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15 Dec


What would a newspaper have to look like to attract you as a paying reader?

December 15, 2012 | By |

interactive newspaper

Recently, friends and I were discussing the state of journalism and its potential futures. (As you do, right?) The occasion? German print newspapers are struggling, with a series of announced down-sizings and some newspapers in severe crisis.

It’s worth keeping in mind that while in the US the major newspaper crisis hit a few years back, accelerated by the fact that US newspapers rely even more heavily on advertising than the ones in Germany, here this has been delayed until fairly recently. So we watched from afar, and in theory at least there was more time to adapt to the new realities, if that’s something you can prepare for at all.

Now, in our small round we weren’t battling it out over facts and studies. In fact, I won’t present any studies or facts, but rather a series of thoughts, ideas and arguments that came up in the discussion. To put our arguments into context, one of my friends for some years has been an editor at taz (see the Wikipedia entry for some background), a Berlin-based left-leaning newspaper run as a co-op. In my work as a consultant and strategist, I pretty frequently worked with publishers and other media outlets. So we can make a few informed guesses at least.

Our guiding question was this: How would a newspaper have to present itself to become once more attractive enough for our peer group to spend money on it? In other words, what would a newspaper have to look like to attract you (or me) as a paying reader?

Print is ballast

No news here, really: In a daily newspaper, at least with my lifestyle that includes lots of travel and away-time, a print newspaper isn’t just pretty useless, it’s really in the way. I remember well the piles of mostly unread newspapers on tables, desks, sofas and on the floor. No more. I see no scenario in which I’d subscribe again to a print newspaper. Magazines might be a different beast altogether, although I currently haven’t subscribed to any print magazines either.

I do, however, pay for content of all sorts, like a Spotify subscription for music (which has largely replaced album purchases for me), movie theater tickets, the occasional movie download (for series mostly, and anywhere but iTunes if I have a chance), live concerts (less often than I’d like to), and occasional donations to the likes of Wikipedia and Brainpickings, to name just a few. I’m adding this because I think that the rumors of a “free for all” mentality on the web are hugely exaggerated. People are, to quite a degree, quite willing to pay for immaterial goods like downloads and access to information or entertainment.

Newspapers are as relevant as ever

I don’t think newspapers (print or online) have lost their relevance at all. Or rather, journalism hasn’t. Not all newspaper journalists do investigative work, sure. But also, I don’t believe that only investigative journalism should be financed. And I dimly remember a study that showed that the most-shared content on all the major social media channels still come from traditional media outlets. Sticking with my promise earlier to keep this post free of studies, I’m not going to link to it, though. (Hah! Take that!)

What about paywalls?

The New York Times has been very successful with the introduction of their paywall. (Very much against my prediction back in 2010, by the way – I was completely and utterly wrong). Others have been jumping on the same band wagon, some with more, some with less success. The times played that pretty nicely, and I’m still impressed by how well it all works, and manages to neither be very annoying nor to shut things down too much to still get enough readers.

First of all, I don’t think that many things done at the New York Times can be readily applied in many other places. The NYTimes is a special case in that it’s both global in its audience (theoretically at least), and hugely relevant beyond it’s core readership. It does have a massive and dedicated reader base, though, and one that’s willing to support the operation, too.

That said, taz has been testing what they call Paywahl, a pun combining paywall and Wahl, the German word for choice. The gist: “You can pay if you choose”. It’s a nudge to their readers – they can read for free, but a bit of cash would be appreciated.

I’m not familiar with how much taz is making there, but at a relatively small operation like taz, everything counts.

However, I am pretty convinced that those newspapers with clear unique value propositions will fare better than those in the middle of the road. Where the NYTimes has a huge editorial staff, investigative journalism and huge global relevance, taz has a clear (in this case left-leaning) political profile and strong opinion, and a small but strong local group of supporters. Any more generic, mainstreamed newspaper might have neither the relevance nor the emotional bonds to get that same kind of support.

Mix and match

How about newspapers collaborating to allow users to pull different parts of the news from different newspapers? Think international section from the NYTimes, economy from the Wall Street Journal, local news from your local newspaper, etc etc. Split the revenue accordingly.

