Paywalls continue to spring up across the news landscape while new-media enthusiasts warn that gated news is a throwback to a bygone age.

Britain’s Telegraph and Sun announced plans to erect paywalls almost simultaneously after successful tests. The Telegraph, which claims to have the largest circulation of any U.K. daily, will give away 20 articles free every month and charge £1.99/mo. thereafter for unlimited access to the website and smartphone apps. The Sun‘s move is timed to make the most of parent company News International’s £20M deal to show near-live clips of Premiership football highlights on its websites beginning in August.

In Canada, Postmedia Network will roll out paywalls across all 10 of its properties, including the National Post. The move completes an experiment that began two years ago and has been deployed in stages. Digital-only subscribers will have to ante up $9.99/mo. for reading more than 10 articles in any title within a month.

Perhaps most indicative of the surging popularity of paywalls, though, is Politico’s decision to experiment with the idea. The Washington, D.C.-focused news service, which was once personified the new breed of digital-only publishers, has given in to the reality that advertising rates continue to fall and subscriber revenues must become part of the business. “We believe that every successful media company will ultimately charge for its content” said a memo signed by several of the Politico’s top executives.

Circling the Wagons

We continue to be more interested in experiments that break new ground in publishing economics than efforts to resurrect old models. There’s plenty to report there, as well.

Ken Doctor kicks us  off with a fine analysis of where NewsRight went wrong. NewsRight was a consortium of 20 publishers that sprung out of the Associated Press in early 2012 with the mission of tracking down copyright violators while also creating a subscription model that would permit digital publishers to license quality content for redistribution.

“Publishers have seethed with rage as they’ve seen their substantial investment in newsrooms harvested — for nothing — by many aggregators…” writes Doctor on the Nieman Journalism Lab, “…but rage — whether seething or public — isn’t a business model.”

Bingo. Consortia are good for only two things: setting standards and raising awareness. They’re a terrible way to create new products. The idea of pursuing copyright violators individually is ludicrous, anyway. It’s like trying to stamp out ants. There are always more where the first batch came from.

The only anti-piracy tactic that works is a public awareness campaign, and the newspaper industry has shown little interest in that. NewsRight died because the members inevitably had conflicting priorities, and it was impossible for everyone to find common ground when everyone had something to lose.

Does BuzzFeed Have it Right?

Sponsored Post on BuzzFeedDoctor points to the work being done at NewsCred, BuzzFeed and Forbes, among others, as examples of new ideas worth developing. “In 2013, we’re seeing more innovative use of news content than we have in a long time,” he writes. We’re particularly interested in BuzzFeed, the viral content engine started by Jonah Peretti and others in 2006. At first glance it looks like any other new-age news site, with a bottomless home page stuffed with a jumble of seemingly unrelated content ranging from the profound to the ridiculous.

As New York magazine points out in a lengthy profile, though, there’s a lot more going on there than cat photos. BuzzFeed is tuned to create content that people want to share, and it could care less who the authors are. The home page blithely mixes contributions from staffers and advertisers with minimal labeling. Every element within every story can be shared on every social network you can imagine. Every page is designed to maximize audience interaction with the content.

BuzzFeed makes little effort to segregate advertiser contributions from the work of its own staff. A photo essay on “12 Tips to Have An Amazing Barbecue” from Grill Mates sits next to “Just The London Skyline, Made Out Of Sugar Cubes” by staffer Luke Lewis. Some of the branded stuff is actually pretty good, like, JetBlue’s “The 50 Most Beautiful Shots Taken Out Of Airplane Windows.”

Is this serious journalism? Well, no. We don’t think corporate brands will ever produce that. But if they want to run their grilling tips next to similarly lightweight content from professional editors, why not let them? The genie that goes by such names as “brand journalism” and “content marketing” isn’t going back in the bottle. A recent survey concluded that corporate marketers and agencies consider branded content to be among their most effective branding tactics, and that 69% plan to spend more money on it in the coming year.

The bigger issue is whether sustainable publishing business models can be found that don’t rely entirely upon display advertising or subscription revenue. BuzzFeed and NewsCred are making some progress there. We don’t believe they produce serious journalism, if sex, gossip and voyeurism can attract a large enough audience to support real journalism, then we’re in favor of it. The idea isn’t new. It’s worked in the U.K. for decades.

Content Marketing Effectiveness

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Police Roam MA Suburb In Search Of Boston Bombers

Police Roam MA Suburb In Search Of Boston Bombers (Photo: Talk Radio News Service)

Those who fear that crowdsourcing may soon make professional journalists obsolete should take a look at some of the links below related to an amateur sleuthing experiment on the popular Reddit social news site that went horribly awry last week.

