Monday, August 17, 2009

How did newspapers lose Everyblock?

How could MSNBC.Com have scooped the newspaper industry by buying Everyblock.Com?

If ever there were an application designed to fast-forward newspapers into at least the late 20th Century, then this was it.

The fact that the leading hyperlocal website was snatched up by a multimedia partnership operated by NBC and Microsoft shows a dismaying lack of imagination, foresight and, perhaps, economic resources on the part of the companies operating the nation’s struggling newspapers. Terms of the deal, first reported here, were not disclosed.

Everyblock is a clever online compendium of all sorts of community data that enables users in selected cities to drill down to, well, every block to see what crimes have been committed, what property has been sold, what zoning cases are on the docket, what liquor licenses are pending, what restaurants have been cited by health inspectors and much more.

In Chicago, where the site originated, Everyblock covers 233 distinct neighborhoods and maps information in a simple but elegant format. Everyblock even pointed me to a 2-for-1 coupon for dinner at a restaurant near my old address in Chicago.

If the last, best hope for print and interactive newspapers is unmatched domination of local news, then the information and advertising opportunities provided so efficiently by Everyblock were strategically essential to newspaper publishers.

Instead, the franchise seeded with a Knight Grant and developed by Adrian Holovaty and five-man team, will be owned by MSNBC, which intends to operate the site as an independent business that will be rolled out in far more places than the 15 cities it serves today.

With Microsoft, NBC and MSNBC feeding Everyblock resources and traffic, the site has the opportunity to take as big bite out of local news and advertising as Craig’s List took out of classified advertising.

While newspapers could make a belated attempt to catch up to MSNBC by building me-too sites, they will be late to the party. If they take their sweet time, as they usually do, the party may be over before they get there.

Newspaper publishers should have seen this coming. How could they have let this happen?

28 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've tried to use Everyblock on several occasions and always been disappointed. It doesn't recognize most addresses -- or even zip codes -- in Boston (one of the 15 it claims to support). It doesn't work at all for the suburbs. And even when it does recognize an address, it provides precious little information in a banal display. Surely someone else can do better.

11:14 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Or maybe they didn't want to be owned by a newspaper. It's a two-way street...

11:23 AM  
Anonymous Eric Howe said...

The papers missed this for exactly the same reason they missed craigslist: the big player on any block doesn't want to cannibalize their current cash-cow by risking something different. Go do a bit of reading on The Innovator's Dilemma and disruptive technology.

11:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have visited Everyblock and Have to say I do not get it. While I live in one of their Markets (Boston) I coudl not find anythgin that made me want to come back again. Likewise, I do not see where the new revenue opportunity is with Everyblock. Just beacause Knight gave them money and MSNBC purchased them, does nto mean it is a great idea.

11:43 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Please be calm. There's very little everyblock does that can't be replicated. It's a great idea, but not the golden goose.

Newspapers are better served investing in content creators, and online comments and a much more advanced ad serving and presenting solution...than however many millions of dollars it cost to buy what is basically twitter + google maps.

I like Holvatny and everything, he deserves his success. But I also liked Netscape and PUSH technology...get me?

meanwhile, reflect some more on the industry to understand why they didn't jump all over the purchase. or howel at the moon Chicken Little, whatever makes you happy...

12:55 PM  
Anonymous Dan Knauss said...

Newspapers' lack of interest in EveryBlock and more importantly the concepts behind it is disappointing, and the acquisition by Microsoft may be a big deal, but not for the reasons you're thinking.

Newspapers, like the general public, don't understand what the public sphere is anymore or how much of it is hidden in government data banks, and worse, filing cabinets. That's why they don't "get" Everyblock.

Fortunately EveryBlock, the framework it is built on, and the underlying scripting language all have open source licenses. (They were all built to run on open source server stacks as well, which accounts for the vast majority of the web--not Microsoft.)

This means Microsoft can't distribute subsequent versions of EveryBlock or extensions and derivatives of it under a different license or copyright. They can sell it but must provide access to the source code and anyone who has the code can do what they want with it, including give it away for free.

