Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof

Stringbook: A Proposal for a Blog-based News Service

In Entrepreneurship, Journalism, Social media on August 13, 2005 at 3:01 pm

Update: Since I originally came up with this idea, Blogburst has done it. Their customers include Reuters, Washington Post and the Gannett newspapers. Well, I knew it was a good idea.

Update: One of the last great American dailies to retain foreign bureaus has taken a hatchet to them. The Baltimore Sun is flushing its Beijing and London bureaus, according to Poynter. No big deal, I guess. After all, what possible effect could China or the United Kingdom have on the U.S.? In other words, I continue to surge tragically into the full light of absolute correctness. That is, Stringbook. Read on and marvel at my perspicacity.

***

The proposal below, larded with goofy business-speak, has been abstracted from the narrative of a business plan I wrote months back. Alas and alack, I am not an experienced financial… guy that does financial things. The two people I had to handle the numbers were unable to finish them, so the plan is in limbo.

Since this was written, “citizen media initiatives” have become more important. RSS feeds have become more important. I have not changed the copy to reflect that in any substantive way because their existence has not challenged any of our foundational notions and because I don’t have the time right now to do so.

STRINGBOOK ©

Stringbook is a content-syndication service that leverages the global distribution and immediacy of blogs for media and business intelligence.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

“The widest possible dissemination of information from diverse and antagonistic sources is essential to the welfare of the public…a free press is a condition of a free society.” – United States Supreme Court, 1945

THE OPPORTUNITY

Web logs are changing the world. Specifically, they are changing the way that news and information are gathered, written and read. The number of blogs created worldwide has doubled every five months for the last year-and-a-half, according to Technorati, a blog search engine. Technorati currently counts 12 million discreet blogs. According to the Pew Internet & American Life project, a new blog is created every 6 seconds, for a daily total of almost 15,000 new blogs.

At the same time, the access to information from traditional sources is declining, and has been for years. Journalism.org’s 2004 annual report on the state of the news media says, “Staff cuts, some severe, have hit all of the big three news divisions, forcing a smaller number of correspondents to produce the same number or more stories…Bureaus, particularly overseas, have been closed, giving the news organizations a smaller global footprint and fewer staff members with the understanding that comes from having correspondents immersed in foreign cultures.” The same diminishment that affects the news media also affects business people searching for timely intelligence.

These trends are only increasing. Newsgathering organizations are shrinking and blogging is growing. But very few people have understood the implications of these trends, or how to take economic advantage of them. Most businesses profiting from blogging are providers of template software, such as Blogger.com and SixApart. This is a market arena around which the barrier to entry is very low.

THE PRODUCT

Stringbook signs up bloggers from around the world as correspondents. These Stringbook Correspondents create dedicated news blogs (or Stringbooks), which are licensed to subscribers via searchable database. Clients—primarily news organizations and businesses—will have instant access to information from around the world in real time, making up for the lack of traditional media sources and taking full advantage of the on-the-ground reporting and topic-competence of globally-distributed bloggers.

FUNCTIONALITIES

Stringbook can be used by subscribers in several ways.

As a “virtual bureau.” By selecting the type and location of news, the Client can create the appearance, and function, of a bureau without the expense. Stringbook Correspondent Ratings will allow the Client to use the same writers with confidence.
As a traditional newswire. Stories are pulled down from the wire and rewritten by the clients.
As a tip sheet. As advance notice on developing stories and on new angles on old ones.
As a trend-spotting engine. By querying Stringbook, a Client can find out what types of stories are engaging readers and identify possible future intersections of concern before they are scooped.
As a way to deepen coverage. By using Stringbook, a Client can establish context for stories that will give them depth they could not find otherwise.
As an assignment desk. A Client can post both open and closed assignments through the Stringbook system. The assignment can be as specific as the coverage of a press conference and as broad as color and atmosphere to complete an already-written story.

