News Leadership 3.0

March 26, 2009

From blog to print

Chris O’Brien: While mass newspapers struggle, entrepreneurs are developing new forms for print news print news

Discussion of the future of print news focuses on the difficulties that established print news organizations are experiencing. But an either-or framing—print is dead or print will live—often misses small experiments with print media that are worth noting. So I asked Chris O’Brien, business columnist for the San Jose Mercury News, for an update working efforts to find a place for print in a digital world.

By Chris O’Brien

For all the talk about whether newspapers should kill the print edition, there are plenty of entrepreneurs headed in the opposite direction. They come from digital backgrounds, but believe as passionately in the future of print as the most ink-stained wretch running a newsroom these days.

Count Josh Karp in this counter intuitive crowd.

“Our thing is the printed word,” Karp said. “There is tremendous power in the printed word. I’m a big believer in the physical commodity.”

The Chicago-based entrepreneur has catapulted from obscurity to buzz worthy shortly after word leaked earlier this year of his plans to launch The Printed Blog. As the name implies, Karp says the company will pull together content from various blogs and Web sites and publish it onto good old-fashioned dead tree products. At first blush, the effort seems to mirror a number of other Web-to-print models (some of which are listed below).

But Karp’s plan is different, complex, and ambitious. He’s attempting not only to reinvent the workflow of a traditional newspaper, but also the manufacturing and distribution components.

I’d been eager to meet Karp, because I count myself among those who believe that print has its place in the future newsroom. Print needs to be reinvented. And it should take its place as just one of many equals in a multi-platform newsroom. But calls for killing the print version are misguided. It’s bad for business, and it’s bad for the thousands of people in each community who still prefer to get their news and information in print.

That said, I think printed news is ripe for innovation. And Karp thinks so, too.

I met Karp and his team on a sunny morning at the famed Buck’s Diner in Woodside, a legendary spot where entrepreneurs and venture capitalists in Silicon Valley have been coming to strike deals for decades. Karp had flown in for a week from Chicago to meet with a series of angel investors and venture capitalists. Karp says he’s got some tentative agreements, but won’t say with who or how much until any deal is signed.

Karp is here with two members of his team: Jenn Beese, the social media manager, and Michelle Doellman, assistant publisher. They’re part of a dozen or so folks currently working on the project, which has been self-funded to this point by Karp. For the most part, all these folks are donating their time, and Karp is hoping that any initial funding will allow him to start paying some salaries.

One of my first surprises came when Karp eagerly handed me some copies of The Printed Blog. These are not slapped-together print-outs from someone’s home printer. They were printed on high-quality, glossy, magazine style paper. It looks and feels slick and professional, thanks to the work of some design interns.

For now, these prototypes are being printed once a week, mostly for demonstration purposes, and being distributed in just a handful of cities. The team keeps a Google Reader full of blogs submitted by writers how have agreed to have their content re-printed. An editorial team reads them and selects the best, solicits photos, lays out the pages, publishes it, and then hands it out in various locations

His goal is print 2,000 versions of The Printed Blog. Every day.

How is he going to achieve that scale?

“It’s about creating a platform for a new, newspaper production,” Karp said.

To understand how Karp hopes to get there, let’s break it down into three pieces:

1. Content: Anyone can submit content from a Web site or blog. The editorial team will give way to an online system to allow a community to vote or rank the content. The top-ranked content will be pulled into an automated layout and production system.

2. Advertising: Local businesses and services will be able to buy ads that will be paired with related content by content and location and the printed versions aimed at their communities. Karp says he has fewer qualms about pairing a printed ad to a story based on content than a traditional newspaper might. Creators of content will get a percentage of the revenue generated by any ads that run on the same page as their work.

3. Production and Distribution: Karp’s plan is to create a chain of Printed Blog production franchises. In this case, the franchise owner would be both the new printing press and the new newspaper delivery boy. A Printed Blog franchisee could be just someone working out of their home, or in an office. They would be provided with the printer and paper. Karp is convinced that he can get both at reasonable prices in bulk over the long-term to make the plan cost effective. The franchisee would get to keep some percentage of the revenue generated by ads that run in their edition.

Once in place, a franchisee would be responsible each day for printing the content that is promoted by the community. The franchisee would then distribute it by taking it to various public places around town.

This franchise part seems to be the trickiest, and the key to making this work. The more franchisees sign up, the more targeted the content can be and the more likely bloggers might see some money. 

Pulling all of this off will be the biggest professional challenge yet for Karp.

