Evolution of the Newswire on the Web

Jeff Jarvis has post today worth reading, about the emergence of the web as the new newswire and the trend away from traditional newswires like AP:

The old syndication model in the old content economy just won’t work today when all the world needs is one copy of a story up in the cloud with links to it. Today, the more links that article can get, the more valuable it is. So sharing value with those who send links to it only makes sense.

An AP representative commented:

We believe AP news is a critical ingredient for all news reports, both directly and as a foundation for many other sources of news. Breaking news from AP journalists around the world and in the United States, for example, serves as the origin for stories pursued by both AP members and many other news organizations.

AP still plays an important role in producing original reporting, but it’s now just one of many sources of original reporting that newspapers can tap into, as the Star Ledger did:

New Jersey’s Star-Ledger today put out an entire edition without anything from the Associated Press within. The sharp-eyed reader will notice lots of local news by staff plus articles from other papers–Washington Post, LA Times, McClatchy, the Glouceseter County Times–and content from online services such as Sportsticker.

AP publishes all of their original content on Google and Yahoo — on the web, any news site can link to that content, without having to license it. AND, they are not limited to linking to AP — they can link to any original reporting on the web.

A commenter on responded to the AP rep:

But Paul, how will the AP retain it’s value when
1. The web is a pretty good newswire and it’s free.
2. When, like Jeff said, you only need one copy of a story online and everyone else can just link to it.
3. When, even if the shared content model works in print, it is actually worse than useless online – and everyone’s moving online?

The web is already a “pretty good newswire” — and with collaborative tools that enable newsrooms to discover, share, and publish links to the best content, it can be even better.

GateHouse Media Seeks to Disrupt Print-Only Batavia NY Newspaper Market With Online-Only Innovation

Newspapers face the challenge of ensuring that their websites don’t cannibalize more lucrative print audience and revenue — even as more and more people get their news online. Then there’s the challenge of  shrinking editorial staffs having to put out both a print paper and a website. It’s enough to kept many newspapers from innovating online beyond a certain point in their markets.

But what if a newspaper company were to launch a website in a market where they didn’t publish a print newspaper?

That’s exactly what Gatehouse Media is doing in Batavia, NY.

Back in April, I visited GateHouse’s corporate headquarters in Fairport, NY and took a ride with Howard Owens and Ryan Sholin on a “secret mission” to Batavia, NY. They were scoping out office space for a website that GateHouse was about to launch, The Batavian.

Why was this a secret mission? Because GateHouse does not publish a print newspaper in Batavia, NY. And the family-owned incumbent newspaper, The Daily News, has no content on its website (the site is barely a brochure).

So the strategy is to launch an innovative news and community site that will eat the lunch of an incumbent newspaper that has ignored the web.

The Batavaian practices what Howard preaches — the site is anchored by a blog and has a full suite of community features (powered by Drupal), including blogs for registered users. The homepage features blog posts from community members.

Many of the posts have generated lively discussions in comments, such as this post by a reader about the local mall, which many residents would like to see torn down. The comments discussion features none other than the city council president.

The Bavatian set up an office on Main Street, and editor/lead blogger Philip Anselmo is in town everyday, connecting with the community.

The Batavian is an experiment in whether a new web-native journalism can better serve a community. Here’s Howard on “Exploring the complexity of community issues as a community

Digital communication allows all members of the public — the press, the politicians, the government agents and the citizens — to discuss choices, consequences and conditions as equals.  Reporters need no longer be bound by the limitations of print and present just the so-called objective report, but rather explore, examine, raise and answer questions, and start conversations.

We saw an example of this style of journalism played out last week in The Batavian.  Editor Philip Anselmo interviewed Councilman Bob Bialkowski.  Mr. Bialkowski said that one of the problems facing Batavia is declining neighborhoods.

He says that “entire neighborhoods are a problem — trash all over, abandoned cars in the back yard.” Head over to the southside of the city, to Jackson Street, over near Watson and Thorpe streets, State Street, and you’ll see what he’s talking about.

So, Philip took his advice, drove around those neighborhoods and didn’t find a lot of evidence of decline.  Philip, who is well traveled and has covered such small cities as Canandaigua, where there are some pretty sub par neighborhoods, did a follow up post saying he couldn’t find the decline.

This prompted a rejoinder post from Council President Charlie Mallow, who wrote:

There have been a few postings about the state of our neighborhoods and people’s opinions of the rate of decline. From someone new to the area or familiar with big city living, some missing paint and a little litter are not anything to be concerned about. People in big cities have had to live with falling property values, absentee landlords and drug activity for years. The obvious question is, why wouldn’t the people of Batavia point to the precursors of decline and pull together to keep the quality of life we have always enjoyed?

