Friday, December 23, 2005

Endings and beginnings

More than two decades ago I took my first job in B2B media, working as an editor for Traffic World magazine. And I was delighted to find that the weekly magazine didn't publish between Christmas and New Year's Day.
To a guy from the newspaper world, this was quite a surprise. I had an extra week of vacation!
Even today, lots of B2B publishers close down during the holidays. Mostly this is because there are just not enough readers at this time of year to justify publishing. But there's also a sense that B2B publishing -- where the staff is often tiny and the business is often family-owed -- is just a wee bit more worker-friendly than the rest of the media world.
Nowadays I work for myself. I can take vacations whenever I please. So I'm going to keep the B2B media tradition. I won't publish this blog next week.

The other year-end tradition in publishing is to make predictions about next year. Folio magazine asked a slew of folks, including me, what 2006 would hold. You can see the predictions here.
And when you're done thinking about next year, give some thought to what was good about 2005. The deadline is near for nominations for one of the most important awards in B2B journalism. If you were fortunate enough to work with someone in 2005 worth considering for the Timothy White Award for Editorial Integrity, let ABM know.
The deadline is also approaching for the Awards of Excellence. Make sure ASBPE knows about the best work that you did in 2005.

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Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Joining the Corante Network

I got an email a few weeks ago from Hylton Jolliffe, founder of Corante. Hylton asked if I would be interested in joining Corante's network of media blogs. I took a look at the proposal, and agreed to sign on.
Thus, on the right-hand column of my site, you'll see a new graphic that points to Corante's Media Hub.
Becoming part of Corante's network means that my blog posts will be aggregated along with those of some folks that I greatly admire -- including Tim Porter and Mark Hamilton.
But joining Corante doesn't mean that I'll be making any money. I decided to pass on Corante's advertising services. In fact, part of the reason I like Corante so much is that they give their contributors the option to remain advertising-free.
At some point in the future I may rethink my position about advertising on this site. But for now, I want to leave things as they are.

If you're a regular reader of this blog, but not a regular reader of Corante, take a look at some of the other folks who blog about media.
If you're a Corante reader who is new to this blog -- welcome! This is a site about business-to-business media: a specialized world of magazines, newsletters and electronic products. We talk about many of the same things that interest the rest of the media world, albeit with a different perspective. You'll find posts and comments about the shift to online publishing and the shift to whatever happens next. I think a lot about journalism education, convergence and media ethics. I like to write about writing and report on reporting. I consider what makes an online product compelling and what makes a reporter valuable. I spend a fair amount of time discussing the rise of conversational editorial. And I continue to predict a new era of entrepreneurial journalism.
Take a look around. Read. Comment. Learn. Teach. Participate.

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Monday, December 19, 2005

More on virtual communities

Last week I posted something on my how my newfound fascination with virtual communities related to my longstanding fascination with communities in B2B media.
Today I've come across a review in "The Economist" of a new book on the business opportunities and cultural ramifications of virtual worlds (thanks to Fine Young Journalist, one of my new favorites in the blogosphere, for pointing me to the review.)
Take a look at the review. See if it does to you what it did to me ... trigger a purchase through Amazon.

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Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Communities build themselves

In the past few weeks I've spent a lot of time.... a lot of time the virtual world known as Second Life. It is strange, lovely and addictive. And I'll have to make an effort not to get consumed by the place.
I heard about this online world months ago, but it didn't catch my interest then. I knew it was some sort of online gaming environment where people created "avatars" that "lived" in the virtual world. And it just seemed silly to me.
Then I read about Anshe Chung, a woman who was amassing real-world riches for her work in the virtual world (a second article that mentions her can be found here.) I'm an entrepreneur, and I'm always looking for opportunities. And I found myself wondering if there was a business opportunity for me in the virtual world. I wanted to know if a newspaper or magazine existed in Second Life, or if I should launch one.
So I logged on for a free trial.
As it turns out, there is a newspaper in Second Life. And it's a pretty good paper -- full of actual news, albeit about a fictional world.
But far more interesting to me was that the world itself -- this pretend community where people can fly, this imaginary place where people talk through written messages -- was so much fun. And after a half-dozen visits, I felt somehow that I belonged in this community of possibility and conversation.