The goal was commendable enough. A “subreddit” was set up to enlist the members of this massive community (14 million monthly visitors by one report) in the hunt for suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing. Participants were told not to name names and to focus their effort on combing through thousands of photos posted on the Internet in hopes of finding the origins of the backpacks that exploded, killing three people and injuring 282 others.

The rules quickly went by the wayside, though. Names began being tossed out more or less at random, photos of anyone carrying a backpack were flagged as suspicious and chatter from the Boston Police Scanner were posted as fact. Most damaging was a rumor that Sunil Tripathi, a Brown University student who has been missing for a month, was one of the bombers.

Twitter did its part both to spread misinformation and to serve professional journalists who sought to calm the hysteria.  Some mainstream media organizations picked up on the Tripathi rumors and amplified them, while other journalists tried to settle the crowd by pointing out, among other things, that police scanner reports are unconfirmed and often wrong.

The accusation that Tripathi was involved in the bombings was particularly damaging. When the popular @NewsBreaker Twitter account reported that the missing student had been confirmed as a suspect based upon police scanner chatter, “social media went crazy,” said Reddit General Manager Erik Martin in an interview on Atlantic Wire. “It was posted so many times in [Reddit subgroup] /r/FindBostonBombers that I had to stay up the entire night deleting them.”

Martin called the experiment “a disaster,” and issued an apology to the Tripathi family on behalf of Reddit, which is owned by Conde Nast. Media critics have been swarming in the wake of the incident, with Reddit getting nearly universal condemnation. About the only contribution the crowd made to the investigation was to identify one photo of the suspected bombers that the FBI hadn’t seen. However, the distraction the experiment caused as professional reporters tried to untangle the web of amateur accusations more than offset the small benefits. A chastened Reddit has since launched a new crowdsourced campaign to help locate Tripathi.

Questioning Crowdsourcing’s Value

Does this mean crowdsourcing is a bad idea? In certain situations, yes. Criminal investigations require specialized expertise that no group of amateurs can match. FBI and police investigators had access to intelligence that enabled them to evaluate and discard spurious information that the Reddit crowd didn’t. In a highly charged atmosphere like this, investigation is best done behind closed doors, with information revealed selectively when it can move the process along. The crowd is enlisted to help authorities but not to solve the case.

We can’t help but wonder what the public response would be if police officials conducted their investigation the way Reddit did. If every rumor and bit of speculation was held up to public comment, then our opinion of law enforcement might be quite different. Sometimes there’s good reason to withhold information from the public, as the irresponsible actions of the Reddit crowd made very clear.

However, we shouldn’t throw out the baby with the bath. Crowdsourcing can have great value when applied to analysis of very amounts of data or eyewitness accounts. Witness the comprehensive Wikipedia report on the Marathon bombings for an example of how many eyes can tell a story better than a few.

The incident also offered some shining examples of traditional media at its best. On Friday the Boston Globe, which has been a poster child of newspaper industry tumult, posted this marvelous account of the factors that set two likable young men on the road to terrorism. It was mainstream media at its best.

Update

Mathew Ingram has a different view. He believes Reddit, Twitter and other popular tools are capable of producing quality journalism, but not in the way we’ve traditionally defined it. Ingram believes that journalism is “atomizing” into component parts, and that the fact-checking and validation functions can be better handled by a crowd.

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Fake storm photo Hurricane Sandy

The photo at right was one of several that made the rounds on the Internet as Hurricane Sandy lashed the east coast on Monday and Tuesday of this week. It’s a powerful image. It’s also completely bogus, a two-year-old Photoshop mashup that took on new significance when no one had a clear picture of what was happening on the Atlantic seaboard. It was one of many false reports that circulated on social networks during the storm. Although the increasingly Twitter-dependent mainstream media didn’t circulate this photo, it reported its share of falsehoods.

We personally heard the CNN report of three feet of water in the New York Stock Exchange. In fact, live security camera feeds showed that the floor was dry. We also heard media reports that Con Edison had shut off power to all of Manhattan. Also not true. The Detroit Free Press rounds up some of the prominent rumors here.

Instagram was the new kid on the block for this event. The photo-sharing service communicated some powerful images, like the fully lit Jane’s Carousel in Brooklyn surrounded by flood waters (left), but it was also used to drag out Photoshopped favorites from years past that reappear with each new disaster. The Verge has a roundup of photos shared on Instagram and Twitter during the storm and the Atlantic put together a great collection of real, fake and questionable images shared on social media.

Are these deceptions proof that citizen journalism sucks, that the ability to reach a global audience tempts people to spread falsehoods and make mischief?

