Content: A Re-Visioning

Speech given to Interactive Newspapers ’95

Good afternoon, content providers. You may prefer to think of yourselves as
journalists, but in the world of commercial online services, you are content
providers. And you are very popular right now.


Information vendors are out there scrambling for the information consumer
market. They specialize in interface and connectivity, but they need you for
content to sell from their electronic information booths.

(slide – cartoon – man sitting at booth saying “Information – $1″, another man at booth with sign saying – “Information you can use – $500″ )

Which one do you want to be selling from? Did anybody say neither?
I think the telling thing about this cartoon is the fact there’s no line in front of
either booth. I’d want to be running the booth that’s just off screen. The one
with the big line, the one that says “Information Service you want to use
again and again – $30 / a month.” So do you, that’s why you’re at this conference.

There has been a lot of discussion, and concern, about how or if newspapers
will have a piece of the electronic information marketplace. Much of the
concern lies in how newspapers will compete with all the other content providers
who now suddenly don’t need a million dollar press to get the word out,
they just need a $2,000 computer?

How can you ensure that you will be the service the information consumer turns
to, and is willing to pay a subscription for?

This Brief Quiz on Readership – clipped from a magazine 15 years ago by a
news librarian friend of mine – is talking about print products, but the message is
valid for electronic news products.

What’s the most important element in gaining readership?
A: Layout and Design
B: Writing
C: Content
C = “Unless the story communicates a benefit to the reader, the finest writing
and the best layout and design won’t help a bit. Caution: don’t underestimate
the importance of writing and layout and design, both can greatly affect
readership, but content can make or break a publication.”

She has saved this clipping as a constant reminder that it is substantive, useful
content, not flash, that will prevail in the hearts and pocketbooks of information
consumers.

So, just what is the content that news organizations can uniquely provide, thus
assuring their future has they shift from being tree-killers to providers of killer
applications.

George Gilder, author of “Microcosm,” wrote in Forbes last year:

“The ultimate reason that newspapers will prevail in the Information Age is that
they are better than anyone else at collecting, editing, filtering and
presenting real information.”

He’s right, we are, our future is assured. Whew. That’s easy – we just have to
do what we always did, right? Wrong. Too many newsrooms, cocky in their
certainty that they are better than anyone else at presenting real information, are
trying to create new products but relying on the same old routines.

In many cases, new news product development is being done in reverse.


  • New product lines are being built without first re-engineering the plant.

  • New technologies are being used to build the same old product.

  • Stock is being created without a way to inventory or store it.

    In short, newspapers are neglecting three key phases in the production process:

    Re-thinking reporting: How can your main product, reporting, take
    advantage of a multi-media, hyperlinked environment
    Re-training employees: Your content creators, we used to call them
    journalists, need to be ready to work with this new medium
    Re-cycling information: You don’t want to just put information away for
    safe-keeping, you want to store it for reuse

    Let’s look at each of these production phases:

    Re-thinking reporting:
    In a speech last year, Los Angeles Times editor Shelby Coffey answered the
    question, “Will newspapers survive the shift to new media.” He said confidently,
    “They’ll succeed because they understand the key transformation of turning
    information into readily graspable knowledge.” And he’s right, sort of.
    While reporters have always been good at turning information into useful
    knowledge, they aren’t rethinking how reporting could be done in this
    radically different medium.

    What are these radical differences, and how might they change reporting?

    This new technology is hyper-text, but the old product is linear.
    Too many electronic news products are simply shovelware – scooping up the
    old flat text used in the ink on paper product and throwing it on the screen.
    We have to re-think reporting as a layering of news. News
    reporting for new products will have content with depth, not just by providing
    explanation (as has always been the reporter’s strength) but by providing links
    to other relevant documents. Finding these relevant documents and
    providing links within the text of the story will be part of the reporter’s job (or,
    perhaps, will be the job of a whole new category of worker in the interactive
    products newsroom).

    There may be some entirely new models for the news story. Imagine this,
    instead of having a news story on the President’s speech, the text of the
    speech is displayed. Embedded in the speech’s text are links which explain
    the event alluded to, or the history of the proposal mentioned, or compares his
    position on the topic as stated in previous addresses, or gives a brief bio on the
    person mentioned, and why they were mentioned. I call this annotative
    journalism.

    This approach takes advantage of the technology to do a different kind of
    reporting, and provides a value added feature over the other thousands of
    content providers who will have the speech available.

    A second radical difference that the new technology brings is:

    The bottomless newshole: The newspaper’s limited newshole is the bane
    of reporters and editors, but it also is a great aid in making content
    decisions. Space allocation decisions were made on the relative merit of one
    news story against another.

    What happens in the new electronic news product without that limitation?
    How will the electronic editors make decisions about what goes in. Or, since
    there is no space problems, does everything go in?

    There are some questions you should be asking yourself as you make content
    decisions for the electronic product.


  • How much of the print product will you put on the electronic service –
    all, some, none?


  • Will things that didn’t go into the print product, because of that dreaded
    newshole, go on the electronic product?


  • Does the print product’s content represent 10% of the electronic service’s
    content, 50%, 80%?

    While those questions are quantitative, there are a couple of key qualitative
    questions you should ask:


  • Are there features your electronic product customer would be interested in
    that you would not offer to the print customer?


  • What is there in your traditional circulation area that you could focus on, that
    would give your information service a unique and identifiable content?

    So many of the information products have the same content and coverage, the
    same wires available. Create a content mission that gives a unique identity to
    your service.

