What could social journalism do for Ferguson?

It took too long, but finally the attention of American journalism turned to Ferguson. Is the crush and focus of network cameras and big-paper reporters helping Ferguson or exploiting its struggle? The answer to that is obvious; see, for example, Newtown.

The better, more constructive question is: How could journalism help the residents of Ferguson?

The rationale behind our new, proposed M.A. in Social Journalism at CUNY — the thinking behind my argument that journalism must see itself as a service — is that journalism should start by listening, not speaking. It should start with hearing the needs of a community and then and only then deciding which tools to bring to bear to help a community meet its goals and improve its lot: reporting, explanation, education, convening, connecting, organizing.

As I try to apply these notions to Ferguson, a few observations:

It is, of course, possible now to listen in so many more ways. I was struck by this tweet that pictured community talking points about Michael Brown.


When I retweeted that, a journalist objected that this is from an advocacy organization. Well, yes, of course. This group speaks for some people. The first question is: For whom does the organization speak? For whom does it not speak? What are the goals of the various communities in the town? Where are their disagreements? What in their discussion is correct? What is incorrect? What questions does the discussion raise? What information is missing? How can journalism help answer those questions? This document is a helpful starting point.

See, too, this post by a teacher in Greece advising members of a community — whether Ferguson or the Gaza Strip — how to use the tools now at their disposal to affect the conversation: don’t rely on or trust mainstream media but still cultivate them; use your own networks to distribute your own content; use Creative Commons to control use of your content in media. Now some would say that is the community as not only advocate but as flack: media manipulator. Of course. But that’s a mediacentric way to look at this. See it from the community’s perspective and it’s a statement of power: We have a voice at last.

There are more ways to listen to communities now because communities have a voice and ways to be heard. But the social journalist cannot just sit back and hear what people are saying on their blogs, in Twitter, and in their press conferences. The social journalist must also talk with the people who aren’t speaking and listen to them, asking them what their goals and needs are, what they know and don’t know and want to know and why.

When I posed my first question above — about service v. exploitation — on Twitter, I got a response from a resident of Ferguson:

But then I realized I was asking the wrong question and so I probed more:


That is telling. But the conversation is still mediacentric, not communitycentric, telling the world about Ferguson rather than serving the people of Ferguson. So I keep asking:

I asked whether reporters had asked him questions. He said no but was confident they would. Indeed, they did — though from Spain:

My conversation with Mr. McCleery never left media: telling Ferguson’s story outside Ferguson. But what about telling the stories that will help Ferguson? It’s clear that showing up on someone’s doorstep and asking them what they need — “Hello, we’re corporate and we’re here to help” — is inadequate: journalism as focus group. This is why we will teach students to understand communities as best they can before they engage. They will use the tools I’ve listed above plus data skills to do that. But that is not sufficient. They will go meet people in the community — geographic or demographic, built around interest or event — and listen before speaking. They will observe and discern the community’s goals without imposing their own. That is why we think that social journalism must bring elements of social anthropology and community organizing to the task.

But what will be hardest to teach — what is hardest for me to learn — is tamping down the journalistic reflex to start with the assumption that we know what’s needed and that our stories will meet those needs. As I watch the news in Ferguson, I can’t help but do what an editor does, imagining stories to assign: on, say, the racial composition of the town and its history and tensions, on prior cases of police brutality, on the politics of the town — who’s in charge and how does that match the composition of the community, and so on. We call that news judgment.

But the truth is, of course, I don’t know Ferguson worth a damn. I don’t know what its needs are. I am in no position to decide how best to use precious journalistic resource to help them — let alone tell their story to the world.

In classic journalistic structure, the best person to try to do these things is the beat reporter, whose first job is to learn about the constituencies she covers, whether that’s a town or an agency or a topic. This is why I am working to grow the news ecosystems of New Jersey and New York with more beats; this is why we study their businesses at CUNY; this is why we are going to give intense training in running a beat business at the school this fall.

But not every community is lucky enough to have a beat reporter dedicated to its coverage and needs. And beat reporters classically still operate as story machines because that’s all they could do and that supports the economics of their business. But now, in the age of the net and social media, there are so many more ways to not only publish (and promote) but listen, so many more ways to understand a community’s needs and meet them, so many more ways to see people as individuals and communities rather than as a mass served with a necessarily one-size-fits-all product we called news.

