Geeks Bearing Gifts: Business Ecosystems

Time for another free chapter of Geeks Bearing Gifts: Imagining New Futures for News. In the last chapter, I wrote about beats as businesses and building blocks of a new news ecosystem. Now I write about the rest of the ecosystem. Vertically integrated companies, industries, and monopolies that dominated news are new replaced with messy, growing (I hope) ecosystems made up of many players operating under many different motives and business models.

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As specialists, beats are efficient. But they are hardly sufficient to meet the complete needs of the larger community. Other, larger entities are required to complement and bring quality and scale to coverage, distribution, and advertising. These additional entities can become efficient and sustainable because together, all these enterprises, large and small, can benefit one another — if they learn to collaborate. These entities can include new news organizations, reformed legacy institutions, not-for-profit investigative organizations, public media, specialists of various sorts, networks, and enterprises I’ve not yet seen or imagined. Together, they make up the new news ecosystem.

Read the rest here.

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

Geeks Bearing Gifts: Beat Businesses as Building Blocks of News Ecosystems

The latest chapter of Geeks Bearing Gifts: Imagining New Futures for News is posted free on Medium. The topic this time, one of my favorites: beat businesses (hyperlocal, hyperinterest, vertical sites serving specific communities) as building blocks of a new news ecosystem. The opening:

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In research conducted at CUNY’s Tow-Knight Center in 2009 and again in 2014, modeling the news ecosystem of a market the size of Boston and then of New Jersey, we found that beats can indeed be businesses. We found examples scattered across the country — and I emphasize the word scattered — of hyperlocal blogs covering towns or urban neighborhoods of about 50,000 people that were earning upwards of $250,000 to $350,000 a year, mostly in advertising revenue. It is grindingly hard work. To serve, attract, and maintain a loyal audience of sufficient size within the community, the blogger must feed the beast not merely daily but many times per day. She must constantly be out in the community, talking with people. She has to perform not just journalistic functions but also commercial functions, getting over the journalist’s common phobia of business — specifically of arithmetic, advertising, and sales. To do all that alone is nigh unto impossible, so the hyperlocal blogger often works with partners — sometimes spouses — and has to earn the trust and affection of members of the community as collaborators. She also has to grapple with conflicts of interest more easily compartmentalized in large news organizations with their still-sprawling organization charts and lawyers on call — namely, how to deal with a local merchant as a reader, a subject, a source, and often an official of the town as well as a customer, while maintaining her own independence and credibility. It’s tough. It’s exhausting. It defeats many who try it. But still, there are many examples of success — from Baristanet to the West Seattle Blog to Red Bank Green, from The Batavian to The Lo-Down to Watershed Post. These are people who care about their own communities, who want to serve them, who sacrifice their days and any prayer of vacations, who pour sweat equity into their enterprises with no hope of the exits that other entrepreneurs work toward. And thank goodness for them.

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

Geeks Bearing Gifts: Efficiency … The Final Cut

Here’s the next free chapter of Geeks Bearing Gifts about efficiency and news and ask what of journalism we must fight to save and what isn’t necessarily journalism or at least journalism we can’t necessarily afford anymore.

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Most discussions of the state and fate of the business of news start with revenue and a search for the means to recover what has been lost to the internet so we can pay for and thus protect newsrooms as they were. Sorry, but I will begin on the other side of the ledger with the cost of journalism. It has plummeted, not just because we have less money to spend but because we can now spend less to get and disseminate the news. Thanks to technology, specialization, and collaboration, news can be much more efficient today.

After exploring the many ways in which technology has saved the news business money since the ’70s, I add:

Even with all that disruption and downsizing, still greater efficiency and savings have been brought to news by the internet — particularly the web and its essential invention: the link, which rewards both specialization and collaboration. “Do what you do best and link to the rest” is my most quoted, retweeted, and PowerPointed utterance (it helps that it rhymes). Out of that dictum flows a series of new efficiencies and necessities for news. The first is to specialize. There’s little sense wasting your time writing the 25th-best account of a story when it will appear on the third page of a search request and in only a few tweets; mediocrity and repetition don’t pay anymore, at least not for long. But there is considerable value in creating the best, for others will end up linking to you. . . .