Assuming that whenever you make readers’ or users’ lifes easier they’ll be willing to pay for it, this might be a pretty straight forward way to tap into new revenue sources.

Alternative revenue streams

We tried to think about other potential revenue streams. A few obvious ones:

  • A paywall, strict or less strict.
  • Apps & digital subscriptions: What’s a good price point for a digital subscription, on the web or in-app?
  • Allowing for donations like Brainpicker does?
  • An annual fundraiser like Wikipedia does?
  • Premium services: Hard to say what might work here and what would be awkward at best. Quick access? Access to the editors? Custom-tailored recommendations? A quarterly magazine? Art prints by supporting artists? Invitations to receptions and office parties? Schwag and merchandise?

It’s pretty obvious that there’s no one-size-fits-all solution and experimentation might be the only way to figure out what works and what doesn’t.

What about museums?

Museums have been trying to struggle with creating lasting relationships with visitors for a long time. However, they found a way of connecting with supporters I find quite convicing: Annual memberships that allow you free entry coupled with some extra services like quick or early access to exhibitions, invitations to receptions, meet & greets with the artists, etc. At the Tate Modern in London the base membership starts at 60 British Pounds (EUR 75), at the MoMA New York at 85 US Dollars (EUR65), which strikes me as a very, very modest fee. (Most museums these days have similar programs.)

In both cases, just a few visits would pay for the membership, and you get a few goodies thrown in, like skipping the annoyingly long lines at the MoMA. On top of the base membership, both museums offer several tiers of supporter memberships that include either different kinds of benefits (family, +1, etc) or simply allow you to provide more support to an institution you deem important to support. (The top-of-the-line membership offered on the MoMA website is 12.000$ per year.)

So this seems worth exploring, too: Why not offer a base membership that gives you basic access to what you need (in other words, a subscription) and offer supporter memberships on top of that for those who’d like to give a bit more? It can be done elegantly. In the peculiar case of taz, it’s not even that unusual, as the newspaper is being run as a co-op anyway, owned by its own staff and its readers. So we already know that in this case it’s a mental model that all stakeholders are familiar with. I’m sure the NYTimes could invoke equivalent models as well. It seems well worth exploring what else can be learned from museums in that regard.

Those were some of our thoughts. We live in interesting times. And while we should not dismiss the notion that we might have to think the unthinkable, maybe the transition doesn’t have to be as radically destructive?

Curious to hear your thoughts on this.

22 Feb


Quantified Self on dradio – now in CC

February 22, 2012 | By |

A little while ago, Christian Grasse did a radio feature for dradio on the Quantified Self. There, he included interviews with Johannes Kleske and me.

That was really neat. What’s even neater, though, is this.

This morning, Christian emailed everybody included in his Quantified Self feature to let us know that he had also cut a version of his piece that is fit to release under Creative Commons (“CC by” to be specific), and uploaded it on Soundcloud. His reasoning was that sharing is good, and that dradio is publicly funded, and as such as much of its content should be available to share and remix.

This is awesome. Dradio is excellent with sharing their stuff online, pretty barrier-free, anyway. But this allows for remixing, too. So here it is, the new, CC-licensed version of Christian’s QS feature:

I wish more journalists thought and acted that way. It’s really a best practice scenario. Thanks, Chris!

15 Nov


Mozilla Festival 2011

November 15, 2011 | By |

Fox, girl, squirrel by Peter Bihr #mozfest
_Image by Peter Bihr, Creative Commons (by-nc-sa)_

Mozilla Festival (aka #Mozfest) is over, and it was intense. Throw a mix of 500 journalists, hackers, web devs and activists in a room and shake it up, and interesting things are going to happen. As well they did.

There’s plenty of good reviews out there, so I’m just going to highlight a few points that stood out for me.

Education for the open web

Ben Hammersley, who among many other things advises the EU in digital matters, made a point about the importance of education: Those who decide upon the future don’t understand the present.

We have several digital gaps in education – education in all things digital, about all things digital, across all things digital. One, there’s a gap along education lines. Two, there’s a global divide. Three, there’s a gap along income (and education) of parents that prevents kids in poorer neighborhoods the same chances to participate online (which might enable them to bootstrap knowledge).

