Friday, March 19, 2010

Recycled journalist reinvents news

This is part two of a two part story. Part I is here.

Steve Woodward was part of the Portland Business Journal startup and went after business stories before business stories were cool. He jaunted over to The Oregonian covered more b-happenings and dove into technology.

He wrote through the dot-com boom and dot-com crash. He kibitzed with politicians including Mayor Vera Katz, worked for solution-seeking editors such as Sandy Rowe, and built a solid reader base with support on the technology side from colleagues like Mark Friesen who added a Twitter stream to one of his top stories so readers could not only read about technology, but could also participate in it.

Woodward believed reporters should be feet on the street like cops, "fast, fiesty and first, and that advanced degrees may be not as important as advanced thinking.

He waded through 3D virtual worlds to conduct interviews of Oregonians in their virtual homes and advocated for higher awareness of technology in the newsroom. The newspaper industry stumbled into the era of Craig’s List and social media. Undaunted, Woodward championed for risk taking and saving the paper. He invested time in a work committee tasked with idea generation. It floundered, so Woodward moved his energy offline and collaborated with other pro-newspaper staffers over pizza and beer. Management tapped into their collective genius and moved to put select ideas into practice, not necessarily successfully, but then nobody’s really figured out the new newspaper model.

Then he was out of a job.

But not out of ideas.

Woodward's path crossed with this guy he used to say ‘hi’ to in the elevator. They both had been Oregonian reporters. They both were named Steve.

“A group had been meeting several months on Steve Suo’s idea,” Woodward said. “To extract public records through software, mash up with Google maps, and do an online newspaper of some type or create a non-profit to deliver the content to newspapers around the country.” Steve Suo is a superhero fighting to place public records into the hands of the public. “Steve was really wanting me to join his public records venture. I wasn’t really interested in that per se,” noted Woodward. “I wanted to go forward.” For Woodward that meant leaving the newspaper industry behind, but he got to talking with Suo’s software partner Brian Hendrickson, who among other things coached a boys tennis team at Grant High School in Portland, Oregon.

Hendrickson was researching how his tennis team could communicate with each other. He concluded they could openly microblog on Twitter or, or he could set up a private microblog.

The meeting between Hendrickson and Woodward lasted four hours—drinking Peet’s Coffee and drawing diagrams. “What if you took Steve’s public records and moved them into microblog that goes directly to users?” Woodward proposed. That idea was the spark, his avenue to impact journalism again. “I got excited.” Woodward said. “Now we have content and a delivery system and end users in real time.”

Suo’s group had loosely formed around the name ‘Info Liberator’ and had envisioned a technology company. When Woodward started kicking around his idea of combining Suo's public records concept with Hendrickson's microblog, the company concept morphed into a media company. “We did a lot of talking because it was a more ambitious than simply extracting public records,” Woodward confessed.

On March 21, 2009, almost exactly a year ago, group members shook hands and the venture—Nozzl Media emerged.

“We didn’t listen to our readers enough.” Woodward notes of newspapers who day in and day out choose what to present as news. The defining difference with Nozzl Media is offering consumers everything. “Everyone’s definition of news it different and changes from minute to minute, but no matter what little piece of it you want, you’re going to get.”

January 2010 Nozzl Media released its beta, a slightly altered course from Woodward's original concept. “I credit Jeff Bunch for this.” Jeff Bunch is the Web Editor for the largest daily newspaper in Southwest Washington, The Columbian. “We were thinking a fire hose, one per city, and sell this thing and the end user would simply type in keywords and get their version of the fire hose. Jeff asked, could you do a nozzl for this and a nozzl for that, separate specialty widgets, such as following the race for the Brian Baird seat.”

“This could be huge, when you think of it in those terms,” Woodward said.

Customizing for each customer means understanding the market, a vital component for a community's newspaper. “What makes the most sense? Charleston West Virginia might be different than Vancouver, Washington. The newspaper becomes the aggregator of relevant info and sources.”

No matter the market, to sustain a project advertising comes into play. Nozzl Media is a revenue center not a cost center. The newspaper ad staff sells ads into the stream itself. “As a reader you’re typing in ‘bank’ or ‘mortgage,’ each content item is tagged with a keyword, but also each ad is tagged with keywords.” Nozzl is building an ad dashboard for advertising staff so they can monitor ads and insert ads into the stream and a dashboard for advertisers is under discussion.

Next steps for Nozzl Media is revenue generation for the company. They have their first inked deal with Jeff Bunch’s company and more organizations lining up. “We’re all full time, non-salaried employees now,” Woodward said. “Except for Brian. He really can’t afford to work for free.”