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June 11 2013

20:39

Lessons from Waze for media

Screenshot 2013-06-11 at 4.30.34 PMNow that I’ve written my commuter’s paean to Waze, allow me to get a bit journowonky now and examine some of the lessons newspapers should learn from the success of the service:

1. Waze built a platform that lets the public share what it knows without the need for gatekeepers or mediators — that is, media. That’s how it keeps content costs at a minimum and scales around the world.

2. Waze does that first by automatically using the technology in our pockets to — gasp! — track us live so it can tell how fast we are going and thus where the traffic jams are. And we happily allow that because of the return we get — freedom from traffic jams and faster routes to where we’re going.

3. Waze does that next by easily enabling commuters to share alerts — traffic, stalled car, traffic-light camera, police, hazard, etc — ahead. It also lets commuters edit each others’ alerts (“that stalled car is gone now”).

4. Waze rewards users who contribute more information to the community — note I said to the community, not to Waze — by giving them recognition and greater access to Waze staff, which only improves Waze’s service more quickly.

5. Waze lets users record their own frequent destinations — work, home, school, and so on — so they can easily navigate there.

6. This means that Google as Waze’s new owner will now reliably know where we live, work, and go to school, shop, and so on. We will happily tell Waze/Google this so we get all of Waze’s and Google’s services. Google will be able to give us more relevant content and advertising. We will in turn get less noise. Everybody happy now?

How could, say, a local newspaper company learn from this?

1. Use platforms that enable your communities to share what they know with each other and without you getting in the way.

2. Add value to that with functionality, help, effort (but not articles).

3. If you knew where users lived and worked and went to school — small data, not big data — you could start by giving them more relevant content from what you already have.

4. You could give them more relevant advertising — “going to the store again? here are some deals for you!” — increasing their value as a customer by leaps and dollars.

5. You could learn where you should spend your resources — “gee, we didn’t know we had a lot of people who worked up there, so perhaps we should start covering that town or even that company.”

When I say that news should be a service and that the news industry should be a relationship business and that we should act as platforms for our users and that small data about people can lead to more relevance and greater value … this is what I mean.

So now go ask Waze how to get there. Oops. Too late. Google got there first. Again.

May 31 2013

21:13

To the dauntless lensmen

photographers

The Sun-Times was wrong and right when it fired its entire photo department.

Wrong: Images are more important than ever. Look at this page: Medium practically forces us to include a photo with every post. On Google+ posts sans images get little love. This week at my J-school, a dean emphasized that every item we publish should come illustrated.

Right: There are more photographers now than ever — all of us taking pictures with our phones and cameras and sharing them for everyone, including newspaper editors, to see. News doesn’t wait for an official staff photographer to show up. A single event doesn’t need to be captured by a hundred lenses. And besides, times are tough; something always has to go, right?

But the paper did it wrong. I would have changed the definition of a photo department and a photographer — and I have little doubt that most photographers there would go along with this notion.

Just as a reporter no longer does all the reporting — it’s collaborative — and just as reporters need to concentrate on adding value to flows of information that already exist, so can photographers build a new relationship with a new photo ecosystem.

It should be their job to get the best photos for their news organizations however they can do that. They’ve long done that, but now they have more ways to do it. They should become expert in culling the public’s photos to find the work of witnesses to news. They should cultivate amateurs who can shoot well. They should train every member of an editorial department and every amateur who wants it in how to capture news to the best of their ability.

The photo department should grab onto tools to help locate people who are at the site of news, to ask for people to take a shot that’s needed to illustrate a story (the obvious stuff: a picture of a building that was sold, an image of another damned snowstorm).

But then the photographers — the experienced, the pros, the artists — should go where they can add the greatest value, capturing the images that amateurs and reporters can’t and pushing the standards of their publication higher.

That is what the Sun-Times lost this week: the stellar photographer who can do what you and I can’t, who sees the world differently, who isn’t afraid to stick his nose and lens into the action.

When I was a cub reporter on Chicago Today, I remember my editor, Milt Hansen, calling our photographers dauntless lensmen (nevermind the gender; it was 1973) and giving them each a moniker, like Fearless Frankie Hanes. I went to cover small-scale riots with Frank and he schooled me and protected me even as he risked his own skull to get the best picture. No paper should ask an amateur or a reporter to do that.

Mind you, we are teaching all our students at CUNY how to take better photos. My colleague who does that recognizes the even greater need for his training now. That is well and good.

But reporters who are busy listening, parsing, asking questions, taking notes, and seeking out witnesses and experts isn’t going to do a good job also capturing the emotion, the mood, the feel, the special perspective of an event. Oh, they can be taught to take a decent picture of a guy at a podium or a building with the sun in the right place.

But we may have hit the limit of expecting journalists to be — in the words of one of my former students — eight-armed monsters, doing all that a reporter should do plus taking pictures plus taking video plus capturing audio plus begging for data plus thinking of graphics. Yes, they need to be able to do each of those things, that’s why we teach them those skills. But all those things? At once? Not without help. Not without the experienced, the pros, the artists.

Here’s to the dauntless lesmen.

May 29 2013

13:27

In the End Was the Word and the Word Was the Sponsor’s

and-now-a-word-from-our-sponsor1
We used to know what ads were. They had borders around them — black lines in print, a rare millisecond of dead air on TV, the moment when the radio host’s voice became even friendlier, letting us know he was now being paid to peddle.

Today, under many ruses and many namessponsored content, native advertising, brand voice, thought leadership, content marketing, even brand journalism — advertisers are conspiring with desperate publishers to erase the black lines identifying ads.

When I started Entertainment Weekly, a sage editor sat me down and summarized in one sentence the magazine industry’s voluminous rules about labeling what we then called “advertorials”: “The reader must never be confused about the source of content.”

Confusing the audience is clearly the goal of native-sponsored-brand-content-voice-advertising. And the result has to be a dilution of the value of news brands.

Some say those brands are diminishing anyway. So sponsored content is just another way to milk the old cows as they die. Lately I’ve been shocked to hear some executives at news organizations, as well as some journalism students and even teachers, shrug at the risk. If I’m the guy who argues that news must find new paths to profitability, then what’s my problem?

Well, I fear that in the end we all become the Times of India, where paid advertising and news content are allegedly mixed so smoothly in some areas that readers can’t tell one from the other. Worse, at some news organizations, editorial staff do the work of writing this sponsored content. They become copywriters.

Mad Men Don Draper Peggy Olsen

At the same time, many of these news organizations are using their brands as candy to attract legions of new contributors, which can drastically lower the cost of content. Mind you, I’ve applauded that spirit of openness and collaboration as well as that newfound efficiency.

But here’s the issue: Some media properties have taught me to pause before following a link to them. Sometimes, I’ll find good information from a staffer or one of many contributors who brings real reporting or expertise. Sometimes, I’ll find a weak contributor — or staff — piece that adds no reporting or insight; it merely regurgitates what others have written when a link would be better. (Beware headlines that start with “how” or “why” or include the words “future of” or “death of” or end with a question mark; chances are, they add nothing.) And then sometimes I’ll find one of those sponsor-brand-native pieces only vaguely labeled to let me know its source.

My problems with these trends in news media:

Inconsistency. I no longer know what to expect from news organizations that do this. Yes, I’ve heard editors claim that they work with both contributors and sponsors to improve the quality of their submissions — but apparently, not enough.

Brands used to be selective both because the scarcity of paper or time forced them to be and because that became key to their value. Now they want more and more content. Making content to chase unique users and their page views rewards volume over value.

Conflict of interest. First, let me say that I think we in news became haughty and fetishistic about our church/state walls. The reason I teach entrepreneurial journalism is so that students learn about the business of journalism so they can become more responsible stewards of it. I argue that editors, too, must understand the business value and thus sustainability of what they produce.

That said, I worry about journalists who spend one day writing to serve the public and the next writing to serve sponsors. News organizations should never do that with staff, but I’m sorry to say that today, a few do. Freelance journalists are also turning to making sponsored content to pay the bills.

