Does the AP know what it’s talking about?

Presenting: A small deconstruction of the Editors Weblog interview with the Associated Press’ Jim Kennedy. The interview (and reporting) left me confused.

“One is to start creating pages of aggregated content based around news stories and topics, which would allow readers to find the most authoritative local sources for the news they are searching for.”

So … these pages are going to be dedicated only to stories of local import — like “Mayor gives a speech”? There aren’t really “authoritative local sources” for anything on a national level — all the papers rely on the AP for their stories. But is it the case that users are having trouble knowing what the standard “local sources” are in their town?

Which leads to the next point:

“Also, he asserted, search engines “point people indiscriminately” towards sources, rather than towards the news’ local paper which should have the most authoritative article. The AP hopes instead to offer more of a guide to a topic, with sources that are more intelligently chosen.”

Again, the article doesn’t answer: Who are the enemies here? There are so few towns with multiple professional news outlets. A newspaper and some TV stations — all of which, I would think, count as “authoritative local sources,” especially considering that most are probably AP subscribers and would be a part of these incoming portals. And what if the most authoritative local source instead sends is stories out on, say, MCT?

So if not these outlets, then perhaps the target is bloggers — ones who grab AP copy from Google or Yahoo, post a link and offer a few comments?

“[The AP aggregation pages] will have URLs so that they can be ‘tweeted’ or linked to on social networking sites but they will not be a destination in themselves: “This is a distribution strategy, not a destination strategy,” Kennedy confirmed.”

This is confusing on so many levels. “They will have URLs.” Well, yeah, they’re Web pages. Should I expect otherwise? “They will not be a destination in themselves.” I understand, I think, that he’s saying that the pages will serve only to feed readers to the “authoritative local sources.” But (a) it still strikes me as contradictory for the AP to say they want to drag traffic currently going elsewhere to their own pages and to say they just want to pass readers along; and (b) does the AP think the same number of readers are going to follow through to the local site as go to the aggregated site? Most readers skim the headlines to begin with, right?

“The second aspect is the AP’s mission to “keep up the fight to protect content from misappropriation and protecting it from those who don’t pay.” He clarified that the he was not talking about “small time bloggers who post a link to a story,” rather “people and entities who come along and scrape content systematically and have no intention of licensing it.””

Hm. Well, that kills the blogger theory from a moment ago. So if the AP isn’t targeting bloggers but these big-time scrapers, then, well, who are they talking about? The story doesn’t provide links — did anyone ask him? Maybe I’m not looking hard enough. What sites is he talking about and how much traffic are they dragging away from the “authoritative local sources”?

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Some thoughts on the AP’s announcement

From the NYT: [The Associated Press] said they did not want to stop the appearance of articles around the Web, but to exercise some control over the practice and to profit from it.”

Hoo boy. I’m quite curious to see how AP tries to put Pandora back in the box.

Ignoring for a moment whether AP has a strong legal argument (my media law is a bit rusty), the assumption that readers are aware of AP, how it’s comprised, or what it’s for, seems a bit dicey to me. My apprehensiveness stems from only one encounter, however — where a woman told me about how she didn’t have access to the “wired” stories journalists had back in 1992. But if it’s true that this ignorance is a bit more widespread (who has evidence suggesting otherwise?), then will anyone particularly care if AP shuts off access to its content? Someone else out there will have it. Could be from the BBC, or Al Jazeera, or a trending Twitter topic. Will people care they’re not getting more actual reportage? Perhaps. But more importantly, will they care enough to want to pay to read it? For the foreseeable future, I’m skeptical.

Perez-Peña also usefully points out that “news organizations have called the ire at the search engines misguided, saying that much of their own Web traffic arrives through links on search pages.” If what I said above is true — that news consumers don’t know the difference between the AP and HDTV and don’t much care — then search engines are necessary for news organizations to stay afloat, at least until Web advertising hits its stride.

::: Thanks to Josh Young for the link (via Twitter) :::

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Seeing journalism as a niche product

One of the conclusions in Stealth Democracy is, to simplify, “some information is not necessarily better than no information.”

“Some information” means a few things, but one of them is the product of compromising on content to try to attract a wider audience. Think to when newspapers say “people are too busy to go to a jump page, so we’ll make it a ‘containable.’ That way they at least know something.” They at least know “some information.”

Hibbing and Theiss-Morse argue “some information” is harmful because, as they and others have argued, people make poor decisions in democracies when presented with incomplete information.1

“The conclusion “some information is not necessarily better than no information” has some potentially big implications for journalism.

