By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

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Coughing up (or not) for online content

I have been in the throes of rewriting my book the past few weeks, which is why blogging has been sporadic. But let me pause to offer a reading suggestion — Howard Owens’ 10 arguments against paywalls for online news, published yesterday by the Columbia Journalism Review.

Particularly good is No. 9: “Paywalls don’t address the fundamental issues facing newspapers.”

Although I’m not as resolutely opposed to paywalls as Owens, he lays out the arguments against them intelligently and forcefully.

On gay marriage, real names and a real discussion

Howard Owens

I’ve long been an admirer of Howard Owens’ real-names policy for online commenters. It’s one of the reasons I adopted it for Media Nation a couple of years ago. So I was intrigued when he tweeted this morning, “When you manage your comment community correctly, you can run a poll on gay marriage and have the convo remain civil.”

I clicked through to his community-news site, The Batavian, in rural western New York. As I write this, 1,501 people had responded to his survey question: “Do you support gay marriage?” About 45 percent said “yes” and 55 percent said “no.” And Owens was right: I couldn’t find a non-civil comment among them.

What I found was an engaged and engaging discussion (with a bit too much esoterica on states’ rights for my taste), with Owens himself making occasional contributions — an important part of keeping the online conversation on track. Given the volatile nature of the topic, I asked him if he pre-screened the comments or had deleted any after they were posted. His answer: no, and no. Impressive.

I’m not entirely opposed to allowing anonymous comments. At the New Haven Independent, for instance, editor and founder Paul Bass argues that teachers, police officers and other stakeholders wouldn’t dare express their thoughts if they had to reveal their identities. The Independent is often held up as a model of community engagement.

Yet the Independent runs off the rails from time to time, and earlier this year Bass had to tighten up his guidelines — including requiring real-name registration, though anonymous commenting is still allowed.

I can’t say it enough: News organizations have to find effective ways to engage with their users. Just because it isn’t easy doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. (You may thank me later for the triple negative.)

Howard Ziff on the varieties of local journalism

Howard Ziff

Last summer I was interviewing New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen for my book about the New Haven Independent and other community news sites. He told me I had to read an essay by Howard Ziff on the difference between the “provincial” and “cosmopolitan” styles of journalism. So I did. It was brilliant, and I ended up quoting from it in my book.

More on that in a moment. Ziff, who founded the UMass Amherst journalism department, died on Tuesday at the age of 81. This obituary, by Nick Grabbe of the Daily Hampshire Gazette, is particularly good, and is well worth your time. Also recommended: the obit in the school paper, the Massachusetts Daily Collegian. I’m sad to say that though I know a number of people in the UMass journalism department, I never had the pleasure of meeting Ziff.

To get back to “provincial” and “cosmopolitan” journalism — in the 1980s, Ziff wrote an essay called “Practicing Responsible Journalism: Cosmopolitan Versus Provincial Models.” After talking with Jay, I managed to find Ziff’s essay in a hard-to-locate book called “Responsible Journalism,” edited by Deni Elliott.

Ziff helped me understand my own experience in journalism. I spent the first part of my career as a community journalist — as a Northeastern co-op student at the Woonsocket Call in the 1970s, and as a staff reporter and editor for the Daily Times Chronicle of Woburn in the 1980s.

In Ziff’s view, community journalism — provincial journalism — was more about being part of the community than it was standing apart as objective, disengaged observers. Some of the people I worked with, especially in Woonsocket, were folks who had grown up there, who didn’t go to college, but who had the wit to find a job that kept them out of the mills.

They were good reporters. But they were not plotting a career path that would take them, say, from the Call to the Providence Journal and then to the Washington Post. If they were going to leave the Call at all, it would be to work for the local chamber of commerce, or for a Rhode Island elected official.

Ziff’s idea was that this was “provincial” journalism, and that it was neither better nor worse than “cosmopolitan” journalism — it was just different. And the practices that cosmopolitans sneered at — accepting junkets, being slow and cautious in covering stories that embarrassed the community — actually made a great deal of sense for a provincial institution like the local newspaper. Ziff wrote:

When we turn, however, to principles and responsibilities that are more specific to the vocation of journalism, we find that those that apply to the cosmopolitan, professional model do not necessarily apply to the provincial model. In the first instance we are concerned with responsibilities and ethical considerations that can act as moral regulators of the autonomy upon which we insist for journalism as a profession, and not surprisingly we come up with principals such as objectivity and disinterestedness. In the latter, we set as our goal service to the community and province, and will often find that our moral obligation is to be subjective and compassionate.

