Monthly Archives: March 2010

Straddling Old and New Media, Searching for the Speed of Traffic

I have never been a particularly fast or slow writer. On my good days, I’d like to think of myself as a kind of Honda Accord hack, smoothly getting to my destination at the speed of traffic. I’ve worked for dailies, wires, a newsweekly, its website and even wrote a book (out in Italy) that exactly 17 publishers have shipped back to my hot-shot NY agent. Fools!! My point though: quality and platform notwithstanding, I have never had an editor comment on my velocity either way.

Of course, getting to -30- includes plenty of stops and starts and self-editing…and occasionally a flash of something from nowhere to keep it interesting. I want to try to zip, or plough, through this post, and send it off more quickly than usual… I have a lot on my plate today, but ultimately, I have to get used to writing just a bit faster and looser because that is the speed of traffic in the digital universe.

The topic today in fact is about straddling the old media/new media borderline, even as that line blurs. My heart and head are now both firmly in the new, but I am in no position to kiss the old goodbye. My relative absence in this space over the past couple of weeks is due to the return of the Catholic priest sex abuse crisis in a major way. That has meant a flurry of stories for both the web and print editions of my MSM outlet. My Vatican experience is in fact my most plainly marketable (and durable) quality right now. (Among the first ideas — eventually shelved — when my staff position was on the blocks was to do a papal blog: now, what would you call a Vatican blog by a guy with my name? Not My Church, of course!)

Part of me is always charged up to be back in the scrum, calling sources, shaping stories about a topic that is on the leading edge of the news cycle. That the story I helped report, written by my Time foreign editor Bobby Ghosh, made it onto the cover in the international editions offers the kind of satisfaction that you can’t get from a retweet. And yet…well, right now, for me at least, certain retweets are indeed worth more than cover stories. As I’ve said before, my website project must run on its own fuel…fumes from the past simply will not suffice.

But these last few days, as I emerged from the spate of papal reporting and jumped back in my startup project, I have been thinking a lot about the MSM. The outlet I know best right now would be worth its own case study: for how it has struggled with its corporate structure, for how it has and has not adapted to digital realities, and yes, the effects of its many layoffs; and yet, there is  still no denying its ability to break through the noise, and sometimes even set the agenda. Perhaps most fascinating is the coverage of the information revolution itself. Though almost never on the leading edge, the newsweeklies do help determine what is mainstream, with all the implications that come with that. Think of You as Person of the Year, and Twitter and Saving Newspapers covers. If you’re reading this, you may scoff and slam Time for having reported something months or even years after you knew it to be the case. But it becomes, in some way, even more true when it’s plastered inside that red border. Of course, what remains to be seen is whether the MSM is managing to stay relevant or simply  writing its own obituary…

Either way, though, I know my own destiny will largely be determined by how well I navigate this new, lava-like terrain where things are dying, transforming, rising from the ashes and being born from that filament sizzle of a light bulb going on in someone’s brain. I want the old media to survive and thrive for many reasons: not least of all because it is integral to the new media destination I am trying to create. But even before I get there, I must keep my eyes open for ways to capitalize on my knowledge of and relationships with the MSM to help build something that can only survive off the fat of the online land. And so you can imagine, for example, that more than Time’s cover, it’s the 2.03 million Twitter followers that interest me.

But beyond my own projects/interests, it seems evident that the established media must find ways to allow innovation to seep in to its walls from the energy and ideas of those trying to create something independently. Too often those with the ideas are moving faster than those with the resources and audience. Right now in the news biz, this dual-velocity dynamic risks killing off both ideas and institutions at a dangerously fast pace. Still, I am convinced that sooner or later the speed of traffic will again reveal itself.

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Filed under branding, content, entrepreneurship, journalism, new media, old media

Nieman Lab, take 2

On Tuesday, the Nieman Lab at Hahvahd published the second installment of my monthly wrapup/update on the progress of the project, and the musings in this space. Have a look here. It’s taken my a couple of days to remember to post it here, in large part because I’ve been consumed in reporting on the Vatican, and the evolving sex abuse crisis in Europe. The Pope will also be on the cover in the Europe edition of the print magazine coming out Friday. whew.

I will be back soon in this space to recount my old life/new life-old media/new media balancing act, and update some of what appears in the Nieman piece. Wish me luck!

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Filed under entrepreneurship, journalism, new media, old media, world news

Searing Your Brand on Social Media: The Overnight Birth of a Logo

Three weeks ago, almost by accident, I came up with what is the first tiny-but-tangible building block of my would-be world news media EMPIRE(!?) Aaiyaaaa!!

The great challenge and opportunity of the web is that you can actually create new stuff, which you then might just get someone out there in the ether to consume (and one day, buy!?) Rather than having to claw through a corporate list of meetings and measuring, some half-equipped dude can actually get his idea up  and running – and live — virtually on his own. Cool shit.

The adrenaline rush of inventing something brand new is different for a reporter who typically got his rushes responding: to events, to editors, to fill that empty space on the wires/paper/magazine/website that is waiting for your copy. Now, there is another void waiting to be filled, but only YOU are aware that it exists.

