Category Archives: Uncategorized

Knight, I know you can do it right

Stop giving money to old media, even individuals that are still in that mindset.

Hand the keys over to tech people. No need to be jealous of Silicon Valley innovation, just fund it. Seek out proposals from non-journalists and fund them.

The joint venture between Knight and Mozilla is a start, but it is also a start in the wrong direction. Why not just give Mozilla money to start a publication? Why not add a component to an established event such as a TechCrunch conference? There could be a pitch contest from entrepreneurs looking to fund really outside the box ideas.

I feel like only a small percentage of the Knight Foundation’s News Challenge money goes to breakthrough innovations, most of it goes to other large organizations to fund specific stories. Sometimes you get the feeling Knight is like the Federal Reserve lending to large banks.

Unfortunately (fortunately?) this is a very short contribution to this month’s Carnival, so I will leave you with the most distilled down version of this post’s ideas

Continue the challenge but take more risk. Give out more grants, smaller grants and ask different people to take that risk, people outside your comfort zone.

 

[NOTE: This is a response to March 2011’s Carnival of Journalism prompt. ]

Carnival of Journalism: Increasing the Number of News Sources

I lead product development for Macer Media LLC, whose primary property is the news site,The Sacramento Press. It is in this capacity that I will address the February Carnival of Journalism topic:

Considering your unique circumstances what steps can be taken to increase the number of news sources?

I design new tools and features for the custom Content Management System (CMS) that runs sacramentopress.com.

We operate in large part by getting the community to contribute news, information, comments, photographs, tags, ratings and moderation to our site. We have gained a lot of qualitative insight as to why they do it. Now I want to develop more quantitative and analytical methods to expand our knowledge about why people contribute. In furthering our knowledge of this crucial question I believe we will be able to develop new tools and features to get a vastly more and varied contribution.

We have done many things to attract more contribution, from the digital to the tangible. We host free workshops open to the community to teach them more about our site, journalism and many related topics. We started a badge system to recognize individuals in our community for their hard work. And most importantly we hired a community manager to continue to build and grow relationships with the community, and to add new voices into the mix.

Despite the aim of these actions being in whole or in part to increase the level of community contribution on our site, we have taken few steps to measure the results of our actions in depth.

On top of all that, we are in a unique position to really advance the whole industry’s knowledge in this space, because we are a relatively large, funded, for profit news site that has the tech resources to research and develop new tools. My background in particular (web developer/programmer) puts me in a position to dramatically experiment with how we modify our website to achieve the goal of getting more community voices on our site.

This next cycle of development will be spent adding tools to our CMS that give each department insight into what drives site contribution. Beyond that information I have also spent the last week examining the contribution habits of our users when it comes to writing articles.

In many circles the concept of the 1-9-90 rule for user contributed content is accepted as near gospel. The basic principle is that 1% of your overall site viewers heavily contribute content to the site, 9% are light contributors and remaining 90% are what are known as “lurkers” or those that simply consume the content without interacting with it.

In our case we don’t even have the tools to measure this rule in an easy fashion, nor have we even defined what constitutes contribution. By merely flagging something, have I as a reader contributed to the site? Is tagging a contribution?

If we simply look at the number of people who write articles on our site (excluding staff and interns) we see that those unique people make up a tiny fraction of the unique people that view our website. In January of this year 0.14% of visitors to the site wrote an article, significantly less than 1%. Since January of 2010 we have seen that number head in a downward trend as you can see on the graph below.

Percentage_writers

 

However during that time we have also seen site traffic increase substantially (see below graph), more than doubling during that period, yet the unique contribution rate did not halve.

Unique_visitors

Looking at these numbers is inspiring, but making something of them will require a lot more work. I aim to do that work and use what I have learned to build a system that attracts more new and unique users to our site. The more perspectives we have the better informed the community will be.

Blogbate round 3 OR Showdown at the MoJo Dojo

This is round 3 of a continuing back and forth between Phillip Smith and myself.

Legacy media organizations are where brilliant news innovations go to die.

So I fear a fundamental flaw in the design of the Knight-Mozilla partnership. However, the media partners you have are rather progressive media organizations. If this idea works with anyone (and it may), these are the most likely people with whom it would work.

And though I originally wrote my blog post because I was interested in advising the Knight Foundation on how to advance journalism and reporting, I am happy to re-frame the debate around Mozilla’s mission of continuing to proliferate the open web. Personally I find Mozilla’s mission admirable, but I still don’t think that it is best served by your current plan, summarized in the following video.

