Sparrow in the coal mine

I’m as guilty as the next guy for grumbling when I heard that Sparrow — the excellent OS X and iOS mail client — was just end-of-lifed thanks to Google purchasing it and the team that developed it.

I don’t begrudge the team their success; my complaint is simply that a great thing that I get to use every day is now going to start bit-rotting and will, eventually, no longer work.

By then, I hope, GMail will have become Sparrowfied and this won’t matter. But that part of me that loves supporting indie developers won’t get its itch scratched when I’m using my free and vastly improved Google webmail.

What’s really interesting about this, though, is that it’s looking more and more that the developers really didn’t have much choice, as this seemingly successful app family may have actually been unsustainable as a business.

David Barnard, developer of another essential iOS app — Launch Center Pro — used his experience and numbers selling Launch Center Pro to make an educated guess as to whether Sparrow was making enough money to survive. His analysis is sobering: making money in the low-priced app business is neither easy nor automatic:

We’ve all read stories about and been enthralled by the idea of App Store millionaires. As the story goes… individual app developers are making money hand over fist in the App Store! And if you can just come up with a great app idea, you’ll be a millionaire in no time!

That may seem a bit hyperbolic, but that is honestly the way the public perceives success in the App Store…

After 4 years in the racket, this is my best advice for making millions in the App Store: build a game, a gimmick, or an app that has some sort of revenue outside a one-time purchase. Oh, and if it’s a game, make it “free-to-play”. You might be able to build a sustainable business selling useful apps, and carve out a decent living for yourself, but it’s almost impossible to make millions.

Unless Google buys your company.

For anyone who enjoys the richness and relative affordability of the current OS X and iOS app universe, David’s post should give pause.

 

Just enough news: Next Draft

Following on my post about Evening Edition, I wanted to drop a quick note here about Dave Pell’s excellent Next Draft, a daily mid-day email newsletter that does a fine job of assembling a few-minutes’ worth of reading and links about what’s happening today online.

It’s really not that much different from a good linkblog, except that a) it’s not a blog — it’s an email and b) like Evening Edition, it’s published just once a day.

Not long ago, I did a major, weeks-long purge of my inbox, removing tons of opt-in and not-so-opt-in newsletters, so Next Draft has a pretty good chance of being a welcome “Ding!” in my email reader.

What’s your experience? Is the “just-enough” approach of Evening Edition and Next Draft a welcome change? For me, so far, it is.

Editing the news: In 2012 it’s a bold new idea

Mark Twain didn’t actually say “I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time.” (It was Blaise Pascal.)

But the point holds. Writing short and tight takes time.

Which might explain why the news web site I used to run has 485 links today on its home page. It’s just easier to include everything and let the reader sort it all out.

But what would a news site look like if editors actually, you know, edited.

One answer arrived this week. This was not a Knight News Challenge winner or the result of months of research and development. It’s a quick side-project from Mule Design, and it’s called Evening Edition.

This is what the news world could look like If simplicity-appreciating geeks ran it.

Jon Mitchell of Read Write Web has the back-story, in his article These Designers Did for Fun What News Sites Can’t Do to Save Their Business:

It’s edited by Anna Rascouët-Paz, online media editor at Annual Reviews. She combs the day’s political and economic news from around the world, picks out the stories she finds important, and writes a paragraph explaining the significance of each story, including links to the reporting.

“It’s not aggregation,” (the agency’s design director Mike) Monteiro makes clear. She often combines several sources into a concise summary. It draws on other people’s reporting, like just about all of what passes as news these days – but Evening Edition performs a critical journalistic function that often falls by the wayside online: It elevates the significant information above the noise.

Oh and this: They took it from concept to live site in about a week.

I’m making a conscious choice here. I’m going to celebrate what’s right with Evening Edition, rather than focus on what feels wrong (most notably that it wears its once-a-day-with-no-updates ethos with a pride that’s weird in a medium that is built upon being live and linked).

There’s a lot to like.

