Ask an Expert Questions and Answers Reporting

When local agencies don’t notify us of news releases and or a press conference, more than once, what is the best course of action?

Unfortunately, there is no legal requirement that notices and press releases be distributed evenly. If a quorum of officials is present, a public notice must be posted at the appropriate place but there is no posting requirement for a press conference. I’d recommend that your first course of action would be to sit down with the official or officials in charge and discuss the issues. Explain that you want to be fair about your coverage, and you’re disturbed that they are trying to exclude your readers from the information that they believe is important. Make them realize this is not about you but about members of the public who rely on you for information. Sometimes that will give them the opportunity to rant and rave at you, and then you can all move forward.

As we all know, however, rational arguments do not always work. That leaves the old-fashionioned reporting approach:

  • Are there public officials who are more sympathetic to you who could alert you to these events? Cultivate those people, and make sure you protect their identities, or they likely will be cut off, too.
  • If you believe a press release has been issued, make an open records request for it. If they delay in giving it to you, file a complaint with the Texas Attorney General’s office. (Information that has already been released publicly is considered public under the law and can’t be withheld, generally.)
  • Make an effort to show up regularly at every event and activity you hear about. I realize this takes a lot of staff time, but perhaps you could do this on a short-term basis until basic courtesies have been re-established.
  • Do they have a working Web site? Constant checks to the Web site can also alert you to activities.

Rebuilding lines of communication can be very difficult. Quite honestly, sometimes there’s nothing you can do about it except to continue covering issues the way you believe they should be covered. You can also point out in your coverage that officials have refused to provide information, or refused to discuss issues. But that shouldn’t stop you from continuing to cover the things that are important in your community.


Social media Video

What journalists need to know about user-generated video

So you’ve found a video on YouTube that you’d like to use on your Web site or you’re interested in writing a story about. What are the ethical considerations and how do you decide if it’s worth covering? What are your legal responsibilities from accepting video from a user? Leah Betancourt, the digital community manager at the Minneapolis Star Tribune, has all of those answers in this post.

Ask an Expert Questions and Answers Online business models

What can we do to combat free classified sites such as Craigslist?

Todd from the Wise County Messenger asks: Craigslist seems to be getting perilously close to our area, not to mention a local blogger has set up his own free classifieds system. What can we do to try and combat this?

One thing to understand about the new classifieds market online — and the Internet in general — is that there will inevitably be revenue losses brought on by increased efficiency.

In fact, as many of you likely know, classified advertising is down across the industry, and many have pointed to it as one of the chief catalysts in the erosion of the newspaper business model. Online alternatives such as eBay and free online alternatives such as Craiglist have replaced newspaper classifieds — especially in large markets.

The revenues from those companies don’t even come close to adding up to what newspapers have lost in revenue. That’s because they’re doing what newspapers have been doing with classifieds for years, but they’re doing it far more efficiently – a luxury afforded by the Internet.

And while Craigslist and others have yet to hit small markets, they’re growing quickly. They expanded their list of cities by 25 percent last month.

So why fear Craigslist and the like? Many reasons, and it’s not just their price:

  1. Because they’re free they can amass content faster, adding to their utility for buyers.
  2. There’s no skimming the page; a simple search capability greatly increases the usability.
  3. Their self-service interface allows users to place their own ads on their own time.

So how can you compete with Craigslist? In many ways, traditional printed newspaper classifieds just can’t compete. That’s why newspapers across the country are struggling to regain lost classified revenue from free classified services.

Be proactive

That’s the key, though: regain. The good news for community newspapers is that, for many, Craiglist and others have yet to take revenue from them. So far, they’re still the place to go.

Because of that, it’s a great time to strike before someone else does, but you’ll have to go into this knowing that you may never get back what you were once getting from classified sales.

There are legitimate reasons for that. It doesn’t cost as much to publish online classifieds and anyone can do it. There are many more options out there than your newspaper classifieds or even Craigslist. Just search for free classifieds on Google with your community name, and you’re likely to find plenty of options.

Facebook also has a feature, called Marketplace, that users can turn to. And they can just as easily let their friends or followers know on their social media accounts that they’re trying to unload something.

Capitalize on your strengths

What you can deliver that nobody else can is trust and eyeballs.

While Craigslist and the offer free sites have been around for years, they haven’t been in Decatur, Texas, for years. Your newspaper’s brand is one of your biggest assets in this case.

Also, if you have a Web product you can immediately leverage that audience, bringing potential online sellers a loyal, established audience that a new person in the market can’t provide.

To compete with the free part of online classifieds, though, there aren’t many solutions besides going free as well. But that doesn’t mean everything for free all the time.

You have value-added options you can provide — specific ally publication in your print product. You can also provide premium “upsells”, such as photos, videos or premium placement within your system.

