Monthly Archives: May 2012

Free swim in the workplace: 37signals gives over June to creativity

One of my favorite companies — 37signals — just moved up another notch in my estimation, declaring the entire month of June as an opportunity for experimentation and, apologies to Merlin Mann, blue-sky imagineering. 

This June will be a full month of free time to think, explore, mock up, prototype, whatever. People can go solo or put together a team – it’s entirely up to them. This is a month to unwind and create without the external pressures of other ongoing projects or expectations. We’re effectively taking a month off from non-essential scheduled/assigned work to see what we can do with no schedule/assignments whatsoever.

Some companies are famous for their 20% time where employees get 1/5th of their time to work on their own projects. In spirit I like this idea, but usually it’s executed by carving out a day here or a day there – or every Friday, for example – to work on your own projects.

But all time isn’t equal. I’d take 5 days in a row over 5 days spread out over 5 weeks. So our theory is that we’ll see better results when people have a long stretch of uninterrupted time. A month includes time to think, not just time to squeeze in some personal work around the edges.

The culmination of this month of free work time is Pitchday – the first Thursday in July. That’s when everyone will get a chance to pitch their idea, mockup, prototype, or proof of concept to the whole company. The better the pitch, the more likely the project will happen.

Awesome idea, and a bold (and expensive) move. I can’t wait to read about what comes out of this.

Photo: By Ville Miettinen. Creative Commons license.

I love printed newspapers and want to be proud of the ones we produce when we go to three editions a week. At the same time, we need to focus on the growth of New Orleans’ digital audience. It’s a vital part of our future. We can’t hesitate to embrace it.

- New Orleans Times-Picayune Editor Jim Amoss

Small inverted pyramids, loosely joined

Matthew Ingram picks up the great conversation sparked by Jeff Jarvis the other day, revisiting the idea that the article, as traditionally constructed in newspaper, magazines and, yep, blogs, has probably outlived its usefulness in that form.

Jarvis argues that the simplest solution is to start thinking about reporting as being composed of multiple objects:

A story can be made up of many assets. Once separated, the storyteller has the opportunity to present — and the reader to take — many paths through them. The expert in a story can go straight to what’s new and then leave, saving time having to look for the fresh nuggets among all all the space-filler that used to make up an article. The novice can start with the background, then read what’s new, then delve into the characters and timelines, then explore examples and arguments. The article becomes sets of assets and paths.

…So imagine that what used to be an article becomes a set of assets — all those I listed above: what’s new, background, timeline, players, etc. — and that the journalist can create distinct paths among them: one for the novice, one for the expert, another for the professsional, another for the policymaker.

Of course, those assets themselves can be constantly updated as needed. And, again, they need not all be created and maintained by a single source. So if Wikipedia has a great backgrounder, why recreate it? Link to it. (Remember: Do what you do best and link to the rest.)

This approach feels to me right, albeit one where writers and editors have to start thinking very differently about how reporting is done and how it is presented. In many ways, it’s curation at the micro-level, deciding which chunks exist, which need creating and how to assemble the assets best for the needs of users coming to the information with wildly varying needs, expectations, experience and devices on which they’ll interact with the information.

Ingram runs the ball even further down the field:

You can see the kind of news ecosystem Jarvis envisions developing already in a way, with Twitter and blogs or aggregators becoming the place where the news breaks, followed by more information on blogs or newspaper sites — along with photos and mashups and related ephemera on sites like BuzzFeed or Reddit (which has also taken on much of the Q&A function, and some of the fact-checking one as well). This is an illustration of what Jarvis and others have called “news as a process,” and also an example of author and Harvard researcher David Weinberger’s description of the web as “small pieces, loosely joined.”

Some of these connections are already created with plain old hyperlinks, of course, although not everyone uses them (or even likes them, if you listen to critics like Nick Carr). Is there a way to make those kinds of connections easier? Blogging pioneer and programmer Dave Winer thinks there is — in a recent post, he described a way to connect different types of documents such as comments together, a kind of peer-to-peer protocol for a document-based web.

It’s a fascinating conversation, perfectly apt for this very time and place, especially as we wrestle with how best to serve users who, increasingly, are experiencing news through phones and tablets.

Young entrepreneurs are clamoring for newsprint, apparently

Tom Benson, owner of the New Orleans Saints, arguing against the Times-Picayune’s decision to go to a digital-first footing and cut back on the printed product to three days a week:

This morning I read, in my Sunday Times-Picayune, where New Orleans has become a magnet city and one of the most desired cities for entrepreneurs and eager, motivated young adults seeking to better their careers. I was proud of that and instantly thought of the need these people, and countless others, will have for a daily newspaper. They, just like us, depend on it.