The link forces us to reexamine the scoop culture of news — the belief that being first is always worthwhile. Today the half-life of a scoop is measured in the time it takes to click. It simply doesn’t pay anymore to be the first to report what will happen in a press conference when that will then be reported by hundreds of competitors, each a click away. Neither does it pay to “match” a competitor’s scoop, duplicating its reporting when linking to it will do — unless your reporting does take a story further. A true scoop, something that is worth our precious resources, is an investigation that breaks new ground or an insight from a reporter who knows her beat and her community better than anyone else. The rest is just the next minute’s fishwrap, digital dust.

After exploring various efficiencies and trying to cut journalism and our definition of it to its critical essence (in which, for the sake of illustration, I will piss off sports reporters and even some foreign correspondents and, God help me, copy editors), I come to this:

The news organization of the future should be specialized, expert, collaborative, efficient — and as small as it can be so it is sustainable. The bottom line: News enterprises that become profitable on their digital revenue are bound to be much smaller than their print forebears because, for all the reasons explored above, there’s simply less digital revenue to be had. This hard fact forces us to redefine the core of our value and to rebuild from there rather than trying to hold onto the functions we used to perform because we’ve always performed them. We must cut the waste. . .

What are we trying to save of journalism? . . .

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

Geeks Bearing Gifts: Digital First — What Then?

Here’s another free chapter of Geeks Bearing Gifts: Imagining New Futures for News. Now we get into the business models and strategies for news companies, starting with the question many ask John Paton, who named his company with the phrase — “What’s digital first?” — and the question he asked me — “What comes next?”

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Here’s how I translate the catchphrase “digital first” into a business strategy for legacy media proprietors: They must transform their companies into fully sustainable digital enterprises before the day when print becomes unsustainable. And for the most part, print will become unsustainable. I needn’t explore in depth the causes of death, as the essence of mass media’s plight is now apparent: Publishers as well as broadcasters controlled scarcities — limited space in print and time on the air, each in a closed distribution channel — which afforded them enviable pricing power. The net creates abundance — no shortage of content and no end of advertising availabilities, not to mention the opportunity for brands and merchants to bypass media altogether and build direct relationships with customers. That abundance drives the value of content and advertising toward zero….

The solutions for media companies may not be obvious, but the arithmetic of sustainability is: Start by reducing costs to their most essential and efficient level — assuredly a fraction of what they were for an old, vertically integrated monopoly. Then maximize digital revenue — advertising volume, yes, but I will also argue for building greater advertising value through deeper, richer relationships with consumers. Build new products and services appropriate to the new opportunities that technology presents: digital services for advertisers, mobile applications, newsletters, and so on. And explore additional revenue streams, including events, direct commerce, and consumer revenue via patronage or paywalls. Digital revenue surely will not cover the legacy costs of a deposed monopoly, but one had better see a path to digital profitability. The alternative is just to milk the old print cow until she keels over.

And one more snippet from this chapter about Paton and the genesis of this entire book:

Back to John Paton: I remember the day in 2012 when he charted for his advisory board — at the time, Jay Rosen, Emily Bell, and me; Clay Shirky joined later — his path to fixing Digital First’s corporate structure, reducing costs to the minimum (selling every printing press, fleet of trucks, and office building that was not profitable on its own), and driving maximum revenue to digital. He explained the dynamics of working with hedge funds — a crucial factor to keep in mind when we see later how his story ends. Paton drew his projections on the whiteboard and said: OK, let’s imagine that at a date only a couple of years out, we get there — the company will be substantially sustainable as a digital enterprise. Then what? he asked. What are we then?

