Text and Ideas: A blog about ideas and innovations in journalism
Nick R. Martin

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Great idea: Video trailers to promote investigative projects
January 26, 2008

Jean Yung, a masters student at the USC Annenberg School, wrote a great feature for Online Journalism Review this week about newspapers creating movie-like trailers and posting them on YouTube to promote their investigative projects. The Dallas Morning News has done this a couple times, most recently for a project about murderers given probation instead of prison. It's called "Unequal Justice." The video trailer is edgy and emotional and is a great way to hook readers and viewers. I'm posting it below. The newspaper used footage from videos already shot for the multimedia project and cut it into a two-minute short, complete with music and text. Then, the people involved in the project used their own social networks to send the video out, including posting it to their Facebook accounts.

The downside for the paper was the inability to easily track how many users actually clicked over to the project on DallasNews.com after watching the YouTube video, deputy managing editor Anthony Moor told OJR. YouTube shows the trailer has only been watched a few hundred times. "It’s not a lot," Moor said. "I’m not going to say that this is a breakout way to reach the audience, but we have to do things like this."

Indeed, this shows the potential newspapers have to reach out to people in different ways. If the paper's marketing department was able to pay for that video to become a flash ad on websites dealing with justice issues, or if the newspaper reporters and editors worked hard to spread it to a wider social network, the video could pull in thousands of extra readers, many who wouldn't have seen the project otherwise.


Why NYT text messages don't work
January 25, 2008

The New York Times launched a service today that sends text messages with the latest headlines from its various sections and columnists to your cell phone. Here's the thing: It doesn't work.

First, let me say I'm glad the Times is experimenting with this kind of technology. The technical folks in journalism figured out long ago how to make news websites available for any cell phone that has internet access. They dealt with the challenge cell phones present: small screens and limited buttons. They made news available to anybody with the time and money to surf on their cell.

But what most news outlets still haven't figured out is how to get the news to those of us who have cell phones, but can't pay the high cost of accessing the web by phone. (My current plan allows me to access it for the outrageous fee of $5 a month plus air time, too much for a poor journalist to pay.) The Times is trying to solve that problem. A press release from the company says the new service is available for "any type of cell phone or PDA." It quotes NYTimes.com vice president Rob Larson as saying it's meant to make the "quality news and information" of the paper available to readers "wherever they may be." And get this: for free.

The service is pretty similar to one that Google has all but perfected for getting movie times, driving directions, addresses, even dictionary definitions on the go. With the Times service, you send a text message with a keyword, depending on the stories you want to read, to a special six-digit number set up by the Times (698-698 for NYTNYT). Let's say you want the latest headlines from the Times' website. Send a text with the word "latest." If you want Nicholas Kristof's latest column, send "Kristof." It's pretty easy. Seconds later, you'll receive a few texts in return, each with its own headline, and each with the option of reading the story.

Here's where the trouble starts. In my test, I asked to be sent the latest headlines. I first received three, but had the option of being sent a couple more by replying with the letter "m". Two more came when I did that. So now I had five different texts, each with a headline: one about the economy, one about a bombing in Mosul, one about John Edwards, and a couple others. I bit on the politics headline, "Edwards Criticizes Opponents in South Carolina." It was the fourth text I received, and so, to read the story, it asked me to reply to the text with simply the number "4" in the message. Here's what I got in return:

NYT: John Edwards told voters on the day before the primary in South Carolina that he is the only candidate who will re...
More: http://s.nyt.com/s/HE79e7
No joke. That's what the message said, ellipses, web address and all. It gave me no useful information, really. The full story, should you go to the website and find it, says Edwards told voters in S.C., he's the only one "who will represent their interests in the White House." Wouldn't that have been nice to know in the text message?

The problem is obvious. The Times ran out of room. With only 160 characters to work with in a typical text, it may be impossible to get the news, context and insight readers of the Times expect squeezed into a single text message. The Times needs to recognize the limitations of the text message. The headlines work. And those alone, if written well, can provide information and drive people to the website to get the full story. CNN has been doing this for years with text alerts. Through my carrier, I can sign up for free breaking news text alerts from CNN. I've been using the service for years. CNN only sends out a message when the news is really big, like John McCain winning the Republican South Carolina primary, or the news I received this week:

CNN BREAKING Actor Heath Ledger has been found dead in a Manhattan apartment, New York police tell CNN.
It's short, and it gives me the news. It's a little tabloidish, but what do I care? If I want to know more, I can obviously tune into CNN or go to its website. Or I can read the story on the front page of the New York Times the next day. CNN is a company that already understands the limitations, as well as the potential of a text message. Hopefully the Times can adapt to do the same.


