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

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Howard Owens talks about The Batavian

My spring-and-summer video tour of innovative online news organizations continues with Howard Owens, publisher of The Batavian, a for-profit news site in western New York state that he founded when he was director of digital publishing for GateHouse Media.

Owens left GateHouse earlier this year and took The Batavian with him. I visited him in late June and spent a few days interviewing him and other folks in Batavia. Owens, though, is the only one I captured on video.

Here are links to my earlier video interviews:

  • Christine Stuart, editor and publisher of CT News Junkie, which covers political and governmental news from the Connecticut State House, in Hartford.
  • Adil Nurmakov, Central Asia editor for Global Voices Online, whom I interviewed in Almaty, Kazakhstan.
  • Solana Larsen, managing editor of Global Voices.
  • Paul Bass, editor and publisher of the New Haven Independent, a non-profit news site.
  • Debbie Galant, co-founder of Baristanet, a for-profit community news site in Montclair, N.J.

Aggravation over aggregation

In my latest for the Guardian, I take a look at the increasingly contentious issue of aggregation, and at what constitutes good and bad linking practices.

Where it all went wrong

I’m no advertising expert, but Steve Buttry’s post on newspapers’ original sin strikes me as being exactly right:

The disastrous error that newspapers made early in our digital lives was treating online advertising as a throw-in or upsell for their print advertisers. Helping businesses connect with customers was always our business. We were facing new technology and new opportunities and we did next to nothing to explore how we might use this new technology to help businesses connect with customers.

We just offered businesses the same old solutions that we offered in print, but pop-up ads and web banners somehow didn’t work as well as display ads. Which was just as well, because we told our business customers the ads weren’t worth much by the way we treated them.

Having blown the online-advertising business, newspaper executives are now going to make up for it by charging for online content — likely with miserable results. (Via Steve Yelvington.)

Monetizing the link economy (not) has posted an important analysis by media consultant Arnon Mishkin showing that aggregator sites derive far more value by compiling headlines, ledes and links than do the news organizations that actually produce the journalism.

This isn’t exactly counterintuitive, but it does run counter to what a lot of us had hoped was true. Jeff Jarvis, more than anyone, has popularized the idea of the “link economy.” Trouble is, it may not exist. At the very least, it’s likely a lot more complicated than simply a matter of posting links and assuming the linkee will benefit at least as much as the linker.

Here is Mishkin’s key insight:

Actually, it shouldn’t be surprising to anyone who’s thought about how people have historically read a newspaper: They’ve scanned the headlines and then turned to the sports, movie listings or recipe pages, depending on their real interest. As the saying goes, “People don’t check the news to read about the fire, they check it to learn that there wasn’t a fire.”

Historically, the value of those casual browsers was captured by the newspaper because the readers would have to buy a copy. Now all the value gets captured by the aggregator that scrapes the copy and creates a front page that a set of readers choose to scan. And because creating content costs much more scraping it, there is little rational economic reason to create content.

Mishkin’s post comes at a time when news organizations from the Associated Press to News Corp. to the Boston Globe are dipping their toes in the water with respect to charging for their content. That’s fraught with difficulties, too, although I’m slightly more bullish about the idea of per-click micropayments than I was even a few months ago.

In the long run, we’re going to have to differentiate between good and bad linking. Blogging is the classic example of good linking, since the blogger adds value through analysis and reinterpretation.

But aggregating in a way that removes nearly all incentives to click through to the original news site defines bad linking. The Huffington Post is one example. Newser is an even more egregious example: when you first access the site, you get photos with headlines; click on one and you get a Newser-supplied summary (with more ads); and, finally, with a second click, you jump to the original. Link economy? More like piracy.

No one really knows what the answer is. Mishkin offers some unsatisfying ideas at the end of his post. My own sense is that newspapers need to try a variety of strategies:

  • Charging as much as the market will bear for the print edition.
  • Developing paid online editions for e-readers, cell phones and laptops (i.e., Times Reader and GlobeReader).
  • Removing the “today’s paper” feature from their free Web sites. (I would continue to offer all or most of the content for free, but not in the form of an exact substitute.)

The search for a business model continues. Mishkin has punched one more hole in a fantasy a lot of people, including me, had believed in for as long as we could.

(Via Howard Owens’ Twitter feed. Owens, you may recall, was a top official at GateHouse Media during that company’s legal battle with the New York Times Co. over the Boston Globe’s aggregation practices.)

Keeping the local conversation alive

The next stop on my online-journalism video tour is Montclair, N.J., where I recently interviewed Debbie Galant, co-founder of Baristanet, and Mark Porter, editor of the weekly Montclair Times.

