“Boston Globe”

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Snow house

That’s what it looks like now. And a “double” storm is due to hit tomorrow night.

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There’s something new on the FM dial in Boston. You might think of it as a kind of urban renewal. Grass roots, up through the pavement. (There’s a pun in there, but you need to read on to get it.)

You might say that fresh radio moved in where stale TV moved out.

Here’s some background. When TV in the U.S. finally went all-digital several months back (June 12, to be precise), one wide hunk of spectrum, from 54 to 88Mhz—where channels 2 through 6 used to be—turned into “white space“. In other words, empty. For most of us this doesn’t matter except in one little spot at the very bottom of the FM dial: 87.7 FM. It’s the first click on nearly every FM radio, yet the FCC licensed no FM stations there, because that notch belonged to TV channel 6 audio. From January 1963 until June 2009, you could hear Channel 6 (WLNE-TV) at that spot on the dial, across much of Southern New England, including the Boston metro. When analog television shut down in June, WLNE moved to Channel 49 with its digital signal. After that, 87.7 was white space too. (Some more background here.)

In a few cases (New York and Los Angeles, for example), somebody would get a license (New York, Los Angeles) to operate a low power analog Channel 6 TV station, leave the picture off and just broadcast the audio, creating a virtual FM station that most listeners didn’t know was licensed as picture-less TV. (LPTV stations are exempt from the digital requirement.) That was pretty clever, but it was also pretty rare. For the most part, 87.7 was all-hiss, meaning it was open for anybody to put up anything, legal or not.

Such as here in Boston. It was a matter of time before somebody put up a pirate signal on 87.7. That happened this week when “Hot 97 Boston,” an urban-formatted Internet station, appeared there. Hot 97 is also known as WPOT, according to this thread here.

I checked here and here to see if it’s legal (on FM), and can find no evidence. But it does sound like a real station. If you’re into urban radio with a local Boston flavor (also with no ads), check it out. The signal isn’t big, but it’s not bad, either. And it’s worldwide on the Net.

[Two days later…] I figured by now the Boston Globe and/or the Boston Phoenix would pick up on this story. So I just tweeted a bulletin. Let’s see what happens.

[Later still…] Dean Landsman reminded me that Brian R. Ballou of the Globe had a report on TOUCH-FM in June 2008. TOUCH is another pirate that appears from its website still to be active, at least on the Web (though at the moment I can’t get it on either FM or the station’s “click here/listen now” link). [And later again (October 13) …] TOUCH-FM is still on the air. It’s pretty obliterated by other signals here in Cambridge, but I got it well enough to follow this morning in the car when I drove to Boston and back.

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I dunno why the New York Times appeared on my doorstep this morning, along with our usual Boston Globe (Sox lost, plus other news) — while our Wall Street Journal did not. (Was it a promo? There was no response envelope or anything. And none of the neighbors gets a paper at all, so it wasn’t a stray, I’m pretty sure.) Anyway, while I was paging through the Times over breakfast, I was thinking, “It’s good, but I’m not missing much here–” when I hit Hot Story to Has-Been: Tracking News via Cyberspace, by Patricia Cohen, on the front page of the Arts section. It’s about MediaCloud, a Berkman Center project, and features quotage from Ethan Zuckerman and Yochai Benkler


(pictured above at last year’s Berkman@10).

The home page of MediaCloud explains,

The Internet is fundamentally altering the way that news is produced and distributed, but there are few comprehensive approaches to understanding the nature of these changes. Media Cloud automatically builds an archive of news stories and blog posts from the web, applies language processing, and gives you ways to analyze and visualize the data.

This is a cool thing. It also raises the same question that is asked far too often in other contexts: Why doesn’t Google do that? Here’s the short answer: Because the money’s not there. For Google, the money is in advertising.

Plain enough, but let’s go deeper.

It’s an interesting fact that Google’s index covers the present, but not the past. When somebody updates their home page, Google doesn’t remember the old one, except in cache, which gets wiped out after a period of time. It doesn’t remember the one before that, or the one before that. If it did it might look, at least conceptually, like Apple’s Time Machine:


If Google were a time machine, you could not only see what happened in the past, but do research against it. You could search for what’s changed. Not on Google’s terms, as you can, say, with Google Trends, but on your own, with an infinite variety of queries.

I don’t know if Google archives everything. I suspect not. I think they archive search and traffic histories (or they wouldn’t be able to do stuff like this), and other metadata. (Mabye a Googler can fill us in here.)