I've been thinking a lot about community of late...and how B2B media companies can foster it. Community is, in a very real sense, the goal of publishing. Or at least it should be. We create content, share it with others, and together we consider that content's meaning. To an old-media guy, community is the trade show that his B2B magazine sponsors. To a new-media guy, it's the feedback function on his blog. But put those differences aside and note the similarity -- both of those guys are in the business of fostering connections.
And that's a tough business to be in.

On a fairly regular basis, B2B media executives ask me how they can build community.
What I tell them is that doing so is nearly impossible. What I tell them is that communities build themselves.
And I tell them to read Giant Robot.
Giant Robot is the most interesting -- and most unusual -- magazine in my mailbox every month. It's a consumer magazine about "Asian Pop Culture and Beyond." But it doesn't look, feel or read like any other magazine I know.
The young guys who started GR sensed there was a group of people that needed a place to be. In other words, they believed a community would exist as soon as it had a "place" to gather.
And the founders of the magazine were right. There was a community of young, hip people, most of them Asian and Asian American, who related to the wider culture in a way specific to them. It wasn't that this group of people had shared interests. That's commonplace. Lots of people share interests with lots of other people. What was important was that this particular group had a shared sensibility. People don't join a community in order to belong. They join because they belong.

When communities have blossomed in the B2B world, they have followed a similar pattern. The community exists -- united by emotions more than by interests --but has no central location at which to interact. Then a B2B publication creates a "space" in which conversation can occur. Web sites seem to work best for this. Trade shows are still good at this too. Print magazines seem to be very poor choices (one of the many miracles of GR is that a community made up almost entirely of kids from the Internet generation formed around a print magazine. The key to that success seems to be that the community is also linked through GR's retail outlets and the products of the magazine's advertisers. When I walk around in lower Manhattan, I can spot a Giant Robot reader. They wear their sensibility -- a hip, anime-flavored, pan-Asian and all-American, anti-Orientalism sensibility -- on their shirt sleeves. )

I've come to believe that community is most likely to occur in B2B media that serve industries where strongly held emotions are the norm. People who work in such industries do more than share interests, they share a belief system. And when people work at something that is more than a job, then they tend to think of the B2B publication they read as something more than a magazine.
Thus it's not in the least bit surprising that a vibrant online community has grown around Cygnus'
Community also seems more likely to form among people trying to enter an industry than among those already working in it. Job seekers are united by a single common sensibility -- the belief that they are in the wrong place in life.
Thus I'm not surprised that MediaBistro attracts dozens of people nearly every weeknight to its classes, seminars and social gatherings. Whereas I can't imagine that Folio or Editor and Publisher would have similar luck attracting working journalists.

So is there anything a B2B journalist can do to help foster community?
The great lesson of the blogging phenomenon is that there is someone who feels passionately about any subject you can think of. And if that person starts a blog, there are always a few people who feel strongly enough to post comments.
Any B2B journalist can tap into that power. You don't need to start a blog, but you do need to become more bloglike. If you allow readers to speak to you and each other, then you have created a place where community might arise. If you let people speak, you may find that they will listen. And together you may find the sense of emotional connection that is the basis of community.
And let me be clear, I'm not suggesting that anyone start another talk-among-yourselves service on their Web site. I don't think a discussion group, live chat or online forum is the best way to connect your readers.
Rather, what I am urging is that you allow your readers to talk to you and each other in public about your work. I'm talking about feedback functions. I'm suggesting that allowing comments on your stories will do more to foster community than any other thing you can do.
Feedback functions are the single best way to find out if there are any readers who share your sensibility -- the strongly held emotional belief that your product is important.

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Monday, December 12, 2005

Why are so many products so bad?

Sometimes I wonder what people in B2B media are thinking. Much of what we do in this industry seems to be so ... crappy.
Certainly those of us on the editorial side of the game tend to blame the folks on the business side when our products are less than compelling. We complain that we are underfunded and understaffed. But I'm coming to believe that most of our problems aren't caused by slim budgets and greedy bosses. Our problems are caused by unambitious and unskilled journalists.

Time and again I've seen this same dynamic: A B2B magazine decided to do "something" online. It chose someone from the existing staff to create and manage the new product. However, the existing staff member had never expressed any interest in online products, multimedia reporting or conversational editorial. Heck, the staff member is often just plain lousy in print too. But at least they are familiar with that medium, whereas they don't know a thing about the Web and don't care to know.
Or, even worse, they don't know anything about the Web, but think that they do.

