Monthly archive

May 2005 - page 3

Minor milestone

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PegsignFor all our talk of hard-nosed business concepts, we’re a bunch of softies here at Pegasus World Headquarters. That’s why I got a smidge verklempt when I arrived at work this morning to see that our office signage had been erected.

Bootstrapper office-related expenditures to date: $581.25

   
   
   
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Who says citizen journalism is boring?

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Steve Outing’s criticisms of the first wave of widely recognized commercial citizen journalism sites (there are others that have been under the larger radar screen for some time) came at a serendipitous time for me. Loyal readers will remember that a visit to a meeting of a group dedicated to eradicating crime and encouraging economic development in my neighborhood was a major stop on my Road to the Damascus of wedia. Tonight was the first time my schedule allowed me to return, notebook in hand, to verify that my first rich experience there was no fluke.

It was, apparently, a fluke after all, but not in the way I’d feared.

This one was far more interesting.

I came away with a dozen or so stories and story leads that even the most highfallutin’ old-media journalist would call "real news," at least to the folks in the 13-neighborhood area covered. No softball rotary fundraiser or fun-runs here. A couple of those stories could be widely interesting to people throughout Dallas.

I was there as a constituent of the organization, but not an insider. As a stakeholder, I clearly have a point of view on the things I heard and voted upon. But I was the only one there (other than the secretary) taking notes throughout the proceedings.

In the continuation, you’ll find a list of the items that I think would become news stories that we would "push" to readers in these neighborhoods. I’ll give as much detail as I can, and note where I intend to seek additional information to follow up. Discerning would-be reporters will see several additional angles that could be pursued on many of these.

Even if you’re not interested in these goings-on, the point is this: Real news happens in every neighborhood and on every block in our country (and the world). Those who think that neighborhood or citizen journalism is automatically soft and bland; who ghettoize it in a sanitized side section — are missing the boat.

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The business rules of wedia (part the first)

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It’s been a momentous week for what my pal Dan Michalski calls the New new new NEW Journalism — Backfence, YourHub and Neighbors all launched, showing the mainstream (or at least those in touch with the mainstream) are getting on the bandwagon. AP picked up that Craig Newmark is interested in news. Craig shared some good and cogent thoughts on same.

This led me to a weekend of soul-searching. (In fairness, it probably started midweek with this obscenely long and convoluted post.) With so much going on in this arena, what does our merry little band, still gathering data and raw materials have to contribute?

For better or worse, I’m an entrepreneur who looks at things from an operating perspective. We might have a great conceptual idea, but I’d never pitch it unless there was what I believed was a business model attached. That may be a liability, as some great ideas get launched and find their business model later.

But we’ve been studying this with an eye towards what would make a sizable scalable business — and our plan continues to evolve on that point. Through this exercise, I’ve come up with a set of broad rules for what we think will make such an enterprise fly. There’s lots of logistical shades of gray in there, but these would be the core business concepts:

The local/hyperlocal citizens news business should:

  • Provide the same or better quality, regularity and consistency as a traditional news business.
       
  • Put citizen journalists and professional journalists in the same environment, playing by the same rules, and with the same level of respect. The only differentiator should be that the one is performing journalism as a career; the other as an interest. And that one differentiator should be transparent, but not distracting.
       
  • Give the customer the same or fewer distinct sources to have to read on a daily basis as before you existed. Every click or separate print edition is an additional source.
       
  • Make it easier for the customer to find both what they’re looking for and also for those serendipitous discoveries that unexpectedly draw them closer to their community.
       
  • Provide content in the format that is most convenient for the customer, not for most convenient for you.
       
  • Reliably provide every customer something new of interest multiple times per day.
       
  • Realize that the customer, not the editor, decides what is news to them. Report on a big sale (that is really a big sale, and not a marketing ploy) with the same level of care as a triple homicide or mayoral election.
       
  • Primarily create content that wouldn’t exist if your business didn’t.
       
  • Deliver content that your customers need, whether you created it or not. And don’t waste resources recreating something just to be proprietary about it.
       
  • Help customers create and distribute content that they’re passionate about. Help connect them to an audience. Pay people to produce content that is important to the community but is either too resource-intensive or unsexy for it to be created out of pure passion.
       
  • Don’t edit, which implies keeping items out of play. But don’t use that as a cynical excuse to be neglectful of quality. Curate. Help customers find what they want and need. Make them heroes. Help them kick ass.
       
  • Provide fewer, more relevant ads. Be big enough that you can provide ads relevant to any customer. Do such a good job that the customers think of the ads as content.
       
  • Do all of the above, reliably, all day every day.
       
  • Make a realistic, but impressive profit margin.

That’s the strawman as of today. I’m sure we’ll add to it. I’m fairly sure that we won’t delete. But the rest, as they say, is just details.

I don’t know of any news company or product out there that covers all these bases yet. But that’s what we’re going to try to do.


UPDATE: Steve Outing has some thoughts akin.

Behind the curtain: Customer service

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When you’re starting a new business and opening an office, you become acutely aware of which vendors make life easier for you and which don’t. SBC, for instance, made our lives hard by refusing to recognize our address as extant for our DSL order when they were able to do so for our phone lines. Their field technician further compounded the problem by refusing to call us on our cells (as instructed by a sign) when we left for ten minutes out of our 8-hour service window to get lunch.

Conversely, my favorite example of meeting customer expectations came from Bank of America today. Someone in our had given UPS bad information when they tried to deliver our checks from BofA, telling them we were moving out rather than in. So, they had sent back our checks to BofA, who destroyed them as a security measure. I asked the customer service rep if the rushed reorder was going to cost us any extra:

"No," he said, "unless you want it to cost you extra. We could accomodate that."