Thus, I hear of some journalism educators who wonder whether they should be teaching their students to write for brands. Please, no. My journalism school doesn’t do that. Others schools already include courses in PR and advertising, so I suppose the leap isn’t so far. In any case, brands will hire our students because of the media skills we teach them and we need to prepare them for the ethical challenge that brings.

Brand value. Some news companies are exchanging their brand equity for free or cheap content of questionable quality and advertising dollars of questionable intent. As someone who champions disruption in the news industry, you’d think I wouldn’t care about dying legacy media brands. But I do. I see how legacy news companies can bring value to the growing news ecosystem around them through sharing content and audience and someday soon, I hope, revenue. If the legacy institutions lose their value — their trust, their audience, their advertisers — then they have less to give, and if they die, there’s more to replace.

Now here’s the funny part: Brands are chasing the wrong goal. Marketers shouldn’t want to make content. Don’t they know that content is a lousy business? As adman Rishad Tobaccowala said to me in an email, content is not scalable for advertisers, either. He says the future of marketing isn’t advertising but utilities and services. I say the same for news: It is a service.

I’ve been arguing to news organizations that they should stop thinking of themselves as content businesses and start understanding that they are in a relationship business.

News organizations should not treat people as a mass now that they — like Google, Amazon, and Facebook — can learn to serve them as individuals. Can’t the same be said of the brands that are now rushing to make content? They’re listening to too many tweeted media aphorisms: that content is king, that brands are media. Bull.

A brand is a relationship. It signifies trust and value. Advertising and public relations disintermediated the relationship that commercial enterprises used to have with customers over the cracker barrel. Mass media helped them bring scale to marketing. But now the net enables brands to return to having direct relationships with customers. That’s what we see happening on Twitter. Smart companies are using it not to make content but to talk one-on-one with customers.

Here’s where I fear this lands: As news brands continue to believe in their content imperative, they dilute their equity by using cheap-content tricks to build volume and by handing their brand value to advertisers to replace lost ad revenue. Marketers help publishers milk those brands. And the public? We’re smarter than they think we are. We’ll understand when news organizations become paid shills. We understand that marketers would still rather force-feed us their messages than simply serve us.

What to do? The reflex in my industries — journalism and education — is to convene august groups to compose rules. But rules are made to be pushed, stretched, and broken. That is why that wise Time Inc. editor over me at Entertainment Weekly (as opposed to the oily ones who tried to force me to force my critics to write nicer reviews) summed up those rules as a statement of ethics. Again: “The reader must never be confused about the source of content.”

Well, if we’re not in the content business, then what is the ethic by which we should operate now? I think it’s even simpler: “We serve the public.”

If we’re doing what we do to fool the public, to sell them crappy content or a shill’s swill, to prioritize paying customers’ interests over readers’, then we will cannibalize whatever credibility, trust, and value our brands have until they dry up.

So am I merely drawing a black rule around advertising again? Don’t we hear contributors to a hundred news sites rewrite the same story every day — that advertising is dead? Well, yes, advertising as one-way messaging is as outmoded as one-way media. Oh, we in media will milk advertising as long as advertisers are willing to pay for it. But we know where this is headed.

Then do media companies have any commercial connection with brands? Can we still get money from them to support news? I think it’s possible for media companies to help brands understand how to use the net to build honest, open relationships with people as individuals. But we can teach them that only if we first learn how to do it ourselves.

Some will accuse me of chronic Google fanboyism for suggesting this, but we can learn that lesson from Google. It makes 98% of its fortune from advertising but it does so by serving us, each of us, first. It addresses its obvious conflict with the admonition, “Don’t be evil.” (When Google has failed to live up to that ethic — and it has — its fall came not from taking advertisers’ dollars but instead from seeking growth with the help of malevolent telcos or tyrannical governments.) Note well that Google sees the danger of sponsored content, which is why it has banned such content from Google News.

Whether you like Google or you don’t, know well that it provides service over content, enabling it to build relationships with each of us as individuals while also serving advertisers without creating confusion. Google is taking over huge swaths of the ad market by providing service to users and sharing risk with advertisers, not by selling its soul in exchange for this quarter’s revenue, as some news organizations are doing.

My advice to news organizations: Move out of the content — and sponsored content — business and get into the service business, where content is just one of your tools to serve the public.

downton1

(Crossposted from Medium.)

August 25 2012

23:49

Reporters: Why are you in Tampa?

I challenge every journalist in Tampa for the Republican convention — every one of the 15-16,000 of you — to answer this:
* Why are you there?
* What will we learn from you?
* What actual reporting can you possibly do that delivers anything of value more than the infomercial — light on the info, heavy on the ‘mercial — that the conventions have become?
* Would you be better off back at home covering voters and their issues?
* Can we in the strapped news business afford this luxury?

Figure that those 15k journos spend $300 a night each on a hotel room times five nights, plus $500 for transportion. That’s $2,000. And I’m figuring they’ll be slurping up free meals and drinks. So $2,000 is probably (pardon me) conservative. That’s $30,000,000. Now multiply that times two conventions. That’s $60,000,000.

Why? For what?

Note that even while newspapers and news organizations have shrunken drastically, we are sending the same number of journalists to the conventions that we sent in 2008 and 2004.

Why? Editorial ego: It’s fun to be there, in the pack. It’s fun for a paper or station to say, “We have our man/woman in Tampa/Charlotte.” Well goody for you.

It’s a waste.

Take that $60,000,000 and divide it by a fully loaded labor cost of, say, $100,000 per head and it would pay for 600 reporters for a year. At $50,000 for a hyperlocal reporter, we’d get 1,200 towns covered — more than Patch! What could they do versus what you will do in Tampa and Charlotte transcribing marketing messages and horrid memes?

Or we could pay for Homicide Watch 1,500 times over, instead of just paying attention to a shooting that happens where tourists wander.

Those 15,000 journos will — three-to-one — cover 2,286 delegates (6,000 for those spendthrift Democrats) wearing funny hats, saying nothing new.

At least 3,775 newspaper jobs were lost last year; 39,806 since mid-2007; one in three newsroom jobs have been eliminated since 1989. How’s that make you feel, convention press corps?

We can see whatever we want to see on C-SPAN (and I don’t begrudge the networks for giving us America’s Got Talent instead of the conventions since at least AGT has surprises; the conventions are scripted).

Commentary? There’ll be more than we can possibly use this year on Twitter and Google+ and blogs and everywhere. We don’t need to pundits’ palaver. Citizens will comment this year.

So enjoy yourself, hacks. You’re living off the last dollars of your business. And for what? Tradition? Where has that gotten us?

Please prove me wrong. In a week, show me the amazing reporting we couldn’t have gotten if you weren’t there.

August 24 2012

20:44

Without mediation

The shooting near the Empire State Building today demonstrated in yet more ways how news will arrive without mediation.

On Twitter, some objected to my linking to photos from the scene taken by witnesses immediately after the crime, without warning of their graphic nature. The murder victim lay in his blood, so bright red that someone else on Twitter wondered whether the image had been doctored. No, we’re simply not accustomed to seeing so much blood so fresh. We have waited until news photographers arrived, until after the bodies have been taken away, replaced by chalk outlines behind yellow ribbons with only dried, brown-red stains remaining. We are used to seeing the sometimes ugly world packaged and sanitized for our protection by media.

So it’s doubly shocking, perhaps, when media now shows such images from those witnesses.

Jim Romenesko asked The Times about running that photo on its home page, albeit briefly, and they gave what I’d call a right answer: “It is an extremely graphic image and we understand why many people found it jarring. Our editorial judgment is that it is a newsworthy photograph that shows the result and impact of a public act of violence.”

I say it is a good thing that we see a more unvarnished world. Perhaps then we’ll have a real debate about guns the way we were forced to face Vietnam through scenes of death on the evening news, as some of my defenders on Twitter pointed out. “Death by gunshot is graphic. Now uncontainable,” said the Guardian’s Charles Arthur (though the Guardian tried to contain it)

I also say that in any case, we’d best get used to it, for as we all well know, news and images of it won’t come from reporters and credentialed photographers first and won’t be filtered through media before it comes to us. It is coming from witnesses who go by names like @yoassman [the name and a Seinfeld tribute, no doubt] and Mr. Mookie, who may write indelicate comments like, “They shoot, aw made you look. No really tho. Dude got popped!” and “Why yall keep saying it could be someone I know? I don’t have anymore room for RIP tatts on my arm. I’ve seen my friends with they heads blown off in the street. Yea it happens to me too and I get over it. Its life.”

