Howard Owens is a digital media pioneer. He started publishing local news online in 1995 when very few local news outlets had web sites. The header image on the site depicts the film camera he used early in his career and the press pass from his year on the staff of the Carlsbad Journal. For more on Howard's professional background, read his LinkedIn profile.
HowardOwens.com is the personal web site of Howard Owens and covers his range of interests -- political localism and libertarianism, music and personal interests, as well as his professional interests.
Howard is currently publisher of The Batavian and lives in Batavia, N.Y.
- Bob Netherton on Why I’m rooting for Vance Albitz
- seagazer101 on ‘Lede’ vs. ‘Lead’
- Pamela Lagahid on IFRA launches second vertical search engine for media
- kapiyo on My new Nikon F4
- bradleyplunk on Chris Tolles brings some stats to the anonymous vs. registration debate
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Monthly Archives: June 2006
Morris Digital Works has a new product: Fanatic Zone — a community-based sports site.
I think it’s also brave because Morris has its own photo-sharing application called Spotted.. Rather than rely on the less well used Spotted, Morris wasn’t afraid to go where the action is for the big sports story of the day.
Another nice innovation — beyond “submit a story,” they’ve added, “Submit an RSS Feed.” Smart stuff.
Now we have armies of amateurs, happy to work for free. Call it the Age of Peer Production. From Amazon.com to MySpace to craigslist, the most successful Web companies are building business models based on user-generated content. This is perhaps the most dramatic manifestation of the second-generation Web. The tools of production, from blogging to video-sharing, are fully democratized, and the engine for growth is the spare cycles, talent, and capacity of regular folks, who are, in aggregate, creating a distributed labor force of unprecedented scale. . . . But it’s a mistake to equate peer production with anticapitalism. This isn’t amateurs versus professionals; it’s each benefiting the other. Companies aren’t just exploiting free labor; they’re also creating the tools that give voice to millions. And that rowdy rabble isn’t replacing the firm; it’s providing the energy that drives a new sort of company, one that understands that talent exists outside Hollywood, that credentials matter less than passion, and that each of us has knowledge that’s valuable to someone, somewhere.
A good Web site is a partnership between the people who build and maintain it, and the people who visit it.
More than a year ago, I started thinking about newspaper-sponsored free wi-fi. In Ventura, the coverage area was so suburban, I wasn’t sure there was a natural fit. I saw it more as a metro play.
Free wi-fi is something I looked at in Ventura, but the geographic area of the DMA was large, and even for some place as confined as downtown Ventura, it’s a tough task and a bit pricy, according to my research. I shelved the idea in favor of other priorities.
It is still a project that I find mildly interesting. I see opportunities for reader engagement, branding and advertising. But technology is changing so fast, so many other hot spots are popping up, the time for newspapers to take a lead in this market may already be passing.
Paid Content reports that The Pilot in North Carolina is the latest newspaper to take a stab at this idea (I’m trying to remember now which other paper was planning free wi-fi a month or two ago).
As a matter of curious coincidence: I’m writing this while sitting in Dagny’s, a coffee shop in downtown Bakersfield with free wireless.
Via Lost Remote, I get word that Borrell has a new report out. It claims that while 77 percent of the potential home buyers use the Web, a mere 15 percent of the advertising dollars are flowing online.
Yes, this is an opportunity.
It’s an opportunity for newspapers for four reasons.
- First, strong pre-existing relationships with Realtors;
- Second, real estate is a highly fragmented market online in many regions, meaning a strong newspaper effort has a chance to corner the market;
- Third, the Web is a natural place to search for real estate — it just works so much better for finding and viewing listings than any other medium … real estate and the Web were made for each other;
- Fourth, newspapers can leverage their market leadership among consumers and their superior ability to create content to “feed the dream” of home ownership, or of moving up;
Feeding the dream is very important, something most online real estate sites fail to do. A content-rich site is the answer.
Of course, a real estate site isn’t just about homes for sale. Renters need a place to search, too.
