Questions for Rob Curley about OnBeing

Questions for Rob Curley about OnBeing:

  • Is this something you think the average daily newspaper can copy? If you didn’t have the resources of WaPo, how would you do it? Can a small paper do it?
  • How important do you think the format is — studio environment, HD format, etc? to the impact of the content?
  • How big of a role does the name and resources of the WaPo play in being able to convince interesting people to participate?
  • How much time and effort does it take to find people interesting enough to profile in this manner?
  • How much talent is involved from the journalist in bringing forth the person-behind-the-person aspect of the pieces — the real personality?
  • How much of an audience do you project will get hooked into OnBeing? How much of the ability to grow audience for this is dependent on it being a product of WaPo?
  • What is more important in retaining audience, format and formula or the ability to find compelling people to profile? Can you build a trusted brand for OnBeing that will allow for a few pieces that don’t resonate with the audience because this or that person turned out to be not that interesting?
  • Or is the idea that a talented journalist can draw something interesting out from any person you put in front of a camera?
  • Do you wind up with profiles that simply fall to the cutting room floor?
  • How much time and effort goes into finding the right people, and do you prescreen, preshoot as a sort of audition?
  • If there were imitators from other papers, would that help or hurt the concept — would all boats rise because of the spreading meme, or all boats sink because of a saturated market?

Rob, should you choose to answer — in the comments or on your blog is fine — the questions need not be answered sequential or in total.  The main thing I’m trying to get at is beyond the cool factor, is this really something the average newspaper in America could or can copy, and should local news producers even try, or if they do try, is the high end approach of the WaPo required?

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13 thoughts on “Questions for Rob Curley about OnBeing

  1. […] Not everyone is as taken with it as I am. DCist says that it “misses the mark,” and that while the design is nice the stories themselves are a little lightweight — and perhaps they are. Not every one is going to be a gem (Howard Owens has some questions for Rob Curley along the same lines). But I still think is a worthwhile project, and extremely well executed. Technorati Tags: media2.0 newspapers video washingtonpost | Share This […]

  2. Damn, that’s a lot of questions. Here goes …

    +++++++++++++++

    * Is this something you think the average daily newspaper can copy? If you didn’t have the resources of WaPo, how would you do it? Can a small paper do it?

    Absolutely.

    I would argue that at least from where I’m sitting, this is just an “updated-for-online” idea that at least some smaller newspapers have already been doing for years. No, make that decades.

    I’ve always heard these stories about that “quirky editor” who opened up the phonebook for his or her town, randomly threw a finger into the pages, and then had a reporter write a story about that person.

    To me, this is the new-media version of telling the stories of “everyday” people. Just not done as haphazardly as picking someone randomly from the phonebook.

    I know in my heart that something like this could be done in a way that is very, very easy to pull off at even the smallest of newspapers — and when I say small, I even mean a small weekly newspaper. I’m convinced of it.

    The bigger question to me is not whether a smaller newspaper could do it, but would a smaller newspaper want to do it? It seems to me that when organizations (regardless of size) really want to do something, it gets done.

    What would it take?

    An inexpensive point-and-shoot camera from Best Buy,or even a pawn shop. A tripod. A non-distracting place to shoot. iMovie (which is free on Macs.) A simple index page for the project on your web site that has links to the video and maybe some thumbnails and a short description.

    And then the real key: an interesting person who is OK with talking about his or her life.

    It just doesn’t seem to me that you need the resources of The Washington Post to pull that off.

    Now, if you were asking about the resources that it took to pull off all the nerdery whiz-bang stuff behind the “onBeing” video player, then I’d say you would have to have some resources dedicated to pull off a project like this. But if that’s what you were talking about, and I don’t think you were, then I’d say you might be missing what the real power and point behind this project is.

    To me, the most important skill behind “onBeing” was Jenn knowing what to leave out. Some of these interviews lasted well over an hour. What she did was pick out the most interesting things said, and made it all fit into something that was just a few minutes long. From my perspective, that was the real genius behind “onBeing.”

