Monday, May 05, 2008

The 'well hole looking up' problem

What if all the words written on on the journalism and new-media blogs about how the future is digital and everything needs to be "Web first" and we need to be totally rethinking the way we write, report and present news -- well, what if it was wrong?

Yeah, I'm being provocative, and I don't totally believe that. But what if the "public," whoever that is, wasn't quite as excited about all this technological change and brave new world stuff as we are?

Hang with me a minute. I've been thinking about this a lot lately as I work with a smaller paper whose leaders are concerned about the future and want to move into the digital arena more forcefully than they are now. (I'm going to hold back the name of the paper for now, but down the road hope to do a series of posts about how things progress.)

I was there the other day, and my first question was a simple "why?" Why do you think it is so critical to rush headlong into video and interactive and rearranged workflows, etc.? Well, circulation is dropping, they said.

Yes, but wrong answer.

I could have given them 18 strategies right then and there for improving their digital presence. And every one of them could have been wrong.

The problem: They had no real idea where their subscribers were going. Were they going online? Or were they just dropping out? Maybe, in a cruel twist of logic, the most effective thing they could do would be to

*Use scarce resources to improve the paper and let digital ride for now*

What? But that goes against all we keep reading and hearing and ....

Except, if you don't know where your subscribers are going -- or where your potential audience is -- in terms of technology and information consumption, you can't make intelligent decisions.

Yeah, yeah. Spare me the "you gotta try different stuff" and "good enough is good enough." I know the mantra by heart. I preach it every day in class and at meetings around the country.

But part of the news industry's problem --and that includes all us digital soothsayers -- is that it suffers from the "looking up the well hole" syndrome. In short, it has no view of the horizon.

But instead of climbing up out of the hole and checking, too many journalists and newsrooms tend to guess (long known as editor's instinct) or assume. Yes, the national surveys show an online nation, one that supposedly gets the news more and more online. But when I get down on the ground, I don't always see it. When I talk to editors, many have no real clue what is happening to their readers, how those readers are getting their news, or even if they are getting it at all. When I talk to people in bars and malls, you'd be surprised at the number who are not switching the paper for online; they are simply switching off. Some say they might take the paper again if it were just a whole lot easier to use and got to the point with stuff they needed to run their daily lives (insert your favorite "hyperlocal" link here, but they don't always say that, either).

I was prompted to think about this once again by a recent post and a comment to a separate post.

The post was on Mindy McAdams' blog where she counseled patience and empathy for the technologically impaired among us. She began: I was recently reminded that not every person who uses a computer every day understands the instruction “Minimize that window.” I'm not sure there was as much sympathy as antipathy in the overall thread of post and comments, but whatever.

The comment was to a post by Pat Thornton in which he talked about the need "to build cool shit." Marc Mateo wrote:

But if we build cool shit, we may just have piles of cold shit.

I came to the realization after a newsroom conversation today that I have two distinct “classes” of friends: those that are “connected” and those that aren’t.

It’s the ones that aren’t that I suddenly found interesting.

They’re not some gaggle of technological luddites or anything, they are by and large normal people with normal lives… who have never heard of Twitter. They don’t blog and they don’t follow blogs either. They use computers, they have broadband connections, they find things with Google, but they go days before checking their email. They have mobile phones but they don’t send text messages. They don’t fear technology… but they don’t wallow in it either.

It is to these people that our “cool shit” can be meaningless.

And I worry. I worry because they far out number my “connected” friends. Do they know something I don’t?

I have lots of those friends, too. When you are in the middle of all hell breaking loose, it's easy to forget that your collaborators may not be following your lead quite as much as you might think.

We haven't even really begun to see some of the massive changes; when TV goes digital and all that bandwidth opens up for mobile applications, the pace of innovation in the mobile space will be dizzying. (Personally, I'm betting eventually on a Dick Tracy-type wristwatch computer, but one that projects a digital space onto another surface and can pick up your finger movements along that surface for navigation, thus providing ultra mobility but also a decent-sized viewing area.) And any media company that doesn't have someone thinking about a mobile strategy (and obviously a lot don't, based on the condition of their Web pages) is just*plain*dumb.

But it's good to remember, sometimes, that everyone isn't like us. Listen - and learn.

The Readership Institute adds to the discussion by asking whether time spent on site (or page views, for that matter) really capture what Web use for news sites is all about.

In our recent work with teens and young adults we heard many times that they go to news sites to get the news. That's it. They're not interested in spending time on these sites doing anything else. If that's the case (and it seems to be - wait for our report in July), newspaper sites are at a disadvantage compared to many other sites when it comes to how much time people spend on them. Shouldn't these sites be measured in terms of how well they serve their audience? How quickly people can find what they're looking for? How well they lay out issues, or provide added value to the news of the day with digests, timelines, maps, data banks, etc.? Just because you can measure time spent - across media, which is nice - doesn't mean you should, or that you only rely on that measurement. Newspaper sites are in essence trying to compete in a race that is not their own, and risk handicapping themselves by letting others define them.