THE MARKET

The Stringbook market consists of two sectors: media and business. The first includes media companies, daily newspapers, weeklies, online media, radio and television stations and networks. The business sector includes decision-makers in need of accurate, immediate intelligence and advertising and marketing companies needing an accurate, unmediated look at what their customers around the country and around the world are interested in.

Why would these customers agree to pay a subscription fee for something they could theoretically find online for free?

Time. The “blogosphere” is enormous, Stringbook is filtered and condensed.
Focus. Stringbook would feature no blogs on puppies or comic book characters or family picnics, only news, broadly defined, from around the country and the world.
Reliability. Each Stringbook correspondent receives a Client-generated Stringbook Correspondent Rating, reducing the uncertainty inherent in the blogosphere.
Access. Journalism has become a corporate undertaking and staffing bureaus is expensive. The first places cut are the bureaus. That means the sources for international news are few and homogenous. Stringbook reverses that trend.

Stringbook does not simply aggregate blog content into news. It provides a blog-like interface to a global correspondent-domain topical intelligence syndication system for those who need to know what is really going on.

REVENUE

Stringbook has a primary revenue model, supplemented by additional streams.

· Subscription. Subscribers pay an annual subscription fee, based on audience/readership category.
· Advertising. Using targeted keywords, an advertiser can buy sponsored links on either the subscriber or the correspondent side, or both.
· Affiliate program. Revenue from referrals.
· Hosted custom content. Using Stringbook content, any site—from an independent blogger to a car company—can create a custom content element built from Stringbook materials which is hosted by Stringbook

MARKET ANALYSIS

INDUSTRY DESCRIPTION AND OUTLOOK

Stringbook is a bridge across industries. It partakes equally of high-tech and media. Companies with similar reach might include Bloomberg and Reuters. The same forces that affect other media companies afflict these as well, however: stockholder demands, cost cutting, consolidation and homogenization.

Two years ago there were 100,000 blogs. Today there are 12 million. The growth in blogs, which are doubling every five months, is paralleled by the decrease in the number and type of media outlets, and in the number of bureaus and correspondents on the ground and covering specialized fields. In other words, the demographics of business are on Stringbook’s side.

We anticipate a company that uses its technology to automate as much as is, as it were, humanly possible. People are expensive and we are devoted to keeping the company lean. That said we are acutely aware that a company is only as good as its people. The majority of our people will be spread out across the world and the blogosphere. They are independent, self-starting contractors. We will need a staff, however. They will consist of a small editorial team—high quality copy editors and journalists with top-notch problem-solving and technology skills—a sales and marketing staff and a technology team.

As the demands on the service grow over the next five years, so will the staff. But we will always ask these questions when confronted with a demand before increasing the number of people in our employ: Can it be automated? Can it be organized in such a way that the people already working can handle it without a drop in quality? Is addressing the demand going to produce a better product?

TARGET MARKETS

The world is increasingly globally interconnected. Gone for good are those times in which it was enough to know what was going on in your city, with an occasional nod to the national capital. Goings on in far-flung locales frequently have a tangible effect on everyday people, their jobs, their safety, their businesses and their comfort. At the same time, the standard sources of information—newspapers, broadcast media, business intelligence services—are cutting people, closing down bureaus and consolidating operations.

Just at the moment when people have the highest need for the greatest number of information sources, those sources are drying up. What is replacing them? Bloggers. Citizen journalists.

The Pew Internet and American Life Project issued a report in January called “The state of blogging.” In it, Pew reported that 27% of Internet users said they read blogs, a 58% jump from the 17% who said they did so the previous February. By the end of 2004, in other words, 32 million Americans were blog readers. At the same time, according to the Newspaper Association of America, the number of Americans reading newspapers grew by only 2,000.

But the problem with bloggers is a simple one: reliability. Bloggers are often faulted for their lack of balance and oversight. These faults lead big organizations to mistrust their intelligence. Even if understandable, this is a mistake. Everyday people have turned more and more to bloggers for specific information: on the elections, on the Asian tsunami, on the war in Iraq. So the question is, how can media organizations and businesses take advantage of the worldwide scope and immediacy that blogging has on offer?

