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  • Eric Ulken 3:49 am on September 2, 2009
    Tags: Germany, Rheinische Post, Schwalmtal,   

    Police radio play-by-play lands German Twitterer in trouble 

    I did this online journalism-related write-up last week for Spiegel International. It didn’t run there, so I’m posting it here (with permission, of course):

    When a 71-year-old pensioner killed three people and wounded a fourth in a shooting spree last month in North Rhine-Westphalia, the police response unfolded in real time on Twitter. A user of the microblogging site, who was listening in on official radio communications taking place at the scene in the town of Schwalmtal, posted a running report of the suspect’s standoff with authorities.

    The Twitter account was soon deleted, but not before much of user @JO31DH’s minute-by-minute account was repeated in blogs and other Twitter posts: “1 confirmed dead in rampage. … The commando unit has arrived on site … The forces will move to Hermmann-Löh Street in Amern … The helicopter is on Pletschweg … News channel N24 is also in Schwalmtal now.”

    While listening in on police radio transmissions is legal in some countries, including the United States, it is forbidden in Germany and carries a penalty of up to two years’ imprisonment.

    In the midst of the two-hour standoff, with reports coming in that the suspect had taken hostages, Philipp Ostrop, an editor at RuhrNachrichten.de, tweeted, “If there’s really a hostage situation in Schwalmtal, can the perpetrator follow along with @JO31DH on what the police are up to? Is that such a good thing?”

    Other posts warned the user that what he was doing was illegal.

    The anonymous twitterer claimed protection as a journalist: “I call myself the press. That’s enough… Now shut up.”

    The next day the would-be journalist posted a contrite message on his blog (now also offline but quoted by the Rheinische Post): “I would like to formally apologize. I see, in spite of everything, how these social networks can be misused. I don’t feel good about this. I hope things will soon settle down and others won’t repeat this stupid idea.”

    The newspaper later reported that authorities had identified the Twitter user and would file criminal charges. According to police, the man did not threaten the operation because the commando unit on the scene was using secure mobile phones to communicate.

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  • Eric Ulken 9:16 am on August 22, 2009
    Tags: Google Inc., story ideas,   

    Search trends and geography 

    I know it’s been around for a year or more now, but I still can’t stop playing with Google Insights for Search, that small window into the universe of data that Google collects on user behavior. It’s a trend-spotter’s dream, and — particularly with its geographical filters — a potential source of story ideas for journalists.

    For example, I can see the fastest rising search terms in Los Angeles and Berlin in the past week.

    But what I’m finding fun right now is plugging in brand names and seeing where they’re strong. I offer, by way of example, some vehicle brands and maps showing search volume in the United States:

    The four-wheel-drive Subaru line is understandably popular in mountainous, cold-weather states:

    Geographic search trends for "subaru"

    Saab has some fans in New England, but that’s about it:

    Geographic search trends for "saab"

    Another ailing GM make, Hummer, still gets some interest in Nevada and Texas (I suspect the bump in interest in Michigan may be mostly from concerned GM stakeholders):

    Geographic search trends for "hummer"

    Toyota’s Prius, meanwhile, is especially popular in eco-conscious places such as California and Vermont:

    Geographic search trends for "prius"

    And the Vespa scooter craze seems to have taken hold on the West Coast and, inexplicably, Utah:

    Geographic search trends for "vespa"

    When you look at popularity over time for all five brands, you can clearly see how interest in the brands associated with fuel-sipping vehicles spikes during periods when fuel prices are high. No huge surprises here, but it’s fun to see how well search data tracks real-world trends.

    Have you used Google’s search trend data for story ideas? Share your tips in the comments.

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  • Eric Ulken 4:05 pm on July 16, 2009
    Tags: , , Der Spiegel, Investigative Reporters and Editors   

    Breaking the silence here 

    I haven’t gone totally off the grid. I just stopped contributing to it for a while. I needed to recharge my mental battery. Now I’m back and playing catch-up. Here, briefly, is what I’ve been up to the last few months.

