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.
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At a talk I gave a while ago, I was introduced as one of the early champions of "citizen journalism."
I cringed a bit.
While I revel in the idea that in the new digital age any one can create, I realized early on, not every one will.
While I’m a fan of Jay Rosen’s aphorism, "the people formerly known as the audience," I’ve never took it to mean that EVERYONE will become content creators.
I’m down with Power to the People. Digital tools have unleashed a new era of creativity that is explosive and energizing.
The era of digital media created new threats for established publishers, and it also created new opportunities.
For most of my career, and most of my boorish, loudmouth pontificating, I would like to think I’ve been more about pushing for newspaper people to embrace change as opportunity, albeit, because ignoring the threat will kill you.
I’ve never hearlded citizen journalism as a replacement professional journalists (I’m not sure many people ever really believed that, but I’ve certainly not been among them). More, I’ve loved Dan Gillmore’s phrase, "journalism as a conversation."
I love the idea that stories are no longer static. We no longer live an era when an article is discussed with an editor, researched with an eye toward "the official record," written with great seriousness, edited with great thoroughness, and committed to paper as an inviolate document (at least, that’s the newspaper journalistic ideal).
Now, the savvy Web journalist can take what he knows, publish immediately, correct on the fly, collect input from readers (might be a comment, a phone call, an e-mail, a Tweet, etc.), link to a responding blog post, write an update, and let the story breathe its own life, whether that life might be minutes or days.
And, of course, any member of the "people formerly known as the audience" can start from scratch themselves, any place, any time and for their own purposes.
This approach leads, or should, I believe, to better informed citizens, and I hope, to greater civic engagement.
But all this new power does not mean that just because citizens will participate in the news process, they will. Just because you can drink beer, doesn’t mean you will. Just because you can watch baseball doesn’t mean you’ll turn on the TV. Just because you can plant seeds doesn’t mean you’ll choose to grow peas rather than flowers. People make all kinds of lifestyle choices that are not powered by the ability to do something, but rather the preference to do something.
This whole consumption v. creation (& app v. site) thing worries me because it reverts power to companies v. us all.
My reply led to a short conversation in which, once again, Jeff and I don’t see eye to eye.
Jeff pointed me to an article from ClickZ that contains a very impressive number for the total count of people who have posted something to the Web: 48 million. Wowza! That’s a lot of people. Or so you think until you stop to consider, there are 309 million people in the United States.
That means about 15.5 percent of the U.S. population has posted something to the Web.
That number tracks pretty close to the 90-9-1 Rule, which was never meant to provide a precise measure of the actual participation inequality, but it is a consistent rough measure.
The vast majority of people in the United States (and I’m sure the world, but to keep the argument straightforward, we’ll deal with this limited scope), are media consumers, they are lurkers, not creators.
And like people who prefer beer over wine or cats over dogs, they are making a choice of preference, not compulsion. Putting more beer in the world won’t create more beer drinkers.
Jeff isn’t buying it. He’s quite apocalyptic about the meaning of the iPad — bad Apple and big media are trying to destroy us creators and turn us all into audience again.
Where Jarvis sees a conspiracy to destroy the wonders of the Web, I see a savvy business man — Steve Jobs — recognizing reality and going where the money is: That vast sea of consumers who have not the slightest interest in creating content and never will. The iPad is aimed at them (and perhaps those geeks among us who want both the laptop for serious content creation and the iPad as an entertainment device).
Steve’s timing seems impeccability brilliant: I think consumers are ready for more portable, convenient, easy-to-use Internet. The iPhone and iPod helped create the market and now Jobs is going with the next logical step in a sustaining innovation strategy.
Jarvis seems to think that evenutally all 309 million Americans will create. He tweeted:
Why draw a distinction w/online? Telling friends at Denny’s is little different from telling your on email, Facebook.
The Internet will get closer to what we do in life (not the other way around). In life, we talk. So do we online.
You’re a Utopian, Jeff. Which isn’t a bad thing. Helps drive innovation. But at some point Utopian visions hit brick walls.
