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December 31 2011

21:00

Filter bubbles burst, blind spots shrunk, curation over SEO: Rachel Sklar’s predictions for 2012

Editor’s Note: We’re wrapping up 2011 by asking some of the smartest people in journalism what the new year will bring.

Bringing us home is Rachel Sklar, a media and cultural critic who is the co-founder of Change The Ratio, an adviser to early-stage startups, and a heavy-to-compulsive-tweeter.

More tattoo parlors

Earlier this week, I was blown away by this: Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt singing a charming version of “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?”. It wasn’t just that it was an adorable clip of two adorable people singing an adorable duet, nor that it was in sly homage to their adorable movie, nor that it was guaranteed to go viral. I sent it to a dude I know who is very smart in the realm of online video, and the future thereof.

“This,” I wrote, “is the future.” He wrote back: “Every time Zooey Deschanel picks up a ukelele, a hipster angel gets his wings tattoo.” True, but that wasn’t even it. “That’s not even it,” I said. “Her genius is that she knows that, and figured out that she should own a piece of the tattoo parlor.”

Hello Giggles is that tattoo parlor.

Do you know Hello Giggles? It’s pretty brilliant, and simple, as many brilliant things are. It’s Deschanel’s website that she founded with Hollywood-and-Internet It girls Sophia Rossi and Molly McAlleer. It’s adorable and slick, like nail polish in hipster colors. Super-fun content, unabashedly girlish, the cool BFF that you love to hang out with. That was where the video broke.

Sure, it was on YouTube — capable of being picked up by HuffPo, BuzzFeed, and all the other usual suspects — but still, it was on Hello Giggles first. Their Twitter feed pointed to it excitedly earlier in the day and then — bingo, link. (And then — site, crash.) Deschanel and her friends looked around and smartly realized that if they could be the content, they could be the platform, too. Tavi Gevinson — more niche but one who could fairly be called the Zooey of the fashion world — did the same thing with Rookie Mag. Louis CK did it last month. If you know your stuff is going to be picked up, why not pick it up yourself? Owning the tattoo parlor. We’re going to see more of that in 2012.

Up with people!

It’s happened: People matter more than brands. Not all brands — people will always love to obsess over The New York Times — but for the most part, it’s individual people who earn and wield the trust of the consumer. (However that Twitter lawsuit pans out, the world will never be Team Phonedog.) So brands will align themselves more closely, and blurrily, with people. (Watch Tina Fey: She’ll probably do something interesting in this vein, that no one else could get away with, but for which she will open the door.)

Speaking of brands vs. people, it will be interesting to watch what happens to TechCrunch over the next year.

And speaking of Tina Fey, a quick coda about Amy Poehler: On “Parks & Recreation,” Leslie Knope is running for office. Outside in the real world, the 2012 election contest will be under way. There’s no way that show will not be a hotbed of trenchant political commentary this season. (BTW, Poehler was a Hillary supporter back in the day. So hopefully that will mean more goddesses in Pawnee.) Point being, people.

News is the killer app

David Carr loves to say this. And it’s true. News moves the needle, every day. Of course, what counts as “news” can be wildly expansive (latest Iowa poll vs. Iran’s latest in the Straits of Hormuz vs. something crazy Glenn Beck said vs. the new Zooey Deschanel vid) (News You Can Hormuz! Sorry). But technology has made everyone a potential real-time newsbreaker, distributor, and TV station, and that is pretty incredible. What we saw from Egypt this year — incredible. The #Occupy livestream during the Zucotti raid — riveting at 2am as the viewer numbers climbed (and the cablers blithely let their canned programming play on).

This is different from a serendipitous civilian twitpic. This is technology letting people change the game, gatekeepers be damned.

Curation is also the killer app

…that said, though, it’s gotten pretty damn noisy out there. And if 2010 and 2011 were years of opening our hearts to a blossoming Internet, 2012 is going to be the year of letting smart people do it for us. Audiences are done with SEO-baiting and bait-and-switch headlines; we’re going to get more choosy with our clicks. And with our eyeball-access. So you’d better be trustworthy, because I don’t let just anyone curate for me. Because while news will always be the killer app, who it’s delivered by will matter just as much.

This is different from “reported by The New York Times.” This is “do I trust Anthony De Rosa to be my filter?” That’s why for those of us who live on the Internet, Ben Smith going to BuzzFeed made perfect, brilliant, forward-looking sense.