    April was “conference month” on two continents:

    In May I visited old friends and colleagues in L.A. and Kansas City and family in Atlanta and Boston. I also traveled back to my alma mater, the University of Missouri (from which I’d graduated exactly 10 years earlier), to attend IRE’s excellent Django boot camp. I highly recommend this to anybody who wants to build web interfaces to newsy data. IRE offers a couple such classes a year, including at its annual conference. This one was run by a fellow Mizzou J alum, NYT’s Brian Hamman.

    In June I went to Japan with my little brother. It was mostly a leisure trip, but in Tokyo I sat down with some folks from a telecom think tank to talk about paid content on mobile devices. There’s a write-up here.

    That piece marks the start of an occasional column I’ll be writing for De Nieuwe Reporter, a Dutch blog that covers developments in online journalism. (I volunteered to write in Dutch, but thankfully they were happy with English. Which is good because I write Dutch at a pre-K level.)

    Now I’m preparing to leave for a two-month Arthur Burns Fellowship in Germany. I’ll be working in Berlin for the web-only international edition of Der Spiegel, Germany’s leading newsweekly (and operator of the country’s most popular news website). I’ll also spend some time traveling within Germany and investigating trends in online journalism there. The orientation is next week in Washington, D.C., and I’ll arrive in Berlin Monday, July 27.

    Stay tuned. I promise to check in soon.

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    • Josh 6:53 am on July 17, 2009

      Glad to see you’re still out there, Eric. Enjoy the Burns.

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  • Eric Ulken 11:50 pm on April 16, 2009
    Tags: BusinessWeek Online, John Byrne, user engagement,   

    How BusinessWeek measures user engagement 

    How do you get past those squishy pageview and unique visitor metrics and instead measure how users actually respond to the content you produce? My interview on this topic with BusinessWeek Online editor John Byrne (whom I met in Perugia at the International Journalism Festival a couple weeks ago) is now up on OJR. An excerpt:

    Byrne: User engagement is how we nurture and build a community. Our reader engagement index is a comments-to-postings measure for a given month: So we will tally how many comments on X number of stories/blog posts that BusinessWeek.com published that month. This gives us a ratio figure that we track to determine our monthly reader engagement index and growth.

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  • Eric Ulken 5:54 pm on April 16, 2009
    Tags: , International Symposium on Online Journalism   

    Back in the States, for now 

    A quick update on the travels and the blogging:

    I returned to the States earlier this week, after about three months abroad. I have lots of notes and ideas, and now I just have to find the focus to turn them into blog posts. Wish me luck. :-)

    What’s next? I’ll be visiting Japan in June, and while I’m there I hope to answer this question: How, in one of the most wired countries in the world, is the newspaper industry still thriving? (If you have any contacts in newspapers there, please let me know.)

    And in July I’ll head back to Europe for a two-month fellowship in a German news organization (TBA), during which time I’ll also be traveling within Germany and blogging on trends in newsrooms there.

    The itinerary is now updated to reflect all this.

    Meanwhile, I’m in Austin for the International Symposium on Online Journalism. If you’re around, say hi.

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    • Paul 2:27 pm on April 24, 2009

      I def. have to hook you up with my colleagues at the Yomiuri Shimbun, NHK, Jiji press… bug me

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  • Eric Ulken 3:24 am on March 26, 2009
    Tags: Byron Dorgan, financial crisis,   

    Banking law: Holding them accountable 

    You know that 1999 NYT story that’s been floating around on Twitter about the passage of the bill to loosen U.S. banking regulations by repealing the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933? It includes some prescient warnings like this one from Sen. Byron Dorgan:

    “I think we will look back in 10 years’ time and say we should not have done this but we did because we forgot the lessons of the past, and that that which is true in the 1930′s is true in 2010.”

    Like any outraged citizen, my first instinct on reading this was to figure out who to blame for passing this law. So I thought I’d use WashingtonPost.com’s congressional votes database to see how members of the House and Senate voted on this bill.

    The Post’s database allows users to group votes by several criteria (including some silly stuff like lawmakers’ astrological signs). The most salient stat seems to be “boomer status”: Pre-baby-boomer lawmakers were more likely to vote against the bill (especially in the Senate), presumably because many of them still remembered the Great Depression.

    Maybe older really does mean wiser?

    If you find other interesting trends in the data, post them here.

