E-Books: The Next Front for Journalists in Transition

Over the weekend, I read a couple of blog posts that highlighted for me the shifting battlefront in the digital-media wars. Twitter is no longer a matter for debate among thinking journalists. Twitterland is settled, and the analog natives have either converted or consigned themselves to the dustbin of history. The next front is something quite different: e-books.

In response to a reader of his superb recent series of posts on why and how to use Twitter, Steve Buttry addressed the question of how to handle curmudgeonly journalists who continue to resist it. He gave two answers. First, he counseled patience: “we all learn and grow at different rates and in different ways.” Then he gave a franker and more satisfying answer: If by now journalists don’t want to be “part of the exciting digital future of journalism,” screw ‘em. “I won’t waste much time and energy,” he wrote, “on people who have decided not to join that future.”

The next new-media challenge for journalists, I suspect, will be a diametrically different area, covered by Carla King on MediaShift last Friday: E-books and self-publishing.

The resistance will not be so fierce. For print journalists, the ultra-short-form concept of publishing tiny bursts of copy over the course of a day was completely alien. But what journalist hasn’t thought at some point or another about going long-form and writing a book?

Realistically, though, it was only an option for the very few.  You needed luck, persistence, and a good agent to break into book publishing.

Now you only need a manuscript and an online publishing service.

So what’s stopping you?

Well, first, you may not know how to go about it. King’s post, the first of a three-part series, is a terrific place to start. I’d also recommend reading Joe Konrath’s blog “A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing” (even though it’s aimed at fiction writers) and following Dan Blank and Porter Anderson on Twitter.

You might also think that you’re just not a book writer—articles are your forte. But as Jon Meacham is quoted as saying in a New York Times article on e-books, “‘the nature of a book is changing. . . . The line between articles and books is getting ever fuzzier.’” If you’ve ever bemoaned your article getting cut to fit into the space available, you’re a prime candidate for an e-book.

For many journalists, their entrée into book publishing may be initiated by their employer, as the Times article suggests: “Swiftly and at little cost, newspapers, magazines and sites like The Huffington Post are hunting for revenue by publishing their own version of e-books, either using brand-new content or repurposing material that they may have given away free in the past.”

But whether or not their employers give them a push, a case can be made that most journalists should consider self-publishing their own work. Will it make them a lot of money or lead to a more traditional book contract? Probably not. But a self-published e-book can be a tremendous tool for personal branding, and may one day become an expected item on a journalist’s resume.

Besides, who doesn’t want to say, “I wrote a book”?

Facebook Subscriptions: Overdrive for Journalists?

Facebook now offers SubscriptionsThough I understand its appeal, I’ve never found Facebook compelling. What I’ve taken to be its core assumptions—that one’s world is divided into friends and everyone else, and that all your friends are friends in exactly the same way—just don’t work for me. That’s why I’ve so far stuck with Twitter and its follower model and dallied with Google Plus and its concept of differentiated social circles.

With Facebook’s introduction yesterday of Twitter-like subscriptions, though, that could change. And even if it doesn’t make a Facebook aficionado out of me, it could make the network much more useful professionally to many other journalists who already use it for personal reasons.

As a writer, I’m interested in having people read my work. But while I like my readers, most of them are not and will never become my friends. Even Facebook recognized a practical limit to friendship, restricting one’s maximum number of friends to 5000.  So as a vehicle for journalists, the original Facebook model left them stuck in first gear.

Until yesterday, Facebook’s solution to this problem was Fan Pages, now called simply Pages. By liking someone’s page, a facebook user could follow that person without being a Facebook friend, and the page owner could have an unlimited number of followers.

Though the Pages feature makes sense for organizations, which can’t otherwise have a Facebook presence, for individuals, it meant splitting your identity in two and managing both parts separately. In describing Pages to journalists a few months ago, Vadim Lavrusik described this split as a benefit:

Though many journalists already have personal profiles on Facebook, public Pages enable them to build a professional presence, opening them up to readers beyond Facebook’s 5,000 friend limit and, importantly, helping them to separate their professional presence from their personal on the site.

One of the problems with Lavrusik’s pitch is that it aimed at mass-media journalists with large numbers of fans. For most journalists, particularly in B2B media, the limit of 5000 friends would never be a worry. Moreover, separating the professional and personal so absolutely was an awkward, Solomonic solution. The personal and professional in journalism are merging; what we need are tools to manage our merging identities, not a broadsword to cleave them.

Facebook’s subscriptions is a far more elegant and flexible option. Rather than maintaining two separate identities, you now can simply choose what to share with the public and what to keep among true friends. Plus, you can shelter your humble and delicate ego from having to make the decision to establish a separate fan page that only a handful of readers might follow.

As with every new feature Facebook introduces, this one is sure to spawn plenty of confusion. Though its four-page guidance for journalists helps (PDF), there are doubtless plenty of kinks still to work out.

I can’t say with certainty whether subscriptions will transform my own view and use of Facebook (though if my daughter who refuses to friend me sees subscriptions as a way to keep me happy, it might). But for many journalists who already use Facebook enthusiastically for social purposes, the new feature may offer huge professional benefits as well. As a personal branding tool for journalists, Facebook may have just slipped into overdrive.

Social Media and the Blurring of Professional Roles

In a rare post today, Paul Conley stated the obvious: he doesn’t publish much on his blog anymore.  Well, duh–all his fans are painfully aware of that.

(If you’re not familiar with Conley, I recommend a thorough study of his archives. Admittedly, that can be depressing for someone like me—Dammit, Conley, why have you always already said what I want to write about, and better than I ever could? But for anyone interested in B2B publishing and communications, it is essential and enlightening reading.)

Obvious or not, what made his statement today interesting was the way he said it: Not, “I don’t blog much anymore,” but “I’m not a blogger anymore.” In focusing on the identity rather than the activity, he underscored for me one of the most profound aspects of the social media revolution: professional roles don’t matter much any longer.

It’s no longer as meaningful as it once was to say you’re a blogger, or a journalist, or a marketer. The functions are still distinct, but the walls separating them are crumbling. You can be a blogger one moment, a marketer or journalist the next. It is, for me, one of the glories of this connected age.

It is, of course, one of the immense disruptions as well. It can be hard to accept the blurring of professional boundaries, and to give up thinking in terms of “them” versus “us.” But as the mass media era recedes into the past and is replaced by the conversational age, the act of rethinking our roles, our identities, is a necessary if sometimes painful exercise.

In his essay, Conley asks, “If I am no longer a blogger, then what am I?” I would argue that it doesn’t matter. As he has proved, you don’t need a clearly defined and delimited role to have an impact on others. Though he blogs less often than he once did, he remains active in the B2B conversation via Twitter and still inspires lesser lights like me to try to shine more brightly.

It’s perhaps more relevant than he realizes that Conley cites Ralph Waldo Emerson as his inspiration. As Merton Sealts Jr. once wrote, Emerson’s cultural role was hard to pin down: “Indeed, the problem of what to call Emerson has bothered critics and historians since his death in 1882. . . . we too are uncertain how to classify Emerson, how to deal with his poetry, or even in what course or department to consider his Essays.”

Should we call Emerson a poet or a philosopher? Should we think of Conley as a blogger or an essayist?

Who cares? More than ever, in the social media era it’s not what you are but what you do that counts. Whether it’s a blog post, an essay, or—can one hope?—a book, I look forward to whatever Conley does next.


Should Journalism Schools Rethink Magazines? (Or Even Journalism Itself?)

Last week, Susan Currie Sivek wrote about how magazine programs within journalism schools are increasingly giving up on traditional magazines—or as she less cynically puts it, how they are teaching beyond the magazine. It’s the right direction for J schools to take. But does it go far enough?

Though I love magazines, I’m not sure any journalism school should have a magazine program. For that matter, I’m not even sure any university should have a journalism school.

(By way of disclosure, I should say here that while I’ve been practicing trade journalism for 25 years, I didn’t go to journalism school, or even take a journalism course. Though I’ve hired many journalism majors over the years, I’ve probably hired just as many from other disciplines. Judging by how they all did, I can’t say that the scholastically trained journalists had any advantage over the others.)

