People are looking for people

Written by Michael on April 21st, 2011

It’s an obvious rule of thumb: Journalists should be creating information that’s scarce. Some information is scarce because it just popped into existence.

That information is called news. It’s quite scarce and it’s very useful.

But news isn’t the only kind of scarce, useful information. Ever since the local wiki I manage started pulling in search traffic, I’ve noticed something pretty interesting: about 30 percent of our search traffic comes from people’s names.

We’re not talking about Britney Spears here. We’re talking about Patricia McCaig, a political aide to Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, and Ted Buehler, a bicycle safety activist. They aren’t boring; they’re just not at all famous. They’re the most interesting hand you shook at the church picnic. They’re people who make it happen (whatever it is) without talking to the press or keeping a website of their own.

They’re people people are looking for.

Check out this chart of the 110 most popular Google searches leading to in the last 60 days:

Thirty-seven of those, or 34 percent (marked in red), were searches for people’s names. (For visibility’s sake, the vertical axis is a log scale.) If you don’t count Portland Afoot’s #1 search phrase, which is just the name of the site, people’s names accounted for 30 percent of Google-driven visits, too.

It turns out that people are looking for people quite a lot.

And – especially on the local level, I suspect – people are scarce.

(Extremely clever photo by an unknown photographer.)


Happy birthday, Old Forest New Trees

Written by Michael on March 23rd, 2011

birthday cakeTurns out you turned 5 last week, kid. You had a different name back then, but it was you all along.

Go outside to celebrate. Throw a baseball in the air or something.

I’ll be watching from the window. I promise.

(Creative Commons birthday cake photo by Jeremy King.)


Why I don’t care about pageviews

Written by Michael on March 23rd, 2011

eyeballPageviews don’t make money. Brands make money.

I’ve been doing my own thing for exactly 11 months. This does not make me a moneymaking expert. But I’m as certain as I get that I’m right on this one.

First, two points of information:

  1. Yes, pageviews and uniques matter to advertisers. I’m saying they’re not the main decision driver.
  2. Yes, a few people make money on traffic alone, or something close to it. I’m saying that for those of us at content companies, as opposed to technology companies — which includes almost everybody here at the local level — traffic for traffic’s sake is a sucker’s game.

There’s more »


Why wikis can save local democracy

Written by Michael on March 6th, 2011

I’ve been away from OFNT while I spend time on the front lines, but I took some shore leave (or whatever) this weekend to give a short presentation and eat some collaboratively decorated cupcakes at yesterday’s delightful PortlandWiki barnraising, which also featured Brian Kerr of ArborWiki and Mark Dilley of AboutUs and WikiIndex.

Here’s a slightly improved version of the short presentation I gave. I’m an unusual advocate for wikis because I approach them primarily as a way to deliver information and only secondarily as a way to collaborate. I think this is a fairly good summary of the basic reason I chose a wiki as the main web component of Portland Afoot.


Does reading a magazine affect your behavior?

Written by Michael on October 10th, 2010

Lucky MagazineTo paraphrase the great Daniel Okrent, of course it does.

But I need evidence.

I’m about to spend a few days scouring the country for signs that, for example, receiving your college’s alumni magazine makes you more likely to donate to your college. That receiving a AAA magazine makes you more likely to remain a AAA member. That receiving Lucky makes you more likely to go shopping.

Obviously all these things are true. But from the calls I’ve made so far, I’m starting to worry that this research has never been done, at least by academics. After a string of calls to the MPA, MMC, and my own j-school, the only lead I’ve turned up is some evidence that taking the newspaper makes you more likely to vote.

Aha, just what the industry needs: more spinach.

Sponsored print distribution is one of the few models for journalism that seems steadfastly profitable. Wouldn’t it be nice if, in addition to research demonstrating the civic virtue of the jobs they used to have, journalism professors were doing more research testing the commercial value of new ideas? If you happen to know of any who have, drop me a line.


Going public

Written by Michael on February 9th, 2010

Not a lot public. But a little.

Lots of changes, and more on the way.


Why this isn’t a media revolution

Written by Michael on November 26th, 2009

Here’s one small thing I learned at Saturday’s We Make the Media conference: from now on I’m going to avoid describing shifts in the journalism market as a “revolution.”

Not because it’s adversarial. Because it’s a false promise.

Revolutions replace the institutions they destroy. And revolutions end.

There’s more »


Nonprofiteers are capitalists, too

Written by Michael on November 2nd, 2009

Jeff Jarvis has been pooh-poohing news that’s subsidized by governments or do-gooders:

I see another danger … that not-for-profit ventures will delay or even choke off for-profit, sustainable entrepreneurship in news. I would prefer to see various of the many funders who gave funds to not-for-profit endeavors – note $5 million give to a new not-for-profit entity in the Bay area – instead had invested in for-profit companies that can build companies that support and sustain themselves rather than rely on hand-outs. That is God’s work.

Jarvis intends this as a paean to capitalism. But he’s got a weirdly non-capitalist way of thinking about nonprofits.

Jarvis’s notion that nonprofits are an anomaly in the market system — and therefore less “sustainable” — forgets the fact that nonprofits produce goods and function within the market system like anybody else.

Sometimes they produce public services for governments. Sometimes they produce warm fuzzies for rich donors.

Wherever the money comes from, a successful nonprofit has found a market for whatever it’s producing. That’s God’s work, too.


Why a viral radio show owned the story of the financial crisis

Written by Michael on September 18th, 2009

From the most important essay about the news business I’ve read this year:

“Among the assumptions I wanted to test … was the idea that news consumers really are looking for context rather than merely the latest news. After all, during years of working in online newsrooms, I’d seen plenty of deep, contextual news packages ignored by our site users in favor of weather updates and crime reports.

“The financial crisis provided an early test of this assumption. At the time, news about the crisis was ubiquitous. All at once, every news organization was unearthing news about a different aspect of the meltdown—the collapse of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the role of the Community Reinvestment Act, the status of the bailout plan wending its way through Congress. Amidst all this news, would people choose context?

“The answer was yes. The breakthrough news item of the year wasn’t an investigation that yielded some hot new scoop, it was a piece of on-the-record explanatory reporting by ‘This American Life’ and National Public Radio that went wildly viral. ‘The Giant Pool of Money’ went on to become the most downloaded episode in the history of ‘This American Life,’ garnering the award trifecta of a duPont, Peabody and Polk for its producers. Many listeners said they’d been tuning out all those crisis-related headlines until they heard the episode. For them, ‘The Giant Pool of Money’ was like a decoder ring for this news story. And once you heard it, you wanted more.”


Talk is cheap, so be useful

Written by Michael on August 12th, 2009

Second in a series.

Here’s one of four core principles for today’s media market: these days, talk is cheap.

It’s a simple idea. Take a lesson from Uncle Buffett and his acolytes at Morningstar: your castle is only as good as its moat. If others can easily invade your market, it’s a bad business.

Expressing an interesting opinion is relatively easy. It requires intelligence and skill, but not a lot of work or time. Yesterday, therefore, it was doled out as a reward to people who had already put in lots of work and time.

There’s more »