Limnology and Why I’m a Bad Blogger

This story, about a family of limnologists keeping records of a Siberian lake over a period of 60 years, has nothing to do with words, other than that it allows me to drop limnologist. But it’s a great story, if you enjoy science writing.

I’m sorry the posts have been so sporadic lately. I have two excuses. First, it turns out that if you constantly pester some companies, they hire you: last month I started working as developer at the New York Times. I’ve been obsessed with the Times since I learned to read, and I couldn’t be more thrilled. Marc Andreessen notwithstanding I think the Times is going to weather the transition to digital and thrive, and I’m psyched to be a small part of that. It’s been a great gig so far, the sole downside being that it cuts into my Wordie time.

But I’m burying the lede: my wife and I had a beautiful and healthy baby daughter last Tuesday, so my attentions have been elsewhere. I’ll get back to blogging when things settle down. They do settle down, right?

Breaker Breaker, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Blog

I was talking with Peter Kafka of SAI yesterday, and he mentioned John Markoff’s disdain for blogs. Sure enough today I was putzing around, as I compulsively do, and came across this:

“John Markoff covers Silicon Valley. He began writing about technology in 1976 and joined The Times in 1988. He gained some notoriety several years ago when he stated that he thought blogs might be the CB radio of the 21st century. He still believes that.”

Not sure how I missed this the first time around but… John, are you on crack?* The innovations wrought by blogs are here to stay.**

CBs died because better technology came along, not because they were a bad idea. We now use cellphones to talk in our cars, and the web to chat with strangers in stilted lingo. With blogs as with CBs, the underlying technology and nomenclature may well change, but the needs they fulfill remain, and will be met.

Many of the characteristic traits of blogs–reader comments, frequent updates, a personal voice–are being incorporated into other forms of media. And as that happens, blogs per se may fade away. Maybe “blog” will be put out to pasture with “information superhighway,”***.

Though I suspect they will stick around and evolve, and we’ll just keep calling them blogs. It’s a succinct and useful word, where “information superhighway” was always an awkward eight syllables, dated on the day it was coined. But just because we don’t call it the “information superhighway” anymore doesn’t mean the Internet isn’t all that and a bag of donuts. Likewise blogs, by that or any other name.

* John, I don’t really think you’re on crack. Hyperbole is a rhetorical device typical of blogs.

** Self-assured pronouncements by those totally unqualified to make them? Also typical.

*** Larding your “posts” with “links”, either for informative purposes or in hopes of getting “link love”**** back from those you’ve linked to? Again, a typical blogging strategy.

**** Bloggers love cutesy phrases like this.

NYTimes is to Kindle as Gillette is to Razor

Today, much like Dr. Hfuhruhurr performing two screw-top brain surgeries at once, I grind two of my favorite axes: The New York Times and Amazon’s Kindle ebook reader.

The Kindle, which is apparently selling better than I thought it would, can receive nine major news publications, including The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Le Monde, and, of course, The New York Times.

You’d think the news outlets would view this growing platform as an ideal opportunity to expand their reach, given their shrinking print readership. And you’d think that the Times in particular, having recently eliminated TimesSelect in a bid for scale, would be doing everything possible to leverage the popularity of the Kindle and subsequent devices.

You’d think, but you’d be wrong. You have to pay $14 per month to read the Times on a Kindle. Less than it costs in print, true, but $14 more than reading it on the web. It’s another sign that the NYTimes Company is conflicted at best, at war with itself at worst.

The future of news is digital, different rules apply to digital content, and those are the rules they should be playing by. And the first rule is that in a world governed by an overabundance of information, value flows in different directions. The attention information garners is more valuable than the information itself. Of course the two are related, but in addition to traditional attributes like quality content and a trusted brand (which still hold), easy, free, ubiquitous access becomes vital.

There are historical antecedents for reduced cost and increased access changing the media landscape. As Daniel Czitrom has pointed out, the introduction of the penny newspapers in the mid-nineteenth century, facilitated by the invention of the steam press, completely changed journalism. Reduced cost and increased access essentially created the Times in 1851, and those are the forces they should be paying attention to now.

Transitioning to a new model is painful, and it’s understandable that the Times would want to milk the old one as long as possible. It also makes sense that they’d have different strategies in effect in different places during a period of transition. But they let this go on too long at their own peril. Once a disruptive technology passes a certain threshold, to not embrace it fully means to go down with the ship. It’s time for the NYTimes Company to suck it up and move, across the board, to business models that are growing, rather than contracting.

At the very least they should be the cheapest news site available on the Kindle, rather than the most expensive. Free would be better. But why not take a page from Gillette and subsidize the cost of the Kindle, the way Gillette sells razors below cost and makes it up on the blades? Sell a Times-branded Kindle, with the Times set as the permanent default newspaper (they could make the thing less ugly while they’re at it). There’s an antecedent here, too: at one point Bloomberg Radio gave away thousands of cheap little radios, which could only tune in Bloomberg’s channel, WBBR.