Stringbook.

By pulling together the widest array of bloggers, but focusing on those that produce news and analysis, or are specialists in their fields or in their locations, Stringbook will provide a trustworthy, vetted, one-stop shop for the blogosphere’s constantly-updating library of information. In addition to Stringbook’s editorial competence, the very people who are purchasing the information will also vet Stringbook’s correspondents.

The Stringbook Correspondent Rating is a changing, accretive score given by the Subscribers to the individual providers. Based on the number of times a correspondent’s material has been used, and how useful and reliable the subscriber has found the material to be, the correspondent’s rating will rise. This rating will give subscribers an additional sense of security in using Stringbook.

The target market, like Stringbook’s reach, is global. But practically speaking, the primary buyers of the service are to be found in the world’s information centers: New York, Los Angeles, London, Paris, Berlin, Hong Kong, Tokyo, and Johannesburg, among others. By capturing bellwether clients in the two major U.S. markets, we will create moment for the rest of the world.

In the media realm we will appeal to main decision-makers, the people who will make coverage and business decisions, such as publishers and editors, news directors and news executives. In the business arena we will target COOs, heads of business development and officers in charge of competitive intelligence and corporate security.

There are currently no other contenders in this field and most blog information is gathered very haphazardly, via Google and Technorati search engines. No service provides users with access to a complete representative sample of high-quality, globally-distributed blogs. We are the lone player. As the large newspapers and television networks continue to consolidate and to cut costs by eliminating correspondents and bureaus, and as the blogosphere grows, further atomizing the world’s information, consumers will need a way to reintegrate news and business information. Stringbook thrives on chaos: the more blogs there are, and the fewer coherent sources for information, the more valuable it becomes.

Identifying media and business customers will be matter of consulting trade groups and professional associations, such as the World Editors Forum, the Association of Independent Television Associations, the National Association of Broadcasters and the Newspaper Association of America; governmental organizations, such as the FCC and the SBA; trade associations like the European Association of Aerospace Industries; publications such as the World Guide to Manufactured Fibre Producers; and online sites such as Kidon MediaLink.

The scope of the Stringbook subscriber base is immense.

The World Association of Newspapers represents over 18,000 publications.
Columbia Journalism Review lists 51 national/international media conglomerates.
According to An Atlas of the Multinational Corporation, by Medard Gabel and Henry Bruner, there are currently 63,000 multinational corporations. All of them need maximum access to timely global information.

The number of prospective customers is hard to gauge, simply because it is so large. Our strategy will be to focus on large bellwether media corporations (the “Big Six”) and multinationals headquartered in the United States first.

Secondary target markets may include freelance writers, academics and government officials. Anyone looking to take advantage of the global reach and immediacy of the blogosphere to find information relevant to their work and lives will benefit from a subscription to Stringbook. As the company establishes a reputation for harnessing and vetting the blogosphere, the number and type of customer will scale out to include more and more areas of interest and economic sectors.

COMPETITION

Although individual editors and reporters, corporate security personnel, corporate officers and governmental officials have used blogs to gain information about subjects of interest, no company has arisen to directly address their information needs until now.

All “syndication” for bloggers is done via bellwether blogs’ listings, or “blogrolls;” a few blog list sites (Blogwise, Blog Street, etc.); and Technorati, a blog search engine. Many blogs are streamed to the web via RSS, but there is no value-added filtering and delivery service. In other words, there is no blog content syndication service in existence as yet.

All mainstream news and information syndication is done by the traditional “news agencies.” 24-hour television news networks often provide their own but are not big actors in the syndication area. Newspaper chains such as Gannett share stories with one another and some, such as the Tribune News Service and the L.A. Times-Washington Post Company syndicate their papers’ stories.

Occupying both the high-tech sector (blogging and online delivery) and the media sector (news agencies), Stringbook rubs shoulders with a number of different types of companies, all of whom are attempting to mine different areas of the information economy.

