Wednesday, February 25, 2009

We Media 3: Person to person Web – literally

The sessions at the We Media conference in Miami always interesting, but some of the best information is gleaned in hallway chats during coffee breaks.

This morning I heard a broad British accent hail me with “Hello, it’s the famous Clyde who told us about Facebook.”

It was David Dunkley Gyimah, a hyper-energetic and hyper-talented video journalist I first met in San Antonio at the International Symposium on Online Journalism.

“Famous” is a stretch, but at during a coffee break at that 2004 gathering I had tried to tell my colleagues about this oddball Web site that my students were gaga about. I had recently become one of just a handful of faculty to sign on and I a gut feeling there was something to it.

Facebook? Frat party pictures and dorm chatter? I was met with blank stares. It certainly didn’t sound like anything that would be of interest to media professionals. But David thought the dearth of innovative thinking by the gathered journalists was funny.

So today David and I had another great laugh. And this time he told me about a technology to watch.

While David is a noted video innovator, senior lecturer at the University of Westminster and founder of, he is also a student in what may be the most unusual doctoral programs in the world. SMARTlab is a “practice-based Ph.D. program” Teams of students actually invent new technology after research that includes “landing” in a community, culture or research environment and spending enough time there to know it intimately.

And what’s on the boards these days? How about an Internet variant the lifeblood of which is real flesh and blood?

One of the SMARTlab teams is exploring a system similar to that used by British intelligence operatives to surreptitiously pass messages. The system uses a set of small Bluetooth transponders that exchange information when the person wearing Unit A gets close to the person wearing Unit B.

Great James Bond stuff, but the SMARTlab folks want to know what happens if you have a whole lot of people with those transponders. Could, for instance, one pass a message across a city or whole country by relaying it from a jogger to a bicyclist to a senior strolling the park to the mailman and on and on. Digitial internodal communications. That’s Web talk on the hoof, so to speak.

This is not just fun and games. One might be able to gather information from nearby stores without stopping or pickup news updates while walking to work. Or send a digital personal message to a distant loved one without ever going on the Internet. Who knows what you could do by putting transponders on dog collars.

So it’s my turn. Next conference, I get to give David the loud hello and tell everyone he is the famous seer. But they'll probably already know that before he is in handshaking distance.

We Media 2: Crisis reporting, one text message at at time

Not all of the gamechangers here at the We Media conference rely on cutting-edge technology. In fact, a project that depends on villagers in rural Africa has, in my mind, one of the best chances of the way distribute breaking news.

Ushahidi, which means “testimony” in Swahili, is a non-profit organization that has built a unique crowdsourcing information. Crowdsourcing is the journalistic process of gathering information from a large number of people via blogging, texting and other digital media.

Erik Hersman, director of operations, told a auditorium of Ushahindi works primarily in Africa to gather and forward crisis information. While it will take e-mail and Web information, the tool of choice for its contributors is the simple cell phone. Not the iPhone, Blackberry or other smartphone. Just the cheap “dumb phone” that does little else but make voice calls and allows text messaging.

In countries where wired phone systems are unreliable, newspapers seldom make it to the hinterlands and broadcast media is often government controlled, the cell phone is ubiquitous across social classes. For instance, the International Telecommunications Union said about one in four Ugandans – 8.2 million – carry a mobile phone.

When a natural or political crisis erupts, an Ushahidi user sends details by text to the organization. After a local NGO verifies the account, Ushahidi logs the incident on database and plots on a digital map with space for pictures and video. Reports can then be texted back to local leaders, who respond to disaster or mediate community conflict.

It’s almost too simple to be true. It reminds me of the old “farm telegraph” where the call for help was passed from neighbor to neighbor by ringing bells. In this case it is done by with open source software Ushahidi shares freely with others.

Take a look at . This is not only a stellar humanitarian effort by a simple use of technology that could be modified for many uses.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

We Media 1: How do you change the game?

Escaping February’s icy grip on the Midwest is always a treat. But for me that usually means a convention and more time in an air-conditioned room than in the sun.

We Media Miami promotes itself as a different sort of conference and I was treated to a different sort of introduction. I had to catch a plane that arrived seven hours before kickoff, which meant I had a chance to relish a Latin lunch and a few minutes of sun before I got to work.

Work? At a conference in Cocoanut Grove? Alas, there is no free lunch (especially cilantro soup). The Reynolds Journalism Institute sent me here to look at the We Media organization’s concept of “gamechangers” for the Web and the world.

