Geeks Bearing Gifts: Metrics

The New York Times’ investigation into the dangers and abuses nail parlor workers are subjected to just led to Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordering inspections and, where necessary, closure of offending salons. That is media impact: improving people’s lives. Media impact is not what we measure now: pageviews, unique users, likes, shares, and all that. In the latest (and next-to-last) free chapter of Geeks Bearing Gifts, I offer my view of the metrics we should be using. Here’s a snippet; read the rest here. (And here’s a related post I wrote after the book about internally vs. externally focused journalism.)

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There is a richer set of metrics that matter to the mission of journalism — metrics around impact and accomplishment. These metrics must start not with us but with the people we serve. They must measure whether they meet their needs and accomplish their goals. Thus journalism built around impact doesn’t start with producing media’s content; it starts with listening to the public’s wants, needs, and goals so we can measure our success ultimately against whether those goals are achieved. (Therein lies the heart of our rationale for starting a new degree at CUNY in social journalism, a journalism built first on listening to and understanding and then serving a community; more on that in the afterword.)

Impact is terribly difficult to measure. It cannot easily be reduced to a number in a chart. But that is precisely why we should pursue these measures, because they force us to see people as individuals again; they force us to listen. Columbia University scholar James Carey argued that media were corrupted by the desire to reduce people to mere numbers — pro vs. anti, red vs. blue — as exemplified by the public-opinion poll. Polling, he said, “was an attempt to simulate public opinion in order to prevent an authentic public opinion from forming.” His alternative: conversation with the public. “I believe we must begin with the primacy of conversation,” Carey wrote. “It implies social arrangements less hierarchical and more egalitarian than its alternatives.” Yes, we have conversations online now, plenty of conversation in bottomless comments sections under our articles. But those comments are still mediacentric, reacting to the content we produce. No, the proper conversation journalists should have must start with the public. These conversations must start not with us speaking but with us listening. Thus I come to better understand my friend Jay Rosen’s interpretation of Carey’s admonitions to journalists: “The press does not ‘inform’ the public,” Rosen said. “It is ‘the public’ that ought to inform the press. The true subject matter of journalism is the conversation the public is having with itself.”

Now I return to amend the relationship metrics I proposed above: How many people have we met — where possible, face-to-face? How rich and informative were our conversations with them? How well do we understand them and their communities? How well have we heard or discerned their needs and goals? That is the starting point.

Only then, only when we have listened well, can we ask the next questions: What does an individual or a community need to accomplish its goals? How can we help? Is it information you need? How can we help you share what you already know? If what you need is not known, then how can we bring reporting to the task? Is it understanding you need? Then how can we bring explanation and context or education? Is it functionality you need? Do we have the skills to implement or build that? Is it organization you need? Can we help convene a community to deliberate and accomplish its goals?

Only after we have contributed to a community’s efforts to reach its own goals can we begin to think of measuring success — that is, impact….

Read the rest here.

If you can’t wait for the rest of the book, then you can buy it here.

Geeks Bearing Gifts: The Link Economy and Creditright

Here (after a delay … sorry) is another free chapter from Geeks Bearing Gifts. This one explores the idea that we need a marketplace that values not just content but also the creation of an audience for it, and how that might occur. This is a critical topic as we look at distributing news off media’s own sites and through Facebook and other platforms and streams. You can read the entire chapter here; a snippet:

There have long been two creations of value in media: the creation of content, yes, but also the creation of a public — an audience — for it. In legacy news media, the two were usually attached: the creator and the distributor were one in a vertically integrated enterprise (read: a publication). We often debated whether content or distribution was king. The answer didn’t much matter because they were inseparable; they shared the throne. Now these two tasks are — like so much else online — unbundled. Anyone can make content. Anyone can distribute content: its creator (inside or outside an institution), a reader who recommends it, an aggregator or curator who collects it, a search engine that points to it.

Media people tend to believe that content has intrinsic value — that is why they say people should pay for it and why some object when Google quotes snippets from it. But in an ecosystem of links online, new economics are in force. Online, content with no links has no value because it has no audience. Content gains value as it gains links. That formula was the key insight behind Google: that links to content are a signal of its value; thus, the more links to a page from sites that themselves have more links, the more useful, relevant, or valuable that content is likely to be.

The problem for us in the media industry is that we have no marketplace to value the gathering of links and audiences. Our systems are still built primarily around extracting the value of content: paying creators to make it; buying or subscribing to publications that contain it; or syndicating it from one publication to the next. These models are being made obsolete. Huffington Post and Twitter can get thousands of writers — including me — to make content for free because it brings us audience and attention. Selling content is difficult when you compete against others who offer content for free. And syndication is all but outmoded, for why should I buy a piece of content if instead I can link to it for nothing?

