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

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.

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; 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.

Send your comment to the FCC on net neutrality. Here’s mine.

I just filed my comments on net neutrality with the FCC, adding to the 647,000 already there. You should, too. It’s quick. It’s easy. It’s important. It’s democracy. Do it here. And do it by July 15, the deadline. [Note: The deadline was extended to July 18.] Here’s mine:

* * *

I am Jeff Jarvis, professor and director of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at the City University of New York and author of the books “Public Parts” and “What Would Google Do?” and the ebook “Gutenberg the Geek.”

I ask you to govern your decisions regarding net neutrality and broadband policy according to the principles of equality that have made the internet the powerful engine of freedom, speech, innovation, and economic development that it has already become.

As Sen. Al Franken said at the South by Southwest conference in 2011, we proponents of net neutrality are not asking you to change the internet; we are asking you to protect the net from change imposed by the companies trying to exploit their positions of control. “We have net neutrality right now,” Sen. Franken said. “And we don’t want to lose it. That’s all. The fight for net neutrality isn’t about improving the Internet. It’s not about changing the Internet at all. It’s about ensuring that it stays just the way it is.”

I put it this way in a question to then-President Nicolas Sarkozy at the eG-8 meeting he convened in Paris that same year: “First, do no harm.” I urge you to take that Hippocratic Oath for the net. Do not allow it to change. Preserve its equality.

The first principle upon which the net must be maintained is that all bits are created equal. If any bit is stopped on its way by a censor in China or Iran … if a bit is slowed by an ISP because it did not carry a premium toll … if a bit is detoured and substituted by that ISP to promote its service over a competitor’s … or indeed if a bit is spied upon by the government of China or Iran or the United States … then no bit can be presumed to be free. The net is built edge-to-edge so that anyone can speak with anyone without discrimination.

Another principle upon which the net must be maintained is that it is open and distributed and if any institution — government or corporate oligopoly — claims sovereignty over it, then it is no longer the net. Of course, I recognize the irony of asking a government agency for help but that is necessary when a few parties hold undue control over choke points in this architecture. The real answer is to ensure open and broad competition, for any provider in a competitive marketplace that offers throttled, incomplete, inferior service will lose; in an oligopoly, such providers use their control for profitability over service. Corporations by their nature exploit control. Government protects consumers from undue exercise of such control. That is your job.

Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt has offered another principle: the permissionless nature of the net. “Let’s give credit to the people who foresaw the internet, opened it up, designed it so it would not have significant choke points, and made it possible for random people including twenty-four-year-olds in a dorm to enter and create,” he said.

My entrepreneurial journalism students can barely afford to start the companies they are creating, the companies that I believe will be the salvation of journalism, scaling up from the bottom, not from the top. Innovation, we already know, will come from the entrepreneurs over the corporate incumbents. These entrepreneurs cannot afford to pay premiums to ISPs for access to their customers.

We know that corporate incumbents in this industry will abuse the control they have to disadvantage competitors. I filed a complaint with the Commission last year when Verizon refused to connect my Google Nexus 7 LTE tablet to its network as required by the Commission’s own rules governing that spectrum as “open.” The incumbent ISPs have demonstrated well that they choose not to understand the definition of “open.”

“Changes in the information age will be as dramatic as those in the Middle Ages,” James Dewar wrote in a 1998 Rand Corporation paper. “The printing press has been implicated in the Reformation, the Renaissance, and the Scientific Revolution, all of which had profound impacts on their eras; similarly profound changes may already be underway in the information age.” The internet is our Gutenberg press. Note well that it took 50 years after the invention of Gutenberg’s press for the book to take on the form we know today. It took 100 years, says Gutenberg scholar Elizabeth Eisenstein, for the impact of the book on society to be fully recognized. It took 150 years and the development of postal services before anyone thought of using the press to create a newspaper and 400 years — with the advent of steam technology and mass production — before newspapers were in the hands of the common man and woman.

We do not know what the internet is yet and what it will foster. It is too soon to limit it and to grant control over it to a few, powerful companies. I urge you to protect its freedoms by enforcing a principle of net neutrality and to nurture its growth and development with a broadband policy that fosters competition over control and — here is my best hope — I urge you to establish the principle of a human right to connect to the network with equality for all.

Thank you.

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Read the latest comments here. (Mine is not posted yet. I assume it will be after the weekend.)

Friendly skies

I was five hours late returning from San Francisco to home yesterday but I was remarkably calm and sanguine about the delay. Why? Because I was well-informed and well-cared-for. And that was the case because this year I joined the secret society of most-frequent travelers and ticket buyers on United: Global Services.

sfo screenshotWe were taxiing out to the runway at SFO for our agonizingly early 6:45 a.m. flight when the pilot said a gauge wasn’t acting properly. Back to the gate we went (and I was amused that my United app showed us arriving before we’d taken off). Much testing and back-and-forthing by mechanics ensued. It didn’t work. The plane was taken out of service. We were told to leave. Shit happens.

