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.
- wu ying on Photos from our recent adventures in WNY
- wu ying on The Batavian’s basic rules for scanner reporting
- wu ying on Tracking the progress of Vance Albitz
- Craig Huckerby on Paywalls create opportunities for local news entrepreneurs
- Peter Eirene Chin on How to launch your own local news site in 10 (not so easy) steps
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Monthly Archives: July 2007
Jeff and I were wrong. The Weekly World News is going online only.
We fight a lot over the meaning of words. Often.
What is a journalist?
Must you ascribe to certain standards, have been trained in a particular fashion, receive a specific level of pay to be called a journalist?
Does it matter?
I’ve always liked the word “reporter.” To me, it means a person who obtains facts either through research, interviews or observation and reports back to another group of people. The report is generally organized and may or may not contain a point of view (or opinion). But it always has meaning and is informative to its intended audience.
It seems to me absurd to suggest that any person who finds stuff out and tells other people about it isn’t a reporter.
I’ve always considered the best bloggers reporters. Good bloggers gather a bunch of different links, do a little related research and then suffuse their blog posts (reports) with knowledge and experience. That’s reporting to me.
To me, “Reporter” is a noble word, but you don’t need a paycheck or a press pass to be a good and noble reporter.
There’s always been a good deal of conversation in reporting, especially professional reporting. As any beat reporter knows, it’s never about just the one story or the one meeting. It’s about relationships and shared history between subjects, sources, reporter and the interested news organizations (the reporter’s own and the competition).
They only thing new these days is that there are lot more people involved in the conversation.
I would like to associate myself with the following remarks from Scott Karp:
Many people in the news business seem to have a vested interest in separating journalism as it has traditionally been practiced, by employees of news organizations that controlled monopoly distribution channels, from â€œcitizen journalismâ€? or â€œcrowdsourcingâ€? or anything else that represents the evolution of journalism in a networked media world.
So we have â€œserious, traditionalâ€? journalism over HERE, and all this experimenting with â€œcitizensâ€? and â€œcrowdsâ€? and whatnot over THERE.
Well, itâ€™s time to call foul on this.
For a couple of years I’ve been saying it’s about the conversation, not us and them.
The future of journalism depends on collaboration, not silos and fiefdoms. Journalism with a capital J needs to maintain standards but it also, desperately, needs to evolve in order to thrive as in a networked media age.
Exactly. Continue reading
In OJR, Robin Miller has posted the recipe to save newspapers online.
Of course, I think it’s brilliant stuff. There isn’t a suggestion there I haven’t made myself. I love the confirmation of the ideas.
A few highlights:
A website that can tell me about every upcoming meeting of the Bradenton City Council and every upcoming appearance of my favorite local bands and alert me to the next meeting of the Tamiami Trail Business Association is going to get a lot of visits from me — and from a lot of other people, too.
It is now possible to outfit a reporter with a “backpack video” newsgathering rig, including a high-definition digital camcorder, all necessary sound equipment, and a compact tripod, for less than $3000. This equipment is nearly 100% “point and shoot,” too. It doesn’t take any great technical skill to operate.
Hell, you can do it for a lot less than $3,000 and not lose a damn thing in quality. (NOTE: I just notice in comments that Miller is including a laptop in his rig, in which case $3K is more like it, especially if you’re going for the Canon HV20.)
Newspapers should be out scouting for successful local bloggers — not the ones who do two-sentence links to stories published elsewhere, but those who do original reporting — and offering them a chance to put their material on the newspapers’ sites instead of their own. For pay.
Well, there’s lots of ways to work with local bloggers better, and at this point, pay is optional. Let’s get some revenue in first.
Coupons can make great ads on a newspaper website’s pages, but a whole section devoted to coupons (possibly with an accompanying stringer-generated blog pointing to special deals noticed by readers) could become a reader draw on its own, not to mention a decent income-generator.
I haven’t blogged about coupons before, but I’ve talked about it a lot. I think coupons are the under exploited print ad for the web. I’m not aware of a newspaper site that is doing coupons right, though for a short while many years ago, the Ventura County Star was close.
