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August 27 2012

03:09

Monday Q&A: Josh Miller on Branch, comments as content, and the state of online discourse

Like a lot of tech startups, it’s easier to describe what Branch isn’t than what it is. The newly launched discussion platform — bankrolled in part by Twitter’s co-founders — is not Twitter, because the discussion is linear, longer-form, and invitation-only. It’s not chat, because all are welcome to observe. It’s not a comment platform, such as Disqus, because a Branch conversation is the content, not metadata attached to the content.

Josh MillerJosh Miller, the CEO, often employs the “dinner party” metaphor to describe Branch. A couple of summers ago, he was an intern for Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, his home state. He would read Politico every morning on the subway, then he would get to the comments section, and then, without fail, there was raidersfan27 screaming profanities.

“I started to think about…how do I express my opinions in the real world? And it’s around a dinner table, or at a bar over beers with friends, or in a coffee shop,” Miller told me. He created Branch, then called Roundtable, with co-founders Hursh Agrawal and Cemre Gungor. “We started out to kind of replicate the types of intimate, direct conversations we have in the real world,” he said.

The point of Branch is to start a conversation, usually with a question, and then invite people to respond. What’s the best concert you’ve ever seen? How do blogs need to evolve? ‘Giff’ or ‘Jiff’? There’s a generous 750-character limit. Branch does not want you to fuss over spelling or grammar or getting your point just right. There’s no edit button and no delete button. If you make a mistake, just keep going. It’s a little unsettling, but Miller wants to force a little more thoughtfulness in online dialog. (There’s no undo at the dinner table either, I suppose.)

Miller managed to win the attention of Jonah Peretti, an early mentor, and the Twitter co-founders (turned Obvious Corp. investors), Evan Williams and Biz Stone. Somehow Miller landed on one of those “20 innovative startups” lists on Business Insider, he said, and things took off. The company raised $2 million.

Branch also attracted the attention of Gawker czar Nick Denton, who publicly praised Miller and went on to release a new commenting system that bore some similarities to Branch. (“I wish Denton all the best and I hope it works out, but I don’t see us as being direct competitors,” he told me.)

This year, the 21-year-old Miller dropped out of Princeton to focus on Branch full-time. (He would have been a senior this fall.) Here is an edited and condensed transcript of our conversation.

Phelps: So you dropped out of Princeton.
Miller: Right. And my mom kills me when I say “drop out.” Yes, I dropped out, took a leave of absence, whatever you want to call it, and one part of this story that gets over looked now, because Ev and Biz and Jason are involved, is that the main reason we did that. Someone said, “You gotta meet this guy, Jonah Peretti.” I was like, “Who’s Jonah Peretti? So I Wikipedia him, and I was like, OH MY GOD, yes please. So we kinda stumbled into Jonah’s office, half-understanding who he was or why he was important and showed him the sketches for this idea that was really just a side project. He said, “I think this is really cool, guys. I don’t know what your plan is, or if this is a startup or what, but if you decide to work on this full-time, I want to help. I don’t need money or equity. I think it’s a cool idea. I like your guys’ enthusiasm and would love to be helpful.”
Phelps: What is Branch? It’s really hard when tech companies release products not to describe them as something for something or a combination of something and something. So how would you describe it?
Miller: We still don’t have a great one-liner, and we like that. I think the best way to explain it or describe it is kind of explain where it came from. I found comment sections very chaotic and unwelcoming and, you know, MySpace Tom was my Justin Hall. I’ve only grown up in an Internet where I knew who I was talking to, so it was weird for me to go to this place where raidersfan27 is yelling profanity. And even when there quality commentaries, it was really hard to kind of follow the discussion because there were usually like 10 going on at once. It was a mess.

I think [social media] are amazing, powerful platforms. But for me to express my opinions, it was this weird notion where you kind of are talking, but not to anyone in particular. It’s like, Here’s my opinion, world. I’m going to stand up and tell it to you, and it’s so great, what do you think? Go comment down there.

And I don’t think any of the people that I’m friends with on Facebook want to talk to me about politics. They don’t want to talk about politics. I mean, once I posted a Daily Show clip and my old college counselor went on a rant about the Tea Party and it was just, like, the most awkward thing ever.

Phelps: Oh, that is awkward.
Miller: There’s so much you get out of sharing your opinion online and in an open way that could be shared and viewed and other people can jump in. But I think there’s also something to be said for knowing exactly who you’re talking to. And you know, part of the thing, too, is that a lot of people think, “Oh, you know, well, comments can be great.” They were great, back in the day. But I felt like the Internet is a different place than it used to be. Some of the old classic blog comment sections did have amazing conversations, but there weren’t that many people on the Internet at the time. The people that knew about a certain blog were kind of self-selected already.

So part of what’s wrong with comments is that what’s valuable about a conversation is the back and forth, and that if you think about the real world — if you sit around a dinner table, once you get to a certain number of people, it fractures off into two separate conversations, because there can only be so many people talking at once.

There’s a need for a platform that’s built around a conversation, because when you think about all the platforms online, they’re all built around monologue. And we just think that online there should be a place where you go to have dialog, to have conversations, and we think that’s complementary.

Phelps: It reinforces that idea that comments themselves, the conversations, are content, not just metadata.
Miller: By no means do I think Branch is perfect and that everyone’s going to adopt it and it’s going to be great. So I’m very active in soliciting feedback from people that have used it. And I was talking to Choire [Sicha] the other day and he said that the reason that he liked using it is that it kind of bridged the gap for him between the reader and the writer.

Because that’s another big thing with me about comment sections, that I feel like a second-class citizen. It’s like, “All right, well, that guy up there is the big man and the hot shot that shares his opinion. And I’m less down here in the dungeon section trying to duke it out with this raiderfan27.”

