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Tech and journalism in the state of Maine
Thursday, July 22nd, 2010, 10:41 am

Newspapers need more Lawrences

Lawrence Whittemore | Flickr
This photo, posted to Lawrence Whittemore's Flickr account, supplemented the Bangor Daily News's coverage of an accident at a downtown comic shop.

Just after 9 a.m. Thursday, the Bangor Daily News posted this story, a breaker about someone backing a car into the a comic shop in downtown Bangor, destroying the shop’s street-facing facade in the process.

The BDN had up one photo, and a brief on the accident. A commenter, Lawrence Whittemore, left this nugget:

“Photos of the accident can be found here.…

The link brings you to Whittemore’s Flickr album, “Downtown Excitement!” In it, you can find dozens of photos taken at the scene of the accident, presumably snapped by Whittemore himself. You can see the blue sedan parked in the space where the Top Shelf comic shop’s wall should be. You can see a youthful, lone Bangor Police officer looking mildly confused. Later in the series, the viewer sees  a tow truck show up to pull the car out of the storefront.

At the time of this writing, the BDN hadn’t even updated to story to include the fact that the car had been towed. Anyone who has worked in the newspaper industry won’t find this odd. Chances are the reporter was still on the scene, talking to people on the ground, interviewing the shop owner and trying to piece together how the accident happened — not to mention constantly contemplating the best way she could tell the story in a compelling way for print readers in tomorrow’s paper. Reporters have a lot on their minds.

Savvy media outlets seek out the reader contributions and call it “crowdsourcing.” But in this case, no one asked Whittemore to take the photos and share them with the world. He just did it. I found Whittemore on Facebook and asked him to call me. He did.

“Someone I work with saw it, and said I should go take some pictures,” Whittemore said. “I noticed that no other photographer had shown up besides people with their phones. I figured I’d share them and that the best way would be to let  the BDN know I had them.”

This is the best possible response a newspaper can hope for in a time when many print news organizations are still trying to find their feet in the digital world. Commenters like Whittemore might be the best thing that can happen to a breaking story. Their contributions allow the reporter to do their job without the pressure of filing 30-second soundbite style updates to satisfy the Web’s appetite for News Now. As older media consumers (the lion’s share of newspaper readers are decidedly not young) plug in and discover the sheer magnitude of opportunities to share that every 16-year-old already knows about, we might see more voluntary additions to news from Joe-Sixpack-newspaper-readers.

Soon, there is an urge to share. Whittemore said he felt it: “I just thought I’d share,” he said. “I wanted someone to see my photos.”

Hopefully, that will be one of the most long-lasting side-effects of Web 2.0 and its influence on the plugged-in; the desire to share. This desire could make the effort needed to crowd-source unnecessary. People will just do it. Its more important in news media than anywhere else.

Now here’s the real question I pose to you, the reader: How should newspapers, or any other online news organization, create an environment where readers feel the urge to share with them as strongly as they feel the urge to share with Facebook, Twitter, etc.? I don’t mean simply sharing the news content with your friends a la Times People or Huffington Post Social, but sharing content produced by the reader as it relates to stories?

UPDATE: By the time I’d finished this piece, the BDN’s story had been updated. It didn’t include any more text. Just three more courtesy photos from people who whipped out their cameras to take pictures of the action from high above on the other side of the street. Awesome.

UPDATE II: Whittemore’s photos have been added to the updated BDN story. And another commenter left this pretty well-made YouTube video. I’d like to think this post had something to do with it. Of course, it was probably just our own William P. Davis being awesome.

Mario Carmine Moretto is editor of Politicator and a founding editor of the Observer.

Monday, July 12th, 2010, 11:15 am

Big changes at MaineToday

MaineToday Media, which publishes the Portland Press Herald, Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel newspapers, announced two big changes last week.

Tim Archambault, once online manager for the Bangor Daily News, is MTM’s new vice president of new media and digital operations, the company announced Thursday.

Perhaps more interesting is that the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel now have new publishers. Tony Ronzio, formerly managing editor of the KJ, has been promoted to editor and publisher of the same paper, and Bill Thompson, formerly editor of both papers, will now serve as editor and publisher of the Morning Sentinel. The promotions were announced to the staff Friday and to readers Sunday morning. It will be interesting to see how this affects the coverage by both papers — fewer A1 letters from the publisher, perhaps? — and cooperation between all three papers. The company has not announced how the changes will affect Jim Evans, managing editor of the Morning Sentinel.

William P. Davis is editor of MaineMedia and a founding editor of the Observer.

Sunday, July 4th, 2010, 5:11 pm

More bad news for traditional media: Readers don’t trust ‘em

Update: Angie Muhs, of the Portland Press Herald, points out that the Press Herald does not automate its Twitter feed.

