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:

The German war against the link

German publishers are not just fighting Google. They are fighting the link and thus the essence of the internet.

Half the major publishers in Germany have started a process of arbitration — which, no doubt, will lead to suits — to demand that Google pay them for quoting from and thus linking to their content. And now we know how much they think they deserve: 11% of Google’s revenue related to their snippets. From their government filing, they want a cut of “gross sales, including foreign sales” that come “directly and indirectly from making excerpts from online newspapers and magazines public.” [All these links are in German.]

Their demands are as absurd as they are cynical and dangerous. First, of course, Google is sending the publishers plenty of value as well. That is, Google is sending the publishers us: readers, customers, the public these news organizations allegedly want to serve. So what are we, chopped liver? I’ll be posting an essay soon that argues that one reason media have a problem building new digital business models is that we still think value is intrinsic only in content; we have no marketplace and metrics for valuing the creation of an audience for it (now that those functions are unbundled). If the publishers really want a fair exchange of value, then they should also be paying Google for the links — the readers — it sends their way. But, of course, that would create a moral hazard and corrupt search; that Google does not charge for placement in search and Google News is precisely what set it apart from predecessors and built a valuable and trusted service.

Google is never going to pay for the right to quote and link to content. That would ruin not only its business but also the infrastructure of knowledge online. If we can find only the knowledge that pays to be found, then the net turns into … oh, I don’t know, a newsstand?

The publishers aren’t stupid. They realize these facts. That’s what makes their action so cynical. They are trying to blackmail net companies in hopes of getting some payoff from them. They’re not just going after Google but also Microsoft and Yahoo — though, interestingly, if a company has only a search engine, the publishers would charge them only a third of their tariff. That is to say, they want to go after the big net companies because they are big targets.

Earlier this month, I spoke at a Google Big Tent event in Berlin (Google paid my travel expenses; I do not accept other payment from Google) where a conservative member of parliament, Dorothee Bär, had the admirable guts to criticize these mostly conservative publishers for their efforts, telling them that she opposed passage of the law that is allowing this nonsense — a Leistungschutzrecht or ancillary copyright — and also warning them that a failing business model is no excuse to run to government begging for regulation. You’d think conservatives would agree about that. But that, again, is what makes the publishers’ campaign so cynical.

Note, by the way, that Google does not place advertising on Google News. Are the publishers seeking 11% of 0? Note as well that there is data to say that longer samples of content could end up sending *more* traffic to creators (more on that, too, in a later post). These are facts that will need to be discussed in any suits.

Add all this to other attacks on Google by German media and politics against Google: the Verpixelungsrecht — right to be pixelated — in Google Street View and calls by German politicians to break up Google. Add to that as well the recent European court decision upholding a right to be forgotten and requiring Google to take down links to content that subjects don’t like.

And I worry about the net. I worry about Europe and especially Germany about their efforts to protect the past. I’ll likely write more about that as well later.

But, of course, these warriors do not speak for all of Germany or all of Europe. The instigators of the war include Axel Springer, Burda, WAZ, the Müncher Merkur, and others. But other major publishers — Spiegel Online, Handelsblatt.com, FAZ.net, Stern.de, Sueddeutsche.de and [cough] the new German edition of Huffington Post — have not joined the war. And there are politicians such as Bär and outgoing vice president of the European Commission Neelie Kroes who have the courage to defend the future. Here is Kroes the other day responding to strikes across Europe protesting the arrival of Über:

The debate about taxi apps is really a debate about the wider sharing economy. That debate forces us to think about the disruptive effects of digital technology and the need for entrepreneurs in our society. . . .

Whether it is about cabs, accommodation, music, flights, the news or whatever. The fact is that digital technology is changing many aspects of our lives. We cannot address these challenges by ignoring them, by going on strike, or by trying to ban these innovations out of existence. . . .

I believe it is a fundamental truth that Europe needs more entrepreneurs: people who will shake and wake us and create jobs and growth in the process.

