How newspapers can thrive on the World Wide Web

Robin ‘Roblimo’ Miller is Editor in Chief for OSTG, owner of Slashdot, NewsForge, freshmeat,,, and the ecommerce site ThinkGeek.

I live in Bradenton, Florida, where we have two local newspapers, the Bradenton Herald and the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Neither one has a very good website. Both are steadily losing print subscribers and advertisers, just like most newspapers around the country. [Editor’s note: See the comments below for a response from an editor at the Herald-Tribune.] Still, newspapers are usually the most recoginizable media brands in their communities, and should be able to translate that brand recognition into local online information dominance. Here’s how they can do it.

Where’s the calendar?

One of the most useful services a local information medium can provide is a comprehensive events calander. My local newspapers list many events but in scattershot fashion, with political events here, city council meetings and other official gatherings over there, sports in their own corner, and other social and business events in their own sections or mentioned in little articles published in no particular order, in no particular place.

In a world of free databases and simple PHP Web-building tools, it is no big trick to put together a comprehensive online calander that can be searched in many ways, including type of event (high school sports, zoning board, musical performance), date (all events on Febtober 38, 2101), and location (within X miles of Zip Code XXXXX).

A website that can tell me about every upcoming meeting of the Bradenton City Council and every upcoming appearance of my favorite local bands and alert me to the next meeting of the Tamiami Trail Business Association is going to get a lot of visits from me — and from a lot of other people, too.

Maintaining a comprehensive local calendar takes work, but it is not highly-skilled work that requires a journalism degree or other specialized education. Anyone with good typing skills, the ability to send and receive faxes and emails, and enough self-discipline to call organizations and government agencies regularly to check the accuracy of their listings ought to be able to handle it.

Many years ago, when I wrote freelance for Baltimore’s weekly City Paper, I learned that even if my name and story were on the cover, more people picked up City Paper to read the events calendar, produced by two anonymous people in City Paper’s office, than to read my work. Events calendars may not feed journalists’ egos, but a good one is probably more important to more people’s lives, day in and day out, than an endless series of hard-hitting investigative pieces — and costs a lot less, too.

I suspect that two or at most three people could maintain a comprehensive online calendar for all of Southwest Florida or any other medium-sized metropolitan area. Add one or two aggressive salespeople who understand ad targeting (and a targeted ad-delivery system), and you not only have a valuable local resource, but one that ought to bring in substantial profits.

Beat local TV at its own game

The Sarasota Herald-Tribune carries lots of video news clips these days, but it’s all just like TV news, because that’s what is is: pickups from the associated (Comcast cable) SSN6 news channel. Most of their video clips are anchor-read items, very short, with 10-second pre-roll ads and post-roll ads that are often longer than the news items themselves.

Experienced H-T site users soon learn to close their video pages as soon as the actual stories are over to avoid the overly long post-roll ads, so they probably don’t do much good for the businesses that pay for them. Worse, they are repeated endlessly; the same old ads run over and over instead of fresh ones constantly being plugged into the rotation.

It’s almost as if someone in an executive capacity at the Herald-Tribune took a course in how to deliver TV-style news as badly as possible, then came home and put everything he or she learned into practice on the paper’s website.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post and New York Times run interesting and engaging news videos, made by print reporters who often do their own camerawork. Post and Times news videos don’t look like TV news at all. For one thing, the average story length is minutes, not seconds. For another, they have better and more probing interviews, and use more ordinary people and fewer official sources on-camera than most TV news shows. Sometimes the camera movements are a little more casual than what you see on big-city or network TV news, and the reporters aren’t nearly as dolled-up as TV reporters, but that’s okay. It helps give these newspaper-based videos a “take you there” quality that formulaic TV news lacks.

It is now possible to outfit a reporter with a “backpack video” newsgathering rig, including a high-definition digital camcorder, all necessary sound equipment, and a compact tripod, for less than $3000. This equipment is nearly 100% “point and shoot,” too. It doesn’t take any great technical skill to operate.

Print reporters moving to video still need to learn how to frame shots correctly, to be aware of lighting conditions, and how to set up and check sound gear, but all of this can be learned through hands-on practice augmented by regular critiques and advice from peers and, possibly, independent filmmakers called in as trainers and consultants.