And then we have – four! – a gap between those who by belonging to the group that really gets the web and how it works and those who don’t, where politicians are mostly on the wrong side of the gap. It’s a structural divide more than anything – give it a few years and things might work out fine, but as it stands (repeat!) Those who decide upon the future don’t understand the present. And this is something we need to work on. Luckily, it’s easier to educate some smart folks than change whole strata of society. (At least in theory.)

This is where we all can come in and help out. If you find yourself talking to a politician, help them out. Take the time to explain stuff. Don’t be snobby about it. It’s politics where we can leverage power, and it’s politics where the foundation is laid for how our most important infrastructure will work (or be broken) for years.

Let’s all work on some truly relevant things.

Mozfest from above, image by Pierros Papadeas Image by Pierros Papadeas, some rights reserved

Data Journalism Handbook

Just a brief shout out: A large group of journalists and data diggers gathered and wrote a Data Journalism Handbook. It’s not finished, but it’s an impressive draft and a great basis to extend over time. They just dug in, and built something cool over the weekend, then took it from there. This is the way to go, really.

Popcorn – making your videos talk to the web (and the web talk back)

The real killer – a real eye opener! – for me was certainly Popcorn.js, or rather the Popcorn Maker. Popcorn.js is a framework to make video on the web more interactive – more of the web – an event framework, or in other words: a little toolkit that helps you make your videos interact with the websites around them and vice versa. For example, you can pull maps or Flickr images or a live Twitter search into your video, or into an adjacent box (or pretty much wherever you like, really).

It’s harder to explain than to understand, so here’s a Popcorn demo.

And the Popcorn Maker, launched last Friday, is a web-based authoring tool to make all this more accessibel to non-developers – you need only the most basic understanding of HTML etc to use a video you uploaded to Youtube or Vimeo and enrich it with web data.

It’s super impressive, and it’s great how this has come about since last year‘s Mozilla Festival in Barcelona.

It’s also very clearly alpha software at the time, so try at your own risk – in a first test, I wasn’t able to save a project, but could pull a Youtube video and add map data, photos and tweets within less than 5 minutes – it’s really quite something.

Standards for space, time and the web

Every morning, I went for a run. Since my hotel was close by, my run would take me around the Royal Observatory. At the Observatory there are a number of mindboggingly interesting things on display: The Prime Meridian, the original kilogram, a measurement of feet and inches (to compare with your local merchant), as well as the (probably) first clock to display Greenwich Mean Time to the public (since 1852). There’s also a red ball on one of the rooftops that every day would be pulled up slowly, then drop at exactly 13:00h every day. The ball was visible from the river Thames, allowing the ships to reset (and thus synchronize) their clocks.

The Royal Observatory was by and large the center of standardization for most of the world. From here, standards of space and time would ripple and spread throughout the Commonwealth.

It’s a bit like what the W3C is for the internet today. And like we needed to agree on standards for space and time 150 years ago, we need to agree on standards for the web today. The more open they are – the more they allow us to look inside the box, and tinker, and exchange data, and the more anybody can use and contribute to them – the better off all of us will be.

01 Nov


In London for Mozfest and Internet Week Europe

November 1, 2011 | By |

Mozilla Festival London

Mozilla’s big open/free culture festival, aptly called Mozilla Festival, is on this coming weekend. I’ll be headed over to London and stay for the full festival as well as the beginning of Internet Week Europe. (Sadly I won’t be able to stick around for the full thing.)

Can’t wait for the festival that I’ve seen come together up close, so I trust it’ll be fantastic. (It’s organized by the good folks of the Mozilla Foundation, notably by the lovely Michelle Thorne & Alexandra Deschamps-Sansino, so I’m clearly biased.) Last year’s Mozilla Festival in Barcelona – called Drumbeat at the time (my blogposts) – was basically a geeky love fest, which I say with respect and admiration. This time around it’ll be great, too, and it focuses on a topic that hits even closer to home for me – it’s all about the open web and media.