A new poll by Zogby says that Americans are more likely to trust social media such as Facebook and Twitter than mainstream media outlets, delivering a swift kick in the gut to an industry that’s still unsure what this Internet thing is all about.

What this all means for Maine’s media outlets — which have so far been lucky because Mainers, for the most part, still like their paper product — is unknown. But social media hasn’t always been a strong point for them. For the most part, the Twitter and Facebook feeds of the MaineToday Media papers KJ and MS are automated through RSS feeds — known disdainfully to some as “shovelware.” The result is a feed that includes one article a day — oftentimes posted long after the article was published — and spurs little interaction. The Kennebec Journal has 678 fans on Facebook and 818 followers on Twitter, and few people comment or reply to posts.

By contrast, the Sun Journal of Lewiston curates articles for its Facebook and Twitter accounts by hand and frequently responds to @replies on Twitter or comments on Facebook. The results show: The number of followers dwarfs both the Portland Press Herald and the Bangor Daily News, who are just about tied for the title of largest paper in the state.

The Sun Journal also aggressively promotes breaking news on its social media accounts, posting updates as they come in and retweeting eyewitness photos and comments.

There are, of course, times when social media has led us astray. It is a common story to hear about rashes of tweets spreading false news. After Michael Jackson’s demise, news of other celebrity deaths spread through Twitter like wildfire. It is easy for rumors to take off on the Web and it oftentimes takes a while to ring them back — you just have to read the comments section to see that.

What the poll really indicates is that media companies need to pay really close attention to readers, and that means being reliable and personable. If the local newspaper isn’t consistently the first organization to report breaking news — even if that means promoting the news through social media before there’s a story on the website — how are readers to trust that paper to deliver any news at all?

(Hat tip to the BDN’s Todd Benoit for the link.)

Full disclosure: The author just finished a stint with the Kennebec Journal, a MaineToday Media newspaper, and will in short order work for the Bangor Daily News.

William P. Davis is editor of MaineMedia and a founding editor of the Observer.

Friday, June 18th, 2010, 1:32 am

Maine senator supports bill to hand president control of the Internet in emergencies

Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Connecticut, introduced a Senate bill last week that would give the president authority to shut down or control parts of the Internet in the case of a national emergency.

Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins co-sponsored the bill and, was quoted by CNET as saying, “We cannot afford to wait for a cyber 9/11 before our government realizes the importance of protecting our cyber resources.”

The Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act dictates that Internet companies such as broadband providers and search engines “shall immediately comply with any emergency measure or action developed” by the Department of Homeland Security.

The full bill is available on Scribd:

Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act

D.S. MacLeod is editor of The Haul and a founding editor of the Observer.

Friday, June 11th, 2010, 7:09 pm

Cutler releases post-primary ad

Independent candidate Eliot Cutler, who analysts predict could turn this fall’s gubernatorial election into a three-way race, released his first post-primary ad today, titled “Independent. Just Like Maine.”

Cutler cites his Maine roots and his work for then-Sen. Ed Muskie, who also served as Maine’s governor and U.S. secretary of state. But the powerful line comes 48 seconds into the minute-long spot, when he says, “With me, you’ll get a governor who isn’t pulled from common sense solutions by the extremes of either party,” a shot at GOP candidate Paul LePage’s tea party support and Democratic nominee Elizabeth Mitchell’s long ties to the party.

William P. Davis is editor of MaineMedia and a founding editor of the Observer.

Sunday, May 23rd, 2010, 4:58 pm

Why not all pay walls are evil

In today’s NY Times Magazine, Virginia Heffernan has an interesting column that compares the rise of an elite class of Web apps to the white flight from cities to the suburbs. Along the way she mentions Honolulu Civil Beat and The Times of London’s new pay wall.

Behind pay walls … production values surge. Cool software greets the paying lady and gentleman; they get concierge service, perks. Web stations with entrance fees are more like boutiques than bazaars.

The very idea of a pay wall is not bad in and of itself. It’s the visions (or, rather, lack thereof) of publishers who think a pay wall is nothing more than making people pay to read articles online. In reality, a pay wall is a way to enrich the experience of a user, but it has to be done right.

When you buy a paper at the stand — and yes, I know I’m the only person who still does that — you’re really paying for the production values that went into making the paper, not the content itself. It costs a ton of money to design the paper, plate the pages, run the press, drive the paper to the newsstand or your house. But in return for your $2 (or $6, as it would be for my Sunday edition of The Times) you get a package that contains much more than news. For many papers in includes coupons, comics, classifieds, weather, obituaries and tinder for those of us who still heat with wood stoves.

Honolulu Civil Beat hopes to gain subscribers to its (let’s face it, exorbitantly priced) site by offering an experience that includes much more than articles. And it might just succeed because it recognizes the unfortunate truth that news isn’t valued as much by the consumer as we journalists would like to think it is.