Yeah, welcome to life. Most such life isn’t reported with such a splash because it doesn’t happen in such a public place. It happens in the Bronx or 19 times in a weekend in Chicago.

I think we’ve become much too accustomed to mediated news, to a world sanitized for our protection. That’s what makes people ask for warnings before being shown reality, even if the discussion is about murder, and even if they had to click on a link to see what I was writing about. They had to be curious enough to do that. But they weren’t curious enough to see news as it really happened. The image didn’t come into their homes on a TV screen with kids on the couch. It came through my Twitter feed. It was insensitive of me to link to it without warning, I was told. No, I think the problem is that media have made us insensitive — desensitized would be the cliché — to such a fact.

Don’t tell me you’re offended by murder. If you weren’t, that would be the problem. Of course, you are. So don’t tell me not to offend you with what it looks like once you click. And don’t tell me what to say and what not to say.

A man was killed in New York this morning. Now we know better what that looks like. That is news.

:Later: On the Media tells the story of that photo on The Times homepage. And here’s Poynter on the photo.

August 17 2012

17:03

August 15 2012

16:12

Mobile’s not the next big thing, just a path to it

The Knight Foundation’s News Challenge just announced its next theme: mobile. And that’s a good thing because news organizations have been all-too pokey in figuring out how to serve people in this venue.

When Arthur Sulzberger announced his hiring of a new CEO, the BBC’s Mark Thompson, he said, “Our future is on to video, to social, to mobile.”

With respect, I’m not so sure. Saying that mobile is what comes next means, I fear, that we’re going to take what we do in media — making content, selling audiences — and figure out how to keep doing it on video, in social, and in mobile.

But that’s not what we really do.

Is Google just doing mobile next? Google has a mobile operating system. It has a Google-branded phone and tablet. It bought a phone manufacturer. It made apps for all its services for mobile. Even so, I don’t think Google is becoming a mobile company. For Google, mobile is a tool, a path to improve its real business.

What is its real business? The same as media’s business should be: Relationships — knowing people and serving them better because of what it knows about them.

With newspaper companies, I’ve been arguing that they should abandon page views as a metric because it has been a corrupting influence that carried on the old-media myth that the more “audience” you have the more you can charge advertisers and the more money you’ll make. The pursuit of page views has led news organizations to draw traffic — people — they cannot monetize (because they come from outside the market or come just once from search or Drudge). And the insistence that they remain in the content business has led news organizations to believe they must still sell that content; thus, pay walls.

Google views content — our content — as a tool that generates signals about their users, building relationships, data, and value. Google views mobile as a tool that also generates signals and provides opportunities to target content and services to the individual, where she is, and what she’s doing now (thus Android’s Google Now).

We in news and media should bring those strands together to knit a mobile strategy around learning about people and serving them better as a result — not just serving content on smaller screens. Mobile=local=me now. We should build a strategy on people over content, on relationships.

That’s what mobile means to me: a path to get us to the real value in our business. For you folks cooking up ideas for the Knight News Challenge (and for you, my new neighbor, Mr. Thompson) I suggest starting there.

July 29 2012

17:01

#nbcfail economics

Reading the #nbcfail hashtag has been at least as entertaining as much of NBC’s coverage of the Olympics. It’s also enlightening — economically enlightening.

There’s the obvious:
* The people formerly known as the audience have a voice and boy are they using it to complain about NBC’s tape delays of races and the opening ceremonies, about its tasteless decision to block the UK tribute to its 7/7 victims, and about its commentators’ idiocies (led by Meredith Vieira’s ignorance of the inventor of the web; they could have used their extra three hours to enlighten her).
* Twitter is a gigantic spoiler machine. It would be nearly impossible to isolate oneself from news of results because even if you don’t read Twitter or Facebook or go to the net, someone you know, someone you run into will. Information can’t be controlled. Amen.
* We in the U.S. are being robbed of the opportunity to share a common experience with the world in a way that was never before possible.
Those arguments have all been made well and wittily on #nbcfail.

The counterargument has been an economic one: NBC has to maximize commercial revenue, which means maximizing prime time viewership, to recoup the billions paid for the rights to broadcast, billions that pay for the stadiums and security and ceremony. The argument is also made that NBC’s strategy is working because it is getting record ratings.

But there’s no way to know whether airing the Phelps race or the opening ceremonies live on TV would have decreased or increased prime-time viewing. Indeed, with spoilers everywhere, viewing is up. I can easily imagine people watching the Phelps defeat live tweeting their heads off telling friends to watch it in prime time. I can imagine people thanking NBC for curating the best of the day at night and giving folks a chance to watch the highlights. I tweeted: “I’m waiting for NBC to take credit for idea Twitter helps build buzz & ratings for tape-delayed events.” (Which led Piers Morgan’s producer, Jonathan Wald, to take joking credit and then the executive producer of the NBC Olympics, Jim Bell, to offer it. To his credit, Bell has engaged with at least one tweeted suggestion.)

If NBC superserved its viewers, the fans, wouldn’t that be strategy for maximum audience? The BBC is superserving its viewers. I went to TunnelBear so I could sample what the BBC is offering on the air and in its iPlayer — which, of course, we can’t use in the U.S. — and it’s awesome. But, of course, the BBC is supported by its viewers’ fees. So the argument is that the BBC serves viewers because they’re the boss while NBC serves advertisers because they pay the bills.

I still don’t buy it. I don’t want to buy it, for that pushes media companies to put all they do behind walls, to make us pay for what we want. I still see a future for advertising support and free content. I still believe that if NBC gave the fans what they wanted rather than trying to make them do what NBC thinks it wants, NBC could win by growing audience and engagement and thus better serving sponsors. I ask you to imagine what Olympics coverage would look like if Google had acquired the rights. It would give us what we want and make billions, I’ll bet.

The problem for NBC as for other media is that it is trying to preserve old business models in a new reality. To experiment with alternatives when billions are at stake is risky. But so is not experimenting and not learning when millions of your viewers can complain about you on Twitter.

The bottom-line lesson for all media is that business models built on imprisonment, on making us do what you want us to do because you give us no choice, is no strategy for the future. And there’s only so long you can hold off the future.

The bottom line for Olympics fans is that, as Bill Gross pointed out, much of the blame for what we’re seeing — and not seeing — falls to the IOC and the overblown economics of the games. There is the root of greed that leads to brand police who violate free speech rights in the UK by chilling use of the innocent words “2012″ and “games”, and tape delays, and branded athletes. This is the spirit of the Olympics Games? It is now.

January 02 2012

16:06

So much for the penny press

The New York Times raised its daily price to $2.50 today. I thought back to the penny press at the turn of the last century and wondered what such a paper would cost today, inflation adjusted. Answer: a quarter.

Screen shot 2012-01-02 at 11.09.10 AM

So, in inflation-adjusted current pennies, The New York Times today costs 10 times more than a newspaper in 1890. Granted, Today’s Times is better than a product of the penny press. But is it worth 10x? Should it cost 10x?

In the meantime, labor rates have risen (a Timesman today lives better than a Timesman then) but production technology has become far more automated and efficient (no more typesetters, proofreaders, compositors, engravers, stereographers, mailrooms, or “rubber rooms” filled with unneeded pressmen). And the advertising value of newspapers has increased exponentially.

On the one hand, there’s less competition today. The New York Times is essentially a national newspaper monopoly (the Wall Street Journal and USA Today are different beasts). That should enable it to raise its price to such a premium. On the other hand, what’s really at work, of course, is that there’s much more competition today: the entire web. That would drive the paper to lower its price.

Instead, today it raises its price — by a whopping 25% over its old daily price of $2. That’s because it is trying to support an outmoded economic model. The myth of legacy media — rich while it lasted — was that every reader saw every ad so the paper charged every advertiser for every reader. That’s how scale paid off. Those are the economics that led to the rise of the penny press.

