Don’t miss the boat on hyperlocal partnering

Looking around the newspaper industry, the big conglomerate-owned publications are in trouble, but the small-town weeklies seem to be okay.

Therefore, it would seem that as news moves online, the race to capture the hyperlocal audience would be fierce.

But, this isn’t necessarily so. Which begs the question: Why not?

After all, the majority of people in this county don’t live in cities according to a Pew Research Center study.

Sure there are papers – like The Miami Herald, The Seattle Times and several others – that are partnering with supplemental blogs to add a local flavor, but this seems largely an academic exercise rather than an economic attempt to capture a readership.

Don’t get me wrong, journalism’s core values are relatively academic, but the business model is largely a professional endeavor grounded in trial and error.

Embracing “journalistic tendencies as a common denominator” as Peggy Sturdivant calls it, and allowing for the collaboration between citizen and journalist with an increasingly blurred line of demarcation between viable local news produced by “amateurs” and more substantiated (from an economic perspective) publications produced by “professionals” can help ensure the survival of the craft as a whole.

After all, the goal is to attract readers to what we write.

Could it be that once again – as was the case with online classified advertising and the advent of Craigslist – that mainstream publications are missing the boat? For their sake, I hope not.

News is moving online. There’s no point in denying it.

As New Haven Independent editor Paul Bass said, “Power of the press now belongs not to those who own one, but to those who own a modem. We own a modem.”

This is one basis of the Internet revolution pertaining to journalism. Publishing content is relatively simple and inexpensive and no longer limited to those who can afford expensive printing presses.

Of course, the other side of the coin is that while with printed material it costs only a small fee for access, the free material published online requires readers to have Internet access (shockingly, not everyone does).

However, this problem will soon be a moot point. Just this week, the Federal Communications Commission unveiled a plan to spread broadband access to rural areas.

Not too long ago, people couldn’t read news on their phones; now, most everyone has a smartphone capable of more sophisticated stuff than the computers of five years ago. So, it shouldn’t take long for rural readers’ technology to catch up to that of rural publishers.

With the access problem effectively sidestepped, local startups are free to return to practicing journalism.

For instance, people in small communities like McIntosh, Fla., become tired of the lack of local news in The Gainesville Sun; so, someone starts a blog pertinent to local issues.

Certainly, not all local publications will be sustainable – as shown by the death of certain town pages on WikiCity – but this doesn’t give credence to Perry Gaskill’s point of view that partnering with these pages isn’t worth the effort for newspapers. As one startup goes belly-up, several more will take that one’s place.

Of course, this presents a problem, albeit a small one, for newspapers in the form of which blogs to choose for partnerships, but it seems these local news spots aren’t being suppressed by lack of support from traditional media organizations.

So, support in the form of even a named partnership between newspaper and blog curator allowing easier access when knocking on doors should suffice – and to the benefit of both organizations. It doesn’t have to be extravagant and elaborate.

That way, should the local blog shut down, not much is lost on the end of the newspaper.

This is certainly the way the Twin Cities Daily Planet thinks.

So, be progressive mainstream journalism publications and don’t miss the boat on this one like you did with online classified advertising.

Having to say something and having something to say are two different things

Communication: an English word of Latin origin describing the act of expressing thought between two or more parties.

William Zinsser would have us believe that big words, especially those of Latin decent, are roadblocks to effective written communication.

He believes instead, that good writing can only use simple words – like rain for precipitation.

But really, the roadblock to communication isn’t necessarily the words used in expressing the thought, but rather in the thought itself.

When thinking isn’t accurate or precise, communication of this thinking won’t be either – regardless of the size of the words used.

The shoe doesn’t necessarily fit on the other foot, though. Saying something ineffectively with lots of complex terminology, as politicians often do, doesn’t necessarily correlate to inaccurate or imprecise thinking.

For example, “Mistakes were made during the incursion into Iraq, which led to the ultimate substantiation of the realization that the army is currently in a quagmire. ”

This says what, exactly?

That somebody screwed up and the army is in a bad situation, that’s what.

The speaker of this quote probably knew exactly who screwed up and how bad the situation really was, but was being intentionally vague in communicating it.

This isn’t the fault of the words chosen, but rather of the person who chose the words.

So while I disagree with Zinsser’s rationale that anything written in complex terminology is poorly communicated, I do believe poor communicators – whether doing so intentionally or unintentionally – often use complex terminology.

