Thinking about the future of local journalism

Recently I had a chance to interview three smart people about the future of local journalism:

  • Josh Stearns, director of journalism and sustainability at the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, who is studying six digital startups in New Jersey and New York. (You can see my full interview with Stearns by clicking here.)
  • Meg Heckman, a University of New Hampshire journalism professor whose master’s thesis at Northeastern University was on the role of women at digital startups — and why women are more likely to be involved in hyperlocal sites than in larger national projects.
  • Tim Coco, the president and general manager of WHAV Radio in Haverhill, a mostly online community station (it also has a weak AM signal) for which Coco is seeking a low-power FM license.

I don’t get to make videos that often, but I wanted to scrape some of the rust off my skills for the benefit of my graduate students, who are currently making their own videos. My philosophy is that every journalist needs to know how to make a decent video with the tools at hand — in my case, an iPhone 5S, a portable tripod that I bought five years ago for less than $20, and iMovie ’11, also known as iMovie 9. (The newer iMovie 10 strikes me as slow and kludgy, but maybe I just need a faster computer.)

The one luxury I indulged in was a Røde lapel mic (known in the trade as a lav mic), which I bought for well under $100 just before I started this project. It made a huge difference — the audio is of far better quality, with much less interference from outside noise, than in previous videos I’ve made.

What I should have done, but didn’t, was use a better app than Apple’s built-in Camera so that I could lock in brightness and contrast. That way I could have avoided the sudden shifts from dark to light and back that mar my interview with Stearns.

Still, it’s useful to know that you can shoot a decent video without spending many hundreds of dollars on a professional camera and Final Cut Pro. I think there’s a tendency at journalism schools to believe that we’re selling our students short if they don’t get to use the latest and greatest technology. And yes, they should have a chance to use the good stuff. But they also need to know that many news organizations, especially smaller ones, expect their journalists to make do with what’s available.

Disruptive innovation and the future of news

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Photo via ElationPress.com.

Previously published at Medium.

Toward the end of The Innovator’s Dilemma, Clayton Christensen’s influential 1997 book about why good companies sometimes fail, he writes, “I have found that many of life’s most useful insights are often quite simple.”

Indeed, the fundamental ideas at the heart of his book are so blindingly self-evident that, in retrospect, it is hard to imagine it took a Harvard Business School professor to describe them for the first time. And that poses a problem for Jill Lepore, a Harvard historian who recently wrote a scathingly critical essay about Christensen’s theories for the New Yorker titled “The Disruption Machine.” Call it the Skeptic’s Dilemma.

Christensen offers reams of data and graphs to support his claims, but his argument is easy to understand. Companies generally succeed by improving their products, upgrading their technology, and listening to their customers — processes that are at the heart of what Christensen calls “sustaining innovations.” What destroys some of those companies are “disruptive innovations” — crude, cheap at first, attacking from below, and gradually (or not) moving up the food chain. The “innovator’s dilemma” is that companies sometimes fail not in spite of doing everything right, but because they did everything right.

Some examples of this phenomenon make it easy to understand. Kodak, focusing its efforts on improving photographic film and paper, paid no attention to digital technology (invented by one of its own engineers), which at first could not compete on quality but which later swallowed the entire industry. Manufacturers of mainframe computers like IBM could not be bothered with the minicomputer market developed by companies like Digital Equipment Corporation; and DEC, in turn, failed to adapt to the personal computer revolution led by the likes of Apple and, yes, IBM. (Christensen shows how the success of the IBM PC actually validates his ideas: the company set up a separate, autonomous division, far from the mothership, to develop its once-ubiquitous personal computer.)

Clay Christensen in 2011. Photo (cc) by Betsy Weber. Some rights reserved.
Clay Christensen in 2011. Photo (cc) by Betsy Weber. Some rights reserved.

Christensen has applied his theories to journalism as well. In 2012 he wrote a long essay for Nieman Reports in collaboration with David Skok, a Canadian journalist who was then a Nieman Fellow and is now the digital adviser to Boston Globe editor Brian McGrory, and James Allworth, a regular contributor to the Harvard Business Review. In the essay, titled “Breaking News,” they describe how Time magazine began in the 1920s as a cheaply produced aggregator, full of “rip-and-read copy from the day’s major publications,” and gradually moved up the journalistic chain by hiring reporters and producing original reportage. Today, they note, websites like the Huffington Post and BuzzFeed, which began as little more than aggregators, have begun “their march up the value network” in much the same way as Time some 90 years ago.

And though Christensen, Skok, and Allworth don’t say it explicitly, Time magazine, once a disruptive innovator and long since ensconced as a crown jewel of the quality press, is now on the ropes — cast out of the Time Warner empire, as David Carr describes it in the New York Times, with little hope of long-term survival.