Online, that myth has been punctured: (a) every reader does not see every ad, and (b) advertisers pay only for the ads readers see (or in Google click on), and (c) there’s abundant competition. That’s what confounds legacy media folks: “If I get more audience and have more effective advertising, why am I not being paid more?” Because you’re operating by media laws that are now outmoded. You’re still operating under an industrial economy built on scarcity. That’s what makes you think you still have pricing power.

You need to find opportunity in entirely new models, in the new scale, in abundance. Google finds value in scale by taking on risk for the advertiser (who pays only for clicks) and by increasing relevance by putting ads everywhere. Facebook finds value in relationships and data about them and it doesn’t sell content but does use content as a tool to generate more data about users and their interests.

In their day — a century ago — newspapers found new ways to exploit scale. Today, net companies exploit scale in new ways. Google, Facebook, and Twitter are the penny press of today. Only they cost even less.

BTW, thanks to the very good Times Machine, we can see that The Times started life at a penny, which rose to four cents and then back down to a penny by 1900 — because it wanted scale.

December 19 2011

14:28

Why not a reverse meter?

As I ponder the future of The New York Times, it occurred to me that its pay meter could be exactly reversed. I’ll also tell you why this wouldn’t work in a minute. But in any case, this is a way to illustate how how media are valuing our readers/users/customers opposite how we should, rewarding the freeriders and taxing — and perhaps turning away — the valuable users.

So try this on for size: Imagine that you pay to get access to The Times. Everyone does. You pay for one article. Or you pay $20 as a deposit so you’re not bothered every time you come. But whenever you add value to The Times, you earn a credit that delays the next bill.
* You see ads, you get credit.
* You click: more credit.
* You come back often and read many pages: credit.
* You promote The Times on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, or your blog: credit. The more folks share what you’ve shared, the more credit you get.
* You buy merchandise via Times e-commerce: credit.
* You buy tickets to a Times event: credit.
* You hand over data that makes you more valuable to The Times and its advertisers (e.g., revealing where you’re going on your next trip): credit.
* You add pithy comment to articles that other readers appreciate: credit.
* You take on tasks in crowdsourced journalistic endeavors: credit.
* You answer a reporter’s question on Twitter and the reporter uses your information: credit.
* You correct an error in a story: credit.
* You give a news tip or an idea for an article The Times publishes: credit.
Maybe you never pay for The Times again because The Times has gained more value out of its relationship with you. If, on the other hand, you hardly do any of those things, then you have to pay for using The Times.

I’ve been thinking about this, too, in light of a few other trends I’ve seen with newspapers online. First, some that are trying meters are finding that very, very few readers ever hit the wall (which papers are setting at anywhere from 1 to 20 pages). That so few hit the wall is frightening. It means that most readers don’t use these sites much. That’s nothing to brag about. Engagement is criminally low. Second, I’ve seen many sites that get a surprising proportion of their traffic from out of their markets — traffic that is valueless (or even costly, in terms of bandwidth) to sites that sell only local ads. This comes from following a goal of pageviews, pageviews, pageviews — brought in with search-engine optimization — rather than valued relationships.

After hearing a few such stories, I suggested that a site with a meter might want to reward local readers by giving them more free content and charge out-of-market readers by charging them sooner.

You see, that values the local reader over the remote reader. My idea for the reverse meter values the engaged reader over the occasional reader — and even rewards greater engagement. And therein lies, I think, the key strategic skill for news businesses online: understanding that all readers are not equal; knowing who your more valuable readers are; getting more of them; and making them more valuable.

Now I’ll tell you why my reverse meter won’t work: When I spoke with all our journalism students at CUNY about their business ideas on Friday, I asked how many had hit the Times pay wall — many — and how many had paid — few. Abundance remains the enemy of payment. There’s always someplace else to get the news. The Times can make its present meter work because (a) it’s that good [the Steve Jobs exception that proves the rule], (b) it’s still sponsoring — that is, giving a free ride — to its most valuable readers, though that is supposed to end soon, and (c) its engagement is still too low and thus many readers don’t even confront the wall (that needs to change).

So never mind the idea of the reverse meter, but retain the lesson of it: Value should be encouraged, not taxed. Readers bring value to sites if the sites are smart enough to have the mechanisms to recognize, exploit, and reward that value, which comes in many forms: responding to (highly targeted and relevant) ads; buying merchandise; contributing information, content, and ideas; promoting the site…..

The key strategic opportunity for news sites is relationships — deeper, more valuable relationships with more (but not too many) people. Engagement.

September 03 2011

20:50

But is it journalism? (Damnit)

Four incidents of late challenge the very notion of journalism. Michael Arrington, Henry Blodget, Wikileaks, and TV’s Irene coverage each in their own way raise the question: What is journalism? And does it matter?

When Michael Arrington announced that he was starting an investment fund at Aol with capital from other VCs, Kara Swisher went after him for violating canons of journalism. Just one thing: Arrington rejects the title of journalist. At his Disrupt conference, I tried to get him to take on the mantle and alter it. But he sees nothing to aspire to there.

In Swisher’s case, one has to concede — as she does — the irony in riding the journalistic high horse from within News Corp., which is rapidly becoming journalism’s Death Valley. I asked her on Twitter what she had written about hackgate and she responded at length with multiple links in this thread. She has written about it and has been, as she says, more vocal than other Journal journalists. That’s what troubles me. I would have hoped that WSJ reporters and editors as a group would have spoken out against not only hackgate but also their paper’s anemic coverage of it and its humiliating editorial justification of its owners. Where are their standards?

What are the standards? Arrington, remember, started TechCrunch not as a journalistic venture but instead to gather and share information about startups and to promote himself as an investor. He is returning to his roots. Along the way, he created a media entity of value. I noted on Google+ that The New York Times Company invests in startups (including one where I’m a partner, Daylife) and starts them and still covers them. It will say it maintains a wall. Arrington, not so much. Neither church nor state, he’s not trying to be a journalist. He’s trying to get information. He does it well. He has covered startups better than any big paper; that’s why WashingtonPost.com publishes TechCrunch posts. Given his links to startups and investment, can we trust him? That’s what Swisher’s trying to make us ask.

Now look at Henry Bodget, another businessperson who creates a media enterprise around gathering and sharing information — which we journalists define as journalism … if it’s done to our standards. Jay Rosen challenges Blodget for using confidential sources in this thread: “I hate the way @BusinessInsider uses anonymity.” But Blodget has an answer: “Sorry, Jay. Sometimes (often) it’s the only way to get the real info…. In business, anyone who goes on the record has agenda.” Felix Salmon counters: “Anyone who goes OFF record has an agenda. And those guys are more likely to lie. I trust on-the-record more.” Blodget: “Then you’ve clearly never worked in business. On record is only propaganda.”

Note cultures clashing. The journalism tribe says that confidential sources and the journalists who use them are not to be trusted. I agree that journalists overuse them. That’s not reporting to our standards. But the deal-makers disagree. Blodget says, “My goal is to get to the truth.” Isn’t that journalists’ goal, too? How can he get there by a different route? Is that journalism? Who’s to say? The journalists? Perhaps not.

Now look at TV coverage of Irene. Complaints about it have been miscast as “overhyping” the storm. The storm was severe. My problem was instead the over-exploitation and under-reporting of the storm. They had “reporters” as cast members standing thigh-deep in the surf or even being covered in sewage not to impart information, not to get to the truth, but to entertain. How much better it would have been if even a few of them had been dispatched north the center of their universe, New York, to report the devastation that would come there. My problem with the coverage is that all it did was take information already available to us all and repeat it endlessly and theatrically, adding no value.

Wikileaks saw, for a bit, the ability of journalism to add value to the flow of information. Julian Assange went to the Guardian, The Times, and Der Spiegel to get their help redacting leaks to make their revelation — in the view of these participants — responsible; to add context and facts; to promote the leaks and get them noticed. Now these journalistic organizations are disavowing Assange as he releases unredacted cables and Assange is disavowing the Guardian for publishing what it thought was a dead password to the files (though who was responsible for the entire file being available is another question). Assange has called himself a journalist; now the journalists are rejecting him. They say he’s violating their standards, though there is no rule I know of that would cover these eventualities, except perhaps the Hippocratic Oath: Do no harm.

