Online media's 'Californian' adventure

The Bakersfield Californian behaves for all the world as though it has forgotten it is a daily newspaper company.

The Kern County, California daily has expanded its online core,, in a burst of Web and print product launches and software development that would stagger even the edgiest of New York City multimedia studios.

Online, the Californian puts out staff blogs, produces podcasts and fields reporters with camcorders to augment its robust array of news stories, photographs and local guides. The hard-copy version just underwent a dramatic redesign with a strong use of color and graphics that bucks current newspaper design trends.

But just in the past two years, the parent company has also kicked community-driven online development into overdrive. It

  • launched three new citizen-journalism-fed community newspapers with strong online counterparts
  • developed text-messaging products
  • started selling licenses for Bakomatic, a social-networking/citizen-journalism software platform, which is now pulling 400,000 page views a month, and
  • spread the umbrella of a new division called Mercado Nuevo over all of it.

The company plans to use the new bases of users and advertisers developed by these “outside” products to explore even more new business opportunities.

In short, the Californian has transformed itself into something that many American newspapers are barely struggling to conceive: A post-dot-com information company fueled by an active, engaged and fast-growing audience.

For more than a decade now, online newspapers have been struggling for legitimacy, mindshare, usability and that most elusive of values — audience stickiness. A number of factors have hastened the almost logarithmic slide of print audience: The proliferation of social-networking media and practices and the rise of blogging and cable TV plus YouTube and other on-demand multimedia have eroded mindshare for media audiences, prompting people to spend less time and money on newspaper content.

The Californian has taken that trend as a road map toward future stability rather than a harbinger of the paper’s demise:

“I think that newspapers … have the best shot at success as anyone in this new digital realm,” said Mary Lou Fulton, the Californian’s Vice President of Audience Development. We have the audience, we have a trusted local brand, we have a relationship between our readers and advertisers. Our problem is we’re afraid to use those building blocks in so many ways: We’re afraid we’re going to cannibalize our business, we’re afraid somebody’s going to say something in our Web sites that we don’t approve of or agree with – and you know what? They will, I promise you that. We have to get comfortable with trying things that may not always be successful.”

Unlike many more-traditional newspapers’ attempts at digital-age retooling, the Californian’s drive to experiment came from the top: Publisher Ginger Moorhouse has been encouraging innovation for quite some time, beginning in 1995 with the formation of an “online committee” and followed a few years later by founding of “Area 51,” the paper’s ongoing innovation group.

Area 51 was launched with funding, a mandate to innovate and white monogrammed lab coats worn proudly by its staff. Over the years, Area 51 members have devised hardware solutions such as wireless newsbox monitors for detecting low-newspaper levels, and early text-messaging products for the mobile market.

Fulton, who had served several years on the paper’s board of directors after working in online editorial development for the Washington Post and AOL, said that Moorhouse asked her about two years ago to look into launching a community newspaper that would serve the fast-growing, upwardly-mobile northwest area of Bakersfield saying, “Because if we don’t, someone else will come along and do it.”

They began talking about inviting readers to contribute content — an idea that had been tried before, though not quite successfully. “My feeling was — worst-case scenario — we know how to make a traditional newspaper, we can do that,” Fulton recalls. “Best case — what if we can really create a critical mass of people to write their newspaper — how cool would that be? How awesome would that be?”

Thus was born the Northwest Voice — a biweekly tabloid and online paper driven today almost entirely by contributions from unpaid users.

Fulton and her team spent three or four months evangelizing for the paper — inviting school sports teams, church groups and community organizations to see and use the Northwest Voice as their place to speak and share information. To date, about 25 semi-regulars and a host of less-frequent contributors are submitting about 200 items a month.

After launching in May, 2004, they began developing a suite of Web tools that would allow contributors easy access to upload photos and text to the site — a content-management and social-networking application that eventually evolved into “Bakomatic.”

In January, 2005 came the launch of — a social-networking site much like MySpace that lets users post their profiles, photos, event listings and classified ads, among other things. The site features “Bakotunes Radio,” a slick Flash-based podcast jukebox featuring songs uploaded by Bakersfield musicians that’s sponsored by one of the city’s largest music-gear retailers.

Users can now post blogs of their own, send each other messages, sign guestbooks, browse topic-keyword “clouds” showing the most popular topics, browse profiles by “interests” and add each other to their rosters of “friends.”

In August, 2005 came the launch of Más, a bilingual, weekly glossy-covered newsprint tabloid on the streets and a robust site online delivered weekly for, and written by some of, Bakersfield’s 42 percent Latino population.