We Media describes itself as “a Web site, a community, a conference and a global movement to make the world better through media.” It is the brainchild of Andrew Nachison and Dale Perkins of the Seven26groups consulting company.

The conference is framed around a competition for which 35 Web sites were nominated. A panel of judges this week pared that down to eight.

Prior to the announcement of the finalists, I went through all the sites myself and then asked 24 students in my citizen journalism-focused Online Journalism class to do the same. We each ranked the sites on a 1-5 scale and then made comments.
Twenty-somethings are hard to impress. I found a few gems in a mostly been-there, done-that field. But the students were harsh, giving only one site a “3.” At least it was one of the sites I liked well enough to grant a “4.”

I often notice in class how jaded young people are about technology. They have grown up with life-like video games, CGI movies and a Google answer for anything. To catch their attention takes work.

For We Media, the students wanted both new process and intriguing output. Mere content would not do it.

The site that did that was Like me, they appreciated the social benefit of funding clean water projects around the world. And we both enjoyed the ease of navigation and the web cam documenting well drilling.

To me that was not enough to “change the game.” But the way ups the ante in fund raising is. The site looks like something from Ikea and has the same appeal to the pocketbook. You can give on any page.

But I think what most impressed me was Twitter campaign. Sure, we have all been asked to use that addictive SMS community to promote a cause. But this was the first time I was given a long list of pre-written comments I could copy and past into my Twitter feed. Very cool.

But not cool enough for the judges. It didn’t even place.

That’s the conflict of ideals and ideas I will explore this week. Through Thursday, I will be blogging from the conference with my observations on why people think the game needs to be changed and how they think we should go about that. And I’ll weigh in with my own opinions – which are never in short supply.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Information rich, media poor

I don’t think I can take any more news. Not in my brain, but in my pocketbook.

Like most Americans, I’ve been glumly looking at my bank accounts, retirement plan and other assets. The result is the realization that I would have done better with a coffee can buried in the backyard.

That search also led me to take a closer look at what I pay for information. I was surprised, but newspaper publishers should be terrified.

Let me preface this by noting that I am a proud member of the embattled middle class, with a professor’s paycheck that still hasn’t matched what I earned in the industry.

I am also a lover of newspapers. I subscribe to two and read others online. But it is not the newspapers that are taking the bite from my wallet. It is all those electronic services I consider basic utilities.

The National Cable and Television Association says the average price of expanded basic cable is about $44 a month and digital averages $60. I pay $84 for digital cable here in Columbia, MO. My wife and I have jobs that require an Internet connection that runs about twice the price of normal broadband in Columbia. We pay $140 a month.cell bill

Alas, it was Steve Jobs who finally did in my budget. I succumbed to those alluring Apple ads last Christmas and bought iPhones for my wife and me. Just $170 per month, paid with a nervous smile. That is not far from the national average of $60 per month – per cell phone user and a bargain since my son moved out of the house.

Hardware costs could make the total zoom much higher but the laptop, the wireless router and the cell phone handsets are not monthly charges. Yet.

I doubt that I am the only cost-conscious citizen who conducted a recession excavation of the bill basket. But, what I found surprised me. I pay nearly twice as much for digital media each month than I do for newspaper subscriptions in a year.

I also doubt that I am the only cheapskate who turned down the New York Times offer of $13.40 a week for arguably the finest journalism in the world. Too much money.

But though I could buy a sports car for the $394 I pay each month to look at passing electrons, I don’t think of it as a luxury. I put all that whizzbang technology in the same category as the light switch on the living room wall. The home wouldn’t be a home without it.

After thinking about my dependency on all this interconnectivity, I’ve come to believe that few of us even think of those technology services as “media” costs and instead lump them with our other utilities.” With apologies to my other colleagues trying desperately to monetize online news, I think we are on the wrong track. Americans only want news and information. But they value information delivery systems.

It may be time for journalists to bite the bullet and concede that content is priceless. As in without a price that the public will pay.

The television and movie industries figured this out long ago by demanding a lucrative cut of cable revenues. People are willing to pay for delivery, but not to buy a television program.

The anarchistic-by-design Internet laughs at Web-wide relief for newspapers. However, many Webheads concede that without newspapers and their reporters, there would be little news content to deliver. So there is a small chance content providers will some day be able to cut a deal with Internet Service Providers.

Perhaps, however, a better route would be to develop a valued delivery system for our legacy print editions. The Web is driving subscriptions down, but print editions still hold marketable appeal and generally outdraw newspaper Web sites.