Over the years, Karp has held various programming and consulting jobs. More recently, he started his own company, Free Rain Systems, which built software to help companies manage their logistics. About two years ago, he sold it for a modest sum. The experience left him wanting more, and he began kicking around various ideas.

He thought about The Printed Blog a year ago, but friends gave it a thumbs down. By November, though, he couldn’t get it out of his head. So he committed some of his own money, and began fleshing out the concept and technology. Just a few weeks later, word of the project hit the Web, and Karp found himself being interviewed by such outfits as the New York Times, though he had no product to show yet.

So what exactly did Karp see as the opportunity?

“I’d thought a lot about business models,” Karp said. “Were there principals I could take from the online world and bring them to the newspaper world?”

In this case, he wondered if print could be produced real-time, and be made into a rich, interactive experience.

Who knows whether this will work? But I do like the underlying philosophy of providing some choice to the community. Digital technologies are just beginning to deliver on the promise of mass customization. You can see glimpses of it in start-ups like The Printed Blog. 

As for the newspaper industry, it’s way past time to deliver what print readers have been saying they have wanted for years. They want choice in how they receive the newspaper. They want customization, even personalization. Right now, most papers are still stuck delivering one product, at one time, in one form. That product doesn’t fit into the lives of most people anymore.

Whether The Printed Blog proves to be the right model for solving this, time will tell. But hopefully it will begin to open up the possibilities and change the tone of discussion around print from “kill” to “rethink.”

Here are a few of other in intriguing Web-to-print efforts that will be worth following over the next few months:

DailyMe: This Hollywood, Fl.-based start-up aggregates content from across the Web based on your interests and can be set to automatically print your personalized news choices to your printer any time of day.

Printcasting: This is the “people-powered magazines” initiative at the Bakersfield Californian that was funded by a News Challenge Grant from the Knight Foundation. The team just recently launched Printcasting this month.

Time Magazine: According to a recent AP story: “Time Inc. is experimenting with a customized magazine that combines reader-selected sections from eight publications as it tries to mimic in printed form the personalized news feeds that have become popular on the Internet. 

I-News: Under development by MediaNews (disclosure: I work as a columnist at the San Jose Mercury News, whose parent company is MediaNews), the company is about to trial the Individuated Newspaper. According to Editorsweblog.org:

“The “I-News” project will be a targeted and customized online newspaper that allows the reader to select the types of news they want delivered…I-News will be delivered to subscribers via their computers, cell phones, or a special stand-alone printer plugged into a phone line. The printing manufacturer and the publisher participating in the (MediaNews) experiment may subsidize ink and paper prices to offset users’ costs.”

Offbeat Guides: This San Francisco-based start-up allows you to create personalized travel guides. Go through the site to select the place and time you’ll be visiting, and it will create a customized, bound travel guide that contains the general information about a destination but also specific information about things happenings on the days and times you’re visiting. 

March 17, 2009

In Philly, trial by Twitter

Twitter in the court: A juror creates an uproar with a tweet on jury deliberations in a high-profile corruption trial and Twitter rescues The Philadelphia Inquirer’s live blog report on the controversy

The Philadelphia Inquirer provided live blog coverage of the corruption trial of a Philadelphia-based state legislator since October. Things got really interesting and Twitter was involved as the trial came to a close earlier this week. I asked Chris Krewson, executive editor/online news, to describe what happened in this guest post.

UPDATE: Adds correction about Twitter use in reporting from courtroom. Internet connection did not fail but the reporter on the move found Twitter handy way to file breaking news updates.

By Chris Krewson
 
A federal jury was in recess for the weekend after nearing the end of its deliberations in the corruption trial of former Democratic State Sen. Vince Fumo - a legend in Philadelphia politics - when Inquirer City Editor Julie Busby called me Sunday night.

One of the jurors has been posting about the deliberations on his Facebook and Twitter (pages),” Busby said. “We’re posting our story.”

This began a series of social-media-inspired events that kept our users riveted to their computers and televisions through Monday morning, after four months of The Inquirer’s
gavel-to-gavel live coverage of the trial and exclusive reporting when the jury quickly delivered its decision on 137 counts.

The back story

Former state senator Vince Fumo has been on trial since October. Editor Bill Marimow had long wanted the newsroom to do a live blog of a trial, so The Inquirer reported live from inside the courtroom every day, using the CoverItLive platform for the immediacy it allows.

