May 13, 2005

From Print to Pod: The Innovative Power of Small Ideas

Podcasts are small media that hold the power to remake a big medium - newspapers.

Brian Chin, a producer at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer's online operation and writer of the Buzzworthy blog, posted a list of newspapers that are podcasting. Some are new at it, like Chin's own newspaper or the San Francisco Chronicle; others have been at it a while, like the Journal-World in Lawrence, Kan., whose grabby, entertainment-rich web operation,, is a template for what all newspapers should be doing online.

Here's a sampling of newspaper podcasts (thanks to Brian for the list):

 Philadelphia Daily News: Produces PhillyFeed, a mix of news interviews and local music.
 S.F. Chronicle: Uses Blogger to host podcasts of interviews (Larry Ellison, for example) and news reports from the Business staff. (Why Blogger and not the paper's own web site, I emailed the Chron staff but didn't get an answer.)
 Ventura County Star: Discusses everything from recipes to the homeless.
 Denver Post: Produces a daily morning news show.
 Journal-World: Targets its college town audience with music and entertainment.
 Post-Intelligencer: Enters podcasting space with weekly food report.
 News & Record (Greensboro, N.C.): Produces weekly entertainment show; topics range from pig-pickin' to Kung Fu movies.

There are several points worth making about the value podcasting can offer newspapers.

First, anyone can do it. The list represents a wide diversity of newspapers. You don't have to be the New York Times to do audio. (I don't think the Times is podcasting. Is it?)

Second, it's low tech and it's cheap. Phil Cauthon, the entertainment editor for, told me a paper can be up and podcasting for less than $500 and that little geek factor is needed. "Pretty much anybody who has set up component home stereo will be able to handle this," Cauthon said in an email. "The mixer is a very intuitive and anyone with a little patience and trial and error skills will be able to figure out the limited set of knobs and sliders. It took me less than 5 min to train each podcaster and they all picked it up immediately."

Third, it touches a different audience segment. (Of course, like any tool podcasts need good material and good promotion. Touting it big like the Denver Post does here is the way to go. Burying the link several pages into a site, like the Chronicle does here - squint and you'll see it - with the Oracle interview, doesn't help much.)

Finally, and most important, podcasts require newspaper reporters and editors to jump platforms, to think in a different medium, to develop new skills. That's innovative. And, innovation breeds innovation.

Small changes can be catalytic. A few weeks ago, during a discussion about developing training for front-line editors in newsrooms, Butch Ward, former managing editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer and now a trainer at the Poynter Institute, told a story of how a couple of editors at one newspaper collaborated on their own with the copy desk to produce a more active style of writing at the newspaper. It was not a sea change, said Ward, but a pond change.

I like that. Change enough ponds and you've got a new sea.

The writer Malcolm Gladwell, in his book "The Tipping Point," writes about what he calls the Power of Context, the ability of "the conditions and circumstances of the times" to affect behavior. Seemingly small changes in conditions, in the context of events, can have exponential affects, positive or negative.

Gladwell tells of the Broken Windows theory. Here's an explanation from the authors of the theory, criminologists James Q. Wilson and George Kelling:

"Consider a building with a few broken windows. If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may even break into the building, and if it's unoccupied, perhaps become squatters or light fires inside.

"Or consider a sidewalk. Some litter accumulates. Soon, more litter accumulates. Eventually, people even start leaving bags of trash from take-out restaurants there or breaking into cars."

New York City used the theory to beat down a plague of subway crime by repairing the system's "broken windows" - graffiti and fair-jumpers. By mandating zero tolerance for small crimes, the subway changed the environment that encouraged bigger crimes like muggings.

Consider the Broken Newspaper theory: The industry is beset by competition, the business model is eroding and newsrooms are confused (at best) and depressed (at worst). These are big busted windows that cannot be repaired quickly, so let's start with small solutions.

Podcasts are small. They are immediately energizing and creative for the journalists doing them. They provide examples to others in the newsroom who wish they were doing something different, but want someone else to show them the way. Podcasts contribute to and foster a culture of innovation. At the News & Record in Greensboro, for example, Nicole Puccinelli-Ortega's 4-month-old weekly podcast on is piquing the interests of the print people. "The newsroom is very interested," Puccinelli-Ortega said in an email. "Some already are doing a sort of podcast and we are working on other ideas for them."

Isn't that what we want in our newsroom staffs - people to step up, raise their hands and say, Hey, I want to do that, too? That type of energy is infectious, and not just within newsrooms, but to readers as well.

UPDATE: The Wall Street Journal has a story today on newspapers and podcasting. Here's a snip:

"Pete Conti, a newspaper industry consultant with Borrell Associates Inc., said podcasting gives newspapers a chance to reach younger audiences, such as people in their thirties who regularly tote iPods but were raised with television as their main news source. It's too early to tell if papers, which face declining circulation, can make a financial success of podcasts, but 'I think it opens up a huge opportunity to offer a lot of their local' content, Mr. Conti said."

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Posted by Tim Porter at May 13, 2005 10:18 AM