Indeed, the way I would organize a newspaper’s video news efforts would be to hire at least one experienced TV documentary director to lead the effort, who would also do most of the video editing until reporters learned enough of this arcane art to handle most of it on their own. I would also recruit a group of video stringers who might or might not be experienced journalists. Local TV stations large and medium-sized markets all seem to have helicopters these days. For a fraction of the cost of running a single news helicopter, a newspaper could field a veritable army of “backpack videographers” who could provide intense, close-up coverage of events that now get overlooked by TV news operations — or that are covered only from 1000 feet in the air instead of from ground-level.

“Boots on the ground” is Army-talk for how you win wars. Air power is nice, but if you really want to take and hold a piece of territory, you need infantry to occupy it. Newspapers have always been the infantry of the news business. They should take this same attitude as they move into video.

They should be careful not to overwhelm their video viewers with advertising, too. My rule would be to hold pre-roll and post-roll video ads to a maximum total of 15% of the length of any given video clip. The only reason to brak this rule is with a videos less than 60 seconds long, which can legimately carry a simple “sponsored by” message — preferably at the end, not the beginning.

Stringers everywhere

In a world where citizen journalism is becoming ever more popular, newspapers can either fight the trend — and lose — or go along with it and adopt it. Jay Rosen, of New York University, put together an experiment in “pro-am” journalism called Assignment Zero that has shown some of the joys and problems associated with mobilizing volunteer citizen journalists and teaming them up with professional reporters and editors. I don’t see Assignment Zero as a model for building a stringer-based local news-gathering operation, but as learning tool that can teach us both how to do it and how not to do it.

For one thing, newspapers cannot rely on volunteers. They must pay their stringers because they, themselves, are almost all for-profit operations, and if they don’t pay people who write for them, the people they want most will post their stories on their own sites and blogs instead of giving them to their local newspaper — or even to a hyper-local news site.

A stunning reality newspaper people and other publishers are just starting to figure out is that the financial barrier to entry for independent news disseminators is now close to zero, and that it is no longer hard for an independent to gather his or her own audience.

As an example, let’s use a Google search for Bradenton video. You’d expect that search to be dominated by TV station websites, but it’s not. My personal site dominates, interspersed with ads from local wedding videographers. Stories and videos on my site, and that I have posted elsewher, also come up at or near the top of many other local searches. If a local newspaper offers me a chance to “get published” I am going to laugh. I am published, and popular, without any help from other local media. And I can put ads on my site (I have none at this time) and generate income from it, too.

The thing is, I am not special. A retiree who compulsively covers city council, county commission, and zoning board meetings and writes about them consistently for a year or more will also place well in search engine rankings, often higher in many searches than the local newspapers’ own (inconsistent) coverage of government meetings.

Net-hip readers will also subscribe to our retiree’s RSS feed, which boosts his or her readership even more.

Other ordinary people can (and often do) run sites and blogs that cover topics ranging from real estate to punk rock. And every one of them can easily sign up for paid ad programs with Google or dozens of smaller (and often more lucrative) context-based online ad networks.

Newspapers should be out scouting for successful local bloggers — not the ones who do two-sentence links to stories published elsewhere, but those who do original reporting — and offering them a chance to put their material on the newspapers’ sites instead of their own. For pay.

The next stage is to team the paper’s staff reporters and editors with the stringers. A majority of breaking news will probably still be covered by staff reporters, with stringers working on longer-fuse pieces, although there will certainly be cases where a stringer who is on call — perhaps one equipped with a video rig — will be able to get to a breaking story’s scene faster than a staffer.

Following the Assignment Zero model, while hopefully avoiding Assignment Zero’s problems, can lead to a situation where professional reporters spend a significant amount of their time as team leaders and organizers. Some will dislike thier “coach” role, but others will thrive in an environment where they have the luxury of essentially being in two places (or more) at once. Instead of deciding which one of several important events to attend, a team-leading reporter will decide which team member attends which one.

Reporter-led newsgathering teams will not only be able to be in more places, gathering more information, than any single reporter, but will have more and deeper ties to the community they cover than any individual reporter. A well-chosen reporting team will be able to get more and more accurate quotes from ordinary citizens, patrol cops, and even from criminals than a reporter who is not part of the community he or she covers. And even a locally-bred reporter doesn’t know everyone and everything. Diversity of experience in a reporting team will lead to more and more-balanced coverage than we see now, which will bring a new level of public trust to newspapers that employ this newsgathering method.

Meanwhile, on the ad sales side…

When I wrote freelance for Time Life Media (now Time Digital) in the early days of the commercial, ad-supported Web, a staff editor told me their main problem with ad sales was that their sales force’s commission structure made it unprofitable for a sales rep to go after contracts smaller than $100,000 per quarter. At the time, there were nowhere near enough online readers, even on Time’s mighty group of sites, to justify ad buys at that level, so their sites were notably free of income-producing ads.