The exclusivity that might drive a customer to pay for a website is more than just putting a higher price on something. It’s providing a service you can’t get from someplace else. If a news org is considering a pay wall, it also must consider the extra resources it must put in to make the site appealing. No longer, as Heffernan points out, will sloppy design suffice. Nor will articles that have been cut and paste from the print edition, nor will sloppy journalism, for that matter. To get someone to pay for a news site, there must be a package presented that has the same or greater value added than a print edition of the paper.

If you’re willing to invest those resources, then a pay wall might be for you. Else, keep your crappy news site free and go find a new business model.

William P. Davis is editor of MaineMedia and a founding editor of the Observer.

Wednesday, November 11th, 2009, 2:08 am

Paywalls: It’s all or nothing

In an interesting interview, Rupert Murdoch speaks on the decision to put all News Corp. Web sites behind paywalls.

“Well they shouldn’t have had it free all the time,” Murdoch says, speaking of Internet news readers. “I think we’ve been asleep. It costs us a lot of money to put together good newspapers and good content.”

Pejorative remarks about Murdoch’s holding’s aside, he’s obviously right — it costs a lot of money for good reporting. The Maine Campus is a tiny newspaper in comparison to a national standard bearer like The New York Times or the Wall Street Journal, and we still have a very large budget. It costs unbelieveable amounts to send writers and photographers to dangerous places — the cost of insurance, travel, top-notch equipment and, of course, enough of a paycheck to make it worth their while.

The problem, though, is that there are few newspapers that provide that sort of reporting. The Times and the Journal are the two most notable; The Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post offer some international reporting, but not on the same scale. Most small newspapers — and oftentimes the bigger ones, too — get their international reporting exclusively from wire services, specifically The Associated Press.

In fact, it isn’t even about international reporting. In the age of scrim and save, newspapers that once had national bureaus are cutting them or turning them over to interns. Many local newspapers fill a good 50 percent, minimum, with wire copy. Some papers even use the wire for local coverage. Just to be clear: I don’t mean to excoriate the AP. That post will come at a later date.

The point is, papers that rely heavily on the use of wire content will not be able to survive behind a paywall. You can’t charge readers for content that isn’t 100 percent yours. It’s too easy to search Google for a topic and find a free site to go to with the exact same story.

The only way it will work is if all newspapers band together and agree to construct one giant paywall, which of course isn’t going to happen. Short of that, the only papers for which a paywall is feasible are the truly unique papers: the ones with less than 1 percent of their content from wire sources. The other 999,998 newspapers will have to find some other way to survive.

There will be much, much more to come on this.

P.S. Does anybody else think Murdoch is going to die any second now?

William P. Davis is editor of MaineMedia and a founding editor of the Observer.

Friday, November 6th, 2009, 6:20 pm

Financial independence: How much is it really worth?

The Maine Campus is, like many other large college newspapers, a separate company from the university. While we are in large part funded through advertising revenue, we still take some money from the university, which we classify as a subscription fee. This is oftentimes lamented, but as we move into a harder time for newspapers in general, we need to ask how much financial independence is really worth.

Some of the best news organizations are not financially independent; the BBC is funded by a fee the British government collects, and NPR receives quite a bit of money from the government. Yet, those two organizations produce some of the best reporting in the world, whereas the USA Today has never even come close to producing such stories. Sure, it may be easier for The New York Times to report objectively on certain subjects, but all news orgs have their kryptonite — subjects they hate to breach.

We will see more non-profit news orgs relying heavily on grants in the future. This may well be the only way papers can survive as consumers increasingly demand free news — it will either be go non-profit or drop investigative reporting altogether. For my money, NPR provides a better service than 75 percent of the for-profit newspapers and certainly broadcast news outlets out there, so I would love to see others follow their lead.

This, of course, isn’t to say that news organizations, and in particular college newspapers, should avoid financial independence. It’s a great thing if you can swing it. But it is by no means a necessity to be an effective and qualitative news source. Generally the barriers are simpler — laziness and inexperience. Most universities are smart enough not to pull funding over an article, and the ones who aren’t that smart are just asking to be sued. The University of Maine has limited oversight over our financial operations and absolutely no oversight over what we print. The only way for them to try and squelch us would be to not write us a check next semester — certainly not the most effective form of censorship.

As a final note, what newspapers should avoid is being funded through student governments. Student governments are generally petulant and petty and do not have the same levels of bureaucracy and protection larger governments do, and so one hard-hitting article makes it likely to get the paper’s funding pulled. The Campus is directly funded through a separate fee called the communications fee, thereby ensuring as little meddling as possible. Also, college newspapers need to be editorially independent — no prior review of articles — and should be separate organizations from the university. If you do have to break off from the university, you don’t want them holding your copyright.

William P. Davis is editor of MaineMedia and a founding editor of the Observer.