Knight Mozilla Journalism Partnership from Graham Wheeler on Vimeo.

Large media conglomerates have a terrible track record of openness. While tech companies like Facebook and Apple have come under scrutiny for having closed systems, or systems that don’t respect individual privacy, there are also many tech organizations who are very open, such as Google, who is Mozilla’s primary source of funding. And to answer your question about innovative tech organizations promoting openness with wide adoption by media, how about Twitter, Scribd and Instapaper?

What I really want to know, is how putting the very best and brightest news hackers in large media companies will proliferate the concept of the open web.

True many millions of dollars are about to be spent by media organizations on new initiatives, but individual projects rarely effect those decisions. Beyond that, a million dollar decision today, might be a million dollar loss and scrapped plan at the end of the financial year.

For example, look at TBD.com. It was a brilliant multi-million dollar idea that opened up the site to contribution from the community. Its spirit was in sharing news, sharing profits and by doing so making the community a better place. Allegedly something like $5 million was spent on it. It was gutted after just 3 months.

Unfortunately this is not an exception, it is the status quo with large media companies. So I fear that without executive support, shareholder confidence and financial feasibility studies presented about the value of the open web, brilliant ideas may be considered brilliant, but never implemented at scale.

Bottom-line is that I love what MoJo is trying to do, I even love the competition part of it, but I fear it will not work. I am only critical because I am passionate about both news innovation and the proliferation of openness and I want to see both concepts make significant progress.

Let me end with a quick anecdote.

It was Spring of 2010, a bright and warm day in Sacramento. After proposing a joint workshop we, tiny little news start-up The Sacramento Press, were invited to meet with the editor of 150 year old Sacramento Bee, in her office, in the heart of the newsroom.

We got through security and were escorted upstairs by the jovial, sarcastic and generally very affable online managing editor. But by the time we got to the newsroom, we realized what it felt like to be in the heart of a struggling organization. As we entered, the air was sucked from the room. Reporters, AMEs, and more less all editorial staffers present looked at us as if we were alien life forms.

While the meeting was tense we managed to arrange the workshop, but the feeling inside that newsroom was quite palpable.

I fear that feeling might be the everyday reality of the fellows you eventually select from your partnership. The concern being that your MoJo fellows might flourish as well as a Saber-toothed tiger stuck in the LaBrae Tar Pits.

Newspapers are wrong to charge for essential content

Disclosure: To those of you who may be reading this and don’t know me, I have a vested interest in this debate since I am one of the founders and current owners of sacramentopress.com a local online only newspaper whose content comes from a mix of paid professional journalists and unpaid community contributors. I am a staunch opponent of paywalls.

Below is a line by line refutation of an article by Tony Pederson claiming that newspapers are right to charge for content. His article is indented and block quoted.

The announcement of a new digital strategy by The Dallas Morning News to charge for online and mobile access to content is welcome news for those wanting the daily newspaper to survive.

I don’t find it welcome news, this strategy has failed manymany times before. I don’t need the newspaper industry to survive, I need good local journalism to survive and the two are not intrinsically tied. Having said that I love our local paper and don’t want to see it fail.

Dramatic circulation and advertising declines in the last decade have created serious questions about the survival of the industry.

Agreed, however more serious questions exist about why the executives at major newspaper chains refused to acknowledge this change and even still are not taking the required drastic steps to change what they do. The innovator’s dilemma is almost certainly heavily at work here.

The history of newspaper companies and how they dealt with the Internet is hardly distinguished.

I agree yet again, but not for the reason Mr. Pederson is about to mention. When given the opportunity to tell the local stories and news in brilliant new ways, most daily papers only re-published their print editions online, often times refusing to link to any other relevant sources.

Virtually all newspapers made the decision in the 1990s to give away the news content.

True, but more importantly, false. There’s a great little sleight of hand in this very meager but important sentence which lays the logical foundation for the rest of the article. So let’s dissect it a little.

The implication of the above statement is that the newspapers gave the content away for free. This is not true in a very straightforward way (dozens of newspapers started with a paywall), and it remains untrue today in a less obvious way. It’s less obvious to people that the true cost they incur by reading originally produced content is giving part of their attention to advertisers. That attention has always been what newspapers touted to advertisers and what resulted in the bulk of their revenue.