We also need services that are designed around consumers. The old way of creating services and regulations around producers doesn’t work anymore. They must have a voice, but if you design systems around producers it means more rules and laws (that people say they don’t want) and those laws become quickly out of date, and privilege the groups that were the best political lobbyists when the law was written.

That is old-fashioned compared to a system that helps all of us as consumers, and encourages entrepreneurs. We need both those elements in our economy; otherwise we will be outpaced to our East and our West. We’ll be known as the place that used to be the future, but instead has become the world’s tourism playground and nursing home. I don’t want Europe to have that future. . . .

More generally, the job of the law is not to lie to you and tell you that everything will always be comfortable or that tomorrow will be the same as today. It won’t. Not only that, it will be worse for you and your children if we pretend we don’t have to change. If we don’t think together about how to benefit from these changes and these new technologies, we will all suffer. . . .

If you teach entrepreneurial journalism….

Here’s the schedule for our July 10 summit of entrepreneurial journalism educators at CUNY’s Tow-Knight Center for same. Good news: We have a *limited* budget to help with travel for those who need it thanks to the Scripps Howard Foundation. If you teach (or plan to teach) entrepreneurial journalism, sign up now.

Entertainment Weekly, the genesis

EW prototype cover

EW prototype cover

Even with the cringes induced with a few maddening memories, I thoroughly enjoyed reading Anne Helen Petersen’s history of Entertainment Weekly‘s life — and torture — at Time Inc. Others involved might quibble about this or that. A successor said in a subsequent Facebook discussion that synergy wasn’t the problem — well, it wasn’t for him; I remember a top Time Inc. executive calculating the grade-point averages our critics gave (he said we were being too mean to the industry Time Inc. was about to enter: entertainment). Memories will serve us differently. But Petersen’s history is well-researched and well-analyzed.

This has inspired me to scan and post the genesis documents for Entertainment Weekly. Here is my original 1984 memo proposing the magazine (with a few updates for resubmission in 1986). Here, too, is the rejection from on high. The magazine finally started six years after I first proposed it.

I teach EW as a case most terms at the start of my entrepreneurial journalism class at CUNY, so I keep the documents around (I specifically got permission to keep the launch documents when I stormed out of EW). There’s more where these came from.

EW proposal

The right to remember, damnit

A reporter asked me for reaction to news that Google has put up a form to meet a European court’s insane and dangerous ruling and allow people to demand that links to content they don’t like about themselves be taken down. Here’s what I said:

This is a most troubling event for speech, the web, and Europe.

The court has trampled the free-speech rights not only of Google but of the sites — and speakers — to which it links.

The court has undertaken to control knowledge — to erase what is already known — which in concept is offensive to an open and modern society and in history is a device used by tyrannies; one would have hoped that European jurists of all people would have recognized the danger of that precedent.

The court has undermined the very structure of Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s invention, the link — the underpinning of the web itself — by making now Google (and next perhaps any of us) liable just for linking to information. Will newspapers be forced to erase what they link to or quote? Will libraries be forced to take metaphoric cards out of their catalogs?

The court has, ironically, made Google only more powerful, making it the adjudicator of what information should and should not be found. The court has also given Google ludicrous parameters — e.g., having to decide what is relevant to what; relevant to whom; relevant in what context?

We don’t know how this order will be implemented by the various search engines. One question is what right of notice and appeal a delinked site will have.

If this process is public, as it should be, then doesn’t that have the potential to bring even more attention to the information in dispute? Another question is whether content will be made invisible in Europe but will still be visible — as I hope it will be — in the rest of the world, where the European court has no authority. Will this then allow others to compare search results and make the banned information only more visible? In the end, has the court assured a Streisand effect — or, as the comedian John Oliver said on his HBO show, the one thing that is known about the Spaniard who brought this case is the thing that he does not want known.

Further, what of search engines and sites that have no European offices and thus the court has no authority over them? If they refuse to delink on demand will the court ban these sites for European view?

Finally, I am concerned about the additive effect of this ruling on Europe’s reputation as technophobic or anti-American. Add to this especially various actions in Germany — government officials demanding a “Verpixelungsrecht” (a right to be pixelated) in Google Street View despite the fact that these are images taken of public views in public places; German publishers ganging up on Google to strongarm politicians into passing a law limiting the quoting of snippets of content and now threatening to break up Google — in addition to similarly head-scratching moves in France, Italy, and elsewhere. Is Europe a place where any technology company or investor will choose to work?

