Maybe what your news organization needs is a 'spontaneous bashing together of ideas'

[Editor’s note: The past week roiled the journalism business, as the Seattle Post-Intelligencer went to online-only, the former Rocky Mountain News staff tried to revive the paper as an independent website and Clay Skirky painted a revolutionary picture for what is happening in the industry.

Rather than take a hipshot off those headlines, though, we’re going to be proactive on OJR this week, starting with this piece from Eric Ulken, who offers a roadmap for established news organizations to enliven their online efforts.]

In a nondescript training room in the BBC’s White City building in West London, about 80 people are huddled around tables with placards bearing names like “Dr. Who” and “Top Gear” [BBC TV show titles], engaged in discussions on topics ranging from user-generated content to alternate-reality gaming.

The assembled thinkers and tinkerers represent many different arms of the British media behemoth, from radio news to Web production to technology. About the only things they have in common besides an employer are an interest in innovation and an eye to the future.

They’re taking part in the second BeeBCamp, an “unconference” in the tradition of BarCamp (and partly inspired by the Guardian’s GameCamp) that aims to bring together forward-thinking staffers and a few outsiders to talk about themes loosely related to the future of the BBC. [Disclosure: I was one of those outsiders, and, in the everybody-pitches-in spirit of the unconference, I talked about my work in data journalism at the L.A. Times.]

BeeBCamp, according to the BBC blog’s write-up of the event, “is designed as a collective, spontaneous bashing together of ideas, with no set structure to the day.” A whiteboard goes up first thing in the morning, and anybody who has an idea for a discussion or presentation claims a spot on the schedule. For example, one participant wrote: “We own What should we do with it?” (Some ideas here.)

On the whiteboard with the morning schedule, each show title corresponds to a table. Here’s a shot of the afternoon schedule.

I’m a little late with this post, as it’s been almost a month since the Feb. 18 gathering. There’s already ample coverage of the discussions and presentations (plus tags on Twitter and Flickr), so I won’t rehash all that. Instead I’d like to consider the broader idea of BeeBCamp and similar gatherings as they relate to the need to foster innovation in traditional media organizations. BeeBCamp and events like it are great examples of how “big media” — often seen as bureaucratic and impenetrable — can break down walls, open themselves up and facilitate the development of new ideas.

Why might a media company want to host an event like this? Some reasons:

  • Silo-busting: BeeBCamp brings together staffers from disparate parts of a huge institution — folks who might never have a business reason to talk to one another but whose goals and interests mesh, often in unexpected ways. (I got the feeling a number of the BeeBCamp participants had never met before.) The interdisciplinary nature of the gathering is what makes it so useful, as experts apply their unique perspectives and skills to common problems.
  • Openness: Everything at BeeBCamp is on the record, unless somebody holds up a sign that says “unbloggable”. This means a lot of what is said will get rebroadcast and commented on by people outside the organization, which is, at the least, a way of showing the world that the BBC is thinking and talking about the future, and at best a way to engage in an informal dialogue with the audience.
  • Innovation: Sometimes it’s useful to get away from the desk for a while and talk informally with colleagues. Not the ones you sit next to, but the folks across the building (or across town, or across the country) whom you wouldn’t ordinarily interact with. Crazy, silly ideas flow, which beget less silly ideas, which occasionally lead to completely sane and doable ideas. And because people are free to blog the discussions, there’s a good record of what’s said, which can be a useful starting point for follow-up discussion and action.

