Archive for the ‘Essay’ Category

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A breakthrough for the Times? Possibly.

In Essay on January 20, 2010 by Dave Winer

Okay the NY Times is in a bind. They’ve got a good thing going, they’re the largest circulation news org on the web. But their print edition is shrinking in circulation, or the advertisers aren’t willing to pay to be there, or whatever. It’s not generating enough money to pay for the expense of all those reporters.

What to do?

Okay, we know what they think they want to do — put up a paywall. They’ve been saying so for a long time, but so far they haven’t had the guts to actually do it. For a while, a few years ago, they actually had a paywall on the op-ed page, until they realized the opinion bloggers were eating their lunch. Brooks and Krugman et al couldn’t get into the conversation because no one was pointing to them, because people wouldn’t point through a paywall.

I’ve been trying to avoid thinking about it, because, while I appreciate that they need money, there’s no fracking way that the paywall is going to generate enough to justify the likelihood that it will knock the Times out of its leading position as an original source of web news.

Then I read the headline of a piece by Fred Wilson: Monetize The Audience, Not The Content.

I found the headline totally intriguing.

Never mind that I despise the word audience, I think anyone who thinks there’s an audience on the web is misunderstanding the web. But I wonder what the heck that means — Monetize The Audience. Hmmm.

Then I thought of something that’s been bugging me for decades. Why can’t I run an ad in the NY Times? And of course that’s wrong — I can run an ad in the NY Times. They take money from individuals all the time. Is it prohibitively expensive? Actually it’s not all that expensive, when you think about the stature it conveys. Once, a long time ago at Living VIdeotext, we put together $250K to run a full page ad in the Wall Street Journal. It was well worth it. The WSJ was a much bigger deal back then, in the business world it was kind of like the whole web is today. Can you imagine buying an impression for everyone reading the web for a full day for just $250K? If you had the money and something to sell them, which I did, you’d do it in a snap.

Now that led me to TechMeme. When they first started taking ads I told Gabe I wanted to buy some. Apparently my money wasn’t good enough, because he never responded. Every time I look at one of the ads there I think — this person meant more to Gabe than I did.

Here’s the deal, and this is going to drive professional reporters out of their minds. Not only do I write for free (for example this piece, which could make money for your employers, but won’t make me a dime) but on certain occasions, an idea is so important for me to promote that I might even pay for impressions, if the price was right and the placement was good.

And therein my friends is the solution to the dilemma of the NY Times.

Say I’m looking at a story and think “Sheez this reporter is totally full of it,” or “Didn’t I see this guy at a ballgame last week with the guy he’s quoting in this story?” or “I wrote a much better post about this last week, I wish everyone reading this could see my piece.” I would definitely pay for a spot next to every cockamamie piece David Carr writes explaining the “realities” of the news business.

In other words, the reporter makes his or her choices of who to quote or what angle to cover in their story, but we all know there are lots of ways to slice it. Why shouldn’t I be able to, off on the side, give the readers another point of view, assuming I’m willing to pay for the priviledge?

This potentially puts all of us on the same footing as the Times, without the Times having to give us any authority. They disclaim responsibility for what’s said in the right margin. “That’s just how we pay the bills,” says their editor.

I’m not paying to read the Times. I used to, but I don’t anymore. It’s not like buying the latest gadget from Steve Jobs. Paying the Times to read their stuff doesn’t give me sweaty palms. But blowing a few bucks to get my thoughts into the flow alongside theirs, now that’s something I’d pay for.

I’ve explained some of the details and groundrules in the first comment, below.

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If I owned the NY Times

In Essay on December 9, 2009 by Dave Winer

I’m going to lunch today at the Times, meeting with both editorial people and technical people, all at the same table! Should be interesting.

I took a walk this morning and thought about what I’d like to communicate, and realized that with all those bright minds it might be hard to explain. I thought of the objections they’d likely raise, and what I’d say in response. Then I thought it might be better just to write it up in a blog post, and share it with everyone.

