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February 03 2012

15:26

Daily Must Reads, Feb. 3, 2012

The best stories across the web on media and technology, curated by Lily Leung.

1. Netflix and WaPo bought a combined $8M in Facebook ads last year, IPO says (All Facebook)



2. Analysis: A sobering look at Facebook (Reuters)



3. How the Huffington Post became a new-media behemoth (GigaOM)



4. News Corp. names Bloomberg exec as Dow Jones CEO (The Wrap Media)



5. Tumblr has hired its first executive editor (Reuters)



6. New York Times to expand health blog (paidContent)



7. Google can't weigh in on 'used' digital music case (Online Media Daily)



8. Google convicted in France for offering free maps (paidContent)




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January 19 2012

15:00

The newsonomics of signature content

What’s your signature content?

Quick: If somebody buttonholed you in an elevator, a school play, or a bar, and said, “Why should I pay you for that?” — what do you tell them?

Each passing week, it seems we’re further into the age of signature content. That only makes sense: If the death of distance is now old news, if everything is available everywhere at the touch of button or the swipe of a finger, then what makes any news or entertainment brand stand out amid this plague of plenty?

Closed systems — from three or four TV networks to less than a dozen big movie studios to a half-dozen major magazine publishers to geographically dominant newspapers — made signature content less important. Sure, big shows and big names have always driven media to some extent, but now, media without big names or big shows are going to get lost in the ether. Take Hulu’s announcement last week about Hulu Originals. You do have to wonder if Hulu’s fictional 13-episode “Battleground,” about a dysfunctional political campaign, will be bested by the Republican reality show in progress when the show debuts next month. Hulu is also bringing a Morgan Spurlock series for a second run, and probably will feature one other new program. The Hulu announcement joins Netflix’s own foray into signature content. Three years ago, would the thought of Netflix signing up Little Steven to do an original comedy series have crossed anyone’s imagination?

Hulu and Netflix both need to distinguish themselves in the market — not only from each other, but from Comcast, DirecTV, and Time Warner, among others. They need to buy protection as supposed masses consider cutting the cord on packaged services, Roku-ing and Apple-enabling Internet video onto their living-room screens. In movies and TV, we’re quickly morphing from a world of news and entertainment anywhere — get all of these things, somewhat haphazardly (Comcast Xfinity, for instance) on all of our devices — to one in which consumers ask, “What special do you have for me, in addition to my all access? Yes, All-Access, the cool feature of 2011, will quickly graduate from a wow to an expectation.

Why as consumers should we pay $7.99 (down from an initial $9.99) to Hulu Plus, when the same stuff (kinda sorta) is available through Boxee, or Apple TV, or Netflix, if I can find it? Why am I paying $7.99 a month (apparently the magic price of the moment) to Netflix for a catalog of films that is both voluminous and too often lacking what I want? Consumers are going to be asking that question a lot more.

Publishers, distributors, aggregators, and networks all want more money, and they’ve seen — courtesy of tablets and All-Access — that consumers are now more ready to pay for digital content than ever before.

Forget “content wants to be free.” Now content wants a fee. And everyone from Time Inc to The New York Times to the Memphis Commercial Appeal to Hulu’s co-owners (Fox, Disney, and Comcast) see gold. They see another digital revenue stream, in addition to advertising or to cable subscription fees. Yet they are increasingly believing they’ve got to up the ante (and Hulu is raising new funds to buy original programming) to compete and to win those consumer dollars.

News companies — at least one in ten U.S. daily newspapers and many consumer magazines — are rapidly embracing digital circulation revenue and All-Access. Yet results have been quite uneven. That makes sense: Consumers will pay for digital news, feature, and entertainment content, but they don’t want to overpay, and they’ll increasingly be forced to make choices. Buy this; let that go.

Let’s be clear. Paid media is paid media, and the original-programming pushes of the video companies have great meaning for news and magazine companies, global to local. For them, the calculus is similar. News and magazine brands can launch new products, though that’s out-of-their-DNA-tough for many. So they’ve focused primarily on sub-brands, many of which are people. These are the faces of news and magazines; many of these have become hot commodities over the last several years (“The newsonomics of journalistic star power“) as companies try to distinguish themselves — and give readers and viewers a reason to pick them out of the crowd.

