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May 22 2013

14:00

Jaron Lanier wants to build a new middle class on micropayments

jaron-lanier-cc

jaron-lanier-who-owns-the-future“We’re used to treating information as ‘free,’” writes Jaron Lanier in his latest book Who Owns the Future?, “but the price we pay for the illusion of ‘free’ is only workable so long as most of the overall economy isn’t about information.”

Lanier argues that a free-culture mindset is dismantling the middle-class economy. In his estimation, the idea “that mankind’s information should be free is idealistic, and understandably popular, but information wouldn’t need to be free it no one were impoverished.”

Who Owns the Future?, like his 2010 book You Are Not a Gadget, is another manifesto attempting to rebuff what he sees as the contemporary ethos of the web. But the followup also refreshingly attempts to pose solutions, one where all participants in this information-based world are paid for what they do and distribute on the web. Throughout, it places particular emphasis on the ways digital technology has unsettled the so-called “creative class” — journalists, musicians, photographers, and the like. As he sees it, the tribulations of those working in such fields may be a premonition for the middle class as a whole. It’s “urgent,” he writes, “to determine if the felling of creative-class careers was an anomaly or an early warning of what is to happen to immeasurably more middle-class jobs later in this century.”

I recently spoke with Lanier and we discussed the ways he sees digital networking disrupting the media, why he thinks advertising can no longer sustain paid journalism, and why he misses the future. Lightly edited and condensed, here’s a transcript of our conversation.

Eric Allen Been: You were one of the early advocates of the notion that “information wants to be free.” An idea most media companies initially embraced when it came to the web, and one that now some seem to regret. Could you talk a little bit about why you changed your mind on this line of thinking?
Jaron Lanier: Sure. It was based on empirical results. The idea sounded wonderful 30 years ago. It sounded wonderful in the way that perfect libertarianism or perfect socialism can. It sounds right, but with all these attempts to make a perfect system, it doesn’t work out so well. Empirically, what I’ve seen is the hollowing out of middle-class opportunities and that there is an absurdity to the way it’s going. I think we’re not getting the benefits that I initially anticipated.
Been: When it came to journalism, what were some of those benefits that you originally expected? I imagine you then thought it would be a largely positive thing.
Lanier: Yeah. To use the terminology of the time, we — that is, me and others who were behind a lot of the ideas behind the Web 2.0 ethos or whatever — wanted to “supplant” or “make obsolete” the existing channels of journalism and the existing types of jobs in journalism. But what would come instead would be better — more open and all of that — and less intermediated. What happened instead was a little bit of what we anticipated. In a sense, the vision came true. Yes, anybody can blog and all that — and I still like that stuff — but the bigger problem is that an incredible inequity developed where the people with big computers who were routing what journalists did were getting all the formal benefits. Mainly the money, the power. And the people who were doing the work were so often just getting informal benefits, like reputation and the ability to promote themselves. That isn’t enough. The thing that we missed was how much power would accrue to the people with the biggest computers. That was the thing we didn’t really think through.
Been: Historically, technological advances have caused disruptions to industries, but they’ve also tended to provide new jobs to replace the wiped-out ones. There seems to be some optimism in a lot of quarters that journalism can get eventually get on the right track, economically speaking, within the digital world. But you don’t think so.
Lanier: The system is slowly destroying itself. I’ll give you an example of how this might work out. Let’s suppose you say in the future, journalists will figure out how to attach themselves to advertising more directly so they’re not left out of the loop. Right now, a lot of journalism is aggregated in various services that create aggregate feeds of one kind or another and those things sell advertising for the final-stop aggregator. And the people doing the real work only get a pittance. A few journalists do well but it’s very few — it’s a winner-take-all world where only a minority does well. Yes, there are a few people, for instance, who have blogs with their own ads and that can bring in some money. You can say, “Well, isn’t that a good model and shouldn’t that be emulated”? The problem is that they’re dependent on the health of the ad servers that place ads. Very few people can handle that directly. And the problem with that is the whole business of using advertising to fund communication on the Internet is inherently self-destructive, because the only stuff that can be advertised on Google or Facebook is stuff that Google hasn’t already forced to be free.

As an example, you might have a company that makes toys and you advertise the toys on Google, and that might show up in journalism about toy safety or something. So journalists can eek some money from people who sell toys. That’s kind of like the traditional model of advertising-supported journalism.

But every type of business that might advertise on Google is gradually being automated and turning into more of an information business. In the case of toys, there’s a 3-D printer where people print out toys. At some point, that will become better and better and more common, and whenever that happens, what happened to music with Napster will happen to toys. It’ll be all about the files and the machines that actually print out the toys. If the files that print out the toys can be made free, the only big business will be the routing of those files, which might be Google or Facebook handling that, and there will be nobody left to advertise on Google.

That’ll happen with everything else — pharmaceuticals, transportation, natural resources — every single area will be subject to more and more automation, which doesn’t have to put people out of work. The only reason automation leads to unemployment is the idea of information being free. It’s a totally artificial problem, but if journalists are counting the Google model to live on, it won’t work. Google is undermining itself, and there will be no one left to buy advertisements.

Been: Speaking of advertising, I’m interested in hearing what you think about a lot of people currently lauding BuzzFeed and its use of native advertising. There’s a lot of talk about it solving “the problems of both journalism and advertising at once”, or it being some sort of guiding light for a “future of paid journalism.”
Lanier: Advertising, in whatever form, just can’t be the only possible business plan for information. It forces everybody to ultimately compete for the same small pool of advertisers. How much of the economy can advertising really be? It can’t be the whole market. Why on earth are Google and Facebook competing for the same customers when they actually do totally different things? It’s a peculiar problem. You’re saying that there’s only one business plan, one customer set, and everybody has to dive after that. It becomes a very narrow game — there’s not enough there for everybody. It could work out locally a little bit, but it’s not an overall solution.
Been: And your solution is what you call a “humanistic information economy.” Could you talk a little bit about how such a system would work?
Lanier: There are some theoretical reasons that lead me to believe that if you monetized a deeply connected open network, the distribution of benefits to people would look like a middle class. In other words, there would be a lot of wealth in a lot of people’s hands that could outspend any elite, which is critical for democracy and a market economy to survive. So one benefit is you could get a consistent middle class even when the economy gets really automated. It becomes a real information economy.

A humanistic economy would create a middle class in a new way, instead of through unions and other ad hoc mechanisms. It would create a middle class by compensating people for their value in terms of references to the network. It would create an expanding economy instead of a static one, which is also important. It’s built around the people instead of the machines. It would be a change in paradigm.

Been: In the book, you write: “If we demand that everyone turn into a freelancer, then we will all eventually pay an untenable price in heartbreak.” But a lot of what you’re proposing strikes me, in some senses, as a freelance economy.
Lanier: That’s right. What I’m proposing is actually a freelance economy, but it’s a freelance economy where freelancing earns you not just income but also wealth. That’s an important distinction to make. What I think should happen is as you start providing information to the network, it then will become a part of other services that grow over time.

So, for instance, let’s suppose you translate between languages, and some of your translations provide example phrase translations that are used in automatic translators. You would keep getting dribbles of royalties from having done that, and you start accumulating a lot of little ways that you’re getting royalties — not in the sense of contractual royalties, just little payments from people that are doing things that benefited from information you provided. If you look at people’s interest in social networking, you see a middle-class distribution of interest. A lot of people would get a lot of little dribs and drabs, and it would accumulate over a lifetime so you’d start to have more and more established information that had been referenced by you that people are using. What should happen is you should start accumulating wealth, some money that shows up because of your past as well as your present moment.