We also collected the audio through the PACER federal court document tracker service, and posted after the court recessed each day. All that is available on the page that collected our coverage.

Reporter Bob Moran, who was behind the keyboard in the courtroom most of that time, has this to say about the experience:

“Cameras are not allowed in federal courtrooms, so this was the closest thing to “live” coverage that anyone could offer. I don’t know what numbers the liveblog generated (ed note: When big names were on the stand, the live blog often topped the list of most-trafficked blogs on the site), but it did have a core audience from local and state politics and from the legal community in Philadelphia. Also, many people close to Fumo, including prominent politicians, were on his list of potential witnesses. As a result, they were barred from attending court, but had access to the proceedings through the live blog. We needed to get permission beforehand from U.S. District Court Judge Ronald Buckwalter to transmit from the courtroom. The AP reporter would file stories and updates from the courtroom, so what I was doing was not unprecedented - just different. And more immediate.”

So we settled into a routine of covering the trial in a very 21st-century way. And we discussed how to present the verdict to our users, settling on a graphic presentation of the charges over a photo of the ex-senator.

Our plans were nearly stalled by a text message, by a juror, on March 5, to his Twitter account.

The social media aspect

Our Page 1 story in The Inquirer on Monday describes what happened:

“Defense lawyers for former State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo moved late yesterday for an immediate halt in jury deliberations and the removal of one juror, contending that the juror posted oblique remarks on Facebook.com and Twitter.com - including one declaring, “Stay tuned for a big announcement on Monday everyone!”

“The petition, filed on the eve of the scheduled sixth day of deliberations in Fumo’s federal corruption trial, stated that there was “substantial evidence” that the juror, who was not identified, had violated admonitions not to disclose the status of deliberations.”

In the newsroom, we prepared for a delay. One theory held that the juror would be dismissed and an alternate juror appointed, which would mean the two weeks of deliberations so far would be tossed out and begun anew.

An alternate juror was summoned to the judge’s chambers. As Moran tried to update developments, he had to move around so much that he could not live blog from his computer. (Note: Earlier post incorrectly reported that the internet connection failed.)


Twitter connection

Bob broke news on Twitter from his iPhone: First, that the alternate had been called to the hearing. Then, that the judge was allowing the original juror to remain.

Bob clarifies the chaotic situation inside the courtroom Monday:

“I went to the courthouse expecting to cover a hearing on the Facebook juror. No one outside the jury expected a verdict. The courtroom was closed and there were only a few people present roaming the halls. Then there were developments on several floors of the court building. At that point, I was calling in updates to the City Desk and posting basically the same stuff on Twitter ... I could not liveblog at that point because I had to keep moving. Once it was announced that a verdict was reached, I went into the courtroom, sat down and started to liveblog using CoveritLive. ... (so) it wasn’t Twitter to the rescue because a connection failed. It was Twitter being handy while I was being mobile, which was also the case when I had to stand around outside afterward.”

Finally, that the jury was very near a verdict. As in, they were ready to announce it that morning.

Bob logged back into Cover It Live as the jury assembled, and then began his live blog again.

The verdict

We’d tested out the very elaborate Flash graphic (at the top of this page), which would update as the verdict came in. We’d assumed that would take up to two hours for the foreman to work his or her way through all 137 counts, and timed the Flash accordingly. (Post initially reported incorrect number of counts.)

Instead, less than 30 minutes later, the jury convicted Fumo on all counts.

Our live blog provided us with an edge in posting this type of news that other local media could not match. While nearly every TV station broadcast news of the verdict shortly after we did, Moran’s rolling updates were far superior to every other report available.

Indeed, the Fox owned-and-operated station showed a reporter outside the newsroom reading our live blog on camera, with the anchor occasionally noting that the reporting was coming from a philly.com live blog.

(Local independent journalist Amy Z. Quinn chided them on Twitter and on her blog, Citizen Mom.)

The results

Our users were hooked. Twitter users re-posted news of the verdict and our coverage; viewership of the story and blog announcing the verdict were among the top 5 items viewed on philly.com through the day.

More importantly, The Inquirer’s newsroom was involved in breaking a story using Twitter, which will pay exponential dividends in our coverage over the next few months.

February 13, 2009

Weekend reading

Links: Growth in use of micro-blogging tools such as Twitter, survival guide to going digital

Alan Mutter offers a rich recipe for struggling news-gathering companies in “Can newspapers transition to digital?

Mindy McAdams launches a highly practical series called “Reporter’s Guide to Multimedia Proficiency.”