That question inspired this essay. Trying to answer Paton’s question forced me to reexamine my own thinking about the future of news, to identify and push harder against my own assumptions that sprang from my experience in legacy media: the Gutenberg context, or pressthink, as Jay Rosen would call it. Paton was asking what news could be, what news should be. What is the strategy that takes us past mere survival to reinvention? Can we get there? I realized that until we reimagined our destination, we would be stuck recycling the past. What’s required to get to that goal is considerable imagination, experimentation, risk, failure, courage, and urgency — as well as patience.

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

David Carr

I debated whether to write a tribute here to David Carr. There are many more who had the privilege of knowing him much better than I did. Though it is quite appropriate that, as Andrea Peterson beautifully phrased it, the “wired collective voice of Twitter howled ‘David Carr'” on news of his death last night, a tweet, ten thousand tweets seem too few and by all means too fleeting for the likes of him. I asked myself what I would want my friends to do when I go and I’ll put those few of you on notice now: I want more than a tweet. So here in this, my somewhat less fleeting home, is a moment for David Carr.

Here I want to remember just one aspect of David’s remarkable career, character, and life: his appreciation for the value of youth.

I loved the times when he would brag about his daughters’ accomplishments and his moments with them online. Of course, that’s every father’s joy. But David was proud of the accomplishments of young people around him in much the same way. Last night in Twitter’s howl, I saw many rising talents thank David for the moments of intense attention and encouragement he had given them. My heart goes out to his own children and wife, of course, and also to his extended brood, like his students at BU who were so privileged to sit in the class of the all too briefly tenured Prof. Carr. In his brilliant syllabus, he told them:

Your professor is a terrible singer and a decent dancer. He is a movie crier but stone-faced in real life. He never laughs even when he is actually amused. He hates suck-ups, people who treat waitresses and cab drivers poorly, and anybody who thinks diversity is just an academic conceit. He is a big sucker for the hard worker and is rarely dazzled by brilliance. He has little patience for people who pretend to ask questions when all they really want to do is make a speech.

He has a lot of ideas about a lot of things, some of which are good. We will figure out which is which together. He likes being challenged. He is an idiosyncratic speaker, often beginning in the middle of a story, and is used to being told that people have no idea what he is talking about. It’s fine to be one of those people. In Press Play, he will strive to be a lucid, linear communicator.

Your professor is fair, fundamentally friendly, a little odd, but not very mysterious. If you want to know where you stand, just ask.

I was lucky to snag David once to judge my students’ entrepreneurial ventures. As the other assembled experts debated this and that, David waited for his moment and then — and you must hear this in that voice of his, that of a badly tuned diesel engine struggling up a mountain against the wind — he said: “The journalist must go to the ocean.” The room was silent, heads cocked like confused German shepherds as if to say, “What the fuck does that mean, David?” He was used to that: the price of speaking in brilliant, unexpected flourishes. So he explained: He saw that now the journalist had to do it all, had to make all media, had to distribute, had to support her work as a business. David voted for a few of those businesses and then, indeed, quietly helped those students find their ways to the ocean.

I was most impressed with David’s much observed bromance with Brian Stelter. When Brian arrived at The New York Times fresh from graduation day, David joked about seeing this young man as a threat — in David’s brilliant, unexpected flourish, Brian was a robot built in the basement of The Times to destroy him. Of course, David took Brian under his wing. But he did something more remarkable: He simultaneously treated Brian as a respected colleague, an equal, often someone to look up to. He was proud of Brian’s many page one stories. There’s a reason they costarred in Page One.

David’s love of youth and inventiveness permeated his criticism and media worldview. He played the curmudgeon brilliantly. The voice and imposing glare helped. He held journalism to standards. He asked the hardest questions he could and kept asking past the easy answers. But at the same time he allowed himself the joy of discovery of the new. I’ll bet that’s why he liked young people so much. They brought the fresh perspective that challenged his own perspective. He was open and intellectually honest enough to change his mind.

Evidence of that was his changing relationship with those Vice whippersnappers. Here was David scolding them in Page One:

And here was David changing his mind about Vice. Last year, he wrote: “Being the crusty old-media scold felt good at the time, but recent events suggest that Vice is deadly serious about doing real news that people, yes, even young people, will actually watch.”