Phelps: You use this “dinner party” metaphor a lot. I remember you had asked me a while back what I thought about the experience after we used it for a Nieman Lab conversation, and I wrote:

I found myself wishing more than once that I could edit the original question. I kind of hated the way I framed it to begin with and wished I could tweak, especially before the conversation really got going…I posted the original question hastily, perhaps because I am accustomed to a world in which things can be edited. Maybe this product will force me to slow down and consider that I can’t undo. Or maybe it will drive me [expletive] crazy.

Miller: The real places that are built for expression of your opinion or ideas impose this feeling that everything needs to be perfect, because if I’m going to write a blog post I need to make sure my punctuation and grammar is correct, and I’ve covered all my counterarguments, and I’m witty and tell a funny joke, and I do my research.

We want the ethos of Branch to be where you go to take your half-baked ideas, and the point is to be imperfect. The whole ethos is “I don’t know enough alone, so I need help from other people and I want to talk to other people to make my half-baked ideas better.” So, you know, we’re quickly learning that we do want to work with publishers, so we’re going to need to have a way to edit posts. But we want to build in a way that’s more about typos than re-writing stuff.

Phelps: Part of the reason it bothered me was because I started the conversation with the expectation that it would work like other products I’m already familiar with. And maybe next time when my expectations are different, it won’t bother me — and maybe even become somewhat liberating.
Miller: You should go see the language I use in my branches. You know, I screw capitalization every once in a while. I won’t go back and correct that comma that shouldn’t have been there, and, like, my sentences will not be complete. And I’m not doing that on purpose, but I’m purposely not correcting it because I want to demonstrate to everyone that it’s okay. We want you to see kind of the evolution of the conversation and how it got there. That’s what bothers us about the other platforms, that it’s like, “Okay, so here’s this question, and here’s the best answer, because the community voted it up.”
Phelps: Of course, one major way that the “dinner party” metaphor breaks down is that at a dinner party the conversation is not recorded word-for-word, and something someone said 20 minutes ago will never be documented — tomorrow or five years from now.
Miller: I think that a lot of the conversations we have online that are private are just private by default, because that’s the way the systems were originally designed, but if you really think about the stuff you care about, and the stuff you can talk about on a daily basis, most of it doesn’t really need to be private, especially if it’s not actively being promoted. So yes, it’s going to be an awkward concept for some, and it’s not great for every conversation, and we’re okay with that. But I do think there’s a lot to gain by having a lot of these conversations in the open.
Phelps: Let’s switch gears and talk to Josh the business man. What is the business model? Is there a business model?
Miller: When we started Roundtable, at the time we had no money. We did not have any funding, so for the first roundtables I actually went and sold sponsorships for a thousand bucks. We used to boast in our pitch meetings that Branch was profitable from Day 1! When we got to work with the Obvious guys, and we were kind of considering who to take money from, one thing they said is that,”Look, we are lucky enough to be in a situation where we have the finances to allow you to not worry about financing. So we want you first and foremost to build a product that’s going to change the world. That should be your No. 1 goal, not worrying about revenue.” I tell this to potential hires, that I personally, as a CEO and one of the cofounders, would much rather build the next Wikipedia than the next Zynga.

Separately, I think just like in the early days, when we had Samsung and G.E. reach out to us about sponsoring roundtables about the future of energy and the future of smartphones, I think there are really easy sponsorship opportunities with brands. I mean, if you just look at The Economist today, they make, from my understanding, a really good amount of money selling sponsorships to Intel and Exxon and whoever else, because these brands want to be associated with conversations with experts in domains that their companies operate within. I think sponsorship — not necessarily display advertising is one huge opportunity.

One example is: I was in a branch the other night, “What movie should I see this weekend?” And there’s a great pop where if we knew you were talking about movies, or that “Bourne Identity” movie that just came out, we could display showtimes or modules for you to buy tickets. Or, for example, I was just in a branch about “I’m going to Berlin, where should I go in Berlin?” There was a great opportunity where we might display ads or modules for you to book a hostel in Berlin or restaurants in Berlin or whatever else. So in the same way that you go to Google to seek out information or you go to Twitter to seek out information, you’re going to go to Branch to talk about something you need answers to.

August 15 2012

15:42

13 ways of looking at Medium, the new blogging/sharing/discovery platform from @ev and Obvious

[With apologies to Wallace Stevens, the finest poet to ever serve as vice president of the Hartford Livestock Insurance Company.]

I.

Medium is a new online publishing platform from Obvious Corp. It launched yesterday. Obvious is the most recent iteration of the company that created Blogger, Odeo, and Twitter. Blogger was the outfit that, until it was bought up by Google, did the most to enable the early-2000s blogging boom. Odeo was a podcasting service that never really took off — 20 percent ahead of its time, 80 percent outflanked by Apple. Twitter — well, you’ve heard of Twitter.

Ev Williams, the key figure at every stage, tweeted about Medium yesterday in a way that slotted it right into the evolutionary personal-publishing chain he and his colleagues have enabled: Let’s try this again!

II.

Medium has been described as “a cross between Tumblr and Pinterest.” There’s some truth to that, in terms of presentation. Like Tumblr, it relies on artfully constructed templates for its structural power; like Pinterest, it’s designed to be image-heavy. But those surface issues, while interesting, are less consequential than the underlying structure of Medium, which upends much of how we think about personal publishing online.

III.

When the Internet first blossomed, its initial promise to media was the devolution of power from the institution to the individual. Before the web, reaching an audience meant owning a printing press or a broadcast tower. It was resource-intensive, and those resources tended to congeal around companies — organizations that had newsrooms, yes, but also human resource departments, advertising sales staffs, and people to man the phones when your paper was thrown into the bushes (we’re very sorry about that, Mrs. Johnson, we’ll be happy to credit your account).

The web, by reducing potential worldwide access to basic knowledge of [1996: Unix and <table> tags; 1999: how to input FTP credentials; 2005: how to come up with a unique login and password; 2010: how to stay under 140 characters], eliminated, at least in theory, the need for organizations. (Vide Shirky.)

IV.

