Experiment: For Limited Time, Kindle Version is just $0.99

I published Mediactive a little over a year ago. The project, including the sale of publication rights in Japan, is in the black financially. And I’m ready to try some experiments as I move toward version 2 of the book and website.

Barry Eisler, who published his latest thriller, The Detachment (highly recommended) with Amazon, suggested I try this: Cut the price, temporarily, to 99 cents — and watch what happens. In his case, the book rocketed up to the top of the Kindle sales rankings.

So I’ve done that. For a limited time, the Kindle version of Mediactive is just $0.99. Obviously I’m not going to move to the top sales spot. But I’m looking forward to seeing what happens.


What a 21st Century News Ombudsman Should Do: Aggregate, Curate, Debate

It’s time to change the role of the news ombudsman. Two new posts/columns from the people who are best known in this job today prove it.

The most recent was a head-scratching query from the New York Times’ Public Editor (aka ombudsman), Art Brisbane — asking whether the Times should be telling its readers when sources don’t tell the truth. Brisbane, a friend, has taken a lot of heat for this, and I’m one of the people who’s disappointed that he would even ask this question. (He later said people misinterpreted what he was asking — and he’s not totally unreasonable about this — but from my perspective he invited the misinterpretation. Sorry, Art…)

His post followed by days an even odder piece from the Washington Post’s ombudsman, Patrick Pexton, who wondered if the organization was innovating too rapidly. Answer: Of course not; one of the Post’s biggest problems is that it’s not innovating fast enough.

These pieces highlighted how strange the ombudsman’s job has become, and why I think it needs to be updated in this networked age. Here’s how I’d change it, and I hope both of these men will consider at least adding some of these ideas to their portfolio. There would be two main approaches: aggregation and conversation.

The best media criticism of every news organization is being done outside its walls. I would stop writing my own critiques, and then:

  • Make it a core part of my role to aggregate every responsible critique of the organization’s work that I could find;
  • Call bullshit when the critics are wrong; and thank them when they are right;
  • Encourage the best critics cross-post on my page.
  • Strongly encourage newsroom staff to participate in these debates. UPDATE: Brisbane got a reply from the Times’ editor, Jill Abramson, and replied to that; good to see…
  • Ask readers to flag mistakes of fact and analysis, and put the corrections (easier with facts) into a database with or without the cooperation of the newsroom
  • Create a robust, open forum about the organization’s work.

In other words, I’d stop trying to be the go-between and overseer of what matters in the effort to bring media criticism inside the organization. It’s obvious — look at how the NY Times buries Brisbane’s work on its website; you can barely find it without a search — that the editorial staffers wish ombudsmen would just go away.

They have a great role to play, in fact. But they should use the ample resources of the blogosphere, coverage by other news orgs (which occasionally, though not nearly often enough), and social media to bring attention to the paper or whatever kind of organization they are.

To have someone in this role implies a news organization that isn’t afraid of its own shadow — where people welcome criticism rather than dreading it. I hope some forward-looking editor/publisher does this. John Paton comes to mind.

Political Columnist: Please Look in the Mirror

The New York Times’ Gail Collins offers some sound advice in her column about the latest presidential campaign: “Ignore Iowa.” She writes:

Perhaps this would be a good time to point out that the Iowa caucuses are really ridiculous.

I tend to agree with Collins’ general point. The caucuses are unrepresentative, quirky and even idiotic. What disappoints me about her column, however, is the utter lack of self-awareness it demonstrates.

On the Times’ Politics web page, an aggregation of articles from the past several days (but mostly current stories), you will find no fewer than seven pieces from Iowa. See where I’m going? Of course you do: Collins is dissing the event that her own newspaper has helped make such a national production.

The column Collins could have written would have made all of the good points of the original. It then would have gone one step further: to urge her bosses and colleagues to stop being among the chief promoters of the absurdity.

News Cooperatives for the Future

My friend (and editor of Mediactive) Tom Stites has written a three-part series of postings for Nieman Lab, the increasingly excellent site that scopes out the latest in journalism thinking (and doing). These posts are about business models for our future sources of information. In order:

Part 1, a survey of the debris-strewn digital and print journalism landscape.

Part 2, news deserts as a frame to elevate the issue of how weakening journalism weakens democracy.

Part 3, why it’s time to test co-op business models.

