Why I love NBC for blacking out the Olympics: A cautionary tale for all publishers

Lots of folks have been bashing US broadcast network NBC for its coverage of the Winter Olympics from Vancouver, Canada. But allow me to take some space today to congratulate NBC. Thanks to the network’s decision to delay broadcast of many Olympic events – sometimes as much as 10 hours after their completion – I haven’t had so much fun watching an Olympics in, well, ever.

Huh? I hear folks asking. People have been roasting NBC’s decision. Do I actually support it?

Heck, no! But by denying me the chance to watch the Olympics live (which are taking place in the same time zone where I live, by the way), NBC’s pushed me to search the Web for live video and coverage, allowing me to find lively, even wildly entertaining, streams of coverage that I’d never have found if I’d been able to watch the games live on my TV.

That’s an important lesson for all news publishers. If you don’t provide the information that your audience wants, in the manner that they want it, people not only will they seek alternatives… but they might find ones that they strongly prefer to yours.

Me? I’ve been spending more of my days than I’d like to admit following the games on Twitter, the official Vancouver games website and whatever European and Canadian video streams folks on those sites have led me to. Vancouver’s website has a nifty widget on its real-time competition results pages that allows you to read what other folks reading the same page are posting to their Facebook status update about the event.

Not only does that provide you with the feeling of being in a packed dorm lounge or sports bar talking about the games (even when you’re alone at your computer), it’s also become one of the go-to first sources for Americans looking for links to live video streams of the games.

Thanks to other folks I’ve found through these social media streams, I’ve been exposed to EuroSport, CBC and other networks’ coverage of the games that I’d never have seen if I’d been able to watch NBC. Frankly, I’ve gotten a kick out of watching Lindsey Vonn attack the Whistler downhill while listening to commentators with rich Irish and English accents. Or to sit with my son and daughter watching the half-pipe competition, while my daughter picks out words from the commentators’ French, translating them to my son and me.

Even when I don’t understand the commentators’ language, I don’t miss results, since those stream live on my computer screen, thanks to the Vancouver website. And emotion transcends any language. In fact, it’s been a treat to experience these games as the global event they ought to be, rather than as a reality show focused only upon American athletes.

Of course, NBC doesn’t want me, or any other Americans, to do this. NBC spent billions to secure the exclusive broadcast rights to the games within the United States. If anyone outside the U.S. were able to stream video to U.S. residents, that could undermine NBC’s investment in those broadcast rights.

But I’d argue that NBC’s indifference to its audience is doing more damage to that investment. Chatter on the social networks turns to deep suspicion, even hostility, when video streams that have worked for hours go down within moments of being posted on the Vancouver Facebook stream. (Especially when those streams are replaced by notes that they were removed “at the request of the copyright holder.”)

My wife peeked over my shoulder as the women’s downhill stream died. When I explained what was happening, she replied, “What? Do we live in the Soviet Union now?”

Hey, she’s a writer, too, and dishes hyperbole professionally. But it does seem a bit much that a major corporation can employ the force of law to keep U.S. citizens from… watching an Olympic ski race at the same time as the rest of the world watches it, instead of eight hours later.

NBC and its handful of supporters counter that strong ratings for the games, even on the west coast where the delays are longest, show that Americans prefer to watch the games in prime time, rather than when they happen.

Allow me to suggest that there might be another variable in play here: The fact that Americans are cleaning up at the Vancouver games. Nothing pumps TV ratings in the U.S. like Americans rolling in gold. Heck, not only did I watch Lindsey Vonn and Shaun White on the Web live, I tuned in and watched
them again on NBC in prime time.

NBC could have had me as a consumer twice those days. It could have offered me live coverage of the events I wanted to see on NBC or online, plus serving up live social media streams that I instead found elsewhere. Heck, the network could have joined with Olympic broadcast partners in other nations to make those international feeds available on an official NBC website, capturing the page views and serving me the ads that I instead watched from other sources.

Then, NBC could continue to repackage the day’s highlights in a slickly produced prime-time wrap-up, as it now does, for those viewers who want the convenience of watching after work and dinner.

Part of the appeal of the international feeds, for me and for others on the social media feeds, lies in how they stick with the competition, rather than cutting out non-medal-contender athletes from other nations in favor of feature stories, promotions or more commercials, as NBC does in prime time. This helps viewers develop a feel for and, eventually maybe even a passion, for the individual sports of the Olympic Games.

Ironically, NBC has a financial interest in developing that passion within the U.S. audience. The network owns Universal Sports, a cable and HDTV broadcast channel devoted to year-round coverage of Olympic sports. You’d figure that NBC would at least use the games to promote the existence of Universal Sports, but I’ve not seen a single promotion for that channel in all the coverage I’ve watched on the flagship network. Nor is NBC using the Universal Sports channel (which I get over the air as a digital channel in Los Angeles) to show live coverage of events of less interest to U.S. audiences. All I’ve seen on the channel is taped coverage of pre-Olympic events.