To me, it’s pure fantasy to expect the 90-9-1 Rule (it should really be called the 90-9-1 Law) to be broken. The whole world will no sooner become a populace creators than it will become a planet of dandelion eaters.
The reason most of this morning’s Denny’s patrons will never submit a status update to Facebook is because they think nobody cares about what they have to say (a far more admirably humble attitude than those of us who expects the world to hang on our every tweet), or they fear such postings will come back to haunt them. Or: They. Just. Don’t. Care. There are a multitude of reasons why even very savvy Netizens will never do a status update, tweet, blog or comment, even on a post about their own grandchildren.
Steve Jobs is not evil for introducing a product aimed at that vast, immovable sea of humanity we sometimes derisively call consumers. There’s money to be made there.
The big question is, who will make the money creating content and games for them: The established media companies, or new disruptive innovators?
Media companies have famously failed to recognize the true disruptive nature of the Web, and have fallen hopelessly behind in the world of HTML, links and video uploads. I wouldn’t assume they will not do any better in adopting to the world of apps and touch screens.
Just like the 90-9-1 Law is unchangeable, the "audience is control" nature of the digital era isn’t going to be changed by any one device, and in fact, each new digital device further fragments the digital media world, making it harder for large corporate media concerns to survive and prosper.
Digital publishers should not be sending flowers to Steve Jobs, but neither should online innovators be hanging him in virtual effigy.
It’s been quite a year for journalism. It’s been scary at times, aggrevating at times and there have been some glimmers of hope for future success. I don’t feel like the same person who started 2008 and who ends it now, and I bet you don’t either.
A year ago, I issued a call for ink-stained print journalists to put some effort into learning a little more about how the wired world works by immersing themselves in some of the tools and techniquest of the web.
The post stirred a lot of conversation, but I only heard from a couple of reporters who were taking on the MBO program. I’ve not heard back on progress from any of them in months.
Editors John Robinson in Greensboro and Linda Grist Cunningham in Rockford set up similar programs for their newsrooms. Robinson, I know, rewarded at least two staff members for completing his list of “get wired” goals.
Out of the post also came the birth of Wired Journalists, which has grown into a tremendous resource for journalists looking to hone their online skills. If you find Wired Journalists useful, be sure to thank Ryan Sholin and Zac Echola. They’ve done a great job with the site.
Just now I got an e-mail from Paula Froke at AP who did not contact me in January, but has done an admirable job of working through the list of tasks. Read her post on her accomplishments. Her progress report isn’t a mere check list of items completed but show her to be an admirable type of person: She often went beyond the basic tasks and stretched herself to learn new skills.
Whether for the MBO program or not, feel free to leave a comment about what you learned about online journalism in 2008. Continue reading
I think this obit of Tom Gish came to me via Romenesko earlier today. I just now had time to read it. It’s all worth reading, but here’s the relevant hyperlocal/citizen journalism part:
The Gishes were city journalists when they published their first edition in January of 1957, and they decided to bring a city style to the Eagle. The newspaper they had purchased was filled with community columnists, mostly women, who wrote the news of their small towns — who was visiting, the successes of children, the illnesses of elders.
Tom and Pat concluded the Eagle’s columnists violated every rule taught in their university journalism classes. The columns (from places like Ice, Blackey and Millstone) weren’t written in “news style.” They weren’t “objective.” And often they weren’t even about what city journalists would define as news, unless you considered the bounty of somebody’s garden to be worthy of newsprint.
So the Gishes stripped the columnists from the Eagle…and the Eagle’s circulation dropped like a very heavy rock. Nobody wanted a weekly newspaper that didn’t have “the news.”
Tom and Pat quickly relented and resumed printing the columns from the little coal camps dotted up the creeks that ran between the mountains. They realized that the definition of “news” used by their sophisticated professors at the university was just plain wrong. What the columnists wrote about — the day-to-day life of a community — WAS news. It was the most important news the Eagle could ever publish.