A newspaper that dedicates itself to becoming a major Internet-based force in its community needs to have an ad sales force that shares that mission, staffed by people who understand both the advantages and disadvantages of online advertising as opposed to print advertising. Those salespeople must have a more innovative attitude than a print salesperson. Online ads are no longer just banners stuck at the tops and bottoms of pages. You have inline ads, interstitials, the possibility of entire (clearly marked) advertorial sections, video advertising, and so on.

Traditional classifieds may be lost to Craiglist, so lost that when the Bradenton Herald wanted to find a Director of Interactive Media, they placed this ad — on Craigslist. But what about premium listings in the events calendar? Or making sure that calendar has plenty of free garage sale listings and other reasons for shoppers to turn to it, then marketing text ads in it to local businesses for special sales and events at classified-like rates?

Search-based ads help you shop for something you already want or need, but they can’t create a desire for a new product or service, so there is still plenty of room for creative advertising, especially online, and most especially for newspapers and other media that can sell clients not only ads or links but also work with them to build landing pages that actually sell, not the blah things we usually click through to once, but never again.

Another online advertising area I haven’t yet seen exploited well is coupon distribution. For many years, newspapers have boasted that their Sunday editions carried $XXX worth of coupons. Where is the online equivalent? There is no printing cost associated with an online coupon. Organizing online coupons so they are easy to find is no big trick. It’s another database job, just like the calendar.

Coupons can make great ads on a newspaper website’s pages, but a whole section devoted to coupons (possibly with an accompanying stringer-generated blog pointing to special deals noticed by readers) could become a reader draw on its own, not to mention a decent income-generator.

This is only a beginning

A newspaper that took all of these suggestions about how to run its website, and put the same amount of energy and budget into promoting it as it does into drumming up print subscribers, ought to be able to run its site at a profit within a year or two, and with enough diligence and energy may eventually be able to make its website replace profits lost as its print edition loses steam.

My suggestions here are a starting place. Astute, Web-hip publishers and editors will not only implement my suggestions (or do similar things), but will also find or develop other, possibly better ideas to make their online publications attractive to both readers and advertisers.

The real question is not whether we will see the development of dominant local online news operations run by Web-hip publishers and editors, but whether those Web-hip publishers and editors will work for existing local newspapers or for new, Web-only publications that eventually replace newspapers as the dominant source of local news.

With newspapers typically owning the most-recognizable local news brands, they would seem to be the logical ones to dominate local online news, but they can’t rely only on their branding to make it work. Their new competition is not only other established media companies — notably local broadcast and cable TV — but nearly anyone with a computer, an Internet connection, writing or video production skills, and enough time on their hands to consistently post new stories on a homemade website.

And with constant newspaper layoffs, some of the people running their own websites are likely to be just as skileld as the people running the newspapers they compete against, so the competition for local online news dominance is going to be… let’s just say “interesting”… to watch over the next decade or so.

Q&A: Jay Rosen and Assignment Zero

Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University, built as a laboratory on the Internet to test whether the same Web-based collaboration that spawned Wikipedia, the Firefox browser from Mozilla and the Linux operating system could spur a new form of journalism.

Assignment Zero, the site’s first experiment in collaboration with Wired, is to cover the small but growing trend of crowdsourcing using crowdsourcing—that is having large groups of people spread across the world working together to report and write about the phenomenon of large groups of people working collaboratively from far flung areas to produce high quality work.

“We are trying to figure out whether you can do open platform journalism and whether there are advantages to it,” said Rosen, who emphasized that this is “just an initial test.”

Rosen spoke to OJR about how the Assignment Zero experiment is progressing and what he hopes to learn from the results.

OJR: Why this particular topic for Assignment Zero?

Rosen: We used the gift of particularity that an assignment like this with Wired gives us. We don’t have to ask ourselves what on earth should we investigate because we have to investigate something that’s of interest to Wired, and so the collaboration helped focus our first efforts and give some shape to our story.

It’s also an initial test that also helped us launch our site. Because it’s hard to think of what should be in your site if you want to do open source reporting. It’s very difficult to think of something in the abstract and try and build something that works for a practice that doesn’t exist yet. So instead of doing that we just built what we needed for this assignment.

OJR: What are the criteria for whether the final product is a success or a failure?

