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June 27 2011

13:52

Content, dethroned

Jonathan Knee uses Netflix to argue in The Atlantic that content is not king and that aggregators are better at capturing value. That will be raw meat to those who claim that aggregators are content kleptomanics.

Knee’s analysis is good but there’s a critical element that needs to be underscored: Aggregation itself is not sufficient. Netflix gains its advantage because it has a substantive relationship with its customers, which yields data about their desires that the company uses to superserve them, making highly relevant recommendations and filtering noise (give me the filter bubble!).

This business strategy makes us rethink where the core of value is in media: in the content or in the relationship and data. What is Facebook’s answer? Google’s? I address that in my link economy treatise here:

Rather than concentrating on total audience, we should concentrate on the net future value of each reader. Where does that value reside? That question raises a fundamental strategic—and religious—issue: We in news and media keep saying that our content has value. Well, yes; no one will disagree. But we need to ask whether the greater value resides in the content or in the relationships and data it can spawn. Yes, the content has value, but how best do we extract that value?

Over lunch recently a media executive repeated the accepted wisdom that “our content has value.” That often leads next to the contention that we “should be paid for it,” though I counter that “should” is never the basis of a business model. In news, of course, we have always extracted more value for our work through selling our audiences to advertisers than selling our content to audiences. Why would that change today?

This executive also complained that digital companies, such as Google and Facebook, don’t value our content. But look at this new media ecosystem from the perspective of Facebook, a company that by some reckoning could be valued at as much as $100 billion by the time it goes public within a year. What does Facebook itself value? Relationships. Data. Relevance.

As for content, Facebook doesn’t so much refuse to value it, as my media friend implied, but instead finds value in a much more expansive view of content. It finds worth in all that apparently useless blathering we do in what Facebook calls, to journalists’ derision, its members’ “News Feeds.” That’s not news, the news people say; news is what we make. That may have been the case in a scarcity-based content economy, when there was room for only so much news in the world’s publications and airwaves. Now content—like advertising—is abundant. The incumbent content companies are having trouble taking advantage of that growth because their definition of content remains limited and their models based on controlling scarcity. Facebook, like Google, sees content everywhere, made by everyone, and each in its own way is better than legacy content companies at finding value in it. Each uses content to gain more signals about users and to use that data to target content, services, and advertising.

My lunch companion said that media companies’ content is the “steel” that makes Google’s “cars.” That metaphor still assumes that content is a scarce, consumable, and perishable commodity. Digital companies’ ability to make money on the back any content—Facebook enables the creation of it; Google organizes it—irks the content makers. This is why Rupert Murdoch and his News Corp. lieutenants (in a list curated by Arianna Huffington) accuse Google and its ilk of being “parasites,” “content kleptomaniacs,” “vampires,” and “tech tapeworms in the intestines of the Internets” who “steal all our copyright.”

There are two problems with the Murdoch worldview: First, according to my thesis of the link economy, Google, Huffington Post, curators, aggregators, bloggers, and readers linking via Facebook and Twitter do not steal value but instead add value when they direct readers to content. In response to News Corp.’s accusations and epithets, Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt said in Murdoch’s own Wall Street Journal in December 2009 that Google causes 4 billion clicks a month to news publishers, a quarter of that from aggregator Google News.

In an apples-to-pineapples comparison, only a few months later, Bit.ly, the leading URL-shortener used in Twitter, passed that 4 billion mark and a year later it doubled that (though not all that goes to news sites). There we see the rising power of the peer’s recommendation, the human link. In early 2011, the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism confirmed that social services were driving higher proportions of traffic to news sites, with Facebook coming in second or third in the list of referrers to five of the top 25 news sites.

The second issue with the Murdoch view of links is that it fails to take account of the new ways that digital companies mine value in content, links, and relationships. For them, content is not a product to sell but is more a device to generate information about users to increase their value. Content is a signal generator that reveals interests, needs, sometimes location, and more. Facebook can find out that you are a fan of Green Day if you read articles about it but also if you write about it or your friends are fans or you listen to or recommend its music. Then Facebook wants to sell you a ticket to the next Green Day concert near you (and Facebook knows where you are). In this example, content takes many forms—an article, a conversation, a song—and monetization comes not from advertising but from commerce. Does Facebook need a publisher’s article to make these economics work? Is it the steel without which there can be no car? Hardly.

A more extreme example: In 2010, researchers used a set of keywords to track aggregate moods in Twitter messages and found they could predict daily ups and downs in the Dow Jones Industrial Average with up to 87.6 percent accuracy. A hedge fund now uses the formula in partnership with one of the scientists. The content—very broadly defined—created by millions of Twitter users produces value, if you know how to look for it.