Just last April, the Californian launched the Southwest Voice, which mirrors the behavior of the Northwest Voice with its own region’s audience-generated content, and it took off like a shot, Fulton recalls. Submissions are already up to about 100 a month, and eight contributors have become regulars.

“Within days, we had dozens of articles and pictures, because people had already heard of Northwest Voice,” she said. “They understood that this was participation, and they welcomed it. They were eager. You don’t hear people asking for new newspapers every day of the week. We like that.”

Meanwhile, in February, the team had launched two other new sites:, for the resort town’s weekly, and, an online guide for newcomers.

NewtoBakersfield is packed with more-static content — guides to everything from restaurants and movie theaters to dog parks and farmers’ markets — but right up front is the key to the Californian‘s strategy, the same interface found on its other sites: three big, friendly buttons that invite users to register, sign in and post their own profiles and content.

“Citizen journalism” is the buzzword addling the heads of many a newspaper new-media director these days, but that’s not quite Mercado Nuevo’s focus, Fulton said.

“It’s really about participation, and participatory media. Participation is at the heart of the Internet. The Internet is a social medium, primarily,” she said. “It’s not really a question of whether newspapers can figure out citizen journalism, it’s more that newspapers have to learn how to participate, because people on the Internet already know how to do that.”

As the social-networking sites began to gain traction, the Mercado Nuevo team began retooling the newspaper’s own site,, rebuilding its registration system to allow easier collection of demographic information, adding 15 staff blogs and launching the Bakomatic profile for the site’s users. Blog capabilities are soon to be added for all users there, as well.

In the course of its growth, the Californian last year brought on Howard Owens, the former director of media at the Ventura County (Calif.) Star, which won the Online Journalism Awards for General Excellence among small sites in 2004, to be Vice President of Interactive in charge of

But Owens left the Californian May 31, after a little more than 10 months’ service, and was replaced by Logan Molen, the paper’s managing editor.

Neither Owens nor Fulton would comment about his departure but Owens points to a post on his personal blog which details some of his accomplishments in Bakersfield, including the redesign and the push for making site registration into a social network.

Meanwhile, the past two years have seen the newspaper bump its own internal online staff to five, make the Web director a department head and begin a series of brown-bag lunches to train newsroom staffers how to produce multimedia. Fifty-two of the paper’s 75 news staffers have now participated in or helped to produce a multimedia package for, Molen said.

Molen said the staff is turning out at least two video packages and an audio package a day, and already has more than 500 multimedia packages in the archive, he said.

“There was some initial resistance, and there still is some,” Molen said. “But I think that in the last year we’ve come a long way … It really sent a strong message that we’re serious about the Web, and we’re going to give it time and attention.”

While Mercado Nuevo is still running in the red, there’s a strong corporate-development strategy behind it, bolstering the paper’s goal of making it profitable within two to three years.

That strategy goes deeper than simply building an audience and selling it effectively to advertisers, Pacheco said: The Californian is building communities of interest, gathering data from registration and cookies and loading it into a central database that can be used, without compromising users’ privacy, to let advertisers narrowcast their messages to specific audience sectors.

If users are the first to adopt the Bakomatic philosophy, and advertisers among the later adopters, there’s plenty of room for exploration and innovation, he said.

“I would love to see advertisers deal with the truly interactive stuff in a social way,” Pacheco said. “Right now, I can have my friends on my profile in Bakotopia, why not have my favorite business? I’m now advertising them, I’m now recommending them to others, advertisers will pay for that as well, if they can. It’s something we’re talking about.”

As Pacheco walks through some of the other current and future Bakotopia features — instant-blogging buttons, future text-messaging products and the decidedly unconventional vision of one Bakomatic user’s profile icon — an animation expert eating a baby’s head — he summed up the potential of what seems on the surface to be rampant experimentation:

“It’s as far away from newspapering as you can get. [But] we have increased page views by 30 percent from these six separately-branded products. Bakotopia is now getting about 400,000 page views a month, which for a town of 330,000 people is pretty dang good.”

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Additional reading: You can find a presentation by publisher Ginger Moorhouse outlining the Californian’s product- and audience-development strategy, dated March 1, 2006, here.

Publishers vs. YouTube: Does either side win?

Mack Reed is an online editorial consultant at Factoid Labs and publisher of

That distinctly pungent smell rising from the Internet this week is the scent of fresh legal ground being broken.

YouTube is the source. Founded barely 18 months ago, the massively successful video-sharing upstart is finding that its “Web 2.0” let’s-share-content values — the very ones pushing its “library” to 70 million videos and its audience to 100 million downloads per day — collides violently with old-school notions such as copyright law.

The idea is simple: anyone can post any video to YouTube, any time, with no formal editorial review. If a video gets complaints — for copyright problems or objectionable content — it’s taken down.