If our problem is more in our circulation system than in our content, it may be time to blow up the tradition of kid-on-a-bike/motor route carrier/coin-fed news stand. Like cable and Internet, perhaps the newspaper should emphasize the value of an information stream rather than the content itself. Could print newspapers have a delivery structure like an ISP? For a single rate to a delivery company (Newspaper Service Provider/NSP), could I get any newspaper I wanted on whichever days I wanted?

Perhaps that “NSP” could even be the local ISP or cable company.

Far fetched, perhaps. But I once thought the idea of using my cell phone as a bubble level was beyond the pale.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Newspapers, farms and Bud's advice

When the Tribune Co. announced bankruptcy in December, I had one immediate thought:

I wish they’d really bought the farm.

The World’s Greatest Newspaper is broke and an uncomfortable crowd of metros is teetering on the brink. Even the New York Times is hocking its skyscraper to pay the bills.

It’s a sad time for those big broadsheets we traditionally use to define “newspaper.” Here in academia, out in the blogosphere and certainly in the corporate boardrooms, the fear is palpable and the dream of an online white knight ubiquitous.

But I keep thinking of the farm.

Out in the Heartland, the papers that report on the 8th Grade Softball Championships and PTA chicken dinners also are hurting. Hurting, but not dying.

The National Newspaper Association and the Suburban Newspapers of America recently reported that revenues for papers with under 100,000 circulation are down nearly 2%. That’s tolerable. The total newspaper industry is down 18%.

The metros are dreaming of a federal bailout. The community publishers have hunkered down and are waiting for another storm to pass.

I learned my key lessons in newspaper economics while working as the general manager of the East Oregonian, a small daily in the namesake town of Pendleton wool. There are still sheep in the hills, but Pendleton is surrounded by those amber waves of grain that encourage God to shed his grace on thee. Dryland wheat farming is a bigger gamble than the stock market – only half your land produces a crop each year and the cash you get back depends on the current popularity of sandwiches and ramen noodles.

But like the East Oregonian, most of those wheat fields have been tended by the same families for generations. That, I learned, is the key to the historic success of the American press.

Newspapers are farms, not factories.

Manufacturing is a highly volatile industry. It takes a constant flow of new capital to develop those new and improved products, to buy and replace ever-changing machinery and to keep the foreign competitors at bay. Ergo the stock market, where investors bet you can appear to promise enough success to edge the value of their shares up a few points next quarter.

Those investors don’t turn the cranks nor staff the assembly line. They impatiently snipe from the sidelines for greater and greater quarterly gains to drive up the price of their stock .

I thought Knight-Ridder’s a 19% profit margin sounded pretty darn good, but Wall Street forced its sale to drive up its stock value. Even in these times of misery, Gannett reports a 9% net profit (down from the mid 20's).
By comparison, Wal-Mart posts a 3% profit, down from about 6%. But the happy face is still on those discount stickers.

In Oregon I came to appreciate patience. On farms there are no fiscal quarters, only crop seasons. Anyone with soil beneath their fingernails knows droughts will take their rotation with bumper crops. That’s what barns, haylofts and grain elevators are for.

Newspapers once shared the economic strategy of the farms. They delighted in being among the oldest continuing businesses in their regions. Families owned them and, like farms, they were passed down from generation to generation. Publishers felt they both owned their communities and the communities owned them. They expected there would be lean years when they ate beans with the farmers and boom years when they shared brandy with the bankers.

In their quest to keep up with the factories, big media borrowed heavily to buy more and more papers they could run with journalistic sharecroppers. The addition of that heavy debt load was never part of the successful farm/newspaper economy. The drought hit in a big way and the notion of a quarterly gain became a joke.

But a newspaper, like a farm, must exist over a span greater than a fiscal quarter.

I will never forget the pleasant shock I had when I was introduced to Bud Forrester, the septuagenarian patriarch of the family that owned the East Oregonian.

“Clyde, just give me a new car and maybe a trip to Hawaii. But take care of my newspaper.” He shook my hand, smiled and walked away.

I had the good sense and the good skills to deliver more than that. When a friend faced the ax because his chain paper’s profit dropped below 20%, I rejoiced that but-for-the-grace-of-Bud, there went I.

Bud Forrester is gone and I no longer ride herd on the East Oregonian. This year I wouldn't be surprised at all if his grandchildren are making do with not-so-shiny cars. But the season will change.

And they’ll get that trip.