How, though, can media companies afford to pay a premium for branded, promotable talent, talent that may open consumers’ pocketbooks? That’s easy: spend less on other content. So we’ve got the rise of user-generated content, obtainable free or cheap, and all kinds of new syndicate action from Demand Media to startup Ebyline (and maybe NewsRight), all trying to make it cheap and easy to get more medium- and higher-quality content more cheaply. What’s old is new again — as a young features editor, I got regular visits from syndicate and wire salesman, ranging from high-quality to the Copley News Service, that sold its stuff by the pound.

Another prominent model no news or magazine company can afford to ignore: The Huffington Post. Back to the early days when Betsy Morgan first teamed up with Arianna, HuffPost has worked this evolving content pyramid. At the top, a few highly paid site faces, many opinionated faces (some paid, most not), and then low-cost aggregation, much of it AP, headlined with the site’s recognizable swagger.

Then, of course, there’s the old standby: staff cutting. We’ve seen lots of staff cutting. In fact, these days, while we see some announcements like Media General’s big Tampa cut, most of the bloodletting is less public, but no less real. If you need to pay more to stars, and ad revenues are still declining, staff cuts of less than premium content (and those that produce it) make economic sense (“The newsonomics of the new news cost pyramid“). It’s the new news math.

These newsonomics of signature content are getting clearer. Netflix is planning to spend 5 percent of its expenses — or $100 million a year — on original, Netflix-defining content. Hulu is spending about a quarter what Netflix’s total, or $500 million in total, on all content licensing this year. We don’t know how much of that is for original content, but observers believe “Battleground” will cost $15-20 million for its 13 episodes. With its other forays, it will probably spend closer to 10 percent of its content budget on original content.

Curiously, many newspaper newsrooms constitute only 10-20 percent of the overall expenses of a daily newspaper company. So we’re starting to see some new, and old, arithmetic play out here.

Simply, Andy Forssell, Hulu’s SVP of content, explained the cost/benefit ratio to Variety: “…having an original scripted series that hasn’t been seen anywhere else yet is considered the best tool for standing out with either advertisers or viewers.”

As usual, we see the bifurcation of the bigger national brands — those with more audience to gain and more money to spend — and local news brands. While many local newspapers have cut to the bone, with too much of the tissue in the form of experienced, name-brand metro and sports columnists cajoled or drummed into “early retirement,” we see increased branding of stars at places like Time, The New York Times, Fox News, and ESPN. The sports network may be the classic business model of our age, and in its anchors and top analysts — many initially lured from daily newspapers — it has shown the way for many years now.

At the Times, consider business editor Larry Ingrassia’s build-up of business columnists, from veterans Gretchen Morgenson and Floyd Norris to new(er)bies Andrew Ross Sorkin, Brian Stelter, David Carr, Ron Lieber, and David Pogue. And the Times more recently picked up James Stewart from archrival Dow Jones.

At Fox News, Roger Ailes has cannily built the most successful cable news operation not on the interchangeable blondes that provide so much fodder for Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, but on O’Reilly and Hannity.

At NBC, the news franchise is so built around Brian Williams that his well received newsmagazine “Rock Center with Brian Williams” is synonymous with its host.

At Time Warner’s CNN and Time, we see the building of a worldly franchise on Fareed Zakaria’s clear-eyed, no-nonsense view of our times.

And then there’s the more local and regional press. Newspapers have long believed that it wasn’t any one or a half-dozen names that sold the paper. They’ve believed the news itself was the star, and the daily information report was the brand. That may be still be true of the Times, the Journal, the Financial Times, the Guardian, and a handful of other national/global news organizations — all of which have substantial, multi-hundred newsrooms that produce branded, unique products. It’s less true of regional and local dailies, many of which still present too much commoditized news in national, business, entertainment, and sports coverage, and have bid goodbye to many faces familiar to readers. Those that have retained familiar faces must do what they can to keep them; all need to recruiting more.

Then they may have a good answer to the question, in one form or another, consumers and advertisers will increasingly ask: What’s your signature content?