Ziff lamented the transition of even smaller, community-based newspapers from the provincial to the cosmopolitan — a change he attributed to the rise of corporate chains that bought up locally owned dailies and staffed them with careerist young people with no ties to the community:

It is a great sadness of American journalism today that however diverse their geographic background and polished their skills, so many journalists are valued because they are interchangeable; they put themselves behind the word processor in whatever city to which they are called by corporate employers. The unique value of each person and each region is thus endangered by a system of replaceable parts, and we are in danger of losing sight of the simple truth that the fact that you cannot move a Mike Royko from Chicago or a Jimmy Breslin from New York is a sign of their towering strengths as journalists.

And, in fact, professionalism — that is, cosmopolitanism — may have something to do with why the newspaper business is struggling so much these days. I know that Howard Owens, the publisher and editor of The Batavian, a small, for-profit news site near Buffalo, holds that view. I don’t discount it either, though I think the business pressures that are harming the news business have more to do with corporate debt, technology and cultural change than they do with professionalization.

I brought up the essay on Twitter the other day after learning that Ziff had died. Jay asked me to send him a copy of it, and I realized I couldn’t find it. But I know where I can make another one, and I’m going to do it as soon as I’m able.

Howard Ziff’s work will live on in many ways. For me, it’s through an essay he wrote a quarter-century ago that observed how the news business was changing, and what was worth preserving about a time-honored model that was just then beginning to pass from the scene.

Four smart people, two debates

In today’s Boston Globe, civil-liberties lawyer Harvey Silverglate and Globe columnist Scot Lehigh take on the issue of former Massachusetts Senate president Bill Bulger’s conduct with regard to his brother Whitey Bulger, the notorious mobster who’s been charged in connection with the killings of 19 people.

Silverglate argues that Bill Bulger, also a former president of UMass, was under no obligation to help authorities capture his brother, and that the testimonial privilege granted to spouses should be extended to other family relationships as well. Lehigh counters, “Faced with a moral dilemma, William repeatedly made the wrong choice, putting loyalty to his felonious brother over responsibility to his neighborhood, his constituents, or the larger public community whose university he led.” (Note: Silverglate and I collaborate occasionally, and the latest example will be online later today.)

On an entirely different matter, Slate media columnist Jack Shafer assesses Patch, AOL’s network of hyperlocal sites, and finds them lacking. “Besides being wildly expensive to create, hyperlocal news doesn’t seem to appeal to a broad audience,” Shafer writes.

That prompts a response from Howard Owens, publisher of The Batavian, an independent hyperlocal site in western New York. (Owens posts two comments; read the second one first.) Here’s an excerpt:

As my friend and fellow indie publisher notes, it’s only expensive if you have a big corporate structure to support and shareholder demands to meet. There are a handful of successful local online ventures that produce a ton of highly engaging, sought after, popular, memorable local news that do it at a fraction of the cost of the corporate entities.

I posted a brief comment as well, contending that Shafer’s complaint seems to be more about his lack of interest in community news than about anything intrinsic to Patch.

Instant update: Paul Bass, editor and founder of the New Haven Independent, just weighed in. And if you scroll way down, you’ll see a brief comment from another Media Nation favorite, Debbie Galant, co-founder and co-editor of Baristanet in Montclair, N.J.

An experiment in local news is growing

Congratulations to Howard Owens, publisher and editor of the Batavian, who this week announced two part-time hires for his pioneering news site, one on the news side, the other in advertising. Significantly, his new reporter, Brittany Baker, recently lost her job at the local newspaper, the Daily News.

Owens continues to prove that it’s possible to build a successful for-profit community news site if you’re willing to work hard — although, as he is quick to point out, he works no harder than the pizza-shop owners and other entrepreneurs who advertise on his site.

Community journalism has never been a way to get rich. What Owens is proving is that the cheap and free tools of the Web make it possible to restore mom-and-pop independent local news of the sort that graced every city and town up until a generation or two ago.

Listening to your audience

Howard Owens, publisher of The Batavian, a community news site in western New York, offers a useful lesson in listening to your audience.