It’s not going to be easy to turn journalism on its head, starting with listening rather than publishing, with serving the needs of a community over telling its story to others, and with judging one’s success on the community’s terms rather than media’s (those are the terms of service Jay Rosen has been challenging me to provide in this vision of service journalism).

I don’t know what Ferguson needs. I know that the country needs to pay attention to what is happening in the town and so I’m glad that social media — that is, people using social media to report what they witness — forced Ferguson’s issues onto national media. I also know that it won’t be long before the town will get sick of that attention and of the sensationalism that will emphasize everything bad about Ferguson and nothing good: simple stories that can be told in 1:30 of time or 13″ of type. I also know that when the reporters leave Ferguson’s McDonald’s and the satellite trucks rumble off its streets, then Ferguson will be left little better off for all the journalism that occurred there. It will still have needs and goals and could use help to meet them. That is where social journalism begins.

What society are we building here?

There is no single solution to the plague of trolls, abusers, harassers, lunatics, imposters, and assholes online any more than there is on earth: no one algorithm, no one company rule, no one regulation will do it all, though they can help. The most powerful weapon in any case is our own norms as a society.

What exactly are our norms online? And what are we — you, yes you, and I — doing to establish and enforce our standards as an online society? Anything? Twitter, Facebook, and other platforms bear responsibility. But so do we all.

I cannot imagine any civilized being who is not appalled at the treatment of Robin Williams’ daughter Zelda at the hands of disgusting trolls after the death of her father. This forced her to leave Twitter and that, in turn, forced Twitter to decide that it should “improve our policies.” The Washington Post, in its report, pointed to other egregious cases of abuse. It’s worth pointing out that this week also brought us Jezebel bringing its own corporate parent, Gawker, to public shame for not dealing with trolls’ abhorrent rape GIFs.

I want to make this crystal clear: I in no way will compare my own situation, which I’ll now recount, to any of those horrid crimes against decency. But I had a moment this week that gave me some insight to the difficulty of controls. I don’t want to give my minor tormentor, my idiot imposter, my personal troll any further attention but you probably already know who this is. This week, with shocking nastiness, he went after a prominent person I’ve met and I respect and with whom I share a number of friends. That person reacted appropriately — angrily — thinking I was the shithead going after him. I don’t follow my troll so I would not have seen this had it not reached some Twitter notoriety. That at least gave me the opportunity to tell the prominent person that his tormentor was my tormentor, not me.

What bothers me even more is the reaction of others who egg on the imposter trolls. One was a prominent columnist for a famous financial newspaper with funny colored paper who endorsed out loud the idea of trolling an important person whom he covers. That’s not what they taught me in journalism school. It’s sure as hell not what I teach there. Is this net we want to build? For that matter, is this the journalism we want to have? Is this our society?

Now I tried to talk to my imposter-troll earlier in his two-and-a-half-year and 17,500-tweet campaign against me. He didn’t have the balls. After he affected my reputation with someone I’ve met, I sent him another message, saying he’d crossed the line. He still doesn’t have sufficient balls or the decency or the mere maturity and civility to talk to me. Hasn’t he had his fun already? But there’s no reasoning with trolls; indeed, that’s the definition of a troll.

I contacted an executive at Twitter. I was invited to file a formal complaint. They might kill my troll-imposter’s account. But then I know what would happen: I’d be accused of being a humorless party-pooper because I don’t like being mocked every day or finding people thinking I’m a horrid shithead. And if I oppose Europe’s idiotic Right to be Forgotten fiasco, I could not stand for muting someone else. No win there. It’s obvious that a prominent person mistook my imposter for a real person because the user name gives no clue. But Twitter’s policy is that imposter accounts are OK. Now I don’t assume that anyone who’s being attacked should have to spend a damned second researching his tormentor. But that is Twitter’s policy.

So what should Twitter’s policy be with the much, much worse cases recounted above? On This Week in Google, my esteemed cohost, Gina Trapani, has suggested that Twitter could enable users to share their own blacklists of harrassers to give them less of the commodity that fuels them: attention. On this week’s show, Mathew Ingram mentioned Blockbot and the Washington Post pointed to Danilo Campos’ suggestions on signals to block bad users.

In the end, Twitter — like Facebook and all social and content-creation services — must decide their own standards. I learned that when I ran local sites: The days of anything-goes ended in our forums once we realized that we bore a responsibility to police the communities we offered. Then I had no problem killing mean, abusive, and just off-topic bullshit in our discussions. Does Twitter have standards?