Tom and Pat spent the next 50 years practicing the most democratic form of journalism the country has ever seen. Everybody and anybody could be a reporter for the Eagle. The paper wasn’t written FOR a community. The Eagle was written BY a community. In the ‘90s, Tom began collecting phone messages people would call into a special line at the Eagle. The messages were often silly, crude at times and they appeared in the paper unfiltered. Unless the messages were libelous, they went onto the page headlined “Speak Your Piece.”
Like the columns, Tom’s Speak Your Piece feature was filled with the life of the county and often with news by anyone’s definition. In the 1990s, state police used information that appeared there to aid a criminal investigation of county officials. Speak Your Piece helped indict a handful of local officials.
A while back I read a book titled Managing Newspaper Correspondents. In the defination of the book, a correspondent was a house wife or farmer or society lady who sent in a weekly column of “locals” to his or her newspaper. This 1941 book said there were 250,000 newspaper correspondents in America at the time. I often wonder, what happened to them all? Continue reading
I’ve just sent this e-mail to Berkeley Breathed in response his quote in this Salon piece.
Dear Mr. Breathed,
I was surprised to read in Salon:
‘In 1986 I had a cockroach scream, “Reagan sucks!” in print size that took up the entire cartoon box. Nobody blinked — 1,000 newspapers, quiet as a mouse.’
I remember quite a few papers upset by the cartoon, and the San Diego Union refused to run the strip. I wrote an editorial for my newspaper supporting your right to free speech. The editorial won an award from SPJ. I sent a copy of the paper to you, and you (without my even asking) sent it back autographed (still have it, though have never framed it as I’ve always intended).
In larger context — I disagree with your sentiment that discourse is any more uncivil than its ever been — American political discourse has ALWAYS been ruffian and course. Mean spiritedness is not an invention of cable news or bloggers. There’s just more outlets now, and some blowhards have bigger bullhorns.
But there’s also more outlets for civil discourse, and there is more than it than ever … more fact checking, more chance for reasonable voices to be heard amongst the clutter and crap, more people interested in finding truth rather than lies.
Do what you will with your characters and your career, but in an age when we’re ruled by a class of politicians best labeled Republocrats hell bent on Empire and Plutocracy, we need more independent voices, not fewer. It is a blow to freedom to see Opus silenced.
A while back, I did a blog post about bright people who have left the industry. Here’s a quick update (and I welcome further input from anybody who has other names to add).
- Chris Jennewein is back in, having gone to work for the Las Vegas Sun.
- Sean Polay has rejoined Ottaway.
- Lucas Grindley is now online managing editor at National Journal.
- Not included in the previous list, and I can’t remember if this was an oversight, or if he left McClatchy after the post: Dick van Halsema is now consulting.
- Steve Smith, who traditionally would probably be classified more print side, but was long a forward-thinking new media leader — he made a very public exist from Spokane this week.
Anybody else? Continue reading
Some people think the web makes the world bigger. I say, it makes it smaller. Some people say the web makes us neighbors with people in Kenya or the Ukraine. I say it makes us better neighbors with the family next door.
There was a time in United States history when newspapers served as a centralizing force for drawing communities together — and then came television, and cable, and satellite — all the forces that did nothing to humanize communication, but made mass communication more mass and less personal.
The Internet brings back the possibility of human-sized communication.
At a time when too many glass-eyed Americans turn to network TV for their “Heroes” and get “Lost” in whatever flimflam Hollywood is dishing out this season, the Web opens up new possibilities for people, local people, people who share a common interest in a common community, to partake in conversation and pursue change with conviction.
In 1995, I started a web site in eastern San Diego County called East County Online. At the time, I would tell any number of colleagues in the newspaper business: “Mark my words, the web is the best thing that ever happened to local news; all the fascination now is with global communication, but eventually, people will look homeward and want to use the web to build better communities.”
I’ve never stopped believing that. I believe it to this day.