In our research, we will need to catalogue such additional sources of worth and revenue. For part of the lesson to content creators and link recipients should be that there are more ways to recognize value than the traditional way of selling audiences to advertisers. At the e-G8 conference in Paris in May 2011, Zuckerberg bragged that Zynga, built atop Facebook’s open platform, had just past game champion Electronic Arts in market capitalization. He said Zynga succeeded because it understood not only games but also people and relationships. He suggested that the next winners in music, for example, would similarly understand both (see: Lady Gaga). How will the similarly savvy news company succeed?

I’m not suggesting that editors call the people formerly known as the audience little monsters and don bodacious bustier to earn a buck. But I do believe we must challenge our every assumption about the role of content and its creators in a new media economy. Media’s role was to make and distribute content because it controlled the means of both. Now they do not. The former audience can make content and media’s role may be to support them in that with tools, platforms, aggregation, curation, promotion, training. The former audience has also taken over the role of distributor when they link, recommend, discuss, and embed content and so the question for media is how to take full advantage of that. Where do the former content controllers fit into this new ecosystem? How do we add and extract value?

The simple question—how do we increase the number and value of links and clicks for media—raises these larger questions. This research can hardly answer them all but perhaps it can inspire new ways to see value and new structures and methods to realize it.

April 04 2011

03:16

Who’s afraid of Arianna Huffington?

The New York Times has been gunning for The Huffington Post lately, which makes me wonder what exactly Arianna Huffington has done to scare or anger them so. Or perhaps that’s the wrong question. Given that our enemies are often those we don’t understand, I wonder what The Times fails to grasp about HuffPo. That then leads to the question of what The Times can learn from this Post.

Felix Salmon has done a skillful job covering this one-way war, this schoolyard taunting in two posts. Times Executive Editor Bill Keller wrote two columns and a blog post going after Huffington—once directly; once without (as Salmon puts it) the intellectual honesty to link to and allow his readers to judge those he criticizes; and once defensively, after Huffington called his bluff. Times staff loyally picked up Keller’s spitballs to lob their own. Media critic David Carr wrote and then killed a tweet sniping about Arianna that he later conceded was “tasteless.” Andrew Goldman didn’t so much interview Huffington for The Times Magazine as he acted like a parody of a TV prosecutor trying to bait a cagey witness—or perhaps it is better described as a comic homage to Joe McCarthy trying to elicit confessions of leftness. Then Salmon points out that The Times snagged a HuffPo scoop without credit. Just now Carr delivers a glancing blow to Aol/HuffPo, reading into a defection a defeat.

What is The Times’ problem? I think it’s that they do not understand what makes Huffington Post successful and they lash out at the unknown. Here, I suggest, is what The Times and Keller don’t understand about HuffPo. Here is what they think is wrong with it:

* Huffington Post is not content. Content is what content people make; if they don’t make it, it’s not content. That, I believe, is The Times’ cultural view of HuffPo: It cannot be content because the likes of The Times have not made it (no matter how many Timesman Huffington hires). That, I theorized, is why The Times and other media temples did not start their own HuffPo’s or buy the original: It’s not real. Even if The Times were to give it credit for the one-third of HuffPo that is content—by dozens of journalists—they’d still say it’s diluted by the other third that is aggregation and the last third that is comment. And that leads to…

* Conversation is not content. When I had Henry Blodget speak with my class on new business models and disruption, he praised HuffPo for its understanding of the value of conversation. In The Times’ view, conversation is what they enable—no, tolerate—when readers chatter under articles once they are finished. As I learn in every damned meeting with news folks I ever have, comments have cooties. All they can ever hear from the vox populi is the voices of the trolls. Blodget and Huffington have a broader sense of the conversation. That was Arianna’s essential insight when she gave celebrities a place to speak; that is conversation. That was Henry’s insight when he learned to listen to what people were talking about so he could join in and add to their conversation. Which leads to…

* Aggregation is cheating. The Times thinks aggregation is not content. Worse, they are coming around to Rupert Murdoch’s view that it is theft. As Jay Rosen tweeted, seen from the readers’ point of view, aggregation is helpful; it adds value to coverage. Indeed, that’s why The Times does aggregate and curate. But when looking for enemies, it’s best not to look in the mirror. I talk (a lot) about the link economy and how there are two distinct creations of value online: the creation of content and the creation of a public (née audience) for it. Aggregators, curators, and commentators bring audience—and value—to content. If the recipient of those links can’t build a relationship of value with the people who are clicking, that’s their problem. At CUNY, I will soon finally have the time to start a research project on the value of links and how to optimize it. I’d like to see this debate about aggregation between The Times and HuffPo occur on economic rather than emotional terms and hope to inform that discussion with facts.