Monetize the platform

By hosting the classifieds on your site, you can also capitalize on the additional traffic. Using your established advertising base, you can sell online display ads around your classified listings.

All of these things might never replace what you’ve lost in print classifieds, but the reality is they’re just not worth what they were to consumers several years ago.

That’s a realization that has been brought on by the multiple free alternatives out there, but it has been a reality since our communication methods adapted to the Internet age.

Online news

7 steps to building a healthy online community at your newspaper

Steve Yelvington has posted some easy practical advice on how to build a healthy community around your online news product. He gives advice on both how to change your Web site and how to change your newsroom mentality.

Ask an Expert Questions and Answers

Do I have to tell government officials why I want information when I make an open records request?

No. The Texas Public Information Act does not allow government officials to ask why you want the information.

I generally find that a very polite response – with an emphasis on polite – noting that the law doesn’t allow them to ask will generally put an end to that line of questioning.

According to the Texas Attorney General’s office, a government agency is allowed to ask for proper identification of the requestor and for clarification, if necessary, on the information requested.

“Often, an initial open records request may involve the production of more documents than the requestor intended,” according to the attorney general’s Web site. “Similarly, many open records requests ask for information that is not kept by the governmental body in the requested format. In either case, the governmental body can ask the requestor whether a potential narrowing or variation of the request would meet the requestor’s needs.”

For more information about this issue or the Texas Public Information Act, visit the attorney general’s web site at, and then click on the “open government” tab. Down the right side of the screen you will see a prompt for “public information act made easy.” This is a great resource for explaining the law and how it has been interpreted over the years.


The free mentality of the Internet, and a hybrid alternative

Software developer Jesse Grosjean wanted to try an experiment with one of his most recent creations – an applications for the iPhone called WriteRoom.

He posted his software in Apple’s App Store at the price of $4.99. He sold nine copies. The next day, he dropped the price to free and over the next three days his application was downloaded 16,347 times, according to stats he posted on his blog. He toyed with the price for several days, but even at his lowest price, $.99, he peaked out at 446 downloads in a day.

Grosjean’s mini-experiment is indicative of a part of Internet culture that is wrecking financial models for businesses of all kinds – an expectation that content should be free. “Content may be king, but, ironically, its perceived value today is being driven towards zero,” writes entertainment lawyer Jonathan Handel. “In the eyes of consumers, content is becoming a commodity – more a commoner than a king.” (see his six reasons why here)

As Chris Anderson, editor of Wired magazine, points out in his book Free: The Future of a Radical Price, most Internet users take advantage of free services on a daily basis, many of which are profitable business ventures. That includes search engines Google and Yahoo, social networking sites such as Facebook or MySpace, Wikipedia, Amazon, Craigslist, and dozens of others. In fact, the 20 busiest sites in the U.S., as identified by measurement firm Alexa, are free sites.

But that model isn’t working for everyone, especially in mass communication. What, then, is supposed to fill the void left by that lost revenue for businesses as they transition to the Internet? Companies are trying all kinds of things online from advertising-supported (Hulu, an online distribution platform for network TV) to subscription-supported (the Wall Street Journal) to micropayments (iTunes).

But the latest trend online, “freemium”, may be the one that holds the most potential if advertising sales continue to fall. In May, the New York Times called the freemium model “the most popular among Web start-ups.”

To understand freemium, start with Anderson’s explanation of how online business models have evolved. First, sites used the super-cheap distribution costs of the Internet to get huge audiences and sold general interest ads against those huge audiences. That’s not all that different than the traditional mass media approach. Then, sites began finding more effective, targeted advertisements by targeting users based on their habits or interests, squeezing the most money possible out of display advertising. Facebook does this based on information users supply in their profiles; Gmail does it with the content of your messages.

Ad rates online are much lower than on TV or in print, though. “Advertising in traditional media, whether newspapers, magazines, or TV, is all about selling a scarce resource – space,” Scott Karp, founder of Publish 2, says in Free. “The problem is that on the web, there’s a nearly infinite amount of space. So when traditional media companies try to sell space online the same way they sell space offline, they find they only have a fraction of the pricing power.”

So what happens when advertising support alone isn’t enough to sustain a business? That’s where freemium comes in. Freemium is based on giving away a product to the masses then “upselling” the most dedicated, intense users to a premium product and using those fees to support the free content being given away to the rest of the user base. Anderson argues that the low (and rapidly decreasing) distribution costs online facilitate that large-scale distribution of free content, at little cost to publishers.

Some examples of Freemium:

So what are the implications for the mass media? Industries will be challenged to determine what is free and what is premium. Some have already tried this. Both newspapers and the music industry have long benefitted from “bundling” – selling the hit singles and the lower-performing songs on the same album, for example or the top news stories with low-cost content from wire services.