Been: So if I simply shared a link to a New York Times article on Twitter, for instance, would there be a payment exchange? If so, who would it go to?
Lanier: It would be person-to-person payments. Right now, we’re used to a system where you earn money in blocks, like a salary check, and you’re spending on little things like coffee of something. And in this system, you’d be earning lots of little micropayments all the time. But you would be spending less often. That terrifies people, but it’s a macroeconomic thing. I believe the economy would actually grow if information was monetized, and overall your chances will get a lot better than they are now.
Been: You say in the book that this person-to-person payment system is partly inspired by the early work of the sociologist and information technology pioneer, Ted Nelson. Particular, his thoughts about two-way linking over a network. Could you talk a little bit about why you think this is a better way to exchange information?
Lanier: The original concept of digital networking that predated the actual existence of digital networking is Ted Nelson’s work from the 1960s. It was different from the networks we know today in a few key ways. All the links were two-way, for one. You would always know who was linking at your website — there would always be backlinks. If you have universal backlinks, you have a basis for micropayments from somebody’s information that’s useful to somebody else. If the government camera on a corner catches you walking by, and it matches against you, you’d be owed some money because you contributed information. Every backlink would be monetized. Monetizing actually decentralizes power rather than centralizing it. Demonetizing a network actually concentrates power around anyone who has the biggest computer analyzing it.
Been: Let’s talk about that last point. This is an example of what you call in the book a “Siren Server.” That is, computers on a network that gather data without conceding that money is owed to those individuals mined for the information.
Lanier: That’s right. It’s my name for one of the biggest, best, most effective, connected computers on the network. A Siren Server is a big server farm — a remote unmarked building somewhere in the countryside near a river so it can get cooled. It has tons of computers that run as one. It gathers data from the world for free and does more processing of that data that normal computers can do. What it does with the processing is it calculates several moves that the owners can make that put them in an advantage based on a global perspective.

If you’re Amazon, it means you keep track of everybody else’s prices in the world, including little local independent stores, so you can never be outsold. If a store wants to give a book away, Amazon will also do that, so nobody gets a local advantage. If you’re Google, it gives advertisers a way to use a behavioral model of the world to predict which options in front of you are most likely to steer you. If you’re a finance company, it’s a way of bundling derivatives in such a way that somebody else is holding the risk. It’s almost a cryptographic effort. If you’re an insurance company, it’s a way of calculating how to divide populations so you insure the people who least need to be insured. In all these cases, a giant computer calculates an advantage for yourself and you get a global perspective that overwhelms the local advantage that participants in the market might have had before.

Been: In the book, you call Craigslist a Siren Server, one that “created a service that has greatly increased convenience for ordinary people, while causing a crisis in local journalism that once relied on paid classified adds.” You write that it “has a tragic quality, since it is as modest and ethical as it can be, eschewing available spying opportunities, and yet it still functions as a Siren Server despite that.” So a Siren Server, in your mind, isn’t necessarily always a malevolent construction.
Lanier: That’s true. I don’t think there’s much in the way of evil or competitive intent. It’s the power of having one of the biggest computers. When you suddenly get power by surprise, it’s a seduction. You don’t realize that other people are being hurt. But if it wasn’t Craigslist, it would have been something else. Some computer gets a global perspective on everything and the local advantage goes away. Craigslist calculated away the local advantage that newspapers used to have.
Been: So far, the reviews of Who Owns the Future? have been largely positive. But in The Washington Post, Evgeny Morozov criticized it by saying “Lanier’s proposal raises two questions that he never fully confronts.” One being whether a nanopayment system would actually help the middle class once automation hits its tipping point. He cites cab drivers being replaced by self-driving cars and says: “Unless cabdrivers have directly contributed to the making of maps used by self-driving cars, it’s hard to see how a royalty-like system can be justified.”
Lanier: This has to do with the value of information. In the book I ask this very question — in the future, in the case of self-driving cars, it’s certainly true that once you’ve been through the streets once, why do it again? The reason is that they’re changing. There might be potholes, or there might be changes to local traffic laws and traffic patterns. The world is dynamic. So over time, maps of streets that need cars to drive on them will need to be updated. The way self-driving cars work is big data. It’s not some brilliant artificial brain that knows how to drive a car. It’s that the streets are digitized in great detail.

So where does the data come from? To a degree, from automated cameras. But no matter where it comes from, at the bottom of the chain there will be someone operating it. It’s not really automated. Whoever that is — maybe somebody wearing Google Glass on their head that sees a new pothole, or somebody on their bike that sees it — only a few people will pick up that data. At that point, when the data becomes rarified, the value should go up. The updating of the input that is needed is more valuable, per bit, than we imagine it would be today. Cabbies themselves, that’s irrelevant. There won’t be cabbies. They’ll have to be doing other things.

Been: His other question is “how many [online] services would survive his proposed reforms?” Morozov brings up Wikipedia and says the “introduction of monetary incentives would probably affect authors’ motivation. Wikipedia the nonprofit attracts far more of them than would Wikipedia the startup.”
Lanier: But in what I’m proposing, Wikipedia would not pay you — it would be a person-to-person thing. I’m proposing that there’s no shop and people are paying each other when they create things like Wikipedia. Which is very different. If it’s going through a central hub, it creates a very narrow range of winners. If it’s not, it’s a whole different story.

The online services that would survive would be the ones that can add value to the data that people are providing anyway. Instagram could perhaps charge to do cool effects on your pictures, but the mere connections between you and other people would not be billable, it would just be normal. People would pay each other for that. The services would have to do more now than they are. A lot of services are just gatekeepers and would not survive and they shouldn’t. It would force people to up their game.

Been: Speaking of upping one’s game, you get a strong sense throughout the book that you think society is no longer future-minded. Towards the end, you write that you “miss the future.” What do you mean by that statement?
Lanier: It seems that there’s a loss of ambition or a lowering of standards for what we should expect from the future. We hyped up things like being able to network — and we understood it was a step on a path — but these days I call the open-source idea the MSG of journalism.

An example would be this: Take some story that would be totally boring, like garbage bags are being left on the street. But if you say, “open-source software is being used to track garbage bags on the street,” there’s something about it that it makes it seem interesting. And that makes it a low bar for what seems interesting. A very unambitious idea of what innovation can be.

Photo of Jaron Lanier by Dan Farber used under a Creative Commons license.

January 13 2012

16:00

Craig Newmark: Fact-checking should be part of how news organizations earn trust

Okay, I’m not in the news business, and I’m not going to tell anyone how to do their job. However, it’d be good to have news reporting that I could trust again, and there’s evidence that fact checking is an idea whose time has come.

This results from smart people making smart observations, at two recent conferences about fact checking, one run by Jeff Jarvis at CUNY (with me involved) and a more recent one at the New America Foundation. I’ve surfaced the issue further by carefully circulating a prior version of this paper.

Restoring trust to the new business via fact checking might be an idea whose time has come. It won’t be easy, but we need to try.

Fact checking is difficult, time consuming, and expensive, and it’s difficult to make that work in current newsrooms. There are Wall Street-required profit margins, and the intensity of the 24×7 news cycle. The lack of fact checking becomes obvious even to guys like me who aren’t real smart.

It’s worse when, say, a cable news reporter interviews a public figure, and that figure openly lies, and the reporter is visibly conflicted but can’t challenge the public figure. That’s what Jon Stewart calls the “CNN leaves it there” problem, which may have become the norm. When such interviews are run again and quoted, that reinforces the lie, and that’s real bad for the country.

Turns out that The New York Times just asked “Should The Times Be a Truth Vigilante?” That’s a much more pointed version of the question I’ve previously posed. The comments are overwhelming, like “isn’t that what journalists do?” and the more succinct “duh.”

For sure, there are news professionals trying to address the problem, like the folks at Politifact and Factcheck.org. We also see great potential at American Public Media’s Public Insight Network; with training in fact checking, their engaged specialist citizens might become a very effective citizen fact-checking network. (This list is far from complete.)

My guess is that we’ll be seeing networks of networks of fact checkers come into being. They’ll provide easily available results using multiple tools like the truth-goggles effort coming from MIT, or maybe simple search tools that can be used in TV interviews in real time.

Seems like a number of people in journalism have similar views. Here’s Craig Silverman from Poynter reporting recent conferences. Silverman and Ethan Zuckerman had a really interesting discussion regarding the consequences of deception:

That brings me to the final interesting discussion point: the idea of consequences. Can fact checking be a deterrent to, or punishment for, lying to the public?

“I’m surprised we’re not talking about how fact checking could reduce misinformation in the long term by creating consequences, creating punishment,” said Harvard’s Ethan Zuckerman at the DC event.

I’m an optimist, and hope that an apparent surge of interest in fact checking is real. Folks, including myself, have been pushing the return of fact checking for some months now, and recently it’s become a more prominent issue in the election.

Again, this is really difficult, but necessary. I feel that the news outlets making a strong effort to fact-check will be acting in good faith and trustworthy, and profitable. However, this seems like a good way to start restoring trust to the news business.

