people would often tell me that the site looked “clean”. That word, “clean”, in terms of Web design, is important because it’s a sort-of loaded term. It also touches on an important issue present in the development of Web sites for print operations.

Pressed further, the consensus on what “clean” meant to them, the response often was that the site was not cluttered and that it appeared easy to navigate. What designer doesn’t want to hear that?

As the print establishment crumbles, beneath the sighs and cries about the death of the once-sacred industry, there’s been a call to action to the Web. It’s the new must-have item: a tricked-out Web site for their readers.

This is a failed strategy.

Here are screen shots of the homepages of a few Web news outlets. Most of them are newspapers. After the image, I’ll explain what I like (and dislike) about the design. My opinion matters insofar as I’m both a journalist and an avid Web user.

Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: design, newspaper websites, social media, ,

Third Way social media: Let’s outsource it

Newsrooms worldwide are grappling with the implications of having to suddenly become adept at utilizing social media to promote their Web sites. Writers complain that it’s not in their job description; they don’t want to; or they just plain don’t know how.

BecauseĀ  so many newsrooms remain pretty far in the Dark Ages of new media the task of outfitting an entire newsroom is a daunting task. Some will write up a plan, circulate it around their newsroom and hope it implements itself.

For those in the “hope it fixes itself” camp, you may be interested in who I met yesterday at a media job fair at City University London. During the fair I chatted with two representatives of Agency:2, a London-based social media agency. I was a bit confused about what a ‘social media agency’ does, so I decided to ask.

What they do is assist organizations with their social media needs. Asked if this meant organizations were just outsourcing their social media strategy to them, they nodded in agreement

I asked if their clients set out benchmarks for them and they said not really. The company goes in and establishes their client’s social media footprint, tracks what people are saying about their client, and helps their client remain competitive within the social media sphere. Since social media is still in its experimental stage, everyone — including these social media agencies — is still determining what works and what does not.

An excerpt from their Web site:

We promote brands within influential online communities. We do this by deploying our writers to actively participate within discussions on popular and highly targeted user generated sites such as forums, blogs and social networks. In addition, we monitor relevant conversations within such user generated sites to help brands improve their customer insights and competitive intelligence.

This is an interesting approach. For a news organization that is stretched thin, this could be a viable option. By handing this off to a third party it gives the news organization the ability to both have a social media presence and keep the articles flowing at the same pace.

The are also downsides to this. Namely that it prevents staffers from becoming trained in the ways of social media. This approach also would not work for a title facing severe budget shortfalls and thus cannot afford to employ a third party.

Despite all of that, I do think this could be a real possibility for some titles to establish their social media footprint while they wade through the financial crisis. Once the paper gain its footing, editors can begin to train or hire people to take over the responsibilities of maintaining their social media profile that was built by the third party.

Filed under: design, newspaper websites, social media, ,

You know a newspaper doesn’t have a Web strategy when …

As more newspapers in the U.S. continue to pare down their newsrooms and close entire sections, the idea of making their Web sites more than a digital dumping ground for the print product has gained traction. This is a view that every newspaper needs to adopt. But there are great differences between a Web strategy and a print strategy when it comes to the news.

Here’s are five metrics I came up with for determining if a newspaper lacks a defined Web strategy:

  • AP overload
  • If you pull up a newspaper’s Web site and more than 25% of the content comes from the Associated Press, there’s problem. For local titles the AP should be used sparingly, and only when it’s a story that you don’t have the time or ability to turn around into a localized version. Running AP copy on your Web site is a lazy approach and does not serve your readers well.

  • Web content wakes up when the print product goes to bed
  • In the late 90s this approach would have worked well because the Internet wasn’t that widespread and many more people still read newspapers. However this is not the case today. There’s a push-and-pull happening in newsrooms about whether to put print content on the Web. The argument goes that by putting content that appears in the print edition, you’re discouraging people from picking up the issue, which then discourages advertisers. In a community where most news is still consumed through the print edition, that’s a valid argument. But in less rural communities, it’s a non-starter. People refuse to wait for the news. And if you make them wait, they’ll find someone who won’t make them wait.