As someone who for a long time wanted to (and occasionally did) work as a journalist, seeing these two cultures of journalists and geeks (or hacks & hackers in Mozfest speak) merge is great. There’s so much both can learn from each other.

Beyond purely personal interest, I’m also interested in how these spheres can learn from another. After all, I’ve been advising media companies for years, first as a freelancer then through my company Third Wave. So I love geeking out about these things and learn from some of the smartest folks in the industry (and beyond).

Long story short: If you haven’t yet, join us at the festival > sign up here; and I’ll be in London for a few days, so ping me to meet up.

Disclosure: I was on the jury for the Lovie Awards, which are part of Internet Week.

27 Jul


Wikileaks, Afghanistan & The New Rules Of Engagement

July 27, 2010 | By |

As of two days ago Wikileaks has released 92.000 documents about the war in Afghanistan, leaked (most likely) from within the US military. After discussing this with quite a few folks, we all agreed that this will be one of the biggest – if not the single biggest – story of 2010.

As a former media and political science major, as well as a former editor, this stuff is pure gold to me.

First, what I am not going to go into: the Afghanistan conflict, its sense or legitimation or political implications; or the legalities of this kind of thing: does a leak like this break US law, and would that even be applicable? That’s for US lawyers to decide.

The basics first: What happened? Wikileaks got hold of some 91.000 military documents regarding the Afghanistan conflict, from analyst papers to ground reports. (What is Wikileaks?) Before releasing these documents themselves, they gave them in advance to three traditional news media: New York Times (US), The Guardian (UK) and Der Spiegel (Germany). (All of the links go directly to the Wikileaks specials.) After these media ran their exclusives, Wikileaks went public with the leaked documents, called the Afghan War Diaries:

The reports, while written by soldiers and intelligence officers, and mainly describing lethal military actions involving the United States military, also include intelligence information, reports of meetings with political figures, and related details. (…) The reports cover most units from the US Army with the exception of most US Special Forces’ activities. The reports do not generally cover top secret operations or European and other ISAF Forces operations.

So why is the Wikileaks story so big? It’s big not just because it’s something new and a huge scoop, but because it touches on so many complex and highly relevant issues:

  • the issue at hand, the conflict in Afghanistan
  • the way the US government handles information
  • … and by extension, the bigger questions of truth & trust
  • the relationship between governments and their citizens
  • the relationship between US government and their allies, and how information flows between them
  • the way media work today
  • the (new?) role that media play today (trust center verifying information scoops rather than gathering them)
  • the way the internet changes politics and media (and how news media not bound to nation states operate under different circumstances than we are used to)
  • Is it irresponsible to leak documents?

For some great background and discussion, I recommend you jump straight to Jay Rosen and Jeff Jarvis, both who have great write-ups.

Trying not to repeat to many of Rosen’s and Jarvis’ points, there are a few things I find worth considering.

Truth & trust, governments & citizens The White House was clearly pissed off after seeing the Afghan War Logs emerge. Understandably so, after all those documents will clearly make a dent in the war effort, so to speak. However, legalities aside and assuming the documents are the real thing – the documents leaked are internal military documents. While it’s always painful to be called out on your own mistakes, it’s not job of the media to support certain policies; and it’s most certainly not the job of a whistleblower site like Wikileaks to support any policies. It’s their job to get out information so folks can make informed decisions.

It’s probably part of winning a military conflict to occasionally bluff and put a game face on. But it’s fair game to call that bluff; I’m guessing here, but I’d say that this can happen to a government just like to any poker player. These war reports seem to be such a case where the bluff (“the war is going kinda alright”) is called. The question is: Could the US government – instead of trying to clamp down on Wikileaks and the internal military source – try to make the best of the situation, for example by trying a crowdsourced effort to analyze the patterns of what has been going wrong in the conflict? (Might not work, but should be looked into by some of the smart folks within or around the US government.)