To try to capture that sensation, and show how accessible the digital world can be, I thought I’d try to chronicle the blow by blow of why/how/when I upgraded and expanded While U Slept, my aforementioned lil’ project of Overnight News Bundling.

Friday, March 5

4 p.m. On the phone with my Paris-based multimedia ‘rabbi‘ who I lean on for ideas/advice on the project. Brainstorming on how to build traffic for whileUslept. He notes its high time I stop posting only on my own twitter account…and give it a twitter home of its own. As we talk, I notice I’m getting a quick flurry of ”follows” on said personal Twitter account.

4:15 p.m.. This retweet of my day’s post of overnight headlines goes out. That explains the boost in traffic!

4:20-4:50. Feeling a sudden sense of urgency with new readers coming in, I quickly start to set up that Twitter account, scrambling to put up some generic foto and basic info/description.

5:13: After my thank you message, Prof Sreenivasan responds, saying he’ll refer to my little feed product on his Facebook page.

5:15-5:45. Oh hell! Facebook too!! I scramble to set up whileUslept Fan page, with same generic foto/info. (NOTE: keep reading…final links below. don’t wanna give away the ending!?)

Saturday, March 6

Tinker with new pages….see the first Twitter followers, send out  fan page recommendation to FB friends.

Sunday, March 7

whileUslept traffic has tapered off…both because I don’t do a Sunday entry….and because, well…why? Decide it’s time to give the whole damn thing a more professional look and functionality. It’s time, in other words, to call on Annie, who is already busy slaving away in her spare time to complete the prototype for the bigger site. I send an email out to her to see if she’s free for a Skype, though I don’t specify what’s up.

Monday March 8

9:49 AM Annie responds: she’s free this evening for a skype. I decide still not to mention what is up (She probably assumes it’s about prototype), figuring I can explain it directly more clearly…I also figure it will take a few days to get the various whileUslept venues spruced up. (Shower great compliments on myself for uncharacteristic patience…)

11:15  AM After spending previous 16 hours — minus 5 for sleep — trying to figure out why the damn link of my Facebook Fan suggestions wont go through to several friends who’d flagged me… I realize that I had a country restriction. In fact, all 9 of my fans live in friggin’ France! It is confirmed: I am an idiot!

12:29 PM this tweet goes out from a certain star journo-twitter, a former colleague who’d seen whileUslept post on Facebook, Biggest spike to date in traffic begins, heading toward 600 hits, and dozens of new followers/fans…I cringe a bit, knowing the clankity layout of the thing, but I do my best to NOT call Annie, who does have a day job after all! (and 2 kids!!), and gets exactly 0 euros in monthly salary from yours truly.

9-11 PM: No sign of Annie. It will have to wait, I tell myself, but I lay out in a detailed email my wish that we (she!) can come up with a logo/design for whileUslept.

11:54 PM: Email arrives from Annie: Sorry …fell asleep putting (daughter) to bed….starting work now:(

Midnight-4:30 a.m: this could be a post of its own…but to make it brief, Annie and I, fighting with a shaky skype connection and sagging eyelids, go back and forth on concepts/designs/executions of logo. We decide it should be the same colors/font as the prototype she’s doing for the Mother Site. We agree on designs for the different venues where it will appear. (Final touch ups will be made the next morning) HERE ARE THE RESULTS…

TWITTER

FACEBOOK

WHILEUSLEPT HOME PAGE

Conclusion to whirlwind: Annie is a Danish Rock Star. I am a happy American camper. But traffic is tapering off again!!?? Aaiyaaaa!!

(ALL FEEDBACK/IDEAS WELCOME!!) ANNIE can be reached at annieskovgaard.christiansen@fastwebnet.it

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Filed under branding, Breaking News, business model, content, entrepreneurship, social media, The Big 5 (Top Overnight Stories), Top Headlines, world news

Startup Single Guy Searching for Partner: A Successful First Date

Some would-be entrepreneurs dream of money. I’m more of a romantic: I’ve been pining for the day when I’ll meet my perfect partner. At risk of jinxing myself and breaking my heart – again — I think I may have met the (business)man of my dreams?

But first, a quick flashback to a previous life.  In my early 20s, I spent six months cleaning pools in the suburbs of New York. I passed much of that spring and summer with the owner of the one-man company, Pablo Sr, the father of a high school buddy of mine, Pablo Jr. In between all the pumps, hoses and tubs of chlorine, PM would make pit stops (up to 10 times a day) to drink a corner deli coffee in a white styrofoam cup, which he would top with milk and down in one gulp. Charged with caffeine, he would share various pearls of wisdom: about pools, dealing with clients, running a business, and raising Junior.

He once told me about a failed attempt to join forces with a fellow pool maintenance dude, and concluded that you should never go into business with someone who brings the same professional profile/background to the (pool)party. You end up overlapping, competing, fighting about decisions that you both have strong opinions on…and leaving uncovered all the same things that are missing from your respective similar profiles. Sharing the workload and splitting the revenue, economies of scale notwithstanding, are not more than the sum of the two halves, he told me.