Baristanet, founded five years ago, was among the first local blogs — and certainly one of the very first to be started by professional journalists with the goal of turning a profit.

Galant and I met at a local Panera; I interviewed Porter at his office.


Global Voices and worldwide citizen media

My online-journalism video tour continues with Solana Larsen, managing editor of Global Voices Online, a project that tracks bloggers around the world. I interviewed Larsen on June 9 at her Brooklyn apartment.

On April 23 I interviewed Global Voices’ Central Asia editor, Adil Nurmakov, while I was attending the Eurasian Media Forum in Almaty, Kazakhstan.

Railing against the tubes

Weekly chat with Reader Rep Ted Diadiun

If you haven’t seen this yet, stop what you’re doing and watch. It’s 15 minutes long, but it’s well worth your time.

Ted Diadiun, the reader representative — i.e., the ombudsman — for the Cleveland Plain Dealer has some things to say about bloggers, and he’s not a damn bit happy about what’s going on in them there tubes. The video has become an instant classic — the talk of Twitter and of posts like this one, by Salon’s King Kaufman.

I’ve e-mailed Diadiun some questions that I hope he’ll respond to, either in his column, on another webcast or to Media Nation. I’ll keep you posted.

Non-profit journalism in New Haven

Last month I took two reporting trips for my book-in-progress about online journalism and community participation. I took advantage of the opportunity to shoot several video interviews, which I am now editing and posting on YouTube.

My first stop was in New Haven, where I spent some time with Paul Bass, the founder and editor of the New Haven Independent. I also interviewed his managing editor, Melissa Bailey, and Mark Brackenbury, managing editor of the daily New Haven Register. If you don’t see my video (above), click here. I apologize for the sound quality; I should have interviewed Bass somewhere other than a loud coffee-and-bagel shop, but he’s a busy guy.

The Independent is a non-profit community news site that’s similar to Voices of San Diego and MinnPost. Bass, an award-winning New Haven journalist and former editor of the alternative New Haven Advocate, tools around the city on his bicycle with a notebook and a small video camera.

In March I interviewed Christine Stuart, whose state political site, CT News Junkie, serves as the Independent’s Statehouse bureau.

A crowdsourced documentary

No one spoke the word “crowdsourcing.” But that was the theme of a presentation Thursday evening by “Frontline” producer Rachel Dretzin, whose next documentary, “Digital Nation,” will be a collaborative effort between her team and visitors to the “Digital Nation” Web site. “Digital Nation” is an attempt to explain how our dependence on — and obsession with — the Internet is changing our culture for better and for worse.

Dretzin is putting all of her footage and interviews online. There’s a blog tracking progress of the documentary. A series of interactive chats is under way. And folks are encouraged to submit their own video and audio commentaries about the good, the bad and the ugly aspects of online existence. There’s even a recommended “Digital Nation” hashtag (#dig_nat) for Twitter users.

“There is absolutely no way to be an expert. This is all of our story,” said Dretzin in an appearance at WGBH-TV (Channel 2), where “Frontline” is based. (Disclosure: I am a paid contributor to another WGBH program, “Beat the Press.”)

The idea, she added, is that rather than making the film in isolation and then getting reaction from the audience, the reaction would come first, followed by the documentary, which will come out sometime in 2010. “It’s an experiment for all of us,” she said.

Dretzin’s last “Frontline” film was 2008’s “Growing Up Online.” As was the case with that film, the author Douglas Rushkoff will be the on-camera correspondent in “Digital Nation.”

Collaborative journalism that combines the efforts of professionals and amateurs — sometimes called “crowdsourcing” — is one of the more promising developments to arise from Internet-based news ventures. New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen, a leading new-media thinker, refers to such amateurs as “the people formerly known as the audience.”

The challenge for Dretzin is to integrate what the former audience has to say into her film, rather than merely featuring it as an online adjunct.

Building an online news business

Steve Outing has a smart piece in Editor & Publisher on why newspapers can’t charge for access to their Web sites. His arguments are familiar, but he’s pulled them together nicely. Three points he makes are especially worth thinking about:

1. Newspapers that attempt to charge for Web access are opening themselves up to local competition. Outing specifically mentions local television stations. But most large cities have an even more logical candidate: a news-oriented public radio station, such as Boston’s WBUR (90.9 FM).

2. Information does not want to be free. News Web sites may have lost the paid-content war, but there’s no reason news organizations can’t charge for other forms of digital delivery, such as cellphone applications, Kindle and the like.

3. It’s the community, not the content, that has real monetary value. Outing says he’s particularly interested to see what New York Times executive editor Bill Keller has in mind, as Keller is talking about various benefits that would accrue to those with memberships.

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