Microsoft probably intends to use Everyblock for their own purposes and not sell it,
but Everyblock really does not do anything terribly complex. The hard part is getting good, structured data from the sources, particularly units of government. Most of Everyblock's work was governmental relations for that reason. Small and even large cities on up the the federal government are generally not on board with open data dissemination or think that means scanning documents into non-text-searchable PDFs. Proprietary and open standard data formats/schemas abound and are in flux.

So if Microsoft wants to populate Everyblock with data, it will have to help make it happen with the knowledge and perhaps even the IT infrastructure building this will require. I expect Microsoft knows this and has some open source, open data, governmental partnership plans in the works.

We may find ourselves down the road with Microsoft and Government (from cities and counties to the feds) controlling public data at the source (what you can get) and the interfaces that shape how that data is rendered. The really important thing is the data, and having it all, raw, and open at the source.

1:40 PM  
Blogger Matt said...

EveryBlock is open-source. A newspaper can have its own version if it wants as long as it doesn't use the EveryBlock trademarks. All the paper has to do is pay a developer to adapt the source code to the newspaper's liking.

MSNBC paid for the turn-key convenience of an app already set up for multiple cities with a body of data already input.

EB source: http://code.google.com/p/ebcode/

2:43 PM  
Blogger John Temple said...

Great question, Alan. Everyblock is an example of the kind of initiative newspapers should be pursuing. But no newspaper company yet sees itself as a truly national player with a focus on building new brands. They're still focused on protecting their existing brands. I wrote about your post on my blog at www.johntemple.net.

2:48 PM  
OpenID paulbalcerak said...

Couple good points:

"...maybe they didn't want to be owned by a newspaper."
I'm not so sure I would, either. Generally speaking (generally speaking), most newspapers are financially doomed (or at least in really bad shape) and their editorial staffs are none too savvy or friendly toward new media concepts.

"There's very little everyblock does that can't be replicated."
This is true now, but for how much longer? With MSNBC's money behind it, EveryBlock will have more resources than ever to build the best product. Meanwhile, newspaper Web sites will be forced to do more with less—because no one is abandoning EveryBlock for an inferior product.

For the record, I use EveryBlock for the iPhone and love it. It's not perfect (doesn't update everyday, pretty bare bones at the moment, etc.), but it's solid and offers an alternative to the local news blogs/sites/apps.

2:54 PM  
Blogger -30- said...

Actually a better question is why haven't newspapers duplicated Everyblock's functionality even yet?

I mean Everyblock has freed their source code so it should be as easy as grab and run. Even then, what Everyblock did wasn't all that hard in the grand scheme of things. So whither the newspapers?

3:27 PM  
Blogger Matt said...

Everyblock is open source. Find me a newspaper (besides me and mine) that will take the time/money/resources to adapt it to their local data sources. It's not that easy.

4:51 PM  
Blogger Jerry said...

Combine Everyblock's technology with the news sense of, say, Arnie Dornfeld or Harry Romanoff or Ritz Fischer, and you'd have an app to kill all. (Hope I spelled Ritz's last name right!)

5:08 PM  
Blogger Matt said...

Another HUGE point. The code is open source. MSNBC doesn't have to release changes to the code unless they distribute it.

Future Knight code should be forced under the GNU Affero license which would require services that use the code to also allow a release.

Short sighted on the Knight folks, whom I admire.

I admit, I wouldn't have thought of this until now, either.

5:16 PM  
Blogger Howard Owens said...

Holovaty is brilliant. Everyblock seems like a logical way to proceed.

So it's natural to assume that that it should have been a no brainer to acquire.

If I still worked for a newspaper company, I wouldn't have voted to acquire it.

The problem with Everyblock is it's just another homogeneous attempt to nationalize local. That is, strategically, the opposite direction newspapers should be heading. This acquisition makes perfect sense for Microsoft; it wouldn't have made sense of a newspaper company.

5:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I know this is heretical to journo-geeks, but ...

I have lived in Everyblock cities and tried to use the site on my laptop and on my iPhone, but I've never been able to find anything useful. Even when a crime happened right outside my building, there just wasn't any useful information about it on Everyblock. (I checked just for curiosity's sake, since that's supposed to be its best quality.)