Do we? I will repeat that when you egg on a troll, you are an accessory to the crime: You are a troll. Shouldn’t you scold and shun those who behave badly online? If you don’t, what are you saying about the society we are building?

I hate the ABC show What Would You Do? but I will say that we are living a version of it online. When you see a troll or abuser online, what do you do about it? Do you egg on or ignore the miscreant? Do you shame the fool? Do you support the troll’s victims? Or do you laugh at them?

You — yes, you and I — are creating the norms of our new society. What are those norms? What is our new society? Is it something we are proud to pass on to our children? Does it improve society for them? Or is it easier to snark and snigger at some stranger’s expense?

Unoriginal sin

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The amazing Ethan Zuckerman argues at eloquent length in The Atlantic that advertising was the web’s original sin, which really is just a corollary to the contention that giving away content for free on the web (and supporting it with advertising) was newspapers’ and magazines’ original sin.

I’m going to disagree. What bothers Ethan, I think, is not advertising but mass media economics — which, I will agree, do not fit on the net. And the solution that preachers against this sin bless — consumer payment — brings with it a host of unintended and unfortunate consequences.

Ethan amusingly confesses his role as a serpent in the Garden when he was an early staffer at Tripod and not only introduced advertising support as a means of providing a free homepage service, and not only created the means to target ads to users but also — damn them! — invented the pop-up ad. (“I’m sorry. Our intentions were good.”)

He argues correctly that advertising leads to various subsins: traffic whoring and surveillance among them. What he’s really arguing against is stupid advertising.

We are yet in an early phase of media on the net: the shovelware phase. We started by shoveling our old content onto the web until pioneers such as Ethan showed the way to enabling anyone — anyone! — to create content there, and that’s what led to Blogger, Twitter, Facebook, Medium, et al. (Thank you.) But even more fundamental, we also shoveled our old, mass-media business model onto the net. That’s the first stupidity. That is what leads to traffic whoring and clickbaiting and listicles and dark-art SEO and click fraud. That is what leads to every damned media outlet rewriting and aggregating everybody else’s stories — “More content! More content!” shout the coal stokers of hell — instead of doing what they do best and linking to all the rest. That is because advertising is still bought the way it is on billboards, TV, and pulp — on volume, by the thousands, by the eyeball-ton — so that marketers can just keep shoving their unwanted messages at us.

When those advertisers do smarten up a little they start to target, but they do that dumbly, too. Here’s the second stupidity. The advertisers — and their serpents: agencies and media and technology companies — creep out their own customers by collecting data on them without being open about it, without revealing the reason and the benefits (free content! less noise!), without giving them any control over the data, and then by following us all around the web haunting us with that stupid pair of boots we looked at on Amazon once. That is what Ethan calls surveillance. I call it idiocy.

At the start of the tome about new paths for news I’ve been threatening you with, I argue that journalism should reconsider itself not as a mass medium but instead as a service. Performing a service requires that we know people and understand their needs as individuals and communities. That’s not surveillance. That is a relationship.

There’s nothing stopping media and its neighbors in the Garden from doing relationships right. That means making a consensual transaction around information: “I am willingly and gladly giving you information about me (‘here’s where I am right now, Google’) to get service of relevance and value in return (‘OK, Google, tell me how to get from here to where I want to go’).” That means giving me transparency to your methods — what you are doing and why — and to my data. It means giving me the opportunity to correct and erase information (which only gives you more reliable information, by the way). The only reason you should expect me to give you information about myself — data big or small — is if I get something of value in return. This pertains to advertising: Don’t bother me with your irrelevant noise. And it pertains to journalism and media: I don’t want the 678th rewrite of an AP story; I want help to improve my community and my life. That’s not mass media. That’s not surveillance. That’s service.

Now you could argue that we pay for services — we pay for plumbers to fix our toilets — so won’t we pay for this service called journalism? Oh, we could, but I don’t think you’d like the result: a return to the earliest origins of news when correspondents were paid to provide bespoke and private newsletters — avissi — to their rich clients. Or we could see a return to another preadvertising model when interested parties — more precisely, political parties — paid for news that served their needs rather than those of the public.

The payment meme appeals to editorial ego: “My work is worth something and you should pay for it.” But as countless multitudes of zine publishers and book self-publishers (and published authors, for that matter) have learned, making great shit often gets you paid shit for it. If you can do it, mazel tov! (click here to buy my Kindle Single). But end up having to hawk your work. Or to coin a corollary to the “if you’re not paying, you’re the product” meme: If you’re not supported by advertising, you are the advertiser.