Pew finds “Mobile Americans Increasingly Take to Tweeting.” (link via @stevebuttry on Twitter.)

January 19, 2009

In Philadelphia, breaking news on a blog

Chris Krewson: From The Source quickly becomes one of Philly.com’s most popular blogs

Chris Krewson is executive editor online/news for The Philadelphia Inquirer, where the newsroom late last year started a news blog, From The Source, which has become quite popular. I asked Krewson in this guest post to review key steps to starting the blog and to describe its impact to date. Here’s Chris:

“Why don’t we start a breaking news blog?”

My editor, Vernon Loeb, asked me that question in late 2008. The Philadelphia Inquirer’s newsroom was certainly no stranger to breaking news at the time; we’d won a 2008 state Associated Press award for best online coverage of breaking news, for the fatal shooting of a police officer. And we’d made great strides in leveraging the work of our reporters during big news days, most notably the 2008 Pennsylvania Primary, the Phillies World Series win and follow-up parade, and the 2008 general election.

But this was something different.

So we gave it a try.

What to post?

The Inquirer had an all-purpose blog, called “From The Source,” which was originally created for a prospective NFL draft pick to send reports of the process. Later, our TV critic used it to blog from Los Angeles. We used “From The Source” to file breaking news reports while the Phillies made their World Series run, so that seemed the most logical place to nest the breaking news blog, at least for the moment - because we did not know whether our users would find it useful, or not.

We knew our users would contribute news items, so we went out of our way on the blog to beef up a “how to contact us” area, with our online desk phone number and e-mail prominently displayed.

We used our ace in the hole to get things started. When The Inquirer launched its morning breaking news team in January 2008, Vernon asked all the newsroom’s desks (SMASH, business, education, metro, sports and features) to file “advance items” for the Web site. These three- to five-paragraph items were filed the night (or the Friday) before, brief dispatches noting the start of a trial, or the expected earnings of a company, etc.

So we stocked the breaking news blog with those, gathering them in one place.

We also planned on using the blog, from the start, with AP Alert-style notices - basically telling users we knew news was happening, but didn’t know what the story was. For the past nine months or so we’d struggled with what to do with information like that; posting news in a blog format helped us get over the mental hurdle that “we didn’t have enough for a story.”

Sometimes, particularly on big stories that call for a comprehensive ‘write-through,’ we consciously move things out of the blog and into a story. And we’re still feeling our way on this. Still, I’m glad we’re trying this approach to the news; the rapid-updating feels like a much more “web” way to cover news.

The tech

Interestingly, there’s something about the way we blog at philly.com that focuses much of our blogging efforts on news, rather than the traditional definition of a voicey, breezy blog: Our platform changed from Movable Type to the same CMS we use for news stories and photos, Clickability. That means instead of using cumbersome text links that don’t update as the blogs do, we can treat blog posts and stories in exactly the same way. We often lead philly.com with blog posts, which in my experience is difficult-to-impossible most places.

As a result, even before we started this breaking news blog, seven of the top 10 blogs on the site were newsy: News about the Eagles, the Phillies, gossip, national politics and more routinely beat out even philly.com’s venerable Attytood.com, by the Daily News’s Will Bunch.

So we had a feeling we’d do well by posting breaking news in its very own blog.

And we were right.

The Results

We launched in mid-November, and came in at no. 11 on the list of blogs on Philly.com. That was pretty good for an out-of-the gate response. But we really gathered steam the next month, December - the Inquirer From The Source blog was no. 2 on Philly.com, only after the Daily News’ powerhouse Eagles blog (and that gained a ton of traffic during the team’s improbable late-season winning streak that drew them into the playoffs). But only a little less than 6,000 views separated us. And the breaking news blog still accounted for nearly 12 percent of all blog traffic on Philly.com.

So far in January, the local news has been slower - and we’re also diverting some staff reporting into the Inauguration blog, which is the latest iteration of our political blog, the former home of some of our most potent breaking news blogging. But we’re no. 3 on the site (after Eagles and the NFL in general) and nearing 10 percent of all views. The Eagles are not going to the Super Bowl, so I’d anticipate that internal competition dropping off.

I’d rather have the Eagles win a Super Bowl, or at least get there again. But I’ll settle for a strong blogging effort that gets this newsroom more aware of what our online users are looking for, and figuring out how to get it to them.

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ABOUT THIS BLOG

Exploring innovation, transformation and leadership in a new ecosystem of news, by journalist and change advocate Michele McLellan.

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