What is journalism, then? I define it broadly — some would say too broadly, but I am always afraid my umbrella is not broad enough. I say that journalism helps a community organize its knowledge so it can better organize itself. I say that a community can now share its information without us, so we journalists must ask how we add value to that exchange. I use Andy Carvin as a model of adding value through vetting, questioning, challenging, and giving context and attention to the end-to-end, witness-to-world flow that already goes on without him. But he violates plenty of rules, passing on information before it is known to be true — so we can get closer to what is true.

What is journalism, really? Does it matter? I’ve long said — ever since I rejected my own use of the term “citizen journalist” — that is a mistake to define journalism by who does it, as anyone can commit an act of journalism. Anyone can share information. By that definition, Arrington and certainly Blodget are committing acts of journalism as they gather and share information quite effectively. TV news is less effective. Wikileaks is perhaps too effective.

So what the hell is journalism? Dave Winer says it doesn’t matter. “Journalism itself is becoming obsolete,” he argues well. Mathew Ingram recasts what Winer says, asking whether journalism is obsolete because anyone can do it.

In a wonderful email thread among the members of Journal Register’s advisory board (of which I am privileged to be a member), we debated about the Washington Post’s new social rules. Jay Rosen said, in the kind of essential abstraction I try to learn from him, that “the subtext of all such rule sets: ‘We’re in charge. Really…We are!’” Is that what journalists are doing when they set social rules or claim that Arrington or Blodget or Wikileaks violate journalistic rules (or when I claim that TV news does)? The rule-setters would argue that rules define what they do. Rules try to protect one from the consequences of bad judgment. Those subject to rules — or those we journalists would like to subject to them — would say that rules are a way to exercise power and sometimes to exclude. In the thread, I recalled the worst and best of my time at Time Inc., when I was saved not by rules but by one editor’s integrity, by the principles she maintained.

As I was trying to think through this post — a process obviously not over — I tweeted: “Information, more and more, comes from nonjournalists who’ve not signed the pledge.” To which Chris Tolles of Topix replied: “This is key. Journalism no longer the gatekeeper. Journalists’ protests about this are guild protectionism.” There’s the peril of setting rules: They are, in so many senses of the word, limiting.

Journalism is not defined by who does it and who does it does not define journalism.

So what is journalism, damnit?

I don’t know.

I know that people can exchange information and knowledge easier than ever. I believe there is a need for someone to add value to that exchange. I hope that “someone” can be journalists who will use precious resources only to bring value. I pray their efforts can be sustainable (that is, that they can eat; that’s why I do what I do in entrepreneurial journalism). But I think we need to question — not reject, but reconsider — every assumption: what journalism is, who does it, how they add value, how they build and maintain trust, their business models. I am coming to wonder whether we should even reconsider the word journalism, as it carries more baggage than a Dreamliner. These are the questions I see raised by Arrington, Blodget, et al. Do they matter? You tell me.

August 27 2011

20:33

How we could cover storms

On Twitter, I’ve been ridiculing the #stormporn in coverage of #Irene: the predictable and numbing repetition, alarmism, and idiocy that is TV. Of course, the storm is serious but the coverage is often laughable and, some would argue, a matter of crying wolf. The inefficiency of the coverage is also boggling: crews everywhere, all shooting the same wind and water, yet saying nothing new.

But obviously, there are many new, more efficient, more informative, more level-headed ways to cover a storm such as this. It’s all only a link away.

CNN iReport and FoxNews amusingly named competitor uReport as well as many media sites post pictures and videos from witnesses. Given the opportunity, witnesses can also provide much more detail. When I oversaw Nola.com, the publisher of the Time-Picayune got us to put up forums so residents could share information about flooded roads. Those same forums were used in Katrina to alert officials to rescue people trapped on roofs.

There is all kinds of data available. There are great maps showing the progress and strength of the storm. Talking Points Memo points to a bunch of outage maps from power companies.

There is much information available directly from governments and their agencies. New York City’s 311 service and site give updates and resources and we can watch the mayor directly on the net. Jen Preston at The New York Times compiled an impressive list of officials using social media to get their messages out. The Wall Street Journal visualized evacuation centers using Foursquare.

Much of the most important information — the forecast — comes from the same sources, such as NOAA and its hurricane center.

And I’m barely scratching the surface of sources of direct information.

So the question the journalists should ask is how they can add value to that. That is the the question must ask constantly now that information can be exchanged so easily and instantly from officials to citizens, data sources to users, and witnesses to witnesses. It’s an everyday question, not just one for emergencies.

Journalists don’t add value by repeating themselves endlessly, but standing in front of random but ultimately uninformative sites where their cameras and trucks happen to be set up (or worse, in the water), by alarming more than informing people.

So how should they? As in some of the example above, they should aggregate and curate reports from witnesses and data from officials. They can visualize data. They provide background and service information. But mostly, shouldn’t reporters report? Standing in the water repeating what we already know over and over is not reporting. Reporting would be finding out what government is not doing — see Katrina. But in truth, with all this information flying by, we don’t need a lot of reporting unless and until government messes up. That’s what is making journalism more efficient and sustainable.

Oh, and journalists and TV networks could still afford a few minutes an hour to deliver real news. While Irene moves up the coast at 14 mph, storms of another sort are still overcoming Syria and Libya, both of which might as well not exist on supposed news networks today. Is that journalism?

July 18 2011

01:42

What’s next for News Corp. and its worlds

There’s no telling how the News Corp. saga will turn out, but I’ll try. Here’s a scenario that leads to the breakup of News Corp., the Murdochs out of power, the deflation of institutional journalism, a break in the too-cozy media-government complex, an unfortunate rise in regulation of media, and a fortunate opening for newcomers. This story of legality and morality will quickly shift to one driven by business.

A week ago, I speculated that News Corp. would need to get out of the news business. Not so crazy. Since then, the FT’s John Gapper speculated similarly, as did John Cassidy at The New Yorker.

And since then, News International head Rebekah Brooks resigned and was arrested; Dow Jones head Les Hinton resigned; Murdoch gave up on BSkyB; the Murdochs agreed to testify before Parliament; and the revelations of corruption between News Corp. and police and government get only worse, leading to the resignation of the head of the police. What looked so far out doesn’t look so far out now. So how could this progress?

* Start with the end of a Murdoch succession plan. Rupert’s defense aside, James Murdoch’s handling of the scandal has been irresponsible, short-sighted, cocky, and dangerous. The trail of scandal is lapping at James’ feet. Whether or not he is investigated or arrested for crimes, there can be no confidence in his leadership. None of his siblings is in any better position and they are feuding anyway. Rupert Murdoch is looking more lost and his testimony Tuesday at what will appear (to Americans, at least) like an impeachment hearing will only implode his stature yet further.

Meanwhile, more importantly, News Corp. lost more than $7 billion in market cap over four scandal-filled days. That number may go up or down but it’s ominous in any case. Shareholders are suing. There will be a call for professional and independent management of the corporation, sooner than later. If I were an “independent” director of News Corp., I’d be scared to death right now.

Buh-bye Murdochs? As unthinkable as that may have been only two weeks ago, it’s now quite conceivable.

* Off with the headlines! That professional management will quickly conclude that the news divisions of News Corp. are a costly drag and will try to divest them, starting with the UK properties and then spreading elsewhere. News Corp. is an entertainment company. Professional management will focus on that and get rid of Rupert’s bully pulpits. If they previously did bring clout and regulatory convenience to the Murdoch’s business strategies, now all they bring is grief and the attention of lawmakers, prosecutors, competitors, and detractors. News is clearly not a growth business; it is, as a friend in the trade said, profit-challenged. So stop the presses already.

I said in my post last Monday it may be difficult to find a market for the properties. But they become costlier to News Corp. by the day, so the desire to unload them will only grow as their value declines. In the UK, the Sun has been eclipsed online by the Daily Mail. Murdoch gave up on strategies of growth and advertising when he put The Times behind a paywall, its audience shrinking from millions to a reported 100,000. An egotistical oligarch might buy either.