Craig Newmark is the founder of craigslist, the network of classified ad sites, and craigconnects, an organization to connect and protect organizations doing good in the world.

December 08 2011

15:20

Why Our Startup Decided Not To Target the Newspaper Industry

Are there opportunities for technology startups which target the media business?

Fred Wilson -- a venture capitalist who has made investments in Twitter, Zynga, Tumblr, Etsy, and FourSquare, among others -- apparently thinks not. As reported on MediaShift on November 15, Wilson told an audience of CUNY students with interests in business and journalism that better opportunities could be found in industries that aren't as "picked over" and have problems that aren't being solved.

As the co-founder of a technology startup that once considered the news industry as a source of partnerships and revenue, I agree with Wilson that startups should look elsewhere.

However, the reason they should do so is not because the media industry lacks problems that need to be solved. If anything, the media industry has problems that span every sector of the industry and every segment of the value chain. Rather, the reason why startups should look for other opportunities is many industry problems are so intractable, and the chance for making a successful business is so slim, that it simply doesn't make sense to target it.

The case of Invantory

Right now, we're developing Invantory, a mobile software platform that targets the local classifieds marketplace that is currently dominated by Craigslist. We're going to make the Invantory experience one that is defined by an easy-to-use interface and great-looking photographs that are now possible with most smartphones. Further, we're attacking a problem that has vexed users of Craigslist and newspaper classifieds for years -- the lack of a system to vet who you're dealing with. Our reputation system, which is built on proprietary algorithms and other safeguards, will help users better evaluate the other parties before they make contact.

My partner, Sam Chow, is a former Microsoft engineer and an experienced programmer for Apple's iOS platform. My own background is online news, content and communities. In the 2000s, I was a technology journalist and online editor, and in the 1990s, I worked at a daily newspaper and on a daily television newscast.

My news roots run deep, and I thought there might be some alignment between our platform and the needs of local news publishers, which have seen their own classifieds revenue fall sharply in the last five years. In 2006, classified revenue in four categories (cars, jobs, real estate and "other") totaled $17 billion, according to the Newspaper Association of America. Last year, it totaled just $5.6 billion. Wouldn't it be great if our platform could somehow help the media industry, while building Invantory's user base?

craigslist_350x225.png

I began seeking out publishers, online news professionals and other experts to better understand the market and the possibilities for our platform to serve online news operations through white-label apps or other solutions. Very quickly I realized there would be a problem selling to publishers. Most people I talked with had reservations about dealing with software vendors, ranging from a reluctance to share revenue to outright mistrust.

"I've dealt with enough vendors to become very cynical," a publisher of a small newspaper told me. "Whether they extrapolate revenue based on bigger markets or outright lie, we have become very suspicious."

This sentiment, which was echoed by others I spoke with, made me realize that the sales cycles would be punishing. For many customers, it would be hard to get our foot in the door, let alone successfully close a deal.

Yet the same publisher was interested in a technology that could help once again make classifieds a draw -- as well as bring in revenue or improve efficiencies. He readily admitted that his own technology was complicated for users. "On Craigslist, it's easy to create an ad, upload a photo, and publish," he said. "We should be able to do that."

The barriers

I spent time studying how classified systems worked at various publishers. I found it very interesting that many smaller publishers still had a classifieds desk that took ads over the phone, often augmented by email with customers. Some larger publishers had online classifieds tools, but they were clunky. Part of the problem related to the fact that most attempted to serve both the print and online classifieds, and did neither job well. Others were poorly configured. The system used by my hometown newspaper didn't even let me post classifieds locally -- but did make it possible to create listings in markets more than 20 miles away. The system also tried to charge expensive rates for relatively small ads -- $15 to $20 was a typical base rate for a small text ad in print. (A simple online classified ad was included for free.) No wonder people were abandoning newspaper classifieds for Craigslist.

Beyond the clunky ad creation systems, one of the biggest technology problems I observed was the nonstandard online publishing platforms used across the industry. This is actually a huge, underappreciated issue for all news publishers, including broadcasters, news agencies, blog-based news and opinion sites. It leads to additional costs, complexities, and talent shortages that companies based on older media platforms -- including print, television and radio -- did not have to deal with.

Among newspaper websites, it's not hard to find home-grown hacks or heavily customized content management systems. Even at publishers which use the same CMS across their properties, variations are common -- a typical example might involve different versions of Drupal and Drupal modules, owing to staggered technology upgrades, different needs for various brands, and complications involving legacy applications and data. Throw different registration and online payment systems into the mix, and you can start to understand the problem new software platforms targeting this industry are faced with.

Related to the CMS mess was a lack of developers and other technical staff at media organizations. This is a problem that afflicts many industries, not just the news business. But it exacerbated the problem with nonstandard publishing systems. Not only would heavy programming work be required to get Invantory to work with a new customer's site, but integration would largely fall back on us. Systems integration is technology consulting that requires lots of time and specialized development staff. It was not a business that we wanted to get into.

The Final Nails in the Coffin

The final nails in the coffin came at the New England Newspaper & Press Association's fall conference in October. There, I heard more details about the pain being experienced by publishers, and received advice that helped us make our decision to abandon our original plan to target the media industry.

One of the speakers, Amy Mitchell of the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism, laid out the grim financial outlook. She stated that while most newspapers are still managing a profit, they're surviving by managing costs. Mitchell was unable to identify any solution to the revenue crisis. "We are not recommending anything other than experimentation," she told the audience, adding that this was going to be tough at many publications whose corporate cultures are resistant to change and innovation. This signaled that publishers were not only less likely to invest in innovative technologies, they were also unable to afford more expensive third-party software.

News industry analyst, author and blogger Ken Doctor was even more skeptical of a turnaround. "It is impossible for anyone to keep up with the disruption," he stated. Doctor went on to predict that broadcasters would soon begin to feel the same pain as newspapers and magazines, as business models based on traditional advertising eroded further.

However, Doctor also saw opportunity in tablet platforms. "If you read, you're going to have a tablet," he said, adding that the price of Kindles and other devices will soon drop to $50. "Why wouldn't you buy one?" he asked the audience.

The final presentation of the afternoon was from Alan Mutter, a former newspaper editor turned Silicon Valley CEO. As a consultant, speaker and author of the Reflections of a Newsosaur blog, he has become a well-known pundit on the travails of the news industry. During his NENPA talk, he predicted more top-line pain for publishers, owing to a number of trends:

  • "The audience trend is you don't have audiences under the age of 40."
  • "The most important thing happening is brands are going directly to consumers."
  • "High-priced reach advertising is not defensible."
  • "Coca-Cola has 34 million friends on Facebook ... This is the future for marketing and advertising."

Later in the day, I spoke with Mutter, and described our vision for Invantory as a mobile classifieds platform that could potentially sell white-labelled apps and platform technology to the news industry. He was pessimistic, not only because of the problems I cited earlier, but also because of the climate for raising capital in this space. "VCs with any experience won't invest in you," he warned.

Nevertheless, Mutter seemed hopeful about the idea of doing something different with classifieds. "Think about a real way to reinvent the classifieds market," Mutter told me. "Because there isn't one now."

Moving on

That evening, I met my partner and told him that the idea of selling to the news industry wouldn't work. Doing so would require huge investments of time and staff expertise, for skeptical customers who generally couldn't afford expensive technology systems. Raising capital would be more difficult when investors heard who we were targeting. We are still going ahead with our plan to create a mobile classifieds platform, but will instead go direct to consumer based on a freemium business model.

We've already built out the cloud infrastructure and now have a demo application. Work has already started on our intellectual property -- the proprietary technologies that will drive our reputation system. Soon we will begin user testing. (If you're interested in signing up for product updates, or seeing an alternative to Craigslist in your town or city, please use the sign-up form on the front page of the Invantory website.)

We understand that we'll face a new set of challenges, especially in terms of developing a solid go-to-market strategy and revenue plan. But we believe the time is ripe for innovation in this space.

Ian Lamont is the former managing editor of The Industry Standard and a web media veteran with years of experience developing online news, community and content. He eventually left the news media to return to grad school, earning an MBA as an MIT Sloan Fellow. His startup, Invantory, is a mobile software platform for local classifieds. Follow him on Twitter at @invantory or @ilamont or email him at ian.lamont@invantory.com.

