Jun 10, 2010

Share and share alike

As I’ve said previously, I enjoy speaking with fellow hyperlocalists and learning of their own adventures in entrepreneurial journalism. Part of that enjoyment stems from the fact that I work from home with little to no human interaction during the day. And then there’s my genuine interest in what’s going on in other people’s lives.

Recently I spoke with one hyperlocalist whom I’ll call Loretta for privacy’s sake. Loretta operates a popular hyperlocal website and was invited to join a regional network that shares advertising revenue with its members while collecting a cut for itself. Currently, the network doesn’t have an umbrella site for aggregating its members’ content or directing readers to its members’ respective websites.

Despite that, there are definite advantages to Loretta’s participation in the network. First, this particular network carries name recognition, though it’s still too fresh out of the box to call it a brand. (Details of its business practices couldn’t be confirmed, so it shall remain nameless in this post.) Next, it stretches across an entire region, which should help reel in large advertisers and their large ad budgets. Last, there’s the notion that all boats will rise with the revenue tide, even those that aren’t as seaworthy as the rest of the fleet.

There’s only one thing about this arrangement that makes me leery. Revenue sharing assumes revenue, and when talking about advertising, that usually means page views. This network is so brand-spanking new that it doesn’t yet have an audience of its own and is relying on Loretta’s site and others to drive traffic. In other words, it can’t deliver page views to Loretta’s site. Instead, Loretta’s site will deliver page views to the network, which will then take its cut of the ad revenue.

The way I see it, if Loretta and other hyperlocalists are doing all the work to drive traffic, then they should reap most of the revenue. The network still deserves a cut for using its name and relative size to leverage ad sales, but the fact is, those ad sales won’t happen without the hyperlocalists’ hard-earned page views.

I don’t know the numbers of Loretta’s revenue-sharing arrangement, but I hope she gets her fair share of the deal. Best of luck, Loretta!

Photo courtesy of Flickr user enggul.

May 25, 2010

Hello, potential investor. Will you be my friend?

I enjoy speaking with fellow hyperlocalists, especially when one has an interesting question to pose. Recently, one hyperlocalist — I’ll call him Buddy for privacy’s sake — said he’d been approached by a large local business that was willing to finance a news network covering nearby neighborhoods, with Buddy at the editorial wheel. In exchange, the business would get discounted advertising space and a regular column about its industry.

However, Buddy was worried about a potential conflict of interest. Might this solitary business investor dictate content to the detriment of his publication’s journalistic integrity? Would this be a deal with the devil?

My advice to him was this: Make the damn deal, but hammer out every detail first. That includes details in one’s business plan, corporate or nonprofit structure, and newsroom hierarchy (even if it’s a newsroom of one). Getting his house in order allows Buddy to spell out his publication’s financial and philosophical objectives to this investor, and it will help both parties understand where the boardroom ends and the newsroom begins.

Next, I suggested that Buddy and his investor test drive this business arrangement on his existing publication. Instead of launching new franchises from scratch, Buddy can apply the investor’s capital to expanding his current news coverage into adjacent neighborhoods, taking advantage of his existing network of local freelance reporters and bloggers. If the expanded coverage proves to be self-sustaining, he can then launch franchises with the same journalistic clout and financial stamina of his original publication.

Buddy’s one investor can also be his greatest cheerleader, encouraging other businesses to invest in or advertise with his original news outlet and new franchise network. After all, a viable hyperlocal news product reflects a neighborhood worthy of investment, something from which area retailers, restaurateurs, employers, homeowners and municipal agencies benefit.

I hope Buddy keeps me up to date on how this business arrangement progresses and whether he’s taken approaches other than what’s mentioned above. In the meantime, hyperlocalists can get help with the nuts, bolts and numbers of their business plans with the Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE), a terrific nonprofit group that advises small business owners.

Good luck, Buddy!

Photo courtesy of Flickr user mtsofan.

May 18, 2010

The fashion report

Just because one works from home doesn’t mean one can’t be fashion forward. I sport only the coolest tee shirts while at my computer. And when I do wear pants, they’re the skinny kind. So hot!

So it was with great interest that I read this recent article in The New York Times about a startup clothing company that allows its customers to design their own shirts. Shoppers visit the company’s website, pick out colors, patterns and cuff styles, drop some coin and in four weeks, they’re rocking personalized gear.

The company’s success is rooted in its “emotional-value proposition,” says the company’s 22-year-old CEO. (Freakin’ hipster!) Customers play a part in the creative process, and what results is a personalized shirt that oozes individual expression. Okay.

That got me thinking: If consumers will pay to design a shirt, would they pay to participate in hyperlocal content creation? Does the emotional-value proposition apply to hyperlocal news? No and yes.

First, anyone who will pay to generate content is an advertiser. Consumers can usually distinguish an advertisement from editorial content because ads are labeled as such. But when an advertiser’s content is passed off as news, or if the hyperlocalist accepts compensation for creating “advertorial” content, then the news outlet’s objectivity comes into question.

