The most important problem with Facebook as a news outlet

Written by Michael on April 11th, 2014

Facebook automatically chooses which posts to distribute based on how many people react to it.

Today, for one of my gigs, I posted two regional news stories of national significance for our audience. One of the posts was about bad news:

bad story

The other was about good news:

good story



Should nonprofit news operations pay development officers on commission?

Written by Michael on January 19th, 2012

marianne woodruffThere’s a fine line between philanthropy and sales.

But why?

Several times at tonight’s terrific kickoff of Portland’s new Online News Association chapter, guest speaker Mark Briggs quoted a variation on the line: "nonprofit isn’t a business model; it’s a tax status."

If that’s not a cliché yet, let’s hope it will be soon. It’s certainly true.

Nonprofit news companies are just businesses with a little extra flexibility over here and a little less over there. But as Oregon Public Broadcasting’s Toni Tabora-Roberts said after Briggs’ talk, the country’s most successful models of nonprofit local news – NPR, PBS and their affiliates – consider it unethical to compensate their "development" staff based on the size of the sponsorships they bring in.

I know bupkis about fundraising, let alone public broadcasting. But I know an assumption worth questioning when I see one.

There’s more »


Why the top 12 best words to put in your headlines will unlock the secret to your future

Written by Michael on December 13th, 2011

I think, based on the accompanying video, Matt Thompson pulled this list of the “12 most interesting headline words” out of his proverbial ass. Whatever. In Thompson’s case, that’s regularly enough to make it gold.

  1. Top
  2. Why
  3. How
  4. Will
  5. Guide
  6. Best
  7. Secret
  8. Ultimate
  9. Your
  10. Worst
  11. New
  12. Future

Here’s a link to Thompson’s slideshow, titled “Dark secrets of the online overlords.” Like so many of the arguments I’ve found most persuasive in the last few years, much of this one consists of repeated examples of ways we should all do what Nick Denton is doing.

(via NiemanLab)


Very small advertising opportunities are literally not worth advertisers’ time

Written by Michael on November 28th, 2011

…it doesn’t matter how clever the opportunities are.

This is a simple point about the economics of local advertising, but it’s very important. I wish I’d understood it two years ago.

When I started a publishing business, I was told that you should generally not sell ad contracts for less than $100. At the time, I thought that was because ad salespeople priced their time more highly than I was willing to, and that I could bootstrap my way up by underpricing my time, like any respectable scab.

But here’s the thing: My time is only half of what’s at stake. The actual reason you shouldn’t sell for less than $100 is that if your product is worth less than $100, it will not be rational for advertisers to spend time buying your product.

I’m talking about the time required to evaluate an advertising opportunity, to run it past business partners, to obtain and transmit the graphical files, to settle on the message, to write the copy. These tasks sound piddly because they are. They’re obnoxious and time-consuming. That means that no business owner is going to do them unless there’s more than $100 in value at stake.

It doesn’t matter if the advertiser has no affordable alternatives. It doesn’t matter how great your product is. You know your product is great, but your advertiser doesn’t, and your advertisers have the right to evaluate your product. If you’ve designed a product that is so small that evaluating its worth is a losing proposition, then you have just deprived your advertiser of his or her rights.

Now, I’m not arguing that you should overprice your product. I’m arguing that you should make a product that’s worth a decent price.

Simply thinking smaller than everybody else isn’t going to work.

(Creative Commons stopwatch photo by purplemattfish.)


The difference between topical journalism and advocacy

Written by Michael on August 8th, 2011

Advocates give a shit. Journalists can’t afford to.

As the editor of a topical startup, I’m easily mistaken for an advocate on behalf of my audience. It’s true, there’s a strong resemblance: like an advocate, I start my day with the assumption that my audience deserves happiness and prosperity.

But this is the same assumption that starts the day for every media outlet in the world.

Here’s the difference between advocacy and journalism: Before doing anything, an advocate asks himself or herself: “What effect will this have?”

That’s the one question a journalist should almost never ask. There’s no quicker way to stifle an interesting or useful idea.


Why social networks are like early television

Written by Michael on July 1st, 2011

Newton MinowThe new limiting factor is time, right?

Using a social network isn’t rewarding until we invest time in it. More time, more reward.

What if social networks were TV channels circa 1948? The appearance of ABC doesn’t make me enjoy CBS or NBC less. But broadcast TV is capital intensive, so all 3 channels made money by delivering identical goods to a mass audience. Homogeny: road map to a vast wasteland.