***

INTO THIS SEA of obviousness sails Lepore, an award-winning historian and an accomplished journalist. I am an admirer of her 1998 book The Name of War: King Philip’s War and American Identity. Her 2010 New Yorker article on the Tea Party stands as a particularly astute, historically aware examination of a movement that waxes and wanes but that will not (as Eric Cantor recently learned) go away.

Lepore pursues two approaches in her attempted takedown of Christensen. The first is to look at The Innovator’s Dilemma as a cultural critic would, arguing that Christensen popularized a concept — “disruption” — that resonates in an era when we are all fearful of our place in an uncertain, rapidly changing economy. In the face of that uncertainty, notions such as disruption offer a possible way out, provided you can find a way to be the disruptor. She writes:

The idea of innovation is the idea of progress stripped of the aspirations of the Enlightenment, scrubbed clean of the horrors of the twentieth century, and relieved of its critics. Disruptive innovation goes further, holding out the hope of salvation against the very damnation it describes: disrupt, and you will be saved.

The second approach Lepore pursues is more daring, as she takes the fight from her turf — history and culture — to Christensen’s. According to Lepore, Christensen made some key mistakes. The disk-drive companies that were supposedly done in by disruptive innovators eating away at their businesses from below actually did quite well, she writes. And she claims that his analysis of the steel industry is flawed by his failure to take into account the effects of labor strife. “Christensen’s sources are often dubious and his logic questionable,” Lepore argues.

Jill Lepore. Publicity photo from her Harvard bio.
Jill Lepore. Publicity photo from her Harvard bio.

But Lepore saves her real venom for the dubious effects she says the cult of disruption has had on society, from financial services (“it led to a global financial crisis”) to higher education (she partly blames a book Christensen co-authored, The Innovative University, for the rise of massive open online courses, or MOOCs, of which she takes a dim view) to journalism (one of several fields, she writes, with “obligations that lie outside the realm of earnings”).

Christensen has not yet written a response; perhaps he will, perhaps he won’t. But in an interview with Drake Bennett of Bloomberg Businessweek, he asserts that it was hardly his fault if the term “disruption” has become overused and misunderstood:

I was delighted that somebody with her standing would join me in trying to bring discipline and understanding around a very useful theory. I’ve been trying to do it for 20 years. And then in a stunning reversal, she starts instead to try to discredit Clay Christensen, in a really mean way. And mean is fine, but in order to discredit me, Jill had to break all of the rules of scholarship that she accused me of breaking — in just egregious ways, truly egregious ways.

As for the “egregious” behavior of which he accuses Lepore, Christensen is especially worked up that she read The Innovator’s Dilemma, published 17 years ago, yet seems not to have read any of his subsequent books — books in which he says he continued to develop and refine his theories about disruptive innovation. He defends his data. And he explains his prediction that Apple’s iPhone would fail (a prediction mocked by Lepore) by saying that he initially thought it was a sustaining innovation that built on less expensive smartphones. Only later, he says, did he realize that it was a disruptive innovation aimed at laptops — less capable than laptops, but also cheaper and easier to carry.

“I just missed that,” he tells Bennett. “And it really helped me with the theory, because I had to figure out: Who are you disrupting?”

Christensen also refers to Lepore as “Jill” so many times that Bennett finally asks him if he knows her. His response: “I’ve never met her in my life.”

***

CHRISTENSEN’S DESCRIPTION of how his understanding of the iPhone evolved demonstrates a weakness of disruption theory: It’s far easier to explain the rise and fall of companies in terms of sustaining and disruptive innovations after the fact, when you can pick them apart and make them the subject of case studies.

Continue reading “Disruptive innovation and the future of news”

E-books and the privatization of the village square

This commentary has also been published at the Huffington Post.

Tomorrow I’ll be part of a panel on e-books being organized in Boston by the Association of College and Research Libraries. We’re supposed to talk about what we like and don’t like about them, and I can do that. But what I really hope to discuss is the place of e-books in a world in which what we used to think of as public space is increasingly being turned over to private, profit-making entities.

Let me explain what I mean with a couple of non-book examples.

In 2003 I bestowed a Boston Phoenix Muzzle Award on Crossgates Mall, in the Albany, N.Y., suburb of Colonie, for calling police and having a man arrested because he was wearing a mildly worded T-shirt in protest of the war in Iraq. The protester — actually, he was just having a bite to eat in the food court after picking up his purchase from the mall’s T-shirt store — was quickly released.