Most distressing is that some of these folks have been running online products for years now, and yet they haven't taken the time to learn anything about the medium. Week after week they drop a print story on to a Web page. Week after week passes and they never take the time to learn how to upload a photo, record an audio file or do some search-engine optimization. They have never read the EyeTrack study. They have never read a blog.

As a result, their sites are ugly and often quite strange.
Look around.
Ask yourself, how is it possible to have an online magazine about the recording industry where the reporters don't do audio?
How is it that the Web site of a magazine that covers videography doesn't have video? Heck, why don't the news stories have photos?
Imagine that you had a pretty good content-management system that surrounded your copy with crisp graphics and white space. Would you cram your stories into unreadable, flush-left squares of multisentence paragraphs?
Want to see something sillier? In an era of conversation, links and targeted ads, imagine a Web site that wants you to pay for the right to tell your friends to read one of their articles. (NOTE: I assume this ridiculous idea came from the business side and not from editorial. But it's the sort of thing that the editorial staff should find a way to stop.)

It seems to me that people should be making more of an effort to at least master the basics. For example, here is a story from a Cygnus publication about digital photography. It has a simple and elegant look. And, most importantly, it has digital photos. I spoke at Cygnus earlier this year and I met the staff of that magazine. And they are as overworked as anyone else in B2B publishing. But they have taken the time to understand a few simple concepts: Web sites should look like Web sites. Stories about photography should have photos, etc.
Or consider what is happening at CMO. I spoke at IDG a few weeks ago and met a few folks from that product. And they too work long hours for inadequate pay. But I think their product is superb.

Look -- this is journalism. We will never have enough resources. We will never be paid enough. We will never have enough time.
But the lack of resources has never been the determining factor in what makes for fantastic reporting or beautiful storytelling. Great journalism is born of talent and ambition. And nothing can be more illuminating...or more difficult...than to look at yourself and your staff and ask if there is enough of either trait at your company.

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Friday, December 09, 2005

Battelle welcomes publishers to new era

I wish I could have been at the Magazine Publishers of America conference this week. It sounds as if a few of the speakers were interesting...even if what they had to say isn't, or at least shouldn't be, surprising.
First, John Battelle, co-founder of Wired, told attendees what they most need to hear: “Magazines don’t need to be equated with print.”
Battelle called for publishers to recognize that their most important products -- the ones that will define their futures -- are their Web sites, not their magazines.
At the same show, Jack Kliger, MPA's chairman as well as president and CEO of Hachette Filipacchi Media, blasted the industry for risking the loss of readers' trust by accepting product placement in editorial copy. "Nothing will be more damaging to that trust and to our credibility than blurring the boundaries so that readers have difficulty distinguishing between editorial and commercial messages," he said. (His full remarks are published here.)

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Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Speaking to sources via instant messenger

If you've been reading this blog for awhile, you may remember my post about using instant messaging as a reporting tool.
That post led to a mention on the Poynter site, which led to a call from Kim Hart, who was writing a story about electronic communications for the American Journalism Review.
Kim's story is now available online, and it's worth a read.
The article also quotes noted journalism blogger Amy Gahran. Take a look here for more of Amy's thoughts on this subject.
Or for information on using email as an interviewing tool, check out this piece from Folio.

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Monday, December 05, 2005

Required reading vs. required interaction

Back when I first studied journalism a million years ago, one of my teachers announced on the first day of class that students were required to subscribe to the Wall Street Journal. Getting a copy from the library would not suffice. Nor could we share a subscription. We each had to have our own copy. We had to read it cover to cover every day.
We would, of course, be tested on the material.
It only took about a week of reading that paper for me to see the value in the assignment. Much to my surprise -- for I was an obsessive consumer of news -- there was an entire part of the world that other papers had failed to teach me about: business. And the Journal served as my guidebook. More importantly, I found in the Journal a set of writing tools that would serve me well throughout my career. Chief among those was the news feature -- an easily understood template that featured an anecdotal lead and a "nut graf."

As the years passed, I took to demanding a similar commitment from any young journalist who worked for me. "If you have time to read only one thing a day," I'd say, "read the Journal. If you don't have time to read anything, learn to sleep less and read the Journal."
But not anymore.
In recent weeks I've found myself saying something like this: "If you look at only one thing a day, make sure it's BusinessWeek's site."
The simple truth is that although I continue to love the Journal, I find far more material of value to journalists in BusinessWeek.
While much of the mainstream press has learned to adopt the tools of new media, only BusinessWeek has mastered them. As others struggle with understanding what conversational editorial is, BusinessWeek has adopted it.
No one is doing a better job with blogs and feedback functions. Heck, no one is doing a better job with podcasts, slideshows and video. BusinessWeek has become the best single source for thoughtful and compelling multimedia news.
I know I'm not alone in this. "BusinessWeek is one of the few old school magazine/online "brands" that is not running from, but is embracing new forms of social and conversational media," according to Rex of Rexblog.