Where they really failed is by giving away their advertising space for free. They just added it along with their print advertising mostly at no additional cost.

Those were the days when circulation was steady and classified advertising sections were fat.

Sort of– the fact is that circulation numbers have always been questionably reported and the basic notion that a company could be trusted to be objective to advertisers about numbers that directly impacted how much a company could charge for ads is dubious at best. Plus take a look at any major newspaper chain’s stock valuation and you will see that most of them peaked between 2000 and 2005.

In fact, it was assumed that the classified advertising would be a significant attraction for online users. Those were the days before Monster, eBay and Craigslist.

Again, the history is not quite right since eBay and Craigslist both started in 1995*, but they weren’t initially prolific it did take a while, so let’s say this statement is a wash.

 

And consumers remain interested in classified advertising online and there is little reason to think that a more compelling product than Monster, eBay or Craigslist couldn’t have been created by the newspaper industry. Others who didn’t have the tech muscle to build better platforms simply bought or partnered with them, capturing some of the lost revenue potential.

The larger miscalculation by newspaper companies, however, concerned an underestimation of what the Internet was. Newspaper executives thought the Internet was simply a new medium.

“Digitizing the news,” by Pablo Boczkowski gives you a somewhat different perspective on what newspaper executives thought. Considering the massive amounts various large papers invested in digital distribution technology before the web was even around, you get the distinct feeling they thought of the Internet as more than just a new medium.

Legacy media had always adjusted to new media such as radio and then television, and it was assumed that modifications in the way of doing business could produce continuing profits.

Legacy media, and by this I assume he means newspapers, had actually done a rather awful job adjusting to other new media. For many years before the internet existed the newspaper industry had been losing ground to other types of media. Even now, cable advertising is doing the more damage to newspaper revenues than the internet, and cable TV has been around for quite some time (Newspaper Economics, see slide 5).

In 1995 few foresaw what the Internet has become. MIT convergence scholar Henry Jenkins has correctly noted that the Internet has produced the first fundamental change in the relationship between the public and mass media since Gutenberg. The cultural shift has left newspapers struggling for revenue. The result has been staff layoffs and a significant reduction in print news content.

I agree that it has really been the cultural change that has been the hardest pill for the newspaper industry to swallow.

And I’m not familiar with Mr. Henry Jenkins (though I’m now intent on reading lots of his work), but at least in terms of being prolific, I first heard the comparison with the Gutenberg press made by Clay Shirky, not Jenkins, in his now famous blogpost regarding the fate of the newspaper industry.

Even so, newspapers currently have more readers than ever.

Yup, but why not link to a source on this one?

But the readers are online, and they’re not paying.

Again, readers rarely ever paid for content directly, they paid with attention and they still do. Look at the digital advertising revenue growth at all the major newspaper chains in the last five years, it’s actually fairly impressive (look at the corporate websites for Gannett and McClatchy, as well as the New York Times company).

Since the beginning of mass circulation newspapers in the 1830s, newspapers have essentially been manufacturing companies.

Yup.

A product is printed at a central printing facility and then distributed to customers. The costs of production, distribution and newsprint have historically been the majority of a newspaper company’s expenses.

Again I agree, lots of good points made in this article. In fact production and distribution are so expensive their costs aren’t even covered by the retail price of the paper.

Now, newspapers have a chance to become what they really have seen themselves as all along, which is an information company.

They do have a chance, but do they really want to become that, or are they better off becoming the next great ad agencies? I’m not sure, but it is a great opportunity not to be manufacturing companies anymore.

The Dallas Morning News is in the vanguard of the change.

I pretty strongly disagree, I think pay-wall-pushing-papers are among the technological Luddites of the industry. But this guy is more likely in the vanguard as is his company, which last year proposed this shift in how the company is run.

The New York Times has announced it will make a similar move in the coming months. Other newspaper companies will follow.

Different pay wall system, but just as ill-advised. And while a few others may follow, when these pay walls fail as nearly every other similar one has (including a previous pay wall from the NY Times), I doubt we will see many more (at least for a while).

The Wall Street Journal, obviously a different type of newspaper, has successfully charged for online access for years.