Instead, NBC is cleaving to its strategy of betting it all on prime time, hoping that U.S. athletes win enough gold to keep ratings up. And when consumers like me turn to online alternatives to get the coverage they want, NBC calls up the lawyers and orders them to shut that coverage down.

Sounds a lot to me like the recording industry’s response to consumer demand for online music in the 1990s and 2000s, and the ongoing response of some in the newspaper industry to consumers’ flight to online news sources.

But you can’t fight your customers. The Internet was designed to route around disruptions, and the architecture (to that extent, at least) was brilliant. Its users have adopted that same spirit, too. The recording industry didn’t make file sharing services irrelevant by suing them out of existence. They became afterthoughts only when Apple’s iTunes provided a better alternative that (largely) met consumers’ needs.

And despite the doom-and-gloom coming from many newspaper managers, many online sites are thriving, producing original coverage of their local communities and topic niches, providing alternatives to diminishing daily newspaper coverage.

Given these precedents, it pains me to see NBC making the same, short-sighted mistakes. The network’s blowing a chance to expand its reach to millions of new viewers by learning to build a continuum of coverage that extends across television, cable, digital broadcast channels and the Internet, using social media and international connections to forge a more loyal audience of consumers for the network and its advertisers.

But NBC’s loss is my gain. Because the network isn’t doing that work… I’m doing it for myself. And so are thousands, and potentially millions, of other consumers in the United States. Not everyone’s gone as deep as I have in searching out online video, but millions are using social networks and alternative online news sources to keep up with the Olympics, instead of only turning to NBC.

NBC can do all it wants to make us watch the Olympics its way. But that heavy-handed control didn’t work for the recording industry, isn’t working for newspapers and is hanging a huge opportunity cost on NBC.

How the Vancouver Winter Olympics (and other big stories) can help a hyperlocal news website grow

Hyperlocal sites, by definition, are focused on their local community. However, periodically something happens in your community that has national significance that can draw some broader attention. More important is how it can accelerate your reach within your community by exposing your site to a new set of local people. This latter form of traffic is the most sustainable.

The reality for most communities is that their neighborhoods either never received coverage from local media or that coverage has pulled back as budgets have tightened. This has left a big opportunity for hyperlocal sites to get a marketing boost like no other. I will share how that has worked tremendously well for my local site — www.sunvalleyonline.com — so that you can take these experiences and apply it into your own site. I will also share how we are being proactive with the upcoming Olympics to draw more audience. Our site has a local connection with the most prominent snowboarders on the U.S. Olympic team — Lindsey Jacobellis, Seth Wescott, Shaun White, Nate Holland and Graham Watanabe — that we are going to utilize to provide our community with a perspective they won’t get from NBC.

Curtis Bacca is a local the top snowboard/ski technician in the world with a small shop in town called The Waxroom that tunes skis and snowboards. No one has done the tech work for more gold medalists at the Olympics or X Games in the last decade. He had three athletes (Jacobellis, Holland & Wescott) competing in two events at the recently completed X Games and they came in first, first and second. He shared some pics after the event and was profiled by ESPN. He also provided his updates on the Waxroom page. Afterwards, he told me he was blown away with all people from our community and around the country who saw what he was doing and was psyched to do more at the Olympics.

At the time I’m writing this, he’s in Vancouver, well before the Olympics start, to do his reconnaissance and testing the boards to ensure the boards are riding at their maximum velocity, as every 1/1000th of a second can matter. In fact, he’s been at an “undisclosed location” that he calls the “Secret Squirrel Test Facility” and has had some mystery shots of a Boeing test facility honing the boards for the unique conditions of the misty, foggy, wet snow of the Cascades that his athletes will encounter. We’re setting him up with a helmet cam as they recon the course. After the events, he’s going heli-skiing/riding with Wescott and will share that, as well as being able to liveblog from his Blackberry while shooting pics (we have a feature that allows you to email pics/stories directly to the site), giving us the inside scoop, etc. If you know anyone who has interest in snowboarding, in particular, send them to the Waxroom page. They’ll get a perspective like none other.

Listed below are items on how we hope to turn a first-time visitor into a repeat visitor (something that would Jeff Jarvis would probably recommend to Rupert Murdoch surrounding the whole paywall kerfuffle). I should give a shout-out to Neighborlogs for providing us with a Content Management System (CMS) that enables what I outline below. In an earlier piece on OJR, I highlighted why I selected their platform over WordPress, despite having worked extensively with WordPress. The items below were brain-dead simple, which wouldn’t be the case with most CMSs I have worked with.

  • Nearby Stories module. Most of our stories are geo-tagged. Chances are if someone is reading a story about a topic, they’ll be interested in stories that are about that same location.
  • Featured Stories module. These are our editorial picks of the most interesting stuff on the site that we hope draw them in.
  • Featured Photos module. Some people are more visual so we highlight some of the best pics that come in to the site. Hopefully some will grab their attention. Those pics, in turn, have links to the articles they are associated with.
  • Events module. We highlight the upcoming events happening in the area and encourage them to post their own events.
  • At the bottom of the article, we give them ways to sign-up for our email newsletter or follow us on Twitter (as well as some recent tweets).
  • Finally, if none of that grabbed their attention, at the bottom of the page we have teasers for our Most Viewed Articles.

The following are some other examples of the sorts of stories that give a hyperlocal site a boost to ts visibility that we have seen work very well (some obvious, others less so):

  • Natural disasters of local significance: We have had a flood and mudslides. At the time we had the flood, our community paper only updated its website once a week. Conditions were changing by the hour, so our updates, including pulling data from federal data sources, were invaluable for our community.
  • Natural disasters of local and national significance: We had a major wildfire that became the number-one priority fire in the country. With people being evacuated and many local people either traveling or being second homeowners, the local newspaper and radio didn’t do them any good as those sources don’t reach beyond our community. We turned our classified system into a resource for people needing housing, places to board animals and more. Even though the local newspaper has 30 times more resources than us, we had the most comprehensive coverage because we tapped our community.

    They were shooting pictures, sharing stories, taking video and more. In part they were inspired by my limited videography skills (my only real skill is I don’t mind running up 3000-foot peaks to get a good view, as you can see here and here), knowing they could do better. Some of the video ended up getting picked up by CNN and by CBS’ 60 Minutes (see footage here). The video is from a member of SunValleyOnline’s community that happens to be a professional videographer but contributed his video to us for free though later was paid by CNN & CBS for his footage. You can see more of the footage that we posted on YouTube to see the range of video from low to high production value. By the time the fire was done, we’d had site visitors from all 50 states and 42 different countries. To this day, many of those people still visit the site as they have some connection to our area (friends, family, second homes, etc.). On an even more gratifying note, to this day people will stop me on the street and thank me for how connected they felt even though they were hundreds or thousands of miles away, as they’d been evacuated or were second homeowners.

  • Locals hitting the big time in their sphere: Whether it is a Little League team going to the World Series, a local athlete going to the Olympics or someone in the arts hitting the big time, locals are deeply interested in their experience and proud of their connection with those individuals. Some subset of those people are willing to blog and share their behind-the-scenes perspective that you don’t get in a traditional media outlet. Even if it is raw, people love it.

Around the time of MSNBC.com‘s 10-year anniversary, I visited its newsroom and noticed what looked like an EKG reading (i.e., a line graph with spikes up and a plateau followed by more of the same). The only difference was each plateau on the graph was a little higher than the next as you moved left to right. As I got closer, I realized that this graph was actually MSNBC’s traffic growth over 10 years. Each of the spikes was labeled with the associated news event — OJ verdict, Princess Di’s death, elections, tsunami, 9/11 and so on. Little did I know that there would be a correlation between that graph and growing a hyperlocal site’s traffic.

Not unlike MSNBC, we have experienced the same dynamic. That is, when there’s a big story we will see a spike in traffic followed by a higher plateau of traffic. That plateau is what has the greatest value. If we did a good job when people visited for the first time by giving them a good experience, they will come back. Better yet, we get some to subscribe to our newsletter or RSS feed and are in a coveted spot to remind them of our site. Our site has gotten progressively better at increasing the length of time people spend on our site as we have added modules on the page to expose them to what else we have. Let me give a recent example. We had an unfortunate avalanche tragedy at the local ski area that defines our area. [As fate would have it, it happened at the same time we were doing a complete platform shift that I wrote about on OJR, but that’s a different story.]

SunValleyOnline has not spent a penny on marketing, in the traditional sense, to build its audience. Instead it has used tactics such as what I outlined above to build itself into a top site in its area. This kind of resourcefulness is what has enabled SunValleyOnline to be one of the early profitable hyperlocal sites supporting a small team.

Booted for blogging, ex-Washington Post staffer reacts

The Drunk Blogger? Not really. More appropriately, a professional newsman on staff at one of the most reputable rags in the field. But Michael Tunison’s secret writing life with the witty—if not a bit profane—NFL blog, Kissing Suzy Kolber, got him booted from his MSM gig.

Last month Tunsion—aka Christmas Ape—came out of Internet anonymity with a KSK entry documenting his inebriation one ancient evening at (gasp) a sports bar. Turns out that was the Washington Post’s cue to fire him, within 48 hours of the post, for “discrediting the publication.”

The Web backlash to WaPo’s knee-jerk reaction was immediate and expected. For HR malpractice. For stodgy new-media ignorance. For axing a potential traffic cow.

But don’t quit your day job, Mike. KSK is of course booming on the heels of the incident, and Tunison is content, sort of, to be uncaged in that space.

We caught up with him over e-mail for a closer look at the whole mess.

OJR: Is there anything defensible about this? Or does a part of you think WaPo did what it had to do?

MT: I think The Post has a right to uphold and enforce whatever stodgy standards of conduct that it deems appropriate. I don’t they would have acted as extremely or as quickly as they did if it wasn’t first picked up by a journalism blog. In that case, the editors probably felt pressure from within the journalism community to cleanse whatever damage they thought I was doing to the Post brand.

OJR: Sounds like it was technically over your post about being drunk at a bar, but that seems a little far-fetched. There’s got to be more to it than that. They say you “discredited” the publication. But what was actually said to you. Anything verbal, or did it all come in memos?

MT: Far-fetched though it may seem, that’s what they said. The day after I put up the outing post, I got a call from the top editor of the Metro section, who was already making clear I was in deep shit and was probably going to be fired. He essentially wanted my reasons for doing so to run by personnel. The next day, I was called back into his office where he laid out the terms of my dismissal. He said the drunk picture coupled with the language while linking to my Post stories violated the paper’s standards.

OJR: Seems to me they would have been a bit better off to give you a slap on the wrist and leverage you for site traffic. Are you at all surprised they couldn’t see it that way?

MT: I figured the penalty would be less severe and there would be more room for discussion. I’m not surprised at all that they couldn’t find something for me to do with The Post’s Web operation. There’s a stunning lack of vision at The Washington Post when it comes to Web-exclusive content. Not to mention that the disconnect between The Post and its website is astounding. The Washington CityPaper did a great piece on that a few months ago. Look at Dan Steinberg’s D.C. Sports Bog. It’s probably the best executed sports blog by a mainstream publication and it’s barely promoted at all by the organization. Sure, one post makes it to page 2 of sports section in the print paper, but log onto The Post’s site and you’d never know it existed. You have to really dig through that unwieldy thing to find it.

OJR: Surely you had to be expecting a knee-jerk reaction of some sort. To what extent did you think it would be feasible for your two writing lives to coexist?

MT: I thought so. As I’ve said on the site, there was no overlap at all between what I did for the paper and the writing at KSK. I also made pains on the revealing post to not actually write out my name and the publication. You could only find those things by visiting The Post and clicking through the links. A Google search of my name or The Washington Post wouldn’t have brought it up, so no one would have discovered it except readers of Kissing Suzy Kolber. Now, readers of KSK and WaPo readers aren’t mutually exclusive, but you can be damn sure KSK readers didn’t think my employment there hurt the paper in any way.

OJR: It sucks to lose the 9 to 5, but how bitter are you, really, considering you come off as the good guy in all this?

MT: I’m a little bitter because I was never really given an opportunity to excel at The Post and as soon as I develop something for myself that garners some success, they find out about it and can me. When I’m doing uninteresting work, I’m going to need a creative outlet on the side.

OJR: How, if at all, are you pursuing other newspaper jobs? Or are you done with MSM? If so, why?

MT: I’m not going after any newspaper jobs at the moment. Partly because I don’t want to but also because they wouldn’t hire me even if I did. Just this past week, the guy who runs The Sporting News’ blog, The Sporting Blog, wanted to bring me on to do some work with them and he was shot down by higher-ups. The reason: because I’m too “controversial” after this firing. I’m sure I’m blackballed from a number of places, probably forever. It’s a little pathetic, really. The mainstream journalism community is so insular and at the same time so terrified. The situation is just going to get worse for them until they reevaluate more than just staff sizes. I have other aspirations, but I’m happy with blogging for now. I make about as much as I did at The Post, which wasn’t much, with writing for a few blogs. I can be happy with that for a bit.

OJR: How has your role on KSK changed through all this? Obviously you have more time to put toward it, but do you feel at all uncaged or liberated in terms of your content?

MT: KSK has never really been a place where I’ve felt limited in terms of what I can say, so the firing doesn’t change much. I have more time and am writing a little more, but it’s still the off-season and there’s only so much to write about. Before coming forward, I had to be more guarded with personal information, which I don’t anymore.

OJR: This is the best PR imaginable for KSK. How has site traffic looked since the coming-out party? Are you guys looking to expand the site out of this?

MT: There was a big initial burst of traffic right after the outing. We had 108,000 unique visitors the day after I got fired. We average around 22,000 or so per day. It’s still been a little higher since than it was before the incident. We probably gained a few readers, but most of the other people were there because it was in the news. As far as expanding, the firing coincided with moving the site to a new address after reaching a contract with a nascent blog network. There are big plans for that network. As far as KSK, there are things we’re planning on adding here and there, like a liveblog of a game every week during the season. Other than that, we’re just keeping with what’s worked for us.