In theory. In reality, organization still had some enormous advantages. Organizations are sustainable; they outlive the vagaries of human attention. Some individuals flourished in the newly democratic blogosphere. But over time, people got bored, got new jobs, found new interests, or otherwise reached the limits of what people-driven, individual-driven publishing could accomplish for them. The political blogosphere — the cacophony of individual voices on both left and right circa, say, 2004 — evolved toward institutions, toward Politico and TPM and The Blaze and HuffPo and the like.

Personal publishing is like voting. In theory, it’s the very definition of empowerment. In reality, it’s an excellent way for your personal shout to be cancelled out by someone else’s shout.

V.

That was when a few smart people realized that there was a balance to be found between the organization and the individual. The individual sought self-expression and an audience; the organization sought sustainability and cash money. Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

So Facebook built a way for people to express themselves (by providing free content) to an audience (through their self-defined network of friends), while selling ads around it all. It’s a pretty good business.

So Twitter (Ev, Jack, and crew) build a way for people to express themselves, in a format that was genius in its limitations and in its old-media model of subscribe-and-follow — again, transformed from institutions to individuals. It’s not as good of a business as Facebook, probably, but it’s still a pretty good business.

So Tumblr, Path, Foursquare, and a gazillion others have tried to pull off the same trick: Serve users by helping them find an outlet for personal expression, then build a business around those users’ collective outputs. It’s publishing-as-platform, and it’s the business model du jour in this unbundled, rebundled world.

VI.

What’s most radical about Medium is that it denies authorship.

Okay, maybe not denies authorship — people’s names are right next to their work, after all. But it degrades authorship, renders it secondary, knocks it off its pedestal.

The shift to blogging created a wave of new individual media stars, but in a sense it just shifted traditional media brands to a new, personal level. Instead of reading The Miami Herald or Newsweek, you read Jason Kottke or John Gruber. So long, U.S. News; hello, Anil Dash. They were brands in the sense that your attraction to their work was tied to authorship — you wanted to see what Lance Arthur or Dean Allen or Josh Marshall or Ezra Klein was going to write next. The value was tied to the work’s origin, its creator.

And while social networks allowed that value to be spread, algorithmically, much wider, the proposition was much the same. You were interested in your Facebook news feed because it was produced by your friends. You were interested in your Twitter stream because you’d clicked “Follow” next to every single person appearing in it.

VII.

Degrading authorship is something the web already does spectacularly well. Work gets chopped and sliced and repurposed. That last animated GIF you saw — do you know who made it? Probably not. That infonugget you saw on Gawker or The Atlantic — did it start there? Probably not. Sites like Buzzfeed are built largely on reshuffling the Internet, rearranging work into streams and slideshows.

It’s been a while since auteur theory made sense as an explanation of the web. And you know what? We’re better for it. In a world of functionally infinite content, relying on authorship doesn’t scale. We need people to mash things up, to point things out, to sample, to remix.

VIII.

Where Medium zags is in structuring its content around what it calls “collections.” Here’s Ev:

Posting on Medium (not yet open to everyone) is elegant and easy, and you can do so without the burden of becoming a blogger or worrying about developing an audience. All posts are organized into “collections,” which are defined by a theme and a template.

The burden of becoming a blogger or worrying about developing an audience. That’s a real issue, right? I’ve talked to lots of journalists who want to have some outlet for their work that doesn’t flow through an assigning editor. But when I suggest starting a blog, The Resistance begins. I don’t know how to start a blog. If I did, it’d be ugly. Or: I’d have to post all the time to keep readers coming back. I don’t want to do that. Starting a blog means, for most, committing to something — to building a media brand, to the caring and feeding of an audience, to doing lots of stuff you don’t want to do. That’s why ease of use — the promise of Facebook, the promise of Twitter, the promise of Tumblr — has been such a wonderful selling point to people who want to create media without hassle. Every single-serving Tumblr, every Twitter account updated sporadically, every Facebook account closed to only a few friends speaks the same message: You can do this, it’s simple, don’t stress, you’ll be fine.

IX.

So Medium is built around collections, not authors. When you click on an author’s byline on a Medium post, it goes to their Twitter feed (Ev synergy!), not to their author archive — which is what you’d expect on just about any other content management system on the Internet. (The fact we call them content management systems alone tells you the structural weight that comes from even the lightest personal publishing systems.) The author is there as a reference point to an identity layer — Twitter — not as an organizing principle.

As Dave Winer noted, Medium does content categorization upside down: “Instead of adding a category to a post, you add a post to a category.” He means collection in Medium-speak, but you get the idea: Topic triumphs over author. Medium doesn’t want you to read something because of who wrote it; Medium wants you to read something because of what it’s about. And because of the implicit promise that Medium = quality.

(This just happens to be promising from a business-model perspective. Who needs silly content contributors asserting authorial privilege when the money starts to flow? Demoting the author privileges the platform, which is nice if you own the platform.)

X.

At one level, Medium is just another publishing platform (join the crowd): You type in a title, some text, maybe a photo if you want, hit “Publish” and out comes a “post,” whatever that means that days, on a unique URL that you can share with your friends. (And let me just say, as a Blogger O.G. from the Class of ’99, that Medium’s posting interface brought back super-pleasant memories of Blogger’s old two-pane interface. Felt like the Clinton years again.)

XI.

Ev writes that a prime objective of Medium is increased quality: “Lots of services have successfully lowered the bar for sharing information, but there’s been less progress toward raising the quality of what’s produced.” That’s probably true: There are orders of magnitude more content published every day than was the case in 1999, when Blogger launched as a Pyra side project. The mass of quality content is much higher too, of course, but it’s surrounded by an even-faster-growing mass of not-so-great (or at least not-so-great-to-you) content.