Micropayments — with or without Bitcoin — will not save us as everyone who thinks they should be paid won’t be paid and most of us are already fed up paying for internet and cable and phones to get us to all this content. Paywalls will not save us — after a first influx of cash, they stop growing, like your audience. Patrons will not save us: There is not enough charity for the media needy and, besides, charity brings strings.

hhautomatIf the net became an Automat, it would get a helluva lot smaller. It would redline information, making it available only to those who could afford it. It would discourage investment and entrepreneurship as there’d be fewer means to pay for invention and to make its fruits scale. It would no longer subsidize the free use of tools by revolutionaries and campaigners that Ethan celebrates. It would empower the big companies that do charge. This would be a net as made by Comcast, Verizon, Microsoft. Be careful what you wish for.

Instead, I say we should be demanding smarter advertising: more relevant, more transparent, more respectful, more trustworthy, less noisy, less wasteful of their money and our time and attention. We should all pull out our copies of the Cluetrain Manifesto and remind them again and again that markets are conversations and conversations are held among people. Like The Prisoner, we should shout up to the heavens — or down to hell, where advertisers more likely are: “I am not a number. I am a free man.” We are not a mass.

And yet even Facebook, which, as Ethan points out, has the means to target advertising smartly, still reverts to the mass, as The New York Times revealed in a long but fascinating view inside its ways: They’ve made targeting so expensive — too expensive — and so even there users are treated as a mass. Advertising is still stupid.

But if advertising doesn’t work, our response shouldn’t be to give up on it. It’s way, way too soon for that. Remember: it’s still just 1472 in Gutenberg Years. If we give up on advertising in media, my big fear — my gigantic, hairy, smelly, keep-me-up-at-night fear — is that we’ll end up with far fewer journalists (not to mention journalism students). So, no, don’t give up on newspapers, David Carr. Don’t give up on advertising, Ethan Zuckerman. Fix them. Invent something better. Not trying would be a sin.

: ETHAN RESPONDS: Some glitch in my comments (or perhaps Amtrak wifi) prevented Ethan from leaving a comment here but all the better for I get to post it up front for all to see. To wit:

Jeff, thanks very much for your thoughtful response. I agree with much of what you have to say, though I differ in a couple of key areas.

Yes, the stupidity, the bluntness, the imprecision of advertising is part of what I’m frustrated by. I think you and I agree that advertising based on intention, not attention – as Doc Searls has argued for in his work on VRM – is a better approach to advertising economies. I worry that not all advertising can be intentional. Advertisers want to build brands, which means they need to create desire, get people to want things they don’t yet want. I suspect that means they will continue to want the attention of groups of people they believe might want the product or service. Funneling people into those groups involves a great deal of behavioral, demographic and psychographic targeting – it’s that targeting that I believe is leading towards a tolerance of surveillance and a corrosion of our expectations about privacy. I don’t think better targeting addresses that set of my concerns.

I should be clear that my argument is at least as much about social networking services than about the news and magazines. I think some corners of the “content industry” have an easier time ahead than social networks as some brands may be willing to pay to be associated with high-quality content (my friends at the Atlantic, I hear, are doing quite well because advertisers want to be associated with their brand.) But I think services have a harder time, and I fear the service model for journalism may aggravate the surveillance problems I am concerned with. The better the NYTimes knows what I want as a reader, the more tempting it is to sell that information to other players in a way that makes me more uncomfortable, not less.

I’ll happily concede that my nod towards micropayments is half-baked at best. My not in that direction, and towards subscriptions is meant to suggest that there are other alternatives than more ads and more surveillance. I’d love to see as much investment in alternative business models as there has been in figuring out how to better target ads.

I do share your worry that Internet as automat would be one that’s closed and discriminatory. I’d hope that some of the models we explore consider the internet as a public good and consider models beyond the commercial and philanthropic to ensure we have public spaces to debate and high quality information to debate with.

If it’s not clear by now, I most certainly don’t have a solution – this is a critique and rant, not a business plan. My fondest hope for it would be that one or more readers comes up with an alternative business model, writes about it, tries it out and succeeds or fails. But I hope that some of those models aren;t about improving ads but looking for new ways to innovate in this space that we both love.

Thanks for your time and thoughtfulness, Jeff.

Absolution? Hell, no

sarducciovalThe good Reverend David Carr grants us absolution. “So whose fault is it?” he asks after chronicling the excommunication of newspapers and magazines from media companies casting off their old, print ancestors to starve and die. “No one’s,” Carr decrees.