Rosen: And there’s a number of answers to that. The most important result is learning how to practice in this area. That’s all I am trying to do we are trying to learn how to practice in this area. Where you have the many reporting and a few editing, is there a way to do it? What do you need to be prepared for? How do you motivate people to contribute? What can volunteer users do? What do they have trouble doing? All these questions are open questions and so our first imperative is simply to learn a lot about that and to learn the lessons that can only be gotten through practice.

The other goal is the work of journalism at the end is exactly going to be lots of pieces of journalism that we can compare to other forms and we can compare to standard methods. So there will be a cover story written by Jeff Howe, who is a Wired writer, that would draw on Assignment Zero and link downward to it and at the same time we will publish a editor’s cut or edited package of features and interviews and articles and close ups–recognizable forms of journalism that can be compared to peer products as it were. So these are all ways of judging what we are doing and I think it will be pretty easy for people to judge. I’m trying to kind of make it easy by doing something recognizable on the one hand but novel for journalism on the other.

OJR: The idea of how open source reporting might work is important given some of the problems that can crop up working in an open source environment. How do you plan to deal with these negative aspects as they come up?

Rosen: Here is the way I think of it. I said we are doing an open platform reporting. We are trying to capture some of the benefits of openness. What are they? Well it’s not a big mystery. It starts with what Dan Gillmor said – readers know more than I do.

So we picked a story where we think users know a lot more than we do because the spread of crowd sourcing and open collaboration is in fact a sprawling story. So we are trying to get the benefits of openness like that crowd is more diverse than we are and has more perspectives than we do. And when you try to gain the benefits of the openness you also know that there is a lot of cost, there is a lot of problems that come with openness. And so working in this area, is by definition trying to capture the benefits and solve the problems or reduce the costs and if a reporter comes along, as many have, and brings up one of those costs and says “what about this?”

Well the answer is almost always going to be the same it’s a problem we are working on that and the solution is going to be different in each case and most of them don’t have magical solutions. They have approximate solutions.

So if you can reduce the costs enough and you can get the benefits it may be worth doing. But I can’t even tell you right now that it is. I don’t know yet, we are trying to find that out. I don’t know that this is going to work. I think it’s the most important thing to mention in this interview. We don’t know yet what the potential is. A lot of people think that there could be potential and I am one of them but by practicing we will reveal some of the problems.

OJR: Based on the volunteers that you have gotten so far, what is it that is driving these people to, as you say, “commit acts of journalism for free?”

Rosen: We hope to have a better understanding of that at the end than we do now, but a lot of them are well aware of the citizen journalism discussion. They see themselves as participants in it. They want to be part of it. It’s sort of like the de-professionalisation of journalism appeals to them, but its not that they are terribly ideological about it. They are not. In some cases it’s somebody who took a few journalism courses in college and so it’s a road not taken but still of interest. Some of them are dissatisfied with the way professional journalism has been conducted. Some of them have an interest in this subject that we are investigating here, and a lot of them we don’t exactly know. We don’t know what they intend yet and we don’t know why they joined and this is not unusual in a project like this.

OJR: There is a certain amount of enthusiasm when things are novel that drives people to want to participate. How will you sustain that interest and enthusiasm from start to finish?

Rosen: Definitely, that’s a major challenge, preventing premature disillusionment. I wouldn’t say we totally succeeded at that and that we have seen that happen. Sustaining involvement is definitely a huge puzzle.

I consider that this participation the part of this work to be puzzles within puzzles. It’s all really fascinating and difficult to understand.

OJR: As a pilot project, everyone is watching Assignment Zero very closely. With the limited resources of independent journalists or small publishers, how might they implement aspects the Assignment Zero model?

Rosen: The whole point of is for people to take what we are doing and develop it. That’s why I founded this project. It’s supposed to give its results away, it is itself a part of the gift economy.

And my belief is that since this is simply a set of tools you let people practice in this area and they use these tools the way they want to, they will start inventing things, creating things, discovering things that others will be able to pick up very quickly. So I can write 10 blog posts about how open source journalism could work should work but if I can send people one URL where a smart editor is organizing a group of people they will get it like that.

OJR: There are also hurdles in journalism culture that make this a hard sell to some organizations and journalists even if you were to prove it a success.

Rosen: I could think of a zillion and one ways in which it would be a hard sell. And there are also hidden weaknesses and traps in it that I think will come out. Because there’s a ton of problems–and I can’t stress this enough–with an open approach to reporting.