Medium takes a significant step in that direction by violating perhaps the oldest blogging norm: that content appears in reverse-chronological order, newest stuff up top, flowing forever downward into the archives. Reverse chron has been key to blogging since Peter Merholz made up the word. (Older than that, actually — back to the original “What’s New” page at NCSA in 1993.) For the pleasure centers in the brain that respond to “New!,” reverse chron was a godsend — even if traditional news organizations were never quite comfortable with it, preferring to curate their own homepages through old-fashioned ideas like, you know, editorial judgment.

Medium believes in editorial judgment — but everyone’s an editor. Like the great social aggregators (Digg is dead, long live Digg), Medium relies on user voting to determine what floats to the top of a collection and what gets dugg down the bottom. (A reverse chron view is available, but not the default.) It’ll be interesting to see how that works once Medium is really a working site: Will a high-rated story stick to the top of a collection for weeks, months, or years, forever pushing new stuff down? Will there be any way for someone visiting a collection to see what’s new since she was last there? The tension between what’s good and what’s new is a long-standing one for online media, and privileging either comes with drawbacks — new material never reaching an audience, or good stuff being buried beneath something inconsequential posted 20 minutes later.

Considering Obvious Corp.’s heritage in Blogger and Twitter — both of which privilege reverse chron, Twitter existentially so — it’s interesting to see Ev & Co. thinking that a push for quality might entail a retreat from the valorization of newness.

XII.

There’s been a lot of movement in the past few months toward alternative, “quality” platforms for content on the web. Branch is based on the idea that web comments are shit and that you have to create a separate universe where smart people can have smart conversations. App.net, the just-funded paid Twitter alternative, is attractive to at least some folks because it promises a reboot of the social web without the “cockroaches” — you know, stupid people. Svbtle, an invite-only blogging platform, is aimed only at those who “strive to produce great content. We focus on the writing, the news, and the ideas. Everything else is a distraction.”

This new class of publishing platforms, like Medium, is beautiful — they share a stripped-down aesthetic that evokes the best of the early web (post-<blink> tag, pre-MySpace) modernized with nice typography, lovely textures, and generous white space. (Medium, in particular, seems to be luxuriate in giant FF Tisa, evocative of Jeffrey Zeldman’s huge-type redesign back in May.)

This new class has also been criticized with a variation on the white flight argument — the idea that the privileged flee common spaces and platforms once they stop being solely the realm of an elite and become too popular. (Vide danah boyd. Also vide your favorite indie band, the first time you heard them on the radio.)

For (just) a moment, strip away the political implications of that critique: What each of these sites argues, implicitly, is that the web norms that we’ve evolved over the past decade err toward crassness and ugliness. That advertising — which all these sites lack, and which is proving to be less-than-sufficiently-remunerative for lots of “quality” online media — is an uninvited guest in our reading experiences. That the free-for-all of a comments thread creates broken-windows-style chaos. That the madness of the web might be tamed through better tools and better platforms. That the web’s pressure to Always Keep Posting New Stuff leads to a lot of dumb stuff being posted. It’s a critique of pageview chasing, a critique of linkbait, a critique of content farms, a critique of SEO’d headlines — a yearning for something more authentic, whatever the hell that means.

I think we’d all like to know what that means. And how to get there.

XIII.

Is Medium the route there? I’m skeptical.

I’m unclear who, beyond an initial crowd of try-anything-once types, will want to publish via Medium, as lovely as it is. Or at least I’m unclear on how many of them there are. The space Medium, er, mediates is between two poles. On one side you’ve got people who want to hang out a shingle online and own their work in every possible sense. On the other, you’ve got people who are happy in the friendly confines of Facebook and Twitter, places where they can reach their friends effortlessly and not worry about writing elegant prose. Is there an audience between those two poles that’s big enough to build something lasting? Is this Blogger or Twitter, or is it Odeo?

But even if Medium isn’t a hit, however that gets defined these days, I think Ev & Co. are onto something here. There are seeds of a backlash against the beautiful chaos the web hath wrought, the desire for a flight to quality. There will be new ways beyond ease of use to harness the creative powers of the audience. And there will be new ways to structure content discovery that go beyond branding authorship and recommendation engines. Those trends are real, and whatever happens to Medium, they’ll impact everyone who publishes online.

Blackbird photo by Duncan Brown used under a Creative Commons license.

July 09 2011

17:40

Om Malik to Evan Williams, co-founder of Twitter: what is the future of blogging?

GigaOM :: When the rumors of Google retiring the Picasa and Blogger brands hit the web last week, it sent Om Malik down memory lane. It made him think about blogging in general and how it had evolved. He wanted to write an Om Says newsletter and pinged Evan Williams, co-founder of Twitter, and before that, the creator of Blogger, the service that was bought by Google in 2003. With Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and countless other options, blogging isn’t quite what it used to be.

What is the future of blogging?

Continue to read Om Malik, gigaom.com

December 22 2010

17:00

Keeping Martin honest: Checking on Langeveld’s predictions for 2010

Editor’s Note: This year, we’re running lots of predictions of what 2011 will bring for journalism. But our friend Martin Langeveld has been sharing his predictions for the new-media world for a couple of years now.

In the spirit of accountability, we think it’s important to check back and see how those predictions fared. We did it last year, checking in on his 2009 predictions. And now we’ll check in on 2010.

Check in next year around this time as we look back at all the predictions for 2011 and how they turned out.

Newspaper ad revenue

PREDICTION: At least technically, the recession is over, with GDP growth measured at 2.8 percent in Q3 of 2009 and widely forecast in Q4 to exceed that rate. But newspaper revenue has not followed suit, dropping 28 percent in Q3. McClatchy and the New York Times Company (which both came in at about that level in Q3) hinted last week that Q4 would be better, in the negative low-to-mid 20 percent range. This is not unexpected — in the last few recessions with actual GDP contraction (1990-91 and 2001), newspaper revenue remained in negative territory for at least two quarters after the GDP returned to growth. But the newspaper dip has been bigger each time, and the current slide started (without precedent) a year and a half before the recession did, with a cumulative revenue loss of nearly 50 percent. Newspaper revenue has never grown by much more than 10 percent (year over year) in any one quarter, so no real recovery is likely. This is a permanently downsized industry. My call for revenue by quarter (including online revenue) during 2010 is: -11%, -10%, -6%, -2%.

