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November 04 2010

14:00

The Newsonomics of Kindle Singles

[Each week, our friend Ken Doctor — author of Newsonomics and longtime watcher of the business side of digital news — writes about the economics of the news business for the Lab.]

Maybe the newspaper is like the old LP — you know, as in “Long Play.” It may be a 33 1/3, though it seems like it came out of the age of 78s sometimes, a relic of the post-Victorian Victrola age. It is what it is, a wonderful compendium of one day in the life (of a nation, a city, a village), a one-size-fits-all product, the same singular product delivered to mass volumes of readers.

In the short history of Internet disintermediation and disruption of the traditional news business, we’ve heard endless debate of the “the content and the container,” as people have tried to peel back the difference between the physical form of the newspaper — its container — and what it had in it. It’s a been a tough mindset change, and the many disruptors of the world — the Googles, the Newsers, and the Huffington Posts, for instance — have expertly picked apart the confusions and the potentials new technologies have made possible. The news business has been atomized, not by Large Hadron Colliders, but by simple digital technology that has blown up the container and treats each article as a digestible unit. Aggregate those digestible units with some scheme that makes sense to readers (Google: news search; Newser: smart selection and précis; HuffPo: aggregation, personality and passion), and you’ve got a new business, and one with a very low cost basis.

None of this is a revelation. What is new, and why I re-think that context is the advent of Kindle Singles. The Lab covered Amazon’s announcement of less-than-a-book, more-than-as-story Kindle Singles out of the chute a couple of weeks ago. Josh Benton described how the new form could well serve as a new package, a new container, for longer, high-quality investigative pieces, those now being well produced in quantity by ProPublica, the Center for Investigative Reporting (and its California Watch), and the Center for Public Integrity. That’s a great potential usage, I think.

In fact, Kindle Singles may open the door even further to wider news business application, for news companies — old and new, publicly funded and profit-seeking, text-based and video-oriented. It takes the old 78s and 33 1/3s, and opens a world of 45s, mixes, and infinite remixes. It says: You know what a book is, right? Think again. It can also say: You know what a newspaper is, right? Think again. While the Kindle Singles notion itself seems to have its limits — it’s text and fixed in time, not updatable on the fly — it springs loose the wider idea of publishing all kinds of new news and newsy content in new containers. Amazon is trying to define this strange new middle, with the Kindle Singles nomenclature, while some have used the term “chapbook” to describe it. We’ve got to wonder what Apple is thinking in response — what’s an app in Kindle Singles world? What’s a Kindle Single in an apps world? It’s not a book, an article, a newspaper, or a magazine, but something new. We now get to define that something new, both in name, but most importantly in content possibility.

What it may be for news organizations is a variety of news-on-demand. Today, we could be reading tailored and segmented sections on the election, from red and blue perspectives, from historical perspectives, from numerical perspectives. Today, we in the Bay Area could get not just a single triumphant San Francisco Giants celebratory section, but our choice of several, one providing San Francisco Giants history, one providing New York Giants history, one looking at the players themselves; the list goes on and on. More mundane, and more evergreen commercial topics? Job-hunting, job-finding, job-prep guides, tailored to skills, ages, and wants? Neighborhood profile sections for those seeking new housing (pick one or several neighborhoods, some with data, some with resident views, others tapping into neighborhood blogs). It’s endless special sections, on demand, some ad-supported, some not; a marketer’s dream. Some are priced high; some are priced low; some are free and become great lead generators for other digital reader products.

A few recent initiatives in the news business news lend themselves to Singles thinking. Take Politico’s newly announced topical e-newsletters. Take Rupert Murdoch’s notion of a paid-content portal, Alesia, which had within the idea of mixing and matching content differently, until its plug was recently pulled. Take AP’s new rights consortium, a venture that could build on this approach. Again, endless permutations are possible.

