Tuesday, December 30, 2008

My Favorite Stories of 2008 Part II

Earlier, I wrote about 10 of my favorite stories from our web site, divorce360.com. Since then, I've come across some additions to my list. So I share:

1. Credit Card Crunch Causes Divorce.
First it was the real estate crash. Then the stock market crash. Apparently credit card companies are next in line. And as couples struggle to deal with the overwhelming financial issues, their relationships are struggling as well.

2. Divorce in your DNA.
It's bad enough that you have to overcome the grief of divorce, but what if it is hard wired into your genes? A study this year showed that some men may be more prone to divorce than others. The culprit? Their DNA. Unfortunately, there's not much anyone can do about it. "There are ...many different factors influencing how happy people are in their relationship and the gene variant ...will make a very small part of these factors," said the researcher who studied the issue.
3. Sue your Ex for STD.
He cheated. You showed him the door. Only later do you discover he gave you a lifelong gift on his way out -- a sexually transmitted disease. What can you do? Take him to court. Legal experts say some partners are making their spouses pay by suing them in civil court. It is, after all, the American way.

4. Share your Divorce story on YouTube.
Want to get back at your ex? You can try the same stunt pulled by Tricia Walsh Smith. She aired her divorce laundry on YouTube. Others have tried blogging about their ex-spouses. The video didn't help Walsh's case, but she certainly got a lot of feedback. She's parlayed her new-found fame into a music video, which is even worse than her first go-round.

5. The Cancer Made Me Do It.
This story falls under the category of "Pathetic Excuse of the Year." With his wife in remission from her battle with breast cancer, former North Carolina senator and presidential candidate John Edwards admitted on national television that he cheated on her while stumping for the nation's top office. One excuse played out in the public: the stress of sickness can make one act out of character. Ick.

6. Trend: Dump your Wife for a Facebook Friend.
With everyone jumping onto the social networking bandwagon, it should have been easier to spot the newest trend. Forget online dating. These days, spouses are hooking up with their high school honeys and dumping their wives for their long-lost flames. Whoever said you can't go back?

7. Getting Divorce? Get a Ring.
When you break up with a spouse, one question people often ask is, "What do I do with my ring?" There are still a number of options -- sell it, give it away, pawn it on a web site just for this purpose. And after the divorce, feel free to buy a ring that marks your new status. Yep, a divorce ring. So in addition to all the health forms (single, married, divorced -- check), you can advertise your marital mess right there on your finger.

8. Some People Announce their Weddings, Others their Divorces.
So how do you tell folks that you've kicked out your marital roommate? Forget the subtle holiday cards with your new return address and maiden name. These days, the hottest trend is a divorce announcement, followed promptly by a party. Think of it as an engagement party, except for singles. Lost your toaster, ask for a new one. You can even register. Who knew?

9. Baby Girl First, Divorce Next.
Here's a study that makes you wonder if gender equity is possible in America. Researchers discovered that married couples whose first child is a girl have a greater risk of divorce than those with boys. The risk is very slight, but it does make you wonder.

10. Most People Have Faith in Marriage.
To end this list on an uplifting note, here's a poll that warms your heart. The U.S. divorce rate is more than 40 percent. Second marriages have an even higher risk. But a Roper poll shows that most divorced Americans believe in the institution of marriage, even if their own relationship wasn't successful.

It just goes to show you -- a little faith goes a long way.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

10 Top Stories for 2008

This month, our web site, divorce360, marks the end of its first full year.

In 12 months, we've launched the site, redesigned channels and focus pages, improved our search engine optimization and added everything from a business directory to a social networking area.

In many ways, working for a web start up is very much like my old job as a newspaper editor. Thing change daily, and you never stop trying to make it better for readers/users.

To celebrate our first year, we examined traffic and arrived at a list of top stories, blogs and community advice on the site.

Along those lines, I've put together some of the more interesting stories we've published on the site this last year.

1. Facebook Has Potential to Serve Divorce Papers.
The Internet has given us a whole new way to interact with people. Beyond digital copyright law, there are other legal ramifications. Using social networking to serve legal documents might be a new -- and gray -- are of law, but it's coming, as our recent story can attest.

2. Two First-Borns? Bad Match. Birth Order Can Help Marriage.
Studies have shown that birth order makes a difference in how you see the world, but how you see your spouse? Apparently so. There is strong connection between birth order and divorce rates,” explained John Curtis, Ph. D. and former family counselor turned management consultant and author. The most successful marriages -- "the oldest sister of brothers marries the youngest brother of sisters.”

3. How You Sleep Hints at your Feelings about Marriage
Want to check if your partner is really happy? Consider the way you and your spouse sleep at night. Do you snuggle up against each other in a spoon? Then you're very comfortable together. Do you hook legs? You're great friends. "The way partners share a bed says a huge amount how much they really like each other, trust and feel safe with each other," says Dr. Mark Goulston of the University of California. "Analyzing sleep positions can highlight trouble spots they may not even be aware of."

4. Recession Hurts Divorce Settlements.
It's hard enough to deal with the emotional issues when you and your partner decide to split. But when the recession causes financial ones, how can it be any tougher? First the recession was hurting divorce settlements as they were being negotiated. Then, because of the financial crash, job losses and the mortgage crisis, couples began returning to court to renegotiate the settlements they had.

5. Baseball Can Save your Marriage
Want to save your marriage? Try going to a baseball game. Okay, it's a little more complicated than that, but not much. Essentially, here's a study that says if you share a hobby or pastime with your spouse, you're more likely to maintain your relationship. It's kind of a no-brainer when you think about it.

6. Older Couples Divorcing to Save their Retirement
One of the saddest stories this year is about older couples having to make the tough decision to divorce so that the sick spouse doesn't run down the financials for the well one. Couple that with the tough economy, and this may become an even bigger problem.

7. Men Don't Understand the Cost of Cheating.
If you didn't know about this study, the story about former presidential candidate John Edwards teaches this harsh lesson. Here's a guy with everything, and he chucks it all -- including his chance on the national political stage -- for a younger blond. This study shows you why: Men just don't get what cheating will cost them.

8. Hurricanes, Natural Disasters, Can Cause Divorce
As if the news isn't bad enough these days, here's proof that hurricanes -- or any natural disaster -- can cause such a strain on a marriage that it can put it over the edge. But it doesn't have to end that way. Dr. Gilda Carle, Ph.D., relationship expert and Suddenly Single advice columnist for Match.com, suggests that the outcome depends on the couple, “Sometimes, a crisis or disaster can bring a couple closer together as they recognize what’s really important in life."

9. Many Couples Start New Year with Divorce.
Most people want to lose a few pounds in the new year, but some folks want to get rid of a whole person. Apparently January is a big month for divorce, particularly for couples with youngsters. They make it through the holidays and announce their uncoupling just after the new year.

10. Office Affairs on the Rise.
Apparently men and women working together can cause a number of issues -- including this one, a rise in the number of affairs at the office. "You have a common focus and lots of opportunity to get to know each other ... ,” said Tina Tessina, author of "Money, Sex and Kids: Stop Fighting about the Three Things That Can Ruin Your Marriage (Adams Media 2008)." “You are together, working on something. It has nothing to do with a personal relationship at all. It’s a pseudo intimacy.”

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Links to the Marriage Calculator

What's success at an Internet start up company? When something from your site gets written about by lots of folks. If that's the case, the marriage calculator has hit a sweet spot.

Beyond links to a number of smaller blogs and web sites for television stations and newspapers, there are some pretty big dogs in the links.

If you haven't seen it, here are a few of the folks who have written about the calculator, which was put together for us by University of Pennsylvania's Betsey Stevenson, a Wharton assistant professor of business and economic.

Stevenson used statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau to help us with the marriage calculator, which can show you how many people who married at your same age with your same education level are now divorced. The widget also uses those figures to project five years from now how many more folks in your group will be divorced.

