Blog about “onBeing” posted here a little late. As usual.

I had really hoped to post something here on Wednesday about our team’s first major project at Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive, which is called “onBeing.” But time really got away from me on this one, so I didn’t get something posted as soon as I hoped.

My family has long made fun of me for being late, as do my co-workers.

In fact, Levi Chronister — one of the guys on our team who is way too smart to be working with me — often says things like: “The meeting is scheduled for 1 p.m., but my guess is it will be closer to ‘Rob time.’” I’ll let you decide what Levi means by that.

Related to this blog, I think it means that even though I wanted to post something about “onBeing” on Wednesday, it is unfortunately being posted on “Rob time.”

And because I’ve logged such massive hours at work this week (nearly all related to several of our team’s other upcoming projects here at WPNI), if I spend much time on my computer this weekend, my family will be rightfully very upset with me. So, I gotta keep this quick.

I’m going to try to write a proper post about “onBeing” later this weekend, or possibly on Monday.

There are a couple of interesting posts on other blogs about “onBeing” that you should check out if you don’t know what this project is all about. Here is a search of blogs about this project on Technorati, and here is that same search of blogs on google.

Here is a link to Steve Klein’s post about it on’s e-media tidbits.

One of the blog posts that caught my eye was Howard Owens’, which was a list of questions about “onBeing.”

So, until I have time to write a proper post about this project, here are the answers that I wrote to Howard’s “onBeing” questions. (One note: I have changed a few minor things in this response — mostly goofy grammar errors — since I originally posted it on Howard’s blog.)


* Is this something you think the average daily newspaper can copy? If you didn’t have the resources of WaPo, how would you do it? Can a small paper do it?


I would argue that, at least from where I’m sitting, this is just an “updated-for-online” idea that at least some smaller newspapers have already been doing for years. No, make that decades.

I’ve always heard these stories about that “quirky editor” who opened up the phonebook for his or her town, randomly threw a finger into the pages, and then had a reporter write a story about that person.

To me, this is the new-media version of telling the stories of “everyday” people. Just not done as haphazardly as picking someone randomly from the phonebook.

I know in my heart that something like this could be done in a way that is very, very easy to pull off at even the smallest of newspapers — and when I say small, I even mean a small weekly newspaper. I’m convinced of it.

The bigger question to me is not whether a smaller newspaper could do it, but would a smaller newspaper want to do it? It seems to me that when organizations (regardless of size) really want to do something, it gets done.

What would it take?

An inexpensive point-and-shoot camera from Best Buy,or even a pawn shop. A tripod. A non-distracting place to shoot. iMovie (which is free on Macs.) A simple index page for the project on your web site that has links to the video and maybe some thumbnails and a short description.

And then the real key: an interesting person who is OK with talking about his or her life.

It just doesn’t seem to me that you need the resources of The Washington Post to pull that off.

Now, if you were asking about the resources that it took to pull off all the nerdery whiz-bang stuff behind the “onBeing” video player, then I’d say you would have to have some resources dedicated to pull off a project like this. But if that’s what you were talking about, and I don’t think you were, then I’d say you might be missing what the real power and point behind this project is.

To me, the most important skill behind “onBeing” was Jenn knowing what to leave out. Some of these interviews lasted well over an hour. What she did was pick out the most interesting things said, and made it all fit into something that was just a few minutes long. From my perspective, that was the real genius behind “onBeing.”


* How important do you think the format is — studio environment, HD format, etc? to the impact of the content?

At least from the perspective of the new video player that was developed for this project, our goal was to try to experiment with video on the Internet. I love video on news sites. The web teams I’ve been working with have been experimenting with video since my earliest days with Morris Communications back in the 90s.

I totally love YouTube. Heck, I even use Google video (and totally love that some of the clips are downloadable). And I watch video on my iPod on every flight I take.

But with “onBeing” we wanted to question some of the current standards related to online video. Why does it have to be so damn small? Why does it have to be pixelated and poopy-looking? Why are there always a million other things going on with online video players when all I really want is to watch the dang video?

To me, offering HD was just a way to acknowledge that some people have high-res 24-inch monitors.

Do I think any of that is important? No. At least not to the success of “onBeing” as a project that we hope really connects with our audience.

We are getting tons of feedback on this from folks all over the planet, and very few of them are talking about the player or the technology we used. Nearly all of them are talking about the people.

At most, the technology we used was simply about helping the audience see these people better.

So, to answer your question, I don’t think the things you listed are important at all. It’s all about who you’re interviewing and the stories they tell.

And the desire from our newspaper and web site to really do this.


* How big of a role does the name and resources of the WaPo play in being able to convince interesting people to participate?

As journalists, many of us in this profession might relate to The Washington Post brand in certain way, but I’ve found out that the people in the DC area just think of The Post as their local newspaper — no differently than the people in Lawrence thought about the Lawrence Journal-World.