Just last week, Los Angeles helicopter pilot and news videographer Robert Tur’s Los Angeles News Service sued YouTube in U.S. District Court, alleging copyright violation for having posted one of its videos.

Tur, who piloted his chopper while wife Marika Tur shot aerial footage of truck driver Reginald Denny being yanked from his semi cab and savagely beaten during the 1992 Los Angeles riots, charged in U.S. District Court that YouTube used their copyrighted material without permission or compensation.

On Tuesday, YouTube declared the suit “without merit,” citing the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

Even Tur’s lawyers themselves seem to admit being a bit unsteady on their feet in the realm of unauthorized newsvideo use. Their suit, quoted in the Hollywood Reporter, Esq., says in part:

“The scope of the infringements is akin to a murky moving target … Videos uploaded are not identified by copyright owner or registration number but rather by the uploader’s idiosyncratic choice of descriptive terms to describe the content of the video — tags — making it extremely impractical to identify plaintiff’s copyrighted works.”

The suit raises an interesting dilemma on the fragility of digital rights, and the liability of an open-source publisher such as YouTube for tortious behavior committed by its users:

The Electronic Frontier Foundation‘s senior staff attorney on fair use and intellectual property, Fred von Lohmann, published an article in Hollywood Reporter, Esq. just days before Tur’s lawsuit was filed, addressing this very issue.

Lohmann’s piece compared YouTube’s relatively protected legal position in copyright cases with the defeat of a similar content-sharing company that did not beat the courts — Napster:

Fortunately, YouTube has an important legal shield that was not available to the old Napster: the so-called “online service provider safe harbors” created by Congress as part of the DMCA. One provision, Section 512(c), was designed to protect commercial Web-hosting services, which feared they might be held responsible for the posting habits of their customers.

After all, if you’re Verio and hosting hundreds of thousands of Web sites for clients around the globe, you can’t afford to be sued every time one of your customers copies a photograph from a competitor’s Web site.

Because YouTube essentially stores material at the direction of its users, it can find shelter in the same safe harbor that Web-hosting providers do.

The safe harbor works like this: So long as YouTube plays by a few rules, content owners can’t collect damages from it, even if its users infringe their copyrights.

Rule No. 1 is the implementation of a “notice and takedown” system to respond to infringement notices from copyright owners. YouTube, of course, has this in place and takes down material once properly notified by an owner that a clip is infringing.

Indeed, YouTube spokeswoman Julie Supan said the firm immediately pulled Tur’s clips from its site upon learning of the suit.

What hasn’t been said in most of the coverage to date is that Tur also sued numerous TV stations and networks worldwide in the riots’ immediate aftermath for doing the very same thing — copying his video from broadcast and rebroadcasting it under their own banners.

According to Wikipedia,

[T]he last case was finally settled in 2004. Only a small handful of stations, mostly in California, already had preexisting agreements with LANS or waited to negotiate agreements before airing the footage, and thus were not sued.

In the early 90s, copyright violations were perhaps much more clear-cut, as the publishers (e.g. TV news organizations) actually employed the people who might have made unauthorized re-use of copyrighted material. Tur made a sound enough case for suing the defendants that he was able to win settlements even eight years later.

However, despite protestations to the contrary, information wants to be free in the Web 2.0 era — as in, free beer. The Web has made unauthorized propagation of information — whether copyrighted or not — instantaneous and virtually irreversible.

Videos are uploaded, downloaded and re-uploaded under different authors’ names: YouTube users know this from having tried to find the “original” version of some videos, which have been found on sites other than YouTube and recopied several times by users and mashup artists who add their own comments or edits to the source material before YouTubing them.

Millions of bloggers routinely lift information from copyrighted news stories — nearly always with due credit — and repackage it under their own banners, basically aggregating and creating new news content (and ad-driven profit streams) from existing ones. The same goes for copyrighted news photos published to the Web by AP, Reuters and numerous newspaper web sites.

Two factors may be at work in the apparent paucity of copyright lawsuits stemming from such use:

  1. since news web sites garner significant traffic from blog links pointing to them, they may be loath to poison the well, let alone alienate the audience by litigating.
  2. bloggers get away with sometimes more-than-fair-use republication of copyrighted information because no news organization’s legal department has the resources to chase them.

A possible third reason: such suits won’t stand up in court.

In short, the copyright you secure before selling and posting news video to a news organization’s site, or a share site such as YouTube, may be worth far less in the long run than the paycheck you earn from its initial sale.

With more citizen-journalists feeding more blogs and websites as the Information Age matures — with video as well as text and photos — the outcome of Los Angeles News Service v. YouTube will be well worth watching.