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November 11 2011

17:50

July 25 2011

15:59

Professional vs. pond scum…

There’ve been a few discussions (this is one) going on over at b-roll, as well as some stuff happening in my own life that gave rise to this topic.

What IS a professional (videographer). And what is pond scum (well, pond scum floats…I really mean bottomfeeders)? And can one morph into the other?

Too often those at the top of the food chain look down with distain at those trying to climb out of the bottom. And those at the bottom often desperately love what they do and would (and can) do it for free.

Free – there’s the first difference.

A professional knows their worth – that their time is measured on dollars, based on experience, talent, technical knowledge, and gear, taking into account their market and a few other variables. And they charge accordingly.

Those who are not pros work for free…for the experience…for something for their demo reel…or just for the heck of it.

Pause for a bit of explanation – pros work for free from time to time for worthy causes or marketing purposes (win a free wedding video!).

Now I’m going to split the non-pros off from the pros and get into the nitty-gritty.

You can probably categorize the non-professional videographers into several strands.
1. Hobbyist
2. Student/Beginner
3. Clueless/Wanna-Be
4. True bottomfeeder

The Hobbyist is someone who does video for the love of it…and can and does achieve professional standards often. They’re not in it for the money, but for the love of the craft. (Again, pros are in it for the money…but in most cases there is also love of the craft. They want both though…to work and get paid for something they enjoy doing.)

Student/Wanna-Be are future pros if they play it right. They have learned the basics and are working to gain experience and listen and learn. They have a goal…to become a professional.

Um…Clueless/Wanna-Be. They may look like Students but don’t have the common sense or brain matter to rise above point and shoot. They’re either so into technical standards they don’t bother with aesthetics and the craft of video or they just like to walk around with a camera to impress, but never ever ever seem to move forward. They don’t have a plan or a goal beyond today.

And now for the Bottomfeeders. They’re the ones you have to look out for. They may look like pros or something between a beginner and pro, but they are not into learning or quality or ethics – they are in it for the money (and possibly the flash). They undercut pros in their market, do a shoddy job, and give the entire industry a bad name.

Why all this ranting?

First let me admit to an addition. I love to cruise craigslist. Primarily for the antiques and farm and garden section, but I also from time to time check out the gigs. Not the jobs (TV) section – after looking in there once or twice I had to sterilize my computer. It was NASTY.

And that’s where I (and many of the folks over on b-roll) find our laughs. So many many ads for video-related jobs, all offering no pay and an “opportunity” to work for “experience.”

But I found my first example that concerned me in the photography (for sale) section. A young woman placed an ad for her services as a photographer. She admitted to being a student, but wanted to charge $100 to take a portrait. She wanted to charge clients so she could learn and get experience. No online portfolio…nothing to indicate her abilities.

After an email correspondence I got her name. Yep – a real raw naive teen (ish) girl. She put herself out online and made several huge mistakes.

First – with one email I got her name and could easily, if I wished, have tracked her down or set up an appointment. Jail bait.

Second – she wanted to charge too much for her experience and without any proof of her work or mention of equipment other than having taken an ROP photo class and knowing PhotoShop.

Third – as mentioned above, what can she do for the price she is charging? Does she have a rate sheet…what does she provide for that price? How far will she travel? Where are some examples of her work?

I’m hoping she takes the advice given and sets up a webpage with examples, looks into contracts, rate sheets and more. She is a Student/Beginner…willing to learn.

The next one is similar, involving a teenager with aspirations and no clue about professional conduct. He offered to shoot senior portraits of a friend for free…and they went out over several days to a number of locations and different times (daylight, twilight, night). He shot quite a few photos – and then told his friend she had to pay $350 for the photos because he was a professional.

Ummmm – PROFESSIONAL?

I got involved because his “friend” was also one of my photo students who listened in class, earned an A and had her own concerns about his professionalism. Plus, she was extremely upset at the bait and switch.

A moment to pause for vainglorious shameless self-promotion.

MY student, while working with the above-mentioned “pro” kept questioning him about depth of field, light, aperture – and was able to asses his total lack of knowledge in those areas. Love it when a student actually LEARNS!

In the end she was able to beat him back, give him a token payment and NOT use any of his photos (98% of them were technically poor).

This guy may or may not learn from this. The friendship was broken, but may mend. But he seems to be meandering along his own self-centered path…not willing to move forward and take the necessary steps to become a professional. A current and future Bottomfeeder.

But his problems were similar to example number one, the craigslist babe.

No proof of prior work (no examples, just his word). No professional standards, rates, or contract. Bait and switch of the worst kind.

Now I do have a couple of students involved in video in their communities who are students. One is Cambodian, the other Hispanic. They took my high school broadcasting class and eventually set up their own production companies, shooting events/weddings within their tight-knit neighborhoods. (I’ve now seen Asian and Hispanic weddings from the inside! And pretty darn good productions at that.)

These two very different young men are moving thru the early stages of professionalism. They did some work for free for family/friends…then moved on to either working with a local pro or working on small events for token pay…then bigger projects on their own…to hiring assistants. They drove themselves to learn as much as they could, and still call or email with questions. Their raw talent and drive amaze me.

So – so do as I do – enjoy a good laugh from time to time online reading those trolling for free labor. But don’t get mad. This is a free market and those who don’t check out credentials before shelling over money have only themselves to blame. And don’t judge those who take the gigs too much. They may be clueless, they may be hobbyists, or bottomfeeders. Or they may be you – years ago in the same situation, but different time. Someone with a love, a passion for all things visual who just wants to (eventually) get paid to do what they love.


December 21 2010

18:00

Jennifer 8. Lee on raw data, APIs, and the growth of “Little Brother”

Editor’s Note: We’re wrapping up 2010 by asking some of the smartest people in journalism what the new year will bring.

Here, Jennifer 8. Lee gives us predictions, about the growing role of raw data, the importance of APIs, and the need for a break-out civic mobile app.

Raw data and the rise of “Little Brother”

In 2011 there will be a slew of riffs on the WikiLeaks anonymous dropbox scheme, sans gender drama — at least one of them by former WikiLeakers themselves. It will remain to be seen how protective the technologies are.

Basically, this codifies the rise of primary source materials — documents, video, photos — as cohesive units of consumable journalism. Turns out, despite the great push for citizen journalism, citizens are not, on average, great at “journalism.” But they are excellent conduits for raw material — those documents, videos, or photos. They record events digitally as an eyewitness, obtain documents through Freedom of Information requests, or have access to files through the work they do. We are seeing an important element of accountability journalism emerge.

Big Brother has long been raised as a threat of technological advancement (and certainly the National Security Agency has done its fair share of snooping). But in reality, it is the encroachment of Little Brother that average Americans are more likely to feel in our day-to-day lives — that people around us carry digital devices that can be pulled out for photo or videos, or they can easily copy digital files (compared to the months of covert photocopying that Ellsberg did for 7,000 pages) that others would rather not have shared with the world.

One notable strength of raw material is that it has a natural viral lift for two reasons: audience engagement, and the way legacy media operates with regard to sourcing and competition. Social media is a three-legged stool: create, consume, and share content. Because original material often feels more like an original discovery, it is more appealing to share. Documents, videos, and photos are there for anyone to examine and experience firsthand. The audience can interpret, debate, comment as they choose, and they feel greater freedom to reupload and remix that material, especially video.

The importance of APIs

There will also be an explosion in shift from raw data to information made available by application programming interfaces. A good example is ScraperWiki, out of the United Kingdom, which scrapes government data into repositories and then makes it available in an API.

Government agencies are hearing the public cry for data, and they are making raw data available. Sometimes it’s in friendlier formats like .csv or .xls. Sometimes it is in less usable formats, like PDF (as the House of Representatives did with a 3,000-page PDF of expenses) and even .exe files. (As the Coast Guard’s National Response Center has done with its incident data. It’s an extractable .xls with a readme. I know. It makes a lot of people cringe. At least their site isn’t also in Flash.) As part of this open push, the Obama administration has set up data.gov.

As that comes out, people are realizing that it’s not enough to get the public to bite, even though the underlying data might contain interesting material. It needs to be even easier to access. A good example of what happens when something becomes easily searchable: ProPublica’s Dollars for Docs project, on payments doctors received from pharmaceutical companies, generated an explosion of interest/investigations by taking data that was already technically public and standardizing it to make it searchable on the Internet.

