What an AP alternative could look like

There’s a simple reason why no iTunes for the news exists yet: it’s because the journalism industry has thus far failed to produce any songs worth buying.

For that matter, the journalism industry has produced very few songs at all — the staggering majority of stuff being circulated today is commodity news, contextless updates with no replay value after being consumed once.

To flip the analogy, you don’t see Apple banking its iTunes business plan on selling loops and samples. The average music consumer has no use for them. Producers and remixers do, but you can bet they aren’t buying only from iTunes.

Instead, creatives on the web are increasingly turning to royalty-free stock sites as sources for their raw materials.

What can the journalism industry learn from this trend? The answer is two-fold:

  1. It’s time to take news to the next level, to a form that not only informs and educates, but also has strong replay value. Then, and only then, will people be willing to pay for it.
  2. There needs to be a well-organized resource providing the raw material to feed this new form. A traditional syndication company could possibly reinvent itself to fill this role.

The new, alternative platform would operate something like this:

  • Let members add original reporting, photos, videos and audio files to the system.
  • Sell this material to news producers and remixers under a royalty-free license. The original owners of the files get a cut of the sale.
  • Enable monetization of the link economy through ad revenue-sharing.
  • No DRM-like wrapper. No strings attached. This should be an open and transparent model that rewards rather than restricts those who add value to the news ecosystem.

If the AP won’t do it, someone else will. (Reuters, perhaps?) It’s only a matter of time before the news industry’s operating models dovetail with the natural economies of the Internet. Those who come out on top will be the ones who flow with the current rather than fight against it.

Digital memory lane

I signed up for my first gmail account at the end of August 2004, right before the start of senior year in high school.

Yesterday, I transferred the entire contents of that account to a new one (figuring it better to print jackiejhai[at]gmail.com on a freelancing resume than an old AIM screenname, now that my college e-mail account is defunct). As a result, I was treated to the unusual experience of watching the last five years of my life flash before my eyes in slow-motion, at the rate of 200 e-mails per hour. The transfer finished this morning, topping out at over 5000 e-mails, yet still less than 15% of gmail’s total mailbox quota.

Google’s “why delete when you can archive and search?” philosophy to e-mail has inadvertently created a patchwork narrative, digital flotsam that hold snatches of memory — experiences, interests, work, friends and acquaintances — never telling the whole story, merely a fleeting glimpse of exchanges long past.

Following the march of subject lines across the screen, I retraced my steps and overlapping phases through high school band, playing and administrating MUDs, college apps, the UMass marching band, the Daily Collegian, ResLife, parkour, Amherst Wire, UVC-TV, and now the “grown-up” world of public access media, freelance journalism and web design. Funny, I don’t feel grown up. Heck, the way I wrote e-mails in 2004 is virtually identical to the way I write them now. Maybe college made me a little wiser, a little more aware, but there’s still a long way to go.

There’s one amusing thing I dug up from the archives. Senior year of high school, we had a competition for giving the graduation speech, one that I also entered. Someone else won. But it’s fun to compare it to the speech I ended up giving at UMass commencement this year. I didn’t even look at the old one when writing the new.

So here they are, one after the other, for comparison:
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Open source news websites

A quick thought before heading out the door today:

What if news websites already running on open source content management systems made their entire sites — content, databases, applications, templates, etc. — freely available to the community? It could simply be a matter of packaging their nightly backups (which any smart organization should be making anyway) into a downloadable file and putting out an open call for users to submit code contributions. This could also serve the twofold benefit of defraying the costs of web development and providing an educational resource to j-schools and other organizations.

I’m thinking that college news outlets are the more likely candidates to adapt such a practice first, but as we continue the trend toward increasing transparency, others in the professional world might be willing to try it too. Can anyone think of possible downsides to this?