And Miller is right here, too:
The real question is not whether we will see the development of dominant local online news operations run by Web-hip publishers and editors, but whether those Web-hip publishers and editors will work for existing local newspapers or for new, Web-only publications that eventually replace newspapers as the dominant source of local news.
“I’m not a believer in local anymore,” he said. “I used to think that hyperlocal was what mattered to people, but for 35 and under especially, the concept of local is very different. Like Facebook publishing the news feed — it’s changed from hyperlocal to hyperpersonal.” Brody said weather, traffic and crime are becoming commodities, and while local politics may have some differentiation, nobody cares about it anymore.
Now we can fight over what hyperlocal means.
(Reminds me of a panel I did for Kelsey with Greg Sterling a few months back. I uttered “hyperlocal” and Sterling said, “Please stop using that word.” I said, “No.” For the moment, it’s a useful term because it describes a certain strategic philosophy that has been hot recently; however, I agree, it is ultimately meaningless — the whole idea of hyperlocal is just what good community newspapers should be doing anyway. Hyperlocal only means anything if you’ve been falling down on your community news job.)
Brody is only right if you accept that hyperlocal has only two facets: Weather/traffic and politics.
To me, hyperlocal has never been about politics. In fact, politics is the antithesis of hyperlocal. Hyperlocal is about people. It’s what people do, have done or can do (think, event calendars) where they live. Planning boards and city commissions have very little to do with it.
In fact, where newspapers have lost their way is in getting too wrapped up in the local political game. Too often, the local city hall becomes its own mini-beltway and all the players (including beat reporters) think their actions and their gossip is far more important than anything else in the community.
I’m not concerned that “hyperlocal” is the wrong strategy. I’m more worried about whether we can actually execute on it. Will our editors and reporters ever willingly forsake a few meetings at city hall in favor of a Eagle Scout promotion or volunteer fire department carnival? (And to reach younger readers, those are probably the wrong subjects of coverage, too.)
The other part of a hyperlocal strategy, which includes the hyperpersonal Brody mentions, is part technique and part programming. There’s no reason we can’t do that.
Apropos of nothing, I want to hit on the paid content debate one more time.
In many post, but particularly this one, I’ve listed a number of reasons why paid content for news is a bad idea.
Here is more of the same, but restated: People won’t pay for information. Entertainment, yes; information, no.
If you accept the the premise that there are two types of content, informational content and entertainment content, it’s clear that paid informational content — such as news — is facing a much harder go of it than paid entertainment content.
People will pay to subscribe to HBO, but let’s see CNN try that model. You and I both know, that if CNN wasn’t bundled in with other channels, people wouldn’t pay for it (not in significant numbers). People still pay to see movies in theaters (one of the top activities of young people), and games, of course, are a big deal. but every type of paid news service is suffering (though there are exceptions, such as the New York Daily News).
I’ve wondered how high-priced paid newsletters are doing this days. There was a time when I subscribed to the Kiplinger California Newsletter, but with blogs out there like Rough and Tumble, why would I need it now (not to mention that I no longer live in California!)?
Such premium newsletters used to be a big business, but I would like to know how they’re doing now.
For example, within my own industry, with my corporate position, I would be the exact target audience for a $1,200-per-year newsletter subscription. But in a blog-driven, RSS-fed information world, why would I pay for media news and information? I get more for free (and high quality) than I have time to read now, so why pay for something that isn’t likely to tell me anything I don’t already know? I can tap into some of the smartest, best informed minds in the industry any time I want, and all for free.
The mixed bag in paid content trends: music, where CD sales fall and there is more free music than ever, but music still sells; and books, where informational books continue to sell.
With music, the greater diversity of choices and distribution outlets favor the consumer, driving down prices.
With books, we’re still seeing ways in which digital distribution is disrupting traditional informational book channels, whether it be encyclopedias or computer programming reference books.
The only time I buy an information book now is either the author has struck on a great premise (exhibit A, The Long Tail by Chris Anderson); or online resources haven’t yet caught up to the specialized interest I need. Here, my example would be a book on New York gardening I bought recently. I can find lots of online information about gardening, but more general that what I needed to start out my New York gardening experience.
Even with these variants and exceptions, the paid model for information content is on the wane.