You’ll never go broke if you always meet customer expectations.

Who are the people in your neighborhood?

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I’m sure there’s some sort of clinical name for this syndrome — You can take it to the bank that within twenty-four hours of one of my "I’m not writing any more about Belo" posts, I’ll reliably deliver an extended post on the doings at Our Daily Newspaper.

Since the DMN launched its new Neighbors initiative, several well-meaning friends have offered condolences, thinking that this surely this bodes ill for Our Little Project.

To the contrary, we’re not the least bit surprised that the DMN would launch a suburban and zoned newspaper initiative. (E&P needs to clarify its county lines.) Anyone who’s spent more than twenty minutes reading industry commentary would realize that there is a need to get more local.

But to be clear, this isn’t neighborhood news. Neither, frankly, is Backfence. Carrollton is not a neighborhood. Lewisville-Flower Mound-Highland Village is certainly not a neighborhood. (New rule: if it ain’t Haight-Ashbury and it has a hyphen, it ain’t a neighborhood.) Reston’s not a neigborhood  either. Neighnorhood news and suburban news (and certainly aggregated amalgam of suburb news) are two different things. That distinction isn’t a pergorative — it’s a qualifier.

So my strawman argument (which we’re going to prove or disprove with our research) goes something like this:

There is a demi-Maslowian hierarchy of "news needs." For this particualr hierarchy, let’s define news as anything that an individual wants to know about on a regular, repeating basis. That can be breaking news, sports, music, and even commercial specials.

Hierarchy_3

In the strawman diagram above, the needs in blue are pretty well covered by existing media (or in the case of the first, talking around the dinner table). The orange needs are covered, but disparately.

Now here’s the cinch: Just as no one goes around thinking about self-actualizing all the time, people don’t think about going to multiple sources to fill these needs every day. Increasingly, both because of increased signal and noise, there are an exhilaratingly overwhelming number of media choices, and any that supply noise are likely to be pitched like an unwanted free newspaper.

As long as hyperlocal news has to be a conscious "also-read," I don’t believe it will ever gain the critical mass necessary to build a sizable business. I need to be able to go to one place and reliably get the major national headlines; the wide-area local news; information about my local niche interests; and my neighborhood. It doesn’t matter so much the original source of the data as it does the ease of access. It doesn’t matter so much the primary medium as it does that its deliverable to whatever device I happen to have in my hand right now.

What this argues for (admittedly circularly, if you’re reading our business plan), is a digital news source that feeds you what you’re interested in without you having to go looking for it every day. On a local and hyperlocal level, that means generating content; on all the other levels, it means helping you find what you’re looking for quickly, whatever the source and whatever your currently desired medium (website, email, wireless, etc). For the larger mass of users, it means being able to achieve a high level of customization implicitly, for those who aren’t going to take the time to fill out a form.

Of course, a community outlet that really kicks ass will help its users climb the Maslowian pyramid, by enabling their contributions to the conversation. And it has to have the same, if not greater, respect for user contributions that it does for staff contributions — otherwise it doesn’t come across as a conversation, but as a cynical attempt to create a product without spending money on editorial.

Don’t get me wrong — I think that Neighbors, Backfence and others are steps in the right direction. And I don’t kid myself that what we’re proposing isn’t an ambitious quantum leap. It takes people and technology and a critical mass of readers to make it all work. That’s what we hope to do.

First, we have to prove/tweak this theory with research. And part of that will be reader impressions of local products available to them. In that, Neighbors will certainly give us some additional data points.


UPDATE: Fred Wilson has some not too dissimilar thoughts in reaction to Backfence and the 101’s.

UPDATE 2: Jay Small has some sensible thoughts along similar lines.

UPDATE 3: YourHub is up, with many of the same strengths and weaknesses.

You kick ass

in Uncategorized

Kathy Sierra hits the nail on the head again: Users don’t care if you’re the best.

On Saturday night, April wanted to go have dinner somewhere nearby where we could sit outside and listen to good live music between 7:00 and 9:00. I went to local internet sources.

They did not make me feel like I was kicking ass.
 
 
   
 

Defining blogs

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Andy Lark has a great post contrasting blogs with the "traditional" web:

Web = Cold                     Blogosphere = Warmth
Web = Transmission       Blogosphere = Conversation
Web = Place                    Blogosphere = Community
Web = Anonymous          Blogosphere = Personal
Web = Company              Blogosphere = People
Web = Content                Blogosphere = Expression
Web = Cookie Cutter      Blogosphere = Individual
Web = Closed                  Blogosphere = Participatory
Web = Unresponsive       Blogosphere = Gives thanks….

To that I’d add:

Web = Organized                            Blogosphere = Chaotic
Web = Predictable                          Blogosphere = Unpredictable
Web = Find                                    Blogosphere = Browse
Web = Comprehensively shallow        Blogosphere = Incompletely deep
Web = Broad                                   Blogosphere = Niche

We’re hoping to find the intersection point in that venn diagram.

Belly up to the Backfence

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Speaking of doing as opposed to talking, it seems like just yesterday that Backfence was "coming out of the closet" as a result of our early publicity.

Now they’ve launched a fine-looking site. Congratulations to Mark Potts, et al.

I’ll confess that I’m a wee bit envious — we still have a lot of work to do before we get to the ribbon cutting. We’re excited to see what Backfence learns in these early days. Our models are substantially different, but we’ve got a lot of the same core principles. If they, we and a bunch of others can learn from each others’ execution, I’m convinced that an entirely new category of media will be born.

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