Former Strib editor: More editors will depart soon
January 22, 2008

I got an e-mail this morning from Tim McGuire, the former editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, pointing me to the most-recent entry on his blog. The subject on the e-mail was, "A plea for sanity." It said little else, but included the link to his blog, which, by the way, you'll see is prominently featured on my site under the "Other sites" list.

I'll get to the content of his blog entry shortly, but first, some of McGuire's credentials. Tim is the former president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors. During his decade as editor of the Strib, he was also the paper's senior vice president. Before that, he was the newspaper's managing editor. He has also been a nationally syndicated columnist, writing about ethics and spirituality in the workplace. Currently, he holds the chair for the business of journalism at Arizona State University, which is where I met him a little more than a year ago while taking a journalism ethics class there.

The point of reciting his background is to make this point: When McGuire sends an e-mail pleading for sanity in the news business, it's time to pay attention.

The plea comes just days after news that the editor of the Los Angeles Times, Jim O'Shea, is leaving the paper after just 14 months on the job. It's still not clear whether he was forced to quit, fired, or is leaving out of protest, but one thing is clear: It was about cuts to the newsroom. Seen as a company man, it was surprising to learn O'Shea stood up against those newsroom cuts and butted heads with the newspaper's publisher.

"You read it here first," McGuire writes. "More editors are going to bite the newsprint dust in coming weeks and months, and many publishers are going to celebrate the demise of the 'impractical' editor because publishers are focused on the cost/profit debate."

At the same time, though, McGuire asks the news industry to keep looking at the deeper business debate. "Don't let it get simplistic," he writes. "Real leaders have to step into the fray and declare a unified mission that includes profit, top-line growth and enhancing the core mission of informing and entertaining readers."

I'll let you read the rest in McGuire's own words.

Editor's note: I've been short on blogs lately, but am trying to remedy that. Thanks for your patience.


Iowa caucus coverage from Google
January 3, 2008

Last year was the year of the YouTube debates. Maybe this is the year of the Google primaries. Starting tonight, Google will have real-time results of the Iowa caucuses posted on an interactive map. On its blog, the company is declaring is promoting tonight's coverage as a "front-row seat" to the elections.

As well, Google-owned YouTube has partnered with the Gannett-owned Des Moines Register to ask people to submit their own videos to a special channel devoted to tonight's event. (As of 9:45 MST this morning, there were 184 videos posted.) Given all the talk about how search engines make lots of money off of simply aggregating the work done by struggling media companies, this is an interesting partnership and effort to bring original content to the masses.


Can journalists survive on clicks alone?
January 1, 2008

Given the state of the news business, there seems to be two realistic models for financing journalism. One is to open shop as a nonprofit, relying on donors and foundations who give big chunks of money to pay for equipment, salaries and the resources needed for quality reporting. The other is to turn every story, every photo and every graphic into a commodity, with journalists earning a cut of the money their work generates through page clicks and ads.

Today, word is spreading that Gawker Media, which employs numerous professional bloggers, will drive full-speed down the second path. Writers will get paid based on how many times per month their work is viewed. For example, if a blogger breaks an exclusive story and 100,000 people click on it, he could make $500, depending on the rate he and Gawker agreed on. Bloggers will no longer get paid for every entry they post, as they did previously, but for how popular those entries are.

The theory, as laid out in a company memo by Gawker heads Noah Robischon and Nick Denton, is that writers will be forced to focus on quality of their writing and reporting, rather than shoveling content onto the web. The goal is to appeal to the widest readership possible, they write. "Where there was a shortage of attitude and commentary, there's now a surfeit," says the Dec. 31 memo. "And what's in heavy demand, and short supply, is linkworthy material, by which I mean a secret memo, a spy photo, a chart, a well-argued rant, a list, an exclusive piece of news, a well-packaged find."

On the surface, the logic is good; the system encourages journalists to give readers what readers want. But as some critics point out, popular journalism doesn't necessarily equal good journalism. In a November commentary on MarketWatch, columnist John Friedman wrote a piece titled, "Please! Abolish the Web's evil page-view count," in which he argues that media websites should get rid of lists that show which stories are read or commented on most often. "The worst aspect to these lists is the fear that journalists, trying to win favor with their business- conscious editors, will lower their standards and write top-40 stories instead of pieces with actual depth," Friedman writes. He worries, too, that editors who want to increase their online readership or page views will shy away from hard news, which make an impact without being well read, and lean toward salacious and gossipy stories. This is a business model that essentially tears down the wall traditionally built between the money side of journalism and editorial.

In the cases of Gawker websites like Wonkette, Defamer and Valleywag, which are all devoted to salaciousness and gossip in their own way, the system will likely do what the company leaders intend: allow bloggers to get good, juicy, big-hitting scoops more often. In the cases of high-minded organizations like MarketWatch, the New York Times and Time Magazine, however, the results of this path might not turn out so well.


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