What must SND become?

I am reposting here, with only a few edits for style, comments I posted in a heated thread about the recent resignations of the president and executive director of the Society for News Design. As background, my own long history with SND includes several years on its board of directors, putting on its 1996 annual workshop in Indianapolis, rebuilding and managing its Web site, and providing first-ever live Web reports from the annual competition judging at Syracuse.

These days, I serve no official role, but remain keenly interested in the society's future, as my comments describe:

Friends,

I begin to think why Matt [Mansfield, former president] resigned, and why Elise [Burroughs, departing executive director] is leaving, and why it takes so long to answer all the whys, all quickly become irrelevant questions. No time to waste here.

The only relevant question is: What must SND become not only to survive, but to remain relevant — and help journalism thrive in whatever form it takes in coming years.

Some thoughts, more from outside than in these days:

  1. SND must represent the brightest thinking focused on innovation in communicating the news. Typeface du jour? Web width of the month? Hell, no. Attracting and engaging news consumers and enabling communities around the news? Oh, yeah! Can SND honestly say it holds any industry leadership position there? Ask your publishers. Ask your interactive leaders. Hell, ask your editors. I don’t think the answer will be what you want to hear from any of them.
  2. SND needs about half the legislative overhead — and about twice the revenue streams to reinvest in Item 1 above. That means: smaller board, more functional/less celebratory annual workshops (I’m living proof they’re possible), less charity on pricing at the high end (veteran professionals) so it can offer more charity at the low end (students and newbies).
  3. SND needs to recognize that “being international” does not require the financial and emotional drain of spreading workshops around the world. Global chapters can and do hold their own events, and they’re much more cost effective than all the trade-offs the society endures to move the big event away from its largest membership base in North America. We have entered an age of instantaneous global communications at incredible fidelity. Important strategic messages, best practices and just plain great work can be shared easily without face-to-face. All the offshore workshops do is put a very expensive exclamation point on the sentence that says “international.” The media business can't afford to waste time or money that way.
  4. Headquarters needs to be either in academic or professional quarters, probably wherever the new executive director resides. Negotiate leases with the nearest journalism school or nearest newspaper, either of which nowadays is likely to have office space and shared services at bargain prices.
  5. The interactive training and competition are, well, OK. But interactive is headed in a profoundly different direction than Flash graphics. And again, SND has almost no voice among the interactive leadership of most media companies. You get that when you start focusing on holistic user experience: news, information, advertising, community, interactivity, data, and then visualizations. Remember that while SND regulars worry about elaborate feature page spreads, the world has turned the basic unit of communication into 140 characters of text (a tweet or social status message). How does SND apply to that?
  6. SND headquarters needs respectable Web content management, tied to a respectable CRM system for membership management, tied to an enterprise-grade database management system for the competition(s), events, job bank, portfolios, all the stuff that sat in lil' ol' FileMaker all those years. I know it too well — a lot of it still looks like guts of the stuff I built on the fly in, oh, 1997. And that scares me, too.
  7. Which leads me to: SND needs to pay better than a living wage to its exec and staff, because managing all that stuff and cat-herding the board, officers and members (admit it, this is the most vocal and emotional group you'd ever expect to have to manage, right?) — well, that commands a salary and bonus plan that will attract top talent.

All right, I'm done. I still pay for my membership. And I'll keep paying, I think, because I genuinely like the people behind SND and want to see it thrive again. But please hurry. And waste no more time than necessary airing the laundry.

Thanks for hearing me out.

Enough! Moving to Google Reader

Bloglines beta site remains down this morning, victim of an expired and apparently neglected security certificate. Meanwhile, “classic” Bloglines still exhibits the classic problems that led me to try the beta months ago:

  • Item refresh counts out of whack
  • Showing thousands of old items as new
  • Too many visits by the “Bloglines plumber” (outages)

No one seems to care, so I'm done. I exported my subscriptions as an OPML file and moved my Web feed reading habits to Google Reader. I had tried GR once before, and found it hard to get used to; however, today's interface has evolved to where it feels pretty natural to me coming off Bloglines.