July 09 2011

04:48

Salon - is there a future for long-form journalism or only for quick, sharp blog style?

paidContent :: David Kaplan, paidContent, wrote a piece about "Salon CEO Gingras Resigns; Site Faces An Uncertain Future" - but as it looks like he rose the more interesting question later in the text - unfortunately without answering it. Where lies the future? In quick, sharp blog (HuffPo model) or long-form style? Here's what he wrote.

Although traffic has generally improved over the years, Salon has struggled where early rivals like Huffington Post, Slate and the still independent Talking Points Memo have thrived in terms of both traffic and revenue. 

One of the key differences between Salon and its close competitors was that Salon tended to model itself on longer, narrative newspaper and magazine style of reporting, as opposed to the quick, sharp blog formats of HuffPo, Slate, TPM and others. Salon expended into content areas such as food and the introduction of more e-commerce. They cut costs. But it is and will always hard to figure out how to balance the cuts without losing its value to readers.

[Richard Gingras in reply to NYT:] Scale matters. Salon is not there yet with that scale, but I expect it will be.

Really? Easier said than done. What strategy will work for Salon?

Continue to read the interesting piece here David Kaplan, paidcontent.org

May 12 2011

17:34

Comments Are Dead. We Need You to Help Reinvent Them

Let’s face it — technically speaking, comments are broken. With few exceptions, they don’t deliver on their potential to be a force for good.

Web-based discussion threads have been part of the Internet experience since the late 1990s. However, the form of user commentary has stayed fairly static, and — more importantly — few solutions have been presented that address the complaints of publishers, commenters, or those of us who actually read comments.

beyond comment threads.jpg

Publishers, for the most part, want software that will stamp out trolls and outsource the policing to the community itself (or, failing that, to Winnipeg). Commenters, on the other hand, want a functional mini-soapbox from which to have their say — preferably something that is easy to log into and has as few limitations as possible (including moderation). The rest of us are left to deal with the overly complicated switches, flashing lights, and rotary knobs that we’re expected to know how to use to dial in to the conversation so it’s just right for our individual liking, not too hot and not too cold.

Thankfully, there is an opportunity today to really innovate. New capabilities in the browser, and emerging standards provide an opportunity to completely rethink the relationship between news users and producers — between those who comment and those who are commented upon — and to demonstrate new forms of user interaction that are atomic, aggregated, augmented, or just plain awesome.

That’s why our next Knight-Mozilla Challenge is for you to come up with a more dynamic space for online discussions. You can submit your idea here, and you could win a trip to Berlin to compete with other innovators — or even win a year-long fellowship in a newsroom.

PUBLISHERS’ DIRTY LITTLE SECRET

The truth is, many news publishers don’t actually think comments are a good thing. Or if publishers won’t go so far as to admit that, they’ll usually agree that the so-called return on investment when enabling comments, discussion and debate on their site is not entirely clear.

Therein lies the biggest tension in the “beyond comment threads” challenge: At the end of the day, those who comment on stories, and those who have their articles commented upon, often have very different views on the topic.

Ask publishers about the purpose of comments and they’ll often speak to the very aspirations of independent journalism and a free press: democratic debate, informed citizens, and free speech. Ask them about the reality of comment threads on their site, and a very different picture is likely to emerge.

On the other end of the spectrum are the people who comment. No doubt, for some, it’s their very comment — or comments, in the case of those who actively comment — that creates the value on a given page, not the editorial. For others, the value is in the conversation that coalesces or unfolds in the context of a given story — but, to ease the minds of publishers, always at a safe distance from the “real content,” usually at the end of a story, or well below the fold.

In between are the rest of us, the people who benefit from the tension between publishers and commenters. We rely on the individuals who choose to comment to add context and clarifications, do extra fact-checking (a skill that’s often a casualty of newsroom cutbacks), and, ultimately, to hold the publisher accountable — publicly — and using the publishers’ own soapbox to do so. At the same time, we rely on publishers and reporters to start the conversation and keep it civil.

No wonder publishers are still asking questions about the value of comments: It takes a lot of work to build a successful online community, and the outcome is not guaranteed to work in their favor.

