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.