But there’s almost no chance he would have been arrested if he’d been hanging out in the village square rather than a mall. The trouble is that in too many cities and towns, we no longer have a village square except in the form of enclosed spaces owned by profit-seeking corporations. What happened to that protester said a lot more about our privatized idea of community than it does about that one particular incident.

In 2008 the Beverly Citizen, a weekly newspaper on Boston’s North Shore owned by GateHouse Media, discovered what can happen when you turn over some of your publishing operations to Google. The Citizen had posted a video of the annual Fourth of July “Horribles” parade, which included an offensive float that featured a giant, water-squirting penis. The float mocked an alleged “pregnancy pact” involving girls at Gloucester High School, a much-hyped story that turned out to be not quite true.

Although the Citizen’s judgment in posting the video could be questioned, there was no doubt that the float was newsworthy, as it had been seen by hundreds of people attending the parade. Yet Google-owned YouTube, which GateHouse was using as a video-publishing platform, took it down without any explanation. It would be as though a printing company refused to publish a particular edition of newspaper on the grounds that it didn’t like the content. YouTube is an incredibly flexible tool for video journalism. But Google has its own agenda, and hosting content that might offend someone is bad for business.

What’s that got to do with e-books? A physical book, once printed, enters a public sphere of a sort, especially if it’s purchased by a library. But an e-book remains largely under the control of the corporation that distributed it — most likely Amazon, Apple or Barnes & Noble.

We all remember those horror stories from a few years ago when some books people had purchased suddenly disappeared from their Kindles because Amazon was involved in a rights dispute. (Ironically, the books included George Orwell’s “1984.”) In some cases, students lost books they needed for school, along with their notes.

More recently, Apple refused to carry in its iTunes store an e-book by Seth Godin called “Stop Stealing Dreams.” The reason: Godin included favorable mentions of — and links to — other e-books that were available only through Amazon. “We’re heading to a world where there are just a handful of influential bookstores … and one by one, the principles of open access are disappearing,” Godin wrote.

And I’m not even getting into the U.S. Department of Justice’s investigation of alleged price-fixing by Apple and several leading book publishers.

Another concern I have involves the rights of authors. Several years ago Rodale, the publisher of my first book, “Little People,” reassigned all rights to me after the book had reached the end of its natural life. I published the full text on the Web, which led to my hometown high school’s adopting it as its summer read — which in turn pushed me to create a self-published paperback edition with the help of the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge. “Little People” has had a pretty nice second life for an out-of-print book. (I wrote about the experience recently for Nieman Reports.)

But now that e-books and e-readers have become ubiquitous, I’m worried that publishers will simply have no incentive to let authors benefit from the full rights to their own work. If a publisher can make a little bit of money by selling a few e-copies each year, then it might just decide to keep those rights to itself. This is long-tail economics for the benefit of corporations, not authors.

And have you ever tried to lend an e-book to someone?

There is a lot to like about e-books. As someone with terrible eyesight, I like being able to adjust the type to my own preference and use my laptop’s or iPhone’s backlighting rather than depend on iffy room lighting. And my iPhone, unlike whatever book I might be reading, is always with me.

But when unaccountable corporate interests maintain control over what shall take place in the village square, what content shall be deemed suitable for public consumption and what rights the authors and even the purchasers of books shall have, we have put our culture at risk in ways we couldn’t have imagined a generation ago.

Thanks to Twitter followers @jcstearns, @JimandMargery and @BostonGuyinNC, who responded quickly to my pleas for help with research.

Sunday morning coming down (but not by as much)

Stories about declining newspaper circulation have become so routine that they’re hardly worth commenting on unless some deeper meaning can be found. So I’m looking closely at the latest figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulations, which show smaller losses for the Boston Globe and the Boston Herald on Sundays than on weekdays — especially in the case of the Globe.

The Globe’s weekday circulation for the six-month period that ended on Sept. 30 was 205,939, a drop of 7.5 percent. On Sundays, it was 360,186, down just 2 percent.

At the Herald, weekday circulation is now 113,798, a decline of 8.7 percent. On Sundays, it’s 85,828, down 4.8 percent.

Significantly, the period in question precedes the Globe’s new print-and-digital strategy. The Globe charges less to take home delivery of the Sunday paper and receive BostonGlobe.com for free than it does to subscribe to BostonGlobe.com seven days a week. At the Globe, as at most newspapers, the Sunday edition is by far the most profitable, and the idea is to preserve Sunday print no matter what.

It will be interesting to see what effect this strategy has on print circulation when the next figures are released in the spring of 2012. Needless to say, the real threat to the Globe is the possibility that readers will content themselves with the paper’s other website — the still-free Boston.com — and not pay for anything online.