Here are some of the blogs and stories that have been written about the widget:

The New York Times
The Baltimore Sun

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Marriage Calculator, Gannett layoffs and the NY Times

On the same day that Gannett began sending more journalists to the unemployment line, the Marriage Calculator we rolled out at divorce360.com began making the rounds. It was a bittersweet moment for a former newspaper editor who now works at an Internet start up.

As old friends were e-mailing me on facebook about who was being tapped to leave their newsrooms, the Marriage Calculator was pushing traffic on the site through the roof. We were inundated by new signups who wanted to become part of the site's community. One link to the calculator on walletpop.com was later moved to aol.com's welcome page. Another link from the New York Times Freakonomics blog added to the mix.

According to Google's hot trends for the day, marriage calculator, divorce360.com and divorce calculator were the top search terms -- in order of first to third. Those search terms ranked above: "Week 14 NFL power rankings", "Miley Cyrus Vanity Fair Photo", "the Gator Bowl" and "Britney Spears Good Morning America."

Before the day was over, I couldn't tell whether to laugh or cry. I did both. Someday perhaps journalism will see more days like the one we had yesterday on the site and fewer like the one faced by my former newspaper colleagues. I can only hope.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Widget 101: What's a Widget? How Does it Work?

Earlier this week, I updated my facebook status with a note about putting the finishing status on a widget for the web site. A few moments later, a friend e-mailed this question: "What's a widget?"

A widget is a web-based tool that allows you to enter information into a database and get something in return. If you're buying an airline ticket, for instance, you're entering the information parameters -- the time frame in which you want to fly -- into a database, which in turn spits out the tickets that are available in that time frame for the area you want to visit.

We've been working with Betsey Stevenson, an associate professor of business and public policy at Wharton, who used U.S. Census information to put together a database. We call it The Marriage Calculator. The user answers some basic questions: the age they were at the time of their marriage, their education level and -- if you're a woman -- the number of children you have, and the database shares two statistics:

1. The number of people with similar backgrounds who got married and are now divorced.

2. The number of people like you who are likely to be divorced in five years. This uses historical Census data to predict what will happen in the future.

My last year in newspapers, I spent a lot of time managing database projects -- including about property values that got so much traffic it shut us down for a short time. While my boss wasn't exactly happy, I considered that a user success, if not a career-enhancing one.

The point of this widget is similar. Interest, traffic and users who keep coming back.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Six Months Is Too Long to Wait for Newspaper CEOs

Like millions of other people around the country this morning, I got up, made a cup of coffee, turned on my computer and hooked up to the Internet to check the news.

After reading about death threats against President-Elect Barack Obama, his mother-in-law's move to Washington and the most expensive cities to buy groceries, I turned to another topic of interest -- the newspaper industry's struggle to survive in the new media landscape.

I clicked on a story by Editor and Publisher about a summit for newspaper CEOs held by the American Press Institute. (Click here for summary of the event.) The topic of the conference was the saving the newspaper industry.

(Let's forget that the conference was closed -- although someone in the room was twittering about it, God love them. I'll come back to this later.)

Interesting points from the story include:

1. All but one of the public companies at the event "were below the safe range" for bankruptcy, according to James Shein, a professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

2. The group was told by Steve Miller, the executive chairman of auto-parts maker Delphi Corp, "Cutting staffs will reduce costs, but it won't happen fast enough, and will erode the product."

3. "The biggest hurdles to progress [is] the industry's senior leadership, including some people in this room," Shein said. "I am not sure you can take a look at your industry with fresh eyes."

4. The group plans to meet again in six months to talk about the problems.

So here's my question: If an expert in business turnarounds walked into your office today and told you that your company was in financial trouble and your effort to cut costs by cutting staff was eroding your product's quality and you -- as the top dog -- were part of the problem because you're doing the same old, same old and it isn't working, would you wait six more months to talk about it again?

No, you wouldn't.

But that's what the group of newspaper CEOs plans to do. In all fairness, the executives who attended did get some homework for the next class. The list includes:

1. Act -- and think -- like an entrepreneur.
2. Create new initiatives and kill them quickly if they fail.
3. Don't wait for all the data. Take action.
4. Downsize to achieve larger goals, not as a cost-cutting tool.
5. Leverage core competencies into new areas.
6. Be honest with workers. Get ideas from them.
7. Don't whine. Inspire.
8. Bring in experts with a different view to see if they can help.
9. Leverage your brand.

It's a good list, to be sure. Given the number of journalists who have lost their jobs in the last year, (Journalists whose personal stories I haven't read because no one wants to write about their own industry's toubles), I especially like item number four. As the crisis worsens, companies keep resorting to cutting staff and quality with no real long-term solutions.

In addition, I'm keen on number six, although I must say it's kind of hard to get ideas from the front lines if 1. The meetings are closed. 2. The folks sitting in those meetings are the same ones who failed to see the changing market conditions that have now devastated our newsrooms.

Most importantly, I think a good dose of number eight might heal what ails us. If we can use crowd sourcing to examine how Cape Coral, Fla., financed the expansion of its water and sewer project, (costing $20,000 or more to some of us who lived there) I'm pretty sure we could find experts in other fields who would be interested in helping save The Fourth Estate for our children.

At least I hope we can.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Reporters in a Digital Age

When I got into reporting, all you needed was a pen, a notepad and your curiosity. These days, it's a little more complicated as newspapers try and capture the readers who have migrated to the Internet to get their news. Since leaving the traditional print industry and joining an Internet start-up that produces niche online content, I've had a number of conversations with newspaper editors about what a reporter should be able to do in this new digital landscape.

If I were back in a traditional newsroom, here's what I would consider if I were recreating a reporter's beat. Because every newspaper has one, let's assume the position is a city government beat -- although you can use this framework for any beat from sports to features and get the same result. And for the sake of clarity, let me say, yes, you'll still need to understand the journalism basics -- like how to use a pen and notepad and ask questions that folks sometimes don't want to answer.

But as more people commit citizen journalism, traditionally trained journalists need to become aggregators of content as well as creators of it. Really, each reporter becomes a community editor of sorts. And in the end, they will be more connected to what's happening in the areas they cover -- never a bad thing for a good journalist.

1. Video, audio and more. Just like a pen and notepad was once the basic foundation of a good reporter, knowing how to produce video, audio and photo galleries are now part of the job. Web readers love all of this. And there are lots of folks in your community who are creating it -- so you don't have to rely on only your own work. Use their work as well as your own to share what's happening in the neighborhood you're covering.

2. Set up a social network for your community. Get on facebook, twitter, linkedin and other social networks on the web. Find out who is from your area and hook up to them. Read what they say when they say it. And cull from those networks story ideas, links and other information that may be of interest to the people in your community. This is, in my mind, just another way to develop your network of sources -- possibly with some new voices you might never have had before. All of this can be used when you get to my next point.

3. Start a community blog. Make it accurate. Make it grammatically correct. And make it quick. Use the social network to write about the topics of concern in your community as they happen. You don't have to generate the information. You just have to find it, give it an introduction and link to it. And remember, whatever you write doesn't have to be long and drawn out. Twitter does this in 140 words. You can make yours longer, but they don't have to be.

4. Be a community builder. Your job is to find the folks who care enough to blog about what's going on in their world, cull the best pieces and share them on your blog so others will know about what's happening. You may even link people in your community, simply by finding topics they have in common.

5. Build your own content partnerships. What do I mean? In the Internet world, you connect with others who cover the same topic you do. They produce content, which you can write about and link to. They can link to your work as well, and through that, you build on your own little traffic network. Imagine all the agencies you cover in your community. Imagine their work on your community blog. OK, yes, you should let folks know where the information came from, so they can use their common sense about the bias, if there is one, in the story you are linking to. In exchange, you get more content.