Or, to quote media maven Jason Hirschhorn: “Welcome to the age of the “CJ”. The Content Jockey. Payola-free and programmed with care.” He tweeted that, quoting from his email newsletter. #PlatformAgnostic

Unbubbling and unblinding

One of the arguments for old-school newspapers is discovery — next to the article you’re reading might be a completely different article that you never would have seen, on a subject you didn’t know you were interested in. Online, we’re starting to see the opposite: While we’re opting to follow curators who deliver to us the news we wish to receive, our most trusted sites are automatically giving us what they think we want to see — or, taken dystopically, what they want us to see. Eli Pariser dubbed this “the Filter Bubble.” Things are only getting more customized, tailored, targeted, and algorithm-ized, but in 2012 we will see clear pushback on that.

As for curators, an example: The AP’s top Oscar tweets of 2011 — all men. Compiled by Jake Coyle, who follows 191 people on Twitter. Whose tweets did he choose to see? Whose tweets did he ignore? Who was completely in his blind spot? This is just one example, but lemme tell you, I got lots and lots and lots and lots and lots. And lots.

When we began 2011, that blind spot was a frustrating ongoing reality. As we end it, something has shifted — the pushback isn’t only frustrated, it’s mocking. Because the rise of social has surfaced incredible demographic activity and information. Turns out, lots of under-repped constituencies are moving lots of needles. And honestly, those who leave out women, minorities, and other under-noted groups really no longer have a excuse for it — and in so doing, look like tools. (See how the Daily Dot owned that, and moved to make immediate amends.) I watch this stuff closely, and I really do see that trend pushing forward in 2012. (Even if just to keep me from sending you angry emails. WHICH I WILL.)

There isn’t just a single story. In 2012, the audience will expect — nay, demand — to see more of them.

#NoFilter

No relation, but — #NoFilter has become a tag of note this year, thanks to Instagram. What is real? What is fake? What is Kardashian? I think 2012 will demand that we say so up front.

“‘Modern Family’ is the funniest show TV”

I said that the other day. Then I realized I’d never watched Modern Family on TV. I downloaded the first season to my iPad and I have watched it on the elliptical, on planes, in bed, waiting in the security line at the airport, on the subway and walking home from work. This goes double for most other things that I expect to be able to get, see, upload, download, send, save, share or otherwise interact with using the various pieces of technology at my disposal. Our smartphones are now our universal remotes. If you’re not offering your product on-demand in 2012, you’re losing customers in 2012.

Michelle. Sheryl. Mindy. Kristen. Kirsten. Hillary. Zooey.

Mmm-hmmm, I’m not saying anything. I’m just gonna sit back and watch.

20:00

Keli Goff: 2012 will be a golden age of minority-focused media

Editor’s Note: We’re wrapping up 2011 by asking some of the smartest people in journalism what the new year will bring.

Next up is Keli Goff, author, political commentator, and contributing editor at Loop21.com.

Though the last few years in media have been described in doomsday terms, we will likely look back on this time, and particularly the coming year, as the golden age of minority-focused media.

While mainstream media institutions have struggled to stay relevant and stay afloat, in their demise many of the walls that kept the less connected and less privileged out of media have begun to fall. There are many who would argue that those walls were essential to keeping media credible and honest. I would argue that those walls kept many diverse voices, in terms of both race and class, from being heard by wider audiences.

But thanks to the end of the reign of mainstream print media as the defining journalistic institution, the rise of the Internet as the predominant source of news and information, and the proliferation of blogs, more voices that would not have been widely read or heard just years ago are helping to define mainstream conversations.

The election of President Obama only increased the role that online minority media vehicles such as The Root, The Grio, NewsOne, Loop21.com, BET Online, Huffington Post Black Voices, and others have played in reaching audiences that for a long time felt ignored by mainstream outlets. With another presidential election looming, these outlets will continue to grow in both audience and relevance, and we will see more of them, as well as more focus on them, in 2012.

December 21 2011

15:00

Dan Kennedy: 2012 will bring “the great retrenchment” among newspaper publishers

Editor’s Note: We’re wrapping up 2011 by asking some of the smartest people in journalism what the new year will bring.

Next up is Boston-based media commenter Dan Kennedy, an assistant professor of journalism at Northeastern University, a regular panelist on WGBH-TV’s “Beat the Press,” and the author of the Media Nation blog.

Following years of retreat in the face of shrinking readership, mounting financial losses, and a rising chorus of digital visionaries telling them they’re doing it all wrong, 2012 will be a year of retrenchment for newspaper publishers.

Still standing some three years after the near-implosion of the newspaper industry in 2008 and 2009, executives will point to their continued existence as proof that their situation was never as bad as it seemed, and that a few tweaks here and there will restore them to pink-cheeked, if downsized, health.