REALITY: CLOSE, ONE CIGAR. Actuals for Q1, 2, and 3: -9.70%, -5.55%, – 5.39%. And Q4, while not a winner, will probably be “better” than Q3 (that is, another quarter of “moderating declines” in news chain boardroom-speak). So, a win on the trendline, and pretty close on the numbers.

Newspaper online revenue

PREDICTION: Newspaper online revenue will be the only bright spot, breaking even in Q1 and ramping up to 15% growth by Q4.

REALITY: CLOSE, ONE CIGAR. Actuals for Q1, 2, and 3: +4.90%, +13.90%, and +10.7%. Since Q1 beat my prediction and was the first positive result in eight quarters, I’d say that’s a win, and pretty close on the ramp-up, so far. Q4 might hit that 15%.

Newspaper circulation revenue

PREDICTION: Newspaper circulation revenue will grow, because publishers are realizing that print is now a niche they can and should charge for, rather than trying to keep marginal subscribers with non-stop discounting. But this means circulation will continue to drop. In 2009, we saw a drop of 7.1% in the 6-month period ending March 31, and a drop of 10.6 percent for the period ending Sept. 30. In 2010, we’ll see a losses of at lest 7.5% in each period.

REALITY: HALF A CIGAR. Actual drop in the March 31 period was 8.7%; actual drop in the Sept. 30 period was 5.0%. So, half a win here.

Newspaper bankruptcies

PREDICTION: I don’t think we’re out of the woods, or off the courthouse steps, although the newspaper bankruptcy flurry in 2009 was in the first half of the year. The trouble is the above-mentioned revenue decline. If it continues at double-digit rates, several companies will hit the wall, where they have no capital or credit resources left and where a “restructuring” is preferable and probably more strategic than continuing to slash expenses to match revenue losses. So I will predict at least one bankruptcy of a major newspaper company. In fact, let’s make that at least two.

REALITY: CORRECT — TWO CIGARS. Well, MediaNews Group filed its strategic bankruptcy in January, as did Morris Publishing. So this was a quick win. Canwest Ltd. Partnership, publisher of 12 Canadian papers, filed in January as well.

Newspaper closings and publishing frequency reductions

PREDICTION: Yup, there will be closings and frequency reductions. Those revenue and circulation declines will hit harder in some places than others, forcing more extinction than we saw in 2009.

REALITY: WRONG. Nope, everybody managed to hang on, nobody of any size closed.

Mergers

PREDICTION: It’s interesting that we saw very little M&A activity in 2009 — none of the players saw much opportunity to gain by consolidation. They all just hunkered down waiting for the recession to end. It has ended, but if my prediction is right and revenue doesn’t turn up or at least flatten by Q2, the urge to merge or otherwise restructure will set in. Expect to see at least a few fairly big newspaper firms merge or be acquired by other media outfits. (But, as in 2009, don’t expect Google to buy the New York Times or any other print media.)

REALITY: WRONG. Google didn’t buy the Times or any other newspaper, but by the same token, there were no significant mergers or acquisitions all year. So much for Dean Singleton’s promise of “consolidation” in the industry after MediaNews emerged from its quick bankruptcy.

Shakeups

PREDICTION: Given the fact that newspaper stocks generally outperformed the market (see my previous post), it’s not surprising that there were few changes in the executive suites. But if the industry continues to contract, those stock prices will head back down. Don’t be surprised to see some boards turn to new talent. If they do, they’ll bring in specialists from outside the industry good at creative downsizing and reinvention of business models. Sooner would be better than later, in some cases.

REALITY: NOT FLAT WRONG, BUT NOT CLOSE. Perhaps the closest any company came to truly shaking things up was Journal Register Company, which in January appointed as its CEO John Paton, an executive with experience in Hispanic media. He’s not an outsider, but he’s preaching a very different gospel that includes a clear vision for a web-based future for news. Elsewhere, Tribune, still dealing with bankruptcy, tossed CEO Randy Michaels, not for strategic reasons but because accusations of sexism and other dumb behavior were “tarnishing” the company’s name.

Hyperlocal

PREDICTION: There will be more and more launches of online and online/print combos focused on covering towns, neighborhoods, cities and regions, with both for-profit and nonprofit bizmods. Startups and major media firms looking to enter this “space” with standardized and mechanized approaches won’t do nearly as well as one-off ventures where real people take a risk, start a site, cover their market like a blanket, create a brand and sell themselves to local advertisers.

REALITY: CORRECT. This is happening in spades. AOL’s Patch launched hundreds of sites. It may be a “standardized” approach, but it’s not “mechanized,” and hired more journalists than any company has in decades. At the same time, one-off ventures continue to sprout in towns and cities everywhere.

Paid content

PREDICTION: At the end of 2008, this wasn’t yet much of a discussion topic. It became the obsession of 2009, but the year is ending with few actual moves toward full paywalls or more nuanced models. Steve Brill’s Journalism Online promises a beta rollout soon and claims a client list numbering well over 1000 publications. Those are not commitments to use JO’s system — rather, they’re signatories to a non-binding letter of intent that gives them access to some of the findings from JO’s beta test. Many publishers, including many who have signed that letter, remain firmly on the sidelines, realizing that they have little content that’s unique or valuable enough to readers to charge for. JO itself has not speculated what kind of content might garner reader revenue, although its founders have been clear that they’re not recommending across-the-board paywalls. So where are we heading in 2010? My predictions are that by the end of the year, most daily papers will still be publishing the vast majority of their content free on the Web; that most of those experimenting with pay systems will be disappointed; and that the few broad paywalls in place now at local and regional dailies will prove of no value in stemming print circulation declines.