Once you establish a brand as a comprehensive, reliable, trusted source of housing information, you should be able to own your local market online.
Of course, building a great real estate site doesn’t come cheap. To do it right, you need a robust listing application, a strong new homes product, a flexible rental search, a strong sales staff, and lots and lots of content, both evergreen and current. You need school and crime databases, geographic and topical information, neighborhood profiles, people profiles, home buying information, and plenty of multimedia. And don’t forget marketing, and your marketing should include frequent consumer-centric contests.
But look at the opportunity.
LATER: Online News Squared has a related post.
I found this thanks to my referrer log: Eric Siegmund complements howardowens.com because the blog entries are on the left hand side of the page, which means they load first, after advertising.
A good design rule-of-thumb is to give your reader something to read while the rest of your page loads. … I’m not suggesting that you re-work your layout to put all your miscellany on the right column, like Howard Owens has done — but it’s not a bad idea.
That aspect of usability wasn’t on my mind when I redesigned the site last. My only thought was that this site doesn’t exist to make me money and it’s never going to be an attractive place for businesses to place ads (too little traffic), and I know that users start with the left side of Web pages, so that’s where I should put my content. Recently, there was an eye track study that supported this layout philosophy.
But here’s the question: If you run a site where advertising is critical, should you put the advertising rail on the left side?
I can’t think of any newspaper sites that dedicate the left column to advertising, but I think it’s worth considering.
Any where from 40 to 50 percent of a local news site’s audience is there for the advertising, not the news. Advertising pays the bills. Advertising needs to be more effective. Advertising should look like its part of the site, not grafted in. Your classifieds and verticals should be very easy to find. To me, that all adds up to putting the advertising rail on the left side. The content still gets prominent center play, and on a newspaper site, you’re generally going to have very compelling elements that draw the eye to the content, so does it really need to take up the most valuable real estate on a Web page?
The Google AdSense hot zones chart supports this notion, I think (though no news site publisher in his right mind is going to put ads in the hottest zone of all, right in the middle of the page).
I’d love to hear what other people think.
Jay Rosen has received a memo from “the people formerly known as the audience.” It is a worthwhile summary of the major perspective shift digital media has wrought as we speak.
John Battelle notes that Google took out a full-page ad in the Wall Street Journal advertising for sales people. He snarks: “What, great sales people don’t just type “sales jobs” into Google?!”
Battelle goes on to make a more serious point about the irony of both Google and MSN using print for recruitment. Those WSJ ads don’t come cheap.
Here’s the rub: Sales positions are the hardest to fill. I’ve tried to hire for a few sales positions over the years, and I’ve ever only really been satisfied with one of the people I hired or inherited. Hiring print sales people is a bit easier, but in this job market, it’s tough. Online is tougher, and online is where newspapers really need their best sales people right now.
Steve Outing, in his latest E&P column, addresses the issue of “news as a conversation.”
Outing starts out with comments on stories, a feature I’ve advocated for a couple of years. We did this in Ventura with great success, and some trouble. The trouble convinced me “virtual communities” were the answer. Of course, the term “virtual community” dates me, but this is what we called it when I started RVClub.com; however, my fascination with creating community online really goes back East County Online. In Ventura, we needed an effective way to control the bad actors. The best we could do it (with available resources) was tie comments to registration, which has proven somewhat effective, but I think a robust profile system will help foster accountability and a stronger sense of belonging to a community.
I don’t know of any newspaper site that has really implemented it, yet, quite what I have in mind.
I favor attaching comments to stories over building out a hosted blog community first. Current events are what drive conversations, and people need to be invited into that conversation. In a sea of blogs, it takes an exceptional blogger to attract an audience blind. But with comments, people are focused on topics, not personality, and can come to learn about fellow community members through discussion and debate. This is what fosters community, and will ultimately make user blogs more successful.
Outing has a number of good ideas.
