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:

Screenshot 2015-01-28 at 9.23.49 AM

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.

Media = content + people

We can’t see the internet for the wires. We talk about the internet as technology — computers and cables — but more and more I see it as people: people connected with each other, people speaking, people shopping, people learning.

I am finally seeing media the same way: people, unmediated. This is the basis of our new degree in social journalism at CUNY. And this is a worldview and business model confirmed by Samir Arora, CEO of Mode Media (aka Glam) in a session I moderated at this week’s DLD conference in Munich. Samir presented a new taxonomy for media companies and a new view of their profitability based less on the value of their content than on the value and scale of the people they connect. It’s a new, powerful, and unappreciated vision.

I have been writing about the power of networks for a long time and that is why Samir walked into my office seven years ago saying he had to show me a slide of his, because it confirmed what I’d been saying. This ugly bit of PowerPoint — often compared to some bizarre biological experiment — exhibited the scale Glam had achieved as a web property over rival iVillage. Glam did that by building networks of independent bloggers instead of owning, creating, and syndicating content, the old way. In short order, Glam had beat iVillage.

Screenshot 2015-01-19 at 6.13.00 PM

Since then, Glam and its associated brands — collectively Mode Media — have grown from 20 million uniques in the U.S. to more than 400 million worldwide. Mode is now the seventh largest web property. iVillage is gone.

How did Glam do that? People.

406 slide 2

In Munich, Samir presented his analysis of media sites with this slide. It is worth studying.

grid slide 2

On the left are content companies, on the right platforms.

In the top right box are companies that don’t pay for traffic or content. Examples: Facebook, Twitter.

In the next box down are companies that don’t pay for traffic but do pay for content via revenue share — that is, only content that makes money. Examples: YouTube, Mode.

In the next box down and to the left are companies that don’t pay for traffic but do pay for content they create, whether it is seen and monetized or not. Examples: Yahoo, Aol/HuffingtonPost.

In the next down are companies operating under the classic media model that pay for content and pay to market it. Examples: Most any newspaper or magazine company, and Samir puts BuzzFeed there.

Then come ad networks and technology companies, which create little value themselves but profit from tremendous volume.

Now look at the margins on the left. Samir defines media margins as profit after the cost of content and traffic. Note how high the margins are at the top and how much they fall off. What makes the companies at the top so profitable? They enable people to both publish and share. They don’t make or buy content on the come. These are the new social media companies — that is, media companies that grow by being social.

explan slide 2

Finally, Samir took a chart the Washington Post made looking at the top 20 web properties over the last two decades, marking the growth of Facebook (which operates at the upper right of his chart) and breaking out YouTube.

ramp slide 2

Samir became a friend and I advised Glam and so we talk often and when we do we always marvel that more media companies have not learned the value of networks. Today at the World Economic Forum at Davos, I just moderated a session on extending the Forum’s work on updating copyright to other industries and other forms of what we call intellectual property but I prefer to just call creativity. At the end, the founder of a startup came to me and contrasted the attitude of entrepreneurs with that of big media and manufacturing companies in the room. They all care about making products, he said, but we don’t. We care about networks. That’s is where the value is. The value of Facebook — his example — is not its product, its intellectual property. It’s value is its networks.

Its people.

Geeks Bearing Gifts: Reinventing TV News

Here’s another chapter from Geeks Bearing Gifts, this one about a topic I’ve discussed here: reinventing TV news. Read the whole thing on Medium. A snippet:

Screenshot 2015-01-12 at 3.44.51 PM

I know people who are innovating with the form online and who object to calling what they do “television” because they don’t want the word’s baggage. But I say they should co-opt the word, revolutionizing the concept of television instead of letting it languish in its past. It’s true that there’ll soon be no way to distinguish among media. What used to be a text article in a print publication now, online, has video and audio; what used to be a TV story can now carry text and photos online; both can include interactivity and discussion and more. Still, I see value in commandeering the word television because I want innovators to take over the medium itself, pressuring its legacy owners to cast off their orthodoxies and idiocies. Those not-so-old broadcast companies, though weakened by the ceaseless growth of new competitors, still have good businesses and still attract the largest news audiences. They have had little motivation to change. Even newspapers and magazines, finally able to make video, have made the mistake of trying to ape broadcast TV. Change will have to come from outside media.

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

Free speech is not a privilege. It is a journalistic responsibility.

Screenshot 2015-01-07 at 8.44.57 PM

All across Europe yesterday, newspapers stood in solidarity with Charlie Hebdo published the cartoons that supposedly motivated the murder its staff. They informed the public. Not in America, not in the land of free speech.

Apart from the Jewish Chronicle, whose rationale for not running the cartoons is obvious, I find the excuses and the behavior of others to be cowardly and illogical. The New York Times told BuzzFeed — BuzzFeed — that it does “not normally publish images or other material deliberately intended to offend religious sensibilities. After careful consideration, Times editors decided that describing the cartoons in question would give readers sufficient information to understand today’s story.”

I call bullshit. The images of terrorists shooting innocent policemen are offensive in the extreme but The Times chose to run them. Why? To inform. That is our journalistic mission. So how is it not in the journalistic mission of The Times to run the cartoons? I don’t buy that journalism should not offend. I don’t buy that describing them is sufficient. Even though I worship at the obelisk of the link, I also don’t buy the rationale that readers can find the cartoons elsewhere (hell, most everyone I know tweeted them yesterday). No, if you’re the paper of record, if you’re the highest exemplar of American journalism, if you expect others to stand by your journalists when they are threatened, if you respect your audience to make up its own mind, then damnit stand by Charlie Hebdo and inform your public. Run the cartoons.