We don’t think so. While social networks spread a lot of rumors during the storm, that’s nothing unique to the Web 2.0 age. Disasters always spawn speculation. Remember the reports of planes flying into buildings in Chicago and San Francisco on 9/11? The difference today is the speed at which falsehoods spread. But another important difference is the speed at which they’re dispelled.

We like John Herrman’s analysis on BuzzFeed. He notes that Twitter users were just as quick to disabuse each other of storm-related misinformation as to spread it in the first place. “Twitter is a fact-processing machine on a grand scale, propagating then destroying rumors at a neck-snapping pace,” he writes. “To dwell on the obnoxiousness of the noise is to miss the result: that we end up with more facts, sooner, with less ambiguity.”

Sites like Snopes.com and Wikipedia are effective at sifting fact from fiction. Although neither is under the same time pressure as CNN, in the long run they get it right. Electronic media are always under the gun during a news event, and have always been susceptible to reporting bad information. To their credit, the news networks are usually good about qualifying unconfirmed information as just that. Any experienced reader of blogs or social networks knows that fantastical claims shouldn’t be taken at face value. New media even have some fact-checking features built in. For example, The New York Times used geo-location to verify that eyewitness tweets were in fact from people who might reasonably be assumed to be eye witnesses.

We think more information is always better than less, even if some of it is bad. As layoffs continue to hack away at mainstream media, those outlets continue to turn to citizens as front-line news sources. We don’t see that changing anytime soon. Rather, the tools for spotting bad information will mature and our bullshit detectors become more refined.

Anyone watching the #Sandy or #Frankenstorm hash tags on Monday and Tuesday read amazing stories from people who taking the storm head-on. Mobile social networks continue to deliver information from blacked-out areas that would otherwise have no outlet. The fact that some of that information is bad is the price we pay for having a First Amendment.

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James Macpherson, Pasadena NowEver heard of James Macpherson? If you’re a veteran journalist, you probably have, although you might know him better as “that asshole who fired his entire reporting staff and outsourced local coverage of Pasadena, Calif. to India.”

We got a note from Macpherson the other day pointing out that recent trends would indicate that he was a trailblazer, not a nut.

In spite of the clobbering in the media I took for the idea then — and in spite of the Journatic debacle now –  the truth remains that some form of editorial outsourcing IS coming to newsrooms near you, and probably soon…Newsroom outsourcing is inevitable. The idea is so powerful it should be explored and discussed, not simply rebuked.

Macpherson also pointed us to a couple of his own blog entries on the subject: “The Outsourcing of Hyperlocal Journalism Is Inevitable” and “And Now, A Penny for My Thoughts.” They’re both worth reading. As we pointed out recently, the price of journalism is being readjusted to a new equilibrium point, and ideas like outsourcing local city council coverage to writers in Manila aren’t nearly as far-fetched as they once seemed.

It’s a Business

A lot of debate about the future of journalism has been tinged with emotion, which is understandable given how many jobs have been lost. The harsh reality, though, is that the vast majority of journalism is practiced by profit-making organizations. These companies are struggling with seismic shifts that have changed their business model forever. Advertising costs are in long-term decline, reader switching costs are zero, barriers to competitive entry have vanished and mass media are being displaced by specialized media. Any organization that hopes to survive in such a market needs to do things differently.

The approach to outsourcing that Macpherson outlines in this post is rational and workable in many scenarios: Offshore whatever can be offshored and have the people on the scene focus on capturing the action. Keep expertise local and farm out the rest.

If you’ve ever worked in a newsroom, you know there’s a lot of work that doesn’t require people to leave the office. Copy editing is a desk job. So is obituary writing. Editors fill holes on print pages by rewriting wire copy. Sports editors rarely go into a locker room and city editors don’t cover school board meetings. They’ve done all that stuff and graduated to jobs where they supervise others.

Some of this stuff is easy to outsource, and a lot of it already has been dispatched to interns or specialty shops like Legacy.com. The tough part is deconstructing jobs where experience is an asset, like the sports editor. Those jobs should stay intact on these shores, although some of the routine work may be able to be done elsewhere.

Get Me Rewrite

Journalism has traditionally been a vertically integrated craft. The reporter who covers the city council meeting is also expected to write the story, even if that person can’t compose a coherent paragraph. We’ve all known people who were great fact-finders or interviewers but who couldn’t write. Rewrite editors were an early tool to compensate for that. Now technology is taking deconstruction to a new level.

Anyone with a smart phone and an Internet connection can now be a live streaming news source. People on the scene can embellish or correct a published account, even if they don’t work for the news organization. Aggregating, summarizing and commenting upon published reports is the essence of what most bloggers do. In many cases, being on the scene isn’t nearly as important as it used to be.