REALITY: CORRECT. Most papers are still publishing the vast majority of their content free on the web. ALSO CORRECT: Broad paywalls have done little to stem the decline in print. JURY STILL OUT: But it’s too soon to tell whether those experimenting with paywalls are disappointed. All eyes are on the impending paywall start at the New York Times.

Gadgets

PREDICTION: The recently announced consortium led by Time Inc. to publish magazine and (eventually) newspaper content on tablets and other platforms will see the first fruits of its efforts late in the year as Apple and several others unveil tablet devices — essentially oversized iPhones that don’t make phone calls but have 10-inch screens and make great color readers. Expect pricing in the $500 ballpark plus a data plan, which could include a selection of magazine subscriptions (sort of like channels in cable packages, but with more a la carte choice). If newspapers are on the ball, they can join Time’s consortium and be part of the plan. Tablet sales will put a pretty good dent in Kindle sales. One wish/hope for the (as yet un-named) publisher consortium: atomize the content and let me pick individual articles — don’t force me to subscribe to a magazine or buy a whole copy. In other words, don’t attempt to replicate the print model on a tablet.

REALITY: CORRECT, MORE CIGARS. My iPad description and data plan price point were right on the mark. It’s hard to say for sure whether iPad sales have put much of a dent in Kindle sales, since Amazon doesn’t release numbers, but Kindle sales are way up after a price cut. The magazine consortium, now called Next Issue Media, still has no retail product, but it does look like it intends to “replicate the print model on a tablet” rather than recognizing atomization. Meanwhile, the Associated Press is recognizing atomization with its plan for a rights clearinghouse for news content.

Social networks

PREDICTION: Twitter usage will continue to be flat (it has lost traffic slowly but steadily since summer). Facebook will continue to grow internationally but is probably close to maxing out in the U.S. With Facebook now cash-flow positive, and Twitter still essentially revenue-less, could Zuckerberg and Evan Williams be holding deal talks sometime during the year? It wouldn’t surprise me.

REALITY: WRONG, MOSTLY. Twitter is still fairly flat in web traffic, but it’s growing via mobile and Twitter clients, so its real traffic is hard to gauge. No talks between Twitter and Facebook, though.

Privacy

PREDICTION: The Federal Trade Commission will recommend to Congress a new set of online privacy initiatives requiring clearer “opt-in” provisions governing how personal information of Web users may be used for things like targeting ads and content. Anticipating this, Facebook, Google and others will continue to maneuver to lock consumers into opt-in settings that allow broad use of personal data without having to ask consumers to reset their preferences in response to the legislation. In the end, Congress will dither but not pass a major overhaul of privacy regs.

REALITY: CORRECT. Indeed, we don’t have any major overhaul by Congress, but we’re actually seeing more responsible behavior from all of the big players with regard to privacy, including better user controls on privacy just announced by Microsoft.

Mobile

PREDICTION (with thanks to Art Howe of Verve Wireless): By the end of 2010 a huge shift toward mobile consumption of news will be evident. In 2009, mobile news was just getting on the radar screen, but during the year several million people downloaded the AP’s mobile app to their iPhones, and several million more adopted apps from individual publishers. By the end of 2010, with many more smartphone users, news apps will find tens of millions of new users (Art might project 100 million), and that’s with tablets just appearing on the playing field. During 2009, Web readership of news (though not of newspaper content) overtook news in printed newspapers. Looking out to sometime in 2011 or 2012, more people will get their news from a mobile device than from a desktop or laptop, and news in print will be left completely in the dust.

REALITY: JURY STILL OUT, BUT LOOKING CORRECT. To my knowledge, nobody has a handle on how many news apps have been sold or downloaded, but certainly it’s in the tens of millions, counting both smartphone and tablet apps. One the other hand, a lot of people with apps on their phones don’t use them. As to where mobile ranks among news delivery media, the surveys haven’t picked up the trends yet, but wait till next year.

Stocks

PREDICTION: I accurately predicted the Dow’s rise during 2009 and that newspaper stocks would beat the market (see previous post), but neglected to place a bet on the market for 2010, so here goes: The Dow will rise by 8% (from its Dec. 31 close), but newspaper stocks will sink as revenue fails to rebound quarter after quarter.

REALITY: ON THE MONEY. As of mid-afternoon December 15, the Dow is up 10.19% for the year, so I claim a win on that score. The S&P 500 is up 11.11%, and the NASDAQ is up 15.63%. Among newspaper groups, McClatchy (up 33%), Journal Communications (up 26%) and E.W. Scripps (up 44%) handily beat the market, but all the other players indeed sank or underperformed the market: New York Times Company is down 23%, News Corp. is up 5%, Lee Enterprises is down 30 percent, Media General is down 30% and Gannett is up 4%.

September 15 2010

17:00

Twitter as broadcast: What #newtwitter might mean for networked journalism

So Twitter.com’s updated interface — #newtwitter, as the Twittery hashtag goes — is upon us. (Well, upon some of us.)

The most obvious, and noteworthy, changes involved in #newtwitter are (a) the two-panel interface, which — like Tweetdeck and Seesmic and other third-party apps — emphasizes the interactive aspects of Twitter; and (b) the embeddable media elements: YouTube videos, Flickr photos (and entire streams!), Twitpics, etc. And the most obvious implications of those changes are (a) the nice little stage for advertising that the interface builds up; and (b) the threat that #newtwitter represents to third-party apps.

Taken together, those point to a broader implication: Twitter.com as an increasingly centralized space for information. And even, for our more specific purposes, news. Twitter itself, as Ev Williams put it during the company’s announcement of @anywhere, is “an information network that helps people understand what’s going on in the world that they care about.” And #newtwitter, likely, will help further that understanding. From the point of view of consumption, contextual tweets — with images! and videos! — will certainly create a richer experience for users, from both a future-of-context perspective and a more pragmatic usability-oriented one. But what about from the point of view of production — the people and organizations who feed Twitter?