Then could have begun the customary hell of wrenches — literal and figurative — thrown into travel plans and planes. That was nearly the case. The entire planeload ran to a customer-service line seeking rescue. The person behind the counter said she couldn’t rebook us because our tickets were “used.” We were told United was, and I quote, “looking for” a plane. Pesky critters go hiding, apparently. Grumbling started to rumble.

But then two nice things happened. First, the lady behind the counter, named Rita, scolded operations at the airline for not giving passengers complete and accurate information. How nice — how rare — it was to have an ally fighting for us, the customers. That also preempted our need to fight for ourselves.

Then I got a phone call from Global Services. This, I quickly learned, is the real perk of being in the club (not just being the obnoxious guy who gets to get on the plane first). A very nice woman named Terry Norris told me that she had already rebooked me on three — yes, three — flights to afford choices based on time, airport, and seat assignment. Wow. I wasn’t sure what to do so I held onto one choice and Terry let me wait to decide while the airline went looking for its pesky plane. (Of course, when found, I imagine an employee shouting this:)

About an hour later, Terry called me back and informed me that a plane coming in from Raleigh-Durham had been assigned to us (which, of course, is what they mean then they say they “found” a plane). It would be arriving at 10:05 a.m. I’d still have my beloved first-class, aisle, bulkhead seat (I’d bought an upgrade with my miles). It so happens that I knew about the found plane before the gate agent did and filled him in.

I took to Twitter to thank and publicly praise these good people.

And then @ahalam had a suggestion:

Right. Why shouldn’t everyone get the kind of service I got yesterday? Well, the answer at first is obvious: It would be prohibitively expensive for airlines to have lots of Terrys to personally take care of and inform every customer. I get that service now because the airline made a lot of money off me last year, when I flew more than 100,000 miles. But if every customer could, indeed, get that level of service, wouldn’t the airline make even more money from even more satisfied and loyal customers? Call me an cockeyed optimist, but isn’t that a service ideal?

Well, @ahalam is right: A software agent could take personal care of customers. The new United Android app is good and it keeps me better-informed than I used to be because now I can look up where the plane I’m waiting to board is coming from and when it will arrive as well as the status of wait lists for seats and upgrades. That’s quite an advance.

Imagine if when I arrive at the airport neurotically early, as I tend to do (thanks, Mom), United would ping me and ask whether I wanted that empty seat on an earlier flight. Imagine if when there are problems, United’s software agent keeps me personally informed and, like Terry, gives me other options to get to my destination. Imagine if this automated agent knew I liked going to on pleasure rather than business and sent me a tempting deal to fill up a plane. Imagine if, knowing my preferences in hotels and local transit — Über? rental car? train? — the agent booked and billed me from door to door, giving me choices but not requiring me to go through scores of pages to get the job done. Imagine if the computer agent knew me so well it could preload my own shows on the entertainment system (you left off at episode 23 of House of Cards, Mr. Jarvis) and order me the food and wine I like and seat me next to interesting people who like to talk or people like me who prefer the silence? Imagine, as I suggested a few years ago, if the airline could gather the collective wisdom of its passengers about their favorite destinations or hometowns and share that with other passengers. Imagine if just one airline did all that for us instead of making its money by nickel-and-diming us charging for bags of nuts or bags on the plane.

All that is possible. It would mean that an airline would have to respect customers as individuals rather than as anonymous butts in seats, building trusted and rich relationships with each one of us and rewarding us with tangible benefits.

More important, it would mean that an airline would have to become a technology company (which just happens to own metal tubes that fly). Such an airline’s core competence would be in building systems to super-serve customers with information and solutions and relevant suggestions based on rich data.

As we landed in Newark more than four hours late, I was starting to think this could happen if just one brave airline invested in such a future.

Four hours late? Didn’t I say above we were five hours late? Well that’s because the airline’s computer system had broken down and so none of the flights getting ready to leave were allowed to depart their gates and thus no gates were free for us and so we sat on the runway and — “the hits just keep coming,” said the pilot — then there was no one to drive the jetway to us. Oh, well. And I was imagining the new airline as technology company.

Well, a passenger can dream, can’t he?

In any case, given how much abuse airlines take on Twitter, I thought I’d say thanks to United for making a bad day as bearable as it could be for me. And I’m glad I wasn’t traveling with the passenger whose plane always flies under a dark cloud. See…

Buttry’s travels

And a postscript from Mr. Buttry: