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April 5, 2009

Newspaper companies can’t unring the bell

Filed under: journalism, media, newspapers, publishing, twitter, web 2, web 2.0 — Rakesh Agrawal @ 12:07 pm

American newspapers are in trouble. So far this year, the Rocky Mountain News and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer have shuttered their presses. Tribune is in bankruptcy. My first employer, the Star Tribune in Minneapolis, is also there. Publishers have threatened to close the San Francisco Chronicle and the Boston Globe. Much of the blame has been pointed at two things: not charging for content online and the rise of craigslist.

While those have undoubtedly had an impact, there have been structural changes that go well beyond that:

  • Consolidation among key advertisers. There used to be three or four different department stores in each major city, all of whom advertised in the paper. Now they’re nearly all Macy’s, reducing the number of potential ad buyers. The same has happened in the banking industry where many regional banks have been gobbled up. Many of the ad buying decisions that were previously made at a local level are now consolidated as well.
  • Demand for trackability. Advertisers and their agencies increasingly want to know how their ads are performing and newspapers don’t provide the level of tracking that online sites do. The key classified verticals — homes, autos and jobs — all have trackable online options.
  • Rise of information technology. Businesses can get to know their customers much better due to advances in computer technology. The airlines, banks, hotels, department stores and grocery stores I do business with know my buying habits. They can use that data to create targeted offers that will appeal to me. Harris Teeter, a regional grocery store chain, sends out an e-circular that highlights the items customers have bought in the past. These personalized offers can be delivered for little cost.
  • Competition from their own suppliers. Newspapers have long been aggregators. They get a lot of their content from other providers. Instead of relying on a newspaper for Dilbert, I can get it in my email every morning from the syndicate that distributes it. And because color is free online, I get full color seven days a week.
  • Rise of user-generated content. Anyone can be a publisher these days. Twitter is stealing mindshare 140 characters at a time from newspapers. It’s not just Twitter, of course. Many of the same experts that newspapers rely on to provide the content for their stories are bloggers as well. Although the average quality of news in newspapers is likely higher than the average quality of an article in the blogosphere, there are more experts in the blogosphere than there are in newsrooms. As Fred Wilson writes, the tools for discovering this excellent content are getting better and better.
  • Increasing cost of commodities. Producing and distributing a newspaper is very expensive. Subscriptions don’t cover the cost of newsprint and fuel. While these prices fluctuate, the general trend line is up. To cope with these increasing costs, newspapers have raised their subscription rates, further depressing the circulation that advertisers count on.
  • Increasing environmental consciousness. Consumers are increasingly going green and newspapers are no friend of the environment. Trees are cut down, turned into giant rolls of newsprint, shipped across country where massive energy guzzling presses print on them and are then distributed every morning by trucks. Then they have to be disposed of. (See my earlier post on hotels going green and requiring opt-in to newspapers.)
  • Decreasing density of newspaper subscribers. As a kid, I used to drag a pile of newspapers around in my red Radio Flyer wagon, going door-to-door delivering the paper to people’s doorsteps. With the decline in subscriptions, you really can’t do that anymore. The unit cost of distribution goes up as there are fewer subscribers. It also makes the paper less convenient: rather than getting it at your doorstep, it might be in a box at the curb. Getting to your laptop doesn’t require getting dressed and going outside.
  • Inability to develop national scale. Most of the newspaper companies’ competitors can play at a national scale. This includes both online and offline media such as Google and TV networks. This makes it easier to spread out costs and easier to generate revenue. At startribune.com, we built out online yellow pages, entertainment guides, classifieds, etc. well before the vertical players existed. But because we were a regional paper, we couldn’t generate sufficient revenue to compete with the focused vertical players. The fragmentation also makes it harder for advertisers who want to buy reach. (See my related post on How the AP blew it.)

More on: newspapers

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March 15, 2009

Who needs newspapers?

Filed under: journalism, media, newspapers, web 2, web 2.0 — Rakesh Agrawal @ 12:45 am

I read two thought-provoking pieces this week on the decline of newspapers from voices outside the newspaper business and one Really Dumb Idea from a voice on the inside.

Author Clay Shirky, Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable:

When someone demands to know how we are going to replace newspapers, they are really demanding to be told that we are not living through a revolution. They are demanding to be told that old systems won’t break before new systems are in place. They are demanding to be told that ancient social bargains aren’t in peril, that core institutions will be spared, that new methods of spreading information will improve previous practice rather than upending it. They are demanding to be lied to.

Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism. For a century, the imperatives to strengthen journalism and to strengthen newspapers have been so tightly wound as to be indistinguishable. That’s been a fine accident to have, but when that accident stops, as it is stopping before our eyes, we’re going to need lots of other ways to strengthen journalism instead.

When we shift our attention from ’save newspapers’ to ’save society’, the imperative changes from ‘preserve the current institutions’ to ‘do whatever works.’ And what works today isn’t the same as what used to work.

ODP/DMOZ creator and veteran geek, Rich Skrenta, The news medium has a message: “Goodbye”:

Every so often there’s a story about about a technophobe executive so out of touch a secretary has to print out their email every morning so they can read it on paper and dictate replies.

That’s what the print newspaper is, of course. Why on earth would you print all that stuff out? Over a hundred pages, most of which you’re not going to read, with the crease down the middle of the front page photo, story jumps everywhere, a carbon-footprint disaster to produce, distribute and recycle. It’s absurd.

I once worked out some rough back-of-napkin estimates on the number of text bytes in the paper. It was only delivered once during the day, but if you average the bytes across the entire 24 hour period it came out to be about the rate of a 300 baud modem. The newspaper was the internet.

Both make essentially the same point: the newspaper is an accident of history whose time is just about up. Rather than try to figure out how to “fix” the newspaper problem, we should focus on what’s next.

A lot of the players in the news ecosystem have already done that. I’ve written before about how most newspapers are just repackagers of information.

Newspapers have long played to the middle, and not in a political sense. They put out essentially one product and hope that the average person finds enough of value in to subscribe. The cost of print means that you really can’t go into a lot of depth on a lot of topics. You can’t cover things that are extremely important to a few hundred people.

That worked when getting that depth was a difficult thing for readers. Now, infinite depth on just about any topic is a click away. For sports, finance and politics junkies, sites like ESPN.com, morningstar.com and huffingtonpost.com are much better ways to quench their appetites.

In the meantime, the diehards in the newspaper business will come up with stupider and stupider ideas. Consider this story (via Blake Williams) about a personalized print-at-home newspaper:

MediaNews has been working with a technology company — Mr. Vandevanter would not say which one — to develop a proprietary printer for a reader’s home. It would receive and print a subscriber’s customized newspaper — with targeted advertising.

You have to have a new printer to help cut their printing and delivery costs! Maybe you’ll even have to buy special paper and ink so you can get that full broadsheet experience and can get that genuine newspaper experience of having ink rub off on your fingers. For real authenticity, the registration will be off every once in a while so that the pictures don’t look right.

And maybe, just maybe, you’ll be able to scan a link on the printed page with your CueCat to go to a Web site you find interesting.

December 29, 2008

A tale of two media companies

Filed under: google, hulu, journalism, newspapers, television, video, web 2, web 2.0, YouTube — Rakesh Agrawal @ 1:36 am

You’ve got a competitor with deep pockets, huge brand recognition and a lot of traffic that is interested in your content. What do you do?

Here are two very different approaches:

GateHouse Media is suing The New York Times Co., whose Boston Globe has been linking from its hyperlocal site to stories on GateHouse’s Wicked Local site.

Wicked awesome Hulu is co-opting archrival YouTube’s traffic. If you do a search for Simpsons clips on YouTube, you’re likely to see clips uploaded to YouTube by Hulu. Here’s one I found:

Rather than try to rewrite more than a decade of Web practices (if not copyright law), Hulu is working the system to reach a lot of interested users where they are. It’s a brilliant move and the kind of thinking that is virtually nonexistent within the newspaper industry.

The clip promotes Hulu as the destination for premium content on the Internet. Users have a clear choice: watch excerpts with an annoying Hulu ticker on YouTube or go to hulu.com where they can watch the full video in higher quality without the ticker.

In the short run, this helps Google by providing content for popular queries. In the long run, hulu is the big winner.

More on: hulu, newspapers, YouTube

September 14, 2008

Communicating amongst friends: how technology changes human relationships

Filed under: email, facebook, flickr, im, instant messaging, social networking, twitter, Uncategorized, web 2, web 2.0 — Rakesh Agrawal @ 8:43 pm

I realized recently that I’ve been communicating with one of my closest friends over IM for more than 10 years. We talk almost daily, several times a day. I have no doubt that we wouldn’t be as close without the ease of IM; we certainly wouldn’t talk on the phone every day.

IM, email, cell phones, blogs and social networks have dramatically changed how I talk with friends and changed the nature of those relationships.

Status messages often are a trigger for communications, inspiring conversations about upcoming (or just finished) trips. Friends use status messages to subtly hit up contributions for charities, to acknowledge such contributions or to flog blog posts. Facebook status messages have allowed me to meet up with friends when traveling. I often learn about world events through my friends.

Asynchronous communication allows me to catch up on what my friends are up to when I have time. I spent most of a four hour flight to Chicago reading about Jon’s trip to Russia and checking out his pictures. It beat whatever was in United’s Hemispheres magazine. Another 15 or 20 minutes went to viewing flickr pictures from other friends. Something we used to dread — friends subjecting us to slideshows — we now seek out and eagerly comment on.

As to Twitter, I’ve gotten more active on it in the last couple of months. So far, it has only taken off among my relatively geeky friends; my Twitter circle is a fraction of my networks on Facebook and LinkedIn.

The permanence of email addresses, cell phone numbers and connections on social networks makes it easy to stay in touch with people in our mobile society. Google and Facebook makes it relatively easy to find lost friends. No more having to guess at where they might live and finding an out of town phonebook or calling 411.

There are some downsides. 

The individualistic nature of cell phones, email and social networking have had the effect of reducing incidental communications. Cell phones virtually eliminate the incidental conversations I’d have with the spouses of my friends and family. Most couples I know don’t answer each other’s cell phones and some check caller ID on landlines before deciding whether to answer. My friend Amy was married last year and I have yet to talk to her husband.

A quick Facebook birthday greeting has, for many, replaced birthday cards and phone calls.

Maybe communications has gotten too easy. Social networking tools are constantly suggesting new friends based on algorithms. A few clicks to invite them all. I now have way more high school friends on Facebook than I had friends in high school. 

Overall, I communicate with a lot more people, a lot more often. But the quality of that communication can be lacking. It might be a wall post scribbled in between meetings. Or a tweet from my iPhone while I’m waiting in line.

It just isn’t the same as a long phone call or a visit.

I started working on this post in May. Joe Kraus’ post on the social Web inspired me to finish it.

August 27, 2008

The Russians are coming! The Russians are coming!

Filed under: geotagging, google, journalism, local search, maps, media, newspapers, web 2.0 — Rakesh Agrawal @ 10:52 pm

I’ve long advocated that news organizations geotag the news. But I’ve been skeptical of automated systems for doing this. Google News recently provided a terrific example of what can happen when you use entity extraction for such a task:

Where in the world is Georgia?

Where in the world is Georgia?

In this case, reported by Valleywag, Google is comically wrong. But even when Google is roughly right, the map is often there just for the sake of having a map. The location information is often not very precise or isn’t really relevant.

For example, this story about a Yankees game puts Yankee Stadium somewhere near City Hall. Stories about national issues are often datelined New York or Washington because the reporter happens to be sitting in one of those two cities.

For individual story pages, an inaccurate map isn’t the worst thing in the world. But when you plot many of these stories on a map, they become worthless. In Google Earth, you can get a layer that provides geotagged news from The New York Times. I’ve seen pointless geotagging such as a story titled “U.S. Moves Toward International Accounting Rule” geotagged as being in the “USA”. (Which Google Earth plots in Oklahoma.)

There are many cases where geocoding makes sense and provides users a real service:

  • Restaurant reviews
  • Crime stories
  • Event listings
  • Travel stories

In each of these cases, the location is a critical part of the story. The minimal extra effort involved in geotagging these stories would significantly increase their shelf life and usability.

August 25, 2008

All the news that’s fit to tweet

Filed under: journalism, media, newspapers, social networking, twitter, web 2, web 2.0 — Rakesh Agrawal @ 9:11 pm

On board CalTrain 369 possible fatality near San Bruno

Local, local, local. It’s the new mantra for news. I was reminded of this last week after the train I was riding in struck a pedestrian. The event was insignificant to all but a few hundred, maybe a couple of thousand, people.

There were lots of questions from the people on the train: What happened? Did we kill someone? How long are we going to be delayed? There were also a key question for others who use CalTrain: should I get on the train or find another way home?

Given the small number of people affected, this isn’t the type of thing that makes the local TV news. The Bay Area, being what it is, has a new answer: Twitter. An unofficial CalTrain account allows citizen journalists to share information about what’s going on. Readers can get the news on the Web or by text message.

This kind of real-time journalism has its challenges — initial reports can be wrong. In my own account, I relayed what we heard from the conductor: On cal train that hit someone. Possible fatal.” The first report on the CalTrain account asks, Can someone confirm fatality at milbray?” Another report from the field (presumably from someone at the station), said the opposite of what the conductor was telling us: “ambulance is now gone. man is ALIVE. police+firemen still here.”

But these kind of errors occur in mainstream media as well, such as the erroneous reports that most of the Sago mine workers were still alive.

People use Twitter to write about mundane news items: power outages, fires, etc. While they might not be Newsworthy, that are incredibly important to the relatively few people that are affected by them.

Twitter could become the police scanner of our times. As Twitter becomes location aware, it would be possible to detect where something happened by looking for unusal spikes in activity around a location. Even without that, the Chicago Tribune has used Twitter to break news.

Twitter is also getting attention from mainstream journalists. The Washington Post’s media critic, Howard Kurtz, writes about Twitter use by journalists such as Slate’s John Dickerson at the Democratic convention.

August 20, 2008

How’s the weather out there?

Filed under: geotagging, google, maps, social networking, twitter, web 2.0 — Rakesh Agrawal @ 3:20 pm

One of the things that takes getting used to living in the Bay Area is the many microclimates. Temperatures and conditions can vary dramatically within a few miles.

I was deciding whether to head out to the Beach Chalet, a microbrewery and restaurant on the Pacific Ocean, on Sunday. They’ve got a great back yard with Adirondack chairs and live music. It’s a gorgeous place — on a sunny day. Unfortunately, it’s located in one of the foggiest parts of San Francisco.

Before trekking all the way to the other side of the city I wanted to know whether it was sunny there. Could social networking help?

I decided to post the question — to noone in particular — on Twitter:

Wonder if it is sunny there. My question posed on Twitter.

Within 10 minutes, I had my answer:

Its Not.

Of course, this particular experiment is likely only to work this well this quickly in the Bay Area, where it’s easier to find a Twitter user than a newspaper reader.

How else could I find the answer? Google now has geo-coded Webcams in Google Earth. Find where you want to be and check to see if there’s a camera. Click and you’ll get your answer. In the case of the Beach Chalet, it’s often this:

No, I didn't just paste in a white image. This is a view from a webcam near Ocean Beach.

No, I didn't take a picture of a white wall. This is a view from the Cliff House webcam near Ocean Beach.

June 18, 2008

Take my picture, please

Filed under: facebook, social networking, web 2, web 2.0 — Rakesh Agrawal @ 11:07 pm

I’ve been testing out a couple of relatively new social networking sites lately — FriendFeed and brightkite. Both reminded me of a pet peeve I have about social networking sites: they all want your picture, but they don’t make it easy for you.

They want you to upload a jpg from your computer. I’m not so vain that I keep a jpg of my mug on my desktop ready for easy uploading. And I’m too lazy to go digging around for it every time I want to test out a site. A good chunk — 40% of my friends on FriendFeed — are lazy, too. As a result, they all get the same icon, decreasing the usability of the site.

