Robert Thomson, CEO of News Corp., just sent a monumentally cynical letter to the EU attacking Google, matching the letter from a posse of European publishers led by Germany’s Axel Springer and another public letter from that company’s head, Mathia Döpfner. These supposed bastions of conservative thinking are running to the government they all disdain to try to get unfair advantage on Google because — simply put — they have failed in the marketplace on their own. The internet and defeated them. They are crying uncle. On Newsgenius, I annotated Thomson’s letter….
Europe is at it again. Or still. I’m told that a consortium of European publishers will run an ad in European papers this weekend attacking Google and the EU’s antitrust deal with the company. It’s the same old stuff: publishers whining and stomping their feet that it’s just not fair that Google is doing better than they are and government should step in to do something about this, this damned, uh … competitor.
In the ad, the publishers’ argument is that Google’s search is not “impartial.” First, who said it has to be? Second, Google does point to its competitors; see this search for “maps” to the left. Third, who requires the publishers to promote their competitors? Here, the so-called Open Internet Project — a front started by German publisher Axel Springer — demands “equal search” (what the hell would that be?) for, say, shoe listings, complaining that Google makes money pointing to its shoe advertisers. Hmmm. And here is Bild, Springer’s gigantic newspaper, selling shoes itself. I don’t see them linking to Google’s shoe ads. Shouldn’t a news publication be — what’s the word? — impartial?
But, of course, this isn’t the point. It’s a game. I’ve seen German publishers chuckling about it that way. They think they can use government and political pressure to cut some flesh out of Google. But they should beware the unintended consequences. They are helping Europe — and particularly Germany — get a reputation for being hostile or at least inhospitable to technology. Here is the Economist writing about “Germany’s Googlephobia.”
It so happens that I’m going to Berlin next week to speak at the IFA technology show about just this topic: Europe (specifically Germany) and technology specifically American technology companies). I worry about Europe.
Germany just banned Uber (despite the advice of EC VP Neelie Kroes). A European court instituted the ludicrous and dangerous Right to be Forgotten (what about the right to remember?). German government officials harassed Google over Street View so much that Google gave up photographing its streets (so much for Blurmany). German publishers got government to pass an ancillary copyright to go after Google quoting and linking to their content (but then lost a round in court). The German book industry gave technosceptic Jaron Lanier its big-deal peace prize and Dave Eggers’ dystopian novel is roaring up the charts. A German pol is threatening to break up Google (how?). Spain is looking to tax the link. The head of powerful German publisher Axel Springer raises the spectre of Google starting its own nation without laws. A German government agency is talking about declaring Google a utility and regulating it as such; I’d call that quasi-nationalization. “It is the core task of liberalism and social democracy to tame and restrain data capitalism gone wild,” declared Social Democratic Chairman Sigmar Gabriel in a German paper. “Either we defend our freedom and change our policies, or we become digitally hypnotised subjects of a digital rulership.” I could go on….
Would you invest in technology in Europe and specifically in Germany? I sure wouldn’t.
Some of this is about disrupted companies and institutions rallying to try to hobble their disruptor. Some of this is cultural technopanic. In either case, the damage to Europe and particularly Germany could be great.
At IFA, I plan to tell the technology executives there that they need to step up and defend progress or they might find themselves left behind.
A very good take on why all news organizations think they “need a take on that” becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, being followed by another take and then another take on the Awl’s take on takes. Shoot us all now.
No, shoot the business model and the presumptions of mass media economics. That is what is causing this ridiculous treadmill of making content for content’s sake to get audience for audience’s sake with any original reporting or original thinking being copied and copied again and again until it looks like a the fuzzy, unreadable, 87th Xerox copy of a bad carbon copy. That is what makes media companies think the answer to any business problem is to make more content because that’s what we content makers do.
The problem is that the old business model of mass media rewards volume not value. The problem is also that we mistake our job as content makers rather than as service providers.
Advertising is bought on eyeballs by the ton — that is, every 1,000 set of eyeballs a media site can deliver. Advertisers then deliver their messages to said eyeballs. That’s because that’s the way old, one-way, mass media had to work. That’s all that print and broadcast allowed. And we are still, two decades after the introduction of commercial web, trying to copy our old business models in a new media reality. Spoiler: It won’t work.
Why do you think, as illustrated in this handy chart provided by First Monday, that Google’s value has soared 1,000 percent in that time while news media companies’ value has swirled down the toilet bowl?
Easy: Google sells value. To users, it provides relevance. To advertisers, it promises performance. Meanwhile, media still sell mass. They deliver one-size-fits-all products (“come see our home page, all of you; we’ll bet one of the hundred or so headlines there will grab you!”) to users. They deliver mere impressions to advertisers. Shouldn’t we be asking [cough] what would Google do?
There’s another reason that journalists like to issue their own takes on takes: ego. Back in the day, reporters were assigned to “match” other publications’ reporting not because they were scientists replicating others’ research and adding value to it but mostly because they wanted their own bylines and their on brands over their own stories in their own pages. And that made a modicum of sense in paper economics. But it doesn’t make sense anymore. Indeed, we cannot afford to use precious journalistic resources parroting what others have already done, reporting what our readers already know. The net — as distinct from mass media — rewards specialization and quality, the thing people link to because it’s good. Quality. Value. As a dividend, the link also brings news organizations the opportunity to recognize efficiencies by not trying to do everything for everyone. Dare I repeat this, too: Do what you do best and link to the rest.
The lessons of this story are painfully obvious: Stop making content. Start delivering service and value. Stop copying others’ work. Link to it. And to advertisers: Stop buying impressions. Buy performance. And to all: Challenge old assumptions. Innovation over inertia. Value over volume.
So was this just another take on the takes on takes? So shoot me.
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?
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.
If 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.
The 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.”
Well, 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.
UPDATE: Registration is now open here. Our keynoter is VICE News Editor-in-Chief Jason Mojica and we’ll hear new ideas for TV News from Twitter’s Fred Graver, NowThisNews’s Sean Mills, and Occupy Wall Street chronicler Tim Pool.
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; 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.