For example, note the skepticism regarding the potential success of micropayment-funded journalism. Let’s say we’re right that many readers will run away if a news organization decided to start charging for content. To where will they run? If Stealth Democracy has anything to say about it, they will not run to the next site over to get news, or at least not news of much substance. They’ll run to someone who gives them TV listings and comics.

So, who’s left? To oversimplify (again2): People who care about what news journalists want to produce and who, hopefully, understand that producing that news comes with costs. These people understand that journalists (citizen, professional, extraterrestrial, whatever) need time to pursue the news and have to be willing to take on responsibilities to organize its delivery, presentation, etc.

I am not saying the community could not also help in all these processes (I would encourage it!), but I am saying this community may be made up primarily of like-minded people who, recognizing a social need and their having means to provide it, would be willing to compromise on a system of payment and responsibility necessary to provide that social need. If others outside of that circle wish to use it, fantastic. They’re welcome them into the group if they wish to join. But what interest would we, or should we, have in catering to them?

This could be a partnership. You have publication A for everyday, not-so-hard news, and publication B for people who want deeper coverage of events.

Publication B does not try to half-ass the news. It doesn’t offer “containables.” Because of its relatively small base of readers and funding, it can offer a deep relationship between reporters and readers/users (which can foster trust, also a good thing.) But publication A references publication B, saying “hey, someone wrote about this.” One line, one link to better coverage for people who want to know (do what you do best and link to the rest, right?).

How to monetize it? Good question. I haven’t a clue. I’m still not very good at thinking clearly about that.

:: late thought ::

The encouraging thing about the Internet is how easily this might — might — be possible. That’s why when I think about whether I’m too dismissive, I remind myself I also have an opportunity to overcome it with social networking tools and platforms.

:: related ::

Matt Thompson, of whom I’ve quickly become a fan, looks at this situation in a much more optimistic light. Worth a read.

:: notes ::

1. Lee Anne Peck has also argued against the mentality within journalism that praises act utilitarianism at the expense of asking “of what quality is the good created by our actions?” However, her argument addresses reporting practices, not necessarily output. You also could think of the times when newspapers name jurors, harming a good number of trials.

2. I keep saying I’m oversimplying because I want to stress I’m aware of when I’m doing so. The authors of Stealth Democracy make very clear their work is not conclusive, and I have no interest in trying to make it so. But I find the conclusions fascinating and, clearly, I’m interested in following them to see where they may lead when combined with more research.v

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Stealth journalism: What does it mean if people don’t want to – and won’t – engage in government?

Although most Americans like having the option to participate in government when they mood strikes them, they usually have no interest in becoming more involved. Most people aren’t interested in debate or policy.

Increasing the ability for people to meet with others to discuss issues does not result in better decisions, citizens who are more considerate of others, or increased citizen satisfaction in how decisions are made.

People would be OK with a government run by unaccountable elites so long as those elites were empathetic towards citizens and did not act for personal gain.

I just finished reading about these and other conclusions in Stealth Democracy, by John Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse.

To the extent the above are true — and the authors are quick to point out that their work is quite far from definitive — what, if any, are the implications for journalism?

I think there are probably many. But this book is becoming one where I think about it so much after reading it, everything becomes mentally cloudy. I’m sure in the future the book will come up, probably multiple times (I’m already formulating another post on it). Possibly in a late-night what-does-it-all-mean offering. For now, here’s something simpler, albeit still slightly incoherent.

Hibbing and Theiss-Morse offer the following reasoning for why Americans are continually dissatisfied with government:

• Most people will avoid confronting disagreement when possible
• Most people think everybody agrees on the answers to problems confronting their communities and country
• When people see politicians disagree, therefore, they feel it must be because there is some other interest (a corrupting “special interest”) affecting their judgment. Otherwise, because the agreement among citizens is so obvious, politicians would have taken action on those problems already

This is a rough sketch of their argument. There is much more nuance and empirical data to it.

Even within these outlines, though, is one way journalists can help address the situation as the authors describe it.* Simply put: Journalists can work to broaden perspectives.

One way journalists could help is by increasing the diversity of sources — of race, class, background, and viewpoint — in their work. But this sounds familiar. Journalists have been trying to improve on this for years (though they certainly have improvements they could make). Plus, just tossing more information into the fray runs straight into Hibbing and Theiss-Morse’s argument that more information rarely helps the situation, no matter how well-constructed it is. Increasing the variety of reasons or sources for people to consider (or, in this case, getting people to realize those viewpoints exist in the first place) often degrades, instead of nourishes, a deliberation, they argue. I can imagine many people, such as, based on the interview in this book, Amy Goodman, would seriously take issue with this claim.

