Aug 18, 2010

Even the unemployed need a vacation.

Summer is generally a slow time in the news business, partly because the big “news makers” like legislators are in recess. But I’ll admit that some of that slowdown comes from apathy and burnout on my end. So while the fat cats are away, The Hyperlocalist shall play!

I spent two weeks putzing around the sweltering Southeast, only to return to a steamy and smelly New York. I cloistered myself in the bedroom, the only room in my apartment with air conditioning, while the computer sat dormant in the stuffy living room. Twitter and email messages went unanswered. Articles accumulated in my RSS reader, only to be flushed away unread.

Instead, I downloaded “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” onto my e-reader. I watched “Days of Our Lives.” I discovered the indoor pool at the local Y. And I watched the Mets piss away yet another season. With the exception of the latter, it was all good.

Perhaps the best thing about unplugging was the realization that I had become too much of a thinker and a talker and not enough of a doer. Twitter and the blogosphere are littered with schmucks like me who yap about potential revenue streams and new technology, but yap isn’t worth a damn without test driving it for oneself. So I’ve gotten back on the entrepreneurial wagon.

First, I set a loose timeline for my new hyperlocal-news publication, one that gives me time to work on my business plan (as well as some personal obligations) while slowly making my company’s presence known in the community. Next, I cracked open an accounting textbook to learn about balance sheets and profit-and-loss (also known as P&L or income) statements. Also, I picked up a few domain names, a Twitter handle, and a clean WordPress theme.

It was about time I moved my ass. And it’s time for other journopreneurs to do the same. Worried that running a news business isn’t the right choice? Feeling uneasy about where and when the money will come? Sweating the big-box competition?

DON’T. Just don’t.

Being an entrepreneur means sticking one’s neck out, knowing well that the ax might fall right on it. Sometimes, one swift blow is enough to send that skull rolling directly into the basket. Other times, it takes a couple of whacks with a dull blade to sever a now-useless appendage from its spinal stem. But for the lucky, that ax misses completely swing after swing, and the execution is stayed.

Admittedly, I’ve got a vulnerable neck, but I’m sticking it out as far as my vertebrae will reach. It’s the only way to know whether I get to keep my head.

Do the same.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Randy Son of Robert.

Jun 28, 2010

The view from Denver

I learned quite a few things last week during the National Association of Hispanic Journalists convention in Denver. First, Denver is surprisingly flat. Second, its airport is actually in Nebraska, an eight-hour drive from anything.

Most importantly, I learned that traditional journalists have a lot to learn about new media, and new media has a lot to learn about traditional journalism. It’s easy to chalk up this mutual repugnance to arrogance, the “my medium is better than yours” argument. But it’s more complicated than that.

Traditional journalists (those in print and broadcast) turn up their noses at new media because they deem the quality of online content to be sub-par. They’re kinda right. Some producers of online content have displayed a lack of journalistic skill and editorial judgment, an inability to dig up original sources, and a sole purpose to drive page views and thus advertising rates. It’s embarrassing.

At the same time, those in new media brush off traditional journalists for their seemingly backwards view of how information should be presented and consumed. This too has some validity. Too many traditional news outlets have shown they don’t get concepts like transparency through linking, distribution and interaction through online social networks, and constructive discourse through moderated comments. It’s pathetic.

What traditional journalists and new-media producers share is panic over the news industry’s decaying orbit, as well as frustration in their hunt for a working business model.

My solution to this discord and angst is a swift smack to the back of the head. Responsible journalism is doable in the New World Order. Quality reporting has monetary value, but it will take creativity — not complacency or a reliance on the tired, failing advertising model — to cook up sustainable revenue. The public wants and deserves more than entertainment. Twitter and Facebook aren’t disposable time sucks.

Everyone’s got a dog in this race. The problem is, they don’t realize it’s the same damn dog scowling at its own reflection.

As always, the goal of this blog is to explore ways to make that dog stronger, smarter and faster without beating it into the ground or doping it with steroids. I’ll continue those explorations this week and throughout the summer.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Daniel Hoherd.

May 17, 2010

Back in the saddle again

The prodigal hyperlocalist is back after exploring what I’d hoped would be an opportunity to break into my local market. It didn’t work out for one big reason: In my opinion, I didn’t earn a wage that was commensurate with the amount of work involved. That’s how things roll. Failure is always an option.

But it’s important to learn from the experience, and here’s what I learned: I should practice what I preach. In February, I tore into The New York Times from my cyber-soapbox for its plan to have CUNY J-school students run two of its hyperlocal news sites:

[T]he Times-CUNY arrangement smells like the exploitation of a relatively skilled labor force willing to work for nothing more than a byline, exposure and a good grade. Teaching student and citizen journalists that craft and livelihood are incompatible is the wrong lesson. Instead, quality journalism should be rewarded.