BeeBCamp is just one example of how media organizations are opening up the process of innovation. Here are some formats that have been used:

  • Hack day: This concept, which originated at Yahoo, typically calls for giving techies (often working in concert with product and content folks) 24 hours to build an idea into a functional prototype. After trying out the format internally in 2005, Yahoo conducted the first open hack day in 2006 and continues to do both internal and public hack days. Matt McAlister, one of the instigators of hack day at Yahoo, is now at the Guardian, which did its own internal hack day (with a few outside guests) last year. McAlister has a round-up of the results, complete with video highlight reel, on his blog. (I’d be interested in hearing if other media have hosted hack days.)
  • Meetup: The Chicago Tribune has been making good use of meetups (or tweetups, i.e., meetups organized via Twitter) to engage in informal dialogue with readers. It works like this: The Trib (in the persona of Colonel Tribune) invites local bloggers, twitterers and interested readers of all stripes to meet – no agenda — usually at a local bar. The result: Ideas direct from readers, kudos in the blogosphere and good karma all around. Last year the Trib also invited local bloggers to tour the paper.
  • Unconference: BeeBCamp, BarCamp and the recent regional NewsInnovation BarCamps fall into this category. Here’s how you might organize an unconference in your organization: Find interested colleagues. Bring in some clever outsiders. Get them talking about the future and see what happens. Make it clear to people that what’s said is on the record. You want folks to feel free to blog and comment about what they see and hear, for reasons mentioned above.

So, what’s the result of all this interaction? I asked Philip Trippenbach, the BeeBCamp organizer and the BBC’s “serious games” guru, if he had examples of products that have come out of BeeBCamp discussions. His response:

Sorry, but I can’t give you any examples of where this has happened at the BBC — yet.

There is one good concrete idea that came out of BeeBCamp: setting up a BBC-wide innovation database. Prototyping this is trivial, and that’s happening, but the tough thing is going to be overcoming the institutional/bureacuratic hurdles to implementation.

However, this isn’t to say that BeeBCamp has had no impact — far from it. I can’t count the number of interdepartmental contacts and discussions that arose as a result of it. This is the sort of interaction that leads to better cooperation and information-sharing across the company. It’s not to be underestimated. Many, many projects coming out of different departments will be informed by this kind of information-sharing through the company. What’s more, I know of two other events that are being planned in the wake of BeeBCamp, and with the same aim: get more New Media people from across the corp sharing and getting to know each other.

What an event like BeeBCamp and its successors does is wake up the community. It takes a community to raise a child, it takes a community to find a phone, and it takes a vibrant, active, connected community to break new ground in media. That’s what we’re doing with BeeBCamp: stoking the flames, so the embers can forge steel.

If you’ve held events like these to promote innovation in your organization, please share your experience here. And if your company hasn’t started bashing together ideas this way, why not be the catalyst? If the BBC can do it, so can you.

Newspapers' supply-and-demand problem (Why you should quit doing what everyone else is)

A lot of bits have been spilled over the apparent absence of a viable business model for news on the Web to replace one that no longer works for print. The ad-supported model doesn’t seem to work, but clearly neither do pay walls. There’s even talk of micropayments again (hello, 1998!).

I’m no economist, but I think the problem comes down to this: The Internet is a single, efficient market governed by the laws of supply and demand*. Because there’s surplus ad inventory online — particularly low-grade inventory — prices are falling. But what if the surplus inventory is largely the result of a glut of duplicative content? Would the problem go away if news organizations simply stopped doing about half of what they do and focused on the stuff nobody else is producing?

Consider a scenario: Newspaper A posts a local scoop to its website. The story is picked up by other news organizations. It’s rewritten, repackaged, sent out on wires, and within hours that story or some version of it — sans additional reporting — is on a hundred different websites. Much of this duplication is automatic, but some of it is done by human editors. (See Google News any day for an example of this.) Best-case scenario, a few of those sites actually link back to Newspaper A.

Now let’s say most of the duplication stops. Because there are fewer versions of the story, more eyeballs now find their way to the original scoop on Newspaper A’s site. Good. But aren’t many of these additional eyeballs just single-page, out-of-market visits that have little value to advertisers? Maybe, but if Newspaper A is sticking to its core mission of covering local news, it will be able to deliver an audience that’s more cohesive on the whole — and therefore more sellable — than if its content is all over the map.