Maybe MSNBC can fix it by combining Everyblock's data with actually informative content.

I've talked to other folks who live here and they've had the same lacking experience. When it comes down to it, Everyblock does a lot without accomplishing anything.

5:49 PM  
Anonymous Sabine Vollmer said...

At McClatchy's News & Observer in Raleigh, NC, we talked about establishing these local databases. We had a committee that recommended the N&O at least get the police reports and do a geographical crime report that readers can access. But nothing ever got done and with half as many people in the N&O newsroom today, I don't see this being done now.

7:59 PM  
Blogger gkamp said...

1. AFAIK the Knight grant obliged Adrian to open source the source code as of June 30th 2009. Everything from that day can stay closed source. Hence there is no source code repository for EB set up, only a tarball you can download

So EB has quite a head start wrt. improvement.

2. EB IMHO never wanted to do a complete coverage, it is some form of local journalism that complements other forms.

3. Together with the acquisition of Patch by AOL, this looks even worse for traditional newspapers

9:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Having spent most of my life working for newspapers from college, to small town weeklies, to the nation's leading business newspaper I've learned three things: 1) I've met many publishers who would have trouble out thinking my three cats for long distances. Imagination about the future isn't necessarily what gets someone into the Publisher's or CEO's chair. 2) Once they get in that chair they spend too much time with people who appear to think like they do. At least they say "yes" a lot. That's how they talked us into a major downturn in advertising back in the 80's. 3) If most papers have IT departments like the one I knew best they have very little idea of of the real process of producing a paper. So they come up with software that is cumbersome for people on the front lines of advertising to use. Consequently Open Source would probably throw the IT gurus into a major tizzy.

10:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The devil is in the data. Public domain data such as police records, property deeds, etc. are notoriously inconsistent, riddled with errors and not uniformly available. Relying on readers to submit data is likewise subject to errors and inconsistency. Commercially available data are better, but the cost increases dramatically with the quality.

The only way to make this work is for the newspaper (Or some other entity, but who? Surely not MSNBC.) to manage and edit the public domain and reader-submitted data and fill in the gaps with original data. The cost of doing that grows as the geography gets more granular.

And that's what kills you, because the revenue opportunity shrinks as the geography gets more granular. Oh, sure, in aggregate the opportunity is tremendous, but at some point the ROI on just the sales effort, never mind the data collection/edition/creation cost, goes negative. If you rely on self-service advertising, and you probably must to some extent, you'll have great difficulty getting a critical mass of advertisers.

The online Yellow Pages/business directory sector should be noted. It's essentially a subset of the Everyblock concept, and a subset that ought to be successful since it is oriented toward connecting consumers to businesses. The reality in that sector is that the easily collected and easily bought data are a commodity, self-service is only marginally effective as an advertising mechanism and no one can afford to enhance the data enough to make it unique.

6:24 AM  
Anonymous Anna Tarkov said...

Maybe it's because I live in Chicago and am web/news/media obsessed, but I'm pretty sick and tired of everyone treating EveryBlock.com like it's the second coming of Christ. Maybe all the incredulity is due to the fact that a certain age group is wildly impressed that something like this could get built by someone. No one I know is that impressed (I'll be 29 this month). We've grown up seeing cool things get built constantly so this isn't anything special in our view.

What's more, no one seems to ever mention that there's nothing journalistic at all about EveryBlock. It's nothing but a data aggregator and, as several commenters have pointed out, not even a very good one. Although here I'll admit that the fault for that doesn't lie with EveryBlock, but with obstructionist government bodies who do not make data available at all or make it available in an unreadable format. Or maybe it's somewhat EveryBlock's fault as well. It doesn't matter. The point is that even at what they purport to do, they're not doing it brilliantly.

So please, a little perspective. Should newspapers have built an EveryBlock? Sure, it would have been helpful. But the fact that they didn't and didn't acquire EveryBlock isn't much of a testament to their stupidity and short-sightedness. There's MUCH more that fits the bill for that: http://www.splicetoday.com/politics-and-media/five-key-reasons-why-newspapers-are-failing

6:24 AM  
Anonymous Michael Schnuerle said...