    +++++++++++++++

    * How important do you think the format is — studio environment, HD format, etc? to the impact of the content?

    At least from the perspective of the new video player that was developed for this project, our goal was to try to experiment with video on the Internet. I love video on news sites. The web teams I’ve been working with have been experimenting with video since my earliest days with Morris Communications back in the 90s.

    I totally love YouTube. Heck, I even use Google video (and totally love that some of the clips are downloadable). And I watch video on my iPod on every flight I take.

    But with “onBeing” we wanted to question some of the current standards related to online video. Why does it have to be so damn small? Why does it have to be pixelated and poopy-looking? Why are there always a million other things going on with online video players when all I really want is to watch the dang video?

    To me, offering HD was just a way to acknowledge that some people have high-res 24-inch monitors.

    Do I think any of that is important, no. At least not to the success of “onBeing” as a project that we hope really connects with our audience.

    We are getting tons of feedback on this from folks all over the planet, and very few of them are talking about the player or the technology we used. Nearly all of them are talking about the people.

    At most, the technology we used was about simply about helping the audience see these people better.

    So, to answer your question, I don’t think the things you listed are important at all. It’s all about who you’re interviewing and the stories they tell.

    And the desire from our newspaper and web site to really do this.

    +++++++++++++++

    * How big of a role does the name and resources of the WaPo play in being able to convince interesting people to participate?

    As journalists, many of us in this profession might relate to The Washington Post brand in certain way, but I’ve found out that the people in the DC area just think of The Post as their local newspaper — no differently than the people in Lawrence thought about the Lawrence Journal-World.

    Do I think The Washington Post brand means something in scheduling interviews? Yes, if you’re trying to interview some big-wig senator or a famous actor.

    But for this project, I think The Washington Post brand had virtually no bearing on the people who have been interviewed. I can tell you that from Jenn’s perspective, it’s about establishing some trust and rapport with whomever she’s talking to. And in knowing Jenn, she tries to do that with almost everyone she meets. That’s just who she is.

    To that point, I’d be willing to bet a steak dinner at the Hereford House in Lawrence that many of these same people would have done these interviews even if they were only going to appear on Jenn’s personal blog.

    +++++++++++++++

    * How much time and effort does it take to find people interesting enough to profile in this manner?

    To be honest, I don’t know. Jenn does that. From hearing her talk about it, many of these first few interviews have mostly just been about connecting with different people she has met in kind of serendipitous ways throughout her time here in DC.

    That being said, I can tell you Jenn also is very sensitive to the idea that the only people who are going to show up on “onBeing” will be those folks that she knows or meets, which won’t be the case. She really has an open sensibility and loves getting suggestions and introductions from other folks. Even folks who don’t live in the DC area.

    We are getting some great suggestions from people who have visited the site as to other people we should interview.

    +++++++++++++++

    * How much talent is involved from the journalist in bringing forth the person-behind-the-person aspect of the pieces — the real personality?

    Jenn is great at it. The people she is interviewing really trust her and they really open up. It seems to me, great journalists make that happen, and I’ve seen those sorts of journalists at every newspaper I’ve worked at, regardless of the paper’s size.

    +++++++++++++++

    * How much of an audience do you project will get hooked into OnBeing? How much of the ability to grow audience for this is dependent on it being a product of WaPo?

    We’ve never even talked about that. We just wanted to try something different. There were no surveys done beforehand to see if folks wanted something like this. There were no test audiences. We just did what we thought was right.

    My guess is that it will get a nice-sized audience. We’re already having way more e-mail sign-ups for reminders than we thought we might have, and the page-views are much higher than what we expected.

    Is the audience for “onBeing” going to be bigger because it’s on washingtonpost.com instead of naplesnews.com? I think that’s a pretty safe bet, just based on the differences in the audience sizes for those two newspaper sites.

    Finding an audience is a tricky and inexact thing. Our web team has built things in the past that I thought would get a huge audience, and nothing happened. We’ve also built things that we didn’t even think about that got massive numbers.