Include some fuzzy mathematics and nobody will understand what’s going on.

As journalists, our mission should be to complete the thinking part of communicating prior to attempting the expressing part. In other words, if we don’t know what we’re trying to say, we won’t be able to say it effectively.

It’s our job to decipher the fuzz-think, interpret the intentionally vague and question the communicators of expression lacking in substantiated thought.

Then we must restate in plain terms – but not necessarily small ones – what happened or what is going on.

To do so relies on a consideration of the audience. Plain terms to a reader of The Gainesville Sun could differ from a reader of The Wall Street Journal. But, we need not arbitrarily exclude certain words based on their size or complexity. To do so would be an insult to our reader’s intelligence.

The goal is to effectively transmit meaning to readers, and the responsibility to achieve this goal shouldn’t be taken lightly.

Far too often, communicators fail at this mission. Not because of word choice, but because of lack in thinking. I admit, it’s hard work, but the old adage “if you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit” only works for high school and first-year undergraduate students and not for those who desire to make a profession out of mass communication.

Case Study: Trend Stories

Is there a trend in trend stories?

Yes. They’re usually bogus.

Not every trend story illustrates a fictitious trend, but many do.

Usually, journalists go awry in one of three ways when writing about trends.

First, the numbers could be inaccurate – meaning that even if the journalist’s calculations are correct, the data is not and the results yield an incorrect assertion. For example, the FBI’s rule of 50,000. If your story is based on the assumption that 50,000 of X are involved when really there’s only 300, it would be easy to see how a false trend might be perceived.

Second, journalists do the math incorrectly. Everybody knows journalists were business students who couldn’t do math (I joke). But seriously, incorrectly calculating percentages or averages can skew results. If you’re not sure how to correctly calculate something, consult with someone or something to make sure you do it correctly. This also means fairly compare the numbers to those from other time periods before proclaiming something as a “new trend.”

Third, journalists confuse correlation with causation. This can be easy to do. However, just because the numbers correlate to a streak, doesn’t mean they’re the cause of a trend.

For example, a baseball player with a batting average of .250 has eight hits in his last 10 at-bats. This would equate to a batting average of .800 not withstanding other factors. While the player could have improved that much, it is more likely that it’s just a streak, not a trend. Streaks are natural. It’s unlikely that the player with a .250 batting average would hit the ball on the first at-bat, strike out the next three, and return to get a hit on the fifth as his average would suggest. Rather, he goes eight for 10, then slumps on the next 20 at-bats and his average is still around .250.

Yet, there will be plenty of sports writers attempting to explain this “trend” after the first 10 at-bats.

So focus when analyzing potential trends. Professors often say, “Always do the math.” But, I’d say, “Always do the math correctly.”

Is the limbo breaking journalism’s back?

Journalism is in limbo.

It hasn’t lost its value, but newspapers are becoming a stale medium and solid business models for digital journalism haven’t yet been devised.

The Newspaper Association of America would like you to believe that the stale medium part isn’t true, producing advertisements with statistical data to counteract the belief that “nobody reads the newspaper anymore.”

Indeed, the Association says 104 million people read a newspaper each day and that 61 percent of people aged 18-34 read a newspaper in an average week.

While I have no doubt the first statistic is true, the second seems a tad disingenuous. Skimming the sports page of a student paper – like all good University of Florida students do with the Alligator – can hardly be considered reading a newspaper.

The truth is: Generations X and Y don’t feel the same nostalgia toward newspapers that the generations before them did.

What was once a trusted adviser and a familiar friend – there to assist in matters of politics, gossip and entertainment – is now something that gets ink all over one’s hands and is hard to refold.

With up-to-the-minute news over the Internet accessible from almost any computer or mobile phone, the paper doesn’t enjoy the same monopoly on simple, transportable news it once did. Often, by the time the paper arrives, the news it contains has already been reported hours earlier online.

But, as the Newspaper Association of America astutely points out – even if it is while tooting the industry’s own horn – newspapers invest the most in journalism.

Television closely follows, but no amount of journalism via blogs and other non-profit ventures “could match the depth and breadth of newspaper-produced content.”

Clearly, then, we can’t allow newspaper companies to disappear – which is where networked journalism assumes its role.

Networked journalism, as presented by Charlie Beckett in his book “SuperMedia,” posits that through technological advances, the world has become far more interconnected and that journalism’s social role has only increased in importance.