Online social networks are built on a different type of capital — the aggregated time investments of their users. Google+, Twitter and Facebook are all trying to maximize that investment by offering identical functions to a general audience. User time investment has replaced airwave frequencies as the source of scarcity. The effect is homogeny.

“More time, more reward,” the cardinal rule of these early social media giants, is a broadcast mentality, even though the delivery system is digital.

This new ABC looks fine to me. But the next social networks that really matter — the ones that disrupt CBS and NBC rather than competing with them — will be the ones that figure out how to offer different sorts of rewards while demanding less capital from users: TNT, AMC, ESPN.


Two early lessons from a nonprofit’s first grant

Written by Michael on June 17th, 2011

The 72 bus near the 82nd Avenue MAX stopI’m sort of bursting with pride that the nonprofit I manage (which also, for that matter, publishes this blog) has landed its first private grant.

It’s small: just $5,000. We’re far from Success. But this is a success. It’s a start. And that, I’ve been learning, is the way nonprofits get built.

This situation is too new, and I’m too close to it, to draw many useful lessons from this. But here are a couple:

  • We teamed up. This wouldn’t have happened without the support of a partner. As I wrote last year, entrepreneurial journalists aren’t just picking a niche to serve their advertisers or their audience. They’re also doing it because every niche already has institutions in it. Blessedly, we’ve found several institutions that we admire and admire us back. One of them suggested this collaboration.
  • We aimed low. Last year, we applied unsuccessfully for a $25,000 startup grant from Knight. Though I sometimes dream about how easy this would have all been if we’d landed that, in retrospect I wouldn’t have awarded it to me, either. Whatever his journalism experience, an inexperienced business manager needs to learn to walk before he learns to run. Funders, I think, know this well.

By the way, this means we’re hiring.


The secret to survival

Written by Michael on May 18th, 2011

…is that you’re not going to. You can only have a lot of kids and hope one of them is the right one.

That’s probably the best point I managed to make about the news business at Saturday’s Digital Journalism Portland conference. It was an honor to share a panel with Robert Wagner of and Barry Johnson of Oregon Arts Watch, talking about quitting our day jobs to have entrepreneurial babies.

The talking doesn’t really start until 1:00; my first bit is at 2:20, but if you’re watching you shouldn’t miss Barry and Rob, who are much more experienced in this stuff than I am, or moderator Melissa Chavez of to-be-launched Sexistential Magazine, who did a ton of advance work that clearly paid off.

The conference is a project of the great Abraham Hyatt, with video provided by the skills of Dr. Normal and Eitan Tsur.


OFNT: Coming to a town near you (assuming you’re in Oregon)

Written by Michael on April 30th, 2011

road trip by Nicholas_TOld Forest New Trees is hitting the road.

Starting this summer, I’ll be leading a series of talks for the Oregon Humanities Conversation Project, a kick-ass initiative that sparks interesting cultural conversations around the state. Here’s the elevator pitch:

Two years after Clay Shirky predicted that "every town in this country of 500,000 or less" was likely to "sink into casual, endemic, civic corruption" fostered by the death of local newspapers, what’s the score? The continuing collapse of the media sequoias has created openings into which small-scale innovators, from MyEugene to BikePortland, are sprouting. But tomorrow’s news outlets, whose audiences and incentives are dramatically different than yesterday’s, will put new pressures on local civic culture.


"Old forest, new trees: Oregon’s new economics of local information" will use a hands-on exercise to explore the forces behind the shift from mass to niche media; sketch case studies from innovators around Oregon and the country; and highlight a key social problem faced by the new news media – the deep and growing asymmetry of information between rich and poor.

TOTALLY FUN, amirite? All my presentations, research and appearance schedule will be posted here on the blog, so expect to start hearing more around midsummer.

(Road-trip photo by Nicholas_T.)


Where are all the local-stock-photo services?

Written by Michael on April 26th, 2011

greententEvery local-news company needs stock photos from their coverage area. Every local-news company takes stock photos in their coverage area.

Somehow, nobody has figured how to give all of us an incentive to let each other use the stock photos we’re already taking.

A couple months back I failed to fully communicate this concept to a friend at The Oregonian. Here’s another attempt:

  • Any news organization, large or small, can add photos to the pool.
  • Anyone can buy photos from the pool a la carte, or pay for a long-term membership.
  • Photographers get a cut for each download.
  • Regular contributors get discounted memberships.
  • Marketing types could buy and use the photos, too – though they couldn’t contribute, because only documentary-style work could be uploaded.

There’s more »