The benefits of restriction

We commonly call Twitter a “platform,” the better to emphasize its emptiness, its openness, its agnosticism. More properly, though, Twitter is a medium, with all the McLuhanesque implications that term suggests. The architecture of Twitter as an interface necessarily affects the content its users produce and distribute.

And one of the key benefits of Twitter has been the fact of its constraint — which has also been the fact of its restraint. The medium’s character limitation has meant that everyone, from the user with two friends following her to the million-follower-strong media organizations, has had the same space, the same tools, to work with. Twitter has democratized narrative even more than blogs have, you could argue, because its interface — your 140 characters next to my 140 characters next to Justin Bieber’s 140 characters, all sharing the space of the screen — has been not only universal, but universally restricted. The sameness of tweets’ structures, and the resulting leveling of narrative authority, has played a big part in Twitter’s evolution into the medium we know today: throngs of users, relatively unconcerned with presentation, relatively un-self-conscious, reporting and sharing and producing the buzzing, evolving resource we call “news.” Freed of the need to present information “journalistically,” they have instead presented it organically. Liberation by way of limitation.

So what will happen when Twitter, the organism, grows in complexity? What will take place when Twitter becomes a bit more like Tumblr, with a bit of its productive limitation — text, link, publish — taken away?

The changes Twitter’s rolling out are not just cosmetic; embedded images and videos, in particular, are far more than mere adornment. A link is fundamentally, architecturally, different than an image or a video. Links are bridges: structures unto themselves, sure, but more significantly routes to other places — they’re both conversation and content, endings and beginnings at once. An image or a video, on the other hand, from a purely architectural perspective, is an end point, nothing more. It leads to nowhere but itself.

For a Twitter interface newly focused on image-based content, that distinction matters. Up until now, the only contextual components of a tweet — aside from the peripheral metadata like “time sent,” retweeted by,” etc. — have been the text and the link. The link may have led to more text or images or videos; but it also would have led to a different platform. Now, though, within Twitter itself, we’re seeing a shift from text-and-link toward text-and-image — which is to say, away from conversation and toward pure information. Which is also to say, away from communication…and toward something more traditionally journalistic. Tweets have always been little nuggets of narrative; with #newtwitter, though, individual tweets get closer to news articles.

We’ve established already that Twitter is, effectively if not officially, a news platform unto itself. #Newtwitter solidifies that fact, and then doubles down on it: It moves the news proposition away from a text-based framework…and toward an image-based one. If #twitterclassic established itself as a news platform, in other words, #newtwitter suggests that the news in question may increasingly be of the broadcast variety.

“What are you doing?” to “What’s happening?”

“Twttr” began as a pure communications platform: text messages, web-ified. The idea was simply to take the ephemeral interactions of SMS and send them to — capture them in — the cloud. The point was simplicity, casualness. (Even its name celebrated that idea: “The definition [of Twitter] was ‘a short burst of inconsequential information,’ and ‘chirps from birds,’” Jack Dorsey told the Los Angeles Times. “And that’s exactly what the product was.”)

The interface that rolled out last night — and that will continue rolling out over the next couple of weeks to users around the world — bears little resemblance to that initial vision of Twitter as captured inconsequence. Since its launch (okay, okay: its hatch), Twitter has undergone a gradual, but steady, evolution — from ephemeral conversations to more consequential information. (Recall the change in the web interface’s prompt late last year, from “What are you doing?” to “What’s happening?” That little semantic shift — from an individual frame to a universal one — marked a major shift in how Twitter shapes its users’ conception, and therefore use, of the platform. In its way, that move foreshadowed today’s new interface.) Infrastructural innovations like Lists have heightened people’s awareness of their status not simply as communicators, but as broadcasters. The frenzy of breaking-news events — from natural disasters like Haiti’s earthquake to political events like last summer’s Iranian “revolution” — have highlighted Twitter’s value as a platform for information dissemination that transcends divisions of state. They’ve also enforced users’ conception of their own tweets: visible to your followers, but visible, also, to the world. It’s always been the case, but its’ one that’s increasingly apparent: Each tweet is its own little piece of broadcast journalism.

What all that will mean for tweets’ production, and consumption, remains to be seen; Twitterers, end-user innovation-style, have a way of deciding for themselves how the medium’s interface will, and will not, be put to practice. And Twitter is still, you know, Twitter; it’s still, finally and fundamentally, about communication. But the smallness, the spareness, the convivial conversation that used to define it against other media platforms is giving way — perhaps — to the more comprehensive sensibility of the networked news organization. The Twitter.com of today, as compared to the Twitter.com of yesterday, is much more about information that’s meaningful and contextual and impactful. Which is to say, it’s much more about journalism.

January 08 2010

15:00

What 2010 will bring newspapers: Bad revenue news, bad bankruptcy news, and maybe a nice tablet

[Yesterday, we showed how our Martin Langeveld's predictions for 2009 turned out. A few hits, a few misses, but lots of thoughts provoked. Here's his list of what we can expect in 2010. —Josh]

Newspaper ad revenue: At least technically, the recession is over, with GDP growth measured at 2.2 percent in Q3 of 2009 and widely forecast in Q4 to exceed that rate. But newspaper revenue has not followed suit, dropping 28 percent in Q3. McClatchy and the New York Times Company (which both came in at about that level in Q3) hinted recently that Q4 would be better, in the negative low-to-mid 20 percent range. This is not unexpected — in the last few recessions with actual GDP contraction (1990-91 and 2001), newspaper revenue remained in negative territory for at least two quarters after the GDP returned to growth. But the newspaper dip has been bigger each time, and the current slide started (without precedent) a year and a half before the recession did, with a cumulative revenue loss of nearly 50 percent. Newspaper revenue has never grown by much more than 10 percent (year over year) in any one quarter, so no real recovery is likely; this is a permanently downsized industry. My call for revenue by quarter during 2010 is: -11%, -10%, -6%, -2%.