    Update: OpenSecrets.org is a few steps ahead: Back in September 2008, they had details not only on the voting record for the banking bill but also on industry contributions to lawmakers broken down by yeas and nays. (hat tip: @bill_allison)

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  • Eric Ulken 2:14 am on March 19, 2009
    Tags: BarCamp, ,   

    ‘Spontaneous bashing together of ideas’ 

    That’s how BeeBCamp, a BarCamp-style unconference held at the BBC last month, was described on the organization’s public blog. My OJR piece on BeeBCamp and “innovation events” in general is up. If your organization has held such an event, please share your experience.

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    • Ben 10:03 am on March 20, 2009

      I was recently told that barcamps need not include alcohol — and that origin is in fact the infamous programming filler, foobar. A bit of a disappointment. If journalists can have any influence on the programming world, I hope it might be moving things from hotel ballrooms to trashy bars.

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  • Eric Ulken 12:33 pm on February 25, 2009
    Tags: Andrew Currah, , Oxford University, Reuters Institute,   

    Making news pay: no easy answers at Oxford 

    Green Templeton College, Oxford University

    I attended Andrew Currah‘s interesting talk on business models for news today at Oxford’s Green Templeton College. Currah has just released a report for the Reuters Institute called “What’s Happening to Our News.” Lots of good insights on the scary economic trends in the U.K. news media. Real problems urgently in need of solutions. Well worth a read.

    Currah spoke of the “messianic” belief among news executives that digital products will become engines of productivity and profitability. Unfortunately, “the new platform doesn’t seem able to support journalism in its current form,” he said. He quoted a McKinsey report that found online revenue per user to be, at best, about 1/20th of print.

    Currah outlined some of the potential alternatives being tried or proposed: micropayments, hybrid “freemium” services, charitable models of various kinds (Washington Post would supposedly need a $2 billion endowment to support its journalism). Substantial asterisks and drawbacks to all the options mentioned. Not particularly encouraging.

    But what bothers me about Currah’s conclusions is that they’re partly based on what I think is the flawed assumption that “following the audience” is a bad thing and inherently at odds with a higher public-service purpose.

    I believe that a news organization can follow the audience and be of service to it at the same time. In fact, I think one of the reasons why many newspapers — in the U.S., at least, and I suspect here too — find themselves in their current state is because they’ve fallen out of sync with the needs of the audiences they claim to serve.

    Maybe I’m overly idealistic on this point, but I think it’s not only possible to do serious journalism that’s commercially viable, it’s a waste of time to do otherwise. Put another way: If I publish a sound, well-researched investigative piece on a topic nobody wants to read about, how is that serving an audience?

    +++

    Currah’s book is here. His presentation is here. (Note: Both files are large PDFs.)

    (My own two cents’ on the revenue picture and what newspapers can do about it is now up on OJR.)

    Photo: Green Templeton College, Oxford University, by Eric Ulken.

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    • Andrew Nystrom 10:56 pm on March 4, 2009

      Eric, just wanted to make sure you saw the latest @latimesfires tweet:

      http://twitter.com/LATimesfires/status/1282071866

      re how @ev gave highlighted your Oct. ’07 San Diego fires tweets recently while on stage at @TE2009, as an example of an early, real-time watershed moment for Twitter.

      Happy travels ~ @latimesnystrom

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    • Eric Ulken 11:43 pm on March 4, 2009

      Wow. Cool. (Wish I could take credit for the fire tweets, but that was actually a Sean Gallagher innovation, as I recall.)

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    • Ben 10:39 am on March 6, 2009

      You’re putting your finger the pressure point, E. I think the major underpinning of the other side of the argument is the idea that popular ideas are often wrong. One of the major points of pride among university types is that they inhabit an environment where free inquiry can happen with some insulation from popular opinion and the demands of the market. And the perception is, I think, that newspapers inhabited something of a similar space — a beachhead of the university in the commercial world. From the point of view of a liberal college professor, the newspaper was “our monopoly.”

      I think there’s a challenge to that argument along the lines you’re making (“Prove to me, Mr. Scholar, that these investigative stories have increased the public good in some measurable way.”), but there’s a similar demand on your side of the argument too. What makes the market so great? The market gave us CNBC — and just watch the Daly Show takedown this week to see how great Jim Cramer’s advice has been for his, admittedly large, audience.