Notice a trend here? Same set of facts, different perceptions.  And if you follow the conversation in the comments as well as the related blog posts, a clearer picture emerges of the goals and aspiration of the City Council to clean up the city before things get too far gone.

Traditional, print journalism could never achieve this depth of coverage of a single issue.

In just the four months since its launch, The Batavian already has 5,000 unique visitors per month, out of 15,000 who live in Batavia and 60,000 live in Genesee County.

Here’s a radio commercial for TheBatavian.com

The plan is for Philip to jump start the site, and then hire a staff locally — The Batavian has already hired an experienced sports reporter from the region, who will start on Wednesday.  Here is some of The Batavian’s coverage of the Muckdogs.

It’s still too early to know whether the site will succeed as a business, but they’ve already started talking to local advertisers. And they are giving away classifieds for free to residents.

With no print operation — no paper, ink, presses or delivery trucks — The Batavian will obviously be able to operate with a much lower cost structure. The vast majority of operating expense will be staff.

The Batavian may is one of the most disruptive efforts I’ve seen coming from an incumbent in an industry where many still take a conservative approach despite rapidly deteriorating economic conditions. It’s a newspaper company thinking and acting like a startup — which is what every media company needs to do to survive the digital transition.

(Disclosure: Howard Owens is an advisor to Publish2.)

What The Newspaper Industry Could Learn About Do Or Die Innovation From General Motors

As newspaper companies lose billions in market capitalization and innovation-minded journalists battle newsroom “curmudgeons” shell-shocked by the rapid pace of change amid increasingly dire economic realities, a lesson in burn-the-rule-book transformation might come from an unexpected source: General Motors. That’s right, the once-dominate car maker, which missed every trend that has lead to Toyota’s dominance, from quality to environmentalism, is betting the farm on a radical approach to a radical new car — and risks going down in flames if it fails.

Most media types probably thought Nick Carr’s article in the July/August Issue of The Atlantic, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?,” was the most interesting and relevant to media. But Jonathan Rausch’s piece on GM’s last ditch effort to transform itself by producing the world’s first mainstream electric car ( after it failed to do so in the 90s), is a tale of do or die innovation that everyone in the newspaper industry — and media generally — must read.

Here are some of the key passages:

When one of the world’s mightiest corporations throws everything it’s got at a project, and when it shreds its rule book in the process, the results are likely to be impressive. Still, even for General Motors, the Volt is a reach. If it meets specifications, it will charge up overnight from any standard electrical socket. It will go 40 miles on a charge. Then a small gasoline engine will ignite. The engine’s sole job will be to drive a generator, whose sole job will be to maintain the battery’s charge—not to drive the wheels, which will never see anything but electricity. In generator mode, the car will drive hundreds of miles on a tank of gas, at about 50 miles per gallon. But about three-fourths of Americans commute less than 40 miles a day, so on most days most Volt drivers would use no gas at all.

That March, the group laid its conclusions before Rick Wagoner and the rest of the top leadership. Preuss and Larry Burns, who runs the company’s research operations and is regarded in the industry as something of a visionary, did not pull punches. GM had to show a real change of mind on the environment and sustainability or remain Toyota’s doormat. It had to lead on plug-ins or get left behind in yet another new market. It had to restore credibility damaged by the mishandling of the EV1, the abdication on hybrids, and the repeated failure to deliver on promises. It needed not just one more in a long series of research programs and concept cars but a real-world product, one ambitious enough to impress even the cynics.

The group proposed a plug-in that would drive at least 10 miles on a charge. It would be a cool, stylish, high-tech car, marketed to trendsetters. They called it the iCar.

The company then made a series of decisions that look, in hindsight, startlingly audacious. Instead of becoming a safer bet as it ran the internal slalom, the iCar became more ambitious. Its target range on a single charge increased from “at least” 10 miles to 40—the outer limit of what seemed possible. Not a few outsiders think this decision was misguided; a 20-mile battery, say, would still allow many commuters to drive gas-free most days, and it would be easier and cheaper to build. But Lauckner, always pushing, insisted on a car that the public would perceive not just as saving gasoline (that was Prius territory) but as replacing gasoline. The Volt, as the iCar was eventually renamed, had to be perceived as severing the umbilical cord between the car and the gas pump, and nothing less than the longest feasible gas-free range, he believed, would accomplish that.