* In the U.S., the right-wing depends on Fox News and is surely getting nervous about its fate. It is becoming — if one can imagine this — even more of a laughingstock than it already was as it ignores or defends Murdoch in the scandal. I could imagine Roger Ailes assembling rich Republicans to engineer a leveraged buyout and keep it safe for them in time for the election. Then there could be no doubt of its role as a propaganda arm of the right.

The New York Post loses tens of millions a year and lives only to give Murdoch his toy and pulpit. Professional management cannot justify that. It will die or find its egotistical oligarch (its Conrad Black or Robert Maxwell … I cannot imagine even the Murdoch heirs allowing their patriarch to hold onto it and eat into their fortune yet further).

The Wall Street Journal is in quite the pickle. Again, professional management will want to get rid of it because it is not a good business; its ROI, if any, is worse than The Simpson’s. But who would buy it? Recall that no one else but Murdoch would buy it for the price he offered, an overeager amount he soon had to write-down. Last week, I suggested that if Murdoch wants to rescue the last shred of his legacy, he should put the Journal into a trust, a la the Guardian and its Scott Trust. Past that, it’s hard to imagine its fate. Would Bloomberg or Reuters buy its financial data businesses? Is there a fire-sale buyer for the paper and its web site? They’d better hurry before it is ruined by delusional editorial such as this one defending Murdoch.

News Corp. is also in the business of coupons and circulars distributed in newspapers. That business, too, will shrink as those transactions go digital and mobile. I’ve been told by major marketers that their need for FSIs (free-standing inserts) will disappear within two years — another blow to newspapers’ kidneys. Someone will buy that business to consolidate the trade. Though it, too, has News Corp. cooties. David Carr says this division has paid out $655 million to get rid of charges of espionage and anticompetitive behavior.

In publishing, that leaves HarperCollins. Murdoch tried to sell it sometime ago; no such luck. Who’d buy it now? I couldn’t imagine. (Disclosure: My last book, What Would Google Do?, was published by HarperCollins. My next book, Public Parts, was set to be but I pulled it when I found myself being highly critical of News Corp. as the antithesis to a company that operates openly.)

There’s been much speculation that illegalities abroad — or, if they are found, in the U.S. — could lead to News Corp losing its domestic TV licenses. I don’t think that would happen. If professional management replaces the Murdochs and the scandal-ridden news divisions are ejected, then it’s hard to imagine the FCC — which basically never revokes licenses and would take a decade to try — pushing News Corp. out of the local TV business. Besides that, there is nothing I’d call news on Fox stations. They are entertainment distribution outlets.

* The only thing left in the publishing arm is Australia. Various politicians of lesser or greater power are calling for reconsideration of the incredible newspaper holdings Murdoch has there. I could see the company holding onto this for old time’s sake if there isn’t too much political pressure. Or I could see it being spun off to family, again for old time’s sake.

* So then News Corp. would be an entertainment company and a successful one.

* The next big impact will be regulating journalism in the UK. As I said here, I would lament that. The regulators didn’t bring Murdoch to the bar; journalists did — namely Nick Davies of the Guardian. We don’t need more controls on journalism. We need more journalism.

In the US, you can bet we’ll hear more about regulating media consolidation. But that’s not the issue. Morality is.

* I believe the biggest long-term impact of l’affaire Murdoch will be the diminution of institutional journalism and its cozy relationship with institutional government. That is good news. It opens opportunities for independents: for us.

* None of this could happen. Murdoch will hold on as long as he can — witness Murdoch’s “interview” with the Wall Street Journal claiming that the company has handled all this well and also the denial in the Wall Street Journal editorial just published, which tries to shift the blame for shoddy journalism to Murdoch’s competitors and critics. The longer Murdoch holds on, the less his empire will be worth. Just how stubborn is he?

July 11 2011

13:19

Readers are our regulators

Here’s a post I put up on the Guardian’s Comment is Free (comment there).

Please resist the temptation to impose government regulation on journalism in the aftermath of phone-hacking. Oh, I know, it would be sweet justice for Murdoch pere et fils to be the cause of expanding government authority. But danger lies there. Regulation requires teeth and teeth carry power.

Let me begin by posing four questions:

What activities are to be regulated? Activities that are already criminal, like News Corp.’s, should be prosecuted as crimes. Then does speech itself become the target? In the United States, we grapple with this question in the one exception to our First Amendment, which is about to be tested in the Supreme Court. That loophole to the Bill of Rights gives the Federal Communications Commission authority to regulate and fine mere words on TV and radio. I have argued in the pages of the Guardian that “bullshit” is political speech but we are forbidden to speak it on our air — even about this regulation itself — under threat of a regulator’s chill and penalty. What we need today is more speech, not less.

What should a regulator do in the case of violations? Fine the offender into submission? Close the publication? Does that not give your government the same weapon used by dictators elsewhere against journalists? Doesn’t this return the UK to a regime of licensing the press? Remember that he who grants licenses may also not grant them or revoke them.

Who is the proper regulator? Clearly, it is not the industry. The Press Complaints Commission has proven to be nothing more than a diaphanous gown for the devil. But government? Is government the proper body to supervise the press, to set and oversee its standards? How could it be? The watched become the watchers’ watchers. Certainly government has shown itself to be incompetent and mightily conflicted in this case, as alleged overseers of the crimes at hand end up in high places and the police themselves are reported to be beneficiaries of corruption.

Finally, who is to be regulated? In other words, who is the press? That’s the key question raised here. Alan Rusbridger posed it in his forceful soliloquy on this amazing week: Is Huffington Post the press? Guido Fawkes? By extension, is any blogging citizen? Any YouTube commentator or Twitter witness-cum-reporter? Yes, we wrangle with this same question in the United States, but in the context of who should receive the rights and protections of the press — namely, shield laws — rather than who should be under the thumb of a government agency.

The goal must not be to further solidify the hegemony of the media-government complex but instead to bust it open. We have the tools at hand to do that: journalists, the public they serve, and their new tool of publicness, the internet.

As Rusbridger also said in that video, this was a week marked by the worst of journalism and the best of journalism. Reporting is wot did the bastards in. Nick Davies is the Woodward and Bernstein of the age though it’s a pity that his Nixon built his nearly absolute power — and nearly inevitable corruption — in our profession. The first and most important protection we will have against the likes of him is a business model for the Guardian to sustain Davies and support future generations like him. The second most important thing the Guardian can do is set an example for other journalists.

I was talking with Craig Newmark, founder of craigslist, just yesterday about his cause and favorite obsession: fact-checking. There are scattered organizations that endeavor to check politicians’ and journalists mistakes and lies. But no organization can do it all. How do we scale fact-checking? My thought is that we should see every news organization place a box next to all its reports inviting fact-checking: readers flagging dubious assertions and journalists and readers picking up the challenge to investigate. The Washington Post and the Torrington (Connecticut) Register Citizen have them.

That small addition raises the standards and expectations for journalists’ work and, more importantly, opens the process of journalism to the public, inviting them to act as both watchers and collaborators.

I also think we must increase our diligence to all but eliminate the scourge of the anonymous source. Note that I left an opening for whistleblowers and victims and the too-rare true investigators like Davies. But if we had as an expectation that the News of the World should have told us where and how it learned what it learned about its 4,000 victims, it would have been less able to perpetrate its crimes of hacking and bribery.

The Guardian is making openness its hallmark and this is what it must mean: Rather than closing down journalism to some legislative definition of who may practice the craft, we must open its functions to all. Rather than enabling government and media to become even more entwined, we must explode their bonds and open up the business of both for all to see. Regulators, bureaucrats, politicians, and titans of a dying industry are not the ones to do that.

In researching my next book, Public Parts, I dared to read Jürgen Habermas and his theory of the public sphere. Habermas says the public sphere first emerged as a counterweight to the power of government in the rational, critical debate of the coffeehouses and salons of the 18th century. But almost as soon as this public sphere formed, Habermas laments, it was corrupted and overtaken by mass media. Now, at last, is our opportunity to reverse that flow and to recapture our public sphere.

There’s where this tale’s sweet irony lies: It’s Murdoch & Co. who set the charges to blow apart the very institutional power and cozy relationships they built.