What’s right: It’s edited. Like it or not, Evening Edition is the result of choices by a human editor. What you get is there because she decided that’s what you get. Great Ceasar’s Ghost!

What’s right: It’s clean. Look at this on your laptop and you’ll see a simple two-column layout. Open it on your phone, and the responsive single-column design is there in all its scroll-friendly glory.

What’s right: It’s just enough news. Assuming the editor does her job well, this could very well be all you need to read to feel as if you’re reasonably well caught-up on the day’s important stories.

What’s right: It exists. This isn’t a scribble in a notebook, it’s not a mind-map and it most assuredly is not a committee meeting that’s scheduled for every other Thursday. This is a swing at an answer to the question of how to present news to a busy modern reader. It may not be the perfect answer but, as the bold-face says, it exists, here and now.

What do you think? Is just-enough news a concept whose time has come?

Narrativization

There are more than enough reasons to feel uncomfortable with what Journatic’s been up to recently. There were the phony bylines. There’s the question of covering a local community from afar. And, most recently, the issue of at least one of their writers cribbing content from competitors and making things up.

But those are all fixable issues. What rankles about Journatic (and, in some executions, the eerily-almost-self-aware robots of Narrative Science) is that they’re taking perfectly good data and hiding it inside sentences and paragraphs.

Call it narrativization.

Basic information — exactly the kind of information people who care about digital news-gathering and reporting have worked the past 15 years trying to figure out how to extract from the traditional inverted-pyramid narratives called “articles” or “stories” — is now being systematically re-obfuscated. Journatic is built on the misguided sense that the news of a Peewee League game or the local police blotter would be more enjoyable or edifying if only it could be taken out of that oh-so-cold box score or database and “written” as if the reporter had actually been on the scene of the story. Nothing of value is added; the few known facts are merely rearranged into headline, body-copy and the centuries-old conventions of daily journalism.

Which leaves us with cold, bloodless and unnecessarily long (even at 150 words!) articles, inside of which hide the facts that we already had access to to begin with.

And don’t even get me started on calendar events. Say what you want about the “smallness” of hyperlocal news, but it really is small events and gatherings that a) make a difference in a community and b) will never get covered by metro-wide media.

So, put that information into your calendar widget on your site. Do not, however, do this:

Grief Recovery Group meets Wednesdays

Liberty Baptist Church is hosting a Grief Recovery Group from 6-7:30 p.m. Wednesdays.

The group, “GriefShare,” is a Christian centered support group. The group meets as a large group and breaks off into small group discussions. The large group meetings will feature a 30 minute video with a workbook session.

The church is located at 1021 Big Bethel Road, Hampton.

Congratulations. You’ve just created an “article” that will, maybe, garner you a page-view or, if you’re a print/digital hybrid, will fill a few inches in the paper. It can’t be ported to a phone, it’s less findable online, and you’ve ruined a perfectly good bit of data (recurring data, at that) by narrativizing it in the mistaken belief that this is a leap forward.

As we sift through the aftermath of this phase of Journatic’s history, let’s not neglect to question whether, absent any of the ethical breaches, there were bigger miscalculations about how best to mobilize algorithms and a distributed workforce in service of better understanding of the news and issues of importance to local communities.

 

Newspaper’s woes: What a difference seven years doesn’t make

This was going to be a comment on Alan Mutter’s post “What’s Next For Newspapers?” but The Newsosaur’s commenting system is in a cranky mood this morning. So, here you go, with some clips for context.

Alan Mutter says recent moves and rumblings in newspaperland point to a coalescing around three possible routes to the future in the ink-by-the-barrellful business:

Not so very long ago, the newspaper business was a snap:  Build the largest possible audience, sell the most possible ads, charge the highest possible rates, print the fattest possible papers and pump out the biggest possible profits.

This enviable model worked exquisitely for generations, because publishers had little, if any competition.  But it is now clear, as attested by the 50% drop in newspaper advertising since 2005, that the old ways can no longer succeed.