If the Kindle really is doing well, it may herald a new platform, and the Times should ride that wave, rather than get swamped by it. It may be one of the ingredients that helps them hit the scale of which they’re capable, and which can lift them from their doldrums.

The New York Times Should Be a Social Network

The New York Times web site has gotten much better in the past year, but that hasn’t stopped their stock price from sinking like they have rocks in their pockets. And the sale of the Wall Street Journal shows that family ownership is no bulwark against predatory forces.

To survive in recognizable form the Times needs to accelerate their transition from a newspaper company to an information company. They need to find a sustainable business model before someone buys them and either remakes the company in their own image, or bleeds it dry.

One important step they should take: become a social network.

Social networks benefit from an organizing principle. MySpace sprang from the natural aggregators of bands and music, Facebook from academic communities. News as an organizing principle is potentially larger and stickier than either of those, and has the potential to foster a more engaged, less inane community, a social network for adults. In the real world the Times already facilitates social networking: people talk about what’s in the news, and they especially talk about what’s in the Times.

There has been an enormous amount of me-too bandwagoneering around social networks, but in the case of the Times this move makes strategic sense, and can be accomplished gracefully and incrementally. First, allow users to create public profiles, tied to their comments and other site activities. Allow comments on news stories as well as blog posts. Let readers vote up good comments, à la Amazon (and USA Today). Let readers create and join interest groups, and talk to each other.

In practice the Times would be a confederacy of networks. The people talking about books on Paper Cuts and about parenting on Judith Warner’s blog would not be the same polemicists attacking each other on the op-ed pages. This is a good thing. With the depth of content on the Times, there’s something for everyone.

Two things they should not change: the requirement that commenters register, and editorial oversight of comments. The air of gravitas that hangs over the Times is a feature, not a bug, and high standards are and should remain a positive differentiator.

How does journalism fit into this? As it always has: professional journalism should remain the heart of the Times endeavor. But creating an ecology of engaged readers around the professional content could significantly extend the Times reach, raise traffic levels, and create the possibility for significant new revenue streams. A social networking strategy works hand in hand with the Times historic mission of democratizing information, and it would dovetail nicely with recent experiments like My Times.

Other changes that should accompany this shift:

  • Nix mandatory registration. The slight benefit it offers (to advertisers; it doesn’t benefit readers at all) is far outweighed by the downsides. Create an engaging network and people will register on their own.
  • Get people who have led successful Internet companies on the board and in senior management. See my previous post on Marc Andreessen’s piece (which is what got me thinking about all this in the first place).
  • Enter the local news arena. Partner with the likes of, EveryBlock, or my employer, The web excels at local and neighborhood information, and there are ad dollars to be had. Again this would work nicely with My Times.
  • Seriously improve search. Partner with Google.

Right now traffic is dwarfed by MySpace and Facebook. The Times has national and international reach, fantastic content, and an incredible brand. It can and should be one of the most popular sites on the web, rather than the 201st, which is where Alexa ranks it today.

There is a way out of the morass of the past year, and social networking, with the benefits it would bring to both readers and the company, is one step towards it.

Marc Andreessen’s New York Times Deathwatch

I love The New York Times, but like the rest of the newspaper industry it’s being decimated by the Internet. Marc Andreessen has a great post* outlining just how badly things are going for them.

He’s at his scariest and funniest when he lists the members of the Time‘s board, on which, he points out, not a single Internet luminary sits.

The Times has a great web site, but they need to transition from being a newspaper company with a web site, to being an Internet-focused new media company, one that treats their newspaper business like the legacy app it is. To make that transition they need people who’ve led successful Internet companies in senior management and on the board.

Not being an Internet luminary I don’t have any brilliant ideas, but one thing they could do is significantly beef up their online classifieds for jobs and real estate, two specialized areas unlikely to be completely devoured by Craigslist.

* On his consistently fantastic blog. Who knew Andreeseen was such a great writer?

New York, What Are You Smoking?

An item in today’s NYTimes City Room blog, on a proposal to tax illegal drugs, makes parenthetical mention of an earlier story on the official New York State misspelling of pot. In New York you get busted for smoking marihuana, not marijuana.

In the earlier story, former High Times editor Steve Bloom speculates the odd spelling is because “someone just spelled it wrong, and it stuck.” The ‘h’ spelling, though, appears to be common in American jurisprudence. An early anti-drug law is titled the “1937 Marihuana Tax Act,” and to stay consistent with that law, it is often so-spelled in modern laws relating to marijuana, according to Wikipedia.

Perhaps it’s a vestige of a time when Americans were even less aware of non-English spelling and pronunciation (in this instance, the Spanish pronunciation of ‘j’ as a breathy ‘hw,’ as in ‘juanita’) than they are now. If you can imagine that even being possible.