6. Encourage participation. The more you engage in your community, the more they will engage with you. From focus groups to niche web sites, newsrooms have seen that happen time after time. Yes, some of these folks you'll only know online. But so what? It doesn't matter how the conversation is happening, as long as it is. And you can be proud of yourself for helping to build it.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Can Newspapers Make Money Online?

The debate on the table is how newspapers can make money as more and more readers move to online sources to get their news. So far, no one has been able to find the answer to this question. And it's costing the industry, not just financially but in journalistic quality and experience.

If you are still employed in the industry or have recently left it, you probably have been personally touched by the announcements of layoffs at newspaper companies, whether it's my former employer, Gannett, or McClatchy or even family-owned companies like Sun Coast Media Group. So far this year, I know a veteran reporter, a photo editor, an administrative assistant, an assistant sports editor and several other newsroom employees who have been laid off from their jobs. From reporters to assistant metro editors to executive editors, everyone I've talked with lately is concerned about whether their jobs will be around in a year, much less beyond.

And the truth is, very few people -- if any -- are truly safe. Today, I received an e-mail from a former colleague who said 80 people will be laid off at her newspaper. And if you take the volunteer buyout, you'll get three months severance pay. Given the economy and the time of year, whether you volunteer or not, you will be lucky to find a job at all.

Recently, Poynter.org began a discussion about how newspapers can make money online. Here are a few suggestions from a former newspaper editor now working for an Internet start-up company:

1. Take a lesson from bankaholic.
Start a blog. Focus on a specific topic. Keep blogging. And before you know it, a bigger fish will come along and bite. Recently bankrate.com purchased bankaholic for "$12.4 million... with up to an additional $2.5 million earn-out payment available for the attainment of certain performance metrics in the next 12 months."

For the writers still left in the room after the next round of layoffs, this might be a personal project -- if you're not doing it already. For the newspapers searching for ways to make money, I would think a few jobs could be saved if you could find a buyer for niche blogs like this one.

2. Connect the dots with coupons.
Earlier this year, Media General purchased a coupon site called dealtaker.com for "double digits." According to the company's press release in March, the site had 500,000 unique hits a month.

It would be interesting if, beyond continuing to maintain the site separately, the company connected the coupons to its news properties as a way of improving traffic and profits to dealtaker -- which isn't the most user-friendly site by far.

Interestingly, DealTaker.com recently started a site for shoppers searching for Black Friday deals -- deals readers used to come to newspapers to find. It's a solid content partnership, for certain, but to bolster my argument, here's a quote from Steven Boal, CEO of Coupons, Inc. "Newspapers deliver almost 90 percent of the 384 billion coupons distributed each year," Boal said in a Mediapost article in 2007. "As consumers shift their media consumption online, newspapers' sites are the natural place for them to turn for savings." Of course the quote came from a story about newspapers selling an online coupon site to Coupons Inc., a move that made me scratch my head.

3. Find a niche and own it.
Every market I've ever been in has a niche -- one thing it covers like nothing else. Consider the niches in your market and look for a new web idea that appeals to readers beyond your local boundaries. The idea is to use content you already produce in a different way to add to the revenue stream.

What exactly do I mean? Let's take the Baltimore Sun, for example. Its sports folks cover The Preakness like no one else in the United States. Yes, I know -- the race already has a site. But even I can figure out it's in need of a good editor, sport or otherwise. Beyond providing better stories, video and photos, there's something else a niche web site can offer to a user: hotel, restaurant and other related travel information that someone coming to the event will want to know.

What does this kind of niche web site give a newspaper company struggling to survive? A national base for advertisers to reach a particular demographic -- not to mention traffic that you can connect to your news site. And, if you're particularly enterprising, you can even sell event-based coupons that can run online leading up to the event. Or you can repackage some of the content into a print-based souvenir magazine to add to your revenue.

When it's all said and done, you may do more than improve your profits, you may save a few journalism jobs along the way.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

What's SEO?

In the last few days, as the newspaper industry continues to implode, I've been invited by a former newspaper colleague to join a facebook group called "Newspaper Escape Plan." The description starts out like this: "Escape from newspapers while you can! At this rate, everyone will be laid off." I think you get the picture.

The backdrop to the invitation has been e-mails, phone conversations and text messages from friends -- some who still work in the industry and others who have been laid off -- who want to know what they need to learn to jump from the print game to the web world.

Note: I'm not an expert. What I've learned, I've learned -- as I did in print -- by doing. Yes, I was in charge of managing online projects and database reports for my last newspaper. But that doesn't make me an online expert by any stretch of the imagination.

At my job as editor at an Internet startup company, they asked me to come up with content for a reference web site, kind of a no-brainer for me. In return, I got a job that allows me to learn as I go, and I've done it by using my journalistic skill for adapting to change. As much as I miss traditional newspapers, this job allows me to do what I've been doing all week -- explaining some aspects of the web to former colleagues who are eager to learn, particularly now.

In the last few weeks, I've had a number of conversations about search engine optimization. They followed after I noted on several social networking sites in my "status" that I'm working on a project to improve seo on our web site, divorce360.com. Most of the conversations began like this: "What's seo?"

If you're going to make the jump to online, it's important to know what it is. So here's the layman (or woman's) version from a former print person.

Search engine optimization involves examining urls and headlines in web content to make certain that the Google bots (robots or spiders) that come to the web site find enough of the right words in all those things to push your content up to the top of the search pages.

So when someone searches on google for a term, let's say...divorce laws... or parental alienation syndrome...the stories on your site that include those words will pop up at the top of the first page of the search engine results.

You can also improve search engine optimization by doing what's called metatagging. It sounds really exciting, but for a journalist, it can feel like watching paint peel. Essentially, it means you pick key words from the story and tag the story with them. The purpose is the same -- so that the bots, which crawl around web sites, can examine your content, decide it's worthy of improved seo and then spit them out closer to the top of the search that a user does. You can do the same thing with key words in the stories.

Why would you do all that? Because if you improve seo, you can improve traffic. Simply put, if your content is higher up on the searches, users are more likely to click on it -- more often.

It's a lengthy process, to be sure. And it's not an exact science. Google has patented the way it calculates search engine optimization. So there's a whole industry of seo specialists who say they know the secret code to seo, but it's really trial and error.

It isn't exactly the kick you get when you're breaking a good news story. But once you publish the seo changes and see your content move up the ranks, it does feel similar to something else we used to do in print -- deliver the news to the readers who want it.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Social Networking Highs

Some months ago, we added a social networking side to the web site, divorce360. You could post comments and upload a graphic image. But given the personal nature of the topic, the profiles were anonymous, unlike many of the other social networking sites on the web.

What we discovered was fascinating. People didn't just want to talk about their relationship struggles with one another. They engaged in lengthy intimate conversations, sharing the details of their lives in a place they felt safe. They commented on each other's blogs, offered advice and answered questions. And their comments were often two or three pages long.

Recently, we added a wall to each of the user's pages. If you use facebook, you know this is one of the easiest way to talk to a friend -- as long as you don't mind sharing your commentary with the world.

On our site, the wall has become an increasingly popular tool -- and an addition to the commentary. What users are doing is posting their comments first for everyone and then talking directly to the other person on their wall. Literally, they're posting twice about the same thing, even though both posts are public.

The theory in the room is that the anonymity on the site's community is allowing people to engage more deeply in conversation than they normally would if their profiles were public. In the meantime, the number of users and the user time is climbing. So there must be something to it.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Interesting Post for Journalists

If you're a newspaper journalist and haven't seen this article "Will Algorithms Make Human Editors Obsolete? Not If Journalists Collaborate, you need to read it. Given the state of the industry, it's got some great advice for the new media landscape.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Questions off the News

The joy about having a community on the site is when you ask a question, you'll get a response. I'll be interested to see how this one does: What would you do with $700 billion dollars?