You ask about Eric Schmidt and David Drummond cochairing the advisory committee. That is a clear indication of how profound and dangerous this situation is in Google’s view. It so happens I was in Mountain View two weeks ago speaking to the all-hands meeting of Google’s privacy teams and I can tell you they were shocked at the ruling. I also said much of what I’ve said to you there. I am appalled by this ruling. [As a matter of disclosure, Google paid my travel expenses but I have no business relationship with Google.]

Calling all entrepreneurial journalism profs

If you teach or soon plan to teach entrepreneurial journalism, the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism — my colleague Jeremy Caplan and I — invite you to attend a day-long summit at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism in New York on July 10.

Our small, new field has grown like weeds. Dozens of journalism schools and foundations are now training and supporting the next generation of media leaders to report, edit, close sales, capture audiences, and run businesses. Our goal is to enable those of you who’ve pioneered these efforts — as well as those just getting into the field — to share best practices and common challenges.

We plan to invite an expert from entrepreneurial education in another field to speak, and ask some of our former students to discuss their experience starting up companies. But on the whole, the day is about your lessons learned, concerns, and needs — and to see whether and how we should collaborate as a group in the future.

Please register here if you plan to attend, or aren’t sure yet, but want to reserve a place. If you cannot attend, we will plan to stream the event and actively involve remote participants in the discussion. Watch this space.

The social journalism degree proposal

Some have asked for more detail about the MA in social journalism we are developing at CUNY. Here are major excerpts from the formal proposal that I wrote (well-edited by our dean, Sarah Bartlett). I’m sparing you sections on the facilities. The syllabi will be works in progress until we bring on the faculty to teach the courses; I’ll share those later. As ever, I am eager to hear your thoughts and questions. Link to the Google doc here; PDF here.

A degree in social journalism

I announced this on Medium; reposting here….

community centerSome big news at CUNY: We are developing a new master’s degree in social journalism. We’ve considered calling it a degree in community information and engagement. I will also argue that it is a degree in outcomes-based journalism. It is all those things. Allow me to explain.

I have been arguing for some time that journalism must shift from seeing itself primarily as a producer of content for masses to become more explicitly a service to individuals and communities. Content fills things; service accomplishes things. To provide a service with relevance and value requires knowing those you serve, and to do that requires building relationships with those people. Thus, we must learn relationship skills.

I’ve written about these ideas in the first third of a white paper on new relationships, new forms, and new business models for news that I’ve been working on for a while. (I posted that first third, on relationships, at Medium.) On a trip to California to talk with Reid Hoffman, Ev Williams, Dick Costolo, Vic Gundotra, Bradley Horowitz, and other technology leaders about the future of news, I subjected my new dean, Sarah Bartlett, to the unfinished essay so she’d be forewarned of what I’d be preaching. On the flight out, having completed everything else she had to work on and with a three-hour delay ahead and a crying baby behind, she had nothing left to do but read it. When she got off the plane, Sarah said she agreed with much of what I said. But she also asked whether we would need to find new ways to teach the new skills I’d outlined.

So she suggested a new degree to add to our core MA in journalism and entrepreneurial journalism degrees, and she sketched what it might look like. I wrote a proposal, outlining the curriculum and goals. She presented it to the faculty. My colleagues did an incredible job writing syllabi, which our curriculum committee and faculty just approved. There are more steps yet to walk in this process — seeking approval from the university and the state — before we can formally announce and recruit students. But since we are on the path, I thought it was time to put a stake in the ground and welcome a discussion regarding social journalism and what it is.

First, let me say what it is not. In a series of interesting posts, Ed Sussman has been labeling as social journalism what Forbes, Gawker, the Guardian, and others are doing in inviting contributors to write for their sites. I disagree. That idea continues to keep the focus of journalism on us, our products, our content; it’s a more open (to its credit) and less reliable (to its frequent discredit) way to feed the media beast.