* Free is offensive. Here’s another area in which The Times is coming to side with—gasp!—Murdoch. Now that it has a meter—and without a proven economic basis for it (not yet)—Times people must put the case again, in emotional terms of entitlement: Readers *want* to pay. Readers *should* pay. Times content *deserves* payment. People who question the strategy are demonized. (David Carr attacked me on NPR over just this … we’ve since hugged and made up; this is what I really have to say about the Times’ meter.) Huffington created value—we know the exact amount, to nine figures—out of getting people to write for free (because they wanted to and found value in). She’s cheapening the valuable work we journalists perform, isn’t she? No, like her free writers, she’s valuing something else. She’s valuing the relationships she has with the people formerly known as an audience.

* Left is not right. Goldman’s desperate effort to get Huffington to admit—CONFESS, I SAY AGAIN, CONFESS!—that she’s—gasp!—liberal, taken with Keller’s paeans to himself and his kind of journalism, were as revealing as they were disingenuous. I find Arianna, too, disingenuous in her efforts to sidestep the word the way Roger Ailes won’t own right. All of them want to dump us, the people, in these two buckets, left and right, but they are above classification. The Times’ real problem is not that Huffington a liberal but that she is an advocate of a point of view. So she tweaks The Times for WMDs and upholding antiquated definitions of objectivity and balance.

* Fun is not allowed. Journalism is serious business. It’s no place for kittens.

In my class, I’ve had my students pick a target to disrupt with a new business (after doing that, they’ll turn around and act as the disrupted company to craft a defense—it’s a lesson in finding opportunity in change). The class picked their target: Huffington Post (when I thought they would have picked The Times). Last week, they presented research and what struck me was the difference in engagement at both sites. HuffPo users generate 18 page views per month on average. The Times is defining only a small slice of its uniques—10%? 20%?—as that engaged, at 20 pageviews per month. I say The Times would have better used the $30-40 million reportedly spent on its meter finding ways to better engage its public—multiplying pageviews (fourfold or more?) and consequent ad revenue—while finding new ways to exploit these deeper relationships (data, commerce, events….). The Times knows it needs to increase engagement; that’s the industry’s favorite conference buzzword. The irony of The Times’ meter is that when it succeeds at engaging a once-casual reader, their reward is a wall. That is an economic and strategic question.

How could The Times increase engagement? By learning from Huffington Post rather than snarking at it. Aggregation has value for readers. Conversation is engaging. Fighting for the people—which is what newspapers did, in their good old days—is the most meaningful way to engage with a community. Fun is fine.

I am reminded of the schoolyard, when the boy nasty to a girl and some sage adult would see that he really just had a crush on her and didn’t know how to say it. OK, Bill and Arianna, kiss and make up.

September 22 2010

13:07

Wrong battlefield

It’s kinda touching that Rupert Murdoch’s loyal lieutenants are trying to entertain the boss by starting an old-fashioned newspaper war (old-fashioned modifies newspaper). But it’s also ever-more revealing of their worldview.

And of course, the best way to declare a war is to declare it over and claim victory. “Nationally, there’s no contest now,” Robert Thompson, editor of the Wall Street Journal, said, according to the AP, “We’re more than twice as big as The New York Times. They’re not a serious competitor.” The AP goes on to tell us that the “Journal sold an average of about 2 million copies nationwide on weekends compared with the Times’ 900,000.”

OK, but that’s half the story. It’s more like 10 percent of the story. For now shift to the future, the web, and comScore tells us that in July, The Times reached 43.6 million people online vs. the Journal’s 16.1 million. By the time you add in pass-around readers for the paper and de-dupe the same readers for print and online, those numbers might change, but the moral to the story doesn’t.

The New York Times has roughly two and a half times more readers than the Journal. That translates to two and a half times more influence, two and a half times more relationships, a two-and-a-half-time bigger brand.

Murdoch has been willing to lose tens of millions of dollars on his New York Post for one reason: he wants a “bully pulpit” (his words.) He has certainly turned FoxNews into just that. So its kind of sad, if you’re feeling empathetic, that his Journal is losing so to The Times. That’s why Thompson doth protest too much.

That is the price of the pay wall. It may be a price worth paying. The New York Times is, of course, piling up bricks for its wall now. But off in the open field, no bricks in sight, stands Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger with 37 million readers online wondering whether he could soon run the largest newspaper site in the world.