Monday, September 15, 2008

Shameless Plug, D360 and a Link

A shameless plug about getting d360 content on other Web sites. The more the merrier is my philosophy. Here's the latest link. Enjoy.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

D360, Rule Breaking and Online Communities

Interesting story about our site today written by Richard Millington, who is a builder of online communities. Millington is from the United Kingdom. Given I drove around Ohio for several years (as a top editor at a newspaper no less) with a license plate that read, "B Unruly," I figured his blog -- about breaking rules to succeed online -- was worth a mention.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

On a Roll with Content Partnerships

Sometimes good stuff slips into our days and goes unnoticed until we wake up, mid-week from editing a bunch of stories and realize, wow, a sweeeet thang happened while I was buried under that pile. As a former print editor turned editor of an Internet startup, my translation of sweeeet thang would be:

1. Two days of having the same story on the msn.com home page.

2. And two days of two different stories on Woman's Day.

I guess it goes to show that some rules don't change, regardless of medium. Simply put, good content works.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Twitter, D360 and networking the news

I admit it. I'm a Twitter fan. It didn't happen overnight. It's been a long, slow courtship.

I know social networking has journalistic applications, but I wasn’t quite certain how this particular site would help. It's taken months and a breaking news story to help me really understand.

Twitter, if you don’t already know, is a social networking site that allows only brief posts – about the size of your average newspaper headline. So having a good editor -- or being one – is helpful to get the best use of the space.

Our marketing vice president at d360, Paula Sirois, twisted my arm into jumping on the Twitter bandwagon after a year of tweet-ing away about our Internet startup. I've been tweeting routinely since she helped me hook up.

A few weeks ago, late on a Friday afternoon, ABC announced that former presidential candidate John Edwards had admitted he had a brief affair with a film producer. Given that our site has an archive of stories about the topic of infidelity, I was able to put together a story quickly and post it online within minutes of the annoucement.

Then I posted a quote from the story on Twitter, which is what I normally do for newly published stories. I wondered if I could drum up any interest in our d360 experts and related stories by posting them on Twitter as well. So I tried it.

Shortly after doing so I received a post from a journalist who wanted to congratulate me for being on top of the news and for providing related topics of interest to the main story. The e-mail that followed came from an editor at an online news wire service called All Headline News, who asked if I could provide experts for the Edwards story. Of course, I could – and did.

As a traditional print editor, I never thought about using a social networking site to expand our web site’s reach. But a year after taking this job, I have used Twitter – and other social networking sites – to increase my sourcelist, expand my web contacts and come up with related content to breaking news.

More importantly, I’ve used social networking to connect the content we’ve gathered with media outlets that need it. I guess it goes to show you – it is all about who you know.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

D360 Partners with Woman's Day

The Holy Grail of Internet startups -- partnerships with other web sites.

How does it work? You provide content, which they pick up and use on their site. And then they give you links and credit, which drives more traffic to your site.

So far, our content has been featured on msn, AOL, so many newspapers and their web sites that I've long since lost count. And a year after eight months after we launched, we added one more partner to our list: Woman's Day.

Today, Woman's Day relaunched its site with a new design -- and some content from us. Enjoy.



Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Things that Make You Laugh about Newspapers

On the way to work, I'm listening to an NPR story about CNN taking the mojo-approach to journalism. If you don't know, that's the one-man band, mo(bile) jo(urnalist) who does everything from video to reporting. It's a concept introduced to the media by the newspaper industry, which has been fighting cutbacks and is looking for ways to compete with the immediacy of Internet news. (Here's a note or confession, depending on your perspective: In the interest of full disclosure, I worked for the Gannett editor who created the concept.)

Anyway, a few hours later, I get an e-mail link to a story on wired.com about the same topic. After I read it, I couldn't help but laugh.

The funny of the day: The writer who wrote the story apparently didn't know that Fort Myers, Fla., the home of the original mojo, has only one "e." (IE: Myers, not Meyers.) My e-mail tip of the day for wired? A mojo still needs a good editor.

CNN, Mark Goulston and D360

What makes my day as editor of an Internet startup? When CNN quotes a D360 expert for a follow-up on the Edwards affair.

Men and women both have affairs, but not necessarily for the same reasons, says Mark Goulston, M.D., a marriage expert at Divorce360.com and author of "The Six Secrets of a Lasting Relationship: How to Fall in Love Again -- and Stay There." While men often break their marriage vows for reasons that include ego, a need for adulation and sometimes narcissistic behavior, he says, women tend to be tempted for different reasons.

"Women more often fall in love [with someone else] to feel adored and with a promise of protection and to ease pain," Goulston explains.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Gotta love MSN

Today's home page.

Internet Startup Reaches 10,000 members

Less than a year into the life of our Internet startup, we reached the 10,000 mark today. That's 10,000 people who have signed up to become part of the community of divorce360.com, the Web site we launched in December 2007.

As a former newspaper editor who hasn't much background in the social networking, it's taken me a while to become facebooked, linkedin and twittering regularly. But all of those things are now part of a routine day. Who knew it would take a few months to become a social networking junkie. Based on what's happening on our site's community, I'm not the only one.

In January, reporter Kim Hart of The Washington Post wrote a story about a new trend -- "social-networking sites have popped up to cater to specific interests, backgrounds, professions and age groups." Our site was one of several niche content sites named in the article.

Today, Paula Sirois, vice president for marketing for our site, said: "It speaks to the overwhelming need to connect, relate and find help." I couldn't agree more.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

PR Contest for an Internet Startup

Internet startups do things a little differently than traditional print products. Recently, we decided to try something a little unusual in the marketing department. We're working with Peter Shankman, an "entrepreneur, adventurist and CEO of The Geek Factory, a PR and marketing boutique firm in New York City."

He and our vp for marketing, Paula Sirois, came up with an interesting idea -- pitching to his clients an opportunity to do his job for us. Here's the pitch he sent out yesterday for those of you who might be interested in trying your hand:

So... It's Friday morning. Wanna win an Amazon Kindle? Here's the deal. One of my really fun clients, (They're all really fun...)Divorce360, is the ultimate social network for anyone dealing with divorce, going through a divorce, or coming out of a divorce. I've already gotten them some great press.

But can you do better?

"Do Peter's Job, because he's so busy sending out the freakin HAROs." Come up with a great promotion for Divorce360.com. Can be anything.

Basic rules: Has to be simple, legal, media worthy, and under $2,500. Email kindle@divorce360.com with your idea on how to promote the site. I'll pick a winner in a week or so, and if you win, we'll give you a Kindle, and pimp you and your company out to 20k or so people in an upcoming HARO. You don't have to implement the idea, just come up with it. Go have fun, win a Kindle. Again - DO NOT EMAIL ME - but kindle@d

Pitch lively!

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Another Good Week

A good week at an Internet startup that offers niche online content is simple. Some media outlet or another picks up your stories and runs them in their publication or on their web site. This week's highlights include:

1. mainstreet.com picks up two stories off the site, rewrites them and credits our site.

2. Our McClatchy-Tribune arrangement pays off with another story published on sunherald.com, a web site for a newspaper in southern mississippi.

3. A large metro newspaper uses our site and a story as the basis for one of their own.

You gotta love that.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

About Life, Love and Junny Rios-Martinez

A note to readers: Normally, this blog is about my travels from newspaper to online journalism. Today's blog is a little more personal.

Sometimes things happen in life that change you forever. And you can never go back.

Today, the state of Florida executed a man it released early from prison in 1991. He was a convicted sex offender who had raped several boys along Florida's Space Coast. On April 18 of that same year, he kidnapped and raped his last victim -- 11-year-old Junny Omar Rios-Martinez. Then he killed the boy.

At the time, I was a police reporter covering the beat. And I knew that night when I went to talk to his parents for the story, something in my gut told me, this child was never coming home.

I never met Junny. At least not when he was alive.

But I got to know him, a little bit I would like to think, by talking to his family over the next 17 years. I spotted him in the quiet intelligence of the younger brother he left behind. Or the impish bravado of his tough-girl little sister. I found him in the laughter his older sisters shared like a secret language no one else knew.