Therefore, journalism cannot be a dying venture.

Through collaboration between the various forms of media, coverage can be expanded, content can be diversified and the transition to other forms of media can be smoothed.

The only thing lacking is creativity in business models that makes the reporting economically feasible. So let’s look at those who seem to be succeeding in this department.

Mark Potts has a two-part article on this at his blog “Recovering Journalist.”

Feel free to read it for more in-depth coverage on specific sites. I’m focusing on the lessons learned from capitalizing on new tools and the potential ramifications these contributions have to the rise of networked journalism.

First, on the Web there is no such thing as a stand-alone publication.

At least a good one anyway. Readers link to other sites, lookup unfamiliar information, dig further into stories, and link back (hopefully).

So, in the spirit of network journalism, make the news interactive – linking to unfamiliar concepts or events in stories and providing maps for uncommon areas.

A laurel to The New York Times for embracing this. A dart to the Los Angeles Times for failing to.

Second, fragmentation of the audience is a farce. Well, sort of.

Sure, the audience is split, but if networking is done properly, readers will stay connected to topics outside their niche. This follows the logic of “there are no stand-alone Web sites.”

For example, Politico and FiveThirtyEight.com are niche publications focusing on politics; but by linking, these sites bring the fragmented audience interested in politics opportunities to easily stumble onto other subjects.

Third, Web commerce is based on innovation.

Just look at the St. Petersburg Times’ PolitiFact. The goal is to engage in investigative reporting – which many thought had gone under with budget cuts at newspapers – to fact-check politicians’ assertions.

The innovative business model here is syndicating it.

Most newspapers have Web sites, Potts said, but don’t want to invest the initial capital to startup a feature like PolitiFact. Now, they don’t have to, paying PolitiFact instead.

Of course, there are a lot of sites that I didn’t mention engaging in innovative solutions to revenue problems in journalism such as foundation-endowed EveryBlock that provides customized news for an immediate area (block) surrounding an address.

Also, the collaboration between journalist and audience, employer and employee is strengthened by network journalism.

Blogging and other forms of social media make stronger connections between these groups and allow people to connect who otherwise might not have (i.e. Facebook, Twitter, etc…). This could lead to potential job opportunities, hiring opportunities, story ideas, you name it.

The one thing lacking is solid means of verification concerning “facts” found online. But then that brings us right back to a major premise of journalism: challenging information.

As I said in another blog post: ‘Paper’ is the only part of ‘newspaper’ that’s obsolete.

Bud Light has drinkability; Google has searchability

Journalists are in the business of knowing things.

And, luckily for them, so is Google.

Google’s latest feature, Alerts, e-mails links to stories relating to preselected key words. The results returned can be from news sites only, blogs only, or comprehensive including those two and more.

It’s like a highly efficient informant and could mean getting a beat on a story. Especially if you’ve selected comprehensive results.

Gary Fineout sure did when he received a tip about a petition to Gov. Charlie Christ for the pardon of Jim Morrison of The Doors.

As a journalist, use this feature to your advantage, because you never know what you might discover – without actively searching for it.

‘Son of Sam’ laws unconstitutional

Florida Statute 944.512 is intended to keep convicted felons from profiting from their crimes through “expressive activity,” such as writing a book or screen play.

The idea is to compensate the victims, or their dependents, and recoup losses to public funds for the prosecution and incarceration of the criminals.

The state has a compelling interest to enact legislation ensuring criminals don’t prosper from the commission of their crimes while their victims suffer.

However, the language in the statute renders it unconstitutional on First Amendment grounds because it is overbroad in its restrictions and not narrowly tailored to advance the interest of the state.

In the case that established this precedent, Simon & Schuster v. N.Y. State Crime Victims Board, the Supreme Court struck down a similar New York Statute – for which these types of laws derive the name “Son of Sam” laws – because the statute only provided for the seizure of profits from expressive activities relating to the crime.

Seizing only the profits from expression relating to the commission of the crime while presumably allowing the realization of profits from other literary works, like a novel not entailing a “reenactment of the crime,” is a content-based regulation.

Furthermore, imposing the restrictions on profit rendered by the statute has a chilling effect on speech because only books by those willing to forfeit compensation for their work will be published.

Therefore, although the State of Florida has a compelling interest to regulate the speech, the legislature hasn’t properly tailored the statute to advance its goal.