The third installment is closest to Tom’s current work: the Banyan Project (I’m an advisor), a news cooperative that I believe is one of the most interesting models we’ve seen in a long time. When you finish reading his terrific pieces at Nieman Lab, take a look at the Banyan site, too. If you care about the future of community information, this is important stuff.

Warren Buffett Buys Another Newspaper

As a diehard believer in the value of what good newspapers can bring to communities, I’m pleased that Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway has purchased its “hometown” newspaper. I very much doubt that this corporate owner, unlike many others, will manage the newspapers in ways mostly or solely designed to extract money from the community while providing the least amount of useful journalism.

Berkshire Hathaway already owns the Buffalo News, and is a major shareholder in the Washington Post Co. But Buffett has long been on the record as, to put it mildly, a newspaper-industry pessimist. He called this new purchase “a reasonable investment” — hardly the language he’s used with other deals.

So as a shareholder in Berkshire Hathaway, I’m a bit baffled. And for the first time since I bought this stock back in the 1980s, I have the feeling that Buffett — who has said again and again that he would treat his shareholders like the co-owners of the company that they are — has arranged for Berkshire to buy something for his own personal reasons, rather than his typically sterling business strategy for the parent company. 

I hope I’m wrong. Maybe we’ve reached a bottom for newspapers and there’s happier times ahead. But I’ve seen nothing to suggest a serious long-term value proposition for newspapers like the Omaha World-Herald, especially ones run in traditional ways.

I’m fairly sure this is more about Buffet’s belief that quality newspapers matter and that his hometown needs one — I applaud that sentiment — or, as a source in the Bloomberg article suggests, ensuring a positive first draft of history for Buffett and his family. If either or both of those motives is true, Buffett should have spent his own money, not Berkshire’s.

The World-Herald purchase is a rounding error on Berkshire Hathaway’s balance sheet. But it’s still real money.

Chinese Translation in the Works

I had the pleasure this week to meet journalism students from Shantou (China) University who are working on a Chinese translation of Mediactive. They’re using the fabulous Yeeyan service, which is like a Wikipedia of translation.

It was great fun visiting with the Shantou students yesterday. Several of them, with big smiles, introduced themselves as “Chapter Nine” and “Chapter 3” and the like.

They’re being supervised by my old friend and colleague Ying Chan, dean of the journalism school at Shantou and director of Hong Kong University’s Journalism & Media Studies Centre, where I used to teach for a few weeks each fall. She tells me the first draft is done and posted, and comments are coming in. There are a number of other steps in the process (including a full copy-edit), and we’re hoping it’ll be posted early next year.

New Review from AEJMC

The AEJMC (journalism education’s biggest membership group) has posted a review of Mediactive, by David Kamerer of Loyola University. Quote:

Journalism is going through transformative change, and some institutions will fail. But it won’t be the end of journalism. Our economy is more information-dominant than ever. Barriers to entry have never been lower. Millions are publishing and gaining influence in their chosen spheres. And who knows? Out of these millions of seedlings may grow the New York Times of the future. If you want to participate in this dynamic marketplace of ideas, Mediactive is a useful guide that will speed your progress.

Tokyo Visit re Mediactive, Japanese Edition

Tokyo-area folks: I’ll be there next week for a series of talks and other events relating to the recently published Japanese edition of Mediactive The following events are open to the public. All but the Digital Hollywood event are free, but reservations are required in each case.

Tuesday, Oct. 11: 7-9 pm at Asahi newspaper

Wednesday, Oct. 12: 8-10 pm at Digital Hollywood (School of Media Art)

Thursday, Oct. 13: 2-4:30 pm at Digital Garage

Thursday, Oct. 13: 6:30-8:30 pm at Nikkei newspaper

FCC Hearing Illuminates Supply, Not So Much About Demand

I’m listening a simulcast of the Federal Communications Commission’s hearing this morning at ASU’s Cronkite School. The event was designed to highlight issues surrounding the FCC’s recent report on community information needs.

The overwhelming focus is on supply, with almost no discussion of demand. That’s disappointing, and reflects a continuing problem in this arena.

The report discusses demand (which is a major focus of Mediactive), but offers few recommendations on what to do about it. Meanwhile, one FCC commissioner, Michael Copps, has been talking about the issue — in the context of media and news literacy — but, as the report suggests, it’s unclear what the FCC can do to promote these literacies apart from calling them a good thing.

We will never have great supply without great demand.