Thursday, March 12, 2009

News aggregators be wary: as newspaper close, so too does free content.

In recent days, just as the Rocky Mountain News announced it's closure, a few newspapers around the country announced a fundamental change in business: charging for online content.
On Feb. 26, Thomas Rutledge, chief operating officer of Cablevision, the corporate owner of Long Island's Newsday, announced that the firm would "end distribution of free web content," according to a Cablevision conference call transcript.
Likewise, on Feb. 27, according to a Wall Street Journal report the newspaper publisher Hearst announced plans to start charging for some of it's content. Hearst owns 16 daily newspapers, including the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Houston Chronicle, and the Albany Times Union.
Those events may be just the latest signs of an industry realizing that it must—MUST—stop giving away information for free.
A move away from free content has also been highlighted recently by a number lawsuits accusing news organizations of copyright infringement, as highlighted in a March 2 New York Times article called "Copyright Challenge for Sites That Excerpt."
According to the article, late last year in which Gatehouse Media, which owns 92 daily newspapers, accused The Boston Globe, owned by The New York Times, of copying headlines and lead sentences from Gatehouse newspapers.
Another such case involves The Associated Press, which accused All Headline News, an online news distributor, of copying A.P. stories.
Such legal cases are a byproduct of the state of online news, where free content and free publishing has sparked a boom of news aggregators—the websites, blogs, and quasi-news sites like The Huffington Post and the Drudge Report who specialize in distributing other's news stories. More and more, even traditional news organizations like Globe and the Times are engaged in aggregating.
When done legally, aggregating—also called scraping—is the process of posting a link to a story on another website, and perhaps a small excerpt from the story, according to the March 2 Times article.
In the past, many news organizations didn't fight aggregators because they drove traffic to the news organization's website. According to the Times article, however, media executives are growing concerned that aggregators are stealing too many potential readers, and profiting in the process.
According to the Times as a result, "some publishers are second-guessing their liberal attitude toward free content."
Those forces, as well as declining print revenue, said the Times, is leading major publishers like Heart and Cablevision and others to consider charging for content.
There might be two possible outcomes to the experiment to sell online news content. It could succeed, and news would no longer be free. Or it could fail, and with it so too might the news organization itself.
Neither of those scenarios are good news for aggregators—both mean that free information in the coming years may be much more difficult to come by.
It could be an example of the parasite killing the host.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Good Start to the Day

The water this morning around mile marker 28 of A1A in the Florida Keys was about how you would picture it in a dream: a mix of turquoise and green water cut by deep channels of dark blue. And the sky above was blue, but with but a few light clouds for contrast. I was there this morning at about 10 a.m., a little hyped by two cups of coffee, skimming happily over the flat water at 30 knots in a 20-foot skiff with a grin and the no particular destination because it's always the journey that's the best part.
I was out by myself and had left early because today was my last day on this trip to the keys and I wanted to squeeze in just a little more boat time. I came down from Washington, D.C. just four days earlier on a Friday night flight that got in late, after which I drove the hundred and fifty or so miles to Little Torch Key, 28 miles north of the end of the road.
And for the next few days—Saturday, Sunday, and Monday—I engaged in the activity that simply makes me happier than anything else on this earth: boating on salt water. I love it because the ocean is part of me and I was brought up on it and when I am near the water—particularly when I am upon it—I just feel better and the world seems like a lot more of a suitable place. Salt water is mysterious and comforting and always moving but always there waiting to welcome me back. And I always come.
And as I skimmed across the shallows this morning, the little boat on plane, the outboard engine trimmed nicely and humming, I thought how I do love this activity, and how I always will love it, and how if I had to describe myself to someone, I would start right here.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Power of the Pen

Taxi Cab Learning

Last night I had a bit of an awakening, or, you could say, I came to a realization. And it came from a source that always seems to give good advice: a taxi cab driver.

Cab drivers are usually very smart guys: they are in the car all day either listeningto the radio of talking to passengers, hearing other people's stories. Cab drivers--at least in the Washington-area--are also usually immigrants. And being an immigrant, is a life experience that imparts a great deal of knowledge about the world. Not only do immigrants have an experience outside of this country, they also, with few exceptions, come from a country with greater hardships than the United States. They are smarter than you think.

"Where to?" the driver asked me as I sank into the worn back seat of his well-used Ford Crown Vic.

"Tulula," I said. That's the name of a bar and restaurant not too far from my house.

"That's it?" the driver replied. He was hoping for a better fare than the six dollars I'd give him for the one mile trip.

"Sorry, man," I told him. "But that's as far as I can afford to go." I have a habit of telling cab drivers lots of information about myself, so I didn't hesitate to tell him that the economy has me in a vice, and I can't really afford long taxi drives, let alone expensive dinners or high bar tabs.

I then told the driver that I was a writer and I was looking for work. That started a discussion about the power of the pen.

He told me, "It's stronger than the gun. You can do anything with that. Convincing people is a powerful."

I guess I had never thought about writing in that light before, especially with the declining state of the journalism industry, where paying for words has become antique and where newspapers are laying-off journalists by the bucketful.