Yet one of the authors’ prescriptions for addressing Americans’ attitudes is increasing their awareness of the diversity of attitudes in their midst — thus attacking the second bullet point listed above, and undermining the assumption that it should be easy for politicians to formulate a plan of action.

So what can a journalist can do? Dedicate entire weeks of newspapers, or Web content, to introducing people to different theories? Move the editorial pages to the 1A? Create a new section of the Web site explicitly to promote diverse viewpoints (certainly you can find infinite numbers of them on the Web. Respectable ones, too).

But then don’t you run into another of Hibbing and Theiss-Morse’s arguments: People don’t like debate conflict, and they usually become even more dissatisfied participating in contentious decision-making than they did before? Putting debate and disagreement into peoples’ lives has precisely the opposite effect from what we’d hope. They do not engage. They hit the TV listings.

It may be that journalists are simply out of luck. It may be the time to introduce people to diversity is only when they’re young. Possibly in college, when they’re removed from the atmosphere of their youth. At neither of those times, I am assuming here, do journalists bestow much effort on the young (and they’re not often paying customers, so why would they?).

But having missed the opportunity, perhaps they should not expect their well-written profiles and feature stories, or even inclusion of more voices on the Web, to do much for appreciating diversity.

* If, in fact, it needs to be addressed at all — an argument they would question, and one I’m thinking about a lot more now as well. Never mind the entirely separate argument one would need to say this is a journalist’s responsibility to worry about in the first place.

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I don’t know enough about Politico’s audience

This Columbia Journalism Review article I heard about from @ccadelago has a lot of truth to it, I think, but I wonder whether it should come with an important caveat in its use of Politico.com to argue “the life cycle of a story is no longer the simple reporting-writing-editing-publication; it’s now reporting-writing-editing-publication-syndication-conversation.”

That seems more true when you’re fighting for people who are tapped into a flood of information online. I’m thinking people who have some time, maybe an interest in politics, and who care about HuffPost and Drudge.

But what about everybody else? How useful is Garber’s argument for a local news organization whose audience is comprised of people seeking some specific information about their community — and then going off to knit? These news organizations don’t have nearly the competition of the DC media world. Need they be as gung-ho as Politico for Web eyeballs? For, as the article suggests, Politico’s strategy has implications for the kind of coverage that emanates from it.

And not having read the New Republic article yet, I’m not sure what it concludes the Politico’s goals are apart from, as Garber mentions, is “to be the most talked-about and cited in that day’s news cycle.”

But I still feel I can ask: Which news cycle is that? Who’s paying attention to it and what are their demands?

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Some questions about Kachingle

I just finished Steve Outing’s column on Kachingle, which he’s pushing as a better solution for news organizations to make money online. He doesn’t suggest it’s the end-all savior, only that it’s better than micropayments, which has been bandied around a lot lately.

I’ll leave you to read his whole explanation of Kachingle for yourself, but my slimmed down version is:

• You sign up for Kachingle by paying $x a month
• Publishers sign up for Kachingle
• You decide how much of x dollars, if any, you want to go to Kachingle-elibiglbe sites.
• Publishers have to convince you to give them money

I think Kachingle can be successful in that it plays on laziness. My suspicion is people are more likely to pay one fee per month than sign up for multiple different accounts and make different payments.

But Kachingle raises a lot of interesting questions, too.

How will people decide how much to donate? Not in the sense of, “Paypal or money order,” but what calculus will they use to decide, “here’s how much I want to pay for my content each month”? Surely there are similar systems with other products that we might be able to study. Perhaps other industries’ experiences will tell us that most people don’t pay more than the minimum. If so, can we really expect bigger organizations to survive on, say, 100,000 payments of a few cents per month?

How will advertisers react? Will they flock to companies that can prove they have a solid Kachingle following, slowly choking off ad revenue to lesser publishers?

How soon can it be rolled out — and is that fast enough?

Finally, I worry that what I said above about people’s willingness to pay one lump sum over many smaller sums may not be true in this situation. For one, you need a population that reads a lot of online content from Kachingle-affiliated publishers, because I assume readers would not understand why they need to pay one company when they want content from another.

And then, if course, I’m creating an ambiguity for myself in using the word “successful.” Does “successful” mean that Kachingle survives? That The New York Times could make the same money it does now? That the Anyblogger USA will make a little extra income?

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