Those of us who have worked for years in online news remember a time when repackaging news from all over was a large part of what we did. At some point most of us figured out it was a waste of time. But sadly, there’s still a lot of duplication going on in mainstream media websites, in part because it’s seen as necessary for a newspaper to be a broad and semi-comprehensive sampling of the day’s news and information.

Well, no more. You want comprehensive? Go to the BBC.

If newspaper bosses are serious about preserving the kind of journalism that makes newspapers great, here is what they must do right away:

  1. Stop wasting time on stuff other people are already doing. This means focus obsessively on local or topical content. The era of the newspaper as bundler of many varieties of content is over. If you cover a community, do nothing that doesn’t relate to that community. If you cover a topic, do nothing that doesn’t relate to that topic.
  2. Stop syndicating valuable content to other websites. Let them link to you. (And for goodness’ sake, link out. Do it for the karmic rightness of it all, or do it because it adds significant value to your own content. However you justify it, putting your stuff squarely into the clickstream is essential to staying relevant. You can’t just be the endpoint.)
  3. Scale back or cancel wire service agreements. They’re not helping your online product and they might be stealing value from your own content. I have a lot of respect for The Associated Press and the work that all wire-service journalists do, but I just don’t think the AP’s ownership structure and funding model make sense anymore. (If Reuters can thrive as a standalone news organization, maybe AP can too. But newspapers can no longer afford to subsidize the creation of content that doesn’t benefit them directly.)

Am I saying I think newspapers can increase the value of their content to advertisers simply by reducing inventory, the way OPEC does for oil? No (and we can see how well that strategy’s worked for OPEC recently, too). Ad inventory, unlike oil, is not a fungible commodity. This isn’t about reducing inventory in general. It’s about reducing low-value inventory: all those impressions from random walk-ins who aren’t a sellable audience because they have nothing in common.

We talk about the newspaper’s unique status as a profit-driven public trust and the threat that ongoing structural changes pose to that fragile duality. But how big does a newspaper actually need to be in order to fill the public service role we ascribe to it? Could the Los Angeles Times effectively and profitably cover Los Angeles with, say, 300 journalists (half its current staffing level)? My guess is it could, if that’s all those 300 people did.

I feel for my dedicated and talented industry colleagues who have lost jobs in the U.S., the U.K. and elsewhere. This disruptive event is clearly a painful one for journalists. But if newspapers make smart choices this year, maybe it won’t be a crisis for journalism.

* Most of what I’m saying here has already been said by various people, so it shouldn’t sound particularly radical. After I started writing about supply and demand, I noticed Nicholas Carr’s thoughtful piece along the same lines. And of course, Jeff Jarvis and others have been making the case for linking over syndication for years.

Filling in the blanks on DocumentCloud

Back in November, some folks from The New York Times and ProPublica filed an ambitious grant proposal in the Knight News Challenge competition. It asks for $1 million to fund DocumentCloud, a solution that would apply the wisdom of the crowd to the problem of organizing and examining documents.

The muchbuzzedabout idea aims to develop open standards and APIs to make source documents “easy to find, share, read and collaborate on.” (You can find the full text of the proposal here.)

I asked three of the proposal’s authors, Aron Pilhofer of the Times and Scott Klein and Eric Umansky of ProPublica, to elaborate on their vision for document nirvana.


Can anyone add documents to the repository, or is it necessary to be a news organization? Any concerns over the possibility of forged documents being uploaded?

Aron Pilhofer: The repository will be open for anyone to read from, but not to contribute to. It will be limited to news organizations, bloggers and watchdog groups whose mission includes publishing source documents as a means of better informing the public about issues of the day. That said, the software that makes DocumentCloud go will itself be open source, and available for anyone to use. So, if others want to create DocumentClouds of their own, they can certainly do that.

Scott Klein: We don’t want DocumentCloud to become a generic repository for all documents, or as a quick-and-dirty way to host PDFs. We want somebody to have found these documents to be of news value.

Presumably, DocumentCloud will not be branded with the NYT and ProPublica logos front and center. Would it be staffed and maintained as a separate entity?