Resilience economics and journalism

A while back, someone in the Twittersphere (I think it was @danielbachhuber) pointed me in the direction of an interesting essay by Jamais Cascio. Jamais discusses the concept of resilience economics as an alternative to the monolithic corporate model most businesses, including newspapers, follow today. Futurist John Robb writes a concise takeaway on his blog:

Resilient flexibility means avoiding situations where components of a 
system are “too big to fail”–that is, where the failure of a single 
part can bring the whole thing crashing down. The alternative comes 
from the combination of diversity (lots of different parts), 
collaboration (able to work together), and decentralization (organized 
from the bottom-up). The result is a system that can more effectively 
respond to rapid changes in conditions, and including the unexpected 
loss of components.

I think we can apply this concept to new journalism enterprises: the daily metro newsroom of the future will be decentralized, with self-sustaining branches located in each neighborhood of a larger geographic community.

The growing popularity of hyperlocal journalism supports this theory — people want stories and information that affect them most directly, and local news down to the block ranks high on the list. Funding for the operations of each branch can come from a variety of sources, including highly targeted advertising from local businesses, hosting of community events, and crowdfunded investigative reporting. Link journalism and a portal page for the region as a whole would then pull all the elements together.

A budding example of this model in action can be found in California’s Bay Area, though their portal page functions more as a directory than a news site in its own right at the moment.

I also plan on starting up a similar effort upon my return to the Boston area this summer, with the help of Amherst Wire veterans and local reporters. So if you’re a journalist in the area and want to get involved, be sure to hit me up.

Applying the link economy to j-school

The fine folks at CoPress hosted a session at Saturday’s BCNI Philly on reinventing j-schools, sparking off some interesting conversations (see a live blog of the event by Greg Linch).

I’d like to expand here on a thought that bubbled up during the session, in the middle of a discussion about the inclusion of entrepreneurial journalism in j-school curricula. I had suggested that j-schools should apply the basic theory behind link journalism — do what you know best, and link to the rest — to structuring their own programs. In other words, focus on teaching the craft of journalism and its fundamental theories, techniques and tools within the major, and “link out” to peripheral knowledge bases (business/advertising, information technology, programming and design) by sending students to other schools within the university system.

So what does that look like in action? Let’s take the UMass Amherst Journalism program as an example: currently, students enrolled in the major must complete an official minor, concentration or second major in order to fulfill the requirements for graduation. Now suppose the journalism department established interdisciplinary programs with the other schools and, in collaboration with faculty in those schools, created specialized tracks for j-students. This opens up a wealth of possibilities:

  • A student who wants to get into the business side of news would take a planned series of courses in the school of management concurrent to classes in journalism, then apply that knowledge to a hands-on master class in entrepreneurial journalism.
  • A student interested in environmental beat reporting after college would take a class on environmental policy in the department of natural resources during the same semester as a newswriting class, and practice writing stories for that beat.
  • A team of students could take a programming class in the comp sci department together and develop apps for journalism as part of an independent study.

And so on. The advantage of an interdisciplinary approach is that students get exposed to a much wider range of knowledge, while journalism faculty can focus on teaching to their strengths.

Betty Medsger’s essay, Getting Journalism Education Out of the Way, was brought to my attention and contains a similar line of thought:

Journalism faculty should become gate openers to the entire university, rather than guardians of journalism studies. As such they would work far more closely with colleagues in other disciplines. They would develop the relationships needed to recruit excellent students from other disciplines, not to a major or minor in journalism but to an intensive senior year introduction to journalism. The curriculum would be truly interdisciplinary. Assignments in journalism courses would make use of what students have studied in their major areas of inquiry and also tap the expertise of faculty in other disciplines.

The evolution of mass media

Richard CaesarToday’s entry is a guest post by Richard Caesar, news director at UVC-TV 19 and an editor of the Amherst Wire. Richard and I will be attending BCNI Philly on Saturday, April 25.

The degree to which media is changing and the factors that have influenced this change have been surprising in some cases, less so in others. They all, however, indicate that this shift from what the media has been traditionally is far from being complete.