    I don’t know if I can really give a definitive answer to your question.

    I’ve seen shows on TV that I thought were brilliant that couldn’t find an audience. We’re just trying to produce something that we feel good about.

    +++++++++++++++

    * What is more important in retaining audience, format and formula or the ability to find compelling people to profile? Can you build a trusted brand for OnBeing that will allow for a few pieces that don’t resonate with the audience because this or that person turned out to be not that interesting?

    It’s all about the people who are being featured. But it’s also about the ability of the editor to be loyal to the essense of those people and to make sure all that gets represented faithfully in the edit.

    We all feel that one of the keys to “onBeing” is that we don’t keep choosing the same types of voices.

    Like a lot of people, one of my favorite television shows used to be Seinfeld. And even when there were episodes that I didn’t like, I kept watching it. I think most audiences know that when something is consistently good, you don’t give up on it just because one episode didn’t “resonate” with you.

    +++++++++++++++

    * Do you wind up with profiles that simply fall to the cutting room floor?

    I think this could and will happen; it just hasn’t happened yet.

    +++++++++++++++

    * How much time and effort goes into finding the right people, and do you prescreen, preshoot as a sort of audition?

    I think if you read Jenn’s blog responses on the videos, many of those posts kind of talk about how she met these people. There is no pre-shoot audition.

    I know Jenn would tell you that more important than the time it takes to find these people is the time she spends with them before shooting, during shooting, and after the shooting.

    There is no big secret to how Jenn is finding these people. It’s very organic.

    For the longest time, I’ve said that one of the things that I love the most about the members of the web team that I work with is their ability to not overlook the obvious. In the few months I’ve known Jenn, it seems like she’s pretty dang good at that, as well.

    When she met a lactose-intolerant cheesemaker, she knew this would be an interesting person to talk with for this project.

    Over the last 48 hours or so (since the launch of onBeing), I can’t tell you how many people have stopped me to tell me that they know someone who has to be interviewed for this project. And the e-mailed suggestions are rolling in, as well.

    We all know interesting people with interesting stories to tell. I guess the secret is knowing when to turn the camera on.

    +++++++++++++++

    * If there were imitators from other papers, would that help or hurt the concept — would all boats rise because of the spreading meme, or all boats sink because of a saturated market?

    Like I said, I really believe “onBeing” is just the re-interpretation of a long-used traditional newspaper concept. Do I think newspapers and newspaper websites should find interesting people in their community and introduce them to their entire audience? Yes.

    I think our industry trying to really connect with its audience can only be a good thing, whether that’s done through something like this or not.

  3. Good questions, but the big one is missing: Where’s the money? I’m not worried that it CAN be done at a given paper, I ask WHY should it be done?

    Sorry guys, but this is the one I have to ask, ask it the hard way, and ask it every time. Maybe onBeing is heartwarming and touchy-feely, maybe it cuts it at awards time and on journoblogs, but “just experimenting” isn’t cutting it with me as a justification anymore, and it certainly doesn’t cut it with the layoffs around the country’s newsrooms or the markets where our franchises are failing to keep pace.

    We ALL know what can be done with large, high quality video online, because it is happening all over the ‘Net in very nice custom players. It may not be happening on newspaper sites, but it is out there, enough so that sites like brightcove are taking it to the bank. I’d point you at National Geographic Channel’s video juke of 9/11 survivor interviews for a great online deployment that is newspegged and evergreen, and fires on all content-for-content’s-sake cylinders – (www.inside911.com). Same goes for the recent Scripps’ blowout “The Crossing” (cfapp2.rockymountainnews.com/crossing/)

    So, here we are again in awards season, and newspapers all over the country are rolling out their massive multimedia mojo in multipart series with video, photo galleries, audio, and every other bell and whistle they can add in, but most of the templates are missing something pretty important… advertising inventory. We can complain about how no one is getting it, but clearly the editorial side gets online and has gotten it for about a decade. We are not only preaching to the choir, but wasting our significant multimedia efforts by not monetizing them.