It made sense to me then, though it would have made more sense to heed those words. Instead, I let destitution lead me to work for less than peanuts, for a “news” website that offered exposure but actually relied on its writers to deliver an audience.

For two weeks, I saw my page views beat the site’s average three- to fivefold, but the pennies per page view weren’t doing it for me. Meanwhile, I imagined the website’s publisher promoting its higher page views to trump up ad rates and sales, not by pennies but by dollars.

There was also the issue of who my fellow content contributors were. Some of them were topic experts but not the best writers. Others posted press releases, and there’s no telling if they were compensated in other ways for that content.

Frankly, that wasn’t the online company I wanted to keep. So few publications can successfully serve fluffy cotton candy with blood-rare prime rib and make it palatable. Playboy pulled it off back in the day — only The Heff can publish T, A and X in the same issue and make it work. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case with the website for which I wrote.

In the end, I decided it would be better to work for free while developing my strengths (and identifying my weaknesses) as a hyperlocalist. So here I am, back in the saddle again.

I’ve got lots of interesting stuff coming up this week and next, including thoughts on crowd-sourced content, further ideas on news distribution via text message, and the advantages and disadvantages of partnering with a larger media outlet. I’m also taking more cracks at that editorial calendar-as-business plan.

Thanks for hanging in there with me.

Photo by Flicker user Bill Gracey.

Apr 29, 2010

Steve Jobs is everywhere.

Businesses big and small will always try to defend their reputations and protect their property. It’s why hyperlocalists moderate their readers’ comments and copyright their work. And it’s why Apple is unleashing its corporate fury on Gizmodo editor Jason Chen after he acquired and then reviewed a stolen product prototype.

Apple is so intent on learning how Chen got his hands on the iPhone prototype that it may have prompted San Mateo County (Calif.) police to seize two computers from Chen’s home office. For his part, Chen admits to buying the prototype for $5,000 from a guy who “found” it in a bar. Now there are questions of whether the investigation violated Chen’s rights under federal and state shield laws, The New York Times reported Tuesday. Who knows.

This kind of reaction from business — arguably harassment — can hit hyperlocalists hard, even if the reaction is on a far smaller scale. It’s at least a distraction from a media outlet’s true function and can be detrimental to business relationships if the harassment escalates to libel or slander.

For instance, I once reviewed a local coffee house for my former hyperlocal website. Admittedly, I tore the place to shreds but wrote nothing that was beyond my rights as a journalist. I understood (and expected) the business’s ire, but I was surprised at how much energy they afforded to shutting me up.

First, they berated me for not supporting a small, locally owned business. (For the record, the company made millions selling its products in retail stores and Costco. I was the sole proprietor of a one-person newsroom operating off my dining table.) Then they threatened a local nonprofit via email with withholding financial support if it didn’t dump my publication as its official media partner. The nonprofit succumbed to the duress.

I also received an email from someone threatening to sue me for taking unauthorized photographs of the people who worked in the coffee shop. Knowing my rights as a journalist quashed that issue quickly, but it was still frustrating and time consuming to explain this to the email’s author.

In the end, the review remained posted on the internet, I remained unapologetic, and the company relocated its coffee house to a neighboring town.

The take-home lesson to all of this: Hyperlocalists should know their rights as journalists and publishers. That’s what they are to their communities, and they should exercise their rights under existing media and shield laws to defend the service they provide. Knowing these rights can protect an outlet’s business from frivolous lawsuits and defend it from libel.

It doesn’t matter whether that knock on the door is Steve Jobs or Juan Valdez. Be prepared to answer it.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user ryoichitanaka.

Apr 5, 2010

Back on the grid

It only took ten days to move into my new hyperlocal digs, but alas, it’s done. For nearly two weeks, I lived on pizza and cheese sandwiches, burst digital bubbles on my signal-less cell phone, and wrestled an aerial antenna for a better reception of “Jerry Springer.”

For hard-core techies, that scene signals the end of civilization. But my temporary disconnect from online reality gave me a greater appreciation for real reality, the one that exists (and it does) beyond the internet.

It also allowed me to consider how hyperlocalists can better serve the underserved — and by underserved, I’m not just talking about plugged-in communities without a local newspaper or news website. I’m talking about communities that don’t even appear on the grid: lower-income neighborhoods without broadband, communities in which English is not the primary language, even sparsely populated rural communities.

The net might not penetrate those areas, but hyperlocalists can still serve them using different, even “primitive” technologies. Expect the next few blog posts to look into this idea.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Spikenzie.