Consider an alternative to syndication. I’ll call it reverse syndication. Instead of selling my content to you, what say I give it to you for free? Better yet, I pay you to publish it on your site. The condition: I get to put my ad on the content. I will pay you a share of what I earn from that ad based on how much audience you bring me. That model values the creation of the audience. When The New York Times complains about Huffington Post summarizing its articles, perhaps The Times would be better off offering Huffington Post this deal: Take our stories but keep them intact with Times branding, advertising, and links. We’ll give you a share of what we earn for each story based on the size — and perhaps quality, as measured in attention and demographics — of the audience you bring to it.

For that matter, why should media always force our readers to come to us? Why shouldn’t our content go to them? Before Gutenberg’s press, scholars had to travel to books; after Gutenberg, the books traveled to the scholars. We’ve long had home delivery for newspapers, magazines, and TV, so why not extend that service to content on the web? For years, I had wished for a means to make articles and blog posts embeddable on other sites, just like YouTube videos. If content could travel with its business model attached, we could set it free to travel across the web, gathering recommendations and audience and value as it goes, and thus ending at least part of the fight over the question of whether aggregation is theft.

Read the rest here.

If you can’t wait for the rest of the book, then you can buy it here.

Content in the social Mode

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One underestimates Samir Arora at one’s peril.

Under most everyone’s radar, he built Glam — since rechristened Mode Media — as the seventh largest web property by audience, with 155 monthly unique users in the U.S. and 406 million worldwide. He did that by building a network. That’s what brought us together: our belief in the power of networks. (Disclosure: For a time, I advised Glam.)

Then Arora started experimenting with other forms of media. He opened Foodie as a curation tool gathering food photos with links to recipes and he found out how much traffic he could drive to content creators. At the same time, the company bought Marc Andreessen’s community platform, Ning, and used it to build tools for content creators.

And now he has unveiled a rebuilt Mode atop Ning. With it he is reversing the direction taken by most other media. Panicked by Facebook, Twitter, and the explosion of social, media companies have tried to add social to content (“Share me!”) or take their content to social platforms (e.g., Buzzfeed gloms onto Facebook like an oxpecker on a rhino and now Facebook the spider tempts news companies to publish their content in its web). Mode is going the other way: It built a social platform and is adding content to it.

The new Mode launched with 100,000 pieces of content, with a heavy emphasis on video, from its own creators and sites it’s working with. It has an easy tool to enable curators to gather and link to content from around the web. Those are human curators, not algorithms. It has content creation tools, including a video player. Those collections of content and recommendations will be embeddable (though as I write this, that function isn’t working yet for me). Altogether, Arora says Mode has 6,000 sites in its ad network, 4,000 of its own content creators, and 4,000 sites where it can distribute its feeds.

As is often the case with Arora’s inventions, it takes me a few days to understand his insight. With this relaunch, what I see is that Arora envisions the page-based web shifting to a stream-based web.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that lately and will probably write more about streams-v-pages soon. But in a nutshell, thanks to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp and so many other social services and thanks also to the form factor of mobile, more and more of our attention is being taken up by streams rather than pages. We in media have little choice but to endeavor to plop our content into others’ streams so it will get attention. Thus the negotiations with Facebook, Snapchat, et al.

Arora has built an infrastructure to create streams for content. At the Newfronts advertising showcase, he bragged that he could take a YouTube creator’s video and program it into all the streams he controls and bring it one million viewers. Snap.

He also sees that the way to build loyalty and thus audience and usage is to enable people to follow the creators and curators they like. That is the architecture that made social media — Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, et al — scale. So he has build following into Mode.

Mode’s challenge remains that you probably have never heard of it. It has not been a brand, it has been a network and then it became a platform. Now it needs to develop a media and social brand. And to do that, it is bringing inside all its sub-brands — Glam, Brash, Foodie, Bliss, Tend — under the new Mode. But Mode also has to expand its offerings from its mostly fluffly Glam roots — lots of fashion and lifestyle — and add more business, tech, news, and hard information. That’s what Arora says he will do, growing from 10,000 affiliated content creators to 100,000 — who are paid — and building more content brands. And, of course, he can offer his platform and skills to advertisers, helping them create and distribute — just as Buzzfeed sells its skills rather than merely its space.