July 05 2011

14:55

What Google+ adds to news

To paraphrase Mark Zuckerberg, it is too soon to know what Google+ is. But I’ve been trying to imagine how it will and won’t be useful to news. You should add rock salt to anything I say, as I thought Google Wave would be an important journalistic tool. With that in mind, a few opening thoughts:

* Google+ likely won’t be good for live coverage of breaking events because its algorithm messes with the reverse chronology, promoting old posts when they get new comments. It doesn’t favor the *latest* the way Twitter and liveblogging do and live news is all about the latest. I don’t see Andy Carvin making the switch.

(I’ve wished that I could have the option to get a stream only of newly submitted posts. Many have complained about the promoting of too much old stuff. Sergey Brin said on G+ yesterday that they’ve tweaked the algorithm to give less weight to comments from people you don’t follow.)

* G+ should be good for collaboration on reporting. When I ask a question, the answers appear with my question and subsequent responders can improve on earlier answers. With Circles, I can focus my questions on a specific group (e.g., VCs) and can benefit when their circles see their interaction with me — so long as I am not fool enough to disable sharing.

* If Google gets its synergistic act together and incorporates Google Docs — and some of the tricks from Wave — into G+, then this could be a very good collaboration tool for communities to gather together and share what they know. That’s the basis for news.

* G+ will be good for promoting content. The service isn’t yet open and I have almost more than 7,000 followers. Memes spread quickly on G+, but because of its time-bending algorithm, they also last longer if they spark conversation — that’s its plus side (no pun intended). Automated spewing of headlines likely won’t be effective, but conversing will.

* I see a big problem in the G+ restriction of one link per post. I find that sadly ironic. G+ is a service for sharing and links are the essence of responsible sharing, revealing the provenance of facts and giving credit. A blog post is a better vehicle for a well-sourced, well-linked post.

* G+’s identities likely won’t be as reliable as Facebook’s, as it is easy to create an account and identity on there are not the social pressures for authenticity. Then again, people will invest in their Google profiles, especially as they become more prominent in search (see what Google is doing with authors, broadly defined; I’m one of them in the test). I’m still trying to get my head around the play on identity among Google, Facebook, Twitter, and players yet to join in.

* G+ may be a good place to find photos from news, depending on whether witnesses favor putting them there or on Twitter or on Facebook or on Flickr and how well Google does at making them searchable.

I see that we will have to teach Google Plus at my J-school. Especially at the start, it will be valuable to have students brainstorm how they could use it. That’s the way journalists should approach every promising new tool.

What do you think G+’s uses are for news?

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.

13:21

An article on the article

In the Guardian, I pull together thoughts on reconsidering the article, the reaction to those thoughts, and the impact on a digital-first strategy. Excerpt:

The article is no longer the atomic unit of news. It’s not dead. I didn’t kill it. But in the age of online – of “digital first,” as the Guardian defined its strategy this month – we should reconsider the article and its place. No longer do the means of production and distribution of media necessitate boxing the world into neat, squared-off spaces published once a day and well after the fact. Freed of print’s strictures, we are finding many new and sometimes better ways to gather and share information. . . .

In print-as-luxury, the article should be elevated to Economist standards, combining reporting with cogent analysis, unique perspective and brilliant commentary. Should such a newspaper be published daily? Can it meet that standard that often? Perhaps not.

Imagine if a British newspaper with tens of millions of online readers became a digital-only brand freed of the leash of the distance its trucks can drive, able to become a truly international voice. Imagine then if the once-separate Sunday sister title – printed on a more lucrative day of the week than Sunday – became a luxurious journal of reporting and commentary like Die Zeit in Germany (whose print circulation is still growing).

That’s not a recommendation, only an example of where reconsideration of the article could lead. I want to challenge assumptions about the article’s role, not whether it lives or dies. After all, I just wrote one.

June 18 2011

01:24

The storyteller strikes back

When I dared question the article’s monopoly as the atomic and only acceptable form of news, I honestly did not imagine the reaction I would get. I thought I was observing a trend and an opportunity. I have tried to provoke plenty of times. But here I truly did not think I was saying anything provocative. But clearly, I plucked a nerve. I’ve been asking myself why I evoked such a strong emotional response, online and off. At Jeff Pulver’s 140 Conference in New York this week, I endeavored to answer that.

In a performance that well demonstrates that I should not quit my day job and hope for a career on Broadway, I tried to take on the voice — in a purposefully simplistic, over-the-top way — of the storytellers who objected to what I was observing. Here’s what I think they were saying: “You can’t have a narrative without the narrator, a story without the storyteller. I am the storyteller. I decide what the story is. I decide what goes in it and doesn’t. I decide where it begins and where it ends.” That’s part of the issue: control. But it’s more than that: “If you don’t need as many articles — if there are other ways to impart information — do you still need me, the storyteller?” That, I think, could be at the heart of their fear and reaction.

Once again, I’m not getting rid of the story, not replacing it or the storyteller. I’m arguing that articles are precious, more precious than ever, and need to add value or we can’t afford to waste our time on them. I’m saying that the journalist takes on new roles and more tasks. But, yes, if as a journalist you see yourself only as a storyteller, a maker of articles, your horizon just got closer.

At 140, I told the room and the cameras that I see something else happening. I referred once again to the Gutenberg Parenthesis, coined by the University of Southern Denmark to describe how the change in our media affects our cognition of our world.

When people say they like newspapers and books they aren’t just talking about the physical form of them: the feel and smell, the portability and tangibility. They are talking about the finiteness of them. Articles and books have beginnings and ends; they have boundaries and limits; they are packaged neatly in boxes with bows on top; they are a product of scarcity. Abundance is unsettling. That is precisely why the internet is disruptive not only to business and government but to culture and cognition. Threatening the dominion of the article is to threaten our very worldview.

You see, I am trying to understand the visceral reaction to what I said. It took me by surprise.

I asked the folks at 140 not to kill the article but to question assumptions about it.

I may live to regret embedding my talk (I haven’t had the courage to watch it yet), but here it is:

Then I got to introduce my friend John Paton, who is challenging assumptions about the form and business of journalism:

June 12 2011

21:13

The orthodoxy of the article, part II

Frédéric Filoux willfully misrepresents me so that he may uphold the orthodoxy of the article. He will be disappointed to learn that we agree more than he wishes. Here is what I am really saying about the article.

First, far from denigrating the article, I want to elevate it. When I say the article is a luxury, I argue that using ever-more-precious resources to create an article should be taken seriously and before writing and editing a story we must assure that it will add value. Do most articles do that today? No. Go through your paper in the morning and tell me how much real value is added and how much ink is spilled to tell you what you already know (whether that is facts you learned through Twitter, the web, TV, radio, et al or background that is reheated more often than a stale slice in a bad New York pizzeria).

How many articles are rewritten from others’ work just so a paper and a reporter can have a byline? How many predict the obvious (every story about an upcoming storm, holiday, press conference, or horse race election)? How often do you see a local TV story with any real reporting and value instead of just someone standing where the news happened 12 hours ago telling you what you and he both read online already? Too many articles passing themselves off as professional journalism are crap and I say we can’t afford to do that anymore. I say we should treat articles with veneration as a luxury.

Second, I am also promoting rather than devaluing background when I say it is best linked to. The background paragraphs in an ongoing story generally do one of two things: they bore and waste the time of people who have followed the story or they underinform the people who have not been following the story. Background graphs were a necessity of print but online we can improve background immensely, investing the effort in truly valuable and long-lasting content assets that give richer and more helpful background on a story. I’ve worked with smart folks at news companies imagining how we could provide multiple paths through background: here’s the path to take if you’re coming to the story as a virgin; here’s a track to take if you’ve missed a week; here’s a track from one perspective; here’s one from another. If someone else did a great job explaining the story or elements of it, we should link to them. Filoux calls that oursourcing. I call that linking. We do that nowadays. This is why I’m eagerly watching Jay Rosen’s project in creating explainers, which is an even richer form of background.

Third, in this entire discussion of the article, I am valuing reporting higher than repetitive retyping. As our resources become ever-scarcer, I say that we must devote more of them to reporting than to articles that add little: asking the questions that haven’t been asked and answered, finding people who can add information and perspective, fact-checking.