First, imho, the Times has to figure out how to open the doors to the smartest people in the world, the most informed, highest integrity, best intentioned people — to share what they know. The Times should be an environment for learning as well as being informed.

So. I’d offer a Times-hosted blog to anyone who has been quoted in the Times in the last 10 years. If you can show your name in print in a Times article, you can have a blog. This is a way of quickly creating a community with high quality and an interest in current events and issues.

Establish a rating system, where readers, who are members of the site, but not necessarily authors for it, say how valuable the writing of an author is.

In the first iteration, the reporters for the Times would now have a universe of sources assembling in real time as news is breaking. It may be a much more efficient way to gather information and points of view than calling around to sources. But you’ll keep doing that too.

The ratings serve two purposes. First, they help you and other readers find the good stuff — the same way ratings work on Amazon reviews. If you buy stuff online, you know how much we’ve come to depend on other reviewers’ experiences in making buying decisions. But the ratings will serve another purpose, they determine how much stock each author gets.

It’s not good enough to expect people to contribute their energy and best ideas without compensation. Reporters have been saying that for years, and I totally agree. It’s one of my biggest complaints about Twitter. If I applied for and got a programming job working at the company I’d get stock, but if I write for the site, and find new applications and bring other people online, I get the nothing. That gets pretty old pretty quickly.

If you want to attract the best people it helps to have a great brand like the Times, but it would be much better if they got upside as well. If they had a chance to get rich.

We know you don’t have enough money to pay them a salary, so give them stock. The Times surely has plenty of that, and you can always print more.

Those are the basic parameters. Create a space where smart people inform and teach each other, and reward them when the venture is successful, but not before. If this sounds familiar, it should — it’s the basic model for entrepreneurs and startups. I know it works to incentivize people to cooperate, I’ve seen it first-hand and benefited from it personally.

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Is Tiger Woods’ sexuality news?

In Essay on December 2, 2009 by Dave Winer

Mathew Ingram posted a provocative tweet: “Everyone says Tiger isn’t news, but our stories get hundreds of thousands of views and our live discussion got 1,350 participants in an hour.” Permalink to this paragraph

He raises a good question, and one that obviously doesn’t have a unique answer. It may or may not be news, but his readers clearly want to read about and discuss Tiger Woods and his sexuality. Permalink to this paragraph

By implication Mathew is saying that because his readers are discussing it and reading the story, that means it’s worth covering. I’m not going to argue with that. I think you have to pay attention to what your users like, and try to give it to them. That’s one of the basic principles in my area of expertise, software development, and it seems reasonable it should be part of news as well. Permalink to this paragraph

But it’s also okay to set goals and learn, and see if you can’t achieve more than one goal at a time. I do that in software as well. I have goals and the users do too. I try to make them coincide. Permalink to this paragraph

In a recent RBTN podcast Jay talked about a spot.us project to dig into the rebuilding of the Bay Bridge. In the process, the reporter will certainly look into how power and money flow in two City Halls (San Francisco and Oakland) and in the state capital in Sacramento. Investigative journalism like that usually doesn’t attract the kind of following that a Tiger Woods sex scandal might, except for the fact that the Bay Bridge is such a Bay Area bottleneck, and so important in everyone’s lives that a scandal concerning the bridge likely would find an interested audience. Permalink to this paragraph

So the idea is to learn what people want and then find a way to fortify it with the information they need. Give the readers both the chocolate milk and the vitamins. Permalink to this paragraph

This idea came up in the last RBTN. I was talking about the excellent Frontline report on how credit and debit cards work. Most people will never see the report, but there’s a few key bits of info that, it seems, somehow everyone should understand because it’s about money coming out of their accounts, a subject almost everyone would be interested in, I suppose, if they knew it was available to them. Permalink to this paragraph

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Who gets their news from Google?