What's interesting to me is that if they use any of the existing EveryBlock code to start with, then any code changes or improvements or features will have to be made available to the public for free, something Microsoft usually never does.

From the EveryBlock source code page:

"...if you distribute any changes, you must make them available under the same open-source license."

It will be interesting to see if MSNBC.com follows this rule, and if they don't, who will police them since the originators now work for them.

If they do publish their revisions as they should, then that new code will be a great asset for everyone on the internet.

9:44 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

speaking with just enough of a shred of inside info to make me leap to conclusions... notice in the details of the deal they stay independent both physically and in brand.

They didn't so much get bought ought as they found a new grant.

11:39 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is (newspaper/media) collaboration the future for hyperlocal? Patch collaborated w/AOL. EB w/MSNBC. And the NiemanLab explores it further here: http://www.niemanlab.org/2009/08/wikicity-aims-to-tap-hyper-niche-markets-for-news-and-information/#comments

Does Hyperlocal have an independent future, or will the real winners become bolt-on applications for the more established media? I vote the later. 'thoughts?

1:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

One of EveryBlock's biggest issues is, and will continue to be local government's digital capabilities.

First off, many, many local government records, even if in digital form, are in mainframe (still), MS-DOS, or MS Windows based client-server apps. Many of these applications are NOT FRIENDLY to interface with (an understatement).

Secondly, we are just now seeing web based apps (think "cloud") starting to hit local government markets, and not even yet for the really big applications - mostly just the small stuff (Environmental Health, building permits, permits generally, etc.).

These are the applications which are the most open because they have to be - when you have to be able to work in a flexible environment, including out in the field, web based apps is the way to go. But the very thought of encouraging decentralized operations goes directly against the bureaucratic mindset.

That's 'a changin', and the required apps are getting closer, but then you still have to convince the local government "buyers", and it's a long, slow process. There's little, if any appetite for risk taking in most local governments.

IMO, EveryBlock is a web app that falls into "A bridge (maybe two) too far" category - particularly if it is heavily reliant on access to local government's digital information.

4:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Washington Post just killed its hyperlocal site, Loudoun County Extra, which used a sort of EveryBlock approach to covering what for the Post was a a far-out suburb. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/08/18/AR2009081803826.html?hpid=moreheadlines
The trouble with the Post's hyperlocal site (and the trouble with EveryBlock) is they haven't engaged the public. For example, there is no avenue for local residents to post their own reports and rely on citizen journalism to boost coverage.

4:48 AM  
Anonymous SB Anderson said...

How sad (and telling) is this about how we've devolved? For those who may not recall, the N&O was a huge pioneering trailblazer in Computer-Assisted Reporting starting in the early '90s, amassing and analyzing tons of local data. . . That seems to have been wiped from the culture, based on this comment:

"At McClatchy's News & Observer in Raleigh, NC, we talked about establishing these local databases. We had a committee that recommended the N&O at least get the police reports and do a geographical crime report that readers can access. But nothing ever got done and with half as many people in the N&O newsroom today, I don't see this being done now."

8:39 AM  
Anonymous Chris Elling said...

It's not like Everyblock was the only (or best) game in town.

There's outside.in and pointslocal.com, both of which are offering enterprise solutions.

1:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

EveryBlock creator responds to you and others:

Did you get interest in a buyout from newspaper companies? If so, why didn't they fit? (Question from Jeff Sonderman via Twitter.)

Holovaty: This topic was a mini-meme around the time of the acquisition announcement, and it amused me to no end, because the question makes very little sense.

It's like asking me, after I put together a band of musicians, why I didn't choose the musician who spoke Portuguese. What difference does it make if a musician speaks Portuguese? I'm going to pick the band member based on how good of a musician he is, not which languages he speaks. That's completely unrelated. Of course, if our band planned to tour in Portugal, it might be a different story, but let's put it this way: the band is not planning to tour in Portugal.

7:57 AM  

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