Now I argue these days that brands are no longer magnets; they become labels when you find content through search, algorithms, and peers’ links. Murdoch cut off the algorithms when he pulled his Times of London out of Google News just as he put it behind the wall. That was not a business decision but an emotional but. But I’m even willing to stipulate that his pay wall could work — work in the sense that he gets satisfactory revenue (whatever the definition of that is) from readers rather than from advertisers.

But the real price is growth. It won’t grow. I see that not as victory in the war for the biggest bully pulpit — for the bragging rights to talking to more people. I see that as surrender.

June 27 2010

20:11

The importance of provenance

News, like art, requires provenance.

I tweeted that today, joining in a conversation between Dan Gillmor and Jay Rosen as they tried to understand how the Washington Post could quote only unnamed complainers in its McChrystal story. Tweeted Jay: “We’re supposed to trust it because the Washington Post ran it. And that’s the problem. It gives us no other grounding for trust.” In the Post’s view, then, its brand provided all the provenance needed: it was the source for trust. But in our view, we expect to know where these opinions came from. We want to go to the source.

Provenance is becoming more important in many fields I’ll outline in a moment. Why? Because it’s possible. And because it’s possible, it becomes expected. The link enables provenance: click here to see the source. The web enables provenance: search here to find out where this came from. The link economy requires provenance: link to support journalism at its source. The link ethic demands provenance. Period.

The journalistic and conversational ethic of provenance I’ve learned especially in blogs is that one must link to one’s sources…
* So I show my work and so you may judge and understand it accordingly.
* So the reader may judge my sources: “Don’t take my word for it,” the link says, “click and see for yourself.”
* So the reader may dig deeper; provenance is also a service.
* So the source gets credit.
* So the source may find value in the traffic I send, through ads or relationships or however she likes (if the source is smarter than Rupert Murdoch and realizes there is value in those people to click to come).
* So we then support original journalism. (This is one reason why Google News now looks for citations to find the originator of a story: to give us a better source and give the source better support.)
* So the journalist proves that she added real reporting and real value rather than merely rewriting press releases.
* So the news organization may save money and use journalists for higher valued work (do what you do best and link to the rest).
* So the news organization may save money through collaboration.
* So responsibility is taken. I will trust what I read more if I know who says it; anonymity devalues trust — for the source who hides behind it and for the journalist who takes the easy route through it.

In content, as creation becomes overabundant and as value shifts from creator to curator, it becomes all the more vital to properly cite and link to sources and even to add value to those links, explaining why the click is worth the time and encouraging people to take the trip. Good curation demands good provenance.

But the new importance of provenance affects much more than journalism. It affects any company providing a product. See Rob Walker in today’s New York Times Magazine on our desire — he hopes — to know where our gadgets are made so we do not contribute to poor working conditions in Asian factories. This trend follows the same need in the fashion industry to demonstrate a move away from sweatshops (one of my entrepreneurial journalism students, Jenni Avins, is making a site and a business out of following the source of what you wear at Closettour.com). When it comes to products, we want to know:
* where it was made,
* by whom,
* in what conditions,
* using what materials,
* causing what damage,
* traveling what distance,
* with whose assurances of quality,
* with whose assurances of safety.

During the rash of dangerous products coming out of China, we want to know the provenance of everything from dog food to dry wall to know about its safety.

The transparent marketplace made possible by the internet reduces companies’ ability to profit through opaque pricing — we can always find the cheapest. So companies will increasingly need to compete on ethics. That will require that they open up their sources, supply chains, factories, and businesses so we may judge them. Given two equal products — two toilet papers — the provenance of the one — our ability to know where and how it was made — may give it the competitive edge. But we won’t take the company’s word for it — any more than we should take the Washington Post’s. We’ll demand that they show us. Pubicness (I’ll argue in my book) becomes an asset.

But provenance can also be a mark of higher value. When we know where the grapes come from, we may pay more for the wine made from them. Jersey tomatoes, everyone knows, are worth more than Florida’s (ya gotta problem with that?).

Provenance is, of course, becoming more important in politics and government. We want to know the source of a politician’s funding and the influences on her. We want to know who created an earmark so we may hold them accountable.

Provenance has always been expected in the academe but now citations empowered by links have even greater value — not merely to give credit but to give students the opportunity to explore and learn on their own.

Finally, in a remix culture, one way to share credit and value is to link back.

This is why editors at the Washington Post and everywhere else must learn that it’s no longer good enough to think that the buck can stop at them, that they can be the validators of trust, that we shouldn’t worry our pretty little heads about where their news comes from. This is why we, the readers, must get better at accepting and valuing the results of more openness and be proficient at judging sources for ourselves. This is why companies must understand that they will be expected to open up their processes.

Provenance is no longer merely the nicety of artists, academics, and wine makers. It is an ethic we expect.

January 18 2010

03:11
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