Advocates of paid content can’t be happy to know that the two big “success stories” of paid news are in jeopardy. If Murdoch succeeds in acquiring WSJ, expect the paid walls to come down. And rumors are the NYT is about to drop TimesSelect (which as we’ve discussed before isn’t really working).
When I hear or read of newsroom types advocating paid content, it’s clear that the main impetus isn’t research or careful thought, but more, “we should force people to pay, damn it, because what we do is important and special”
But in looking at digital distribution trends, it’s clear that the power to force people to do anything, especially with their money, is a pretty dumb business plan.
We need a well informed society. If we are going to continue in that mission its going to mean: Free content. It’s going to mean free content that is easy to obtain through multiple platforms and channels (not just our own) and often in segments that are shorter, more digestible and linked to alternative view points than what newspapers have traditionally offered.
The future is free. It is distributed. Now we just need to figure out how to pay for it. Continue reading
The next three years could be critical for the online news game.Â The timeline may be five years, but more likely, I think, we’ll have a pretty good idea as to our fate (speaking of newspapers and their online properties) within three years.
By mid-2010, we won’t necessarily be saying, “whew, we made it through that one,” but we will be able to say whether our long-term prospects are good or poor.
I know there are those who would say the prospects are bleak now. I disagree.Â I remain hopeful. But I would say the trends now are neutral.Â Our fate hangs in the balance.
Within three years, we’ll know:
- Whether CPM rates can be pushed much, much higher;
- Whether newspaper sites can band together to create a useful national advertising network;
- Whether there is any there there in behavioral advertising (this point independent of the first two items, but also related);
- Whether returns on contextual, CPC advertising can become a significant revenue stream for local news publishers;
- We will know if we can figure out a sustainable, significant video advertising model;
- We will know if we’ve figured out a way to not only protect, but expand our classified and vertical advertising revenue;
- We will know if we can really turn internet yellow pages into a strong, new revenue source;
- We will know if we’ve figured out how to grow audience significantly enough to better under gird all of these advertising models.
If we’ve succeed in all or most of these areas, I think we will have reason to celebrate our success.Â If we’re still just treading water, or worse, falling behind, we will be justified in feeling quite panicked.
My prediction:Â Within three years, we will see a number of online news sites associated with newspapers that take in more than 30 percent of the revenue of the total media company operations — all of the trends above will be robustly positive for those companies.Â And we’ll see some newspapers failing miserably and on their way out of business. Continue reading
Interesting new report out from Pew on online video.
It confirms what we already know: Video is hot and getting hotter.
It also confirms that sharing is a big part of the online video experience.
Good news for us: News video is important to many people.
I suspect a lot of people are going to key on on this finding:
Overall, 62% of online video viewers say that their favorite videos are those that are “professionally produced,” while 19% of online video viewers express a preference for content “produced by amateurs.” Another 11% say they enjoy both professionally-produced video and amateur online video equally.
I wonder how “professionally produced” is defined in the minds of Pew or the respondents? Is LonelyGirl15 or the OK Go treadmill video “professionally produced” even though the production quality of these videos would not meet the standards of many video professionals?
Does professionally produced mean using all the best equipment and meeting some pre-defined production value standards? Or does it mean somebody was paid to produce it?
There are some vloggers who do very good work and I don’t think are making their living off their video. And their are vloggers who do make their living from video, but I bet the audience doesn’t see them as professionals.
I just don’t see how this question and response helps us understand: What type of video production actually appeals to an online audience?
The available evidence from what people are actually watching is very different from what the surface takeaway would be from this poll.
The other aspect of online video this poll did not address is: Advertising. I guess Pew might argue that they were focused on video as content, but advertising, especially in online video, is content.Â Melissa Worden points out in the comments that I missed the bit on advertising. Continue reading
I just watched a Wallstrip interview with MyTrade.com CEO Andy Swan.
Near the end, Swan says he’s short MySpace, long Facebook, because Facebook listens to users.
I completely endorse listening to users. It’s something newspapers and newspaper.coms have not traditionally done well.
But here’s the thing for newspaper web sites: Which users do you listen to?
If you listen too much to your current users, what sort of false feedback might you ingest?
I mean, your current users are predominately core newspaper users. Their expectations for how a newspaper.com should behave may be mired in the same Packaged Goods Media think that holds back many newsrooms. It’s something less than a virtuous circle.