The new role of media What I found particularly interesting is the new role that media played in this case. This is not a case of investigative journalism by the media, but by a third (non-journalistic) party. We are talking about three of the most distinguished media outlets world wide. Yet, they did not get the scoop here, they did not have the sources inside. They were not the address the military sources wanted to talk to. (Why might be a moot question, but an interesting one still. Get back to that in a minute.) Instead, the media were there to a) spread the news and b) verify the information, to lend credibility. They served as a trust center for another organization’s scoop. Once they got the information, the media then did what they do best: sift through the material and make it more accessible, as well as spread the information.

As Jay Rosen put it, referring to a New York Times editor’s note:

“At the request of the White House, The Times also urged WikiLeaks to withhold any harmful material from its Web site.” There’s the new balance of power, right there. In the revised picture we find the state, which holds the secrets but is powerless to prevent their release; the stateless news organization, deciding how to release them; and the national newspaper in the middle, negotiating the terms of legitimacy between these two actors.

So, why Wikileaks not New York Times? We can only speculate why the internal source leaked the documents to Wikileaks and not to one of the major newspapers. But there are a number of considerations at play here: First, Wikileaks is much harder to subpoena than any traditional news organization that operates under US (or European) law. Second, Wikileaks is by nature very much distributed. They are a true internet-based, decentralized organization, making it harder to suppress information. Third, Wikileaks is independent, donation-funded, without anyone to report to. This can be good or bad, of course. And on certain topics, a political biased can be assumed. But again, it makes it harder to believe there could be a reason for Wikileaks to withhold this kind of information, much unlike the news organizations that also want to send their reporters into war zones as embedded journalists along the military. Fourth, Wikileaks knows about secure communications. Maybe Guardian, Spiegel and New York Times do too, but a source wouldn’t want to take any risks. Wikileaks are strong on anonymity. They are strong on crypto. They really know how to keep communication channels secure and anonymous. All of these combined make them a more secure place to go to than any single newsroom.

Is Wikileaks acting irresponsibly? One could make the case for either the value of keeping information secret, or for absolute transparency. In a military conflict, that’s a tough one. But it seems to be like Wikileaks is going to great lengths to be as careful and responsible as the overall context allows (once it’s decided to publish leaked info, that is). They are holding back a significant number of documents until further review and clean up (think removing names etc):

We have delayed the release of some 15,000 reports from the total archive as part of a harm minimization process demanded by our source. After further review, these reports will be released, with occasional redactions, and eventually in full, as the security situation in Afghanistan permits.

Giving the documents to some trusted traditional newspapers of making sure the information is getting a decent journalistic treatment, followed by full disclosure of all the source material for extra vetting.

In other words, it’s a perfect example of getting it all right: Responsible dealing with the information as well as working the media right.

Jeff Jarvis raises an interesting point in his post: Will leaks like this incentivize organisations not to write down as much because they fear leaks, leading in the long run to less transparency? I certainly hope not, but it’s not a fear I share. Large-scale organizations need documentation, and where there is documentation there is a chance of leaks.

What I’d hope for instead is that the mere chance of leaks alone will lead to more transparency up front. After all, if an organization is more transparent the chance of getting called out on grounds of hiding information is a lot lower.

We’ll have to wait and see. Until then, if you do appreciate this kind of document leak, I do recommend you consider donating for Wikileaks.

25 May


Guardian: We need to become a platform!

May 25, 2010 | By |

Now here’s a bold move by a major newspaper: The Guardian is becoming a platform.

And boy, is that a smart move compared to many other newspapers that try to lock up their content and try charging readers directly, be it by subscription model or pay-per-view.

Quoting GigaOM:

While some newspapers like the Times of London and the New York Times have either implemented or are expected to launch paywalls for their content, The Guardian in Britain has taken the exact opposite approach: Not only does it give its content away for free to readers, but through its “open platform” and API, it allows developers and companies to take its content as well, and do whatever they want with it — including building it into commercial applications.