Not so fast, preacher. It is our fault. Who else could be at fault? We journalists, publishers, and journalism schools have turned out to be irresponsible stewards of journalism. We squandered our trust and our cash flow. This was was our institution to nurture and protect and Carr says it’s all but dead.

Wait a minute, Father David. That depends on what you define as our institution. He sees it as print. Well, hell, I’ve spent years now begging my journalistic coreligionists to stop defining themselves by their medium — by their means of production and distribution — otherwise they’d all end up just where they are today: the baby swirling down the drain with the holy water.

But there was good news for media companies this weekend, wasn’t there? BuzzFeed got a $50 million investment from Andreessen Horowitz. I thought venture capitalists didn’t invest in content because it has cooties, no? But its new board member, Chris Dixon, says that’s because BuzzFeed’s not a media company. “We think of BuzzFeed as more of a technology company.”

cat baptismWell, hold on, you moneychanger in the temple, you (and mind you, sir, we’re glad to have you here; please make yourself at home). BuzzFeed is still a mass media company because it still operates by mass-media economics based on volume: the more people it can tempt into its harem with the siren call of its cats, the more people it can serve to advertisers (no matter what it calls its advertising). It is a last-gasp, clever (some might say cynical) exploitation of those old-media ways, grabbing the last dollars from the cold, dead hands of Carr’s congregation. It is the newest old-media company.

But I have faith that BuzzFeed’s founder, Jonah Peretti, can invent his way out of this — that’s why Andreessen Horowitz is not nuts to invest in him. He can use the cash flow the old ways bring him to invent something new. But he hasn’t yet. And that’s the point: There’s still time. Old media companies still have cash flow they, too, should be using to reinvent themselves.

But Brother Carr has renounced his vows right from inside the old scriptorium. Fucking Gutenberg. “Nothing is wrong in a fundamental sense,” he writes. “A free-market economy is moving to reallocate capital to its more productive uses, which happens all the time. Ask Kodak. Or Blockbuster. Or the makers of personal computers. Just because the product being manufactured is news in print does not make it sacrosanct or immune to the natural order.” Or how about asking Netflix?

No, market forces are not an excuse for fatalism and ultimately suicide. Market forces are an opportunity for — forgive me, for I do know I’m getting carried away with this religion thing — resurrection. There is still time as no one has yet challenged all our old-media assumptions about content and print and reinvented journalism as what it should be.

I’ve warned you that I’m about done with a 55,000-word tome about that reinvention. I’ll give you the tl;dr now: Journalism needs to rebuild itself as a service to individuals and communities, which requires having relationships with them as people, not a mass, helping them reach their own goals in new ways — not just with content — and sustaining this work with business models built on value over volume.

That’s not what newspapers — even the digital-first among them — are yet. That’s not what BuzzFeed or Huffington Post or Business Insider or Vox is … yet. I don’t know what that is yet (thus my tome is no prophecy) but I suggest a few paths to the promised land.

At the end of his eulogy, Carr writes: “It’s a measure of the basic problem that many people haven’t cared or noticed as their hometown newspapers have reduced staffing, days of circulation, delivery and coverage. Will they notice or care when those newspapers go away altogether? I’m not optimistic about that.” Ah, but it’s a poor shepherd who blames his sheep.

So I’ll end this as good sermons should, with a charge to the congregation: Go forth and figure it out, people. Stop whining. Stop looking for excuses and forgiveness. Stop giving up. Your flock needs informing. Go find new ways to do that. And I don’t want to see your prodigal asses back in these pews until you do. That goes for us in the seminary, too.

Amen.

Come reinvent TV news

lowell thomas

We’re going to reinvent TV news at CUNY on Sept. 19. Or rather, you will.

Do you have a wild vision for what TV news could or should be? Send it our way and you would win $1,000 and present your idea to an audience of TV people and TV disruptors at CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism on Sept. 19.

You’ll be joining some innovators we know and have invited to the event to present their visions for TV’s possibilities: The conditions for everyone: You can’t present anything you’ve already done. You have to show something you (or your organizations) haven’t had the guts to do.