AP: There is so much misinformation out there on this question, so I’m glad you asked. In fact, that is what we are asking Knight to fund: the creation of a completely independent entity called DocumentCloud. So the answer, of course, is: It won’t have any NYT or ProPublica branding.

Though we’ve just started to talk about structure and such, it’s entirely possible the only connection the Times, at least, has to DocumentCloud once it’s up and running is as a user and contributor.

SK: Same with ProPublica. Although I suspect somebody from both the Times and ProPublica will be part of the board for DocumentCloud, it’s important to note that this is going to be completely separate from both organizations and shouldn’t monetarily benefit either.

What is the nature of the collaboration between the Times and ProPublica? How will the work on this project be divided?

AP: TBD, but probably I will focus more on the technology side because the Times is contributing a large amount of the software and I understand that part best.

SK: I think we’ll each do a bit of everything but the plan is for the grant to fund developers, so the bulk of the development work won’t need dividing.

The Knight grants come with strings attached (namely, the requirement that projects be open-source) that might turn off some for-profit companies. Aron, how did you sell your bosses on the idea of applying for this? And, as a for-profit company, how would the NYT benefit from this grant?

AP: There’s a bit of misinformation out there about the role of The New York Times in this project, so maybe I should clarify this a bit more.

The grant is not for The New York Times, so the question of strings and for-profits just isn’t relevant. The Times won’t be involved in any way except as a founding participant and donor to the project (contributing my time and a significant chunk of software).

The grant would be used to create an independent, non-profit organization called DocumentCloud, which would manage the grant, build and maintain the software and so forth. Given the intensely competitive nature of the news business, we reckoned that this project had to be in the hands of an independent, impartial broker in order for a consortium like this to work.

DocumentCloud hasn’t been a hard sell because we’re we’re not asking anyone to do anything they aren’t already doing. We (like most media organizations) are already posting source documents online — just not in a way they can be easily searched, cataloged or shared.

If things go well, everyone will benefit because, finally, there will be open standards and open-source technologies available to make that happen. And even if it fails utterly and completely, DocumentCloud will still provide new tools to make publishing documents online easier, faster and more accessible for everyone.

If the proposal is approved, will DocumentCloud be developed in-house, or will you hire outside developers (or both)?

AP: Development will be done entirely by DocumentCloud developers (see above). Part of the grant funding is to support a dedicated development team.

SK: One tidbit that I don’t think we’ve shared widely is that DocumentCloud is designed to live in the cloud (get it?) so we plan to use Amazon’s EC2 and S3 infrasctructure very extensively, and I know Aron’s toying with releasing the DocumentViewer as an EC2 AMI to make it really easy for news orgs to use it without worrying about their content management system or IT people at all.

Seems to me that one of the biggest differences between the DocumentCloud idea and existing document-viewing systems (Docstoc, Scribd, etc.) is the provision to OCR each document, which will allow people to search within documents and to link to and annotate specific passages. Any thoughts on how the OCR part will work?

AP: We outline some of the differences in our latest grant application, but this is really quite a bit more of an apples/oranges comparison than you may realize.

DocumentCloud isn’t a viewer; it’s a standard, and a web service. It’s a system that allows anyone to make documents sharable regardless of what platform it’s on or where it’s hosted.

Scribd is similar in that users can upload documents and make them public. Within Scribd, registered users can comment on those documents, link to them, search them, etc. But everything has to happen within the Scribd environment.

DocumentCloud takes that idea a step further and removes the barriers. It allows users to search, link to and comment on documents regardless of where they are housed, or what platform they are sitting on. All we will ask is that those who are contributing documents do so in a standardized format.

So, Scribd or Docstoc could, in theory, adopt the standard and enable their users to contribute to DocumentCloud, and we hope they do.