Who is going to come up with the ideas for the content? Well, editors themselves should have their shot, though one-size-fits-all thinking has circumscribed the imagination of too many. Still, there are hundreds of editors (and reporters and designers and copy editors) still in traditional ranks and now employed outside of it capable of creating new audience-pleasing packages. Some will work; some won’t. Experiment, and fail quickly. The biggest potential, though? Letting readers take open-sourced news content and create packages themselves, giving them a small revenue share, on sales. (Both the Guardian and the New York Times, among others, have opened themselves up for such potential usage.) Tapping audiences to serve audiences, to mix and match content, makes a lot of sense.

Why might this work when various little experiments have failed to produce much revenue for news companies, thinking of Scribd and HP’s MagCloud? Well, it’s the installed bases and paid-content channels established by the Amazons (and the Apples). They’ve got the customers and the credit cards, and they’ve tapped the willingness to pay. They need stuff to sell.

For newspaper companies, it’s another chance to rewrite the economics of the business. The newsonomics of Kindle Singles may mean that publishers can worry less about cost of content production, for a minute, and more about its supply. Maybe the problem hasn’t been the cost of professional content, but its old-school one-size-fits-all distribution package. That sports story or neighborhood profile could bring in lots more money per unit, if Singles notion takes off.

One big caution here: Singles thinking leads us into a more Darwinian world than ever. In my Newsonomics book, I chose as Law #1: “In the age of Darwinian content, we’re becoming our own and each other’s editors.” Great, useful content will sell; mediocre content will die faster. Repackaging content pushes the new content meritocracy to greater heights. As we approach 2011, news publishers are hoping to hit home runs with new paid content models. Maybe the future is as much small ball, hitting a lot of one-base hits, of striking out as often — and of Singles.

June 30 2010

16:28

BBC producer takes on Newser’s users and wins

Charles Miller, a producer at the BBC College of Journalism, gives an entertaining account of his experience using Newser’s readers editing feature ‘Newser by Users’.

The feature offers anyone the chance to ‘play editor’ with an online story, changing the headline and summary before posting it online.

The best picks get elevated into the site’s front page, alongside their own journalists’ work.

Miller gives us his account:

After a few more sentences, I was ready to publish. Seconds later, my story was up there on Newser. It was soon shunted along by “WV Senator Robert C. Byrd, 92 died this morning” and other, more recent uploads, many from someone called Disillusioned – who should really have been called Super-Keen or perhaps Time on My Hands. I clicked on Most Popular, but, sadly, no sign of my piece (…) HOLD THE FRONT PAGE … As I was writing the above, I took another look at Newser and, guess what? My story has been catapulted to prominence – given a proper photograph and promoted to the lead spot on the front page.

(…) Hey, I’ve made it as an unpaid drone in the cut-throat world of US online journalism! Eat your heart out, Disillusioned!

See his full post here…Similar Posts:



June 03 2010

16:00

Jeff Israely: The line between “content” and “journalism,” and deciding which side I want to be on

[Jeff Israely, a Time magazine foreign correspondent in Europe, is in the planning stages of a news startup — a "new global news website." He details his experience as a new news entrepreneur at his site, but he'll occasionally be describing the startup process here at the Lab. Read his first, second, and third installments. —Josh]

The digital information revolution is changing both the meaning and value of words. By now, we know a “friend” isn’t always a friend, and clouds and graphs don’t bring rain and spreadsheets.

After years of resisting, I’ve thrown myself into the new-media verbiage with relative gusto as I attempt to conquer my own modest corner of the digital landscape. Still, my brain/language synapses can sometimes misfire: When I saw Robert Scoble’s link last week to “one of the social services I am using a lot more lately,” I expected to click open details of his favorite new welfare program or rehab center.

The fluidity of what we say and hear when we write and read on the web may prompt an ironic LOL (annoying acronym) or old-fashioned harrumph (cool grandpa). But stopping to listen to ourselves may also help us better understand both what we might want to create in the new realm of information, and how to make it economically viable. As for my efforts, and just for fun, let me start by trying to define this very piece in two sentences or less: “This is an unpaid monthly “public diary” of shared professional experiences and observations and self-promotion (not necessarily in that order), written in fits and starts over two days at my home in Paris, with more attitude and less grammar than the stuff I’m paid to do, sweating (always) every word, inserting links to some though not all of my sources/inspiration, to be edited and distributed — with the press of a “Publish” button in Cambridge, Mass. — as far and long as its tail will carry it via a high-profile nonprofit website founded to help the news industry figure out how to be economically sustainable. While doing good journalism.”