Personalization and unbundling are two trends that show empirically the changes media has gone through to become the product we consume today. More importantly, they give a steady pattern to lay out a possible direction in the future.

In my estimation, the trend of unbundling is probably going to be the most influential going forward. From records to MP3s, each new form of music has made it easier to get to what you want and listen to just that. In cinema, you hardly ever see a theater running a double feature or showing a cartoon before the main feature anymore. Folks just come in to see the one movie they want and barely even have patience for the trailers to upcoming titles which they’ll probably get online anyway. Likewise, unbundling the newspaper ensures that readers can just pay for the section they want to read instead of the whole product.

Following this line of thinking, I see a very real possibility that the media market’s appetite for niche products and marketing will explode. Mainly because so many bundled products will either break up or be broken up by this trend that each facet will find an audience in those people who were just interested in that part of the product. Hence from a public that will have a far greater pool of informational and entertainment resources to choose from, we will be getting media outlets and providers with more and more narrow areas of expertise and function. The media output will probably increase in quality since all these different little providers will be focusing so much effort and resources into smaller and smaller niches.

This plays into another influential trend: personalization. The smaller and more focused the media becomes the more it will become apparent that the ways in which the media reaches individuals needs to become more personalized. This would be to take advantage of the niche media’s effect on the public. Each person would have their own combination of media preferences — it’s quite possible to imagine that 20 years into the future no two people on Earth would have the very same media experience. This trend of personalization would continue, as it has in past, to influence the hardware aspect of the media.

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Multimedia journalism boot camp proposal

This is a proposal I recently made to the UMass Amherst journalism department. The idea is to hold a week-long boot camp teaching the basics of multimedia journalism at the end of every summer, geared toward incoming freshmen but open to all j-students.

» PDF: Sample program schedule for a multimedia journalism boot camp

Why have a boot camp?
Immersion-style learning is the best way to pick up new tools. A boot camp will teach students the fundamentals of storytelling and establish a baseline for proficiency in multimedia. I can see a natural progression as the program funnels new students into campus media outlets, where they continue to gain practical experience while learning about media history, criticism and ethics in classes as freshmen and sophomores.

By the time students become upperclassmen, they can take master classes in specific subjects — broadcast, radio, photojournalism, advanced multimedia, etc. — spending less time learning how to use the tools and more time actually using them to practice the craft of journalism, producing mature, complex works.

Nuts and bolts:

  • Students must apply for entry into the program by mid-summer.
  • The boot camp runs for 5 days right before the start of fall semester.
  • Students pay for on-campus housing and meals, but can gain advanced placement in certain classes and receive 1 credit counting toward their journalism major requirements upon successful completion of the program.

Who will run it?
Whoever on faculty wants to. Summer programs are a great way for students to get to know professors outside of a classroom setting and to feel a part of a welcoming community within the department. Due to the accelerated nature of the curriculum, a different professor can come in each day to teach their area of expertise, whether it’s ethics, news writing, photography, etc.

I’m personally willing to volunteer my time as a program coordinator for the boot camp, living in the dorms with the students, handling communications and teaching several of the workshops. I have two years’ experience as a Resident Assistant in freshmen halls at UMass, and also served two years on the administrative staff of the UMass marching band (which runs band camps in the summer, so I know a lot about the logistics of these things).

Further benefits:
Incoming freshmen can get familiar with the local area and make friends with fellow student journalists before classes start, giving them an extra boost in confidence at the beginning of their college careers. The summer program can be a bonding experience that strengthens our community of students and faculty by making the journalism department a place students can call a second home.

Finally, boot camp participants will get a head-start on technical skills, setting them up to become peer mentors in the classroom as they help other students surmount the learning curve.

Why top-down syndication is broken

A couple weeks before the latest brouhaha surrounding the Associated Press broke over the Internet, a group of web innovators and citizens were discussing the viability of the AP model at the Poynter Sense-Making conference in March.