Your presentation could be how to summarize the news in 3 minutes better than TV does now in 22. It could be rethinking those never-ending weather reports with the brevity and informative value of Forecast.io. It could be making assets of value like backgrounders and explainers instead of just filling time. It could be rethinking the talk show to make it productive. It could be rethinking the sports report or the predictable sports interview. The presentation could be a few minutes of video or a storyboard or a sketch on a whiteboard; it’s the vision we care about — not the production value. The audience will be TV people — whose minds should be blown — and innovators — who should be inspired with new ideas, new possibilities.

Among those we’ve invited who are scheduled to come: Tim Pool of Vice; Fred Graver, creator of Best Week Ever on VH1, now handling TV matters at Twitter; Merope Mills, the new head of video at the Guardian; the folks at Fusion; Katie Couric and her new digital crew at Yahoo; Tom Keene at Bloomberg; Robert King, head of news at ESPN, and more.

The day won’t be about bashing TV news. I’ve already done that. No, this is about possibilities. We will concentrate on what TV can do well and about innovation. We will also explore the business of TV news and the reasons why this medium is ready to follow newspapers and magazines into the giant maw of disruption. Finally, it’s time to challenge the orthodoxies of TV news and rethink the form.

So if you have an idea for a way to reinvent TV news — a new method, a new segment, a new show, a new site or service — summarize it here. You could win $1,000 and and the chance to show it to people who might help make it happen.

If you’re interested in coming to the event, sign up here for updates and we’ll let you know when invitations open up. Also sign up there to get a reminder so you can watch the event on a live stream or afterwards on video.

This is the beginning of a crusade at the Tow-Knight Center and CUNY, where we are also starting a course this fall in reinventing TV news. Expect to hear much more on the topic from us.

The decootification of media companies

LOCALADV DIGITAL PHOTO BY JUSTIN BEST Cooties for a Kristi column.

This pretty much completes the circle: Now Gannett is ready to spin-off its print properties, following Scripps in 2007, Belo in 2008, News Corp. in 2013, Tribune Company in 2014, and Time-Warner in 2014 — not to mention the Graham family putting the Washington Post up for adoption by Jeff Bezos.

Thus ends the decootification of media companies: entertainment here/print there; future here/past there; profitable here/screwed there. In corporate transactions, an unnamed venture is called a newco. In these media transactions, the abandoning parents might as well have called each progeny a crapco. They are not only set off on ice floes like elderly Eskimos awaiting a cold death, but some of their abusive parents — namely Time-Warner and Tribune — saddled them with horrendous debt. A few didn’t. Gannett’s spin-off is to be debt-free. Give considerable credit to Rupert Murdoch — who does love newspapers — leaving News Corp. with no debut and $2.6 billion in cash.

This is happening because the bad news for news isn’t over. The last best category of advertising in newspapers is the distribution of FSIs, free-standing inserts — circulars and coupons — which by one account adds up to 30-50 percent of newspapers’ retail advertising (though retail advertising continues to plummet). The last, best reason to keep printing and distributing a newspaper is FSIs. When you see papers cut frequency of printing or distribution to a few days a week, those are not hot news days; those are the days that bring FSIs and their revenue.

I’ve been saying here for some time that FSIs will go away. About two years ago, I asked a big-box retailer that makes much money from its circulars (from charging brands for presence in them) how long it would be before the circulation of print newspapers would fall below critical mass. The reply: 24-36 months. Note how long ago that was. FSIs are holding on for now but they are bound to start dropping off (a cliff) when (1) newspaper penetration — now running about a third of the country — continues to die off and as (2) consumer adoption of digital and especially mobile couponing rises and as (3) retail itself suffers in the face of Amazon and now Amazon, Google, and eBay all experimenting with same-day local delivery. Add (4): At the PostalVision2020 conference a year ago, the postmaster general described the entire business model of the United States Post Service as an advertising delivery medium; it will compete with newspapers for those last printed circulars and coupons and it is just as desperate for them.

I’ve also been saying here for some time that the real goal of newspaper publishers should be to become sustainable digital enterprises before the day when print becomes unsustainable. I’ve worked with two companies that are trying. Digital First started down the path but hasn’t arrived; it is a more digital and more viable company but still has a way to go to reach the promised land. Advance has consolidated digital and print in its markets, reducing print frequency in some and in all markets making digital the primary product for consumers and advertisers as well as staff and print a byproduct that still produces cash. Other companies have gone for short-term cash-flow fixes — namely, paywalls, whose growth has stalled both at Gannett (about 1 percent after a year) and now at The New York Times (in its latest quarterly report, the paper said growth of core digital subscriptions — apart from new digital products that themselves didn’t sell so well — stalled at just over 1 percent).