Does the bad grammar — at Harvard, no less!? — and poor pay make this a blog post? My smart-ass hack colleagues would say good pay and good grammar have never been part of the journalist’s profile. The new media gurus would say the distinction is ultimately irrelevant. But rather than directly tackling this running dialectic between the j-word and b-word, let’s cut straight to the c-word: content, which may help us understand where the current meaning and value (economic and otherwise) of words intersect.

I don’t know when I first uttered this term in its internet guise, but I now use it constantly in talking about the media business in general, and in pitching my particular project. There is actually a rather linear linguistic path from its original off-line meaning (something contained — usually used in plural [the jar's contents]; [the drawer's contents]). It is matter that occupies a certain space; its particular characteristics (and value) are left to be (or not to be) defined. In Cyberville, it can be conceived of as the opposite, or complement, of a platform. We’re either building platforms and applications or producing content, or some combination thereof. Declaring that “I provide content” in today’s news business advertises one of two characteristics, or both: (a) I am capable of working in all media, any form or length; or (b) I am focused most of all on speed and technological innovation and maximizing human efficiency, rather than seeking depth and quality. We have seen in just the past few days how much the current market likes this latter approach.

“Journalism” instead has the air of something weighty, belabored, and — most of all — expensive to produce. Others talk about “storytelling,” which has a nice sound to it, but apparently leaves optional the integral relationship with breaking news and events — the news cycle — that traditional journalistic outlets (and Twitter!) are expected to provide.

Though I always make sure to slap the adjectives “quality” or “branded” on what our project will offer, I too have tended to opt for the content catch-all word as a way of talking the talk. But to walk the walk — September beta launch!? — forces me to think and speak for myself. And that means listening harder than ever. And that goes not just for language for language’s sake, but also specifically for the purpose of business.

Two conversations I’ve had in the past two weeks have brought clarity to the project’s revenue model: the first was a Skype to Atlanta with veteran CNN producer David Clinch, another traditional-media dude breaking off and doing his own global news thing; the second was a Montmartre coffee with former Orange executive and France director of Ask.com Irene Toporkoff, who I am now busy trying to woo (here too!?) to become a co-founder on the project. Both from what David is aiming to do and from Irene’s most recent experience as director general at Angie Interactive — and considering the nature of our product — it has become clear that the way to launch this project is what is generically known as B2B, that is, selling directly to other businesses, in this case, other major brands or web portals. “B2B,” Irene kept repeating. “It is an interesting project. But it has to be B2B…” In France, they call it an agence, which is an all-encompassing term that includes the wires (AFP), but also smaller and more niche content providers. In the new digital world, it can mean many things.

What we must make clear is that our product’s professionalism, (i.e., the economic exchange and oversight that go with paying for time plus labor) comes at a cost, but offers real value. It also has a name, and “content” just doesn’t cut it. With all the old-world pomposity we can muster, let’s just agree to call it journalism, mes amis. That label will continue to scare off some investors…and even some journalists. But to take on-the-ground, informed reporting and toss it in with the rest of the, er, stuff that’s out there undersells our product, both to the platforms and readers we hope will buy/consume it.

Some digital mavens will find this entire post a conceit, or just wrong-headed. All bets -– I mean all bets -– may in fact be off. Fifteen or 50 years from now, the big media outlets may all be gone, basic journalistic practices might go the way of the Tridentine mass, and people could be getting and giving all their relevant news and data via some sort of solar-powered informatron. Or more modestly, “journalism” will simply and slowly devolve into the mix of “content.” I’m betting that’s not the case, even as I rapidly try to prepare for no less than the revolution that is coming in one form or another.