Outsourcing is not an all-or-nothing proposition, but a process of optimizing for value. Move routine work to the lowest-cost source and invest in stuff that makes a difference. Businesses have done this with manufacturing, payroll, facilities maintenance, information technology and the many other tasks for years.

But what about quality? That’s the most common objection to outsourcing in general, but we think markets are pretty good at figuring that out. Journalists aren’t the ultimate arbiters of quality; their readers are. If you believe that the public no longer has an interest in quality journalism, then outsourcing is a pretty depressing prospect. However, we don’t think the public is that stupid.

Macpherson is right: These ideas should be developed and not dismissed as lunacy simply because they break with tradition. If someone can put out a journal at lower cost that its audience values and that someone will pay to support, then the market will make it own decisions.

By Paul Gillin | March 14, 2012 - 9:32 am - Posted in Citizen Journalism

Interesting and passionate video about the mediating role that citizens play in deciding what we believe is important.

The federal judge has ruled that a woman who describes herself as an “investigative blogger” is not entitled to First Amendment protection for allegedly defamatory statements she made about an Oregon attorney.

Crystal CoxCrystal Cox (right), a real estate agent and blogger from Eureka, Mont., set up a network of websites, including this one, that criticize the conduct of attorney Kevin Padrick in his role as trustee of the failed financial firm called Summit Accommodators, which collapsed in 2008 amid charges of fraud.

Among Cox’ accusations is that Padrick hired a hitman to kill her, a charge that Padrick vigorously denies. The attorney says that Cox’ allegations have so overwhelmed the search engines that his business is off more than 80% this year. “Google ‘Kevin Padrick’ and you’ll see the first 10 pages are from Crystal Cox,” Padrick told Oregon Live.

Cox, who sarcastically describes herself as an “Unhinged Blogger Exposing Corruption in the US Bankruptcy Courts,” fills her blog with accusations, obscenities and character assassination, tactics which are typical of hate bloggers. “‘Unhinged Blogger’ Crazy Crystal Cox Says that Jeff Manning of the Oregonian is Bought and Paid for AGAIN, oh and Jeff Manning, Oregonian, is an Asshole,” she titled one post. It’s filled with accusations about an investigative reporter for the Oregonian newspaper, none of which are backed by citations. The post is peppered with links to copies of the same article on other websites, most of which are presumably maintained by Cox, as well links to other hate sites that the author has created.

On the other hand, Cox has also assembled a substantial library of documents related to Kevin Padrick and the trust he administers. She presents most of these without comment, challenging her audience to do their own research. We demurred, but we admit that she appears to have done her homework.

In ruling that Cox was not entitled to the protections provided to mainstream news outlets, U.S. District Judge Marco Hernandez said the blogger “was not a journalist because she offered no professional qualifications as a journalist or legitimate news outlet. She had no journalism education, credentials or affiliation with a recognized news outlet, proof of adhering to journalistic standards such as editing or checking her facts, evidence she produced an independent product or evidence she ever tried to get both sides of the story,” according to the AP report.

So who’s right in this case? Much as we find Cox’ vendetta-fueled tactics repugnant, we’re more concerned about any efforts to inhibit free speech, even by someone who is clearly a little nuts. However, we are also concerned about attempts to create distinctions between traditional and new media. We’d rather see this case judged as a libel issue, where precedents are clearly established. Why is the distinction between blogger and media outlet even meaningful at a time when properties like Huffington Post and Mashable can go from sideline to superpower in a matter of a couple of years?

There is an intriguing dimension to this case that the court didn’t address: the impact of Cox’ activities on her target’s search engine performance. The case illustrates that a motivated and energetic blogger can significantly damage someone else’s reputation by surrounding their name with negative keywords in search results. Is that a form of libel? Could Google be compelled to change its search algorithm as a consequence of a First Amendment court decision? Do we even want to go there?

By Paul Gillin | November 25, 2011 - 7:35 pm - Posted in Citizen Journalism, Future of Journalism, Local news, Newspapers, OnlineMedia

News coverage of a fatal single-car crash that occurred early on Thanksgiving Day in our home town of Framingham, MA spotlights the tradeoffs between traditional news reporting and the less constrained world of the real-time Internet. Look at the distinctions between them and tell us what you think.

The first report of the crash came from Framingham Patch, the one-person news bureau that covers the town for AOL’s Patch network. It reported  Thursday morning that a vehicle had struck a utility pole and tree at about 3:30 a.m. and that an occupant may have been killed. The news of the fatality wasn’t confirmed, but was speculation based upon police scanner requests for a medical examiner and accident reconstruction team.