Their rallying cry will be Dean Starkman’s essay in the November/December 2011 issue of the Columbia Journalism Review, “Confidence Game.” In the course of nearly 8,000 words, Starkman dismisses those he calls the “news gurus” (principally Clay Shirky and Jeff Jarvis), arguing they are more interested in promoting their own the-sky-is-falling agenda than in the fate of public-interest journalism. Starkman calls for the preservation of traditional journalistic institutions, which brought a memorable retort from Shirky:

Saying newspapers will provide a stable home for reporters, just as soon as we figure out how to make newspapers stable, is like saying that if we had some ham, we could have a ham sandwich, if we had some bread.

Starkman’s essay is actually a nuanced, deeply intelligent meditation on the future of journalism, but it’s the caricature — newspapers good, news gurus bad — that traditionalists will embrace. That is especially true with respect to the notion that online readers have been getting a free ride, and that it’s time to insist that they start paying.

At the Boston Globe, for instance, several staff members have taken to tweeting “This is why we pay for journalism” whenever their paper has published something particularly noteworthy — a reference to the Globe’s newly instituted paywall. Never mind that we have always paid for journalism — until recently, primarily through advertising. Never mind that NPR, some commercial broadcast outlets and a rising tide of non-profit news organizations are producing excellent journalism every day that is paid for by someone other than the end user. The unspoken message is, We hard-working journalists have been giving away our work for 15 years, and we’re finally putting a stop to it.

In fact, there are reasons to hope the traditional newspaper industry might have a bit more life left in it than we thought a few years ago. The Globe and The New York Times, both owned by The New York Times Company, are pioneering the use of flexible paywalls that keep much of their content open to social networks and blogs while imposing a fee on regular readers. The Times, at least, has had some success; the Globe has not yet released any numbers. Publishers everywhere are hoping to emulate them.

The forces that have been undermining newspapers since the rise of the commercial web in the mid-1990s will come back to the fore.

Since advertising comprises an ever-shrinking share of revenues, publishers have to persuade readers to pay in the form of higher prices for print and something — anything — for online access. The alternative is to continue sliding toward oblivion. And despite some promising experiments here and there, it’s still not at all clear what would replace newspapers, especially at the local level. For every community that has a high-quality non-profit news site like Voice of San Diego (currently experiencing its own problems) and the New Haven Independent, or a for-profit like The Batavian or Baristanet, there are hundreds without anything but their shrinking, debt-ridden, chain-owned local newspaper.

The great newspaper retrenchment may prove to be more than a dead-cat bounce. As the economy slowly improves, the newspaper business may well enjoy a semi-revival. But before long, the forces that have been undermining newspapers since the rise of the commercial web in the mid-1990s will come back to the fore. Some progressive newspaper executives, like John Paton of Digital First Media, are trying to figure out how to combine the best of the new and the old before it’s too late. For the most part, though, you can be reasonably sure that newspaper companies will continue to cut costs, maximize profits (or minimize losses), and do their best ostrich imitations until they find themselves under siege once again.

After all, they’re standing up for traditional values — and what could be more traditional than failing to plan for the future?

Wall image via Mark Heard used under a Creative Commons license.

14:00

Emily Bell: 2012 will be the year of the network

Editor’s Note: We’re wrapping up 2011 by asking some of the smartest people in journalism what the new year will bring.

Next up is Emily Bell, formerly the director of digital content for Guardian News and Media and currently the director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.

Making predictions about journalism is a hopeless business: Jay Rosen, who is much wiser than I am said he never does it, and I salute him for that. But like Karaoke, some of the things you end up doing during the holiday period are regrettable but fun.

What we saw in 2011 was a sudden consciousness among news organizations and individual journalists that the network, and the tools which create it, are not social media wrappers for reporting but part of the reporting process itself. The poster child for this is the inimitable Andy Carvin, with his amazingly valuable journalism conducted throughout the Arab Spring. The network sensibility will grow in newsrooms which currently don’t tend to have it as part of their process — it is still seen in the vast majority of places as more of a “nice to have” rather than a “must have.” The strongest news organizations we know are those which can leverage both the real time social web and provide relevant timely context and analysis.

While this use of distributed tools and new platforms continues at speed, I think we will also see some much-needed closer scrutiny on what this new reality means for journalism and its constant redefinition of products and services. Or at least I hope so. While a fan of a networked approach, there are important caveats. It is remarkable how much journalism is now conducted on third party commercial websites which do not have journalism as a core purpose — Facebook, Twitter, Google, etc. — and the attendant ignorance of what this means in the long term will begin to be addressed. Issues about privacy and user information, about the protection of sources, about ownership of IP , about archiving, and about how we can have a “fourth estate” in a digital world will all become vital for individual journalists and institutions to understand.