The problem with magazine programs isn’t so much that magazine publishing is an increasingly bad business (though it is). The problem, rather, is that the distinctions between types of journalism and between types of publishing are breaking down. It used to be, for instance, that the wall between magazine publishing and book publishing was too high for most people to leap over. With easy options like Kindle Singles and E-books, though, that’s no longer true. Likewise, the differences between trade and consumer magazines, or between trade journalism and newspaper journalism, have steadily dwindled. Dividing journalism up into separate fenced-in pastures no longer makes sense. The field is wide open and you can roam wherever you want.

In Sivek’s article, Medill’s Rachel Davis Mersey repositions the role of journalism education in brilliantly simple terms:

“I object to the idea that all new products have to be digital products. I’m pushing my students to not be content-first, not platform-first, but audience-first,” Mersey said. “My classes are designed around selecting an audience and researching it, using mostly secondary sources, and some primary research techniques.”

What’s interesting about this approach is that it doesn’t apply simply to journalism, but to any communications endeavor. It’s certainly no accident that Mersey uses a marketing concept, that of personas, as part of her approach to understanding audience.

When everyone is easily able to become a publisher and, arguably, a journalist, does it make sense still to treat journalism as a distinct profession, with its own professional schools? As an intellectual venture, the study of journalism makes sense. But perhaps—and I say this tentatively—it should be incorporated into higher education as a whole, not isolated in a rarefied institution. If financial literacy should be a goal for all university students, so should media literacy. (And Dan Gillmor’s Mediactive should probably be a required text).

In reflecting on the uproar over the potential for conflicts of interest involving Michael Arrington’s TechCrunch, blogger and journalism professor Jeff Jarvis recently concluded that  “we need to question—not reject, but reconsider—every assumption: what journalism is, who does it, how they add value, how they build and maintain trust, their business models. I am coming to wonder whether we should even reconsider the word journalism.”

Not surprisingly, his questioning led at least one reader to wonder whether Jarvis’s own school of journalism has “any real mission or identity.” Jarvis rightly replied that questioning is what both journalists and teachers are all about. Though it’s more difficult for institutions than for individuals, journalism schools will have to go through his exercise of reconsidering everything they do. In the end, they may abandon not just their magazine programs, but the very concept of professional journalism.

Like It or Not, Mobile Connectivity Is the New Imperative

Street Sign: Pay Attention While Walking--Your Facebook status update can wait I went on vacation last month, a pleasant road trip up the Pacific coast to Washington state. I didn’t intend it to be an experiment in social media deprivation, but because I had only a dumb cell phone and the occasional borrowed computer, it turned into one.

What did I learn by taking a three-week break from social networks? Well, first, despite my digital savvy, I’m not a social media native. I can function reasonably well when not tweeting or blogging for several weeks.

Second, though, I discovered how much of my daily life is nonetheless built around social media. I didn’t come back thinking how great it was to take a break from Twitter. Rather, I came backing thinking that I really need to get a smart phone.

Despite its urgency, so far I’ve resisted this new need (sort of—I acquired an iPad 2 instead). But though I still count myself as one of Amy Gahran’s majority of cell phone owners who have stuck with dumb phones, our dominance is fading fast. Whether because our feature phones get more intelligent or we give in and switch to smart phones, more and more of us will become ubiquitously connected.

For society as a whole, mobile connectivity may not be entirely positive. On my road trip, I picked up a copy of William Powers‘s recent book, Hamlet’s Blackberry. In it, he argues that while virtual connectivity is good, an excess of it undermines real-world awareness and involvement. The following scene, he says, is an all-too-typical sight:

“Standing at a crosswalk in midtown Manhattan one day waiting for the light to change, I realized that the eight or ten other pedestrians standing around me were all staring into screens. Here they were in the heart of one of the greatest cities in the history of the civilization, surrounded by a rich array of sights, sounds, and faces, and they were running away from it all, blocking it out.”

Though I tend to think that Powers doth protest too much, the scene resonated with me a night or two later when my wife and I were out to dinner. As the young couple at the table next to us waited for their meal, we noticed, they passed the time not by chatting together, but by consulting their smart phones. I can only hope they were instant-messaging each other.

Whether we like it or not, mobile connectivity is the new imperative. If you don’t understand and adapt to it, you will lose your audience. Some of the implications are obvious: For one, your website needs to be optimized for mobile apps. Other implications are subtler: If your audience can find you instantly, wherever they are, they will expect you to find and respond to them just as quickly. American Airlines, are you listening?