So, most publishers – after arguably procrastinating far too long – are faced with choosing the best possible going-forward strategy for their mature, if not to say declining, businesses…

Here’s a quick way to think about the three approaches:

- Farm It – Keep doing what you do today as well as you can in the hopes of optimizing the existing franchise for as long as possible. This presumes that (a) the company will operate in a reasonably hospitable and predictable market environment and (b) management is sufficiently skillful to execute smartly with the available resources.

- Milk It – Accept the inevitable decline and fall of the traditional newspaper model and then whack costs to extract the most profits from the decaying business for as long as possible. On the day you no longer can turn a profit, throw the keys on the table and call it quits.

- Feed It – Determine that even the most proficient management cannot overcome the fundamental changes in the marketplace that have been cutting readership and revenues since the Internet arrived two decades ago. Instead of retreating, however, you leverage the waning strengths of the legacy business and invest aggressively in new digital products to reposition it for the future.

Read the whole post here.

Mutter mentions 2005 as the baseline for the massive drop-off in revenue. But 2005 wasn’t just the moment in time before Wile E. Newspaperman realized he’d stepped off the cliff, it was also the year that an unlikely evangelist — Rupert Murdoch — stood in front of them at the ASNE convention and tried to shake them our of their obliviousness. The gathered brain-trust was too polite to hiss in his face but more than willing to roll its eyes upon return to newsrooms around the country, wrongly conflating the message with the messenger.

Murdoch’s words are uncannily like Alan’s own above. But remember, these were spoken more than seven years ago, before the collapse that, somehow, nobody saw coming.

In the face of this revolution, however, we’ve been slow to react. We’ve sat by and watched while our newspapers have gradually lost circulation. We all know of great and expensive exceptions to this – but the technology is now moving much faster than in the past.

Where four out of every five americans in 1964 read a paper every day, today, only half do. Among just younger readers, the numbers are even worse, as I’ve just shown.

There are a number of reasons for our inertia in the face of this advance. First, newspapers as a medium for centuries enjoyed a virtual information monopoly – roughly from the birth of the printing press to the rise of radio. We never had a reason to second-guess what we were doing. Second, even after the advent of television, a slow but steady decline in readership was masked by population growth that kept circulations reasonably intact. Third, even after absolute circulations started to decline in the 1990s, profitability did not.

But those days are gone. The trends are against us…

So unless we awaken to these changes, which are quite different to those of 5 or 6 years ago, we will, as an industry, be relegated to the status of also-rans.

You can read all of Murdoch’s speech here.

Seven years ago. Seven. But, hey, committees take time.

(And, yes, Rupert Murdoch carries his own issues along with him, including his stampede to the comfort of a paywall a few years ago, but who else — other than their underlings and people like Jarvis, Rosen, Shirky and, of course, Alan Mutter — was speaking this kind of brutal truth to newspaper leadership in 2005? Here’s hoping we don’t have to do this same exercise again in 2019.)

 

And, now, a (welcome) word from our sponsor

Would anyone ever sit still for an ad that goes on for eleven-and-a-half minutes? Not a chance, right?

And yet, this just happened on a podcast I listen to — The Talk Show — in which John Gruber and Merlin Mann burned through almost 700 seconds talking about a new iPhone app, Launch Center Pro. It’s an ad, to be sure, but it’s a also a damned informative and entertaining chunk of audio, perfectly integrated with the programming around it:

I never once thought about reaching for the fast-forward button.

But I did click on “Buy.”

And this isn’t all that unusual. Podcasts have figured out what old-time radio and television nailed long before the internet age: Sponsorships. Not all ads are of this epic length, of course, and they do tend to vary wildly in quality depending on the hosts’ passion for and knowledge of the product itself. But I think this is exactly the right direction for advertising to go in the digital and mobile world.

“And now a word from our sponsor…” isn’t a grudging interruption — at least it shouldn’t be — but rather a shared wink between host and listener that what’s about to follow is not programming, but is worth your attention nonetheless. And it works, because the listener learns that the podcaster won’t simply start screaming “PUNCH THE MONKEY!!!” at the top of his lungs but, rather, is taking a commercial detour into an area that’s likely to be aligned with the interests of the show and its listeners.