Call me shocked, SHOCKED that any company could let its brand or its technology hang out on a limb so precariously as IAC has done with Bloglines — not just this week, but over several months or longer. Maybe this neglect just demonstrates how completely Twitter and social nets trumped RSS as a consumer service to keep up with Internet content, leaving Web feeds mostly as a behind-the-curtain syndication/aggregation system from site to site.

Another great new Bloglines beta feature!

Along with the impressively frequent “Loading…” and “There appears to be a server communication problem…” dialogs, the long-running beta of Bloglines sported a lean, mean new home page this morning.

I know installing and renewing SSL security certificates can be tedious and time-consuming; however, if you force your beta project traffic through an SSL connection you pretty much have to consider the certificate at or near Job 1.

I can still use “classic” Bloglines, which has no SSL requirement, but seems to sport many of the same reliability problems as the beta. Anyone have an RSS aggregator/reader suite you just love?

[Update (7:11 p.m. EDT, 6/2/09): The Bloglines beta remains down, but what really gets me is how little dialogue I'm seeing about it after more than 24 hours down. Just a handful of tweets, few if any blog posts, and no official posts I can find from Bloglines on the subject (not even on the “classic” version). Does Bloglines have so few users?]

Advertising as failure, or as caulk?

Jeff Jarvis discusses the notion of advertising as failure:

“The ideal relationship a company should have with its customer is that it produces a great product the customer loves and talks about and thus sells; there is no need for advertising there. It’s only in the case of failing at that idea that one needs to advertise.”

Go check out his post because he expands significantly on this idea in three video segments.

I see the logic, at least in cases with these characteristics:

  • A given company and its given product have existed long enough to develop any reputation, good or bad.
  • The product falls into a non-commodity category (fashion apparel, for example, vs. table salt).
  • Price is no object, or at least not a significant factor in demand.
  • The current and prospective customers for the company/product actively use capable, trusted communications methods.

Minus one or more of these characteristics, advertising would not necessarily suggest failure of the company to communicate, or failure of the product to endear itself with customers. Other factors come into play, enticing companies to advertise to fill seams and gaps (a la caulk) in word-of-mouth:

  • Maybe it's a new product. Word-of-mouth usually has to start with some kind of announcement, and maybe a little reach-and-frequency. Not every product grows its customer base successfully under an invitational test program that evolves into a five-year public beta.
  • Maybe it is table salt. How do you differentiate Morton's from store brand? Price? Brand awareness? Advertising commonly gets word out to support either differentiator. (Effectiveness, of course, is another matter.)
  • Maybe I'd love a Lexus, but my finances suggest I need to find the most capable car I can, with enough of the luxury characteristics I want, for a lot less money. Perhaps advertising persuades me to consider alternatives.
  • Maybe several of my friends own Hondas or Fords that I'd love almost as much as the Lexus, but they live far away, and for whatever reason, I never get that great testimonial from them.

In some of these cases, nothing really fails in a way that leads to the need for advertising — circumstances simply warrant it. In other cases, things outside the company's control fail. I agree with Jarvis that advertising bridges a gap companies should wish did not exist, and should strive to eliminate by all means: between them and their customers or prospective customers. I hope the conversation he kicked off will lead to many more ideas on how to do that, with or beyond advertising.

Link bucket: Just weeding and pruning

Links with enough dust on them to prove how far behind I became in reading and blogging:

Design and UX stuff

Media stuff

  • Jeff Jarvis and pay models: His takes on content micropayment ideas at WSJ.com and shifting content into “premium offerings” at MediaNews dot.coms. In my view, money first follows perception of value, then reality of value. In other words, people will put forth a little cash on the belief they're getting something they want or need, but won't renew that exchange if they don't see the value they expected. If true, that would suggest micropayments make more sense than pay-walled content gardens, because consumers buy only the unit they want, not the whole collection. Note I said “make more sense,” not “make a lot of sense.” Any paid content model on the Web presumes consumers perceive enough value to pay the first time, and realize enough value to pay again when asked. Speaking of pay models …
  • The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette a model for newspaper pay walls? Not really: In raw numbers, 3,400 subscribers at $59 a year equals $200,600 annually, and a poor proxy for a sustainable online business, given cost of content alone.
  • Annual Internet survey by Center for the Digital Future finds large increases in use of online newspapers: “Internet users read online newspapers for 53 minutes per week, the highest level thus far in the Digital Future studies. In contrast, Internet users in 2007 reported 41 minutes per week reading online newspapers.” Good news for local media, no doubt, but temper your enthusiasm by remembering that's time spent on all online newspapers, by consumers' definitions, not just on yours.
  • “Digital” media or “online” media?: Steve Outing asks and answers a semantic question. Though I don't lose much sleep over terminology anymore (alert colleagues reminded me I had a 1995 vocabulary moment in a recent meeting, referring to a “hot link.” How embarrassing!), I tend to apply “digital” to anything handled by bits, bytes and pixels, and “online” to anything pushed or pulled via the Internet. Just about everything online is digital, but not everything digital is online. Even much-maligned mass print production is a digital process almost all the way to the transfer of ink to paper.
  • John Temple: The last, best Rocky Mountain News editor (and former colleague at Scripps) transferred his blogging abilities to his own brand after the paper closed. As always, Temple's an idea machine and conscientious provocateur, as shown in two posts I bookmarked: “A new role for editors – tear down the walls” and “12 lessons for editors from the demise of the Rocky Mountain News.”
  • Poynter's Rick Edmonds ponders business models for online content: He worries that the “every-article's-its-own-brand” thinking expressed by Google execs puts local news organizations at a disadvantage vs. the search giant and others. And he considers the pros and cons of reducing print frequency while driving audience to the Web to fill the new gaps. I, for one, believe the “atomic article” concept may be inevitable — in fact, I'm astonished at how the basic unit of online communication has shrunk to 140 characters (a tweet) rather than grown into rich-media forms such as video. “Sites” just don't and won't matter as much as “articles” (which themselves won't always be defined just as text and images) in a social sphere where everything is teased with a few words and a shortened link. Steve Rubel expands on this notion in his post, “The end of the destination Web era.”
  • How can Google help newspapers? How about some SEO coaching?: Rory Maher at PaidContent says something I've said for years. Newspaper.coms shouldn't want an unfair advantage in Google's (or any other searcher's) massive indexes — just fair representation of their content when it is relevant to a user query. Google folks often say they are not in the search engine optimization business, but as long as search engine algorithms remain even partly proprietary, a shroud of mystery makes even the most legitimate SEO efforts largely guesswork.
  • Don't call the gravedigger – newspapers aren't dead (yet): GigaOm shares Brian McConnell's reminders of value propositions for the press. “A good rule of thumb in the technology industry or financial press … is that when everybody agrees with the same prediction it’s probably wrong.”
  • Retraining wire and feature editors to become Web curators: Scott Karp describes a new, sensible role focused on link journalism. He's riffing on a Steve Yelvington post explaining how certain editor roles in traditional news organizations have become obsolete.

Scripps' latest Web UX arrives today


Watch Evansville's courierpress.com site today — and not just for the likelihood of more severe weather in the southern Ohio Valley, though they get plenty.

No, I refer to a major site redesign; with it, a new user experience architecture. Barring unforeseen delays, it launches today. Update: It went live about 2 p.m. Eastern time.

Scripps followers know we shoot for continuous improvement of our Web architectures, and today's changes in Evansville begin an ambitious new cycle for us. Jim Michels, site leader there, announced the coming changes to site visitors and explained some of the improvements:

“You, the user, will have more ownership of the site. New 'pull-down' menus will help you navigate to find what you are looking for quicker.

“For instance, roll over 'News' with your mouse and you will see a host of links. Roll over 'The Gleaner' and you will find all the content from Henderson.

As you scroll down our new home page, you will see the site divided into groups of headlines organized by sections. There are sections for news, sports, opinions, events, etc.

One of the new features allows you to customize the site for what you want to read first. Let's say it's basketball season, and sports is most important to you. Simply click on the arrow on the 'sports' bar and move it up the page. You can change it anytime.

Scripps' user experience team, led by Herb Himes, also worked hard on subtleties such as relative scale of objects on the pages, readability of article text, background colors that let images stand out better, and both visual and functional cues to make navigation easier and more intuitive.