What we need: the great civic mobile app

What we’re still waiting for: The break-out civic mobile app, a combination of Craigslist and Foursquare, where a critical mass of people can “check in” with comments, photos and complaints about their local community. It’s unclear how this will happen. Perhaps it will be built on the geolocation tools offered by Facebook or Twitter. Perhaps it will be an extension of Craigslist, which already has a brand associated with local community. Perhaps it’ll be something like SeeClickFix, which allows people to register complaint about potholes or graffiti, or CitySeed, a mobile app the Knight Foundation has given a grant to develop.

[Disclosure: Both the Knight Foundation and Lee are financial supporters of the Lab.]

December 15 2010

19:00

Dave Winer: There’s no good place for a new Maginot Line for the news

Editor’s Note: We’re wrapping up 2010 by asking some of the smartest people in journalism what the new year will bring.

Today, it’s web pioneer Dave Winer, a man key to the evolution of many of the publishing technologies we use online today, currently a visiting scholar in journalism at NYU, and half the team behind the Rebooting the News podcast.

When people in the news business try to figure out how to make news pay after the Internet, it seems analogous to the French, after being invaded by Germany in World War II, trying to figure out where to put the new Maginot Line.

The Maginot Line would have been a perfect defense in World War I. It didn’t help much in the second war.

Analogously, there was a perfect paywall in the pre-Internet news business, the physical product of a newspaper. There is no equivalent in the new distribution system.

Howard Weaver’s latest post put this into focus for me. That, and the recent attention on Groupon, which it seems to me has usurped, again, one of the big roles that local news organizations could have played, obviating the need to find the new paywall.

It isn’t really a question if you’ve created something worth paying for. It might be very good, and expensive to create. What matters is if there’s a market for it.

The people in the business of creating fixed fortresses might have asked the same question after WWII. We could make a much better Maginot Line now, we know so much more and technology is so much more advanced. Wouldn’t matter, because France wasn’t in the market for a new Maginot Line.

That’s the question news people never seem to ask. How can we create something that has a market? If they asked that question instead, they would restructure their activity. Because there are things similar to news that have generated huge wealth. Not hidden, in plain sight.

The first usurpage was of course Craigslist. It wasn’t so obvious then that this was the natural domain of the press, because Craigslist made a small fraction of the money the news industry used to make from classifieds. It looked like CL was just undermining the press, not competing with it. But Groupon — this is the fastest-growing company of all time. The founder says what they do is find ways for people to get out and enjoy their city. And they make a boatload of money doing it.

Here’s one way of looking at what both Groupon and local news organizations do — they put smart hard-working people into the field to keep tabs on what people in the community are doing. Some of what they are doing is robbing and killing each other — that’s what news is interested in. Another part of what they’re doing is buying from and selling to each other. Groupon is making huge bucks on that.

It seems there’s still time for a philosophy change in the news business. Become more focused on the commerce of your communities, and the opportunities to make money will become more apparent. Seems like common sense to me.

October 31 2010

20:46

Story Ideas 10.31.10

What would you make of an ad like the following (found on craigslist in wanted section)?

Looking for someone to help me with “History Of The Movies” community college coursework. Project consists of reading, writing, weekly quizzes, and tests. Course is 100% online. I’m 50% finished with it, just got hit with a ton of stuff in life making it near impossible now for me to finish.
ABOUT YOU
- Passionate about the movies, or at least interested in their history
- You can access movies via BitTorrent or Netflix on the spot
- Daily access to a computer and the internet
- 100% committed to finishing project from now till Dec 8th
TIMELINE
- Starts immediately and ends Dec 8th
- Coursework is due weekly and will be tracked with online project management tool.
- Course is 50% completed, need someone to help me out with the remaining workload.
- Coursework is 100% online.
PAYMENT
- Pay is $100 plus a $50 project bonus for receiving a B- grade (2.75) or higher
TO APPLY
- Send short cover letter highlighting our requirements. Candidate will be selected based upon writing quality, interest in the project/movies, Netflix/BitTorrent access, and likeliness to see it through from start to finish (now through Dec).

What I get from it (and others similar) is that someone wants to buy your brain to take an online class for them. I’ve seen (and tagged) others where the “wantee” wants you to take a sit-down class for them (you have to generally match their physical description) or provide answers to tests. The best offer I’ve seen so far was to take an English class with pay ranging from a few hundred for passing to $700 for getting an A.

Story idea: is this happening in your neck of the woods? Are students so strapped for time (and intellect and ethics) that they want to pay someone to take classes/tests for them? What meaning does this have beyond just paying someone for a job (well done)?

Let’s see…would you see a doctor who cheated her way thru school? Or lawyer, or any professional for that matter?

What does this do to folks who do it the old fashioned way – on their own, studying, working hard? Does it devalue their grades?

And what, ultimately, does it do to the “wantee” in the ad? Yes, it shows lack of ethics…but if they need help with bonehead English…how the heck are they going to pass more difficult courses. Skip Algebra I and how are you gonna do in Geometry?

Lots to delve into the ponder on this one.

And along the same line, here’s another idea from Peter Brown. Folks who go for fake are liars and cheaters. Vastly oversimplified, but those who are attracted to ripoffs of reality have trouble with the truth and the reality of life. In one study, see the results:

The women wearing the fake Chloe shades cheated more–considerably more. Fully 70 percent inflated their performance when they thought nobody was checking on them–and in effect stole cash…

Brown’s blog posting is based on a psychological study that seemed to indicate that buying fakes and personal behavior are closely linked.

Story idea: can you replicate some of these experiments done by the researchers in your own area? Are people even aware of the link between what they buy and behavior? Can these behaviors be recognized and possibly even reversed?

Good luck with it…see ya next week.


September 20 2010

14:24

Net2 Think Tank Round-Up: Finding Volunteers Online

For this month's Net2 Think Tank, we asked you to share your tools, tactics, and best practices for promoting your volunteer opportunities online. There are many tools and resources available - so finding the ones that work best for your audience, and finding the ways that you can use them effectively can be a task. Below is a list of networks, tools, and best practices that will help steer you in the right direction.  

read more

September 06 2010

10:23
04:04

Regulating sex and speech

Let me start with a disclosure: I hope to think that Craig Newmark is a friend. He can be as hard for me to read as James Joyce or C++. But I know him as a decent and genuine man who believes that he is bringing a service to millions of people, saving them billions of dollars that used to go to overpriced, monopolistic middlemen. He doesn’t do it to get rich (I’ve driven by his office and home and they ain’t palaces), which is precisely what bedevils those old middlemen; I’ve watched them try to break him and prove he’s greedy, too, and I’ve watched them fail. When I last had coffee with Craig in San Francisco (on the craigslist tab, I should disclose), he talked about the number of free ads craigslist has given people in terms of economic philanthropy, which is also what he said to my students at CUNY two years ago.

These days, Craig and the company he founded are being demonized in courts of political and media power as sex peddlers. The service — which Craig is quick to point out, he does not run; he means it when he says he is its customer-service representative — just took down its adult ads in the U.S., replacing the link with the word “censored.”

The argument has been that craigslist ads are used to serve human sex trafficking. Except craigslist has been openly and consistently helping police in their efforts to arrest traffickers. The adult ads were paid and more trackable than free personals on craigslist or ads in many other places online and in print. Now the trade, whatever its scale, is only more distributed. Gawker has a guide to post-craigslist paid sex and craigslist has pointed out that even eBay has sold party favors of another sort.

So why are government and media going after craigslist? The same reason, I think, that media and government in, for example, Germany are demonizing Google (even as the German people give Google its biggest market share anywhere in the world). They’re going after the disruptors, the biggest disruptors in sight.

Since craigslist and the internet have existed, newspaper classified revenue has fallen by $13 billion a year, leaving that money in the pockets of former advertiser-customers. Since Google and the internet have existed, many more billions have left traditional media as Google offered their former ad customers a better deal.

The New York Times today belittles craigslist’s censorship, calling it a “stunt” and “ploy” and labeling as “screeds” craisglist CEO Jim Buckmaster’s defenses of the service—and of free speech—against attorneys general and against ratings-starved CNN ambushing Craig. Nowhere does The Times disclose its own dead dog in this hunt, its loss of billions in classified revenue (in blogs, we’d be expected to, eh?). But the paper does acknowledge that the law is on craigslist’s side even if its enforcers are not and that this is a matter of free speech, which should put The Times and its journalists on craigslist’s side as well.