But hearing it from a cab driver made sense to me. He was right--the pen is a powerful tool. The pen can topple governments, create uprisings, literally change the world. But it has other, less radical, purposes too. Being able to tell a good story has the power to turn ears, to entertain, to attract. Telling a good story with words isn't something that everyone can do, but everyone likes a good story.

I was inspired by that driver.

"Turn around," I told him. "Take me home. I want to write."

"No," he said. "Go out and see the world and see what happens. Then come back and put it on paper."

"OK, I will."

The cab squealed to a halt in front of Tulula and I handed my new friend six dollars.
"Don't Call Attention to it! Or, Let's Tell the Whole World:" Media Coverage of Media Irrelevance.

Jon Hemmerdinger
February 21, 2009

You might think mainstream media outlets would avoid highlighting their own demise. Why call attention to your own dwindling relevance?

But more and more, the media seem to cover the very changes that threaten their lives: the forces of citizen journalism and the decline of city newspapers.

The prevalence of citizen journalism is witnessed every time major news breaks. It happened in the November terrorist attacks in Mumbai, when hostages sent twitter messages of the ordeal.
Twitter users are also said to have broken the story of the US Airways flight that glided into the Hudson River.

"There's a plane in the Hudson. I'm on the ferry going to pick up the people. Crazy," tweeted one witness from a ferry boat on the scene.

Most recently, citizen journalist Anthony Trigilio posted online video on YouTube of the fire and mayhem following the crash of Continental flight 3407, which plummeted from the skies above Buffalo on Feb. 12.

But as citizen journalism has grown, so too has the mainstream media's coverage of the phenomenon.

The twittering Mumbai news breakers were highlighted in the Dec. 2 Los Angeles Times piece, "Mumbai news fished from Twitter’s rapids," by David Sarno. "Once a way for friends to keep each other updated on daily routines," writes Sarno, "Twitter is now looking more like a legitimate medium for short bits of information."

In a Jan. 16 blog called "Can a Tweet be a Scoop?" The New York Times called attention to the twitter-user who was among the first to make known the U.S. Airways crash.

And shortly after the Buffalo crash, the Buffalo News posted a story on it's website called YouTube and the Crash, in which a Buffalo News reporter interviewed Trigilio about his experience as a citizen journalist.

"Everybody seems to have their own little onsite-reporter-thing going on," Trigilio said.
It seems the mainstream media is covering the very forces that have caused the industry so much heartache in recent years.

There are other examples.

In a Feb. 11 article in The Wall Street Journal titled, "Why You Don't Want to Die on a Sunday in Detroit," Jeffery Zaslow examines how Detroit may be affected when the Detroit Free Press and the Detroit News reduce home delivery of the newspaper to three days a week next month.

Here's another similar recent example. On Feb. 5, NPR ran a story called, "Imagining a City Without It's Daily Newspaper," which looks at how a city—Hartford, Conn. and the Hartford Courant are the examples used—would be affected if the city's daily newspaper ceases operations altogether.

And though the NPR story makes a good point of telling why newspapers are important to society, the story doesn't hide from the fact that newspapers are in decline. The first graph reads: "Financial analysts say they expect some big dailies to fold, perhaps as soon as this year."

But though it may seem odd for the media to cover it's own problems, maybe this is a good sign for the industry; perhaps these are examples of the media beginning to accept the changing world of the news. Maybe that's first step to adapting.

Or, maybe it's reverse-psychology: stories about dwindling relevance might actually prove that traditions news companies are more relevant than we think.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Path to Becoming a Journalist. Part 1

I just had this wonderful idea that I would catalog the journey that I have taken from a job in human resources sales to that of professional journalist. The only problem is that my journey started over a full year ago, so I have missed-out on reporting all of the interesting and crazy and scary things that have happened to me in the last 14 months. I won't try to recap it all, but i will provide just an outline of the last year, both for the selfish reason that I want a record of it and just in case anyone else might want to read it (though I doubt it).

I've always been a writer. I've always been a writer. I've ALWAYS been a writer. I was a writer when I was barely able to write the entire alphabet. I used to scribble stories in pencil on those wide-ruled pages that they gave kindergartners to teach them how to write letters. I remember one story was about big, mean, dragon-like creature that crept into little boys bedrooms in the dark of night to scare them. Funny a kid's imagination.

I continued to write all through middle school and through high school, where I actually wrote a really good poem called "Evening Watch," which I am still crazy about and which still pretty much expresses most of the emotions that define me.

But that's not what I am writing about. I am writing about writing, and the poem that I wrote in high school was some damn good writing, and for that I was proud.

I wrote all through college, too. Got a degree in history and creative writing, and promptly got a job in sales.

Seven years later I decided it was no use hiding from the fact that I was and always will be a writer. But how does one get into writing? I had barely picked up my pen in years, with the exception of a few brier periods of creativity. I didn't know where to start, and how someone could make a transition from sales to making money at writing. I knew how to write, but the business was just so alien.

I enrolled at Georgetown University in the fall of 2008 at the age of 30. In January of 2009, I started classes, exactly one week since having knee surgery. It was snowing that first day of class, and I was hobbling through slush on crutches, wincing in pain, with a metal brace on my leg. I made my way up to the doors of Walsh Hall, which is just across the street from the basement bar, The Tombs. I took the elavator to the third floor, and found my first class: Covering Other Cultures.