All this stuff still runs in our Ellington– and Django-based site management systems. I hope you will agree we've taken best advantage of those systems' capabilities and added a few new tricks of our own.

I'm writing this now because I probably will be on a plane when the team pulls the big lever to launch. I guess that's taking a bit of a chance, if the team runs into problems — but we feel pretty good about it. Wish us luck, please!

Nielsen: Low retention caps Twitter growth

I chatted up a piece of new analysis from Nielsen around the office a good bit today.

In the analysis, David Martin, vice president of primary research for Nielsen Online, described an uphill battle that Twitter, the oh-so-buzzy status network, may face growing Internet market share while its user retention rates languish around 40 percent.

“By plotting the minimum retention rates for different Internet audience sizes, it is clear that a retention rate of 40 percent will limit a site’s growth to about a 10 percent reach figure. To be clear, a high retention rate doesn’t guarantee a massive audience, but it is a prerequisite. There simply aren’t enough new users to make up for defecting ones after a certain point.”

OK, interesting take, though Peter Kafka observed that Nielsen's counts may miss a lot of Twitter traffic.

“The majority of Twitter use happens away from the site, on mobile phones and apps like Tweetdeck, and it’s theoretically possible to be an avid Twitterer but never visit Twitter.com after you sign up.”

Regardless of Twitter's prospects, I found myself more interested in Nielsen's plot of retention rates, and the regression analysis with it. (Rather than scrape the chart to show it here, please follow the link in the first paragraph to see it, the first of two charts, in its original context.)

That regression line shows a distinct curved-line correlation between Web site retention rates and Internet reach. Yes, common sense would tell you that a site that brings 'em running back at least every month stands a better chance of growing share than a site with logfiles full of drive-by visits and one-hit wonders. And the inverse makes sense, too: the largest, most far-reaching sites online today must have high numbers of frequent visitors.

But the plot shows retention and reach do not correlate in a straight line. Not until a site achieves more than, say, 50 percent retention can its proprietors hope to grow Internet reach much past 10 percent.

So I place that analysis in the context of a typical local media site, which by no stretch should make it to the top right side of Nielsen's plot as long as overall Internet reach is the x axis. If, however, the x axis were Internet reach confined to that site's local market area, shouldn't a good media site be high on that line?

Yes! If only it were true!

But we know, of course, most such sites instead fall somewhere south of 20 percent local market reach, when reach of any companion media (printed newspapers or broadcast outlets) is taken out. We also know that managers of most such sites wrestle incessantly with a traffic power law curve, especially an outsized “long tail” of infrequent visitors generating short sessions and low page counts.

Poor retention, in other words — just like the characteristics Nielsen attributes to Twitter traffic. To me, the similarity makes sense: The consumer value of a social-status service like Twitter resembles the value of “news” as a service. It is incidentally important, but not always important, and never all important to any one person. The intervals between incidents that you or I might deem important defy any prediction.

Does that mean we in local media should hope Twitter finds a great business model to capitalize on its traffic, since it so resembles ours? Hmm. Maybe. I find it easier (though not completely easy) to connect those dots than the ones between us and, say, Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Apple or eBay.

From America East: 'Engaging loyal readers'

I promised several folks I'd share the slides from my presentation Tuesday at America East in bucolic Hershey, Pa.

Done.

Update (10:28 a.m. ET 5/1/09): Apologies to anyone who tried to download the presentation up to now — I messed up a permission setting such that you could not see the link. It should be working now.

On unifying print, online organizations

I commend to you Steve Yelvington's detailed roundup of lessons learned and organizational advice from mergers of print-focused and online-focused content organizations. One of many key points:

“Done right, it's a big win. 'Convergence is, overall, a huge help to innovation,' said one online producer. A senior editor agreed: 'It's a monster plus. Convergence puts you in a position to succeed.' But, he continued, it only opens a door, and you have to walk through it. 'It doesn't guarantee success. That comes from leadership and teamwork. But it puts you in a far better position to head in one direction as a team.'

The dogpile of bad economic trends for newspapers may be the catalyst that induces convergence in our industry, rather than any brilliant strategic foresight. The reasons to do it no longer matter. Steve's post illustrates how convergence can improve performance, even if we can't all say we knew it from the start.