The Supreme Court concluded in Simon & Schuster v. N.Y. Crime Victim’s Board, that speech about crimes can serve the public good. An example of this would be books about the Watergate scandal such as “All the President’s Men.” It was in the public’s interest for the details of the crime to emerge. Yet, had the law been in effect then, the confiscation of profits might have chilled that speech.

Therefore, speech about crimes can be necessary. Overbroad measures restricting all speech about crimes is neither constitutional, nor in the public’s interest. Measures so tailored to only restrict speech by murders and rapists, such as Danny Rolling, while allowing speech about other crimes, like Watergate, are forms of content-based regulation held unconstitutional upon subject to strict judicial scrutiny. The offensiveness of a message to society is not a valid reason for suppression of speech.

Yet, the fact remains: A state has a compelling interest to ensure victims of crimes are compensated by the perpetrator.

The way to ensure that victims are compensated is by using general asset-forfeiture laws found in tort code. These laws seize assets of criminals in order to pay awards to the victims of the crime.

They don’t infringe on speech because they don’t take the profits from the speech; those still go to the criminal. However, the laws force the criminal to make restitution to the victim.

This way, there is no chilling effect on speech, but the crime victims still get compensated – and probably from proceeds of the speech, though indirectly since the state is placing a lien on the criminals assets, not the proceeds from the expression.

Napster 2.0: Now with news

Journalism is facing its version of the music industry’s peer-to-peer crisis of a decade ago.

With plenty of free content online, sales of hard-copy are tanking. Just as listeners were no longer forced to buy the whole CD to get the one song they wanted, readers are no longer forced to buy the whole newspaper to read only the articles pertinent to their interests.

They can just go online and find it.

Doing so is by no means a new feat, but as social media evolves, it becomes easier. Using tools like Google Reader, media consumers streamline the information-collecting process and avoid being bothered with off-topic drivel.

But with this, comes audience fragmentation. Readers will be acutely educated on a specific topic (or few), but won’t posses the variety in their wealth of knowledge that leads to more informed decisions.

When you only find what you’re looking for, you loose “the ability to make fortunate discoveries accidentally,” said William McKeen in an article in The New York Times.

That’s why McKeen, a professor at the University of Florida, requires students in his freshmen journalism class to read the print edition of The New York Times Monday through Friday. (There’s your subsidy, guys.)

But journalists need to connect with readers who aren’t a captive audience.

Apparently, newspapers aren’t doing the job. Just look at the financial problems of companies like Tribune.

Leonard Downie Jr. and Michael Schudson posit that allowing newspapers to register as non-profit organizations for tax purposes is the answer. Certainly, the government-subsidy model has certainly worked for the BBC.

To some, the idea is heretical: Government must not interfere with the press. Yet, some believe the First Amendment requires the government to ensure survival of a free press. Hence, the subsidies.

Endowments work. Just ask Propublica, but they are not easy to acquire and aren’t usually permanent.

One thing is clear: There is no one-size-fits-all model for news organizations to base their restructuring aspirations on.

The best that can be done is to experiment with new media in order to create a desirable product.

Downie and Schudson said news reporting is evolving into a mutual exercise between journalist and consumer.

If so, then the emphasis on the role of citizen journalism needs to increase ten fold. As Doug Fisher, a journalism professor at the University of South Carolina, notes, “At least half of your audience knows more about the story than you do…”

Realize this. Include audience participation through social networking and media resources like Facebook and Twitter. It will bolster your credibility and connection with the audience.

So will linking, whether to other Web sites with more information or to in-house sources providing definitions of strange words and concepts like The New York Times does.

Forget the idea that journalists are journalists and citizens are not. If this were true, the Washington Post wouldn’t entertain the likes of Daniel Lippman at a great loss to themselves.

In Alan Rusbridger’s response to Downie and Schudson, he includes an anecdote about The Guardian being prevented from publishing parliament news due to a gag order. After he lamented about it on Twitter, his followers engaged in journalism of their own and forced transparency upon the government regarding the issue. There’s an example of a mutually beneficial relationship between audience and press.

Social media only makes that bond stronger. The newspaper might loose relevancy, but the news never will.

Like social-media writter Fred Cavazza said, “There was a life before Facebook and there will be one after.”

If it were possible for digital media to destroy an industry, then the music industry wouldn’t be prosperous post-Napster.

Remind me again, how much money did Beyonce Knowles make last year? (Answer: $87 million)