But I have angered the gods, first Mathew Ingram, now Filoux, who also misquotes me when he says I say that: “Tweeting and retweeting events as they unfold is a far more superior way of reporting than painstakingly gathering the facts and going through a tedious writing and editing process.” I say no such thing and dare him to show me where he thinks I say that with a direct quote. That sentence could stand a little painstaking editing itself. I do say that while an event is underway, tweeting is an amazing new tool to hear directly from witnesses, to question them, to debunk rumors, to manage collaborative reporting (that’s what Andy Carvin does in the Arab Spring). It is part of the reporting process. It contributes to articles later in the process (that’s what Brian Stelter was asking his desk to do when he covered a tornado).

The point is that there are many new ways to accomplish journalistic goals to cover news and gather and share information: Twitter, blogs, data, visualization, multimedia…. Jonathan Glick wrote a much more constructive answer to the question I raised about articles, saying that now that they are freed from the drudgery of reporting infobits of news — the things we have already been told sooner and by other means — then the article can concentrate on adding true value: context, explanation, education, commentary, further reporting, fact-checking….

That is the sense in which I say that the article is or often should be a byproduct of the news process. Once the public is informed of the facts through faster means, once we put digital first and print last (© John Paton), then we also no longer need to build the infrastructure and process of news around writing articles. We have to break out of that expensive, inefficient, archaic stricture. We can instead architect news around helping communities organize their information and themselves (that is my definition of journalism) and we have new ways to do that, including new ways to report news and write articles.

I dare to question the assumptions about the forms of news and journalism. That’s my job. Some — including apparently Filoux — might argue that it is the job of a university to impart orthodoxy: This is the way we have always done it, thus that’s the right way to do it, and that’s the way you will do it, students. I abhor that view.

I believe it is my job, especially in a university, to challenge assumptions and to free students to invent new forms. That is one of my hidden agendas behind teaching entrepreneurial journalism: to encourage and support students (and the industry) to break assumptions and invent new forms, because they can, because we must.

I fear Filoux’s still upset with me because I could not bear and dared criticize the discussion on a panel he ran at the e-G8 in Paris. It wasn’t him I was criticizing. It was hearing the same old stuff from the same old people. At a conference on the internet and the future, the past was rehashed once more. I can bear that no more than he apparently can bear my temerity to challenge the holy article.

But in the end, we almost agree. Filoux argues that newspapers should become, say, “biweeklies offering strong value-added reporting and perspectives, and using electronic media for the rest.” Hmmm. He’s saying, just as I am, that articles should be richer and more valuable and that reporting news bits can be accomplished by other means. So where do we disagree?

May 28 2011

14:44

The article as luxury or byproduct

A few episodes in news make me think of the article not as the goal of journalism but as a value-added luxury or as a byproduct of the process.

* See the amazing Brian Stelter covering the Joplin tornado and begging his desk at The Times to turn his tweets into a story because he had neither the connectivity nor the time to do it in the field and, besides, he was too busy doing something more precious: reporting. (It’s a great post, a look at a journalist remaking his craft. Highly recommended for journalists and journalism students particularly.) (And aren’t you proud of me for not drawing the obvious and embarrassing comparison to Times editor Bill Keller’s Luddite trolling about Twitter even as his man in Twitter, Stelter, proves what a valuable tool it is?)

* In Canada’s recent election, Postmedia (where—disclosure—I am an advisor) had its reporters on the bus do nothing but report, putting up posts and photos and videos and snippets as they went, keeping coverage going all day, maximizing their value in the field. Back at HQ, a “twin” would turn that into a narrative — as blog posts — when appropriate. At the end of the day, the twin would also turn out a story for print but everything had pretty much been done earlier; this was more an editing than a writing task. I asked my Postmedia friends what had to be done to turn the posts into an article. Mostly, they said, it meant adding background paragraphs (those great space-wasters that can now be rethought of as links to regularly updated background wikis, don’t you think?).

* At South by Southwest, the Guardian’s folks talked about their steller live-blogging. Ian Katz, the deputy editor, said that live-blogging — devoting someone to a story all day — was expensive. I said that writing articles is also expensive. He agreed. There’s the choice: Some news events (should we still be calling them stories?) are better told in process. Some need summing up as articles. That is an extra service to readers. A luxury, perhaps.

* Of course, I need to point to Andy Carvin’s tweeting and retweeting of the Arab Spring. He adds tremendous journalistic value: finding the nodes and networks of reliable witnesses; questioning and vetting what they say; debunking rumors; adding perspective and context; assigning his audience tasks (translating, verifying a photos’ location); even training witnesses and audiences (telling them what it really means to confirm a fact). What he does never results in an article.

* I’ve been talking with some people about concepts for reorganizing news organizations around digital and I keep calling on John Paton’s goal to keep in the field and maximize the two things that add value — reporting and sales — and to make everything else more efficient through consolidation or outsourcing. As I was talking to someone else about this, it occurred to me that in some — not all — cases, not only editing and packaging but also even writing could be done elsewhere, as Postmedia did in its election experiment. I’m not talking about complex stories from beat people who understand topics and need to write what they report from their earned understanding. I’m talking about covering an event or a meeting, for example. The coverage can come from a reporter and in some cases from witnesses’ cameras and quotes. The story can be written elsewhere by someone who can add value by compiling perspectives and facts from many witnesses and sources. It harkens back to the days of newspaper rewritemen (I was one).

Carry this to the extreme — that’s my specialty — and we see witnesses everywhere, some of them reporters, some people who happen to be at a news event before reporters arrive (and now we can reach them via Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare….), some who may be participants but are sharing photos and facts via Twitter. Already on the web, we see others — bloggers — turn these distributed snippets into narratives: posts, stories, articles.

The bigger question all this raises is when and whether we need articles. Oh, we still do. Articles can make it easy to catch up on a complex story; they make for easier reading than a string of disjointed facts; they pull together strands of a story and add perspective. Articles are wonderful. But they are no longer necessary for every event. They were a necessary form for newspapers and news shows but not the free flow, the never-starting, never-ending stream of digital. Sometimes, a quick update is sufficient; other times a collection of videos can do the trick. Other times, articles are good.

I’ve been yammering on for a few years about how news is a process more than a product. These episodes help focus what that kind of journalism will look like — and what the skills of the journalist should be.

The accepted wisdom of journalism and its schools was that storytelling was our real job, our high calling, our real art. Ain’t necessarily so. The accepted wisdom of blogging has been that now any of us can do everything: report and write, producing text and audio and video and graphics and packaging and distributing it all. But I also see specialization returning with some people reporting, others packaging. Can we agree to a new accepted wisdom: that the most precious resource in news is reporting and so maximizing the acquisition of facts and answers is what we need?

So what is an article? An article can be a byproduct of the process. When digital comes first and print last, then the article is something you need to put together to fill the paper; it’s not the goal of the entire process. The process is the goal of the process: keeping the public constantly informed.

An article can be a luxury. When a story is complex and has been growing and changing, it is a great service to tie that into a cogent and concise narrative. But is that always necessary? Is it always the best way to inform? Can we always afford the time it takes to produce articles? Is writing articles the best use of scarce reporting resources?

In a do-what-you-do-best-and-link-to-the-rest ecosystem, if someone else has written a good article (or background wiki) isn’t it often more efficient to link than to write? Isn’t it more valuable to add reporting, filling in missing facts or correcting mistakes or adding perspectives, than to rewrite what someone else has already written?

We write articles for many reasons: because the form demands it, because we want the bylines and ego gratification, because we are competitive, because we had to. Now we should write articles when necessary.

This new structure changes not only the skills but likely the character of the journalist. These days when I see a journalist talk only about his or her passion to write and tell stories, I worry for them that they will find fewer jobs and less of a calling. But when I hear journalists say that their passion is to report, to dig up facts, to serve and inform the community by all means possible, I feel better. When I hear a journalist talk about collaboration with that community as the highest art, then I get happy.

Let the record show that I am not declaring the article useless or dead. Just optional.

: Seconds after I posted this to Twitter, Chad Catacchio said that by the time the article is written, its’ not news, it’s history (albeit the fabled first draft).

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