I’ve learned a lot about the Internet and how people use it since 1995, but the philosophy remains the same: Together, we can use digital communication to build better, stronger, more self-reliant communities.
A big reason I was excited to join GateHouse Media in Sept. 2006 was it would keep me involved in local journalism. The idea of building news web sites that help local communities prosper is still exciting to me.
With strong local web sites, maybe we can convince a few people to turn off the TV once or twice a week and visit a local art gallery, spend an evening with the local theater group, or “root,root, root for the home team.”
And that idea is a major philosophical underpinning of The Batavian.
In a recent E-Media Tidbits post, Amy Garhan writes:
However, I question the Commission’s strong focus on geographically defined local communities. It seems to me that with the way the media landscape has been evolving, geographically defined local communities are becoming steadily less crucial from an information perspective. I suspect that defining communities by other kinds of commonalities (age, economic status/class, interests, social circles, etc.) would be far more relevant to more people — although more complex to define.
I suspect that clinging reflexively to “local” as the paramount criteria for “relevant” reflects a newspaper perspective that was never a good fit for most people, and that never really served most people’s information needs well.
I’m not convinced. You can’t — as I have done — sit in the stands of a Batavia Muckdogs game and say local is no longer relevant. There is no stronger bond than the ones you have with people you’ve known for many years and seen at their best and their worst and shared with them a common cause in boosting youth football or arguing whether the town council should tear down the old bank building.
This isn’t the first time I’ve come across the argument that “local no longer means geography,” or “community is more about affinity,” but the position ignores the major impact local events and decisions have on both individuals and national affairs.
The assumption that local is irrelevant in a wired world ignores both history and human nature.
Here’s a question for you: Why do so many newspapers in foreign lands have much higher circulations and household penetrations than U.S. newspapers?
Here’s a possible answer: The communities those papers serve are more stable, less mobile. You still have grandchildren living in the same neighborhood as grandma, and parents who socialize with the same friends they’ve known since 1st grade. These communities are just as assaulted by Hollywood and Madison Avenue dreck (or a locally produced alternative) that hypnotize Americans, but homogenized culture hasn’t been as damaging to the local newspapers.
The big difference is mobility, or lack of it.
The United States has always had its Horace Greeleys exhorting its young men to go west, but true mobility — the true dislocation of families and disruptions to small communities — began with World War II, when troops were sent to coastal bases or abroad, and giant industrial war centers were built to employ those who stayed behind.
We’ve had now about 60 years of mobility, and over that time we’ve watched newspaper circulation fall of the shelf.
As I talk about in my “Reinventing Journalism” presentation (most recently given in Atlanta at SPJ’s convention), newspapers thrived when they were run by publishers/editors who paid close attention to changes in society and fashioned their newspapers to fit with their communities needs.
But starting in the 1920s or so, and accelerating after WW II, the professionalization of journalism separated the newsroom from readership concerns. Newsrooms became insular sanctuaries where such tawdry worries as to what readers really wanted from their news pages was too venal to discuss.
So while society changed — more mobile, more connected to electronic media — newspapers followed a singular path whereby newsroom personnel were free to indulge in delusions of knowing what was best for readers while ignoring the real needs of their communities.
If local communities are less coherent today than 60 years ago, well certainly mobility and network television play a role, but so do newspapers that fired their community correspondents, stopped covering eagle scout promotions and tea socials, concerned themselves more with the process of local government than the community impact of its decisions, and tried to be the only indispensable source for all the news of all the world, instead of the one indispensable source of Little League news.
If newspapers had done a better job of adjusting to changes in society, maybe their circulation troubles today would be less troubling, and our communities — and our democracy — would be stronger.
As for the future — I still believe in local.
Mobility is not the natural human trait. We are social creatures who crave connections with flesh-and-blood friends and family. Online communication is fun — and greatly expands our reach of friends and associates — but it’s no substitute for running into an old friend or uncle at the local coffee shop.