It was nearly a full day before Patch published a more complete account of the accident, republished here unedited and in its entirety. The latest version is here.

Junior Koga Killed in Franklin St. Crash; Wife Pregnant

Framingham accident victim Ricardo JuniorMembers of the Framingham Brazilian community were discussing the death of Junior Koga on WSRO radio in Portuguese, on Twitter and even on Framingham Patch Thanksgiving day.

Friends say Junior Koga is man who crashed into a pole and then slammed into a tree killing himself on Franklin Street, early Thanksgiving morning around 3:10 a.m.

Framingham Police and other authorities have not returned calls or emails about the fatal crash. No official identification of the driver has been released.

At the scene, Thanksgiving morning Framingham Police requested, on the scanner, for the Massachusetts State Police reconstruction team, the Middlesex District Attorney’s office and the medical examiner.

Friends say Koga’s wife is pregnant. Koga, according to friends is a Brazilian national from Santa Catarina, a state in South Brazil. One friend said his wife is due to give birth in a couple of weeks. Koga is employed as a mechanic and lives in Framingham, according to friends. He is in his 30s.

Thiago Prado commented on Framingham Patch Thursday “very very sad news – Junior we gonna miss you.”

Nayara Martins, who tweeted the Framingham Patch video of the accident, also tweeted “Hate to see once again another life cut short so quickly because of driving drunk. When are people going to learn?! <|3 #RIPJunior”

Friends tell Framingham Patch Koga “came back from a night club, was brought to his home and got into his own car to go out again.”

Friends said they suspect alcohol may have been involved.

Police are still investigating, and have not released any information on the fatal crash, including an identification.

The crash happened just after the Mt. Wayte Shopping Center at 384 Franklin St.

At the scene, Framingham Police blocked off the road. The Framingham Fire department placed a sheet over the car lodged into the tree and then added a second sheet to block the scene, while awaiting the State Police reconstruction team, which was coming from another Thanksgiving fatality in Freetown.

A neighbor near the crash, who didn’t wish to be identified, said the driver was partially ejected from the car. “It is a nasty scene,” he said.

Nearly 10 hours after the Framingham Patch report appeared, the local Metrowest Daily News reported its version of the story, again reprinted here in its entirety.

Framingham man dies in car crash

A 31-year-old Framingham man died early Thanksgiving morning after crashing into a telephone pole and then a tree on Franklin Street, police said today.

Ricardo Junior, of 67 Georgetown Drive, was the only person involved in the one-vehicle crash, which happened at about 3:10 a.m. yesterday, police said.

“It looks like he was killed on impact,” Deputy Police Chief Craig Davis said.

Davis said alcohol may have been a factor, as police found several Heineken beer bottles in the vehicle Junior was driving. Some of the bottles were full, and others were broken, he said.

“The initial indication is the cause is excessive speed,” Davis said. “There was an excessive amount of damage to the car.”

Junior crashed in the 300-block of Franklin Street, near Newton Place, Davis said.

We were struck by several contrasts between the coverage by these two outlets and the questions they raise about the conventional rules of sourcing in this tweet-saturated times. The spelling, formatting and grammatical mistakes aside, it’s unlikely that the Patch story would have ever made it past the desk of an editor at a metro daily.  Among the factual holes are:

  • The identity of the victim is unconfirmed and an age and address aren’t supplied.
  • Most of the details about the crash and the victim are sourced to unidentified friends.
  • Details about the reported pregnancy of the victim’s wife are sketchy and unconfirmed.
  • The police would neither confirm nor comment upon any of the facts in the story.
  • Perhaps most importantly, allegations that the driver was drunk are raised by unidentified “friends” but never confirmed.

Junior on Facebook

In fact, the Patch story got an important fact wrong: the victim’s real name was Ricardo Junior, not Junior Koga. Other than that, though, Patch provided more information and better context than the official account published by the local newspaper. And it did so nearly 10 hours earlier.

Among the unique details in the Patch story are a photo, news that the victim’s wife is pregnant (unconfirmed, but likely, given the photo on Junior’s Facebook page), the location of his home town in Brazil and comments by friends who knew him.

On the role of alcohol in the crash, Patch provides context about the incident that the official account lacks. The report that Junior was driven home from a night club by friends would indicate that he was probably seriously intoxicated when he got in his car. It also raises questions about his judgment and responsibility, given that his wife is due to deliver a child shortly. However, that information is sourced to unidentified “friends.”

Community Service or Slipshod Reporting?

So the Patch account is better than that of the local newspaper, but its use of unconfirmed and anonymously sourced information would make it unfit to publish  under the traditional rules of news journalism. But should those rules apply any more?