But they’re not. I’m not suggesting conspiracy; I rarely do. But I do see old power structures huddling together against the cold breath of technologists bringing change. At the Aspen Ideas Festival last summer, I asked Google’s Eric Schmidt whether we were going through a larger restructuring than a mere crisis. He replied that he wished we were but cautioned that, as I wrote then, too much of our resource, people, government help and attention go to the big, old legacy companies rather than supporting innovation (read: disruption). I would have translated that into the idea that instead of bailing out GM and subsidizing and artificially, temporarily propping up house and car prices, government should invest in bringing broadband to every door. I would have hoped that Schmidt might have agreed. Sadly, even he is now listing to the legacy. Google, the big boy, plays with other big boys.

But craigslist is still the weird kid. At the end of its story, The Times quotes someone saying that “Craigslist is not your typical company in the sense that it doesn’t seem to be exclusively motivated by profit.” What a strange, inscrutable child, it is. It’s easier to attack a company that doesn’t act like a company. And it’s easier to attack free speech and liberty when they — and dollars — are spent on nasty sex.

But this is a fight of old establishment power — business, media, and political — against new and disruptive technologists who are writing new rules. This is also a fight over freedom of speech. Last night, I woke up on the couch to see the end of The People vs. Larry Flynt. In this country, we protect bad speech to protect all speech.

Yes, prostitution is illegal. It long has been — the oldest laws cover the oldest profession — but the authorities have been blinking at ads for *cough* escort services in newspapers of many sorts for many years (here are the Village Voice’s adult ads). I’m headed to Berlin and Amsterdam in a few weeks, where prostitution is legal and regulated. Beyond exploitation of children — which every civilized person on earth abhors; as Mike Masnick says, the real enemy, not discussed in all this, is the trafficker — do we really want and need government regulating sex among free-willed adults? But that’s not the issue here. If it were, those attorneys general and CNN and The Times would be going after all those services Gawker lists and some newspapers, still.

No, the issue is disruption.

August 31 2010

14:00

Boston.com launches a real estate-focused iPhone app

Yesterday, Boston.com, the website of the Boston Globe, announced the launch of its real estate-focused iPhone app. The new (and free) tool, per its iTunes description page, will allow users to:

• Browse complete listings from across Massachusetts, all of New England and Florida, including photos and floor plans.
• Search for properties by city or town, or use the built-in GPS feature to find homes for sale, rentals, and open houses near you.
• View those listings on a map or in a list format. Save listings you like, and create email alerts for your favorite searches.
• Upload and store your own photos and notes about any property you visit.
• Refine listings by property type, square footage, price, newly listed and more.
• Browse listings from Boston and Cambridge neighborhoods.
• Email your favorite listings to a friend.
• Contact agents quickly and easily by email or phone.

The Globe’s move into mobile real estate facilitation is of a piece with newspaper apps that Gawker might call “servicey“: tools, like The New York Times’ “Learning English” app (or, indeed, like the Times’ own real estate app), that are less about content-providing and more about…helping.

“We felt this was an extension of the real estate vertical value proposition we have for both our audience and our advertisers,” says Robert Kempf, VP/Digital for the Globe and Boston.com. The app provides a service both to users engaged in the exciting-but-often-mystifying-and-therefore-stressful process of home-buying (think Zillow, the interactive real estate platform) and to those who merely wish they were engaged in it (think Zillow, the interactive real estate porn site). Kempf highlights four main functions of the app, all of them geared toward convenience and usability: browsing listings by neighborhood, browsing listings by geolocation (“what’s near me right now?”), browsing open houses, and using an interoperable interface with Boston.com.

That last one is significant — for both users and, of course, the advertisers who love them. At the moment, Kempf told me, the Globe has about 95 percent of the area market’s real estate listings (some of which are then up-sold as premium listings). With the app, “we’re simply extending all listings, whether paid or not, onto the mobile platform. So it’s additional value for anyone who’s got a property listed on Boston.com.”

And though the paper plans to solicit sponsors for the new application, it doesn’t have one yet. Which means: “At this point, it’s additional value for our real estate advertisers,” Kempf says. Moreover, “there’s no intention at this point to charge a premium to our real estate advertisers for inclusion on this product. That’s just part of the value proposition for them when they engage with Boston.com.”

The other part of that proposition? Eyeballs. “It’s a matter of, we deliver a digital audience,” Kempf says. “We try to be agnostic about whether we deliver that audience on the web or mobile. It’s an inclusive strategy for our advertisers.” And the audience delivered by people interested in real estate — aspirationally or, you know, actually — is, of course, a potentially lucrative one for those advertisers.

The new app also provides a relatively closed area in which the Globe can experiment with and learn about the mobile space. In general, Kempf points out, apps offer two core opportunities for news organizations: use-case-specific platforms and location-based services. In the case of a real estate app, he says, “you have a very specific use-case — real estate — and you have a great opportunity to offer location-based services.” So while “we know that adoption, generally, of location-based services has been relatively low so far,” Kempf notes (true story), “we believe that real estate is on the leading edge of that as a mass-reached utility.”

The goal? While it’s still early on — and “really early to tell what the rate of adoption is going to be here,” Kempf notes — “I would like to see us be a dominant, if not the dominant, local real estate application that’s being used in the Boston market.” The same kind of penetration that Boston.com’s real estate section has had, Kempf says, he’d like to see the new app have in the mobile space. “We think it’s a great place to start.”

April 01 2010

21:07

A Plan for Spot.Us to Use Community-Centered Ads

Perhaps it's ironic for me to write about advertising. Fellow Knight News Challenge winner Dan Pacheco can quote me as once saying "f*&# advertising" and one of the initial inspirations for me to get into journalism was Adbusters Magazine. Below I want to describe a potential advertising model that Spot.Us hopes to employ (and others can steal) along with general thoughts about the diversification of revenue streams.


Community Centered Advertising

The underlying inspiration for Spot.Us is to give the public a freelance budget so they can help set the editorial agenda. Right now that is done via contributions from their own wallet. But what if they directed an advertising budget? What if the people to whom an advertisement was directed had a say in where the money it generated went? I imagine it would look something like this.

A button on Spot.Us that says "Earn Credits." Upon clicking a user is sent to a blatantly sponsored page. We even have our first sponsor Mortgage Revolution. They are holding a fundraising event in San Francisco and part of the proceeds will go to sponsor our first Community Centered Advertising campaign which will try and stir up conversation about the real estate and mortgage industry.

In Community Centered Advertising the sponsor is looking for some kind of engagement with their brand, cause, business, etc. In the case of Mortgage Revolution they hope to stir up a healthy conversation about the real estate and mortgage industry. But let's use Levi Strauss purely as an example.


Perhaps Levi's provides survey questions:

  • What is your favorite cut of jeans?
  • What is a memorable Levi's moment you've had?
  • You buy Levi's jeans because... (multiple choice answer).


Or it can be a branded survey simply to get the customer to think more about Levi's

  • What year was Levi's invented? (Multiple choice)
  • Guess how much of material X Levi's produces a year?

Or a quick video that people have to watch Hulu-style.

Upon engaging with the advertisement the Spot.Us community member earns X credits, which represent real dollars, and they can direct those credits toward funding the story (or stories) of their choice.

The community still makes the decisions about what stories get funded but they are doing so with our advertising budget, not their own money.

At this stage it's just theory but we have our first sponsor and hope to roll this feature out soon and I hope more sponsors will follow (if interested in details, send me a note: david@spot.us). Then again, we may find that the Spot.Us community reacts negatively to it. Who knows? That's why we need to try it -- even new media experiments need to experiment.

Depending on the level of the sponsorship Spot.Us would probably take a small overhead fee. But even if we didn't, I would feel encouraged that with a low overhead we will be funding independent reporters. (Want to know when this feature is live so you can be one of the first to try it out? Sign up for our newsletter).

Journalists Awash at Sea

I bring this up because like all news organizations Spot.Us needs to diversify revenue sources. An analogy I often use is that, "Journalists are awash at sea. Previously we could rest the majority of our weight on a few revenue streams -- advertising, classifieds -- but now we need to get many revenue streams and a piece of rope to tie them all together in order to make a stable raft that distributes our weight."