    The third radical change that requires a re-thinking is:

    Text, photos, and graphics will be joined with sound, video and animation
    This is where television has an advantage over print. Broadcast journalists have
    always understood how sound and video enhance the words used in
    reporting a story. How well are you preparing your reporters for working
    in a truly multi-media product?

    Ok, so now you’ve re-thought the product to one that’s layered, defined by a
    content mission, and incorporates all the media. What next?

    Well, you’ve got to re-train your content creators – also known as reporters, to be
    able to produce this kind of product.

    There is a dirty little secret in many news organizations where some of the most
    innovative news products are being developed.

    Imagine General Motors engineers all arriving at work on bicycles, because they
    don’t know how to drive. Pretty absurd, right? Well, too many
    electronic news products relying on journalists to build their content have the
    same sort of situation. The majority of the workforce, the ones responsible for
    creating the content, know virtually nothing about the ways of the wired
    world.

    In a recent survey on the use of new technologies in the newsroom it was found
    that most of the enthusiasm on the part of management was about
    cutting costs, doing things faster and providing more glitz. Using the technology
    to enhance quality of the information was barely mentioned. One telling
    statistic, 79% of the newspapers surveyed had computer graphics capability, but
    only 29% had a computerized library and even smaller percents had access to
    online or CD-ROM databases for information gathering.

    I have heard of too many news organizations developing an online service but
    providing little or no access to the service in the newsroom. These services are not
    being used as tools in the creation of the content these new products are
    selling. And journalists are feeling left out.

    This Shoe cartoon sums it up nicely:

    (slide – If computers are turning the world into a global village, and I don’t know how to use them, does that make me a global village idiot?)

    We all know newsrooms are notoriously bad at providing training for their
    employees. Rarely does a capital budget for a major outlay in hardware include
    any budget line for the wetware – the people who will be operating the equipment.

    Here are the things the journalist in the era of electronic media must be able to do:

    They need to understand the medium. I can speak from personal
    experience here, we started designing our Poynter Website before we actually had
    full Internet capabilities, I had never gotten to really explore the world
    wide web. So, a number of assumptions about what to do, in terms of
    content and layout, were made that had to be changed once we saw the real
    potential of the hyper-text medium. Reporters need to explore this
    medium to be able to see the layering in these products and to envision the
    possibilities of this new form for reporting.

    They need to use these new information products in their reporting.
    How can they be convincing contributors to the new medium when they are not
    experienced users of the medium. Also, the access to source documents, the
    opinions of experts, and information that can add context and links is a
    crucial part in the re-thinking of the product.

    They need to communicate. Almost without exception, the providers of
    new news services find that messaging is the most popular feature with
    users. You can’t advertise “write our reporters” and not have reporters
    respond. There is a style and a ‘netiquette” in e-mailing that must be
    learned, and practiced, or your service’s users will be quickly alienated.

    How can you ensure your newsroom learns these new skills?


  • Walk the Walk - I’ve heard many disparaging comments about
    executive editors who are making multi-million dollar new media decisions, but
    who don’t have an e-mail address. If you’re going to get into this business, be
    the leader, walk the walk.


  • Inspire them - Have the early adapters, those who’ve been
    cybersurfing for a while, show a group of journalists what the medium can do for
    them.


  • Equip them - Give them the tools they need, at the very least, a
    search station in the newsroom with access to some services.


  • Support their explorations – Give them time to acquire the new
    skills, a weekly two hour sabbatical online will go far towards giving them the
    confidence to explore further out into the reaches of cyberspace.

    But remember in all this quest for new skills and a new way to report the news,
    there are some traditions that must be revered.

    (slide of cartoon – Newsroom full of people at computers, except one old guy
    using a Royale typewriter. Two people talking, “but we can’t get rid of
    him, he’s the only one who can spell”)

    Now the third and last part of this revisioning of the way newsrooms operate -
    recycling.

    It used to be called the morgue, then the library, now, in lots of places it’s the news
    research center. But what the electronic products newsroom needs is an
    information recycling plant.

    Imagine an oil company going through all that trouble finding the drilling sites,
    building the well, pumping the oil and then letting it runoff into a ditch,
    making it hard to re-capture. Hate to say it, but too many newsrooms
    are treating their primary product, information, that way. In fact,
    news organizations are making all kinds of high tech decisions without
    having their technology infrastructure in place:

    (slide of cartoon – executive, holding a report saying “Electronic alliances in the nineties”, talking into a can and string phone yelling, “Miss Finch, get me research!).

    Funny, but sadly, all too true. As that survey that was mentioned before said, only
    29% of the surveyed newspapers had an online library. I find it
    appalling that 30% of the newspapers that have bulletin board services DON’T
    save their text in electronic form.

    This means missed opportunities for recycling this content as intellectual compost
    for reporting or for reuse in the electronic news product.

    What should you do?:


  • Get your infrastructure in place: Make sure provisions for a database
    are part of any new news products proposals. And make sure the
    database will allow easy re-cycling back into both the print product and
    the online product.


  • Consult your in-house experts: If you have a text database, you’ve
    got a good start, but that’s not the end of it. Have you made
    sure that the person in charge of that daily collection of information is a key
    player in any new news product development? If you haven’t, you should,
    you must.


  • Plan ahead for multi-media storage: Remember, it’s not just text
    anymore, make sure a plan for a database will keep in mind the unique needs of
    storing photos, audio and video – and that will accomodate a tracking of links
    used in the layered news product.

    Now I’d like to leave you with a few final thoughts taken from a document I found
    on the Internet. Daniel Drennan sums up his “Interactive Manifesto”
    (from Inquisitor) with these four points:


  • Provide substance before style


  • Provide content before interface

  • Acknowledge your roots

  • Aim for the transparent paradigm

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