At the DLD conference in Munich in January, I interviewed Arora and he offered a clear vision for where media success will lie, finding scale and value in building platforms — rather than just content — that in turn gather distribution at no cost through social connections. He put this complex slide on the screen (which I explain in this post):

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At the Newfronts presentations a week ago, he simplified that view of the industry this way:

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Note that to the left are the content creators. They can use the boxes to the right to distribute and exploit their work. Mode is positioning itself as a social discovery platform for professional content. I can’t know whether it will work. But then, I didn’t know that blogs and Twitter would work. I’ve learned not to underestimate that which I don’t yet fully understand.

Geeks Bearing Gifts: The Pricing Paradox of Information

This chapter from Geeks Bearing Gifts deals with a fundamental strategic question for the future of news: Why does the information business suck? Does it need to? Yes, it does. Here’s the start of the chapter. You can read the rest here.

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In Adam Smith’s paradox of value, he wondered why, if water is vital to life and diamonds are not, diamonds are worth so much more than water. The pricing paradox of information presents a similar quandary: If information is so much more valuable to society than entertainment, why is it so hard to build a business — namely, journalism — around selling access to information? Journalism at its most useful is information-rich but information is quickly commodified. Entertainment, on the other hand, is unique and engaging and — for reasons I’ll explain in a moment — receives greater legal protection under copyright than information does. We have conflated journalism as an information business with entertainment as an engagement business in large part because both are are built on “stories.”

Information is less valuable in the market because it flows freely. Once a bit of information, a fact, appears in a newspaper, it can be repeated and spread, citizen to citizen, TV anchor to audience: “Oyez, oyez, oyez” shouts the town crier. “The king is dead. Long live the king. Pass it on.” Information itself cannot and must not be owned. Under copyright law, a creator cannot protect ownership of underlying facts or knowledge, only of their treatment. That is, you cannot copyright the fact that the Higgs boson was discovered at CERN in 2012, you can copyright only your treatment of that information: your cogent backgrounder or natty graphic that explains WTF a boson is. A well-informed society must protect and celebrate the easy sharing of information even if that does support freeloaders like TV news, which build businesses on the repetition of information others have uncovered. Society cannot find itself in a position in which information is property to be owned, for then the authorities will tell some people — whether they are academics or scientists or students or citizens — what they are not allowed to know because they didn’t buy permission to know it. Therein lies a fundamental flaw in the presumption that the public should and will pay for access to information — a fundamental flaw in the business model of journalism. I’m not saying that information wants to be free. I agree that information often is expensive to gather. Instead I am saying that the mission of journalism is to inform society by unlocking and spreading information. Journalism frees information.

Read the rest here.

If you can’t wait for the rest of the book, then you can buy it here.

Geeks Bearing Gifts: Patronage

Another new, free chapter from Geeks Bearing Gifts, this one on patronage as a means of support for news organizations. Snippet:

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These ideas bring us to the edge of patronage, philanthropy, and crowdfunding — from the pledge to an NPR station to the pledge for a journalist’s project on Kickstarter: Some people will support the journalism they want to exist. Their reward is not necessarily access. Our motivations could be many: generosity, altruism, activism, justice, credit, social capital, or just warm fuzzies. Journalists — including many of my students before I’ve had the chance to corrupt them and turn them into capitalists — tend to love this model because it seems so easy and clean (no need to sell advertising, they think) and because it plays to their editorial ego: My work has worth and it deserves this support. But patronage has its issues. First, there simply isn’t enough generosity, whether from foundations or individuals, to pay for all the journalism the nation needs. Foundations will warn you that they will not support operations forever; they expect grantees to find other means of sustaining themselves. Second, there is no free lunch; charity often comes with strings. We have seen plenty of cases of fat cats wearing white knights’ armor “saving” newspapers only to try to use them as their personal and political bully pulpits. I have watched journalistic not-for-profits forced to deal with the demands of philanthropists and foundations. Before assuming that advertising is corrupting, we would do well to remember that it was advertising that freed newspapers from the ownership and control of political parties.

That said, direct contributions are a potential source of support for the creation of journalistic enterprises as well as their ongoing operation. When venture capitalist John Thornton founded The Texas Tribune, I begged him to use his considerable capitalistic skills to make it a for-profit business instead of a not-for-profit, but he insisted that if Texas could support a ballet company or two, it could support his Texas Tribune. The Knight Foundation leads other media funders in subsidizing the creation of important journalistic experiments and infrastructure (Knight is a funder of my work at CUNY). New platforms such as Patreon enable fans of a lone journalist’s work to pay for each piece of work delivered. And in New Jersey, we will experiment with campaigns to allow neighbors to contribute support to their local bloggers.