 

Apple’s still got it.

Here’s Tim Cook tonight, at The D Conference. He’s talking specifically about Apple and television, but he could be talking about how any company should approach any opportunity:

“Here’s the way we’d look at it. Not just at this, but other areas. We’d look and ask, can we control the key technology? Can we make a significant contribution far beyond what others have done in this area? Can we make a product that we all want? We think we’re reasonable proxies for others. So those are things we’d ask about any new product category.”

This is why people line up to hand Apple money.

Update: Horace Dediu runs the numbers and finds that the Apple TV business is small enough to really matter.

I’m getting that late-2006, staring-at-my-Nokia-candyphone-in-disgust, waiting for Apple to drop the news vibe. You?

With smartphones now half of U.S. cellphones, what does that mean for local publishers?

Any day now, some new Android or iPhone user will activate her freshly-purchased phone and, like that, the world will change.

Because at that very moment, more than half of all active cellphones in the U.S. will be smartphones.

More than half.

And that number will not simply hold steady. I imagine it will continue its sharp trajectory towards something close to 70% in short order. And why not? Smartphones represent the most rapidly adopted consumer technology of all time.

Smartphones are the most rapidly adopted consumer technology of all time. Data from Asymco.com.

But the raw numbers don’t matter as much as this: It’s now a safe bet that the average person in the United States who has a phone in his pocket is actually carrying around a little computer with — thanks to the rules of the carriers — a robust data plan.

Which brings me to the question which ended my last post: In a world of shrinking newsprint, how can local news organizations reclaim their position in their markets as the habitual go-to source for meaningful and useful journalism and relevant advertising?

They need to stop thinking about eyeballs, and start thinking about pockets. As in paying off on the promise that they can deliver my town, in my pocket, in a compelling mobile presentation, customized to my needs. Because, every time I dip into my pocket for my phone, whether on a whim or in response to an alert that I allowed to ring, I have choices. And, increasingly, the battle for casual and engaged news consumers will happen on pocket mobile devices (tablets too, but that’s another post).

It’s taken 15+ years for the local news industry to embrace online in a meaningful way (forgetting the regrettably unfocused paywall experiments underway), but the goalposts just moved again. And this time, there will not be the luxury of years to get the strategy right.

And the right strategy is to embrace the change that’s upon us all with a mobile-first approach.

Mobile-first means solving the communications and revenue challenges first for that 3-4 inch slab of glass. It doesn’t mean abandoning the desktop web — like printed newspapers in 1995, there’s too much of an installed base to ignore — but it does mean that all effort towards innovation should be channeled to the smallest screens first. Solve for a tiny space and the larger palette will take care of itself. Your in-house developers and designers should not be mocking up web pages if they haven’t shown you a world-class mobile solution first.

In the past mobile has been the afterthought stapled onto the primary web presentation; going forward, it is the user-centric engine that will help news organizations to recapture their lost users and to recreate The Daily Habit. Ignore this at your peril.

A few thoughts about mobile-first:

  • Despite what you’ve heard, it’s not just about apps. Not at first. Mobile-first is a strategy that does include apps secondarily, but is focused primarily on the tools everyone has on their phones: web, email, text-messaging, alerts and maps. More mobile users use their phone’s installed web browser over individual apps. That doesn’t mean your mobile site can’t look and act like an app — it should — but you absolutely have to have an outstanding mobile web solution before you unleash the developers on the App Store.
  • This spread of behavior favoring mobile web over apps will likely continue as new (and more casual) consumer users of smartphones will tend to be less experimental than the smartphone early-adopters of 2007-2010.
  • Under a successful mobile-first approach, your users’ patterns will likely change. Freed from the Monday-Friday workplace-surfing paradigm set first in the late 90s, mobile users of local news and information are just as likely — more likely even — to dip into their pockets in the evening or on the weekend. Are you ready for that shift?
  • Mobile-first serves as a great gateway for user-generated content. With the right mobile-optimized tools and apps, publishers should make it one-click easy for a user to comment, join a discussion, review a restaurant, add a video, a photo or an event listing. Making UGC tools mobile-friendly removes friction and makes it more likely that users will contribute to the content mix.

Are you building a mobile-first solution for your users? A majority of them probably wish you would.