Next, no one should create news content for the purpose of self-expression without fair compensation. That’s what larger media outlets like Forbes.com and The Washington Post call “content for exposure” (or more precisely, content for exploitation), and the practice only dilutes the quality of an organization’s content.

Instead, the emotional-value proposition can apply to opportunities for consumer feedback. A moderated comment section adds tremendous value to a news website. (The same goes for editorial essays printed on paper or broadcast as sound or video.) The opportunity to offer constructive criticism allows news consumers to express interest in their community, and the interaction reflects the news organization’s worth in the community.

That quality is perhaps the strongest selling point when approaching advertisers, sponsors and subscribers. It means that consumers do more than just consume a media outlet’s content. They assign value to it, they incorporate the information into their decision making, they allow it to influence their lives. That kind of quality far outweighs a website’s page views, a newspaper’s circulation or a broadcast outlet’s audience numbers.

The emotional-value proposition also applies to crowd-sourced content, but one should approach that with caution. I’ll get into that tomorrow.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Kirsten Hartsoch.

Apr 22, 2010

Mean comments? Suck it up.

Writing about deeply personal events can leave a writer feeling vulnerable when reader comments roll in. That may very well have been the case with Taffy Brodesser-Akner, who earlier this year wrote about the post-traumatic stress disorder she experienced after childbirth. Brodesser-Akner described her reaction to reader comments Wednesday in The New York Times:

I was surprised when, within hours of my article going live, a slew of nasty comments appeared below it in the area reserved for readers to respond.

“You should consider not having any more babies.”

“I feel sorry for her son. Can you imagine going through life with this woman?”

Not every comment was negative. Some were sympathetic, supportive, even touching. But the mean ones — yikes — were they mean.

She explained that the intent of her Times post was not to express how hurt she felt. Instead, she wished to explore “why online commenters are so gratuitously nasty; why, when given the opportunity to have an educated disagreement with an author or other readers, they use the space allotted to spew venom instead of presenting a well-reasoned argument,” she wrote.

But not all venom is meant to be poisonous. Not all “gratuitously nasty” comments are meant to be gratuitous or nasty.

Writers benefit from the skill and gift of being able to crystalize fuzzy thoughts and emotions into succinct words, and a writer who can do that about something as personal as post-traumatic stress after childbirth is probably more skilled and gifted (and experienced) than most. Consider it a blessing when trying to explain complex concepts.

It’s a curse when all that emotional energy is confronted with the dull, blunt force of readers who may not be as graceful with their words. Pity, concern, sarcasm and humor aren’t always conveyed easily by experienced writers, and even less so by those who don’t write for a living. The inflection that readers hear in their own voices, and the emotion they feel in their own hearts, don’t always come across in their written words.

That’s not to say that “gratuitously nasty” comments don’t exist — of course they do. Some axes won’t be denied a grinding. But writers must develop thick skins when the criticism crashes down on them. If the writing is accurate and, in the case of Brodesser-Akner, if it’s emotionally truthful, then the writer has fulfilled her or his obligation to the reader. The writer may choose to respond to comments or blow them off by choice.

Reader comments can be harsh and sometimes hurtful. Suck it up and move on.

Apr 19, 2010

Choosing between a mural and graffiti

Some of the nation’s biggest online news outlets still haven’t unraveled the mystery to managing readers’ comments. According to The New York Times, both The Washington Post and The Huffington Post are resorting to an “Animal Farm” system that gives greater prominence to readers who use their “real” names when leaving comments or to trusted readers who have left comments in the past — the “all animals are created equal, though some animals are more equal than others” approach to moderation.

Meanwhile, The New York Times requires readers to register with the site before leaving comments. And most recently, Hawaii’s Peer News announced it would close its articles to reader comments completely, The Wall Street Journal reported Monday.

What a pity that these news outlets should resort to ranking systems, registration and closed-door policies to moderate what is designed to be a two-way conversation. That type of open communication is the whole point of Web 2.0, a point that these outlets miss by a mile.

At the other extreme, readers should not be permitted to spew venom as anonymous specters adrift in the ethernet. After all, a news site is its publisher’s virtual property, and it’s the publisher’s obligation to establish a rule of order. One can manage the site like a erudite salon and ask (even demand) readers to conduct themselves with self-restraint. Or one can run the place like a bar (as I did with my former site) and allow readers to speak freely, smacking them in the back of the head when they get too rowdy, or bouncing them completely when they’ve had enough.

But if a publisher merely opens the door to an online establishment and expects visitors not to steal the virtual silverware at first chance, then all hope is lost for civil or constructive discourse. That’s what The Washington Post did, maybe in reverence to the First Amendment. As a result, its comment section is more like a landfill of bigoted rants and axes in search of grinding.

Sifting through ranked comments, or closing articles to comments completely, are terrible solutions. The former creates an echo chamber, where those ranking the comments (presumably other readers or the site’s staff) can amplify agreeable opinions and mute dissenting ones. The latter only makes the publication seem aloof, and can cut off potential story leads and angles for reporters to follow.

In the end, a website is its publisher’s blank wall. One can lead readers to paint a flowing mural of constructive ideas, or one can abandon it for graffiti artists and taggers to maul.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user cauchisavona.