Oft quoted, infrequently (or never?) quantified, this is a statement that may be true, but I have never seen detailed numbers with my own eyes. I hear this a lot, I have even parroted this statement, but I can few numbers to support it. In this YouTube video Dow Jones CEO Les Hinton mentions just under 1.1 million subscribers,” but questions still remain about what that means. Are these 1.1 million online only subscribers? How many are corporate subscriptions versus individuals which the Wall Street Journal is hoping to attract these days.

The paper’s iPad application is smooth, efficient and highly portable. There are the hard-core print addicts who will insist on holding a newspaper in their hands, but the iPad application is in fact easier to use and read. Finding stories is a snap, and there will be more and more converts, even among older readers.

I don’t own an iPad and have never tried the app. The reviews for the app on the iTunes app store though are less than favorable, for whatever that is worth.

Newspaper companies as recently as two years ago resisted the idea of charging for online access.

This statement is not entirely accurate. Many, several dozen metro dailies in fact, started out charging and slowly came around in the 90’s to not charging for their content. And even now, many such as McClatchy’s Gary Pruitt, still see paywalls as experimental at best.

The current move is a risk, but it’s one newspapers have to take to survive.

Paywalls are less a risk and more like jumping off a bridge hoping you will figure out how to fly on the way down. Newspapers can survive in lots of ways that don’t involve erecting paywalls, because they are surviving currently, albeit with some difficulty.

There are many media naysayers, insisting that Internet content always has been and must continue to be free. That’s not entirely true; users have always been willing to pay for some types of content. Pornography was the original killer app for the Internet, and still is.

I don’t insist that content has to be free, but news content, since it’s readily available and free to distribute widely is a hard sell when it comes to charging for it. And of course, as I have stated over and over, internet content isn’t free, it requires you to give some of your attention to advertisements.

Funny also that Mr. Pederson should mention porn, since free online pornographic video sites have been destroying traditional porn industries revenues. Look at Alexa and see if you find Playboy, Hustler or a big pornographic video company among the top 100 sites (hint: you won’t but you will find dozens of free online pornographic video sites).

If newspapers can provide content that is relevant and easily accessible and usable, people will pay. People will not pay for such common news elements as stock quotes, sports scores, traffic and weather. But specific, essential content not available elsewhere is another matter.

Two questions, is local content essential? I would argue that it is since I run a local news website, but it’s a bit of an uphill battle convincing younger people that it matters. And secondly is local news not available elsewhere? A quick look at placeblogger.com will reveal that 1000’s of individuals around the country are blogging about local news and events.

The question for newspapers is understanding what content readers will find essential. And how much readers are willing to pay for the access.

A fair question, and as much as I must accept that the answer may be some amount above zero, paywall advocates need to accept the fact that the answer may indeed be zero.

The Internet has produced a cacophony of news and information. Some of the content is highly relevant and useful. See The Huffington Post and even the Drudge Report. But much of the content is ridiculous and even dangerous. See WikiLeaks as an example of the dangerous.

This sounds like the problem is an overwhelming amount of data that is unsorted and badly curated. But things are getting better and they will continue to. I think saying that the internet is dangerous and citing Wikileaks as an example is quite the straw man argument. You could easily argue that unchecked extremes in current mainstream media cause as much or more harm to society than Wikileaks. Besides what exactly did Wikileaks due to harm anything? Robert Gates recanted his early statements about their harm to informants and Hillary Clinton in her speech on the subject stated no specific harm done. But that’s a whole separate blog post.

We should all hope the experiment to charge for online access works. We need the daily newspaper to sort out fact from absurdity. The newspaper has never been more essential to a vibrant democracy.

A vibrant democracy informs as many people as possible about the society in which they live not just the million plus affluent subscribers of WSJ.com. So for the sake of this country I hope we can find a way to keep content produced by journalists simultaneously free and paid for.

 

* Craigslist actually started as an email list and wasn’t on the interwebs until 1996.

Hidden in Plain Site

My posts may be rubbish, but on the off chance that they are nuggets of pure wisdom, what happens when no one sees them?

This had previously led me to think about witholding a very good (ahem, in my opinion) post because it wouldn’t be well read.

This Atlantic article reminded me of how poorly I can think at times. The article takes a good look at the propagation of content on the web and the simultaneous rise in status of people along with their newly discovered but previously written posts. It focuses on Aaron Bady and his blog zunguzungu, but also notes several other individuals who have been through a similar rise to prominence.

The bottom line from the article is summarized by this quote:

…it shows that in today’s media landscape, an act of journalism can spread quickly to the very highest levels of the culture and news industry, no matter where it comes from.