But enough of my high-falutin’ ramblings. Blogs and journalism and the content of our lives should always make room for some fun, which brings to my most entertaining digital exchange of the past month. Though I’m not apt to pick fights on the web, late one night I gave in to Twitter snark temptation. More tales of Gerald Posner’s alleged plagiarism were popping up, so I fired off the following tweet: Gerald Posner didnt plagiarize…. he AGGREGATED!

About 10 minutes later, I followed that up with a couple of jabby tweets aimed directly at hyper-sly aggregator Newser and flagged the site’s founder-provocateur Michael Wolff.

The truth is that, though I think Newser is basically cheating (though not plagiarizing), and Wolff can be more nasty than snarky, I like watching him call the bluff of big media companies that clearly don’t know which way is up. Most of all, I was engaging him that evening because he’s funny as hell, so why not see him take a snarky swing at me? And right on time came his short and tweet response, showing how much communication can occur well short of the 140-character limit: “you sound so old fart-ish.” Nice! I’m pretty sure that means the same thing on- and offline. And Twitter, regardless of which content prevails, is a platform for the ages.

June 01 2010

17:00

Aggregators, curators, and indexers: There’s a difference, and it matters

Aggregation. Curation. Indexing. They’re all the same, aren’t they? Ask any serious online journalist or new media entrepreneur, and the answer will be quick and obvious: of course not! But in the public debate over the future of journalism — especially the debate as framed by legal analysts and public officials — the words often get thrown around as if they are identical. Ordinarily, such word quibbling would seem a little sad. But in the current context, where every aspect of journalism is up for grabs and concepts like “the hot news doctrine” are discussed in serious tones, words and definitions mean a great deal. So I thought it might be worth a little time thinking about what we mean by aggregation, by curation, and by indexing. In other words: if you’re an “aggregator,” what is it, exactly, that you do?

To get a sense of how I thought these terms were being increasingly lumped together, and some of the problems this might cause, I wanted to highlight the first couple paragraphs from the written materials distributed at the Online Media Legal Network’sJournalism’s Digital Transition,” which was a conference I attended at Harvard a few weeks ago. The conference, by the way, was great, and I don’t mean to pick on the OLMN. But I did think that the discussion of aggregation included in their CLE (Continuing Legal Education) materials really summed up the issues that I wanted to get at in this post. In the document “News Aggregation and Copyright Fair Use,” conference attendees read:

One of the hottest topics in copyright law these days is the rise of the news aggregator, from Google News to the Huffington Post … debate arises when third-parties get into the act [of] reselling and profiting from information generated by traditional media organizations.

Of course, building a business model around monetizing another’s website content isn’t novel, and methods for doing so have been around for almost as long as the Internet has been considered a viable commercial entity. Consider the practice of framing, or superimposing ads, onto linked websites … News aggregators, which take information from multiple websites and display it on a single page, providing a convenient one-stop resource for readers, are merely the latest flavor-of-the-week.

Though Google News may be the most well known commercial news aggregator, there are many others, such as the Huffington Post and Newser.com. Some use only headlines and links, others copy full (or nearly full) articles and photos. Nearly all receive ad revenue, many based on page views that, copyright owners allege, are being diverted from websites that originate the content.

Are Google News, Huffington Post, and Newser.com the same? How about the other online organizations traditionally tossed into the mix, such as Gawker? If you view the online news ecosystem as basically bifurcated into two categories — content originators and content reusers — than this view of the world might make sense. In the above model, the primary issue isn’t what these sites actually do all day, but the fact that they “receive ad revenue, many based on page views that, copyright owners allege, are being diverted from websites that originate the content.” And yet, as soon as you start to conceptually differentiate between Google News and the Huffington Post, it becomes clear that there’s a much more complex news ecosystem out there.

So what’s actually going on online? I thought it might be interesting to take one of our very own Lab posts, Mark Coddington’s all around smashing This Week in Review, and parse out how the ways that Mark engages in both what I’d call “aggregation” and “curation.” In essence, I think the upper sections of This Week in Review are fundamentally different from the bottom, concluding section, and the differences between the two sections point to different ways of doing online newswork.