Now see Vice cofounder Shane Smith talk about those moments and his relationship with David:

“People like David Carr who speak their minds and tell the truth are few and far between,” Shane said, “and there should be more David Carrs.” True.

NBC’s opportunity

Cross-posted from Medium.

Camel News CaravanNBC has a chance to reinvent television news without the plastic personality, the manufactured celebrity, the staged reality, the smarmy transitions, the bullshit BREAKING NEWS, the weather panic, the repetition, the predictability, the sensationalism, the insulting simplicity, the false balance, the lying anchor, and the single point of failure that has been its business model.

It could. But will it?

The entire structure of NBC news is still built around Brian Williams: The news is who reads it. The star is the star, the news merely his vehicle. They really believe we didn’t watch the news. We watched Brian. But no more.

Now NBC’s executives have set themselves up to tread water for six months—not incidentally insulting Lester Holt as a mere placeholder when they could set precedent with a solo African-American network news anchor.

Could it get worse? Can it get better?

Yes. NBC News could have the courage to not only reinvent the form but also rethink its business model and its relationship with the audience, no longer merely fighting for a slice of the geriatric demographic shared by its network fellows but trying to serve the rest of the nation where it lives: not in front of a TV at 6:30 p.m. but online and on mobile.

NBC News could do any of many things.

Yes, listening to Twitter’s universal punchline yesterday, it could replace a comedian with a newsman and hire Jon Stewart to turn its news into something compelling and unique that people would watch, returning news to its true mission: calling bullshit on power and pomposity (such as that on TV news).

It could follow the lead of Vice and give up on the commodity news we all already know, concentrating instead on finding compelling stories with real human voices.

It could become a town square of America with meaningful, civil, intelligent discussion of the issues facing the nation.

It could explain complex stories to us, creating assets we return to online when we want to understand an issue.

It could become a grand crusader for principles and causes: truth, justice, you know the rest.

It could curate the best of news media elsewhere, not rewriting and repeating what they say but giving attention to unique news.

It could forego the star system and make journalism its star.

It could give up the idea of an evening show with its evident corruptions and shift not just to digital first but digital only.

It could give up and go out of the news business. There’s a surplus of what they define as TV news already.

It could surprise us with a vision for TV news that I can’t imagine.

Or it could sit in limbo, thinking that time and we will forgive their star and he will return and everything will be just like it was with NBC No. 1 even among the soon-to-die demo, with cash flow burbling again.

Yeah.

The problem is that the entire structure of not just NBC News but its competitors is built around an anachronistic orthodoxy: This is how we make TV news because this is how we’ve always made it and if people watch what we give them we must be giving them what they want; this must be right.

Enough.

Someone at Comcast/NBC/Universal/God could have the courage to use this scandal, this kick to the kidneys, this cosmic pressing of the pause button, this blow to their business model as an opportunity to stop and do something brave, something new.

It could happen.

Geeks Bearing Gifts: The Story So Far

After taking a bit of time off, I’m going to restart the posting of chapters from Geeks Bearing Gifts: Imagining New Futures for News — for free on Medium. This last half of the book is the meaty bit, the good part, the climax. This is the part about money and sustaining journalism.

Screenshot 2015-02-10 at 3.40.50 PMFirst, a brief recap of the first two sections of the book about relationships as the basis of a new strategy for news and then about new forms of news, then a preview of the rest of the book. It’s short, so I’ll quote the entire thing here:

I hear it often: News doesn’t have a journalism problem. It has a business-model problem. I will disagree on two counts. It is willfully blind and suicidally deaf to say that journalism doesn’t have a problem when its institutions are all suffering falling audience and plummeting trust — only about a fifth of Americans have “a great deal” or “quite a lot of” confidence in news media, according to Gallup. More important, to pose journalism’s plight as a problem is to suggest that journalism as it was needs saving, that there’s some fix out there that will make everything all right again if only we can find it. I prefer to state the quandary from an antipodal point of view: Journalism has no end of new opportunities and our problem is that we have not yet explored nearly enough of them.

