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.