That’s why everybody loves the idea of blogging as in individual writers giving their opinion. But when we are trying to figure out the right route to reliable information than a whole bunch of new problems arise. And I just wanted to steer right towards the biggest problems because I feel that I don’t really think that I am going to figure this puzzle out. I think it’s going to be someone somewhere looking at what we are doing or reading about it who says to themselves – that’s not the way to do it, you know there is a simpler way. And they’ll figure it out. But that’s fine. Again, that’s what is; it’s not a company. Its only mission is to spark innovation. So I have a very simple agenda and I don’t care where the innovation happens.

OJR: Did the fact that you have never been a professional journalist help or hinder when putting this project together?

Rosen: I haven’t been a journalist and so I do approach the routines and rituals of American professional journalism in a more anthropological way and a lot of what journalists do seems very strange to me, but I have made a study of the routines and rituals of the press, and there are parts of them I know better than professional journalists. Not in the sense that I know how to do the job better than them, I don’t. I rarely tell journalists what they should do, in terms of like editing their newspaper or covering their story. Usually they know much better than I do but if you look at parts of their professional life, I know them better.

One of them for example is the legitimacy system that they use to derive their rationale. I studied that and know where it comes from. They tend to just reproduce it you know. It’s nature to them. It’s professional culture to me.

But this thing is not really about that. What I am trying to do with Assignment Zero is it doesn’t really have its reference points in the problems of the newsroom. It really has a different reference point which is the fact that open source projects have succeeded in other areas and so we know people can collaborate online and then pool what they know. So we are trying to figure out can this work in journalism too.

When Tim Berners-Lee invented the Web, he wasn’t inventing a new platform for CNN, he wasn’t trying to put the newspaper out of business, and he wasn’t trying to create a multimedia world. What he was trying to do when he invented the World Wide Web was make it possible for people in a scientific community interested in the same problem to share knowledge and to share data and work together.

So collaboration is not something new in use of the Web; it is in fact the original motivation for creating the Web and it’s in the DNA of this wonderful machine. And so I see what we are doing as springing from original promise of the web which is a democratic promise. It’s the idea that we are stronger together if we share what we know. Than if we are atomized and alone. And it’s not really the obsessions of the newsroom that gave rise to what I am doing now.

OJR: How do you plan to handle info overload in this project as it flows in from the legions of volunteers?

Rosen: If you invite participation that generates a lot of activity and that activity generates certain costs, like returning e-mail, for example, and if you simply try to absorb those costs by hiring more people your project runs out of money within a week. And so this point has been reached many times in open source projects and the way they work and the way they scale, as people say in the valley, is that you have to convert some of those participants to organizing the others.

And those people frequently called super contributories if you look in the literature on online organizing you’ll find that these are key players right in your volunteer core. And so that’s what you a have to do you have to configure participants so that they themselves absorb the cost of organizing other participants. I can’t say that we have done that completely yet but we are highly aware of the problem.

One of the coolest things I think in and this is something that I am going to develop more of as I go along is we have a director of participation. Her name is Amanda Michel and I got her from the world of online organizing and politics. She worked in online organizing for Dean and for Kerry. And she could have worked and made quite a bit of money actually doing the same thing in the ‘08 cycle but she is more interested in the media side of things.

And so I went out and this is the person I found when I went out looking for somebody who would actually organized people horizontally on the net to work under high pressure conditions where being wrong could have consequences right. That’s what I had wanted somebody who had done that because that’s what kind of situation we are in. So the director of participation their job is to organize people while the editors who are much more traditional figures organize the story. And learning how those two jobs work and how they those two people can work together is another thing that we are trying to discover here. And there has never been a need to organize people to report stories except for the news people. This is all a whole other kind of thing and you need somebody working on that. You need someone who is constantly removing barriers making participation easier because participation always has costs and they can get high very quickly either for you like the institution doing it like Assignment Zero or for the participants.

And if you are battling those costs constantly your project quickly becomes unworkable.

OJR: What’s the timeline for you the work that comes from this reporting?

Rosen: Yeah there will be we are looking right now… this could change of course. But right now we are looking at about June 4th or 5th to publish and so everything has to work backwards from there.

But we are going to have a filter and we are going to have… hope to have a verification round but we might end up like with two days of back checking by crowd you know what I mean. Throw everybody at what we need to check really we don’t know yet but that’s exactly why we are doing this and journalism doesn’t happen until the familiar structures of bylines and deadlines and you know…

So basically we are going to let 40 people steer 40 pages through to completed text and publish the best of them and Jeff Howe will do an overview.