The Metrowest Daily News’ sole source in its coverage is the local police department, which is standard practice in these cases. Patch had no access to those official channels and so had to piece together its story from unidentified friends, talk radio accounts and Twitter chatter. Anonymous sourcing permitted Patch to beat the local daily by many hours and to add details that would never appear in the police log. In the hours since its account appeared, other people have confirmed the victim’s identity and added a few details via comments.

Anonymous sourcing is dangerous, though. While the events would indicate that Junior was drunk (high-speed, single-vehicle crash in the early morning hours on the eve of a holiday), there was no official confirmation of that fact. Driver impairment is an important issue not only because of the victim’s reputation but also for legal reasons. What if Junior was sober and responding to a friend’s call for help when he hit a police cruiser parked with its lights off? The town could be liable for damages.

Standard journalistic practice is to confirm a story through official channels before publishing, but standard practice assumes archival permanency. Online, our mistakes are quickly corrected. For example, in the time since we began writing this entry, Patch has already corrected the victim’s name. The Patch editors sacrificed absolutely accuracy for speed and  the interests of residents who wanted details as quickly as possible. In the process, it made one major mistake and an inference that could have legal ramifications.

Patch’s sourcing style is increasingly typical of online-only news operations. Is it making the proper tradeoffs or sacrificing accuracy for expediency? Post your comments here.

 

By Paul Gillin | October 4, 2011 - 4:13 am - Posted in Citizen Journalism, Journalism, Local news, NewMedia

The post below was submitted to us by Scott Talkov, Editor-in-Chief of ThingsToDoInlandEmpire.com, a guide to entertainment, events and discounts in southern California. If you want to see an impressive example of what people can do with a free copy of WordPress and free Facebook and Twitter accounts, check out this site. 

The claims and statistics cited in this article are the author’s, and we don’t vouch for their validity. 

The local blog ThingsToDoInlandEmpire.com, focusing on arts, entertainment and events in southern California, recently surpassed well-established print media outlets in Riverside and San Bernardino on several well-known metrics.

The site now averages twice the traffic of the region’s most widely distributed weekly print publication and four times the traffic of the region’s most widely distributed monthly magazine, both of which cover the same arts and entertainment focus, According to third party traffic verification firm Quantcast. Those estimates are mirroredby well-known Internet ratings website Alexa.com.

The website also counts more Facebook likes than the region’s largest weekly or monthly print publications, as well as one of the region’s largest daily publications.

The site began with an idea from Adina Hemley, a non-profit director in the Inland Empire. “My fiance and I would search the Internet for fun events every weekend, and then it occurred to me, ‘I know I’m not the only looking for things to do in the Inland Empire,’” said Hemley.

Scott Talkov, a 30-year-old lawyer in Riverside and self-described techie, started the website with Hemley in early 2011 to aggregate their research on the hottest places to go in the Inland Empire. Since then, traffic has doubled every three months.

By working together with more than 20 authors, the site collects data and perspectives from dozens of cities throughout the inland Southern California region known as the Inland Empire. The region counts over four-million people and witnessed the fastest growth over the past decade among the nation’s top 25 metropolitan areas.

“While the economy and print media may be down, people are still having fun, they’re just turning to new sources to find out what to do,” said Kris Daams, a former newspaper reporter and author on the site.

Talkov says new technologies allow information to collected and distributed instantly at essentially no cost. The website is based on WordPress and communicates with followers through the social media tools Facebook and Twitter, all of which are free.

When asked what drives this site, author Nate Hutchinson insisted “We want to continue to prove people wrong who claim there is nothing to do in the Inland Empire.”

Contact Scott Talkov at scott@thingstodoinlandempire.com.
By Paul Gillin | September 16, 2011 - 10:57 am - Posted in BusinessModel, Citizen Journalism, Journalism, Local news, Newspapers

USC journalism professor Judy Muller goes back to her roots in small-town weeklies and writes an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times that concludes that “there are thousands of newspapers that are not just surviving but thriving.” Muller points out some of the unique challenges of publishing in a small community, such as having to unmask wrongdoing by the town councilor who may be your brother-in-law. She also made us laugh with this example of a typical item on the local police blotter: “Man calls to report wife went missing 3 months ago.”

It’s a fun and inspiring read, and would be even better if it were true, but Muller makes an essential journalism error in not providing any factual evidence to support her “thriving” claim. In fact, weekly local newspapers have been taking it in the neck for years. We long ago stopped tracking news of local newsweekly closures because the volume was overwhelming. Back in 2009, Journal Register Co. closed scores of weekly holdings in one fell swoop, and Gannett and others have followed. Weeklies were some of the hardest-hit properties in Media News’ recent consolidation. Reports of other weekly shutdowns hit our Google Reader every couple of weeks. We’re frequently asked how many local weeklies have closed but we know of no one – not even the amazing Erica Smith – who keeps count.