Isn’t that energizing! It does more to perk me up than 10 cups of coffee, plus 10 cups of coffee makes me dizzy and nauseous.

What I take from that quote and article in a broader sense is that our world is becoming more of a meritocracy than it has ever been before and that gives me great optimism about the future of humanity. This is a theme that I think has been echoed for sometime online including another great article recently about the rise of a sports blogger.

So not only is the web and the blogging community a huge meritocracy, it is also a place where discovery is more likely to occur due to the permanence of content on the Internet.

As an American, and an entrepreneur who has had his foot in the publishing door for sometime now, I am re-energized and truly excited about the possibilities of online publishing, a long overdue epiphany. It’s good to be practicing what I preach.

(Post Script)

I do realize that my title is a wee bit too punny, but something about running an online paper for a few years compels me to pun-ify my titles. I may be hanging around too many journalists.

Nomenclature: Geeks Vs. Nerds vs. Dorks

Everybody uses these terms.

People use them interchangeably.

But in my mind they have distinct meanings.

First of all what unites them is that they all are subcategories of the greater category of social ineptness. All three terms have that common trait, some to a greater degree. But that is where the commonality ends.

Geeks are simply people who are defined by their obsession with particular activity, to the point where it causes harm to a more balanced social life. Nothing about being a geek means someone is inherently intelligent, nor are their pursuits generally intellectual in nature.

Nerds are a close relative of geeks, to make a geeky reference, nerds are to geeks, as Vulcans are to Romulans (if you are a male that wants to have sex, please don’t repeat that phrase unless you are at an event that ends in -con). But seriously folks, nerds by my definition are people that are extremely curious and spend much of their time excessively exploring an intellectual pursuit. In my mind an appropriate synonym would be a bookworm.

In summary so far, you would definitely want to cheat off a nerd’s exam in high school, but not a geek’s. If you were a stereotypical high school bully you want to punch both, which you could accomplish by going to the library. The former would be reading a book about the latest IEEE specification (look it up non-engineers), while the latter would be holding a 20 sided die, playing D&D.

And last (and also least) onward to dorkiness…

A simple definition of a dork is someone who is goofy, silly or quirky. An example of a dork might be the most socially inept person in an otherwise popular group of people. They may say inappropriate things, make bad or odd attempts at humor, but still have affable personalities. They like being social, they just suck at it. Dorks are also people who do not specialize in one particular activity. The other interesting thing about the term “dork” is that it is used more often to describe a type of activity as opposed to holistically labeling a person.

More recently, the terms “geek” and “nerd” have gained increasingly positive connotations, and have thus become more popular and a part of the mainstream, with the term “geek” becoming the most popular. There are now many variants of the term that have found their way into pop culture, such as the term “geek chic” referring to geeky clothing styles being incorporated into hip clothing brands and trends. But really the term has blossomed into describing a person as having a real passion for a particular activity. For instance phrases like, “I’m a real photography geek,” have come to mean that a person is passionate about a hobby but perhaps not a master of that hobby yet.

This is simply my take based on my generational and cultural influences. As with any word there can be many interpretations or connotations that vary by region and by person. I’d love to update this post, or write another in the future based on other people’s thoughts on the subject.

Introduction*

This web log is aimed squarely at nothing in particular.

It is a jack of all subjects and a master of none (everyone always leaves off the second part of that idiom).

After languishing in internet obscurity for years now it was time geoffsamek.com had *something* on it. It was also time that I played around with Posterous, which I have heard good things about. Plus the indie/hipster buried deep inside me wanted to use a more obscure platform than the obvious Blogger, or the trendy and up and comer, Tumblr.

This is to be my catch-all for anything I write anywhere, from this point in time forwards. For anything previous to this blog see the appendix of my never to be posthumously published autobiography, “I Wish I Were the Most Misunderstood Man in the World.”

Both Adam Leff and Lee McMullen were big sources of inspiration for me when I thought about starting this blog. The former showed me that you can start out an okay writer and with practice blow people’s minds with clever well written observations. The latter inspired me with both her innately brilliant writing and an unfortunate and equally brilliant ability to squander that talent through not writing.

So here I sit wondering why any one person would read all my blog entries. I will take this space to indulge my curiosity in the form of writing.

So it goes.

*Can you think of one thing labeled an introduction that isn’t immensely boring? At least this one was short.