- Specifically ask for reader comments in the story
- Pose questions in the story for readers to answer
- Ask in print, not just online
- Let readers subscribe (I say e-mail and RSS) to conversations
- When someone comments, they automatically become subscribed to the conversation (I say have an opt-in/opt-out feature for each conversation)
- Enhance comments with multimedia (harder to manage, but possible)
- Let readers upload photos to comments
- Add a most-commented-on feature to the Web site.
- Add photos of users to comments (or even an icon they choose)
You should also be able to click-through to a user’s profile and see his or history of comments.
A Slashdot-like feature allowing users to rate comments and commenters would also help, and of course there should be a mechanism to report abuse.
I would also ad that a community manager is needed — somebody who watches the interaction, provides guidance for proper behavior and even chimes in with an opinion or two — somebody that users can see as a real person and identify with. This gives that person not only civic authority, but persuasive authority to help keep the community running smoothly. Good communities need feeding and weeding.
Outing has never been a fan of newspaper site registration, but in this context he clearly sees the importance of registration to manage user profiles. Outing favors allowing anonymous comments, however. I disagree, to a degree. I don’t support complete anonymity on news pages. There needs to be a level of accountability where news managers can reasonably (within the the limits that on the Net people can and do lie about their identity, though there are ways of managing this) identify users. Registered users should be able to hide their true identify behind an online persona, but complete anonymity rarely fosters thoughtful or useful conversations. Allowing complete anonymity is just a flame war waiting to happen.
Of course, I think some day newspaper sites may be able to do away with registration, or at least lower the threshold of stories read before registration kicks in — and user profiles, comments, blogs and other UGC will all become part of what makes it possible, along with sign ups for useful services, like a multitude of e-mail newsletters, SMS and other mobile services, business ratings and feedback, etc.
So what’s killing newspapers?
David Berkowitz notes correctly that it isn’t search engines (or even any aspect of the Internet). Readership decline started long before there was ARPANET (Berkowitz didn’t go back far enough in his research — readership decline started in the 1920s).
I’ve long been of the mind that while the Internet poses many new challenges for newspapers, it opens up just as many opportunities.
To me, it isn’t newspapers that need saving, but the media companies that publish them, so that newspaper journalism (improved by multimedia and user-generated content) can continue. And it’s not just the content that matters. It’s the advertising, too. That, too, is part of the community that newspapers serve and the vital service they provide. Newspapers play an important role in helping local economies thrive.
The first time I ever heard of Dallas Frazier was when I somehow found out he wrote “Elvira.” That was a big hit for the Oak Ridge Boys back in 1980. I hadn’t heard a song like that in a long time. I was no fan (and never have been) of the overly commercialized Oak Ridge Boys, but “Elvira” was a damn interesting song, and fun to sing (I’ve been to enough karaoke bars to know how popular it is among that crowd).
What I didn’t know is that Frazier also wrote one of my childhood favorites — “Ally Op.” If you know both songs, you will immediately recognize the similarities.
Over the years, I’d seen Frazier’s name pop up here and there because he’s written a long string of hit songs.
What I didn’t know until I moved to Bakersfield was that he grew up in my current home town. If you listen to enough of his music, you can catch some Bakersfield sound influences — driving beats, guitar heavy licks, in particular.
The other day I was downtown on 19th Street with a little time to kill waiting for a friend, so I popped into a used record store. There I found a Dallas Frazier record — Tell It Like It Is (interestingly, the title song is listed as a Frazier composition on the LP cover, but AllMusic.com says it’s by George Davis and Lee Diamond), and the BMI database agrees, and credits Frazier with 481 songs). The Frazier record was priced $1.99 and the shopkeep offered it to me for a buck.
That was one well-spent dollar.
Frazier’s songs on this record are more blusy than country, and right in line with the style of Elvira, maybe not quite as silly, and the performances certainly are not as polished as the Oak Ridge Boys (thank god). There is much here that reminds me of Sean Costello. There’s plenty of material here for performers looking for songs to cover, including “Don’t Come Knocking On My Door,” “My Woman Up and Gone” (the song most suitable for Costello), “Ain’t Nothin’ Shakin’ But the Leaves.”