Whereas the users who can best help you envision the future may not be among your core users.
When you’re Facebook or MyTrade.com, you’re creating new users with new ways of thinking. But when you’re legacy media, you’re dealing with more legacy users.
So how do you know when you’re getting the kind of feedback that will help you grow and build a great business? Continue reading
One of the traps far too many newspaper.com sites fall into when redesigning is viewing the site as a newspaper.com site and not a news/community.com site.
Not so, mainetoday.com.
Clean and not overloaded with links. Joe Michaud and his team have put together a site that resists the temptation to put EVERYTHING on the home page. Compare it, for example. with Chron.com.
It’s a tough call for most news sites, because there is just so much important information to point people towards. As wonderful as the new CNN.com is, it’s still a pretty long home page.
The first thing a newspaper.com can do is drop all the section boxes on the home page — those long lists of headlines by sections. You’ve got your section nav. That’s good enough. Next, just be really disciplined about what you allow on the home page. This is more of a internal political issue than anything. Everybody in the organization thinks he deserves some representation on the home page. That’s just not good design or usability. Site managers need to enforce some clear guidelines. Finally, dump some ad positions. Besides text ads, more than two ad positions is way too much. One is ideal. Your advertising will be more valuable on an uncluttered page. (Yes, MainToday.com has three ad positions. Oh, well.)
This is what we’re after at GateHouse Media with our first round of templates. We’ll fill out this look with some more content modules next month. We also have two new sets of templates we’ll unveil in five or six weeks. Again, we’re going after a cleaner look.
Of course, it was also the design style I championed in Bakersfield. That was nearly two years ago, and it’s still an uncommon approach, which is why I find MainToday.com’s redesign noteworthy.
Another thing Michaud is doing that I think is smart is they’re rolling out the redesign over a period of time. Today is the home page. Subsequent sections will follow. A complete site relaunch is a bear and bound to lead to headaches. A slow roll out makes it less stressful to uncover unforeseen issues. Unfortunately, with the site launches we have coming up in August, we have no choice but to do a complete makeover. I envy Joe his more leisurely pace.
UPDATE: So I dashed this off quickly this morning after a first-blush take on the new site, seeing instantly that this wasn’t your typical newspaper site. On closer look, the site is even more of a portal site. It’s very much a community site. There is plenty of good stuff going on here with UGC, blogs and calendar. Mouse over the horizontal navigation. I’m not usually a fan of roll-over navigation, but this is an very interesting take on the concept. It strikes me as a pretty original concept. Given its context-driven nature, I can actually see it working. Continue reading
Back in 2004, I would do a blog post about IPTV (or TVIP), by which I meant video delivered over IP. I said someday TV over IP would radically change television. People would watch all kinds of programs that weren’t available from networks, and a lot of traditional TV and movies would be available, too. A critic said I was crazy. The pipe would never be big enough. I said the pipe didn’t matter because everything would be time-shifted. We’re not talking about watching streaming TV the way cable delivers it (and what Microsoft and PacBell meant by IPTV), but downloads for later viewing.
And now we have the likes of Joost and AppleTV and Netflix and gobs of quality vlogs along with plenty of other IP video offerings. It’s still early in the revolution, but things are changing fast.
Also in 2004, I spoke at an API conference on mobile and said “someday you’ll get broadband to your mobile device — anywhere, anytime.” I didn’t know how this would happen, but it only seemed logical that it would. And it would radically change the way people consume news and entertainment. People in the room far smarter than me about technology said it would never happen. It was an awkward moment, because I only had my belief and a few examples of radical experiments to make it happen (like big balloons beaming down IP signals to the ground).
Well, the FCC is getting ready to license 700 MHz spectrum, and if it is a truly open system, I think John Battelle is right: “This could mean we get the Internet in the air. I mean, the real Internet. Wow.”
It’s hard to imagine, fully, how that will change things.
But video will be a big part of the mobile broadband future.
The iPhone is already a pretty incredible mobile video device.
Somebody recently reminded me about this post on change.
Hereâ€™s a competitive advantage, if you can harness it: Be ready for change.
By change, I donâ€™t just mean things will be different. I mean change as a constant state.
Are you ready for change?