BLOGGING
BlogAds, blog-carried advertising service
Blogger, blog-template provider & blog host
Blog Kits, blogger-company match service
Blogshares, a fantasy blog stock market/social networking site
Blogversations, advertising company matching advertisers with bloggers to sponsor
Marqui, pay to blog for companies
RSS software providers & aggregators, sell (or provide for free) software that allows the publication of blog entries to the web, the desktop and/or to other sites
Six Apart, blog software and hosting company that produces TypePad and MoveableType
Technorati, search engine for blogs
Weblogs, Inc., consulting company producing B2B blogs
CITIZEN MEDIA
· American Town Network
· Backfence
· BlueHereNow
· Coastsider
· Current
· GetLocalNews
· Gheminga
· iBrattleboro
· iTalkNews
· JanJan
· Malaysia.net
· New West Network
· NowPublic
· OhmyNews
· OurLittleNet
· Out2 News
· ParMedia
· Paulding.co
· Pegasus News
· PlugStar Citizen Reporters
· RedPaper
· S. D. Fridge Door
· The Daily Gotham
· UrbanVancouver
SYNDICATION
· Featurewell, syndication service for independent writers
· AltWeeklies.com, syndication service by the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies for members
· AlterNet Syndication Service, syndication service for “progressive” writers
NEWS LICENSING
· Bloomberg
· Reuters
· Associated Press
· United Press International
· Agence France Press
· Deutsche Press Agentur
OTHER
· Wikinews, a “wiki” style collective news site

Our strength is in our knowledge of both the blogging world and that of news and information. We are eliminating the single biggest problem that the mainstream news media and business have with blogging: the fact that it is unvetted. We are making blogging safe by filtering it for reliability and quality, without robbing it of the vitality and immediacy that make it useful. Our product is easy to use, adaptive and easy to access.

We anticipate that use of Stringbook will eventually all but completely replace raw searching and combing through RSS feeds for all corporate customers. There will of course still be many individuals who have their favorite blogs and others who use the RSS feeds to keep track of certain specific issues. But people who put a priority on efficiency will turn to Stringbook.

PRODUCT AND SERVICE

The Stringbook service, which is currently available as a prototype, is accessed and delivered via two interfaces, one for correspondents and another for subscribers.

The Correspondent Dashboard will be accessed by means of a login, where new correspondents create a profile, and existing correspondents sign into their personal Stringbooks. These personal Stringbooks will be, in essence, the individual correspondent blog. They will consist of the following elements.

· History, all posts created by the correspondent
· Front Page Tab, to the system content index.
· New Posts Field, where correspondent writes new entries.
· Existing Blog Dump, to allow uploads into the Stringbook system of already-existing blog.
· Search Field, to search personal Stringbook and Stringbook system.
· Personal Account Manager, which keeps track of how many pieces have been downloaded and when.

The Stringbook system publishes each new entry to a searchable database.

Subscribers access the system via a password-protected Client Dashboard. The Client Dashboard will provide subscribers with the following functionalities.

Stringbook Index, an index of the most interesting, current and valuable entries.
Stringbook Search, which will allow subscribers to retrieve postings of interest.
News of the Century, a constantly updated list of the 100 most popular downloads.
The Trend Spotter, a tool which will identify the most frequently blogged topics.
The Story Miner, a tool that will allow each subscriber to track postings by topic, subject (sports, business, human rights, etc.), geographical area or blogger.
The Stringbook Feed, the ability to run a constant feed from Stringbook straight to your desktop.
Stringbook Assignment, a function for posting assignments, from system-wide to a specific group or even a specific correspondent.
Stringbook Hosted Custom Content. Using Stringbook content, any site—from an independent blogger to a car company—can create a custom content element built from Stringbook materials which is hosted by Stringbook

Build-outs
A functionality that will allow correspondents to blog sound, video and photographic entries
Cell-phone, PDA posting ability

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