But mostly, I found him in his parents struggle to keep their family from falling apart after the unimaginable became their reality -- the unspeakable their truth. These days, couples fall apart for something the courts call irreconcilable differences. But for Vicki and Junny Sr. that never happened.

Instead, over time, their loss became a gain of sorts, a harsh recognition that sometimes life is shorter than we think, that the tiny moments of the every day are the ones that really count the most in the end. And in that recognition, they found a strength that perhaps they didn't even know they had.

Over the years, Mark Dean Schwab has fought against his death sentence. On November 17, 2007, days after his execution was delayed again, I saw the Rios-Martinez family at a celebration to honor their son. It was held in a park that bears his name just a few blocks from the home where his parents still live. "This day is all about Junny," Vicki said, before she and her now grown children and her grandchildren released doves in his memory.

Some years ago, I wrote a column about courage that ran in the newspaper where I once worked. I wrote about Vicki and Junny Sr. and said that courage was "waking up every morning knowing that your son is dead and getting out of bed anyway."

Today, I know I was wrong.

Courage is more than that, really. It is in the deciding that, despite what has happened, you will do more than merely survive. You will choose to live -- and to love anyway.

Vicki and Junny Rios-Martinez did just that. And no one, not even Mark Dean Schwab, can ever take that away.

In memory of Junny Rios-Martinez: 5/16/79--4/18/91

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Redesign Isn't Just for Newspapers

Everyone needs a new look sometimes. That applies to publications as well.

As a former editor for the largest newspaper company in the United States, I've done my fair share of redesigns. After 20 years in the industry, it was almost a given. Early in my career, it happened when new editors came into the room and decided their newspaper looked a little dated. Later, as circulation dropped steadily as readers moved online, it seemed they came with more frequency.

The big newspaper redesign news this week: an updated look at the Orlando, Fla., Sentinel, with another in September to follow at its sister paper, The Chicago Tribune. The idea is to re-engage readers in the print product as a way to maintain readership at a time when the industry is struggling nationwide.

In my career, I've helped or directed redesigns at newspapers like The Venice, Fla., Gondolier, The Tribune in Coshocton, Ohio, The Times Recorder in Zanesville, Ohio, and the News-Press in Fort Myers, Fla.

In the last year as an editor at an Internet startup, I've realized that similar redesign principles apply online. The only thing that's different is that you can use traffic as an indicator for what works for readers -- and what doesn't.

Since launching the web site in December, we have listened to reader comments about usability and watched the traffic ebb and flow and come up with ways to address any issues along the way. On Friday, after weeks of work behind the scenes, we relaunched with a new look for the home page.

It's cleaner, simpler and easier to understand. And finally, it's here, so I share. I'd love to hear your comments. So feel free to e-mail me at marisa@smallponds.com and let me know what you think.

Friday, June 27, 2008

What Works at a Startup

You gotta love working at an Internet startup. Some weeks -- no matter how many newspapers , hometown or otherwise, are laying off employees -- you wonder why you left the corporate bandwagon. And then there are weeks like this one, where you wonder why you didn't do it sooner.

This week what worked at a startup?

1. The Mice Played.
Waiting until the office coffee runs out and the boss is on vacation to order -- ohmygawd -- completely NEW coffee flavors like "Timothy's German Chocolate Cake" or "Gloria Jean's Swiss Chocolate Almond."

And then expanding into a whole new realm --- tea. My afternoons are now spent drinking "Timothy's Cranberry Twist Green Tea," or "Celestial Seasonings Mandarin Orange Spice" while some cranky guy with a Southern drawl stomps around in the background complaining, "It smells like a Baaa-k-ree in here."

2. Willie. Willie. Willie.

There's something about walking into a room every morning and having someone -- ok some dog -- so excited to see you that he almost knocks you to the floor. It's just plain good for the soul -- even if he is a trash picker.

3. Getting a Little Help from my (Old) Friends.
Signing a contract with McClatchy-Tribune (good old-fashioned newspaper companies) that allows your stories on the wire service and, within days, getting some play on newspaper sites all the way across the country.

Now, that's what I call the power of the press.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

A Positive about Newspapers

With all the bad news about the declining newspaper industry, it's tough to find something positive to say when you're wrapped up in it. Declining profits, buyouts, newsroom cutbacks. You name it, the industry has seen it all in the last few years.

But after about a decade as a Gannett newspaper editor, I've spent almost a year on the other side of that fence -- working for an Internet startup company, developing a Web site and assessing the content's connection to the readership.

Part of the job is to search for partnerships with other news organizations interested in offering our stories on their sites. The more partners, the more they use your content. The more they use your content, the more the traffic builds. It's a pretty basic way to build online readers.

While our stories routinely get picked up by msn.com (Yesterday, our content was on the home page.) and other online sites, we've been searching for another way to increase traffic online -- through a partnership with newspapers.

Why? The CEO of our company, Cotter Cunningham, explains it by using his previous experience at bankrate.com, which built its traffic not just through its online partnerships but also through its partnerships with traditional print products. The more newspapers picked up the content, the more the online traffic increased.

This week, we signed a contract with McClatchy-Tribune to provide relationship content on its wire service to newspapers around the country. For me, it's an interesting twist. After spending years in the newspaper industry moving from print to online, I now work for an organization that's moving from online to print.

Funny how the world works. For all the bad news about the newspaper industry's decline, it's still offers something of importance to other mediums. Newspapers provide readers. It's just that simple.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Learning More about your Readers

I'm not a natural to online social networking. To be honest, I was always too busy to connect with people online when I'd rather do it in person.

After leaving my traditional newspaper job, I realized I needed to learn more about it. Even though many of my responsibilities in print had turned digital, there's something about joining an Internet startup that will force you into learning the details of something you only know on the surface.

Almost a year later, I'm facebooked, linkedin and twittering away. Aside from the connections and reconnections, both personal and professional, it's become even more important to me as a the content manager. I'm using the social networking part of our site, divorce360.com, as a way to assign stories that readers are talking about in groups, writing about on their journals or asking about in our polls.

Also based on my experiences, I've been involved in the discussions about how to improve the social networking part of the site. We eventually came up with an easy-to-use question and answer format that allows readers to share the details of their personal relationship story with their friends in the community.

Last week, after some weeks of editorial and technical tweaking, we rolled out the latest addition to the site. We sent out a link to the site addition in late-week e-mail to users, who have been filling them out ever since.

In addition to their story, the new page also gives users a chance to offer relationship tips to others, which we'll eventually cull to use in another form to enhance the site's content.

As I wrote in the e-mail introduction: "No matter where you are in your relationship, you can also offer advice to others about what you've learned so far. And you can read what others have learned along the way as well. By sharing your story, you can help yourself to move forward to a new and better place. And your story can help others do the same."

And isn't that part of what social networking is all about?

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Behind the Scenes in Newsrooms

What's happening behind the scenes in newsrooms around the country?

I can't speak to every one of them. But here's a snippet of a conversation from a recent meeting with several newspaper colleagues I used to work with several years ago.

"The newspaper just isn't what it used to be," said one woman, a mid-level editor at a metro, who went on to describe the uncertainties of working in a newsroom that's been decimated by a bad economy and a slow draining of resources over time.

Another person sitting at the table said he was returning to school to get a master's degree to "keep my options open."

A third person at the table thought I was smart to jump off the newspaper bandwagon and into an Internet startup, regardless of the risk. She'd recently been assigned another position in the newsroom because the beat she'd been covering simply wasn't important anymore to the paper.

Seems like a recurring theme.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

A Good Week at a Startup

What's the definition of a good week at a startup Internet company?

Several radio talk show interviews, an article in Adweek and a discussion with a major news company about distributing content from our Web site.

These are the days that you just know -- you're making a difference for the reader. And isn't that what good journalism is all about?

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Fascinated by Facebook

A few days ago, a journalism editor and friend asked if I knew anything about facebook. His question -- how is it useful?