On Friday, Owens posted a story about a couple who were arrested and charged with having sex on a picnic table at a public park. Both the 41-year-old woman and her 29-year-old paramour were charged with public lewdness. Weirdly, the woman, who is married and has children, was also charged with adultery.

Owens customarily publishes the names of every adult who is arrested. In this case, though, he named the man but not the woman, writing, “Because the woman is married with children, The Batavian has chosen to withhold her name.”

That led to a flood of comments, most of them from readers arguing that what was good for the man ought to be good enough for the woman as well. Owens, in turn, changed his mind and named the woman, writing:

After giving it much thought — listening to our critics, talking with Billie [his wife and business partner], considering previous cases — I’ve come to the conclusion that our decision Friday night not to publish the name was a mistake.

Never one to let an opportunity go to waste, Owens posted a poll question an hour and a half ago, asking, “When couples are caught in public having sex, should their names be released?” The results, as I write this: 68 percent “yes,” 15 percent “no,” 14 percent “maybe” and 3 percent “no opinion.” [Note: Results corrected as of 11:07 a.m.]

Given Owens’ policy of naming every person over 17 who is “arrested, detained or cited by local law enforcement when the name is released to the local media,” I think he made the right call.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

How Facebook is driving the push for real names

Could Facebook — or at least the Facebook ethos — help turn the tide of negativity when it comes to online newspaper comments?

Richard Pérez-Peña reports in the New York Times that an increasing number of news organizations are requiring commenters to use their real names, or at least providing incentives to do so. They credit Facebook and Twitter, where most people use their real names, in fostering a change in attitude. Pérez-Peña writes:

Several industry executives cited a more fundamental force working in favor of identifying commenters. Through blogging and social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, millions of people have grown accustomed to posting their opinions — to say nothing of personal details — with their names attached, for all to see. Adapting the Facebook model, some news sites allow readers to post a picture along with a comment, another step away from anonymity.

Several months ago I led a workshop on social media for the New England Newspaper & Press Association. The most interesting idea to come out of the workshop, I thought, was put forth by a weekly-newspaper editor who said he had been posting links to many of his stories to a Facebook group and encouraging readers to comment there.

The Facebook group, he said, had turned into more of a real online community than the comments at his newspaper’s Web site, where anonymity had transformed even mundane matters into fodder for nasty rhetoric and personal attacks. And it’s not just real names; it’s the entire online persona people create on Facebook, with pictures and personal information, all of which encourage users to act more like human beings when they start typing. I was so excited that I instituted a real-names policy at Media Nation as soon as the conference was over, though I’ve held off from taking the Facebook route.

But what about the notion of sending readers away from your Web site, where you presumably have some advertising you want them to look at? I would argue that if you become a trusted source for your readers, they will reward you by coming back and providing you with more traffic than you would otherwise get.

Besides, as Pérez-Peña notes, advertisers generally don’t want to be associated with the kind of vitriol that characterizes anonymous comment sections.

Facebook is a great technological solution for small organizations that don’t have the wherewithal to offer a registration system of their own. But Howard Owens has managed to put together a registration system accompanied by a real-names policy at the Batavian, the community-news site in western New York that he owns. Owens writes:

Real names may not prevent people from spewing misinformation and defamatory bile, but at least if readers trust that the person making such assertions is using a real name, they can judge it accordingly, or fact check the source themselves.

Owens goes on to note that if the Cleveland Plain Dealer had had a real-names policy, it could have avoided the ethical dilemma in which it finds itself over a judge whose e-mail address was being used to post anonymous comments about cases in which she was involved. (The judge claims, not too convincingly, that the anonymous poster was her daughter.)

The Plain Dealer outed the judge, Shirley Strickland Safford. And last week Saffold sued the paper for $50 million, claiming the paper had violated its own privacy policy.

Of course, that’s something of an inside-out argument — that is, the Plain Dealer wouldn’t have done anything unethical if it didn’t have private information it could handle unethically. The best reason for real names is to foster a civil discussion. Along with strict moderation, real names can help fulfill the promise of a comments section that helps build community and readership.

Neither revolutionary nor retrograde

Click on image for larger view

The case for Apple’s iPad seems clear enough. Some 700,000 were sold on Saturday, which was double what had been predicted.