Below, Greg Elin of the Sunlight Foundation reacts to a presentation by the AP’s vice president and director of strategy Jim Kennedy on a “new model for news consumption,” given via teleconference to the room.

The issue is two-fold. First, as Jeff Jarvis points out, the AP’s very business model is antithetical to how the Internet works:

Journalists doing original reporting everywhere should resent the AP for turning all the knowledge they create into commodity news — and selling it with no benefit to them in the form of payment, credit, or links. The AP is built for the content economy and is incapable of shifting to support its members or compete in the link economy.

The AP syndication model works in an economy of information scarcity, whereas the web represents an economy of abundance.

Second, what the AP has failed to grasp is that the evolution of the participatory web has blurred the line between content producers, distributors and consumers to the point where everybody can be any and all of the three. The news wire of the future will not be centralized and top-down, but rather distributed and bottom-up.

Three forward-looking ideas for journalism

Will journalism survive the death of its institutions? Yes, absolutely — but the looming question today is how? Arguments for paid content models, from subscriptions to micropayments, have the well-meaning intent of financially sustaining journalism amidst the upheaval. But is putting up paywalls between content and readers really the answer?

As Dave Cohn recently suggested, the net benefit to society from freely available journalism outweighs the disruption we’re currently experiencing. What’s more, talk about locking free content back up after it’s already been released into the wild sounds like an exercise in futility; “woulda, coulda, shoulda” is the mantra of looking backwards when now, more than ever, we need to be looking forwards in search of new solutions.

With that in mind, I’m starting a series of posts containing various ideas I’ve had over the past few months that attempt, from a variety of angles, to answer the question, “How do we ensure that the best traditions of journalism have a place in the new mediascape?”

1. Local news orgs should partner with public access stations
When local newspapers make the transition to producing online and multimedia content, they face the daunting prospect of not only acquiring new equipment (video cameras and accessories, editing software, etc.), but also training their staff to use it. Partnering with a local public access station could help news organizations jump this hurdle. Public access stations are equipped with professional production tools and offer workshops taught by seasoned video experts.

Local news organizations would do well to partner with public access for another reason: public access is traditionally home to a vibrant body of citizen journalists and engaged members of the community. I see a lot of potential for fruitful collaborations by adding professional journalists to the mix.

2. Journalists as primary content producers
The Internet is defined in large part by its strong culture of remixing and redistributing content. But before content can be remixed or redistributed, it must first originate from somewhere — and that’s where journalism comes in. Let news organizations adopt the mindset of being production companies (as per the MediaStorm model), and journalists as primary content producers infusing the digital world with fresh, original reporting from the physical world. This also has potential to dovetail nicely with printcasting.

The key idea here is that journalism can be financially supported not by demanding payment from readers, but by charging secondary content producers when licensing content out to them for re-use.

3. Let’s start a journalism seedbank
As newspapers shut down across the country, many communities risk completely losing the journalistic voice representing their area. It goes without saying that this is a serious and immediate problem: who will act as a watchdog of power and an advocate for the voiceless when the last newsroom in a town or city goes under?

In agriculture, seedbanks are storage centers where diverse seed samples are kept in case natural disasters wipe out existing supplies, so that if the worst should happen, plantlife can be cultivated anew. I propose we form a seedbank for journalism, so that whenever a community loses a vital news organization, something with just as much (if not more) integrity and credibility can spring up to take its place. The seedbearers can be anyone from former newsroom staff, to a local news startup, to a citizen journalism movement, or a combination of all three.

I envision an online journalism seedbank as a place to share advice, tutorials, tip sheets, case studies in ethics, and best practices. This is similar in a lot of ways to the mission of the CoPress network, only with a wider scope. Part social network, part wiki, part group blog, it would help in the regrowth of good journalism wherever needed.