Which isn’t to take anything away from the many dedicated journalists who put up with long hours and low wages to publish the thousands of small-town weeklies that still survive. Local publishing has never been a lucrative business to begin with, and the pressure is only getting worse as low-overhead online operations like Patch – not to mention bloggers and independent Web publishers – nibble away at their local advertising base. We admire the dedication of these publishers and are inspired by stories like that of M.E. Sprengelmeyer, a daily journalist who found fulfillment running a 2,000-circulation weekly in Santa Rosa, N.M. after losing his job in the Rocky Mountain News closure in 2009 (see video). Muller celebrates Sprengelmeyer in her op-ed, but also uses a word we hear a lot when discussing this topic: “exhausted.”

Small-town weekly publishing is a lot of things: rewarding, fulfilling, responsible, important and endangered. There’s one thing that it clearly isn’t, though: thriving.

Boston Globe Splits Web Presence

The Boston Globe has come up with a novel twist on the paywall concept: It’s launching a paid portal that “offers an innovative, inviting reading experience that is the only gateway to all of the Globe’s journalism.” BostonGlobe.com is the new online companion to the 139-year-old daily that provides the full contents of the print edition as well as bonus features. It will be free through the end of this month and $3.99/mo. thereafter. Home delivery subscribers get access for free. The website will be formatted for reading on a variety of desktop and mobile devices, although few details were provided.

Boston.com, the regional site that the Globe launched in partnership with several local media outlets in 1995, will remain free. It will focus on daily sports coverage, online features and lifestyle information, and also include five stories from the daily print edition and summaries of other content that can be read in full on BostonGlobe.com.

In positioning the bifurcated strategy, Globe Editor Martin Baron described Boston.com as a site for the common man with BostonGlobe.com as its more erudite sibling. “BostonGlobe.com is essentially purely journalistic, and Boston.com is more of a town square where you get news and information, but you can also buy tickets to events and exchange information and opinions with your neighbors,’’ he said. Boston.com will continue to be advertising-supported.

The Globe was actually an early innovator in hyperlocal journalism. When Boston.com was launched as a partnership between the Globe and several local print and broadcast outlets, it broke the then-emerging newspaper mold by focusing on regional coverage rather than delivering an electronic version of the print product. However, as partners dropped out of the venture over time, Boston.com increasingly became the online face of the Globe, eventually getting to the point that articles about Israel and Japan routinely led the home page. With the new strategy, the Globe appears to be returning Boston.com to its roots.

Miscellany

If you’re still on the fence about buying a tablet computer (we took the plunge last month and are enjoying the experience), you can get one at a really good price if you also buy a subscription to two Philadelphia newspapers and a website. The Philadelphia Media Network, which publishes the Inquirer, the Daily News and Philly.com, has teamed up with three local sponsors and the French electronics company Archos to sell Archos’ Arnova 10 G2 Android tablets preloaded with gobs of Philadelphia news for $285. The advertised price of the tablets themselves is as low as $99, or about half what they cost on eBay. The catch is that you have to buy a subscription to three news apps as part of the deal. We suppose there are enough Philadelphians, who can never get enough Eagles coverage, to sell out the 5,000 units being offered on Phillytablet.com.

 

By Paul Gillin | September 7, 2011 - 4:10 am - Posted in BusinessModel, Citizen Journalism, Future of Journalism, Local news, Newspapers

Susan Petroni, Framingham PatchWhen Tropical Storm Irene plowed into the New England coastline a week ago, Susan Petroni (right) was ready. Armed with a computer and a cell phone, she set out to mobilize the citizens of the largest town in the U.S. to help her cover the story.

Petroni live-blogged throughout the storm, encouraging her readers at Framingham.Patch.com to be her eyes and ears. Readers snapped cell-phone phones and e-mailed them to Petroni to post on the Patch site. Locals flocked to the Framingham Patch page on Facebook to update each other on power outages and roads blocked by fallen trees. Petroni stayed on the phone with town officials to update her audience on disaster preparedness warnings and clean-up plans. For residents who had lost power, the Framingham Patch Twitter feed kept updates coming to cell phones.

In the days that followed, Susan Petroni’s online outposts became rallying points for citizens trying to find out when power would be restored or whether the opening of the school year would be delayed. Much of this information came not from her but from each other. Facebook was a quicker way to find out where the lights were coming on than the overwhelmed officials at the local utility.