The first dozen paragraphs of TWIR are usually broken down into three or four “hot topics” that are big in the future of journalism world that week. As Mark told me when I emailed him and asked him to explain his thinking behind This Week in Review, the upper sections

explore a discussion — a news development with commentary surrounding it, or ideas that spark responses and thus launch (or, usually, continue) a conversation. With those sections, I see myself as mapping out a discussion — explaining who’s on what side, what each person is saying and where that places them in relation to everyone else…If I see some substantive discourse coalescing around an article, that’s more likely to merit its own section because there are several connections I feel I need to explain (i.e. Person A said this, Person B responded with this, and Person C and D reminded both A and B of this and this).

Let’s take one recent TWIR as an example. The hot topics picked by Mark involved (1) the continuing controversy over Facebook, (2) a discussion of iPad apps, (3) New York Times and Wall Street Journal paywalls, and (4) finally, a good overview of recent pieces on new digital news experiments. I’d call this first, lengthiest section of the Week in Review “content aggregation and analysis.” In the old days I would have just called it “blogging.”

  • The topics Mark discusses in This Week in Review emerge from a deep immersion in the conversation about the future of journalism, and a lengthy period of active listening to what people are saying. I follow future-of-journalism news pretty closely, and I’ve almost never disagreed with Mark’s analysis about what the important topics of the week are. In short, I trust his judgment. But it’s a judgment that stems from deep, active engagement in the topic at hand.
  • The way Mark highlights the contours of the debate is through linking back to his original sources. The discussion of Facebook contains 17 links in four paragraphs.
  • Mark occasionally (but not often) weighs in on one of the debates, but he does it pretty subtly, and the bulk of This Week in Review is definitely taken up with summarizing and translating what others are saying.

The second part of TWIR — and it’s usually just a few paragraphs — is called “Reading Roundup.” I’d call this part of This Week in Review “curation,” and it strikes me as pretty different from the rest of the piece. It’s not as centered around debates, and the links tend to go to online content which is more “think-piecey.” In this section, Mark seems to be listening a little bit less, and exercising a bit more personal judgment. I hear him telling me: “Hey! You’ve followed the piece to the end, which tells me you really care about this issue. Since I think we share similar interests, you might like these pieces too!” Or as Mark put it when I quizzed him about the difference:

You’re right — there is a difference between the “reading roundup” and the rest of the weekly review posts…with the reading roundups, I’m merely pointing the reader toward an interesting link without substantively explaining its connection to the rest of the journalism-in-transition world. Essentially, the reading roundup is like me inviting you to a party, while the main sections are like me walking you through a room at that party, introducing you to people, explaining who’s who, and giving you a sense of who you might enjoy talking to.

Finally, compare both of these forms of writing to something like Google News, which uses complex algorithms to determine what the hot topics of the minute are, what counts as a spotlight story, and how to rank stories in order of originality and importance. If Google News looks like anything, it’s a phone book — or one of those yearly news indexes in the big green binders you used to encounter in libraries, just more up to date. There isn’t the same sense of “listening,” the process of judgment seems different, and most importantly, there isn’t the same kind of interstitial commentary surrounding the links. For me, what Google News and other sites do might productively be called “indexing.”

Because this blog post is already over 1,300 words, I’m not going to get into the question posed by Ken Doctor: Can’t we just call all this stuff “content arbitrage“? Maybe that’s the subject for another post, but the short answer is I don’t think you can. I think we need to begin to compare the new forms of journalistic work that exist online, not just to some imaginary ideal of “content creation” versus an evil “repurposing,” but to each other.

Ultimately, why does all this matter? Is there an ultimate upshot of all this linguistic parsing?

For me, the lesson is simple. Anytime you hear someone talk about Google News, The Huffington Post, Gawker, blogging, aggregating, curation, and indexing as if they are the same phenomenon, ignore them. And if they attach that discussion to a set of policy recommendations, without acknowledging the full complexity of what it is people actually do when they aggregate, curate, and index information — well, then you should put your fingers in your ears and run in the other direction.

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