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    • Ben 10:43 am on March 6, 2009

      Please forgive the spelling and grammar errors in my previous post. I leave these things in rush and then always have a moment of horror when I reread them.

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    • Eric Ulken 6:34 am on March 7, 2009

      Ben, you make a good point about the perils of blindly following the market.

      What I should have added to my argument is this: A certain amount of “subsidizing” of less popular content with crowd-pleasing stuff is, I think, perfectly consistent with the idea of following the reader. Because, even though the Internet is the great unbundler and people are only going to read what they want to read, there is still great value in a trusted, reputable brand — and such brands are built and cultivated in part by going for stories you know aren’t going to get a lot of traffic but are worth doing because they contribute to the brand. Maybe not today or tomorrow, but in the long run.

      It might sound cynical to use marketing terminology to justify doing important and necessary journalism, but nobody said squaring free-market principles with public service goals was pretty. :-)

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    • Mike 1:04 am on March 30, 2009

      I’ve done quite a bit of thinking on this subject myself, both from my conversations with you over the years as well as my own experiences in the world of politics, where in many ways traditional written news, broadcast news, new media, and blogs all intersect.

      I do agree with you that news-for-pay can indeed be commercially viable in the future. However, despite much lamenting of the fact that old media sources such as newspapers are dying and the need to save it, I don’t think that broad-audience general-news-for-everybody publications such as traditional newspapers are viable. The reason for this is because of what we already know — we can all get that major news for free anyway through any variety of sources online or on television.

      Indeed, I fully suspect that by 2015, the Kansas City Star and St. Louis Post Dispatch, in my area of the country, will cease to exist in their current forms. And, unlike some, I do not think that is a bad thing. It’s simply what it is — a fact and a reality of the times.

      However, the answer to me is not as simple as simply going online with those same, boring publications that already provide information we can get for free somewhere else. No one is going to subscribe or advertise through such sources. Rather, I think what we’ll increasingly see is smaller, crisper, enterprises that are targeted at specific audiences — varying in size depending on the topic and scope — that are built largely upon subscriptions with a smaller slice for targeted advertising such as “sponsorships”.

      In some ways, it will be a reversal of the merging of media outlets we’ve seen recently. We’ll no longer see huge corportations owning multiple newspapers and even TV stations. We’ll see small-staffed but quite effective operations operating out of strip malls or second-story offices in big and towns alike.

      A local example of this is the Kansas Liberty — http://www.kansasliberty.com. An enterprise of some local folks I know, it is billed as “Fair and Factual”, a FoxNews of sorts in covering Kansas politics. One can get a free trial but it is a subscription service of $100 a year. And, as a subscriber myself, I can vouch for the fact it provides more in depth coverage about bills coming out of the legislature and news coming out of the Kansas political scene than any of the major news outlets in Kansas — Wichita Eagle, Kansas City Star, and the Topeka Capital Journal (which does the best job of the traditional three), and certainly a lot more than our local suburban rag, the Johnson County Sun. In additional to providing a conservative opinion alternative in its editorials to the very leftward tilt of the three major dailies, it objectively — no matter what your persuasion — provides more frequent and more in depth coverage of real issues in Kansas on the legislative and political scene than any other source — with a staff of essentially 4.

      Note, and this is obvious by visiting the site of the Kansas Liberty, it is NOT blog. It is, in some ways, a combination of old and new media — a mix of opinion and hard news, targeted in a specific area (legislature and politics) and region (Kansas), but online and with a small staff — with a combination of a few free articles and a larger in depth subscription service – a service that it can charge for because, as I noted above, there is NO OTHER OUTLET in Kansas covering the bases so in depth like it does, both in terms of the actual facts of a story as well as the analysis of the event.

      Though still young and still needing to prove itself over the long haul financially — which will depend on it simply becoming known through word of mouth and such — I truly believe that you’ll increasingly see outfits like the Kansas Liberty pop up all over the country, covering a myriad of issues. You’ve already seen it on the sports scene in the emergence of Rivals.com, which has a combination of hard sports news for each college team as well as both free and subscription message boards for “insider information”, all of which you can get for that familiar price of $100/year (or $10/month).