The numbers also suggest that the Herald needs a better digital strategy of its own. Although the tabloid has a nice iPhone app (my preferred method for reading the Herald), its website is in serious need of an upgrade. For those who want to read the entire paper electronically, the Herald’s only offering is a hard-to-navigate electronic edition that’s basically a PDF of every page.

If the Herald were to offer an easy-on-the-eyes, reasonably priced digital option, I would pay for it. So, I suspect, would a lot of other people.

This morning’s BostonGlobe.com report

The next few weeks should be interesting as the folks at the Boston Globe work out the bugs at BostonGlobe.com.

Starting last night, the site stopped working on my almost-four-year-old MacBook using Chrome and Safari. (Might be just my set-up, though I did reboot.) On the other hand, it still works fine with Firefox, for which I’ve recently been developing a new appreciation, as it seems to be the most stable of the three major Mac browsers. No problems on my iPhone or on Mrs. Media Nation’s iPad, either.

I’m glad to see Dan Wasserman’s editorial cartoon made it to the site today, and I hope syndicated cartoons will be included on days that Wasserman isn’t drawing. The comics are online today, too. Maybe they were yesterday, but I couldn’t find them.

Other observations: clean as the site is, the organizational scheme is a bit bewildering, with many different options. I feel as though I’m missing stuff. The “Today’s Paper” option doesn’t seem to be quite that. It would be nice to have a clearly delineated separate section of everything that’s in that day’s print edition.

Also, how about combining all the little “Names” tidbits into one column? Other “g” shorts could be combined, too. I don’t want to keep clicking to read 90-word items. It’s one of my main peeves about GlobeReader, too, and I’ll bet I’m not alone.

Subscriber-based BostonGlobe.com debuts

Readers turning to Boston.com this morning and clicking on “Today’s Globe” found something new — an invitation to register for the new BostonGlobe.com, a paid site that will be getting a free trial for the rest of September. After that, it will cost $3.99 a week, which makes it among the more ambitious attempts to persuade online news consumers to pay for content.

I was among a number of media observers who were given a sneak preview last month by Globe publisher Chris Mayer and editor Marty Baron. I’ve got a longer take on the new site up at the Nieman Journalism Lab, focusing mainly on the site’s use of HTML5, which enables the Globe to offer a standalone app for the iPad and iPhone and avoid paying Apple its 30 percent cut.

Also, Nieman’s Joshua Benton offers four observations and asks lots of questions. Jeff Sonderman has a rundown at Poynter. Staci D. Kramer covers the launch for paidContent. And there’s plenty of coverage at BostonGlobe.com itself, starting here.

Access to BostonGlobe.com is included with any type of print subscription, including Sundays-only. Since the Sunday-paper-plus-GlobeReader has been our solution of choice for a while now, this is nothing but a plus here in Media Nation.

Big Brother Steve is not watching you

I started writing an “Apple’s not really spying on you” post a little while ago and ditched it on the grounds that I don’t fully understand all the issues involved. (That’s a first, eh?)

But I recommend this post at the Center for Democracy and Technology by John Morris, who speculates that the real reason Apple set up your iPhone to track your location is to save on battery life.

I do think there’s less to this controversy than meets the eye (as Morris writes, the location file “normally never leaves your devices”). Still, Apple (and Google, which does the same thing with its Android operating system) could have done better.

The New York Times’ gift to BlackBerry users

Click on image for a larger view.

A few weeks ago, my BlackBerry notified me that a new version of the New York Times app was available. I downloaded it but didn’t expect much. Previous versions had been slow and kludgy, and I found that I preferred the Times mobile website instead.

But version 1.1.1 turns out to be a major improvement. You can download the latest Times content to your BlackBerry, either all at once or section by section. That means you can use it in places where the cell signal is erratic or non-existent, like on a train or in a subway car. (I’m pretty sure that was true of earlier versions, too, but those just weren’t usable enough for me to test.)

It also means that you don’t have to wait for pages to download every time you click, as you do with the mobile website. Stories load quickly and are presented on one page — no additional clicks just to read one article. And though the screen on my BlackBerry Tour is tiny, it is also ultra-sharp. I can pretty much plow through the whole paper without experiencing eye fatigue. It’s a nice, under-publicized utility at a moment when most of the media world is focused on the sleek but expensive iPad. I’d love to see the Times make the software available to other newspaper companies — starting with its corporate cousin, the Boston Globe.

Mobile has emerged as a crucial outlet for news organizations, and I have a bit of advice for them: Don’t give it away. Though I staunchly believe that users won’t pay for basic Web access, new delivery platforms require new revenue models.