I must admit, I'm a facebook newbie. Several years ago, I set up a profile I rarely used and then, finally, got rid of it. I just wasn't certain I wanted to share that much personal information with the world. Besides, very few people I knew actually used it. At 40-something, I'm not exactly the facebook demographic.

Shortly afterward, I joined linkedin.com, a professional networking site, and became slightly addicted. The thing that struck me was how easy it would make my life. Now, instead of looking up numbers or e-mails for friends, family or colleagues, everything was right there at my fingertips.

It was like an online Rolodex, if you will. It helped me reconnect with some folks, connect for the first time with a few others and maintain contact with everyone else. Plus, my bio is attached, which means I never have to go searching for a copy when I need one.

Since then, I've decided to give other social networking sites a try. I failed miserably on myspace.com. I was befuddled by the site, which required too much thought to use. But my second go-round at facebook turned out to be so easy that I may soon become a pro. When my friend e-mailed me to ask what I thought about its uses for a non-facebook-using journalist, I came up with a list -- so I share.

1. I discovered young people.
And they've all hooked up to me on facebook. Between kids of cousins, kids of friends and my former stepdaughter, I apparently know quite a few people under the age of 25. Who knew? And really, why did it escape me that prom season was here -- until I began looking at their photos?

2. My high school classmates are alive and well and on facebook.
And, oddly, some are using it more routinely than I. They send me funwalls and superpokes and all kinds of stuff I still haven't figured out. Given that we're the same age, there's hope for me yet.

3. People at work are hooked up.
I don't just mean the people at the Internet startup where I work. I mean folks from linkedin are on facebook, too. And folks who aren't on linkedin are there. And when their birthday or their newest photo is posted, I know right away on facebook -- which I can even get on my Blackberry. It helps me keep in touch with more people, more often, something I really didn't think was possible.

4. The place is chatty, chatty, chatty.
If I have facebook open during the workday, I often get e-mail from there -- rather than my e-mail address. Sometimes writers will ask me questions about their stories for the web site. Or friends will give me the latest news about layoffs or cutbacks in the print industry. Several times I have had instant messages from journalists asking for professional advice -- right now -- as part of real time.

5. There's even professional networking.
Since signing up for facebook, I have talked someone into doing some work for the site. In another case, I convinced an editor who runs a fledgling non-profit journalism organization to put up some information on facebook. And I've reconnected with other journalists I've lost track of over the years through the Poynter Institute project, which has connected more than 7,000 journalists around the world.

Recently, I came across an article in venturebeat.com with statistics for social networking sites. Myspace, the leader, had dropped one percent earlier this year. Facebook had increased 77 percent. Linkedin -- number eighth on the list -- had increased 729 percent. With those numbers, the question isn't how useful they are, but which one works better for you.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Will Internet Portals Invest in Newspapers?

The most interesting thing I've seen in a long time about newspapers was a video on Yahoo! Finance. In it, Todd Harrison, CEO of Minyanville.com, who suggested that online portals buy large print companies like Gannett, my former employer. The idea of "Content as King," isn't news to a veteran newspaper editor like myself. Nice to see someone in the financial world with the same understanding.

I e-mailed the video to a number of newspaper friends, one of whom asked me what I thought would happen if such a deal emerged. As the editor of a startup company for a niche product, I think there's a real possibility in the idea. Given the media partnerships that emerge online, (msn.com, for example, using content from our site and links to it), it seems like a sound idea to maintain a steady stream of content that could be reused online from the original source -- the newspaper.

Until newspapers don't have any readers anymore, there's still income -- albeit much less of a profit margin than in the past -- that comes from the print product and the traffic from its online publications. So an online portal could maintain the newspaper's circulation until it becomes a financial liability and still get the benefit of great journalism.

These days, given the state of the struggling newspaper industry, the idea looks appealing indeed.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

In Startups, It's All about the Little Things

When you're the editor at an Internet startup, days go by that follow a routine. It's all about the internal stuff. Playing with headlines to get better search engine optimization. Restructuring stories to make them easier to read online. Examining the look of the latest emoticons, avatars or landing page redesign. All worthwhile stuff, to be sure. But given my traditional news background, occasionally I miss the excitement of a good, old-fashioned breaking story.

And then one day, when you're out of the office at a daylong conference about startups, the fun happens without you. Your Blackberry gets tied up with e-mails about your content getting picked up by another news organization -- or two.

You find out a blogger from the Seattle Post Intelligencer has picked up a story about how baseball can help your relationship. Or Yahoo's women's site, Shine, quotes the same story. Or that msn.com has highlighted your news story about how the mortgage crisis may be adding to the divorce rate. And then U.S. News and World Report picks up the story the same day.

These are the days when you know, despite the daily routine, you're doing something right with the content. And you remember what a kick working on a good news story can really be.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Functionality, Not Form, in Newspaper Content

Leon Levitt, vice president of digital media for Cox Newspapers Inc, was quoted in editorsweblog.org as saying newspapers can boost online advertising revenue by "slicing and dicing" content to suit reader needs.

I couldn't agree more.

Since I jumped off the newspaper bandwagon and into a job as editor of an Internet startup site, it's become clearer to me that what newspapers aren't doing is making their content functional beyond the stories they produce.

I've had several conversations about this with newspaper editors in the last few months, including one this weekend with a friend who was visiting from Ohio. One of the keys to the puzzle of finding ways to make money off traditional newspaper content, I explained to her, was finding a way to improve the long-term functionality of the news that's produced daily.

What do I mean?

About two months ago, I began to re-examine the content on my site, not just for quantity but also for utility. While we've done a solid job of news-related content, the functionality of the site from an encyclopedic standpoint needed some improvement. After a discussion with our CEO, Cotter Cunningham, formerly of bankrate.com, it occurred to me that the encyclopedic information is in the news content -- just not organized in a way that makes it easy for users to find it again once the news content was archived.

Obviously, my news background was affecting how I focused the web site -- not a bad thing. But I what about users coming to the site for a specific topic on a day when it wasn't a top story? Yes, we have archives, but is that really enough?

When I examined our bounce rate (the rate that's given to site after users come to the site searching for a topic and leave without finding it), I discovered it's better than the average web site. But I realized it was still an area that needed more attention from me. So I began working on a project that will improve the long-term functionality of site's content.

Since I'm still a news junkie, it occurred to me during my daily reading of blogs, topic content feeds and stories, that this was also missing in most traditional newspaper operations. While some companies are working on these efforts, no one seems to be doing it very well. Imagine what they could do with all the content they have if, after publishing the traditional newspaper story form, editors considered the encyclopedic functionality of their content.

Thomson, a former newspaper company that sold many of its properties to Gannett some years ago, appears to be building a business model of this type. In its recent $16.6 million merger with Reuters, company officials told The New York Times that it plans to refocus Reuters on business news -- using that content to build a database of targeted content for users who need specific financial content and all its related information.

For traditional newspaper companies to build something similar, however, would require them to stop cutting back on the content-gathering efforts of their news operations and focus, instead, on investing -- in the reimagining of function over form.

Perhaps then we could stop talking about the death of the newspaper industry -- and start focusing on its rebirth.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

MSN, Newspapers and Don Moore

When Don Moore began his career, he used a typewriter and a pica pole and processed his own black and white photographs in a darkroom. Today, there is a generation of young people who would not know what any of those things were -- much less how to use them. But they would know about msn.com.

That is why today is a particularly fun day for me.

In January, Mr. Moore -- aka my journalism dad -- was laid off from his job at the Charlotte Sun-Herald, a small, family-owned newspaper in Port Charlotte, Fla. Why? It was hit with the same financial reality that most newspaper companies have been hit with in the last few years. Too many employees, not enough advertising to pay the bills and more people canceling their newspaper subscriptions so they can go online and read what they wanted for free.