The job of turning a legacy news organization into a new digital organization is both wrenching and expensive. It requires urgency. It also requires patience and patient capital to fund reorganizations but especially innovation, which entails experimentation and thus failure — in a word, risk.

What these spin-offs signals is that media companies do not have the stomach, patience, capital, or guts to do the hard work that is still needed to finish turning around legacy media. So they spin them off. What used to be Gannett, Tribune, Scripps, and Belo are now TV companies. What used to be News Corp. and Time Warner are now entertainment companies — companies that might merge not, in my opinion, because that’s such a wonderful deal but because the best path they see to growth is not innovation there either but instead cutting costs and consolidating negotiating power to outmaneuver (with help from legacy telcos) the Netflixes of the future.

I see something else happening here: the end of the mass-media business model built on reach and frequency (unique users and pageviews) — in a word, volume. Google, Facebook, retargeting, programmatic advertising, all the companies and trends that are growing in advertising focus on individuals over masses, on data over mere exposure. If news companies do not figure out how to know people as individuals and find value there, reconstituting themselves as relationship rather than merely content companies, then they will find the ice floes under them melting sooner than later.

: LATER: Here I am on Bloomberg TV Market Makers on this story today.

La vita cloudy

I’ve done it. I’ve moved entirely into the cloud. The process started a year ago when I bought my Chromebook Pixel. Well, actually, it started before that, when I shifted to Gmail and Google Calendar and Google Docs and that drove me to switch from iPhones to and Android phones and tablet and then to try a Chromebook. I still owned a Mac, but it did less and less, in the end just acting as a print server for my Google Cloud Print and as a Skype machine because (1) Microsoft refuses to make Skype for Chrome and (2) Leo Laporte whined about my using Google Hangouts on This Week in Google.

But last week, my Mac died. I/O error. I/O error. OK, OK, I get the point. It’s four or five years old; not worth fixing. It so happens that the moment it died I was trying to set up a Skype talk into a conference in Las Vegas. They couldn’t do Hangouts. So I had to call in on Skype from my Nexus 7 tablet and it worked. Check off one use for the old, dead Mac.

I went through a few false starts trying to check off the other function: printing. I got a Lantronix PrintServer for Google Cloud Print but it still required me to set up printers in Google and that still required having a Mac or PC. I’m using the Lantronix but I also wanted to make this test pure: no other computer required. I got a Brother printer that was alleged to be a Google Cloud Print ready but it wasn’t really. Then I got an Epson and it worked. The Epson has a web set-up I could handle on my Chromebook, arranging to print directly to it with no middleman. It even sends scans directly to my Google Drive.

Ding, dong, my personal computer is dead. I bought my first machine, an Osborne 1, in 1981. I turned off my last one 33 years later. Leo Laporte, Gina Trapani, and I talked about this at some length at the start of This Week in Google. Now Leo’s had some fun at the expense of my Pixel, though he has come around to like his. And so I asked whether for lots of people, we’ve moved past the idea of needing to own a computer that stores data and runs applications locally.

Of course, this move still depends on what you need to do with a computer. I write — in fact, I’ve just written a 55,000-word tome about the future of journalism (betcha can’t wait for that!) using my Chomebook and Google Docs and Drive. I use the web — Chrome, of course. I communicate — everything I could need except Skype. I share. I do basic photo editing. I don’t do rigorous photo or video editing; for that, I’d still need local storage and computing. Gina says she still needs to code locally. OK, but all that, too, could change as connections speed up to gigabit speed and as remote apps and servers continue to gain power over what a personal machine could do.

We also discussed the need for a security blanket: backup. As we chatted, folks in the TWiT chatroom gave us suggestions for local hard drives and for online services such as Backupify that can backup or sync data to another service, such as Dropbox. I’ll work that out next. (In the meantime, I backed up my tome to a thumbdrive.)

So now I live in the cloud. It doesn’t really matter what device I use to get to my stuff: my Chromebook, a computer anywhere with Chrome on it, my Android phone or tablet. I still run apps, but they, like my stuff, will follow me around.

Oh, and by the way, for the first time in decades, I no longer use any Apple or Microsoft products. That’s not because I have anything against either. I just don’t need them.

Welcome to the next era of personal computing without a personal computer.

No silver bullets

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Lewis DVorkin performed a miracle with Forbes … almost. He almost rescued a dying brand, almost helped get it sold to a new owner, and almost rescued the Forbes family and its no-doubt-regretful investor Elevation Partners. I respect Lewis’ inventiveness and innovation. He has done the best he could with the brand he had.

