On newspapers, brands and reading habits

Yesterday i had the opportunity to read two brilliant pieces of journalism that perfectly showcase the dilemma newspapers are in :

  • Online news is getting more and more fragmented via technical means. Hence People are able to pick their trusted sources on a much more fine grained scale as they had to do in the printed world.
  • In the online world everybody, not only big companies with huge marketing budgets can be brands. And becoming a brand is about becoming a trusted source.

The first piece is a column (by Jason Fry in the WallStreet Journal ) called: A reality check for newspapers It has the copiepress vs. google dispute as the background setting but provides generic insights. I just enclose my favourite part:

The only surprise would be if newspapers were any different (Gerd: to the music and the video industries).

In moving online, newspapers have become collections of individual articles, each of which often stands on its own. Once, readers encountered articles by reading the paper a page at a time. Now, such readers are being supplanted by voracious online consumers who get their news in any number of unpredictable ways.

Articles are emailed around, copied to blogs for commentary, grouped together with stories on the same subject from rival publications, and found by search engines and aggregator services. I have no idea how you’re reading this column. Maybe you found it on the Online Journal’s home page or the technology page. Maybe you saw it because it includes Google’s stock symbol, or it hit your newsreader via an RSS feed. Maybe you followed a link from a blog, Google News or Technorati. Maybe someone emailed it to you. Maybe you printed it out this morning and are reading it now. (However you found it, thank you!)

I can’t control any of that and wouldn’t want to — like any writer, the most-important thing to me is to be read. If the Online Journal started directing readers who followed third-party links to this column to the home page and left them to find their way from there, I’d be furious — because I’d be guaranteed to lose readers who got lost. And if WSJ.com said they were doing that because there were ads on the home page but not on this article, I’d not so gently suggest hiring a competent Web designer instead of suing search engines.

The second piece is a portrait of Walt Mossberg (by Ken Auletta in The NewYorker) called: Critical Mass . I just enclose the last paragraph:

What differentiates Mossberg from most bloggers, according to Marissa Mayer, a Google vice-president who focusses in particular on the experience of consumers, is that what he writes “is all based on his use of the product”—he’s not racing to be first. Her colleague Eric Schmidt suggests that, while the Internet may yield enormous amounts of information, it is easy to drown in it. So consumers, Schmidt says, “go to brands they trust.” He adds, “Walt is a brand.”

This perfectly fits my own reading experience. Most of my daily reading is now done via a news reader (currently Google Reader). I’m actively reading about 100 feeds from sources i trust (or find interesting). Only very few feeds are from traditional main stream media. I found out about the two pieces cited above via some of these feeds. Without these feeds i would never have known that these pieces existed.

I also use Google Reader to provide a selection of the articles i find most interesting. You can read it directly or subscribe to this selection as a feed. The headlines of the last ten “shared” articles are also included at the top of this blogs home page.

Linda Stone: On Attention

One of my personal highlights of DLD was the talk given by Linda Stone: “On Attention”. So i started to write this article directly after the talk on January 21st. Unfortunalety i had to wait until today in order to be able to finish it.

Linda Stone started her talk asking some questions how the audience handles different attention requiring tasks and then went on to argue that in cycles of around 20 years the way we handle opportunities and how we spend out attention are changing.

Her thesis was, that starting around 1965 people spent their attention in a multitasking mode. They did this because they had a desire to create opportunities.

This mode then evolved during the 80s into a mode that she calls continous partial attention (CPA). This is a mode where we are paying some kind of attention simulteanously to various subjects based on a desire to scan for opportunities. This is the kind of behaviour you find in business meetings where nobody is paying attention on the discussion or presentation but to their blackberry and mobile phones. Or the kind of attention teens are paying when they are simulateously playing games, listening to music, chatiing via IM etc.

She continued that there is evidence that some early adopters are beginning to switch from CPA mode into a mode that is characterized by uni-focus and presence. In this mode people are driven by a desire to discern opportunities.

I was intrigued by her remarks, because i recognized this shift in the way i spend my attention. Having been one of the first persons in germany (my guess would be one of the first hundred) that had a blackberry, i’m probably also one of the first persons in germany that no longer has a blackberry.

She continued to give examples of this shift and how this shift interplays with the success of the iPod and its reduced, uni-focal design or the trend from first person shooters to the game concept of Nintendos Wii console. This even more resonated with my personal views.

Unfortunately i forgot to ask her, if it is possible to get a transscript of her talk and regretted it ever since. Some googleing showed that she had given this kind of talk already a couple of times, but that the DLD talk was definitely an major evolution.

Thankfully, Björn Brückerhoff didn’t forget to ask her. The complete transcript of her talk is now available as a part of Volume 51 of his online magazine “Neue Gegenwart”. I wholeheartedly recommend reading it.

Another read: John Maeda’s “Laws of simplicity”

During Macworld i visited San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art and found John Maeda’s book “Laws of Simplicity”, which i read on flights from SF to Vancouver and back. While i forgot to ask her about a transscript i did ask her on her point of view on the differences between her notion of uni-focus and maeda’s notion of simplicity. Her answer was that Maeda’s “simplicity” is more along the lines of what she called “quality of live” in her talk than “uni-focus”. If you have the time and want to know what the heck my question to Linda was about, you can go on and read John Maeda’s book or visit the accompanying website.

Newspaper Next – Blueprint for transformation

I just finished reading through “Blueprint for transformation” (Local copy) , the American Press Institutes Final Report on its’ Newspaper Next project. Touting itself as:

“The American Press Institute’s groundbreaking research into the new business models for the newspaper industry: New ways to see opportunities, produce sustainable growth and reshape organizations for consistent innovation”

it sets high expectations that in short, it does not fulfill, at least for all audiences.
Being a typical report aimed at “decision makers” and “senior executives” it tries to get its message through by repetition of its arguments. The arguments itself are neither new nor surprising if you have an acquaintance with “that online business”.

Nevertheless, if you happen to work in the media industry, i recommend to read through the report (just to know what is inside) and then pass it on to the senior management of your company. It may help you to justify the natural processes you already have set up and to get the support of the senior management and official approval.

I don’t even try to summarize the nearly 100 pages, just some comments:

  • The real value of the report for me were the figures. I especially liked the “How ready for innovation are newspaper companies” on page 16 and the “Innovation process do’s and don’ts” figures on page 57.
  • I was wondering through the whole report why the report only promotes colloboration between newspapers in the area of advertising and not in reader oriented platforms. This puzzle was finally solved in the last section, revealing that this bias was more or less the result of a questionnaire answered by senior executives of newspaper companies.

IMHO you first have to build the ad places before you can sell the ads. The aspect that every web based solution, especially if it based on communities, social networking (insert your web2.0 buzzword bingo favorites here), is inherently multi-local, and the costs of setting it up for another local market are somewhat marginal is neglected.

I guess that the reason for that is that, although regional newspapers have almost always a local monopoly (at least in germany) there are fears of strengthening the competition.

A solution to this dilemma may be that the national news agencies as the “traditional” providers of shared infrastructure step in as a trusted third party.

  • Interestingly, the team members of the seven newspaper next demonstration projects described in section 4 did not include any member with a technical background (At least by looking at their job titles). This is in contrast to the typical staffing of startup companies. A technical background helps to scout new technologies and come up with new and fresh ideas how to use them in a newspaper context. It als helps to distinguish the “invest a little” from the “invest a lot” ideas.