As long as I’ve been involved in online communities — approaching 14 years now — I’ve observed the overwhelming desire for people to want to meet their digital friends at local bars or industry conferences. It happens over and over. We depend on those real connections.
Unfortunately, seeing an industry colleague once or twice a year — no matter how brilliant he or she is, nor how much you like that person — is no substitute for a weekly breakfast at the local diner or impromptu backyard bar-b-ques with a trusted friend.
And at it’s heart, that is what local is all about. Those family bonds and friendly affiliations is what enables and enlivens a community’s civic life.
And for 150 years, newspapers played a vital role in helping communities remain connected and strong, but then we lost focus. We no longer wanted to write about Mrs. Sterlings embroidery class or the 50-year-going bridge club. We wanted to win prizes by uncovering scandals at City Hall (that’s not a knock against watch dog journalism, but a note about a loss of purpose) and dream of our bylines in the Washington Post or New York Times.
The beauty of the web for local news is not only does it give us a new chance to refocus on true local news, but it makes it easier to enable the strong civic engagement that only comes when people talk with each other. Through comments and blogs and UGC video, we have a chance to pull people away from “American Idol” and into a real dialogue about the issues that matter most to their home towns.
We see all the time on The Batavian people who have known each other for years (and we also see this in the comments on stories of GateHouse newspaper sites), who still meet up at social events, getting deeply engaged in conversations online. An online news site extends the conversation. It doesn’t replace it. And by putting it out in an open forum, it invites other people who may not have been as engaged previously to participate.
That sort of engagement can and should have a powerful impact in a democracy. If our local communities are ever going to disentangle themselves from the tendrils of federal unfunded mandates and overarching intrusions to homes and businesses, then it’s going to take more people, people who care about such things, involved at a local level.
And here’s my prediction: Rather than increase mobility, digital communication will increase stability. Over the next couple of decades, we’re going to see more and more people seeking out small towns — good places to raise families (even some families returning to their ancestral rural communities), live less hectic lives, escape crime and smog, and control living expenses. And the same communities that are so perfect for families are also the best places to start or relocate businesses, for all the same reasons.
Digital makes this easier, but concerns over the environment and oil consumption will also play a role. In rural communities, you consume fewer natural resources, can get better — locally grown — food and can more readily help others in need.
Smart people, and smart companies, are going to move out of the big cities — necessary in an age when cooperative communication, information dissemination and physical commerce was hard — and back to mid-west and rust-belt towns.
It will take time, but as these once-displaced people settle down, they will put down roots as surely as they plant tomatoes and apple trees and invite neighbors over for some pie, coffee and conversation.
The future is local, and that should be good news for anybody looking to build local news businesses. Continue reading
In an era when journalists are asked to do more and more, I can see reporters and editors using this for their own personal tracking of completed projects. It can be quite rewarding to see a list of everything you’ve completed in a day, a week or a month. Continue reading
When I posted about journalists setting their own 2008 MBOs, A couple of executive editors like the idea of the program and instituted something like it in their own newsrooms. Today, John Robinson reports that his wallet is $100 lighter.
Among other things, designer Mel Umbarger created a copy desk wiki for a style book, schedules and more; created personal profiles on several social networking sites, learned Soundslides and Flash; blogged; and posted all sorts of content to the Web site.
Congratulations to Mel. Good job. Continue reading
Blogging has been light here for some time.
I’m tired of arguing with curmudgeons and the class hearty souls who discovered the web in 2004 and now has all the answers (many of them tried by online news veterans 10 years ago).
Just about everything I have to say, I’ve said. I noticed some time ago, I was repeating myself too often. Different words. Same meanings.
I’m tired of Ground Hog Day.
I’m not going to stop blogging. I’m not going to stop posting totally. Stay subscribed to the RSS feed.
Not everything I might have to say can be said in 140 characters.
I have been having fun with Twitter recently. I’m howardowens there.
If the past is any indication, something will spark me out of my blogging funk and I’ll become prodigious again. But not today and probably not tomorrow.
Tell Romenekso I said, “Hi.” Continue reading