Yes, there are ads (mainly house ads) on the Times app, but there’s only so much you can do with a tiny screen. The app should be free only for customers who already buy the paper through some other delivery channel, whether it be print, Kindle or Reader.

The Times app has me feeling better about my BlackBerry these days. I still plan to upgrade to an iPhone or a Droid when my contract expires next summer. But now, at least, I find myself gnashing my teeth a little less.

The closing of the Internet*

Imagine you are trying to start a news site in your community. Your competitor, part of a national chain, offers instant-on, full-screen HD video and a host of other data-intensive features that load the moment you hit “click.” But though you have a broadband connection, even simple videos that you’ve posted load slowly and play in fits and starts.

So you call your Internet provider — most likely Verizon and Comcast — and ask what’s going on. A sales person explains to you that if you want your readers to enjoy the same rich multimedia content as you competitor, then all you have to do is pay another $1,000 a month.

You can’t. You struggle on. And, within six months, you shut down.

That is a likely scenario if we move away from net neutrality — a vitally important principle that all Internet traffic should be treated the same. The FCC has been trying to mandate net neutrality, only to be shot down in the federal courts. And today the New York Times reports that Google and Verizon have been involved in negotiations to come up with a multi-tiered Internet with different levels of service and different levels of pricing. [Update: Or perhaps not. See below.]

“It’s like the end of ‘Animal Farm’ where pigs and humans sit down at the dinner table,” tweeted new-media strategist Steve Yelvington. In fact, Google at one time had been a leader in pushing for net neturality.

Please understand what net neutrality is not. There is nothing wrong with charging consumers more for better Internet service. Broadband costs more than dial-up, and fast broadband costs more than slow broadband. That’s life.

Rather, this involves the other end of the pipe, to fees that content-providers would pay in order to receive preferential service. It would make it far more difficult for start-ups, low-budget projects and non-profits to compete with big media sites. You might say that’s the whole idea.

Net neutrality is the baseline requirement for diverse, independent media. Those of us who spent years railing against corporate media consolidation have been pleasantly surprised, as numerous little guys — including significant players at the international, national and local levels — have been able to make their voices heard.

Along with the advent of closed systems such as Apple’s iPad and iPhone, the demise of net neutrality could mark the beginning of the end of this media explosion, and a return to business as usual.

Josh Silver, president of the advocacy organization Free Press, calls the pending Google-Verizon deal “the end of the Internet as we know it.” Timothy Karr, campaign director of Free Press, offers some further thoughts.

For more information, including what you can do, check out Save the Internet.

*Update: Sharp-eyed reader Nick Mendez found a tweet from Google Public Policy claiming that the Times got the story wrong. According to @googlepubpolicy: “@NYTimes is wrong. We’ve not had any convos with VZN about paying for carriage of our traffic. We remain committed to an open internet.”

Wow. This bears watching. Will the Times retract the story?

A better year for BlackBerry users?

BlackBerry Tour

I like to tell friends with iPhones that my BlackBerry can do everything their phones can do — just worse. I lusted for an iPhone last summer, when I had finally decided to take the plunge on a smartphone. But I would have had to switch carriers, racking up hundreds of dollars in penalties and lost credits. So I instead became the semi-proud owner of a BlackBerry Tour.

Now we iPhone-enviers are getting some good news. In just the past few days we’ve learned that we’ll be able to run Amazon Kindle software, just like an iPhone, and that sometime later this year we’ll be getting a new Web browser. That’s critical, because the current browser is miserable. I use Opera Mini whenever I can, but it’s not the default, and the default can’t be changed. So if a click on a link in e-mail or ÜberTwitter, it automatically calls up the BlackBerry browser, with invariably poor results.

To be sure, a BlackBerry is a pretty good tool for instant on-the-ground journalism. I’ve covered several news events using the (mediocre) built-in camera to post to Twitter. Although I haven’t tried it, I should be able to post instant video as well — even a livestream via Qik. But BlackBerry’s roots are as a business tool — not as a journalist’s best friend. (Here is my TwitPic photostream.)

Certainly there are some things to like about the BlackBerry. By every measure I’ve seen, Verizon’s connectivity is more reliable than AT&T’s. Since I already had Verizon, the BlackBerry was definitely the nicest smartphone I could get. E-mail is very slick with BlackBerry, and typing on the physical keyboard is pretty easy — though I’d trade it for a bigger screen and a good virtual keyboard, like the iPhone has. (I decided against a BlackBerry Storm because I didn’t like the virtual keyboard.)

And now it looks like RIM, which manufactures the BlackBerry, is determined to close at least some of the iPhone gap.