For many in mass media, there’s already a freemium model in place. Anderson points to Wired‘s three tiers: free online vs. $.88/copy by subscription vs. $4.95 on the rack. However, now he says those in the mass media must ask: “What’s the $19.95 version?”

This is a cross-post from Explorations in New Media, an ongoing project at the Schieffer School of Journalism at TCU.

Online news Paid content

Before charging for online content, know your true online readership

Alan Mutter explains how just looking at unique visitors or page views for your Web content isn’t enough. It might be enough, he says, to show your advertisers how many views their ads are getting, but it’s not enough if you’re trying to figure out how much money you might make selling your content.

Future of news

Community newspapers healthy, but there are problems on the horizon

This article summarizes the current health of community journalism, but also says that there are problems that wise publishers need to pay attention to. One of those issues is competition. The author notes that community newspapers frequently point out that they have no competition. But, he correctly notes, to say that there are no other newspapers does not mean that there is no competition. The article also has a good discussion of the decline of classified ads under competition from Craigslist. Be sure also to check out the Associated Press article that’s cited several times in this article.

Online news

How your stories end up on Google News, and how you can promote them

Google has posted a video on YouTube that outlines some best practices for publishers who are trying to perform better on Google News. If you haven’t checked to see if you’re showing up on Google News, you might want to. The search engine sends more than a billion clicks a year to news sites. If you’re already on Google News, then you might want to check out this video with some tips on how to perform better. And don’t worry, despite the insider terms and tech speak, there is some simple, easy-to-use advice in there.


News websites can learn from Wikipedia

Some have argued that the story was a product of necessity — newspapers had a fixed news hole to fill, and newscasts only had so much airtime. Context was often sacrificed as a result, because with a fixed amount of space, only the newest information is fit to print. But in the online era, there is no news hole. So what does that mean for the story, and if it’s dying, what will replace it? Is the story dead as a building block or do we need to be building new ways of presenting information using stories?

“The story was all we had before — it’s what would fit onto a newspaper page or into a broadcast show,” Jeff Jarvis, a journalism professor at The City University of New York wrote in his blog, Buzz Machine. “But a discrete and serial series of articles over days cannot adequately cover the complex stories going on now nor can they properly inform the public.”

Furthermore, newspapers are on fixed publication schedules; the format of the newspaper simply lended itself to telling readers what happened in a given 24-hour period, not everything that has happened in a given storyline. That’s great for an interesting feature story, but doesn’t do justice to a complex issue such as healthcare reform.

So what is emerging online as the new “atomic unit” of news?

Some say it’s the topic and point to Wikipedia of all places as an example. Compare the Wikipedia page on Cash for Clunkers to the latest newspaper story on the program and you quickly see how much more information is on one Wikipedia page compared to one page on a news website. It’s unlikely you’re going to sit down and read all 4,500+ words in the Wikipedia story, though, and there are obvious accuracy issues. But some journalism scholars still point to the possibilities Wikipedia’s format has for news. Most of the information in the Wiki was probably reported at one time by most major newspapers who reported on Cash for Clunkers, but as journalists, we just don’t organize our information on the Web in a way that is as permanent, or as context-packed as a Wiki. If you want to see some attempts at this, check out Times Topics from the New York Times and also see how AP is looking at doing something similar. For a smaller example, look at Columbia Tomorrow, a project from Matt Thompson at the Reynolds Institute at Mizzou. Google thinks there’s value in “contextual news”; they’re experimenting with adding Wikipedia in Google News searches.

The story model also assumes regular readership, which is something that also may not exist in the online era like many thought it did in print. We can no longer assume someone who read about a crime one day heard about the arrest the next. Google’s Marissa Meyer compared the change in the “atomic consumption of news” to what iTunes and the mp3 has done to the music industry. “As with music and video, many people still consume physical newspapers in their original full-length format. But with online news, a reader is much more likely to arrive at a single article,” Meyer said during Congressional testimony in May.

Neither option can replace the story, though. Scan Wikipedia, and much of the source information points back to newspaper articles. That begs the question, could a newspaper such as the Detroit Free Press produce a great page on former mayor Kwame Kilpatrick? His Wikipedia page was viewed more than 500,000 times last year and most of the links are to Free Press stories. Could your newspaper do the same thing with a page on the local high school’s football team or your annual town festival? After all, most daily newspaper stories are written to last just one day. What are the monetization possibilities of topics pages that are built to last forever on the Web while being updated as a given topic evolves, all the while pointing readers to additional reading in the form of stories or documents hosted on a newspaper’s Web site?

This is a cross-post from Explorations in New Media, an ongoing project at the Schieffer School of Journalism at TCU.