It takes work. More work than just jamming in a sixty-second spot or reading cold-blooded copy. It means thinking about why this product might make sense to the listener and, then, telling them, without affectation or pretense, in a human voice.

I don’t have access to Gruber’s advertiser stats, of course, but I bet this works really, really well. I know it does for Leo Laporte’s TWIT network — which I profiled for Nieman Labs in 2009 — where they’ve been doing ads like this for years with great results.

Do people listen to long ads? They do if they’re relevant to their needs. Or if they’re somehow useful. Or entertaining. After all, we all claim to hate advertising, but whenever one of those bells is rung, the ad moves into another realm, where it’s something that we pay attention to. The ad becomes valuable content.

Imagine how great this same approach could be if local publishers did something similar with the advertising on their sites, if they respected their site users and site advertisers enough to try to find a way to present commercial information (advertising) in a way that worked as well for both sides of the equation as the Gruber/Mann conversation about Launch Center Pro does.

Instead, the average local site is, at best, a NASCARish nightmare of tiny, flashing competing banner ads, the vast majority of which will a) add nothing to the brand’s value and b) never be clicked.

Where’s the money in local publishing? It’s at the intersection of consumer desire and advertiser need. Sometimes just a banner screaming “SALE!!” will work, but most times, the site and its advertisers will have to work harder to present a compelling argument at that intersection.

Think of what podcasters like Gruber and Dan Benjamin and Leo Laporte are doing and get creative on behalf of your advertisers and users. Otherwise, you’re just stealing money from advertisers and missing a great opportunity to put relevant, useful and entertaining information in the hands (or ears) of your users.

 

On July 4th, thinking about committing acts of community journalism

When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary to cover the news ourselves, that’s probably a really good idea.

And, according to a report from The Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University, there’s a crying need as well, in Washington state and, one would imagine, from sea to shining sea.

In its “Rural Information Initiative,” (“rural” being defined more as non-metro than “time to milk the cows” territory) the college notes that, even a state as technologically advanced as Washington is a “rural information ghetto when it comes to local news for smaller communities.”

It is particularly ironic that at a time when the circulation reach of “mainstream” news organizations is dramatically expanding thanks to digital technologies, the physical areas regional newspapers and broadcasters are able to directly cover are being dramatically reduced by budget cuts that mean fewer “boots on the ground” outside the borders of the major metros. This means that even digitally-­literate rural citizens who do have high-­speed Internet access are often still without a source of local news.

The solution: make it easier for citizen journalists to use that mobile newsroom in their pockets — their smartphone — to fill in the gaps and help keep their communities informed.

Among the specific recommendations:

The project will facilitate training/content partnerships between “mainstream media” and citizens who can provide reporting from rural areas beyond the news footprint of existing news organizations. This may include:

  •  Journalism training for aspiring “community journalists” carried out on a regional basis in the orbit of each of the major metros in partnership with each market’s dominant local media and technology providers
  • An infrastructure for community news partnerships with established media organizations modeled on The Seattle Times’ network of alliances
  • Funding from a combination of community, regional and national foundations, along with news organization partners 

A few quick reactions to what is, overall, a pretty good approach to the problem:

• The focus on education is key — after all people need to know the hows and whys of gathering news (or information that can be shaped into news reporting) — but I wonder if a pure J-School in a Box is likely to be as effective as some simple incentives and gamification (see GasBuddy for a good example of that in action). The two approaches together might be the way to go.

• Cit-Js working together with traditional media can certainly work, but there should also be more in here on empowering small communities to self-cover themselves. After all, the only technological barrier between a community not having a local publication and having a local publication is a two-minute sign-up process on tumblr.com or similar site.

• I don’t know how you can write a 43-page report on hyperlocal news in Washington without even once mentioning Patch.com, which covers 17 communities in the state. Seems like a blind spot that needs explaining in a footnote, at least.

Photo (cc) by Quinn Dombrowski