  • Living a blogless existence
  • Blogs present a potential gold mine of page views if they’re done correctly. Most newspapers have a handful of beat writers, covering everything from schools to courts and the drain commission. If the beat writer is truly entrenched in their beat like they should be, coming up with off-the-cuff blog posts on the subject should not be a challenge. Some will argue that with all the demands of their beat to fill the print product each deadline day, they simply don’t have the time. To which I say: you’re wrong. Blogging isn’t something you can dismiss and assume the need for it will go away. You’ve got to adjust your news gathering and news writing habits to make the time to write a 300-word blog post every couple of days. Your credibility, increasingly, depends on it.

  • Dismal or nonexistent multimedia
  • As the cost of HD-quality video cameras come down, seemingly every month, papers have less reason to not have a full-fledged multimedia section on their Web sites. What often happens is papers will just take whatever video AP will let them use, and then call it a day. People can be trained to shoot and edit video. It won’t be easy at first, but once a few people get the hang of it, they can be the ones teaching others. There isn’t an excuse to run stories online without some kind of multimedia component, whether its a sound slide, sideshow or video. Readers may at first not know what to make of it, but if the quality is good, they will come to appreciate it.

  • All text, all the time
  • A common but easily fixed problem that many newspaper Web sites suffer from is a lack of photography on their stories. It’s common knowledge (right?) that people are more likely to look at a photo before they read a headline. If they think photo is interesting, they will continue to read on. Most of the stories on your Web site should have an image to go with it. Not only does it give more context to the reader, it also makes your Web site appear more colorful and lively. Columns of text and the odd image here and there have the opposite effect.

Filed under: design, newspaper websites, , , ,

For newsapers on the Web, using a corporate template is a step backwards

The worst newspaper sites on the Web today are designed by companies that own numerous titles and distribute a one-size-fits-all template to each of them.

They are failures from the moment they go online.

A recent example of how a terrible Web site design likely contributed to the parent company’s demise is The Journal Register Company, which is a newspaper company that operates largely in the Midwest, East Coast and parts of the south.

They have a strong presence in Michigan. They own at least three papers in Metro Detroit (including my hometown title) in addition to the paper in Mt. Pleasant, the city where Central Michigan University is located. The company had a little over half a billion dollars in debt in 2007 and in April 2008 the company began exploring selling the company’s titles piecemeal. In September the stock price fell to one half of one cent.

I recognize that the poor Web presence was not the sole reason the papers failed, however it did not help their cause.

This failed mentality does not recognize one simple fact: No two publications are the same. Each have different needs, different readers and present different opportunities in terms of design and layout.

Having a single template that can be adjusted is a bad strategy that does more harm than good. In fact, I’d argue that it does no good at all.

This failed strategy also exists at a college media level. There are companies that offer hosting services and give the papers that sign up with them a single, somewhat modifiable template to work with. But if you go down the list of colleges that utilize this company’s Web services, you’ll notice one recurring theme: They all look nearly identical.

I can understand why so many editors across the U.S. and even worldwide are sitting around, collectively scratching their heads over how to make the Web work for their publication. It has changed the way everyone does business — some to the point of no longer doing business. But when you aren’t even trying, I can only muster so much sympathy.

The argument is out there that Web development is expensive. That design is hard and putting together multimedia, at the moment, is outside the paper’s budget.

Newsflash: Paper is becoming more expensive. So is ink.And much fewer people are now buying this product that now costs more to produce than ever before.

It’s when papers are put in a corner that they find a way out. For some, it’s a Third Way uniquely their own. But for others, it’s a For Sale sign. Still, there will be some titles who figure out how to best utilize the Web for their needs and will make it work. But it won’t be without changing how they treate the Web.

It’s no longer the digital dumping ground for your print product, the design of which you’ve taken from a tempate and changed the color scheme of.

In your newsroom, the Web has got to be as important as — if not more important than — the print product. In an environment where your digital product mean as much as your print product, you’re more likely to devote necessary resources to it.

If that’s not your outlook as 2009 begins, you’re already behind.

Filed under: design, newspaper websites, ,

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