I do know that Technorati keeps (or used to keep) an archive of all blogs (or everything with an RSS feed). This was made possible by the nature of blogging, which is part of the Live Web. It comes time-stamped, and with the assumption that past posts will accumulate in a self-archiving way. Every blog has a virtual directory path that goes domainname/year/month/day/post. Stuff on the Static Web of sites (a real estate term) were self-replacing and didn’t keep archives on the Web. Not by design, anyway.

I used to be on the Technorati advisory board and talked with the company quite a bit about what to do with those archives. I thought there should be money to be found through making them searchable in some way, but I never got anywhere with that.

If there isn’t an advertising play, or a traffic-attraction play (same thing in most cases), what’s the point? So goes the common thinking about site monetization. And Google is in the middle of that.

So this got me to thinking about research vs. advertising.

If research wants to look back through time (and usually it does), it needs data from the past. That means the past has to be kept as a source. This is what MediaCloud does. For research on news topics, it does one of the may things I had hoped Technorati would do.

Advertising cares only about the future. It wants you to buy something, or to know about something so you can act on it at some future time.

So, while research’s time scope tends to start in present and look back, advertising’s time scope tends to start in the present and look forward.

To be fair, I commend Google for all the stuff it does that is not advertising-related or -supported, and it’s plenty. And I commend Technorati for keeping archives, just in case some business model does finally show up.

But in the meantime I’m also wondering if advertising doesn’t have some influence on our sense of how much the past matters. And my preliminary response is, Yes, it does. It’s an accessory to forgetfulness. (Except, of course, to the degree it drives us to remember — through “branding” and other techniques — the name of a company or product.)

Just something to think about. And maybe research as well. If you can find the data.

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One of the geeks here at the Berkman Center walked into a room recently and started poking his index finger down on a newspaper that was laying on the table, as if expecting it to do something electronic. “This isn’t working,” he said.

So true, in so many ways.

Take for example the Boston Globe, New England’s landmark newspaper, and one to which we have subscribed since we got here in 2007. Like nearly all newspapers, the Globe is in Big Trouble. Here’s the opening paragraph from today’s bad news story:

The New York Times Co., which has threatened to shutter The Boston Globe, is seeking deep concessions from the Globe’s largest union that could include pay cuts of up to 20 percent, the elimination of seniority rules and lifetime job guarantees, and millions of dollars in cuts in company contributions to retirement and healthcare plans.

The Times may own the Globe in a legal sense, but in a much broader way the Globe also belongs to the people of Boston and New England. Everybody in New England benefits from the Globe, even if they don’t read or subscribe to it. It was in this sense that Scott Lehigh‘s column yesterday was titled, Readers, have a say in saving your paper. Here’s the long gist:

We’re suffering from a double whammy: A bad recession and a self-defeating business model. Troubled times have sent advertising revenues plummeting. Meanwhile, we’re selling the paper with one hand and giving it away on Boston.com with the other. That’s never made any sense – the more so since website ads aren’t anywhere near the revenue-generator that print ads are.

…I also doubt we’ll be able to maintain the kind of quality newspaper and website readers expect unless we start charging online visitors who don’t subscribe to the paper.

Newspapers, eyeing several earlier failed experiments, including one by the New York Times, are skittish. That approach has worked for the Wall Street Journal, however. And as someone long wary about giving away our product on the Web even as we sell it in print, I think it’s time to try.

So back to my question: What does the Globe mean to you?

Would you pay to read the paper online? Seven-day home delivery currently costs $9.25 a week in the Boston area. Would it be worth $10 or $12 a month to read Globe content on Boston.com? Another idea under discussion in the news industry is micropayments. You’d give a credit card number once, and then be charged a small amount – a nickel, say – for each story you clicked on. Which would you prefer, a subscription or micropayments?

Some think charging for Web content will only deter readers, while keeping links to our website from appearing on other sites. Any payment system must be voluntary, they say. I’m dubious. But tell me, if we nagged you incessantly – ah, make that, politely prompted you at frequent intervals – would you make a voluntary payment of some sort?

Finally, can you think of better ways to have online readers pay for Globe offerings?

Yes, I can. It’s the fifth item in the series of posts below:

  1. Newspapers 2.0 (October 5, 2006)
  2. Still at Newspapers 1.x (August 15, 2007)
  3. Toward a new ecology of journalism (September 12, 2007)
  4. Earth to Newspapers: Abandon Fort Business. (September 19, 2007)
  5. PayChoice: a new business model for newspapers (February 5, 2009)

PayChoice (later re-named EmanciPay) will be an easy way for listeners to pay stations for public radio programming. It is in the early stages of development, aimed toward appearing later this year in the Public Radio Tuner on iPhones. At last report, downloads of the tuner were moving past 1.5 million, so far.

We could do PayChoice for newspapers as well.