My profile pictureHere’s a simple idea: steal my Facebook picture, or my flickr picture, or my twitter picture. (I’m in blue, for those who are wondering.) Easy enough to do. FriendFeed already synchronizes my friends list with Facebook.

Yes, I know not everyone uses twitter or flickr. But their primary audience right now is the Great Silicon Valley Echo Chamber. They do. And Facebook only has a 100 million or so users.

An alternative, which WordPress uses for commenters, is to generate a custom icon for each user. It won’t remind people what I look like, but it will help distinguish one user from another.

June 13, 2008

More Americans get their news from… Facebook?

I found out about Tim Russert’s death today through Facebook. One of my friends had updated his status to say he was “shocked by Tim Russert’s death.” I glanced over at my Google Talk contacts and noticed that two other friends had updated their status to reflect Russert’s death.

It’s a little ironic that I found out about the death of a veteran television newsman through a social network. But it’s not unusual.

Increasingly, I’m finding out about things through social networks. I was alerted to last year’s 35W bridge collapse in Minnesota by a friend who IMed me.

Shortly after I updated my own Facebook status to indicate that I’d found about Russert through Facebook, another friend emailed to say that’s how he heard about it, too. It’s not that my friends are all geeks. The two friends who had updated their Google status are well outside the Silicon Valley echo chamber and aren’t highly political.

What does this mean?

  • I spend too much time on Facebook. Sure, yes. But Facebook is a destination site whereas news sites aren’t. I read a lot more news than I ever have and across a much wider range of sources. I usually find stories to read based on email and IM from friends and colleagues, as well as whatever catches my eye on feed readers. Checking out CNN.com, nytimes.com, etc. isn’t on my daily to-do list. News has a way of finding me.
  • Everyone can have an immediate worldwide megaphone. While my status updates and IMs don’t have anywhere near the reach of CNN or The Washington Post, I can easily reach hundreds of people, who can each reach hundreds of people. News spreads faster than ever because we’re more connected than ever. The ease of such communication makes it much more prevalent; I wouldn’t have picked up the phone to tell some the news.
  • Facebook, Twitter, blogs and other user-generated sites are reflections of our collective conscience. Twitter search engine Summize shows on its home page that “Tim Russert” and “Russert” are the trending terms for today. There are more than 100 pages of tweets with “Tim Russert” in them. (Summize cuts off at 100 pages.) We’re getting unprecedented, unedited and immediate reaction to news in a way that letters to the editor and man-on-the-street interviews just can’t touch.
  • Major brands still matter. After seeing the Facebook status update, I went straight to CNN.com. I didn’t even think to go to Google to search for “tim russert”, I knew where to go and got what I was expecting: CNN offered a live feed discussing Russert’s death and a video of Tom Brokaw’s announcement.

June 3, 2008

Google offers fresh perspectives on travel photography

Filed under: flickr, fun, geotagging, google, microsoft, photography, travel, web 2.0 — Rakesh Agrawal @ 11:15 pm

Google’s Panoramio has launched one of the most exciting advances in online pictures since flickr added geotagging. A new “Look around” feature shows you when pictures are available from other angles.

In the screenshot below, you can see the dome of the Taj Mahal highlighted. Clicking on that takes you to a picture of the dome. (Shown in red on the right.)

The UI is a bit confusing. For example, in the screenshot there is a blank image in the middle. I assume that means something, but I haven’t been able to figure out what. The same goes for the overall arrangement of thumbnails. Regardless, it’s a lot of fun to play with.

The feature is only available for sites with lots of pictures. Try the Brooklyn Bridge, Eiffel Tower, Statue of Liberty, Tower of London and the Ponte Rialto. I had an easier time finding places to explore in Europe than in the United States. (This could reflect the fact that Panoramio is based in Spain.)

Microsoft’s Live Labs has been demoing similar technology called Photosynth for more than a year, using images of the Basilica di San Marco. Photosynth offers a spectacular 3D overview. I’d love to see it out of the labs.

Until then, I’ll be playing with Panoramio. Check out their take on the Basilica.

Read more on Panoramio’s blog.

Disclosure: I work for a Microsoft subsidiary.

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