I’d say this is a case for Margaret Sullivan.

The same goes for you, CNN, NBC, ABC, Fox, the Telegraph, the pixelating New York Daily News … and the theater chains that would not show The Interview.

First, they came for the satirists. Then they came for the journalists. Who will be left to speak for you?

– – – –

Yesterday, I posted this piece on Medium under the headline, “Freedom of Speech is a Human Right, not an American Privilege.” Here it is:

After the Charlie Hebdo murders, I tweeted about the attack on free speech that had just been perpetrated, about my hope that news editors and producers would show the courage to share with their readers the cartoons that led to the deaths of these brave and honest journalists, and about my disgust with some news organizations that pixelated or refused to run the images for their audiences.

Predictably and unfortunately, I received responses arguing that this devotion to free speech was peculiarly American and that I should take account of the offense that Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons would cause for some readers and viewers.

This discussion reminded me of a journalists’ conference I attended at the BBC a few years ago at which some participants argued that people in China did not want free speech. I’ve also heard people say that people from Arab nations are not ready for free speech.

Bullshit.

I choose that word carefully. As an American, I am privileged to be able to use a word that some call offensive and even profane, for “bullshit” is political speech.

Standing for free speech is not American. It is logical. If one allows a government to control—to censor—offensive speech, then no speech will be allowed, except that which government approves, for any speech can offend anyone and then all speech is controlled.

The idea that speech should be controlled to limit offense is itself offensive to the principles of a free, open, and modern society. That is what the Charlie Hebdo murders teach us.

Geeks Bearing Gifts: Mobile=Local=Me: Context over Content

Back from the holidays, here’s the next chapter from Geeks Bearing Gifts, posted for free on Medium. Spoiler: I say this is a chapter about mobile but instead it ends up being about understanding different use cases for news, no matter the device or medium. I argue that thinking of mobile as just another content-delivery medium is short-sighted. Mobile is about context. Instead of organizing our services around platforms, we should be organizing them around people and their specific needs. A snippet:

Screenshot 2014-12-28 at 8.23.25 PM

Usage and traffic for mobile is fast outpacing the web. Many news sites see or are about to see a majority of their traffic from what is classified as mobile. I had a conversation with a Google executive in which I whined about functions I wanted to see added to their web services and he pshawed me, dismissing the old web as practically passé. Google is devoting itself monomaniacally to mobile, where it provides us with no end of useful and specifically built apps — mail, maps, documents, calendar, photos, entertainment, communication — that all know me as a single user. Mark Zuckerberg, meanwhile, told The New York Times that he is deconstructing his big, blue mobile Facebook application and buying or building a chain of specialized new apps — like WhatsApp, Instagram, and the beautiful Paper — to lay atop his relationships with users and his data about them. Facebook’s apps are built for specific uses — one for checking updates, another for instant messages and chat, another for sharing pictures, and so on. Facebook’s apps all offer connections. Google’s apps all offer services. Both companies’ apps are built atop their relationship databases. Google and Facebook are in the relationship business. We are not. 

Perhaps our problem in media is that we offer but one thing: content, or at least that is how we present what we offer. We make users come to single portals so crammed with our stuff it’s hard for them to find what they want, especially in cramped mobile screens. What Google and Facebook offer instead is context in the user’s terms: When you want to mail, you use the mail app; when you want to drive, you open maps; when you want to check in on friends, you open Facebook; and so on. Interestingly, both Google and Facebook have so far failed in their attempts to deliver news on web or mobile. Perhaps that was because they were trying to deliver our content without personal context. 

What happens if we rethink the value of news expansively in the contexts of its many uses?

Read on for my answers in the rest of the chapter here. If you can’t wait for the rest of the book, then you can buy it here.

Geeks Bearing Gifts: Curation & Data

I’ve posted two really short chapters from Geeks Bearing Gifts today on Medium: one on curation, one on data. Then I’ll take a break for the holiday and come back with a bigger chapter on rethinking what mobile really means for news.

A snippet from the chapter on curation (relevant to current discussions about Google and news in Europe):

Screenshot 2014-12-23 at 10.17.42 AM

And here’s a snippet from the chapter on data:

Screenshot 2014-12-23 at 10.35.06 AM

Data is a critical new opportunity for news organizations. What journalists have to ask — as with the flow of news — is how they add value to data by helping to gather it (with effort, clout, tools, and the ability to convene a community), analyze it (by calling upon or hiring experts who bring context and questions or by writing algorithms), and present it (contributing, most importantly, context and explanation). . . . 

Data needs to become a mindset and a skill set in news organizations. Journalists should receive training to become literate in the opportunities and requirements of using data. Journalists also have to work with specialists who can analyze, interpret, and present data, and who can create tools allowing both reporters and the public to work with it. From a business perspective, data should be seen as an asset worth investing in, one that can yield news and new engagement often at a low cost. Data is/are a step past the article.

Read the rest of each chapter here and here. If you can’t wait for the rest, then you can buy the book here. The perfect gift for the journowonk on your list.