This also requires re-thinking and re-inventing our relationship with classifieds, advertising and even coupons.

One of the problems I'm observing is that instead of re-inventing our relationship with classifieds, advertising and even coupons, news organizations are assuming they can take the old models and stick them on the web and move on.

Craigslist as Counter-Factual; GroupOn as Factual

I hate when journalists point to Craigslist as a "killer." But let's talk about why there is so much tension there. The fact is Craigslist was not a technical innovation. Any newspaper company could have invented it. They didn't because it would have drastically re-thought their relationship with classifieds. The bummer in this is that newspapers were really always in the advertising and classifieds business and used their profits to support journalism. That business has dwindled and journalism has suffered. Imagine if Hearst had created Craigslist? The profits from that would most likely be pumped back into newspapers.

This isn't to knock Craigslist either. With his profits Craig Newmark has created the Craigslist Foundation which is a HUGE boon for society. Craig has also supported journalism here and there. Understandably this isn't his top issue -- but at least it's on his radar.

Now look at GroupOn. Take a good hard look. I think Michael Skolar is right in his post "I'm suggesting you steal the idea for your local news operation fast before national competitors own the market."

These sites represent a new relationship to coupons, one of the last great revenue streams is being revolutionized right underneath newspapers' feet. And once again the technology isn't mind-blowing. I'm talking to the big guns (Hearst, McClatchy, Gannett, etc.) when I say "start something like this up now or buy one of these startups." The revenue you make can be reinvested into journalism because that's what your companies do.

I consider the founder of GroupOn a friend, but I doubt his company would just take profits and subsidize journalism -- that's understandable. The few companies that historically used profits from advertising, classifieds and coupons to prop original reporting are few and some of them are going bankrupt.

Re-inventing our Relationship to Advertising

One of the reasons Facebook is worth so much is because of the relationship they have created between advertisers and users. As an example a little birdie at the NY Times once told me that the number two country for registered users on the New York Times was...Afghanistan.

Before you start scratching your head as to why so many Afghans are reading the NY Times, consider the image of this registration drop down from NYTimes.com:

NYT register.jpg

Now you can stop scratching your head.

Compare this to Facebook where most people freely reveal their age, religion, relationship status and more. Now ask yourself: As an advertiser, where do you want to be? The site with lots of people pretending to be Afghans or the site where you can target the customer you most want? Privacy issues aside, it's pretty ingenious. And some might even argue that a good advertisement is good content. If the advertisement is exactly what you were looking for, it isn't annoying -- it's helpful.

Interestingly enough the new relationship to advertisers is predicated on the new relationship with the audience. The more the audience is ready to reveal about themsleves the more advertising is valued. Same with GroupOn. If a customer freely reveals they are interested in a deal before it becomes official, the small business offering the deal starts licking their chops -- rightfully so. And in all cases the user is incentivized to reveal the information because it's in their benefit. For the Facebook user they are connecting with friends. For the GroupOn user, they are looking for money saving deals.

With Community Centered Advertising our hope is that community members are encouraged to reveal something about themselves in exchange for the ability to fund the original reporting of their choice. Most news organizations don't have a system by which individuals can direct cash towards stories but perhaps they can offer something else?

What incentive can a news organization give to a user so that they freely reveal more about themselves in an effort to become more attractive to advertising? I would argue that it's best if the end goal, to become attractive to advertisers, is done above the table -- as with Spot.Us' model and GroupOn's. There is no deception. You are engaging with an advertisement. I wouldn't argue that Facebook is being devious, but certainly they have come under criticism because users aren't sharing their info with advertisers in mind, but rather with their friends as the goal.

So Now What?

As always, I never claim to have solutions. Just crazy ideas that I want to execute. Keep your eye open for Community Centered Advertising. If you've never donated on Spot.Us before, I hope this inspires you. Instead of having to reach for your wallet, you can just donate a little time and a little bit of your own knowledge. Register for our newsletter why doncha!

March 20 2010

08:38

January 07 2010

19:11

Keeping Martin honest: Checking on Langeveld’s predictions for 2009

[A little over one year ago, our friend Martin Langeveld made a series of predictions about what 2009 would bring for the news business — in particular the newspaper business. I even wrote about them at the time and offered up a few counter-predictions. Here's Martin's rundown of how he fared. Up next, we'll post his predictions for 2010. —Josh]

PREDICTION: No other newspaper companies will file for bankruptcy.

WRONG. By the end of 2008, only Tribune had declared. Since then, the Star-Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times, Journal Register Company, and the Philadelphia newspapers made trips to the courthouse, most of them right after the first of the year.

PREDICTION: Several cities, besides Denver, that today still have multiple daily newspapers will become single-newspaper towns.

RIGHT: Hearst closed the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (in print, at least), Gannett closed the Tucson Citizen, making those cities one-paper towns. In February, Clarity Media Group closed the Baltimore Examiner, a free daily, leaving the field to the Sun. And Freedom is closing the East Valley Tribune in Mesa, which cuts out a nearby competitor in the Phoenix metro area.

PREDICTION: Whatever gets announced by the Detroit Newspaper Partnership in terms of frequency reduction will be emulated in several more cities (including both single and multiple newspaper markets) within the first half of the year.

WRONG: Nothing similar to the Detroit arrangement has been tried elsewhere.

PREDICTION: Even if both papers in Detroit somehow maintain a seven-day schedule, we’ll see several other major cities and a dozen or more smaller markets cut back from six or seven days to one to four days per week.

WRONG, mostly: We did see a few other outright closings including the Ann Arbor News (with a replacement paper published twice a week), and some eliminations of one or two publishing days. But only the Register-Pajaronian of Watsonville, Calif. announced it will go from six days to three, back in January.

PREDICTION: As part of that shift, some major dailies will switch their Sunday package fully to Saturday and drop Sunday publication entirely. They will see this step as saving production cost, increasing sales via longer shelf life in stores, improving results for advertisers, and driving more weekend website traffic. The “weekend edition” will be more feature-y, less news-y.

WRONG: This really falls in the department of wishful thinking; it’s a strategy I’ve been advocating for the last year or so to follow the audience to the web, jettison the overhead of printing and delivery, but retain the most profitable portion of the print product.

PREDICTION: There will be at least one, and probably several, mergers between some of the top newspaper chains in the country. Top candidate: Media News merges with Hearst. Dow Jones will finally shed Ottaway in a deal engineered by Boston Herald owner (and recently-appointed Ottaway chief) Pat Purcell.

WRONG AGAIN, but this one is going back into the 2010 hopper. Lack of capital by most of the players, and the perception or hope that values may improve, put a big damper on mergers and acquisitions, but there should be renewed interest ahead.

PREDICTION: Google will not buy the New York Times Co., or any other media property. Google is smart enough to stick with its business, which is organizing information, not generating content. On the other hand, Amazon may decide that they are in the content business…And then there’s the long shot possibility that Michael Bloomberg loses his re-election bid next fall, which might generate a 2010 prediction, if NYT is still independent at that point.

RIGHT about Google, and NOT APPLICABLE about Bloomberg (but Bloomberg did acquire BusinessWeek). The Google-NYT pipe dream still gets mentioned on occasion, but it won’t happen.

PREDICTION: There will be a mini-dotcom bust, featuring closings or fire sales of numerous web enterprises launched on the model of “generate traffic now, monetize later.”

WRONG, at least on the mini-bust scenario. Certainly there were closings of various digital enterprises, but it didn’t look like a tidal wave.

PREDICTION: The fifty newspaper execs who gathered at API’s November Summit for an Industry in Crisis will not bother to reconvene six months later (which would be April) as they agreed to do.

RIGHT. There was a very low-key round two with fewer participants in January, without any announced outcomes, and that was it. [Although there was also the May summit in Chicago, which featured many of the same players. —Ed.]

PREDICTION: Newspaper advertising revenue will decline year-over-year 10 percent in the first quarter and 5 percent in the second. It will stabilize, or nearly so, in the second half, but will have a loss for the year. For the year, newspapers will slip below 12 percent of total advertising revenue (from 15 percent in 2007 and around 13.5 percent in 2008). But online advertising at newspaper sites will resume strong upward growth.