Informing PayChoice on the Public Radio Tuner will be a Listen Log, which is one form of Media Logging. We can do a Read Log as well, at least for the electronic versions of newspapers. Among the many things I’d like the log to perform is what I call ascribenation. That is, the ability to ascribe credit to sources — and to pay them as well. Among other things, this addresses the Associated Press’ concerns about ‘misappropriation’ of its role as the first source for many stories for which it goes uncredited.

Jon Garfunkel also has a good idea worth considering. It’s called PaperTrust.

The bottom line here is that a lot of good people are working on solutions. These solutions are not the same old stuff in new wrappers. They’re original ideas, some of which the papers will have no control over.

But they can help. They can tune in to tech development efforts like the ones I descibe here, and welcome their geeks’ participation in them. They can write and post linky text. (The Globe is better than some in this respect, but still link-averse on the whole.) They can finish following the other recommendations they’ll find here (the first of which isn’t too far from what Scott would like to do).

And, it might still be impossible to save the paper.

The question comes down to living without advertising. Can it be done? If so, how? I guarantee that the answer to those questions will come from the outside. From geeks, mostly.

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Several days ago I posted RIP, Sidekick, which lamented the passing of our favorite section of the Boston Globe. As part of the Globe’s redesign, it got rid of Sidekick and added a new section — a tabloid insert like Sidekick had been — called “G”.

As I had recalled, Sidekick was localized. After reading Ron Newman’s comment to that post, which asked gently “Are you sure…?” I have to say that I’m not. I just checked with my wife, who said that the things she liked best about the Sidekick were its features and format; and that it was not localized, but addressed all of Boston.

Yet I still recall some localization. But again, I don’t know.

A search of Globe archives for “Sidekick” yields results that suggest it was. The first result is titled “News in brief: Brookline, Cambridge, and Somerville news in brief“. Most of the stuff that follows, however, is Boston regional, rather than addressed to those of us north of the Charles. Several of the pieces are by Meredith Goldstein, who is still writing for the paper.

So I’m sending her an email to ask the same question I’ll put to the rest of ya’ll who live around Boston and pay attention to these things: What went away with Sidekick? Or did nothing go away, and can the pieces still be found in G or elsewhere in the paper? Also, What has the Globe done to increase or decrease local coverage? By local I mean regions within the paper’s coverage area. As Ron points out, there is still a “Northwest” section that runs twice per week. I don’t believe that’s changed, but I also don’t know.

And, as I re-discover (while wiping egg off my face), knowing beats believing: Journalism 101.

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Our favorite section of the Boston Globe is no more. It was called “Sidekick”, and it featured local news and events in our corner of the metro: the one called “Northwest”.* It had local restaurant reviews, club, theater, school and museum notices, plus other graces that made the paper especially relevant to our family.

Well, now the paper has “improved” itself cosmetically while diminishing itself substantially. Sidekick is gone. In its place is “G”, a new “magazine style section” that covers the whole metro and includes a bunch of other stuff, such as TV listings and funnies in color, neither of which interest us. The Globe explains,

Our new magazine-style section will be called “g” — for Globe — and it reflects what you, our readers, have been telling us about how you prefer to receive your reviews, previews, profiles and arts, culture and features coverage.

You want to find stories of interest quickly and easily. You want it in a format that can be carried easily as you move about town — while on the train or on a lunch break.

Every day, “g” will highlight things to do around town.

Problem is, “town” is Boston. While we love Boston, and go there more than a lot of folks who live north of the Charles, we don’t live there. Did readers really tell the Globe to cut out the local stuff? I kinda doubt it.*

Last weekend we were in Baltimore visiting relatives. I was surprised that they didn’t get the Baltimore Sun, which I recall used to be a good newspaper. So, while we were out at a local Starbucks I bought a Sunday Sun $1.88 ($2 with tax). While we waited for our drinks to be made, I field-stripped out the advertising inserts, and read pretty much everything that interested me. There just wasn’t much there. Very disappointing. Back at the ranch my son-in-law told me that the Sun had laid off over half their editorial staff, and made up the difference with bigger pictures. That’s the main reason they don’t subscribe.

I don’t know if the Globe is going through the same thing, but I suspect it is. The shame for them is that the Sidekick was our main reason for keeping the paper, our morning connection to the neighborhood, and what made the Globe most relevant to us. Now it’s gone.

“All politics is local,” Tip O’Neill famously said. Same goes for newspapers. Alas, the Globe seems to have forgotten that.

* Ron Newman, in a comment below, asks if I’m sure about this. I was, but now I’m not. As I say in the follow-up comment, I made some assumptions in this post that may not be true. So I’m following up with a new post that will ask for facts and make no assumptions. Meanwhile, my apologies.

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