Read the rest here.

If you can’t wait for the rest of the book, then you can buy it here.

Geeks Bearing Gifts: Paywalls

Screenshot 2015-04-14 at 7.49.54 AMSorry. Haven’t uploaded a new chapter from Geeks Bearing Gifts in two weeks. Busy, you know. So here’s the latest, on paywalls. Uh-oh. The start of it:

There is no more emotion-laden topic, no fiercer battleground in the hunt for new business models for news than the discussion of paywalls. I have personally been taken to task in the once-august Columbia Journalism Review and by no less than The New York Times’ media critic, David Carr, to name only a few, for challenging the wisdom of the wall. The arguments in favor of paywalls are apparent: Readers used to pay for content when they bought newspapers and magazines and so they should still. It was an original sin for content ever to have been given away for free online. The people who use news sites the most value the content there and would be willing to pay for it, and so they should. News organizations should have multiple revenue streams so they are not so dependent on advertising alone (see: doomsday, above). And news — quality news — is expensive. Who should pay to maintain the newsroom and the Baghdad bureau? Besides, it’s working at The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the Financial Times, why shouldn’t it work elsewhere?

My responses: I have never seen a business model built on the verb “should.” Customers pay for products and services based on the value to them in a competitive market. The arguments in favor of maintaining paywalls around content tend to ignore the new reality of a media ecosystem built on abundance, no longer on a scarcity controlled by media proprietors who have long since lost their pricing power. In such a market, someone will always be able to sell a product like yours cheaper than you. Some spoiler might even figure out a way to make that product free, and it’s impossible to compete with free. Nevermind that the competitor’s product may not be as good. In the market, what matters in the end is this: Is it good enough? In such an ecosystem of abundance, I say it was wise, not sinful, for news organizations to open up and build an audience — bigger online than ever in print — before it could be stolen away by more efficient new competitors: from CompuServe to Yahoo, from a million bloggers to Huffington Post, from Business Insider to BuzzFeed. I will argue in a moment that if we’re going to charge anyone, perhaps it should not be our most loyal, engaged, and valuable customers on whom we make money through advertising, but instead the occasional visitor and freeloader. As for the argument that news is expensive: Well, yes, it was, but we know it can be more efficient today. Besides, thanks to advertisers’ support and subsidies, the truth is that readers never truly paid for news, never fully supported the cost of the newsroom. And in a competitive market, one cannot price one’s offerings based on cost plus profit; that works only in a monopoly, which news organizations have now lost.

Read the rest here.

If you can’t wait for the rest of the book, then you can buy it here.

Want to turn a beat into a business? We will train and support you. For free. Apply now!

This is a big opportunity for anyone who wants to take a beat — covering a town or part of a city or covering a topic or serving a community — and make that into a sustainable business (that is, one that will feed the journalist). At CUNY’s Tow-Knight Center, we will be running tuition-free training and mentorship starting this summer for the 15 best applicants who come to us.

There are now lots of examples of beat businesses that are sustainable: hyperlocal services like Baristanet, West Seattle Blog, Red Bank Green, plus business-to-business sites like Skift, and no end of tech blogs, and many more. We know what that business needs to succeed, in content, in marketing, in sales, in technology.

I wrote in my book about beat businesses as the building blocks of new news ecosystems. I have been doing a lot of work in New York and especially in New Jersey — in partnership with the Dodge Foundation, the Knight Foundation, Montclair State, and others — to support the ecosystem there.

Now we must grow the ecosystem. That is what this training is about.

And now we must support journalists who want to continue serving communities even though they no longer work for newspapers or other news outlets.

At CUNY, we are hiring great trainers who have helped many of the existing businesses, Janet and Rusty Coats. They, in turn, are bringing on experienced mentors to give ongoing support. All the details of the training are here. You will come out of this program with a realistic, workable business and product plan, and access to a powerful network of fellow entrepreneurs and media experts.

All you need to do is have the energy and passion to serve a community. You tell us what community that is and why you think you’re right to do it. We will help you start.

And if you’re lucky enough to work in New Jersey or New York, you will get even more ongoing support with well-established networks in both places.

So apply. Or pass it on to a journalist or community member who wants to turn a beat into a living.

It’s the relationship, stupid

On Friday, I wrote a wishlist for what I’d like to see Facebook do for news, hoping it would allow publishers to embed content — with business model attached — on the service. Today, The New York Times reports that Facebook is talking with some publishers about serving their content directly.

I have one bit of advice: Don’t do it without the data, people.