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At 5/5/08, 2:54 AM, Blogger Brian Cubbison said...

I think this is an important post. How often have professors said lately, "Why don't college students fleegle?" (Whatever the hot 2.0 thing is now.) That should tell us something.

I have a theory I'd like to bounce off people, although it's half-formed at the moment. It has to do with the idea that in spite of our innovations, we still have the outdated assumption that one size fits all (everybody must twitter now).

Maybe the paper should do the best job possible of reaching people who still want their news on paper. The Web site should be robust for people who are online and aren't coming back. The mobile news will be for the tech-savviest.

I'm beginning to think the key is in efficiently satisfying the smallest possible audiences. If you're used to circulation in the tens of thousands, having 50 followers on twitter or facebook doesn't seem like much. But having a focus group of 50 people every day, or 50 handy sources, or 50 people you could walk up to on the street and ask about what's on their mind ... that's golden.

And finally, in the age of "the news will find me," how do you become the news that finds people, and how do you make it pay? The news will find some people by paper, truck and carrier. It will find others by social networks. Maybe we can sell sponsorships for our screen names.

Brian "Whole Rotisserie Chicken/4.99" Cubbison

At 5/5/08, 10:21 AM, Blogger Doug said...


Yes, but boy that is a different mindset, isn't it. As I've written before, it means you can't be in the old manufacturing mindset of "we have the assembly line, now make the product fit it," yet how many companies still want, essentially, a turnkey operation that they seldom have to tweak?

P&G figures what people want and then builds the assembly line -- and it constantly monitors and changes the assembly line as needed.

We're in a consumer business now, whether we want to admit it or not.

One of my other favorite questions for new execs: So you do have your city's vehicular traffic data, right?

I'm going to leave that as a tease for folks to guess why. I'll explain in another post soon.


At 5/5/08, 10:47 PM, Blogger Tajiana said...

This is such a great post! You have a very interesting blog. Technology especially the Internet and all its wonders like Twitter and blogs can be good and useless all at the same time. For a local paper, readers may not care about finding national stories on the homepage, rather they may find reading about the new Walmart construction in their neighborhood more interesting. This post says it all.

- Tajiana

At 5/6/08, 11:33 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If we start with the assumption that print readers are flocking to other sources of information, not our online newspaper, then it's much easier to address the problem.

Moving ahead with Web-first publishing and better online content is the first step to getting that content in front of eyeballs on other platforms, like Facebook or Twitter or whatever comes next.

Are our readers there? Maybe, maybe not, but we know where they're not, don't we?

Building "cool shit" has to be about being platform-agnostic, pushing content out in any form available, not just trying to become the stickiest card in the deck.

At 5/6/08, 12:40 PM, Blogger Webomatica said...

How about a reader survey? Ask the simple question - where do you get your news?

At 5/6/08, 9:52 PM, Blogger Doug said...


I agree, but only to a point. In the broad sense of "Web first" meaning change the workflow to get some news out the door (we called it the wire service {grin}) instead of taking an hour to craft that perfect lede, yes.

Your point about platform agnostic is a good one. I was back at the paper today, and part of my discussion was knowing where your audience is going and, assuming they did, maybe programmable billboards were actually the best alternative medium. (Dang, gave away that traffic survey answer, didn't I?)

In other words, if you don't have the data, don't assume "the Web," as we define it today, is where your action is. It may be in a completely different place. Yeah, they need to have a digital strategy, but I'm careful to phrase it that way and not say a "Web" strategy.

However, a caveat: Your assumption that people are flocking to other sources of information. I'm not sure that's totally true. Anecdotally, not empirically, I find a fair amount actually using the same info sources they were before, but just subtracting from those, not shifting. Thus my comment about switching off. In other words, dropping the paper but not necessarily adding a digital substitute (which need not be a digital news site). Some are simply falling back on their old 1.0 social networks.

Yes, but it's not that simple. Reader surveys, if done rigorously, actually are quite complicated affairs. (Just defining "news" is an exercise in itself -- the word has different definitions to different people.) However, having said that, one of the things I urged the staff to do today -- and I think every person, from the janitor to the editor should be encouraged to do this in every newsroom -- was simply to ask as many people as they know did they still get the paper, still read it and, if not, where they got their info. It has lots of potential problems of self-selection, skewed answers (people will lie because they don't want to hurt your feelings), etc. But out of it all, you will begin to get some sense. (I think every reporter ought to ask this at the end of as many interviews as possible, too. If nothing else, it might be eye-opening.)

And ultimately, that is my point. I sense that too many decisions are being made without the tiniest smidgen of even half-baked data. In an era of scarcer and scarcer resources, that's as much a recipe for disaster as having no digital strategy at all. (Note, this probably does not apply to 150 or so largest paper that tend to have robust local or corporate marketing departments. And it applies less to some chain-owned papers. Yet even among those, I too often see more assumption than knowledge driving decisions.)


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