The same scene played out at dozens of Patch sites up and down the east coast, demonstrating the power and agility of a new type of media we might call “curated citizen journalism.” It’s a model that relies upon the news judgment of professionals like Susan Petroni, who is an accomplished and award-winning journalst, and the contributions of concerned citizens who want to be part of the action.

Like many online journalists, Petroni left the daily newspaper grind for Patch in order to gain scheduling flexibility and spend more time with her young daughter. She posts five to seven stories on a typical weekday and a couple on Saturdays and Sundays. Like any good Metro reporter, she covers the important local government meetings and any news that would be likely to make the regional newspaper. However, most of her posts are short and few are earth-shaking.

About the Editor

One other Patch innovation that strikes us as novel and worth emulating: the “about the editor” page. Mainstream media typically sanitizes these profiles to limit them to professional accomplishments, but Susan Petroni’s page is far more personal. It includes disclosure of her religious beliefs, political affiliations and even opinions on some local hot-button issues. “We promise always…to adhere to the principles of good journalism,” the profile states. “However, we also acknowledge that true impartiality is impossible because human beings have beliefs.”

This approach is both endearing and practical. It gives the newsgathering operation a personal face while also heading off the constant bickering that takes place in newspaper comment sections over the political leanings of the editors. You may not like Susan Petroni’s politics, but at least you know what they are. And what’s wrong with that?

A typical Patch story might update residents on how long traffic will be disrupted by a sewer renovation program or tell how school bus routes are being changed. A weekly police log update tells where crime was a problem in the last week. Not Pulitzer Prize-winning stuff, but these are the stories that matter to the daily lives of the people who live nearby.

Curated Citizen Journalism

Patch encourages citizens to contribute to the effort without mixing their contributions with those of the single professional editor and assortment of freelancers who make up the core of the typical Patch site. Bloggers from the community get their own digital sandboxes, and comments are clearly distinguished from reported stories. People are free to post news reports to Facebook or the forums, but news only makes the main news feed after it’s been vetted by a pro.

Patch disclaims reports from the community, but also encourages them like crazy. There has been little problem with error or abuse, says Danielle Horn, Associate Regional Editor for Patch Metrowest Boston. The key is to know when it’s appropriate to turn over the reporting job to the citizens and when a pro needs to step in.

“If someone says the power is out on their street, then the power is probably out,” Horn says. “We haven’t run into any situations where people have posted news that is clearly incorrect. [Community newsgathering] is working out great.”

Patch has a thin staffing model, with typically one full-time editor anchoring each region. “Each editor knows his or her community like the back of their hand,” says Horn. The meat and potatoes of a Patch site is the little details that matter in residents’ everyday lives: library programs, school sports and street closings. “We want to be a resource for information that can enhance people’s daily lives,” Horn says.

Addicted

We’ve developed a mild addiction to our local Patch site, and we even contributed some photos to the recent storm coverage. Why? Because we were asked. As our photos began to show up on the gallery, we found ourselves mildly intoxicated by participating in storm coverage. We were also gratified to get a thank-you note from Petroni herself. At the nearby Boston Globe, e-mails to editors generally disappear into a black hole, and phone calls are rarely returned.

Patch, which now boasts more than 850 hyperlocal sites nationwide, has been criticized for maintaining a sweatshop atmosphere and for paying its editors meager wages. In our brief conversation with Petroni (corporate policy dictated our interview request be directed to a regional editor), she said the flexible working conditions were one of the best parts of the job. Horn noted that while Patch editors are expected to produce content seven days a week, they have considerable latitude in how they do it.

Essential Truths

The jury is still out on whether Patch will succeed, but we believe the experiment is already proving some essential new truths:

The Internet rewrites the economics of news. Our town could never support a daily newspaper, but it can pay the salary of a single editor with no overhead other than a PC and a couple of cameras. Thanks to thousands of layoffs at newspapers nationwide, quality journalists can be found who will work for modest salaries in exchange for workplace flexibility.

Hyperlocal is instinctively appealing. We long ago stopped reading our regional newspaper because so little of its coverage related to our local community. In contrast, the daily Patch e-mail is packed with news that impacts our daily lives, mundane as some of those issues may be.

Empowerment is intoxicating. Patch is drawing lines that enable the community to participate in newsgathering while keeping a firm editorial hand on the tiller. As we waited for Internet service to return following the storm, we monitored the Patch Facebook page from the local library and found it to be a more timely source of information than the statements of utility officials.

In our town, and in hundreds of towns like it, Patch is filling a gap left by the collapse of traditional media. The question is whether its business model is sustainable, and a lot of people think it isn’t. We hope AOL will stick with this venture and innovate beyond the traditional advertising-funded model. Even if the Patch business fails, it has laid a foundation upon which others can build.