I think some of the confusion on this point is of our own making because of the DocumentViewer portion of the project. The viewer is (or will be) nothing more than an off-the-shelf, completely open-source implementation of that standard. But DocumentCloud will be completely agnostic in this regard. If Scribd or Docstoc (or or The Smoking Gun) want to create their own compatible viewer, they are completely welcome to do so.

The reason we included the viewer in the grant application (and there was a lot of discussion internally about this) is because a key part of this project is lowering the barriers of participation. Many organizations don’t have the capability of developing their own software for viewing documents or integrating them with DocumentCloud, so we felt that was an important part of the project too so we kept it in.

SK: Aron’s making a key point here: This isn’t competitive with Docstoc or Scribd, and isn’t even meant to replace a simple list of PDFs if that’s what you want to use. DocumentCloud is a way to organize all of these disparate ways of storing digitized source documents in a way that makes them maximally useful to “reporters” (counting, of course, traditional newsroom reporters as well as bloggers, academic researchers, etc.) Frankly, DocumentViewer is, for a news organization presenting complex document collections, a really great user experience, but it’s not required to be part of DocumentCloud.

Will DocumentViewer be released to the public even if the DocumentCloud proposal isn’t funded? Is there a timeline for that?

AP: Yes, but there’s no specific timeline right now. We’re working on it in between other, more deadline-specific projects. My best guess right now is that we’ll have something releasable in the late spring. That’s about as specific as I can get right now.

What organizations are you soliciting source documents from? I think Eric mentioned the National Security Archive; anywhere else?

AP: None yet. We have talked to a limited number of groups (Gotham Gazette and, yes, the National Security Archive and possibly others) to partner with us on the development of the project. But we’re not actively soliciting documents at this point.

SK: We’ve got a fairly extensive wish list of news organizations and nonprofit groups we want to bring in on the project (none of whom would surprise you I think), and we’ve talked with some folks very informally but all of our discussions have been like “save the date” cards as opposed to wedding invitations, if you get my meaning.

Eric Umansky: As Aron and Scott have said, we’re just at the beginning of this and have just had initial discussion with a few groups. Having said that, we have been in touch with the NSA (the private, non-profit one) and are particularly excited about working with them since they are really among the best in the biz at cataloging and archiving government source documents.

Are there certain kinds of documents that you think will be particularly well-suited to perusal and annotation using DocumentCloud?

EU: Honestly, I’m not really sure. Like the best parts of the Web, what we’re trying to do is build an infrastructure that will support and encourage intelligent contributions. So, not to get all web doe-eyed about it, but the very utility of it is that people will have the ability and interest to submit documents beyond the one we’re already aware of.

How do you plan to surface the most interesting stuff from within this potentially vast database? Will there be a blog or a recent highlights list of some kind? Will you take some pop-culture cues from The Smoking Gun?

AP: We’re hopeful that users will surface this stuff, and we won’t have to. We have not talked about whether we’ll have a blog or highlights — or even if DocumentCloud itself will have a web presence outside the APIs. It’s just not something we’ve decided yet.

SK: We’re laying the foundation for the great work of others, and have very little interest in applying our own editorial judgment on what people post, assuming two things: 1) people follow whatever rules we come up with (like don’t post inappropriate things, etc.), and 2) they themselves apply editorial judgment to what they upload. I think it’s impossible to predict what kinds of stories this will help tell, and I find that really exciting.

EU: I agree with Scott and Aron. We’re really at too early a stage to have a concrete sense of this. And I’m the farthest one here from the software side of this, but one thing we would like to do is build a kind of reader loop into the system. So, not only could you sort by the “most read” documents but you could also sort specific pages that way. For example, if you had a 500-page report that had juicy bits buried on pg. 432, the “crowd” would eventually point you there since it would be flagged and become the most popular page.

Any updates on the News Challenge judging process? Do you know if you’re in the “top 50”?

AP: No idea.

SK: All we know is that we’ve passed the first of four rounds of scrutiny, as have some other really great ideas.

Winners will be announced in the fall, according to the Knight News Challenge site.