Don was just one of the journalists that Poynter Institute's Rick Edmonds wrote about earlier this week -- one of 2,400 newspaper people who had lost their jobs as the industry struggles to find a way in this new media landscape.

When he got his pink slip, Don had no idea how to use PC, what a wireless router was or what he would do without a newspaper job -- an industry he has worked in all of his life. I wrote about his plight in a previous blog.

After stewing about it a while, I asked him if he wanted to freelance for the Web site. After all, he has spent more than 40 years in the business. Writing stories -- regardless of whether they're in print or online -- isn't exactly a new skill for him.

He agreed to do it -- tentatively. Then he spent the next few weeks trying to bring himself into this century from a technology standpoint. In that area, he had some room for improvement. After a few frustrating weeks of technical challenges, his first stories hit the site, and I wrote about him again.

But the best part of this tale is that today, one of his articles, "Is Mortgage Crisis Causing Divorce?" was picked up by msn.com. The news site also shared links to two of his other stories on our site.

When I discovered msn wanted to use his work on Saturday morning, I was so tickled that I called him to share the news. He was sitting with his daughter, Shannon, at a soccer match in North Port, Fla. His granddaughter, Coral, was playing. Amid the shouts from the parents and kids, I broke the news.

"Your story is being picked up," I said.

"Oh yeah?" he said, stopping the conversation long enough to cheer for his granddaughter. "By who? AP?"

"No, no," I said, explaining that The Associated Press did not pick up stories from our site, but national web sites did. "Your story is going to be on msn."

There was a long pause in the conversation. All I could hear was the noise of the game in the background.

"Are you there?" I asked.

"Uh, yeah. What's msn?"

For a few minutes, all I could do was laugh. Then I made him hand the phone to his daughter so I could explain why I had called.

Fortunately for me, she was able to explain it all.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Can Web Sites Be Sued for User Comment?

Recently, I read an interesting story, "Roomates.com can be sued for violating fair housing laws." The story reported that a federal appellate court ruled that the housing site, roommates.com, could "be sued for helping to match roomates based on race, sexual orientation," etc.

Interesting enough, to be sure. But the case has far-ranging potential, according to another article about the issue in mediapost.com. Why? According to the article, "Some digital rights advocates view the Roommates.com case as a significant loss, because it appears to open the door to lawsuits against a variety of Web publishers for reasons that go far beyond discrimination in housing." One of those being the ability "to sue for defamatory comments" from users.

What does all of this mean for newspapers? There's the question. Many users of the Web consider the Internet a free-wheeling, free-for-all of commentary protected by The First Amendment.

But in an article by Robert Niles, "It's time for the newspaper industry to die," the author asks whether there isn't a responsbility attached to print stories posted online. In his article, he questions the user-generated commentary attached to a feature story. That commentary offered misinformation to anyone reading, and Niles suggested a reporter should have corrected the misinformation by responding to it -- a no-no in many traditional print newsrooms around the country.

Given what I know about the heated debate on the issue in several newspaper newsrooms I've worked in over the years, I must admit I have wondered long before reading his article whether he wasn't right. I must now admit I have a particular emotional stake in this debate, given that my mother left her own country to live in a country where you can say anything without fear of retribution. Plus, I'm a journalist, so I come with an additional bias -- I consider defending The First Amendment "God's work" as my old boss used to say.

But because of my background in community newspapers, I've also struggled with where to draw the line between the right to say what you want and understanding the damage it can do to people like my mother, who has been told a number of times over the years to "Go back to where you came from," because someone didn't think she spoke English very well. I suppose that makes me a little more receptive to the idea that The First Amendment comes with a responsibility -- to spark debate, to engage in discussion for certain -- but also to be respectful to others at the same time.

It will be interesting to see how the decision about roommates.com plays out. Whatever the effect it has on the discussion over the long haul, I hope that it offers something all of us can learn to live with -- a little less crudeness and a little more civility.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Fight over Yahoo

Thanks to the Washington Post for its story on Murdoch and AOL fighting for Yahoo. This is the kind of purchase that traditional newspaper companies should angling for. Content folks + an Internet portal = endless possibilities.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Reimagining Newspapers

If newspapers worked the way they did in my brain:

1. Their Web sites would aggregate the news for a big, breaking story so if I went to their sites I wouldn't have to look at other sites in the region for stories on the same topic. I'd get short fat graph-introductions to stories on other news sites. I'd know it was a good read, because you told me so by showing me it was there. And the next time something big happened, I'd come back again -- and again.

2. Newspapers would look at their Web sites as a way to start as many regional or national online niche products as they could handle, given they keep downsizing their newsrooms. A place like Delaware, for example, would have a sister Web site for beaches or tax-free shopping or incorporation information for businesses. Fort Myers would offer a Web site for midwesterns who wanted to retire to the area, including a database of such information as movers in my area, property tax information and home insurers and rates -- so I didn't have to look around for this stuff on a bunch of other sites. (I worked in both places, just for the record.)

3. Local stories would be on incorporated into a map as well as just listed on the Web site by what time it happened. Then I could decide if I wanted to read the content by its closeness to my home or my work as well as just by a good headline. It would be really interesting if, as part of this effort, citizen videos of breaking news could be downloaded onto these maps as part of the interactivity for my geographic area of interest.

4. Sports departments would link previous stories on particular teams, so that I could read the stories that ran before about this particular story. They would use their archived profiles and statistics on a particular sport, encyclopedic information in a Wikipedia-like format if you will, as links in every story so if I would have every piece of information at my fingertips. And they'd add some kind of social networking, so I can hang out online with folks like me -- who liked the same teams.

5. Newsrooms would use their historical knowledge of the community and put that into some kind of Wikipedia-like database of information that allowed readers to learn about the area through their links to local stories as well as through just browsing on topics of interest. (Ok, I've mentioned this one before, but it has a long tail so I will mention it again.)

6. Directed the conversation on particular topics -- think msn's moneycentral -- by asking a few pointed questions about stories you've written that would engage in serious discussion, offer suggestions or tips and be another place to develop content that could be linked to the original story or new stories on the topic as they were written.

7. Think of each story not as a one-dimensional, one-time only piece that would be finished once the editor moved it to the desk. Instead, it would be interesting if newsrooms thought of every story as a container of endless possibilities for content that -- over time with links, videos, photos, maps -- offers the kind of depth that the print product has slowly whittled away at over the last few years.


Monday, March 31, 2008

Yahoo Can, Newspapers Can't?

Yahoo can do this. Newspapers can't?

See previous blog entry. Enough said.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Fixing What Ails Newspapers

I've been thinking a lot lately about how to fix what ails the newspaper industry. It's the topic of conversation with everyone I know who still works in the profession. And no one seems to have a magic pill.

A few months ago, at an annual meeting of the Associated Press Managing Editors, I spoke with a Gannett editor who knew me before I jumped off the print bandwagon and fell into this Internet gig. She asked me, given my new vantage point, how I would move forward in the new media age.

I suggested that her company -- also my former employer -- consider taking its news service, which wasn't breaking much news ground, and use its staff in a different way -- to aggregate news from its newspapers across the country. There was, as far as I could tell, no reason for WebMD or any other national health site to exist when the company owned a string of newspapers that could provide more, and better, health-related content. Sadly, she said, a similar idea had been floated before but, for a variety of reasons, it hadn't worked.

The conversation bothered me. And today, a day after reading the full report from Newspaper Next, it still makes me cringe. The report, if you haven't read it, is a call to action for newspaper companies struggling to compete in a new media landscape.

So here's my suggestion for the day, directed at any large newspaper company that's trying to recreate itself in a world where fewer people are reading print products each day. Consider taking all your Web sites dedicated to a particular niche audience, let's say moms for example, and connect the dots for a national audience.

Imagine this. All your local niche moms sites connected under one umbrella site. (Let's steal a brand name from an already national product and call it USAmoms for lack of a better name.) All your local traffic moving through one national portal -- a Babycenter for moms if you will. I wonder, would that play with national advertisers do you think?