The case against the iPad is based on two different but related arguments. First, critics say the iPad is designed mainly for consuming rather than creating content, and that it thus represents a corporate-driven attempt to put the Internet genie back in the bottle and return us to our former status as passive couch potatoes. Second, the iPad is a closed system controlled entirely by Apple, and will therefore stifle the sort of innovation that gave rise to such phenomena as Google and Twitter.

Both propositions are true. Yet they strike me as overblown.

The case against the iPad as a consumption-oriented device is summed up well by Jeff Jarvis, who writes — accurately, I think — that a principal reason the device has been the recipient of so much media buzz is that media executives see this as a chance for a do-over: this time, moguls will control the content and consumers will pay for it. Jarvis writes:

The iPad is retrograde. It tries to turn us back into an audience again. That is why media companies and advertisers are embracing it so fervently, because they think it returns us all to their good old days when we just consumed, we didn’t create, when they controlled our media experience and business models and we came to them.

Yet the iPad isn’t just a repository for paid apps; it’s also a pretty good machine for browsing the Web. If you are currently reading the New York Times on the Web rather than paying for electronic delivery through Times Reader, for instance, well, the iPad will let you keep right on doing that.

As for participation and conversation, the iPad’s virtual keyboard is pretty lousy (based on my brief encounter with it at the Apple store in Peabody on Saturday), but it’s good enough for posting to Twitter and Facebook, or even for writing short blog posts.

Besides, as Howard Owens notes, “The vast majority of people … are media consumers, they are lurkers, not creators.”

The tech argument against the iPad strikes me as even more esoteric. The idea is that by requiring developers to write apps within a rigid, closed universe, to get them approved by Apple and to share revenues with Apple, Steve Jobs is stifling the innovation that gave rise to both the personal computer and the Internet.

At BoingBoing, Cory Doctorow waxes rhapsodic over the days when the Apple II Plus came with schematics for the circuit boards, and quotes something called the “Maker Manifesto” in writing, “Screws not glue.” Doctorow’s point is that we should be able to rip our devices apart and customize them the way we like. Needless to say, Doctorow is not talking to too many people — just his fellow hackers.

Now, I don’t find either Jarvis’ or Doctorow’s critiques to be entirely without merit. But I’m proceeding on the assumption that the iPad is not going to take over the world. The iPad is an auxiliary device that will not take the place of computers. It’s also only one model for how to make a tablet computer. As Jarvis notes, Google is said to be working on a model, and it’s likely to be far more open than Apple’s. We’ll see if it’s as popular.

Personally, I’m not all that impressed with the iPad. I got to spend about 10 minutes with one on Saturday. Granted, that wasn’t really enough time to put it through its paces. But it was enough to see that the display is no better than that of a good-quality laptop; that the virtual keyboard is fairly unusable (you’ll be able to buy a plug-in keyboard, but wouldn’t you rather have a netbook?); and that it’s too heavy to wield like a magazine or newspaper.

Even for pure media consumption, it’s not necessarily better than a laptop. I’d rather take an iPad into the living room. But a laptop is better for propping up on the kitchen table during breakfast, because you don’t have to hold it up in front of you. I might get a later, presumably lighter, version. But I’m not salivating.

The ridiculous amount of hype that has surrounded the iPad, to which I am now contributing, has made all of us think this is more important than it really is. It’s not going to save the traditional media, however much media executives may wish it, and however much Jarvis and Doctorow may be gnashing their teeth.

An award for an innovative online news site

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lWrzex2yeoA&color1=0xb1b1b1&color2=0xcfcfcf&hl=en_US&feature=player_embedded&fs=1]
The Batavian, an online-only news site based in the western New York town of Batavia, has been recognized as the “Innovative Enterprise of the Year” by the Genesee County Chamber of Commerce.

Founded and now owned by former GateHouse Media executive Howard Owens, the two-year-old Batavian is among the more serious for-profit local-news experiments unfolding nationally.

Above is an interview I did with Owens last June during a visit to Batavia. Congratulations to Owens, an innovative thinker who has fully embraced the just-do-it ethos of online journalism.

What a Bing News deal might mean for journalism

cash_register_20091130I can’t remember the last time the media world was as excited about a business deal that may or may not be consummated as the one involving Microsoft and Rupert Murdoch. The reason, I think, is three-fold.

First, it potentially moves us beyond the tired old debate about pay walls (I say “potentially,” because we don’t know if Murdoch will give up on that misbegotten notion).

Second, it could provide an answer to the question of who should pay whom, and how.