Perhaps most audacious of all was a decision to allow unusual public access to the Volt program. The industry’s standard procedure is to develop new products, especially risky ones, out of sight, unveiling them only when proven. GM decided to do exactly the opposite. The PR department flung open the doors. GM executives discuss the program’s progress as publicly as if it were a bill in Congress. They show off photos of batteries under development. They promise to let reporters ride in test cars. They lead them through the labs and design centers and even into the wind tunnel. They run ads, for instance in this magazine, touting the Volt in the present tense, as if it already existed. By earlier this year, expectations were so high that President Bush was commending the car, and it had developed a national grassroots following. This article is itself a product of the fishbowl strategy.

All the talk about “saving newspapers” is focused on finding new business models to keep doing what they’ve always done — which is like GM looking for a new business model to sell the kinds of cars they made in the 50s and 60s. What the newspaper industry, if it is to survive as such, must find is a radical new value proposition for news — something so audacious, so self-evidently valuable that, if they can find a way to deliver it, would lead to the rebirth of newspaper journalism.

Is this a panacea? Of course, not. Nor is it for GM:

On the other hand, if it fails, it will fail in full view. GM will have given its critics the most spectacular example yet of a broken promise, and Toyota will look prudent instead of timid.

Despite its head start, GM will have to fight to be first. In January, after a year of watching GM bask in the Volt’s publicity, Toyota reacted. At the 2008 Detroit auto show, Katsuaki Watanabe, the president, announced that Toyota would produce a lithium-ion plug-in car of its own, and would have it on the street in test fleets “not at the end of 2010, but earlier than that.” Toyota was talking about a few hundred experimental cars in a controlled setting, not tens of thousands of cars in dealer showrooms, a much less ambitious goal than GM’s. But Toyota is famous for under-promising and over-delivering.

In February, Tesla, the Silicon Valley company, announced plans for an electric sedan with a gasoline-powered generator, like the Volt—but set to arrive a year earlier, in late 2009. In March, BMW said it might produce an electric car for the U.S. market, and in May, Nissan said it would have one in test fleets in 2010. The drumbeat seems likely to continue. Simply by announcing the Volt, GM has attracted a bevy of competitors, bringing the electric car’s mass-market advent from over the horizon to around the corner.

A bold new vision won’t immediately turn the economic tide, but it could turn the tide of defeatism.

GM is using the publicity to excite the public, of course. It is also using the publicity to push itself. “We thought it would be a motivating thing to do,” Wagoner says. “Certainly it gets everybody aligned”—not always easy in a giant corporation. And GM wants credit for trying, which it never received for the EV1. “If it fails,” Harris says of the Volt, “we want people to know exactly why it failed. It wasn’t lack of commitment or passion on our part; we hit a hard point we couldn’t get around.”

GM’s leaders, needless to say, do not particularly welcome the competition from a business point of view. But they relish it from a psychological one. When I asked Larry Burns, the R&D vice president, how he felt about Toyota’s plans, he said, “Paranoid, because they’re good.” But the real answer was the grin that spread across his face as he recalled Watanabe’s announcement and said, savoring each syllable, “He was a follower.”

The newspaper business is being crippled by competition, which, like Toyota in the case of GM, is doing a better job of delivering what the market wants and needs. GM realized that to survive they couldn’t just catch up to the competition — they had to surpass it — and they had to do so by delivering the holy grail for consumers.

How can newspaper companies surpass the competition? How can they be better than Google? Those are the kind of questions that newspapers should be asking — and then pursuing bold answers.

Newspapers need to stop trying to save the old business or searching amorphously for new business models and instead figure out what needs are going unmet in the market for news — and then be first in the market to deliver breakthrough solutions.

And they need to do it FAST:

Moreover, improvements were being incorporated as fast as they could be conceived; the battery would be on its second generation in January, its third in June. “It’s incredible,” Turner said. “The design they’ve come up with for thermal changed 10 times before they delivered the first battery.” And all of this was before the arrival of a competing battery that might be as good or even better, designed jointly by the Massachusetts-based company A123 Systems and the German company Continental A.G. “We’re inventing and creating on the critical path,” Turner said. He was using the industry jargon for the countdown to production, when time is money and delays can cost millions. “I’ve got guys trying to release things before they’re actually invented.

If Your Users Fail, Your Website Fails, Regardless Of Intent Or Design

On the web, in the age of Google, design has no margin of error, and there are no stupid users, only inadequate designs. Those were the main points of my critique of newspaper websites generally, and WashingtonPost.com in particular, which to be fair, apply to all online publishers, and really any website. I’m writing another post on this same topic because the issue is so fundamental to the future of media, news, publishing, and journalism, that it really can’t be over-emphasized or over-clarified.