Do I think The Washington Post brand means something in scheduling interviews? Yes, if you’re trying to interview some big-wig senator or a famous actor.

But for this project, I think The Washington Post brand had virtually no bearing on the people who have been interviewed. I can tell you that from Jenn’s perspective, it’s about establishing some trust and rapport with whomever she’s talking to. And in knowing Jenn, she tries to do that with almost everyone she meets. That’s just who she is.

To that point, I’d be willing to bet a steak dinner at the Hereford House in Lawrence that many of these same people would have done these interviews even if they were only going to appear on Jenn’s personal blog.


* How much time and effort does it take to find people interesting enough to profile in this manner?

To be honest, I don’t know. Jenn does that. From hearing her talk about it, many of these first few interviews have mostly just been about connecting with different people she has met in kind of serendipitous ways throughout her time here in DC.

That being said, I can tell you Jenn also is very sensitive to the idea that the only people who are going to show up on “onBeing” will be those folks that she knows or meets, which won’t be the case. She really has an open sensibility and loves getting suggestions and introductions from other folks. Even folks who don’t live in the DC area.

We are getting some great suggestions from people who have visited the site as to other people we should interview.


* How much talent is involved from the journalist in bringing forth the person-behind-the-person aspect of the pieces — the real personality?

Jenn is great at it. The people she is interviewing really trust her and they really open up. It seems to me, great journalists make that happen, and I’ve seen those sorts of journalists at every newspaper I’ve worked at, regardless of the paper’s size.


* How much of an audience do you project will get hooked into OnBeing? How much of the ability to grow audience for this is dependent on it being a product of WaPo?

We’ve never even talked about that. We just wanted to try something different. There were no surveys done beforehand to see if folks wanted something like this. There were no test audiences. We just did what we thought was right.

My guess is that it will get a nice-sized audience. We’re already having way more e-mail sign-ups for reminders than we thought we might have, and the page-views are much higher than what we expected.

Is the audience for “onBeing” going to be bigger because it’s on instead of I think that’s a pretty safe bet, just based on the differences in the audience sizes for those two newspaper sites.

Finding an audience is a tricky and inexact thing. Our web team has built things in the past that I thought would get a huge audience, and nothing happened. We’ve also built things that we didn’t even think about that got massive numbers.

I don’t know if I can really give a definitive answer to your question.

I’ve seen shows on TV that I thought were brilliant that couldn’t find an audience. We’re just trying to produce something that we feel good about.


* What is more important in retaining audience, format and formula or the ability to find compelling people to profile? Can you build a trusted brand for OnBeing that will allow for a few pieces that don’t resonate with the audience because this or that person turned out to be not that interesting?

It’s all about the people who are being featured. But it’s also about the ability of the editor to be loyal to the essense of those people and to make sure all that gets represented faithfully in the edit.

We all feel that one of the keys to “onBeing” is that we don’t keep choosing the same types of voices.

Like a lot of people, one of my favorite television shows used to be Seinfeld. And even when there were episodes that I didn’t like, I kept watching it. I think most audiences know that when something is consistently good, you don’t give up on it just because one episode didn’t “resonate” with you.


* Do you wind up with profiles that simply fall to the cutting room floor?

I think this could and will happen; it just hasn’t happened yet.


* How much time and effort goes into finding the right people, and do you prescreen, preshoot as a sort of audition?

I think if you read Jenn’s blog responses on the videos, many of those posts kind of talk about how she met these people. There is no pre-shoot audition.

I know Jenn would tell you that more important than the time it takes to find these people is the time she spends with them before shooting, during shooting, and after the shooting.

There is no big secret to how Jenn is finding these people. It’s very organic.

For the longest time, I’ve said that one of the things that I love the most about the members of the web team that I work with is their ability to not overlook the obvious. In the few months I’ve known Jenn, it seems like she’s pretty dang good at that, as well.

When she met a lactose-intolerant cheesemaker, she knew this would be an interesting person to talk with for this project.

Over the last 48 hours or so (since the launch of onBeing), I can’t tell you how many people have stopped me to tell me that they know someone who has to be interviewed for this project. And the e-mailed suggestions are rolling in, as well.

We all know interesting people with interesting stories to tell. I guess the secret is knowing when to turn the camera on.


* If there were imitators from other papers, would that help or hurt the concept — would all boats rise because of the spreading meme, or all boats sink because of a saturated market?

Like I said, I really believe “onBeing” is just the re-interpretation of a long-used traditional newspaper concept. Do I think newspapers and newspaper web sites should find interesting people in their community and introduce them to their entire audience? Yes.

I think our industry trying to really connect with its audience can only be a good thing, whether that’s done through something like this or not.

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