I guess someone will have to give it a try.

Things that Make you Go Hmm....

Last night, somewhere around 3 a.m. when I woke up and couldn't fall back to sleep, I grabbed a stack of -- ohmygawd -- printouts, wandered into the living room and curled up on the couch for a good read.

At the top of the pile was a recently released 100-plus page report called, Making the Leap Beyond Newspaper Companies. I had been saving it for an airplane trip or a sleepless night, whichever came first. It kept me awake a lot longer than I planned.

Here are some of the highlights I came across....

1. Newspapers are still behind in the new media game.
(I think we can all agree on this one.)

2. Local wikipedias. Do it.
(See previous blog entry.)

3. Search for new online target markets -- like moms. Write more for them. Sell more stuff to them. (Next will be dads and pets -- just ask Gannett. See page 17, annual report.)

4. The bottom line was simple:
Don't lose the money that's already coming your way.
Find ways to make more money with new products.
Target folks who aren't spending money with you.

After I finished, I had to wonder -- is any of that really new?

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Mapping the Local News

A reporter I worked with at my previous job recently sent me a link to a news site she works with in Chicago called ChiTownDailyNews.org. I was fascinated by the mapping on it. The idea of linking news stories to a map of the community seemed like another way to localize the news for readers. I've seen it done before for special events -- a marathon bicycle race in the midwest and crime in a city.

If I were from the area, mapping of the news would help me prioritize what I wanted to read -- and what I wanted to read first. I wondered if video could be incorporated to make it more interactive -- something like this new site, Seero, which focuses on travel. My only complaint was that there weren't enough news stories on the map, which would make it a richer experience for readers.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

A Snapshot of the Newspaper Industry

I spent the better part of the last week in another state, judging a newspaper contest for a company I haven't worked for since college. It was an odd experience given that -- after more years than I care to admit -- I no longer work at a newspaper. And it proved to be an interesting snapshot of what's happening in the industry.

As I was checking into the hotel, I ran into another judge -- an editor I haven't seen in more than 20 years. Back then I was a reporting intern, and he was the assistant city editor assigned to make certain I made it through the summer without getting into too much trouble. He must not have held my inexperience against me since he seemed happy to get reacquainted.

When he heard I'd joined an Internet startup company, he wanted to talk more about my experience. Why? The newspaper company he works for is for sale. He -- and another judge who works at a sister paper -- will find out next summer who their new owners are.

While we examined the quality of visual, written and online journalism for a group of papers none of us worked for, the state of the industry was the backdrop for discussion. Using the numbers, this picture of the profession emerged:

1. Of the 16 judges, one was a long-time journalism educator. So for the purposes of accuracy, 15 judges had been working at a newspaper in the last year.

2. Of those 15, three were no longer in the industry. One now teaches college journalism. One works for a government agency. The third (me) works for an online company. All three of us left the industry in the last year. All three of us had worked for the same newspaper company for a long time.

3. Of the other 12 judges, two editors (as I explained earlier) are working at a newspaper company that is on the market.

4. Of the 10 remaining, one -- who manages a digital department at a newspaper -- lost an assistant who took a buyout. This happened two days into the event. That manager won't get to replace the position.

At dinner one evening, we were visited by several editors who worked at the company's largest newspaper, which is located in the same town where we had converged. A friend, who lives in the city, e-mailed me a copy of a recent article about the executive editor, which was published in a regional magazine. In it, the writer described how the editor was fighting against a declining newspaper circulation by focusing more on its online site. The article gave her efforts mixed reviews.

And today, a few hours after an editor at another newspaper told me he was asked to buy equipment on eBay to save money, I read that newsprint companies are increasing their costs again. Given the recent buyouts, layoffs and declining stock prices of newspaper companies, it makes you wonder -- what will happen next?

Before I returned home from my stint as a judge, one editor at the event explained that the increasing pressures on the industry were hitting his newspaper, too. He simply isn't hiring much these days. He added: "It's not going to get better anytime soon."

But with all the talented people in the journalism industry, I still have hope that he's wrong.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Wikipedia, Collective Knowledge and Newspapers

A few years ago, I sat in a meeting with an editor and argued that we should start a local version of Wikipedia. The idea was simple. We could remain the historical knowledge of the community by using our Web site to help us.

Given that we were focusing on how to improve our online content, this new element, I thought, would offer something that people would come back to over and over again. (As an example, just consider Joe Biden’s folks trying to rewrite his political history with plagiarism.)

I figured it would be a cross between the newspaper archive and refrigerator journalism. Unless you’re from a particular region, state or community, you’re probably not going to go searching for this kind of stuff. However, school kids, locals and folks who need term paper topics for college might find it handy. It was, I believed, another way to chronicle the area’s history. And a new way to look at our jobs as journalists.

The idea was shot down for a number of reasons, including: The newsroom didn’t have the staff to maintain it; There was an unwillingness to open up the project to the community; There seemed no way to connect it to our online efforts; and most importantly, at a time when newspapers were struggling financially, it would compete with the idea that people would pay for old newspaper stories in the newsroom's archives.

Back then newspaper companies around the United States were struggling to keep readers from dropping their print subscriptions. They’re still struggling now, even though they've all changed their focus to online.

I must be honest. I’m part of the problem. I used to read a print newspaper every day. Several of them. I used to collect them on vacations so I could see what my colleagues were all doing and how well they were doing it. I used to think I’d never do anything but work for one. But today, I have a job at an Internet startup company, and if it weren’t for my parents, (and my boss who still gets the NY Times daily for work) I would rarely read a printed newspaper.

My parents are not the norm. They don’t own a computer or know how to use one. In fact, they weren’t sure what I did when I worked for one. And now that I work for a Web site, I might as well be working on another planet.

I, on the other hand, have a laptop at home connected to the laptop at work. I have a laptop at work connected to RSS feeds from around the world. I read more news online than I ever did when I collected newspapers to read. And my Blackberry connects me to everything, all the time, even in traffic. Not a day goes by in which I don’t know what’s happening, when it’s happening, updated by news alerts. So by the time the newspaper arrives at my doorstep every morning, I’ve heard it all several times over.

The only time I check the news is when it’s breaking. For example, when the recent shooting at a Wendy’s restaurant occurred down the street from where I live, I went to my local newspaper’s Web site to check out the coverage. I was able to share the name of a person in the restaurant at the time with an editor in another part of the state where that person was from – helping an editor in a newsroom I used to work in get a local angle to a story that got national attention.

I have, unfortunately, become the reader I wanted so badly to attract when I was working in newspapers, which circuitously gets me back to my point.

If we want to attract readers to newspaper Web sites, we have to be more than we have become. And one of the things I think we lost along the way was our commitment to being the historical memory of our communities. Between the buyouts and the layoffs, employees with years of experience in their communities no longer work at a place where they can share their knowledge with readers.

So here’s a suggestion. Give up your paid archives. If you were making the kind of money from them you needed, you wouldn't be laying off folks in the newsroom. And because I'm the kind of news person who hates telling you what to do without offering to make it better, here's an idea to consider.

Set up a Wikipedia for your community with topics based on the beats that are important to your readers. Use the collective knowledge of your readers to build that historical knowledge for your news Web site. Then assign upkeep of the facts of those entries to reporters in your newsroom – or if you’re a larger newsroom and still have a librarian or two, they can help as well. Older reporters who might be annoyed by the new work could be swayed by its ability to become a community resource. And reporters new to a particular beat might actually learn something about their community before they go out to cover it.

Then, if you consider my previous blog on links, you'd be able to use it to give readers a deeper online content experience. Every time a name pops up in a story or a well-known court case is mentioned, you can use your community's Wikipedia. And if you're like the editors I have spoken with who have concerns about the resource's accuracy, you will know that your version has been fact-checked by your staff as part of your new media efforts.

In the end, you become more useful to your readers. And who knows? You might attract an advertiser or two along the way.