    So where’s the business plan that justifies the expense of development and production capital on this one? As content, I have to put it just a video step above the long-standing print feature “Life is short, autobiography as haiku.” The python2flash is way groovy, but it is setting off usability concerns for me, does the interface allow for search engines to hit the content? Can community grow beyond simple guestbook level deployment of commenting? How do you plan on scaling your interface to accommodate the next 100 entries, or 10,000?

    Sorry to be hardliner on this, individually the pieces are great no doubt and it is very creative. But, Rob’s answer to the last question may as well be a talking point. You’re lighting up connections between one interviewer and one subject one at a time, to paraphrase Citizen Kane, in a market the size of the Washington DMA, you should be connected in about three centuries with this style of effort. Meanwhile, the real connection our industry needs to make now is connecting advertisers with customers, and helping local advertisers see the value in working with us online. It’s not just a good thing, it is vital to our survival.

  4. David, Good comments.

    As a site manager, I felt obligated to always think about revenue first. That is certainly what Bob Benz taught me.

    I’ve come to the conclusion, through my work with the NAA’s audience development committee, and just my own study, that this approach is all wrong. Fortunately, I’m in a job where my first priority is growing audience, but this also fits with my change in philosophy.

    I don’t buy the industry message that newspaper.coms are doing honky dory with audience growth. I happen to think it’s really way behind where it should be or needs to be.

    I think back to a quote I read some where, Murdoch, I think, who said something along the lines that in the history of media, aggregating eyeballs has always equalled making money.

    We simply must, must grow audience much more dramatically than we are if we expect to make money, so the fact that there is no clear revenue model with OnBeing doesn’t bother me. It’s an important experiment in audience growth.

    Having talked with Rob about this recently, I think that’s always been his approach, and it’s now an approach I endorse: Think audience first.

    Let’s face it, the smartest, most innovative advertising programs in the world are doomed to fail without audience.

    One of the failures of the newspaper industry over the past decade was to worry too much about making money online. We should have put more effort into audience-centric products.

  5. […] Earlier today, in response from a comment by David Johnson on this post bemoaning the lack of a clear revenue model to OnBeing, I wrote: We simply must, must grow audience much more dramatically than we are if we expect to make money, so the fact that there is no clear revenue model with OnBeing doesn’t bother me. It’s an important experiment in audience growth. […]

  6. Howard,

    I think you’re right on the money with the statement about the need to grow audience online first and foremost. Ad revenues will come if you can prove that certain people hit your site. Ironically and fortunately, since the print is not totally dead yet, newspapers have a bit of time to invest in an attractive and well designed product that will bring readers to their websites. Now, some papers will hopefully cultivate readership by providing in-depth analysis and arresting multimedia stories while others will focus on instructions how to make hamburgers for Superbowl. Each paper will need to find their niche. I just hope to be working for the first type of news provider when this day comes.

  7. UPDATE: Rich Gorden adds to the discussion:

    And data on online usage of news sites suggests Owens is right to focus on audience growth first. The typical user of a newspaper site visits once a day or less frequently, and views only a few pages. Depending on the site, in the space of a month, a typical user might spend 10 or 20 or 30 minutes on the site. With metrics like these, a winning business model will be hard to find. We need more innovation and experimentation like OnBeing.

  8. slipping back in for a second to ponder this audience growth issue… i am sure we all have heard the print advertising side semi-jokingly refer to the newshole as “non revenue producing grey space,” rankling the hides of the church-and-staters who shun any suggestion that editorial content is a loss-leader, a bait-and-switch to lure eyes towards advertising, or even -gasp- a marketing device/business expense to sell products that are supported by advertising.

    from behind my professorial cap i can pose questions for debate, and will certainly do so with my next class, but for us, my learned colleagues and publishing executives, what do we call something that is focused only on audience growth? taking ethics for granted, of course, since our business is banking on truth, but where does audience development belong in the emerging taxonomy of media 2.0?

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