It’s a damned fine idea to go to the readers rather than make them come to you — BuzzFeed does it; so does Vox; so does Reported.ly. It’s wonderful to get more audience and branding on Facebook. It’d be super peachy to get a share of revenue from Facebook at last. All that is great.

But keep in mind where the real value is: in the relationship, in knowing what people — individuals and communities, not a faceless, anonymous mass — need and want and know so you can give them relevance and value and so they will give you greater usage, engagement, attention, loyalty, and advertising value in return. This, I argue in Geeks Bearing Gifts, is the essence of a new strategy for sustaining news — quality news.

Here’s some of what I wrote Friday:

Facebook could go to the next level — a quantum leap, in fact — because it has the environment in which users like to consume and share content and it has überdata about their interests, connections, and behavior. Facebook knows what we Like and what we like. Google just has Google+ (and I say that with kindness and respect as a member of that remote tribe).

Now why the hell would Facebook ever share any of the gold from its rainbow pot? Because it fears that these 98-pound weakling publishers will start bullying it as they have Google? Maybe, but that’s not the foundation of a lasting friendship. Should Facebook feel sorry for publishers? No, it’s publishers’ own damned fault that they continued their mass-media ways online and failed to use the new tools available to them to build relationships of relevance and value with the people they serve.

Instead, Facebook could — and I believe should — share data about users and content to benefit its users and itself. Enlightened self-interest is the basis of all good products and partnerships.

Imagine this simple scenario: On Facebook, I show an interest in a particular entity or topic — say, I keep giving Jim Brady and my son sympathy for their affection for the Jets or I roll my eyes at the drummed-up media hubbub over Hillary Clinton’s email. I also happen to like, follow, or frequently link to and discuss news outlets that cover these things. Now imagine that Facebook asks me a simple question: Jeff, we see you are interested in these subjects, would you like NJ.com to alert you to news — perhaps just the rare good news — about the Jets? Would you like the Guardian to recommend some intelligent conversation about Clinton?

If I say yes to that question, goodness abounds:
First, I get relevant relevant content from sources I like.
Second — and this is huge — by giving my consent to this transaction, I am cutting off any technopanic about privacy; I asked Facebook to share my information because I got something I valued in return.
Third, I’m not only getting more content of interest to me but I am getting content that might be of interest to friends, which I’m likely to share, and that benefits Facebook: more usage, more connections, more data.
Finally — and this is the money shot — each publisher gets information about me as an individual with a name and can use that with my permission to serve me better not only on Facebook but on its own site and elsewhere on the web. It also has a mechanism to learn what users want.
What’s not to love?

This scheme will not work if Facebook keeps all the data and all the money and can pull the rug out from under the publishers at its whim. Or to put this more positively: This idea could work if readers benefit with more relevance and less noise and if publishers can share in revenue and what’s even more valuable — data — and if they can trust Facebook to act in mutual interest.

I would propose that both the containers for embeddable content and the means of consensual transfer of data about users and interests should be open standards so users can get these benefits of relevance and sharing wherever they want: on Facebook, on Twitter, on Tumblr, on Reddit, on blogs … yes, even on Google+ (and I crack that joke with love). May the best services win our hearts, minds, effort, and attention.

Indeed, what I’d really like to see is a scheme — an open-source data scheme, that is — that would allow users to control their own interest data, how it is shared, and with whom. (I have an idea about how blockchain contracts could enable that; more on that another day.) I could tell just certain sites that I want news about some obscure topic I care about — say, Chromebooks. I could even express an interest in buying one, but I would determine the conditions under which I share that fact. That is, I would tell stores to STFU about Chromebooks after I’ve bought one (unlike those damned retargeting ads that follow us everywhere on the net for weeks on end if we make the mistake of so much as glancing sideways at a laptop on Amazon). This is the essence of what Doc Searls has been advocating with his vision of vendor relationship management (VRM v. CRM), putting users and customers in control.

But I don’t want to get ahead of myself seeking a moonshot when we don’t yet know how to climb the stairs. All I want to start is a demonstration of embeddable content and consensual data sharing from one service.

That’s one thing Facebook could do for news.

That Facebook’s head of product, Chris Cox, cares about news and is working on ways to work with publishers is great. I do not fear that the borg will eat us up. But I do fear that some of us will be bad negotiators. Now is the time to join together to become stronger negotiating as a group than alone. Now is the time to play Facebook, Google, Twitter, Snapchat, et al off each other and get the best deal possible. Now is the time to get access to the data that will build more than today’s cash flow but will instead build tomorrow’s strategy.