In the first part of this essay, I explored the new relationships journalism can have with the public that it never could have before:

* understanding, interacting with, and serving people as individuals and communities rather than as a mass;
* shifting our goals, organizations, and cultures from manufacturing content to providing service, helping the public we serve meet its needs and goals;
* using, building, and offering new tools and transforming journalism into a platform with greater utility, often at scale;
* working collaboratively with the public and with fellow members of growing news ecosystems and networks;
* recasting the journalist as more than storyteller: as convener, partner, helper, educator, organizer, even advocate.

In the second part, I began to explore new forms for news that cascade from these new relationships. We can recast the article with new-media tools, then move past the article with new means of providing service: news through links, news via data, news as a flow, news through tools, news as a tool. More important than reconsidering the forms news can take is the value we can provide. Our new and richer relationships with the public we serve give us the opportunity to offer greater relevance in the context of their needs; to specialize in the journalistic skills that are most needed; to improve the quality of our work; to explore new methods to fulfill our mission. News can take on countless more forms I cannot begin to imagine because I am too old and the technologies are too new.

Now we arrive at the big question: how to sustain journalism. In this last half of the essay, I will explore business models for the new layers of news ecosystems that are supplanting the old, vertically integrated corporations that dominated news for more than a century: beat businesses, new news organizations (some of them rebuilt from the ashes of the old), networks, and platforms. For old or new news companies, I will suggest how to implement the relationship strategy as a business strategy, knowing our users better so we can increase the value we provide them and thus extend their use, engagement, and loyalty. I will suggest that knowing our users better will also yield greater value and revenue in advertising — using data about users not as a commodity to sell but as a tool to build worth. I will explore other revenue streams at small and large scale: events, digital services, ad networks, commerce, memberships, patronage, and consumer payment. I will suggest new metrics to drive our media businesses and new perspectives to consider regarding such protective concepts as copyright and intellectual property. In the end, instead of asking the question I so often hear — Who will pay for journalism? — I will ask the one that troubles me more: Who will invest in innovation? Who will help us explore journalism’s many and promising but certainly unsure opportunities?

But first, we have some unpleasant business to get through. We must examine the weaknesses of the present business models for news and why they cannot carry over to our new digital world. And we need to explore further cost efficiencies, difficult as that can be. For journalism must finally reach the point at which the cutting ends so it can find ways to grow again.

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

Geeks Bearing Gifts: Untapped Technologies

Back from travel to lands and hotels of poor wifi, I’m returning to post more free chapters from Geeks Bearing Gifts: Imagining New Futures for News. Today’s is the last of the first half of the book, about exploring untapped technologies for news. A snippet:

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I began this essay saying that I would not predict the future, but rather suggest a few. There are so many futures I cannot yet imagine. At CUNY, we get people to imagine new opportunities by having them play a game created by Dr. Nick Diakopoulos, now a professor at the University of Maryland. He conducted research for us cataloguing new technologies that have not yet been explored deeply for news. The game has small groups of players take one card with a need that news consumers share, one card with a journalistic goal, and two cards with different technologies to brainstorm new journalistic services. Just as journalists need to find opportunity in problems, so do they need to find opportunities in technologies: the geeks’ gifts of the title. Every time we see something new, we should ask whether it could serve journalism. The answer, most times, will properly be no. But sometimes opportunity, need, and innovation will conspire.

Take Rap Genius [now Genius.com]. It is a platform built to allow the annotation of hip hop lyrics (and surprisingly, it did not bring cries of copyright violation from artists, many of whom were wise enough to see that Rap Genius gave them a new way to engage with their fans and explain their art). Who’d think that this platform could have application for news? Its offshoot, News Genius, has been used to annotate presidential speeches and government statistical reports and interview transcripts. Authors have put up chapters of books to supply a back story.

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