      This similar model can repeat itself for suburban or small town news outlets — the last years where I actually think a printed newspaper can still be successful. If you’re offering something that is hard to find in quality elsewhere — or at all — such as local, small town or suburban news, people will pay for it, in my view, if it is affordable — and $100/year is, for most folks — as that is less than a newspaper subscription and, if billed monthly, about the cost of a couple trips to Starbucks a month.

      Also, one thing about this system is that I think quality will reign — people will only pay for something that is quality and provides them something they can’t get for free. In a sense, the market will force these smaller ventures to be professional, well planned, and effective in what they do.

      However, the transition will be slow and some will doubt it. This takes time anytime you have a complete reorganization of a vast area of American business, which is the print (online or paper) news business. But I think this IS the future. The small news enterprise will be back — just in a different form that we saw decades ago. It will be more niche-oriented but also more competitive, but those that take the risks and stay with it will be rewarded in the end.

      Of course, the old media guard will remain stubborn and frustrated at these “small town” or “fringe” outfits stealing their corner of the world — journalism — away from them. But, as enterprising journalists wanting to make money come into the field, I think the tide will gradually turn and we’ll see a new, vibrant, print news business that at the end of the day will actually somewhat resemble what many of us long thought print news to be — in depth, unique, quality, and something you couldn’t get anywhere else — which is why we originally paid for it anyway.

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  • Eric Ulken 4:36 pm on February 23, 2009
    Tags: The Independent, Trinity Mirror,   

    England notes, part 2: Gloomy outlook for newspapers 

    When I arrived in the U.K., I expected the state of the newspaper industry here to be somewhat less dire than in the U.S. After all, Internet penetration here is still somewhat lower than back home, I figured, so maybe print audiences (and advertisers) haven’t dried up as quickly.

    This list of newspaper closures over the last 13 months — 53 titles, mostly free weeklies but with a combined circulation of about 1.2 million — shows I was mistaken. While in the U.S. small markets represent the lone bright spot in an otherwise bleak newspaper climate, here they seem to be the first casualty of the advertising downturn. (This may have something to do with the large number of free local titles here, which are entirely dependent on ad revenue.)

    In general, ad income at regional papers is expected to fall another 20 percent this year, and a report predicts as many as one in 10 print publications here won’t survive to see 2010.

    In the face of the bad news, regional publishers are taking action. Trinity Mirror, the country’s largest newspaper chain, announced it would freeze 2009 pay after eliminating 1,200 jobs and closing 44 titles in 2008. (The company has also been doing some radical reinventing in the newsrooms of papers it intends to keep going. More on that in my next post.)

    The problems aren’t confined to the regional press: The Independent, one of the four national “quality dailies” is moving in with the Daily Mail, owned by a competing publisher, in a last-ditch JOA-like arrangement that combines back-office staff while keeping the newsrooms separate. Guardian online editor Emily Bell recently estimated that in the current field of 19 national news titles, 5 or 6 could vanish.

    +++

    Next: Innovating to stay alive.

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  • Eric Ulken 3:47 am on February 21, 2009  

    What I’ve been up to 

    OK, I’m feeling really guilty about not updating the blog, so here’s a bullet-point summary of what’s been going on since my last post, ages ago:

    • I got sick.
    • I started feeling better, so…
    • I went to BeeBCamp 2 at the BBC on Wednesday and heard lots of interesting talk about the future and the Beeb’s place in it.
    • I remained sick, but thought I was feeling better, so…
    • I went to the Guardian on Friday. Got a nice tour from Kevin Anderson and chatted with some really smart tech folks, including Django co-creator Simon Willison. I even ended up giving a little LAT Data Desk show-and-tell when the scheduled Friday afternoon guest speaker flaked.
    • I’ve been following the unfolding “effing-bloggers-vs.-real-journalists” kerfuffle here.
    • I’m still semi-sick. (I think I’ve been sick more than I’ve been well so far on this trip.)

    Health permitting, I’ve got return visits to the BBC and Guardian lined up for next week, and a trip to Oxford to take in a Reuters Institute talk on news business models.

    I still intend to write full posts on BBC and Guardian visits. But I’ll spare you the sickness post.

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