It’s interesting to see so much movement in the newspaper market. Just earlier today I’ve discussed with a friend how it comes that so many people don’t read newspapers anymore in paper. (Including myself: The days when I had a newspaper subscription are long gone. These days I occasionally buy a newspaper for certain articles – usually when journalist friends recommend it – or read all my stuff online, usually for free. I do buy print magazines and subscribe, for example, to Wired UK. Of course, that’s a purchase more as a fetish than for its actual use, plus I want to support some magazines because they rock. Not sure how a tablet device might change my behavior there. I also subscribe to a wearable magazine.) Long story short, a theory bubbled up: That maybe we (our group of freelancers in the discussion) don’t read newspapers anymore since we stopped commuting. Asking Twitter about this theory, the response was clear: Some pointed out that there are more reasons than just the commute. One was even harsher. One mentioned that other media like podcasts suffered the same problem. But no one defended newspapers. Ouch.

German newspaper taz announced to experiment with donations through Flattr. Traditionally left-leaning, taz had been ad-free online until 2006, for both better or worse: of course there’s not much money to be had without ads in a strong ad market, but there’s much less to lose in a bad ad market like we’ve seen recently. For taz with their strongly committed reader base, donations might turn out well – the rational certainly makes sense. The question will be: Is Flattr the right platform? It’s still tough to provide readers an easy, hassle-free way to send money your way on a non-subscription basis, particularly in Germany where credit cards just aren’t ubiquitous.

But back to the Guardian. Where German publishers have been complaining about Google News “stealing” their content and making money off of it (both parts of this statement not necessarily true as Google only quotes teasers and doesn’t run ads on Google News), the Guardian not only gives away their content, but encourages commercial use:

“We not only say that you can use the content in a commercial application, we encourage it,” Thorpe said. “It gets our content to places where it wouldn’t be otherwise, and then we can build relationships with content partners around that.” The platform, which is still in the experimental stage, has attracted about 2,000 developers who have signed up for the API and created over 200 apps and web services. Platform developer Matt McAlister has called it an attempt to “weave The Guardian into the fabric of the Internet.”

The Guardian’s “developer advocate” Chris Thorpe summarizes the move:

Update (31 May 2010): On a related note, the BBC plans to increase the number of outbound clicks from its site by 2013. That right: They aim to double the number of readers they send away. Someone got it right!

07 Apr


If Murdoch endorses the iPad, it’s bad

April 7, 2010 | By |

In the Guardian, soon-to-be-ex media mogul Rupert Murdoch continues to claim Google steals Murdoch’s journalistic content, while the iPad might save journalism. Faced with the statement that consumers are used to getting their news for free, he reacts as follows:

Murdoch dismissed this fear, saying consumers could be forced to change their habits. “When they have got nowhere else to go they will start paying. If it is reasonable. No one is going to ask for a lot of money,” he said.

Now we have this weird situation: users reading their news for free; the iPad trying to cater to publishers more than consumers by making ads hard to circumvent; and Murdoch protecting burying his own content behind a paywall.

So far, Murdoch has done pretty much everything wrong that could be done wrong online. Blocking out search engines and users is just one of the more obvious mistakes that prove just how little he understands the new paradigms of a digital world. It also shows he doesn’t remember that readers never really paid for news, but for all the rest in a newspaper:

In a notional town with two perfectly balanced newspapers, one paper would eventually generate some small advantage — a breaking story, a key interview — at which point both advertisers and readers would come to prefer it, however slightly. That paper would in turn find it easier to capture the next dollar of advertising, at lower expense, than the competition. (…) For a long time, longer than anyone in the newspaper business has been alive in fact, print journalism has been intertwined with these economics. The expense of printing created an environment where Wal-Mart was willing to subsidize the Baghdad bureau. This wasn’t because of any deep link between advertising and reporting, nor was it about any real desire on the part of Wal-Mart to have their marketing budget go to international correspondents. It was just an accident. Advertisers had little choice other than to have their money used that way, since they didn’t really have any other vehicle for display ads.

Now when he endorses the iPad, that’s almost certainly a bad sign. It’s a sign that he, as a publisher is catered to. The same guy who wants to force consumers to change their behavior. The same guy who is willing to practically kill his newspapers by hiding the content from the eyes of the world.

Let’s hope that the iPad won’t empower the likes of Murdoch & Co too much. I’d rather see a device saving the industry by making the content more appealing, or easy to consume, or some third way of monetizing content. Something that makes empowers and delights consumers, not makes them slaves to archaic media moguls like Murdoch. Let’s see which device that’s going to be.