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Journalism

15 Dec

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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

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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

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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

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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.