I had that wisdom whistling in my ear in the first months of this project, as tentative attempts to partner up with two others colleagues eventually fizzled. Despite PM’s advice, I knew I needed the energy and ideas that can come when you have someone sharing the same vision and background, and roll of the dice. Still, my more rational inner voice always remembered Pablo’s credo that my ying needed a yang, someone who could combine his/her internet business background with my journalistic experience.

And so last week, through a mutual friend in Paris, I set up a rendezvous with Mister X, who’s resume featured all what I am missing. And more. In fact, he has spent the past year here adding a French master’s degree in international politics to his computer science degree and six years of content management consulting for startups. How’s that for a profile for a biz-tech partner for a world news website!?

But looking for a partner truly is like dating. On paper means nothing. I’d heard a bit about Mr. X, and was curious to know more, and just as importantly, to see if we got along. And he was apparently at least curious enough about what I was doing to meet up. We met at the Mabillon Metro stop in the Latin Quarter and found a nice cafe. We each ordered a beer.

All seemed to be going well, as he told me about his past work and current studies. And hints of possible futures? I told him about my journalism career, and painted a quick picture of where the news business is these days. It was a conversation, a back and forth. But I was also effectively pitching him my project as best I could. Talking to a potential partner is both similar and different to pitching other people. It starts out much more casually. But you are all too aware that if it goes well, really well, the project becomes HIS like no other’s, with a commitment of time and energy, and that roll of the dice, that doesn’t compare to anyone else: not investors, not employees, not colleagues or advisors. Only to you. And indeed, if it happens, you will be seeing more of each other than virtually anyone else in your life. So in some way, you must actually tread a bit more lightly on your first encounter. He needs to like me as much as the project.

As with the search for a life partner, a key is timing. I know that I am single, and looking to hook up, but I can’t know for sure what his status was. A couple of times in the past few months, I’ve met with people who might have fit the partner profile, who had the right skill set, but simply were not at a place in their life/work to commit to me. Though Mister X seemed to react positively to the idea and basic plan for execution of the project, he wasn’t giving any indication of his availability status. Though he’d used the expression “up in the air,” about what he would do after he finished his degree this spring, it sounded like he was pretty sure to resume his consulting business. I had made it clear that I was clearly on the hunt for a partner, but he didn’t blink.

And then, about 40 minutes in, while talking again about what the project needs to get going, I finally said: “I don’t know if you might be interested…??”

He paused about two seconds, and then said: “Hey,  so long as I can be running a business, I’m open to anything,…” My heart skipped a beat. A tried to hold back a smile. But soon, I was letting my guard down a bit more, and told him what a great background he has for this project. As we walked toward the metro, we even talked about what the first steps together might look like. Then we shook hands, and said we’d be in touch when he got back from a long planned two-week trip to Morocco. And though I am marching ahead as before, a single man on a one-man mission, I am already pining for our second date…

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Filed under business model, entrepreneurship, funding, journalism, new media, old media

Iteration vs. Momentum. My News Startup in Flux

I have decided to add a major new component to my online news project. As mentioned in a previous post, when this feature was suggested to me it felt big and potentially game-changing, which necessarily also meant a bit scary and pretty damn disorienting. I have since gotten positive feedback from everyone I’ve talked to about it, except my wife. And while it is true that she holds WIDE-RANGING veto power, I am forging ahead nonetheless!?

Without going into details – both because I prefer to speak in general terms about the product, and because the details of the new feature simply don’t yet exist – I will just describe it as crowd-source related. Though I do not plan on changing the entire product around this idea, as this fellow startup dude vigorously suggested, I still think there is much room to integrate it in a way that could both shake up the very nature of how the thing will function, and give the project some extra watts of glow in the eyes of potential investors. Crowdsourcing addresses two key questions that arise at different stages of the startup: identifying our core audience at launch, and giving the enterprise a vision of how to scale it up. Needless to say, this iteration offers good reason to be optimistic.

Yet today I am feeling more paralyzed than pumped.  It’s like a sudden brake has been put on what has been a good month or two of the big ‘Mo. On the prototype (which I KEEP saying is just a week or two away!?) we will have to rejigger all the current pages and add a brand new page or two. Meanwhile, the business plan will have to be overhauled. Completely. Again.

And so right now, I have that awful feeling of not really knowing where to start. It’s hardly a new sensation, of course. Every journalist knows that moment when you’re just finishing writing your breaking daily story or enterprise piece.. and a new twist to the news arrives or a sudden interview comes up that will make the article much much richer, but requires you to virtually start over. The difference here is that I’m not on assignment for anybody, I have no deadline. That is the real novelty/challenge of this experience, at least at this stage. There is nothing that has to go to press, or hit the wires. No news cycle to feed. No editor breathing down my neck. No reader waiting for my website to go live.

It’s all on my ass, which means I have to constantly find ways to get up off of it. After two weeks of Vancouver, perhaps we can curl out a winter sports metaphor: Think of the startup as a bobsled or downhiller:  what’s necessary to get to finish line is the right tradeoff between Momentum and Bearings. The twist here is that you actually risk losing both when you’ve hit upon an idea/iteration that is no less necessary…

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