Newspaper online revenue (included in the overall prediction above) will be the only bright spot, breaking even in Q1 and ramping up to 15% growth by Q4.

Newspaper circulation revenue will grow, because publishers are realizing that print is now a niche they can and should charge for, rather than trying to keep marginal subscribers with non-stop discounting. But this means circulation will continue to drop. In 2009, we saw drops of 7.1 percent in the six-month period ending March 31 and 10.6 percent for the period ending Sept. 30. In 2010, we’ll see a losses of at least 7.5% in each period.

Newspaper bankruptcies: I don’t think we’re out of the woods, or off the courthouse steps, although the newspaper bankruptcy flurry in 2009 was in the first half of the year. The trouble is the above-mentioned revenue decline. If it continues at double-digit rates, several companies will hit the wall, where they have no capital or credit resources left and where a “restructuring” is preferable and probably more strategic than continuing to slash expenses to match revenue losses. So I will predict at least one bankruptcy of a major newspaper company. In fact, let’s make that at least two.

Newspaper closings and publishing-frequency reductions: Yup, there will be closing and frequency reductions. Those revenue and circulation declines will hit harder in some places than others, forcing more extinction than we saw in 2009.

Mergers: It’s interesting that we saw very little M&A activity in 2009 — none of the players saw much opportunity to gain by consolidation. They all just hunkered down waiting for the recession to end. It has ended, but if my prediction is right and revenue doesn’t turn up or at least flatten by Q2, the urge to merge or otherwise restructure will set in. Expect to see at least a few fairly big newspaper firms merge or be acquired by other media outfits. (But, as in 2009, don’t expect Google to buy the New York Times or any other print media.)

Shakeups: Given the fact that newspaper stocks generally outperformed the market, it’s not surprising that there were few changes in the executive suites. But if the industry continues to contract, those stock prices will head back down. Don’t be surprised to see some boards turn to new talent. If they do, they’ll bring in specialists from outside the industry good at creative downsizing and reinvention of business models. Sooner would be better than later, in some cases.

Hyperlocal: There will be more and more launches of online and online/print combos focused on covering towns, neighborhoods, cities and regions, with both for-profit and nonprofit business models. Startups and major media firms looking to enter this space with standardized and mechanized approaches won’t do nearly as well as one-off ventures where real people take a risk, start a site, cover their market like a blanket, create a brand and sell themselves to local advertisers.

Paid content: At the end of 2008, this wasn’t yet much of a discussion topic. It became the obsession of 2009, but the year is ending with few actual moves toward full paywalls or more nuanced models. Steve Brill’s Journalism Online promises a beta rollout soon and claims a client list numbering well over 1,000 publications. Those are not commitments to use JO’s system — rather, they’re signatories to a non-binding letter of intent that gives them access to some of the findings from JO’s beta test. Many publishers, including many who have signed that letter, remain firmly on the sidelines, realizing that they have little content that’s unique or valuable enough to readers to charge for. JO itself has not speculated what kind of content might garner reader revenue, although its founders have been clear that they’re not recommending across-the-board paywalls.

So where are we heading in 2010? My predictions are that by the end of the year, most daily papers will still be publishing the vast majority of their content free on the web; that most of those experimenting with pay systems will be disappointed; and that the few broad paywalls in place now at local and regional dailies will prove of no value in stemming print circulation declines.

Gadgets: The recently announced consortium led by Time Inc. to publish magazine and (eventually) newspaper content on tablets and other platforms will see the first fruits of its efforts late in the year as Apple and several others unveil tablet devices — essentially oversized iPhones that don’t make phone calls but have 10-inch screens and make great color readers. Expect pricing in the $500 ballpark plus a data plan, which could include a selection of magazine subscriptions (sort of like channels in cable packages, but with more à la carte choice). If newspapers are on the ball, they can join Time’s consortium and be part of the plan. Tablet sales will put a pretty good dent in Kindle sales. One wish/hope for the (as yet unnamed) publisher consortium: Atomize the content and let me pick individual articles — don’t force me to subscribe to a magazine or buy a whole copy. In other words, don’t attempt to replicate the print model on a tablet.

Social networks: Twitter’s own site usage will continue to be flat (it has actually lost traffic slowly but steadily since summer), but that probably means more people are accessing Twitter through various apps on computers and smartphones, so actual engagement is hard to gauge.  Facebook will continue to grow internationally but is probably close to maxing out in the U.S. With Facebook now cash-flow positive, and Twitter still essentially revenue-less except for lucrative search deals with Google and Bing, could Mark Zuckerberg and Evan Williams be holding deal talks sometime during the year? It wouldn’t surprise me.

Privacy: The Federal Trade Commission will recommend to Congress a new set of online privacy initiatives requiring clearer “opt-in” provisions governing how personal information of web users may be used for things like targeting ads and content. Anticipating this, Facebook, Google and others will continue to maneuver to lock consumers into opt-in settings that allow broad use of personal data without having to ask consumers to reset their preferences in response to the legislation. In the end, Congress will dither but not pass a major overhaul of privacy regs.

Mobile (with thanks to Art Howe of Verve Wireless): By the end of 2010 a huge shift toward mobile consumption of news will be evident. In 2009, mobile news was just getting on the radar screen, but during the year several million people downloaded the AP’s mobile app to their iPhones, and several million more adopted apps from individual publishers. By the end of 2010, with many more smartphone users, news apps will find tens of millions of new users (Art might project 100 million), and that’s with tablets just appearing on the playing field. During 2009, web readership of news (though not of newspaper content) overtook news in printed newspapers. Looking out to sometime in 2011 or 2012, more people will get their news from a mobile device than from a desktop or laptop, and news in print will be left completely in the dust.

Stocks: I accurately predicted the Dow’s rise during 2009 and that newspaper stocks would beat the market. The Dow will rise by 8% (from its Dec. 31 close), but newspaper stocks will sink as revenue fails to rebound quarter after quarter.

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