The Slashdot Era

Sometime in late 1997 or 1998, a bunch of hackers who agreed that commenting was broken (or — at that time — just simply missing) on most news sites decided to take matters into their own hands. Enter the era of Slashdot, an early example of the kind of sites that would begin to separate church from state by disconnecting the discussion from the content being discussed. These sites — with lots of comment and little content in the editorial sense — threw some powerful ideas into the mix: community, identity and karma (or incentives).

Thumbnail image for slashdot.jpg

Fast-forward to today, more than 10 years later, and not much has changed.

Newer sites, like Hacker News and Reddit, continue in the Slashdot tradition, but don’t break much new ground, nor attempt to innovate on how online discussion is done. At the same time, publishers — realizing the conversation was increasingly happening elsewhere — have improved or re-tooled their commenting systems in the hope of keeping the discussion on their sites. But instead of innovating, they’ve simply imitated, and little real progress has been made.

In an era where Huffington Post is the “state-of-the-art” for online discussion, I ask myself: What went wrong?

Enter the innovators’ dilemma

Meanwhile, as the events above unfolded, the rest of the web went on innovating. As publishers and comment-driven communities lamented their situation and pondered how to improve it, the conversation left those sites entirely. The people formerly known as the audience were suddenly empowered to have their say almost anywhere, via micro-blogs, status updates, and social networks.

It was the classic innovators’ dilemma at work. While focusing on how to make commenting systems better, many people didn’t see the real innovation happening: Everyone on the Internet was given their own, personal commenting system. Services like Twitter and Identi.ca solved the most pressing issue for commenters: autonomy. Services such as Facebook and LinkedIn addressed another problem: identity.

Unfortunately, not all innovation is good. Local improvements do not always equal systemwide benefits. That is the situation we are left with today: Comments, discussion and identity are scattered all over the web. Even worse, the majority of what we as individuals have to say online is locked in competing, often commercial, prisons — or “corporate blogging silos” — and is completely disconnected from our online identity.

The Sixth Estate

The opportunity in the beyond comment threads challenge is to radically re-imagine how we, the users, relate to the people producing news, and to each other. It’s time to get out of a 10-year-old box and completely rethink the current social and technical aspects of online discussion and debate. It’s time to stop thinking about faster horses, and start thinking about cars (or jetpacks!).

To get specific, let’s start with a list of great experiences that are made possible with comments:

  • Providing value to the publisher: Think about the times that comments have revealed new facts, uncovered sources, or pointed out easily correctable errors. This exemplifies the opportunity for a community to provide value back to a publisher, and helps answer the return-on-investment question. Recently, during the uprising in the Middle East and the earthquake in Japan — when several news organizations introduced real-time streams that mixed editorial content with user-submitted comments — we witnessed a glimmer of something new. What does it look like to push those ideas to their extremes?

  • Publishers and users working together: Sites like Stack Overflow (and the other sites in that network) introduced a new standard for directed conversations. More than just question-and-answer forums, these sites attempted to leverage the sense of community on sites like Slashdot and Hacker News, but also direct that energy toward a socially useful outcome, such as collective wisdom. If the Press is a “key social institution that helps us understand what’s going on in the world around us,” then we are all responsible for making it better — reporters, publishers and news readers. So what does that collaboration and the goal of collectively assembled wisdom (other than Wikipedia, of course) look like?

  • Holding publishers, or authors, accountable: If the publishers’ aim is to stamp out trolls, the commenters’ equivalent goal is to squelch bad reporting. Many readers expect news stories to be factually accurate, fair and balanced, and free of hidden agendas or unstated personal opinions. Comments were the first opportunity to quickly point out shortcomings in a story (versus a letter to the editor that may or may not be printed some days or weeks later). Think of that span — an immediate retort versus an edited response published well after the fact — and project it into the future, and then ask yourself, “How far could an idea like MediaBugz go?”

The last example on my list has to do with providing value to the community and learning together. How do we address the myriad concerns on both sides of the fence and come out the other end with something that isn’t broken? How can the historical tension between the need for anonymity and the perceived advantages of a real identity be overcome using our knowledge and the tools of the open web? In what way can the visual language of online discussion be taken beyond “thumbs up” or “thumbs down?” And what does it look like to enable commenting on the HTML5 web, which is increasingly driven by video, audio, animations and interactivity?