No, I say that social journalism must turn the telescope around and start with the public, with the people being served. The first skill we will teach in this new program is listening to a community, hearing and discerning its needs and then thinking about how best to help it meet those needs. The answer sometimes — often — will be reporting and content. But it can also mean connecting the members of the community to each other to share information themselves. It can mean sharing data and tools rather than developing narratives. It can mean helping a community to organize itself to take action (yes, that’s community organizing). It can be education. It must be collaborative.

Social journalists will judge their success not by the old-media metrics of reach and frequency — or, translated to digital argot, of unique users and pageviews — for those measures are still about our stuff and who sees it. Though social journalism may sound like and use many of the tools of what is known as social media, I will also argue that the proper measurements of success are not likes and friends and shares and even how much time and attention we get from the public — the things we have been calling engagement — for those, too, are about engaging with us and our stuff.

Social journalists will judge their success instead by whether the public they serve and its members accomplish their goals, meet their needs, improve their lots and their communities — and whether they connect with each other to better understand each other through discussion and information. Thus I see this as the discipline of outcomes-based journalism: We take responsibility not only for making a product called news, hoping people consume it and then hoping that they and their communities are better for it. That’s all we could do before, in print and broadcast. Now, online, we have new tools and new means to hear the public, to serve the public, and to measure our impact and value. There lies the essence of social journalism.

So, yes, it’s social but it’s not just about social media. Yes, it’s about engagement but not engagement with us but instead about a community’s engagement with its own work. It’s about results, outcomes, impact.

To teach these skills, we are proposing a three-term, year-long program with:
* two journalism courses — one on identifying, meeting, and listening to communities, the next on presenting information to and helping inform a community;
* two listening courses — the first helping students to interact with and learn from diverse communities, the second about the ethics (and legalities) of working with and serving a community;
* two data courses — about using data as a means to listen to and learn about a community, to gather information with and from a community, to present information to a community, and to measure the impact of working with a community;
* two tools courses — understanding how best to use the many platforms communities use and will use to connect and share, and also learning how to work with technologists to adapt tools to help communities;
* intense business training (a subset of beat-business training we are offering this summer at CUNY — more on that shortly); and
* an intense practicum serving a community of the student’s choice, working to meet goals of the community’s definition.

We will bring in teachers with various skills to work with students — journalists, of course, and also data specialists and community organizers and social anthropologists and more.

If approved, this new degree will be taught alongside CUNY’s MA in journalism and MA and certificate in entrepreneurial journalism. Each will attract distinct cohorts of students seeking a variety of jobs (note that the Center for Investigative Reporting depends on six engagement editors and Al Jazeera’s new AJ Plus is hiring 13 people of that description) or starting their own ventures. We have talked with many leaders in the field and they have convinced us there is a need and demand for this program and its graduates. Each of our degree programs will have a positive impact on the others, bringing new skills and perspectives to the school and adding courses and options for all the students. At CUNY, we pride ourselves on being a startup still, on learning as we go and adapting our curriculum to new needs and opportunities. This new program is also part of that process.

We are operating on what passes — in our field — for a fast track. If we pass all our tests, we hope to offer the new degree in 2015 (we haven’t decided yet exactly when). Between now and then — and here is the reason I am writing this — I would like to hear your suggestions and questions about what and how we should teach. We’ve received very helpful reaction from our school’s board of advisers and other friends. On that trip to the Bay Area, Sarah and I discussed our idea with most everyone we met and met in turn with gratifying enthusiasm.

Indeed, I am honored to tell you that Reid Hoffman — who has given me very useful advice about the entrepreneurial journalism program since its inception — is generously seeding the development of the new degree. And we just learned that the Knight Foundation — the preeminent funder for journalism in America — will match Reid’s gift. Thank you, both.

We will be raising additional money to fund scholarships, research on engagement and impact, and events bringing together researchers and practitioners from various fields to discuss social journalism and engagement under the auspices of the Tow-Knight Center.

Just when I thought things were starting to settle down in our eight-year startup of a journalism school…..