But there’s only so much that can be done urgently with old media on the descent. As Steve Forbes himself said announcing the sale of a majority stake in his company to a group of Asian private-equity investors and cataloguing how his business used to be run: “The web has made this way of doing things obsolete.”

The Times, quoting unnamed sources, says the deal values Forbes at $475 million, but the Financial Times’ John Gapper properly asks:

Axel Springer, a leading European magazine publisher and digital company, was supposed to be interested in Forbes. But it and other media buyers dropped out early. Forbes had reportedly been hoping to sell the entire company for more than $400 million. That didn’t happen. Whatever the real valuation, given the buy-out of Elevation Partners — which had invested in Forbes in 2006 getting a reported 40% for $250-300 million, valuing the company then at under $750 million — and given the large chunk that Forbes is left with, I’d guess the family got something in the borderline nine figures. [I should add that as one commenter elsewhere points out, I'm not even trying to make a guess at such things as liquidation preferences for Elevation.] Not a deliriously happy ending for the Capitalist Tool, but — as people told me this week when I complained about turning 60 — it beats the alternative.

When DVorkin returned to Forbes in 2010, where he had been executive editor a decade before, with the purchase of his startup True/Slant, he brought with him what looked like a solution for a dying brand: He used that brand as candy to draw more than a thousand contributors to write mostly for free — the top few traffic attractors can make a decent buck — adding onto the work of a few score Forbes staff journalists. Thus he simultaneously exploded the quantity of content Forbes could serve while reducing the total cost of content to nearly nil. Now I’m all for media opening up to more voices, but let us acknowledge that not only the price but also the overall quality of Forbes content declined.

At the same time, the business side, headed by Mike Perlis, used that dying Forbes brand as candy for advertisers: Come appear on Forbes.com with your own pieces labeled “Brand Voice.”
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I’ve long said that if you have to put a link next to a label saying “what’s this?” then the label clearly isn’t clear enough. This was a pioneering entry into the the so-called native advertising that is now overtaking media everywhere. Just as it was supposed to be the salvation of Forbes it is now supposed to save legacy media.

Beware the silver bullet. It can backfire.

The problem in the end for Forbes, I believe, is that the brand became even more devalued. I illustrate this very simply: Now, when I see a link to Forbes on Twitter, I don’t know whether it is going to take me to (1) the good work of a Forbes journalists, (2) the good work of a Forbes contributor, (3) the bad work of one of many Forbes contributors, or (4) the paid and wordy shilling of a Forbes advertiser, e.g.:

Thus, I hesitate three beats before clicking on a Forbes link. That is the definition of a devalued media brand. And that is precisely what other media companies should fear as they more and more try to fool their readers into thinking that what we used to call advertising is now something else that can comfortably live under brands, enigmatically labeled.

The real lesson of Forbes is that there are no easy answers and quick solutions for transforming legacy media companies. DVorkin became a key tourist attraction for media executives touring New York. I know because I took many of them to meet Lewis. He generously shared his means and methods. But I also told these executives that the path was not without the peril I just described.

Media executives are looking for quick fixes still.

Tablets were going to save them, returning to them the control of user experience and business model the link had taken from them. Hearst Magazines has had some success with tablets. But salvation does not this way lie.

Pay walls were going to save them, finally recognizing the value of their content online. But as Gannett has learned, after grabbing cash flow the first year, growth stops. No Moshiach there.

Ad marketplaces were going to save them — or at least let them compete with Google. But programmatic advertising — those ads that follow you all around the web telling you to buy that kayak you looked at once on Amazon — commodify media. They value direct data about a customer over the context media provides — that is, it’s better to show a kayak ad to a kayak buyer than to buy an ad next to a kayak story. This is why I argue in the start of a white paper I’m finishing now that we must shift to a business based on known relationships with people as individuals and communities rather than as a mass.

Shifting to a relationship and service strategy over a pure content strategy will take not only urgency but also time, with much experimentation and failure and a need for patient capital — likely not the Hong-Kong-based private-equity investors Forbes now has, not the hedge funds that Digital First Media has, not the public owners that Gannett and Time Inc. have. This won’t be easy.

I’m not saying that DVorkin and Perlis ever thought that what they were doing was easy. But others did. They hoped that Forbes would show the way to a solution for all their problems. Well, so much for that. That way lies the skin of your teeth.