WRONG, and way too optimistic. Full-year results won’t be known for months, but the first three quarters have seen losses in the 30 percent ballpark. Gannett and New York Times have suggested Q4 will come in “better” at “only” about 25 percent down. My 12 percent reference was to newspaper share of the total ad market, a metric that has become harder to track this year due to changes in methodology at McCann, but the actual for 2009 ultimately will sugar out at about 10 percent.

PREDICTION: Newspaper circulation, aggregated, will be steady (up or down no more than 1 percent) in each of the 6-month ABC reporting periods ending March 31 and September 30. Losses in print circulation will be offset by gains in ABC-countable paid digital subscriptions, including facsimile editions and e-reader editions.

WRONG, and also way too optimistic. The March period drop was 7.1 percent, the September drop was 10.6 percent, and digital subscription didn’t have much impact.

PREDICTION: At least 25 daily newspapers will close outright. This includes the Rocky Mountain News, and it will include other papers in multi-newspaper markets. But most closings will be in smaller markets.

WRONG, and too pessimistic. About half a dozen daily papers closed for good during the year.

PREDICTION: One hundred or more independent local startup sites focused on local news will be launched. A number of them will launch weekly newspapers, as well, repurposing the content they’ve already published online. Some of these enterprises are for-profit, some are nonprofit. There will be some steps toward formation of a national association of local online news publishers, perhaps initiated by one of the journalism schools.

Hard to tell, but probably RIGHT. Nobody is really keeping track of how many hyperlocals are active, or their comings and goings. An authoritative central database would be a Good Thing.

PREDICTION: The Dow Industrials will be up 15 percent for the year. The stocks of newspaper firms will beat the market.

RIGHT. The Dow finished the year up 18.8 percent. (This prediction is the one that got the most “you must be dreaming” reactions last year.

And RIGHT about newspapers beating the market (as measured by the Dow Industrials), which got even bigger laughs from the skeptics. There is no index of newspaper stocks, but on the whole, they’ve done well. It helps to have started in the sub-basement at year-end 2008, of course, which was the basis of my prediction. Among those beating the Dow, based on numbers gathered by Poynter’s Rick Edmonds, were New York Times (+69%), AH Belo (+164%), Lee Enterprises (+746%), McClatchy (+343%), Journal Communications (+59%), EW Scripps (+215%), Media General (+348%), and Gannett (+86%). Only Washington Post Co. (+13%) lagged the market. Not listed, of course, are those still in bankruptcy.

PREDICTION: At least one publicly-owned newspaper chain will go private.

NOPE.

PREDICTION: A survey will show that the median age of people reading a printed newspaper at least 5 days per week is is now over 60.

UNKNOWN: I’m not aware of a 2009 survey of this metric, but I’ll wager that the median age figure is correct.

PREDICTION: Reading news on a Kindle or other e-reader will grow by leaps and bounds. E-readers will be the hot gadget of the year. The New York Times, which currently has over 10,000 subscribers on Kindle, will push that number to 75,000. The Times will report that 75 percent of these subscribers were not previously readers of the print edition, and half of them are under 40. The Wall Street Journal and Washington Post will not be far behind in e-reader subscriptions.

UNKNOWN, as far as the subscription counts go: newspapers and Kindle have not announced e-reader subscription levels during the year. The Times now has at least 30,000, as does the Wall Street Journal (according to a post by Staci Kramer in November; see my comment there as well). There have been a number of new e-reader introductions, but none of them look much better than their predecessors as news readers. My guess would be that by year end, the Times will have closer to 40,000 Kindle readers and the Journal 35,000. During 2010, 75,000 should be attainable for the Times, especially counting all e-editions (which include the Times Reader and 53,353 weekdays and 34,435 Sundays for the six months ending Sept. 30.

PREDICTION: The advent of a color Kindle (or other brand color e-reader) will be rumored in November 2009, but won’t be introduced before the end of the year.

RIGHT: plenty of rumors, but no color e-reader, except Fujitsu’s Flepia, which is expensive, experimental, and only for sale in Japan.

PREDICTION: Some newspaper companies will buy or launch news aggregation sites. Others will find ways to collaborate with aggregators.

RIGHT: Hearst launched its topic pages site LMK.com. And various companies are working with EVRI, Daylife and others to bring aggregated feeds to their sites.

PREDICTION: As newsrooms, with or without corporate direction, begin to truly embrace an online-first culture, outbound links embedded in news copy, blog-style, as well as standalone outbound linking, will proliferate on newspaper sites. A reporter without an active blog will start to be seen as a dinosaur.

MORE WISHFUL THINKING, although there’s progress. Many reporters still don’t blog, still don’t tweet, and many papers are still on content management systems that inhibit embedded links.

PREDICTION: The Reuters-Politico deal will inspire other networking arrangements whereby one content generator shares content with others, in return for right to place ads on the participating web sites on a revenue-sharing basis.

YES, we’re seeing more sharing of content, with various financial arrangements.

PREDICTION: The Obama administration will launch a White House wiki to help citizens follow the Changes, and in time will add staff blogs, public commenting, and other public interaction.

NOT SO FAR, although a new Open Government Initiative was recently announced by the White House. This grew out of some wiki-like public input earlier in the year.

PREDICTION: The Washington Post will launch a news wiki with pages on current news topics that will be updated with new developments.

YES — kicked off in January, it’s called WhoRunsGov.com.

PREDICTION: The New York Times will launch a sophisticated new Facebook application built around news content. The basic idea will be that the content of the news (and advertising) package you get by being a Times fan on Facebook will be influenced by the interests and social connections you have established on Facebook. There will be discussion of, if not experimentation with, applying a personal CPM based on social connections, which could result in a rewards system for participating individuals.

NO. Although the Times has continued to come out with innovative online experiments, this was not one of them.

PREDICTION: Craigslist will partner with a newspaper consortium in a project to generate and deliver classified advertising. There will be no new revenue in the model, but the goal will be to get more people to go to newspaper web sites to find classified ads. There will be talk of expanding this collaboration to include eBay.

NO. This still seems like a good idea, but probably it should have happened in 2006 and the opportunity has passed.

PREDICTION: Look for some big deals among the social networks. In particular, Twitter will begin to falter as it proves to be unable to identify a clearly attainable revenue stream. By year-end, it will either be acquired or will be seeking to merge or be acquired. The most likely buyer remains Facebook, but interest will come from others as well and Twitter will work hard to generate an auction that produces a high valuation for the company.

NO DEAL, so far. But RIGHT about Twitter beginning to falter and still having no “clearly attainable” revenue stream in sight. Twitter’s unique visitors and site visits, as measured by Compete.com, peaked last summer and have been declining, slowly, ever since. Quantcast agrees. [But note that neither of those traffic stats count people interacting with Twitter via the API, through Twitter apps, or by texting. —Ed.]

PREDICTION: Some innovative new approaches to journalism will emanate from Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

YES, as described in this post and this post. See also the blogs of Steve Buttry and Chuck Peters. The Cedar Rapids Gazette and its affiliated TV station and web site are in the process of reinventing and reconstructing their entire workflow for news gathering and distribution.

PREDICTION: A major motion picture or HBO series featuring a journalism theme (perhaps a blogger involved in saving the world from nefarious schemes) will generate renewed interest in journalism as a career.

RIGHT. Well, I’m not sure if it has generated renewed interest in journalism as a career, but the movie State of Play featured both print reporters and bloggers. And Julie of Julie & Julia was a blogger, as well. [Bit of a reach there, Martin. —Ed.]

[ADDENDUM: I posted about Martin's predictions when he made them and wrote this:

I’d agree with most, although (a) I think there will be at least one other newspaper company bankruptcy, (b) I think Q3/Q4 revenue numbers will be down from 2008, not flat, (c) circ will be down, not stable, (d) newspaper stocks won’t beat the market, (e) the Kindle boom won’t be as big as he thinks for newspapers, and (f) Twitter won’t be in major trouble in [2009] — Facebook is more likely to feel the pinch with its high server-farm costs.

I was right on (a), (b), and (c) and wrong on (d). Gimme half credit for (f), since Twitter is now profitable and Facebook didn’t seem too affected by server expenses. Uncertain on (e), but I’ll eat my hat if “75 percent of [NYT Kindle] subscribers were not previously readers of the print edition, and half of them are under 40.” —Josh]

Photo of fortune-teller postcard by Cheryl Hicks used under a Creative Commons license.

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