In those rare inspirational moments — when two sides of a conversation come together and actually listen — there is the nucleus of the idea that inspired the world to embrace comments in the first place. How do we weave that idea into the web of tomorrow? How do we turn up the volume on everything we love about comments, discussion and debate online, without losing what we love in the process?

That, if you accept it, is your mission.

February 07 2011

13:23

AriannaOL

They laughed when Arianna sat down to the keyboard. They were wrong. I was wrong, too. I hadn’t imagined that Huffington Post would become the force in media and politics that it became.

Tim Armstrong and Aol are smart to acquire Huffington Post as a media property and Arianna Huffington as the head of content.

I was just thinking yesterday that though Aol has lots of content and plans to make a lot more, I never think to go there, apart from heading to one of its brands, such as Engadget. Portals are burned toast. Making content for search is not, I believe, a growth strategy, as the more Google becomes personalized and successfully seeks out signals of quality and originality, the more SEO will die as a black art. So to execute on its content-and-advertising strategy, Aol needs brands with engagement. Huffington Post is that. Armstrong needs someone who understands that the critical sphere of discovery for content will more and more be people: peers links, not algorithms; Arianna gets that. The company was bought at a high multiple to its revenue but I think the price is not insane. Armstrong didn’t buy pageviews (how 2005); he bought a content and distribution strategy.

The only thing that makes me nervous is hearing Arianna talk with Kara Swisher about the center. No, Arianna, don’t heed the siren call of the view from nowhere! But I can’t believe that’s possible for her. Arianna’s not going to be buying Glenn Beck. Arianna must be Arianna.

One wonders why big, old media companies didn’t buy Huffington Post. The better question is why they never started their own HuffPos. Only one did: The Guardian. When it saw HuffPo, I remember, its response was, ’shit, we should have done that.’ So they did, starting Comment is Free as as vehicle to change its relationship with the public (more than as a business strategy). The New York Times or Washington Post are still too tied to their views of themselves as the founts of all fonts; as far as they may have come, the HuffPo model remains a populist leap too far. TV is is wrapped up in its makeup. I tried to convince many publishers in Germany that they should start HuffPo and not one bit.

So who could have bought and invested in the growth of Aol? Yahoo? Thank God Arianna avoided that black hole of online death. Google, Facebook, Twitter, et al all see themselves as platforms for others’ content, not content themselves. No, Aol and Armstrong were stubbornly going their own way with a content strategy and that’s what made HuffPo an ideal acquisition. Who else could Aol have bought? Gawker Media? No, as friend and professional contrarian Nick Denton keeps insisting, he’s not a blog; he’s not a blogger but a content maker.

Content alone isn’t enough for Aol. It has content. Lots. What HuffPo and Arianna bring is a new cultural understanding of media that is built around the value of curation, the power of peers, the link economy, passion as an asset, and celebrity as a currency. As a friend of mine reminds me via email from London, HuffPo, thanks to its roots, also has a keen understanding of the value of technology innovation to build platforms. Unlike old media companies, HuffPo groks scale.

And let’s not forget that HuffPo gets journalism. I remember a few years ago when Alan Rusbridger, editor-in-chief of the Guardian, goaded Arianna in a talk before his staff about why she’d possibly want such as them: reporters who cost a lot and are pains to work with. Because their stories get more traffic, Arianna replied. She understands the value of reporting.

On Twitter just now, Jim Schachter of the NY Times (I work with him on the Local via CUNY, so we are brothers in hyperlocal) was wondering what Arianna’s ascension means for Aol’s soon-to-be 1,000-suburb-strong Patch. I think she can get them to add more human voice to it and think about aggregating regional and city-wide issues across them. Arianna has long thirsted after local and Patch gives her the scale to execute her imperialist strategy.

If this acquisition works, it will be because Arianna really is the boss of content and gets to scale her vision and because Aol brings its key strengths–ad sales and capital–to what comes next.

I’ll be eager to see what does come next.

* Disclosure: I forget that I am listed as an advisor to Patch on its site. That should be taken at face value. I have no personal business relationship with Patch. I was asked to join its advisory board but because I have so many fingers in so many hyperlocal pies, I said that I’d be happy to chat with them but not be a compensated advisor. We meet now and again and work together via CUNY’s J-School on Patch in Brooklyn.

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