In Essay on November 24, 2009 by Dave Winer

Like everyone else, I’m peripherally following the fur flying about Murdoch thinking about whether or not to block Google from searching his news sites. In the background I keep wondering if this isn’t all a misunderstanding. I mean, do a lot of people get their news on Google? That’s a question.

Okay I know I’m not average, so I don’t mean to say my experience is statistically significant. For all I know everyone else is getting their news on Google. But I really don’t think so. Here’s what I think.

I think other sites grabbed most of the flow in news before Google got around to doing news, and such habits are hard to break. I guess that Yahoo is still the leader in online news and CNN and MSN are #2 and #3. After that, there’s a lot of noise. Somewhere down there is Google. In the dust.

People say silly things like Google would be nothing without the NY Times, but it wasn’t until relatively recently that the Times let Google index their news stories. I know this because I had a Long Bet with Martin Nisenholtz that I won more or less by default. Times articles couldn’t show up in the ranks on Google because the Times wouldn’t let them! It was dumb not just cause it meant that Martin lost the bet, but it was dumb because they let Wikipedia become the authority on so many topics that the Times would have done a better job at, imho. And they were throwing away flow, and flow is money.

So I think a lot of this debate is uninformed and generating a bit of heat and not much else. Kind of like a lot of what passes for news these days.

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Rebooting personal news

In Essay on November 17, 2009 by Dave Winer

Jay Rosen has observed that when stories appear on the web, there’s no reason they shouldn’t be accompanied by a detailed backgrounder that allows a new reader to catch up. That this isn’t a tradition in web journalism is a vestige of print journalism. It’s not possible to repeat all the background every time in print as it is in electronic media.

This is especially important for complex stories. Jay cites the Giant Pool of Money podcast by by This American Life that explains the financial crisis of 2008. It’s a wonderful example, and it should be linked into every news story on the subject.

Of course Jay is right, but I realized that it’s not just the big complex stories that effect everyone that need this treatment. The small personal stories need backgrounders too.

Over the weekend I took a train trip from San Francisco to Denver. I documented it many ways — on Twitter, with a set of pictures on Flickr, and blog posts on a variety of sites. With each tweet I’d get a flurry of questions asking why I was in Utah or Colorado. Or suggesting that I visit a place that I passed a day before. After the train trip, a good friend didn’t know that I had taken it.

All this suggests that “Dave Winer” is a story that needs a backgrounder. There ought to be one place where you can catch up on me. It should be very easy to locate from any individual bit of news I post.

Similarly, each thread in my life should stand as a separate object, and also be easy to find. So my train trip page would gather all information about the trip.

The news system needs to not only reboot for the stories we’ve always covered, but needs to work equally well for the stories we cover now that we didn’t in the past.

Update: I’ve written on this topic many times over many years, but I’m not going to try to assemble a backgrounder of those pieces, yet it could be interesting to read what they say.

Update: This is an example of a new form for Rebooting The News which we discussed in the last few minutes of #33. I’m going to write essays, and I hope from time to time Jay does as well, and the invitation extends to our readers. Please listen to the podcast to get an idea of what’s going on.

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How we’ll get news in the future

In Essay on November 13, 2009 by Dave Winer

Just read a piece written by one of the ex-Seattle P-I reporters. It’s not going well. The great experiment didn’t yield salaries.

People keep butting up against this problem, in an age when we can get the news directly from the people who are making it, there just isn’t that much money availble for intermediaries. That’s the harsh reality. People hanging on in the news business apparently still cling to the idea that if they can discredit people like me, the problem will somehow go away. That’s what I make of the comments that have been showing up here re the last RBTN podcast. It’s nonsense. Even if I had never been born the news business would be facing the same problems. To think that discrediting anyone will change anything, well that’s just bad reporting, imho.

Change is necessary. I think there’s still value in the brands, and the rolodexes of the reporters, and the selection process to determine who has something important to say on any topic of news. Then the news process should get out of the way and let the sources speak directly to the readers. That simple formula will make professional news relevant to the news process in the future.

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