Third, it could represent a monetary boost for paid journalism at a moment when the profession is in the midst of an existential crisis.

In simple terms, here’s how the deal might work. Microsoft is said to be offering to pay Murdoch and other newspaper publishers (and you’d need a lot of them; Rupe can’t do this alone) to make their sites invisible to Google, a simple matter that involves inserting a line of code. Thus if you wanted to search for a news story about, say, President Obama’s upcoming speech on Afghanistan, you would have use Microsoft’s Bing instead of Google.

Bing News would compete with Google’s automatically assembled Google News service. But, unlike Google, Microsoft would share advertising revenues from Bing News with the news organizations to which it is linking.

To be sure, Google News is the most benign of aggregators. It places no advertising on its home page. That’s important because it’s a customizable substitute front page. Most people read a news site by scanning headlines and ledes, and only occasionally clicking on a story. Thus, if Google were to try to make money from the Google News home page, it could rightly be accused of stealing the most valuable parts of newspaper stories and profiting from that theft. (And, as we know, there are aggregators that do precisely that. As I’ve argued before, Michael Wolff’s Newser may be the most blatant.)

If you search Google News, you will be shown ads related to what you’re looking for. But as Howard Owens has pointed out, if you are searching for a news story on a particular topic, then you are going to click through. Those are valuable readers whom Google is sending to news organizations. And, as Jeff Jarvis argues, it’s not Google’s fault if newspaper executives haven’t been able to figure out how to monetize the audience Google is sending to them.

With that bit of background out of the way, let’s turn this on its head. One of the things about Internet commerce that makes for such fascinating — and frustrating — debate is that it’s unclear which direction the money should be moving in. Even though Google has attempted to step lightly with its news service, Murdoch and some other news executives argue that Google should share ad revenues generated by Google News.

But imagine, if you will, an alternative universe in which newspaper sites were rolling in advertising revenues from readers Google sent their way, but in which Google itself couldn’t find a way to make any money. (Such a scenario requires you to believe a number of ridiculous things, but never mind.) Can you imagine what the debate would be? You’d hear demands that cash-fattened newspaper owners share some of their newly gotten wealth with Google. You’d hear threats that Google would exclude news sites that refused.

My point is that there isn’t really any underlying principle as to who ought to pay for what online. Rather, the debate is driven by who’s making money, who’s losing money and — here’s where we get back to Microsoft — the business model of any particular Internet company.

What is Microsoft’s business interest with respect to Bing? Simply this: to build market share, establishing Bing as a serious search alternative to Google. Bing has a long way to go, with 10 percent of the market to Google’s 65 percent. That said, Bing has received good reviews since its debut earlier this year. And it’s really the only search engine to emerge as any kind of rival to Google pretty much since Google slipped into view in the late 1990s.

Bing News, as a partner of news sites rather than a rival, would have some advantages over Google News. The biggest would be that it wouldn’t have to pussyfoot around with regard to advertising. Since it would be sharing revenue, it could assemble an ad-laden home page, and make its search results more advertising-driven than Google News’ are.

Since it would be sharing those revenues, the news organizations, rather than complain, would be cheering Microsoft on. And if users came to understand that they had to visit Bing in order to search, say, the world’s 100 or so biggest and best newspapers, then Bing would quickly gain market share at Google’s expense.

Sadly, this would represent a significant setback to Google’s vision of indexing all the world’s knowledge. But there has always been an inherent tension in leaving it to a private corporation to carry out such a utopian plan. Look at the ongoing battle over Google Books, which would benefit everyone, but none more than Google.

It would also represent business as usual for Microsoft, which dominated the 1980s and ’90s not by offering more to its customers but by crippling its competitors. This is a company that, as legend would have it, built market share for its spreadsheet, Excel, by rewriting MS-DOS — its Windows precursor — so that the leading program, Lotus 1-2-3, wouldn’t run properly. “The job’s not done till Lotus won’t run” is one variation of the supposed battle cry heard in Redmond. Paying newspapers to pull out of Google is just the latest iteration of that theme.

But will it work? Is there any way a Bing News service could generate the sort of advertising revenue that would make up for a significant chunk of what the traditional media have lost? Somehow it seems doubtful. Still, it strikes me as a far more worthy experiment than whatever Steven Brill has been cooking up with his paid-content scheme for lo these many months. I hope we’ll get a chance to see how this all plays out.

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