In print, a design flaw is unlikely to cause a reader to abandon a newspaper or magazine entirely — they are a largely captive audience. But it will cause them to abandon a website.

Google understands this better than any web company, which is why they are the most successful. Google is obsessed with making sure its users never fail, no matter how “stupid” they are. Google makes users feel smart. That’s why they keep coming back.

Invariably, when I write about a negative experience with a website, e.g. Twitter or WashingtonPost.com, someone puts forth what I call the “stupid user” argument — essentially, I failed because I’m a stupid user. And if I were a better user, I would have been more successful with the site.

For example, I discovered that WashingtonPost.com has a local version of its homepage, which it displays to logged in users. Creating different versions of a site for different users is web-savvy. If I had been logged in, I would have found the content I was looking for on the homepage. That’s all good, and much to their credit.

Unfortunately, I never log in to WashingtonPost.com, although I read it frequently. Therefore, the “stupid user” argument goes, the failure to find the content I wanted was my fault.

Here’s the problem — my failure to find the information I wanted is not MY problem, because I went to Google and found it. I succeeded. The failure is the site’s problem, because I abandoned it and went instead to a site that would help me succeed without having to be smarter.

WashingtonPost.com and, to be fair, most other sites that require registration assume that users will register to help the site achieve its goals, whether customizing content or targeting advertising.

But users don’t care about the site’s goals. They care about THEIR OWN goals.

Nowhere on WashingtonPost.com’s homepage do I see clear a message that registering or logging in will help me achieve MY goals. There’s a link to the Washington version of the homepage in the upper right corner, which has the best of intentions, but because I didn’t find it, it might as well not exist.

This is why Google rules the web. In Google’s world, the user is always right. Google knows that if users fail at their task, they will abandon Google in a heartbeat. Google’s dominance is EARNED, with every search, every click.

I saw Google’s Marissa Mayer give a talk at Web 2.0 a few years back about Google page load times — the talk had a narrowly focused, OCD quality to it. It was weird on the face of it. But this is how Google wins. By obsessing over user experience above all else.

This is also why Google punishes advertisers who try to trick users or provide a poor user experience. Because it reflects poorly on Google. And users don’t come back.

A commenter argued that I should have asked the Washington Post for a comment before publishing a critiquing of their site. My response was that in an analysis of a user experience with a web site, the publisher’s intent DOESN’T MATTER. Web users are utterly unforgiving. If it doesn’t work the way I want, I’m gone in a click. There is no other side to the story.

That’s brutal and, as the commenter asserted, rude and irresponsible. It just doesn’t seem fair.

But it’s also the reality of the web. Google understands this. If publishers want to compete, they need to accept this reality, swallow their pride, and realize that the user experience is EVERYTHING. Design on the web is not about ideals — all that matters is whether the user succeeds.

Before the web, having great content was enough. The irony of my critique of WashingtonPost.com is that it wasn’t a critique of content. They had GREAT content, when I actually found it — there weren’t really any editorial shortcomings. The critique had much more to do with software design than with editorial quality or judgment. News organizations need to add software user interface design to their core competencies.

Lesson for publishers: The web is more about applications than publications.

This is why it’s so damaging for news organizations to apply the standards of print publishing for design, content, and experience — they simply don’t apply on the web. The reality is that designers didn’t necessarily know if they were successful in print, because people kept subscribing to the newspaper anyway. But on the web, success or failure is evident with every click.

Perhaps the biggest problem is that user interface and user experience design are HARD. Even the best designer can’t always anticipate what users will do — or fail to do. Sites need to create a continuous feedback loop with users and improve their design and user experience over time.

WashingtonPost.com’s homepage has a far better design than many other newspaper websites, but its relative merits didn’t matter for my specific use case.

And to be clear, helping users succeed isn’t about pandering. My goal in going to WashingtonPost.com, as it frequently is, could be to find out what’s going on in the world. How I determine whether I’ve succeeded can be much more a function of the quality of editing and content. But when I want specific information, my criteria are far more narrow, and much more unforgiving.

According to usability guru Jakob Nielsen, web users are actually getting MORE hyper-focused and. unforgiving

To remain relevant as a destination, news sites need to help me achieve ALL my objectives ALL of the time.

Just like Google.

UPDATE:

Google is inviting users to help them test out new features of Gmail. Can you imagine your average news site integrating users this deeply into their design process? I know that some have made meaningful efforts to test new designs, but Google keeps upping the ante on the embrace of users.