I'm not suggesting that anyone cancel their subscription to the Journal. This is particularly true for people who work in print. Because I still believe the best print product in the world every Monday through Friday is the front page feature in the Journal.
But if you want to understand what is possible in the post-print era, then you need to start each working day with a visit to BusinessWeek.

If you're a media guy who continues to struggle with the concepts of conversational editorial, you may recognize yourself in this post from Jon Fine's blog at BusinessWeek.
And if you're a journalism teacher looking for something to assign in addition to a daily dose of BusinessWeek, consider requiring your students to start a blog.

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Friday, December 02, 2005

The death of City News, the birth of something else

I suppose we'll see lots more of this type of thing -- a venerable institution of the old media falls, and journalists of a certain generation will write grandiose obits for the lost days of the hard-bitten reporter.
And today's Chicago Tribune has the perfect example -- a pompous ode to the soon-to-be-defunct City News Service.
Look -- I remember the good, old days of City News too. I lived, worked and reported in Chicago. A good portion of my teachers and bosses over the years were graduates of City News. I've listened to long-winded men repeat the myths of the place for my entire career.

I'm not saying that there wasn't value in City News. There was. And that value was that City News was more interested in producing great reporters than it was in producing great writers. That's a worthy endeavor, and one that is pursued less often than it should be.
But I am saying that the value of City News ...or more correctly, the values of City News, are outdated.

If you've been around journalism for more than a week or so, then you've heard the mantra of City News -- "If your mother says she loves you, check it out." That's a fine sentiment for a reporter to learn. Skepticism is part of who we are.
And if you've been around journalism for more than a month or so, then you've been exposed to the cultural myth of City News -- you need to pay your dues.
But that, I'm afraid, is nonsense.

Every newsroom that I have ever worked in has at least a few senior staffers who pray at the church of City News. They were comfortable with a slow, steady climb to positions of power. They are uncomfortable with ambitious young people, suspicious of new ideas, and dismissive of new media. They adopted the persona of a curmudgeon -- often while still in their 30s -- because that's what their first managing editor was like. And they spend too much energy trying to keep things from changing too fast.
For years, that style of journalism manager was fairly harmless. Because although they could make it difficult for a talented young person to try something new, the simple truth was that the businesses wasn't changing very much at all. Old media was the only media. And the only way to prosper was to adhere to the values of old managers.

But in the past few years, these old-timers -- these devotees of City News -- have become very dangerous people to have at the top of the masthead. Because as the world has changed, as new competitors have emerged and new technologies provided both threat and opportunity, the City News faithful have grown more insular.
And in any religion, insularity leads to a misunderstanding of the teachings.
So we've found ourselves in a world where far too many publications are run by people who have been blinded, not enlightened, by the doctrines of their faith. They have moved from skeptic to curmudgeon to cynic and ultimately to crackpot.

Like I said earlier, skepticism is a fine sentiment for a young reporter to learn. But it seems to be an unwieldy weapon for people my age and older. We seem too quick to use it on others, and far to slow to use it on ourselves and our beloved institutions.
Might I suggest the following? Let's try to apply a little skepticism in those places where it is hardest. Let's ask:
Is a you-don't-know-anything-yet system the best way to train a new journalist?
Do we really still need a print product?
Have I been standing in the way of better journalism?
What if the teenagers are right, and newspapers are boring?

Then let's try a little less skepticism and a little more optimism. Let's listen to the kid who doesn't know anything. Let's consider the possibility that everything is changing for the better. Let's ask:
What if I could start my own business? or help some young reporter start one of his own?
What if something new and wonderful is coming, something that will replace print and the Web and email and everything else? What if I embraced this coming change?
What if I altered my religion? What if I no longer revered the past and feared the future? What if I believed that death was always followed by birth?

For more on rethinking journalism training, read this essay, titled "If your journalism school says it knows what's best for you, check it out. "

For more on what happens next in journalism, read this essay on Slashdot called "A recipe for newspaper survival." (Thanks to my fellow B2B blogger David Shaw for pointing me to that piece.

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