Journalists have always been very skilled at stories and projects and fairly awful at thinking about platforms. We need more engineers who want to be journalists, and we need to teach students more about the implications of publishing in a digital environment — whatever the format their journalism originally takes.

December 19 2011

14:00

Nicholas Carr: 2012 will bring the appification of media

Editor’s Note: We’re wrapping up 2011 by asking some of the smartest people in journalism what the new year will bring.

To kick things off, it’s Nicholas Carr, the veteran technology writer, whose most recent book — The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains — was a finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize.

For years now, the line between the software business and the media business has been blurring. Software applications used to take the form of packaged goods, sold through retail outlets at set prices. Today, as a result of cloud computing and other advances, applications look more and more like media products. They’re ad-supported, subscribed to, continually updated, and the content they incorporate is often as important as the functions they provide. As traditional media companies have moved to distribute their wares in digital form — as code, in other words — they’ve come to resemble software companies. They provide not only original content, but an array of online tools and functions that allow customers to view, manipulate, and add to the content in myriad ways.

During 2011, the blending of software and media accelerated greatly, thanks to what might be termed the dis-integration of the internet. The old general-purpose web, where everyone visited the same sites and saw the same stuff, is rapidly being supplanted by specialized packages of digital content geared to particular devices—iPhone, iPad, Android, BlackBerry, Kindle, Nook, Xbox — or to particular members-only sites like Facebook and Google+. Not only has the net left its Wild West days; it’s entered the era of the gated suburban subdivision. As part of this trend, the open, html-based website is being replaced, or at least supplemented, by the proprietary app. In app stores, the already blurry line between software and media disappears altogether. Apps are as much content-delivery services as they are conventional software programs. Newspapers, magazines, books, games, music albums, TV shows: All are being reimagined as apps. Appified, if you will.

Appification promises to be the major force reshaping media in general and news media in particular during 2012. The influence will be exerted directly, through a proliferation of specialized media apps, as well as indirectly, through changes in consumer attitudes, expectations, and purchasing habits. There are all sorts of implications for newspapers, but perhaps the most important is that the app explosion makes it much easier to charge for online news and other content. That’s true not only when the content is delivered through formal apps but also when it is delivered through traditional websites, which may themselves come to be viewed by customers as a form of app. In the old world of the open web, paying for online content seemed at best weird and at worst repugnant. In the new world of the app, paying for online content suddenly seems normal. What’s an app store but a series of paywalls?

Appification opens to newspapers the powerful marketing and pricing strategy that the Berkeley economist (and now Google executive) Hal Varian dubs “versioning.” Long a cornerstone of the software business, versioning is the practice of creating many versions of the same underlying informational product, packaging them in different ways, and selling them at different prices to different sets of customers. A software maker, for example, may give away a bare-bones version of an application, sell a version with more features to mainstream consumers at a modest price, and offer a high-end version, perhaps combined with added services, to professional users at a premium price. As Varian explains, “the point of versioning is to get the consumers to sort themselves into different groups according to their willingness to pay. Consumers with high willingness to pay choose one version, while consumers with lower willingnesses [sic] to pay choose a different version. The producer chooses the versions so as to induce the consumers to ‘self select’ into appropriate categories.”

We already see versioning strategies at work in the “metered” programs operated by a growing number of papers, including the Financial Times, The New York Times, and the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Readers lacking a willingness to pay get limited access to the papers’ sites for free. Readers who value the content more highly, and hence are willing to pay for it, subscribe for a fee to gain unlimited access. And readers with the greatest willingness to pay shell out even more money to receive both the print edition and unfettered online access. Appification provides an opportunity to create many more versions of the same basic content and deliver them to different customer segments. In 2012, we’ll see versioning strategies become not only more common in the newspaper business but more intricate, sophisticated, and lucrative.

The orthodox view among online pundits has been that paywalls and subscription fees won’t work for general-interest newspapers, that people simply won’t pay for a bundle of news online. Last year, media blogger Jeff Jarvis dismissed The New York Times’s metered plan as “cockeyed economics.” Earlier this year, Nieman Lab blogger Martin Langeveld opined that “newspapers are slowly digging their graves by building paywalls.” It seems likely that 2012 will be the year when we stop hearing such gloomy proclamations. Well-designed versioning strategies, spanning various devices, formats, functions, content bundles, and access plans, will provide smart newspapers with new ways to charge for their products, in both digital and print form, without sacrificing the unique opportunities presented by online distribution. That won’t mean the end of the industry’s struggles, but it does portend a brighter future. And that’s good news.

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