Lessons from Waze for media

Screenshot 2013-06-11 at 4.30.34 PMNow that I’ve written my commuter’s paean to Waze, allow me to get a bit journowonky now and examine some of the lessons newspapers should learn from the success of the service:

1. Waze built a platform that lets the public share what it knows without the need for gatekeepers or mediators — that is, media. That’s how it keeps content costs at a minimum and scales around the world.

2. Waze does that first by automatically using the technology in our pockets to — gasp! — track us live so it can tell how fast we are going and thus where the traffic jams are. And we happily allow that because of the return we get — freedom from traffic jams and faster routes to where we’re going.

3. Waze does that next by easily enabling commuters to share alerts — traffic, stalled car, traffic-light camera, police, hazard, etc — ahead. It also lets commuters edit each others’ alerts (“that stalled car is gone now”).

4. Waze rewards users who contribute more information to the community — note I said to the community, not to Waze — by giving them recognition and greater access to Waze staff, which only improves Waze’s service more quickly.

5. Waze lets users record their own frequent destinations — work, home, school, and so on — so they can easily navigate there.

6. This means that Google as Waze’s new owner will now reliably know where we live, work, and go to school, shop, and so on. We will happily tell Waze/Google this so we get all of Waze’s and Google’s services. Google will be able to give us more relevant content and advertising. We will in turn get less noise. Everybody happy now?

How could, say, a local newspaper company learn from this?

1. Use platforms that enable your communities to share what they know with each other and without you getting in the way.

2. Add value to that with functionality, help, effort (but not articles).

3. If you knew where users lived and worked and went to school — small data, not big data — you could start by giving them more relevant content from what you already have.

4. You could give them more relevant advertising — “going to the store again? here are some deals for you!” — increasing their value as a customer by leaps and dollars.

5. You could learn where you should spend your resources — “gee, we didn’t know we had a lot of people who worked up there, so perhaps we should start covering that town or even that company.”

When I say that news should be a service and that the news industry should be a relationship business and that we should act as platforms for our users and that small data about people can lead to more relevance and greater value … this is what I mean.

So now go ask Waze how to get there. Oops. Too late. Google got there first. Again.

I trust Waze

waze screenshotI’ve had to learn to trust Waze in a few traffic jams. Now every time Waze tells me to turn, I turn. I’ve missed horrendous traffic jams that way. I’ve learned new routes to work and home I’d never imagined. I’ve seen parts of the countryside that are new to me. Waze is wonderful. Here’s hoping that Google keeps and nurtures every bit of wonderfulness.

More than a dozen years ago, I wrote a business plan for a Waze-like social traffic service. Our local traffic services sucked; still do. A long-ago colleague of mine said his rule was to go wherever the radio traffic reports said there was a jam because (a) by the time they found out about it, the jam was gone and (b) every other idiot was listening to the radio and avoiding that spot themselves. He was right.

I envisioned a service in which commuters would program our routes in and then report on how long it took them and also alerted the system to jams — all via cell phone calls (mind you, this was before smart phones). The more data you contributed, the more points you earned to get alerts back for free. If you freeloaded, you paid (see, I wasn’t against pay walls). It wouldn’t have worked then. No $1 billion for me.

Waze built that social notion and more, outdoing Google in finding the means to listen to and learn from the public to both feed in automatic data on traffic speed — your phone knows how fast you’re going — and alert the service to jams and other problems as well as errors in maps. It’s brilliant: a platform for shared knowledge.

One concern I have with Google buying it is that if *everyone* ends up using the service, then does *everyone* take the same alternate routes and then they get crowded and my old colleague’s rule comes into force again? Nah. Google and Waze are a helluva lot smarter than anybody on radio.

Congratulations, Waze. May you grow and prosper and get me home sooner.

Matters of principle

Prism
America is supposed to be a nation governed by principles, which are undergirded by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and carried into law. The discussion about the government and its capture of *our* data should be held on the level of principles.

* Privacy: Our direct and personal communication in any medium and by any means — mail, email, phone, VOIP, Twitter DM, and any technology yet to be invented — should be considered private, as our physical mail is, and subject to government intervention only through lawful warrant. That is not the case. Thus it is quite reasonable to be disturbed at the news that government can demand and receive communication we believe to be private. Government may call itself the protector of our privacy but it is our privacy’s worst enemy.

* Transparency: The actions of government should be known to citizens. I argue in Public Parts that our institutions should be public by default, secret by necessity; now they are secret by default and open by force. There are necessary secrets. There is a need for intelligence. There I agree with David Simon. I saw people die before me on 9/11 and I fault intelligence or not stopping it.

But we are left out of the discussion of where the line of necessity should be. If President Obama believes in the transparency he talks about and if he now says he welcomes the debate about security and freedom then it should have occurred *before* government took the actions now being reported and not by force through leaks. There I agree with James Fallows that this leak is not harmful — what bad guys didn’t already realize that their phones could be tracked? — and will be beneficial for democracy.

* Balance of powers: The best protection of our nation’s principles is the balance of powers. Yes, Congress passed the Patriot Act and yes, a FISA court does approve the executive branch’s actions. But both our representatives and our justices are prevented from sharing anything with us, as are the companies that are forced to be their accomplices. The true balance of powers is the exercise of democracy by citizens, but without information we have no power and government has it all.

* Freedom of speech and of the press: Information comes to the public from the press, which is now anyone with information to share. And citizens exercise power through speech. But in its jihad against leaks… that is whistleblowers… that is reporting… that is journalism and the public’s right to know, the White House is chilling both the press and speech. I pray that Glenn Greenwald doesn’t have a Verizon phone.

This discussion is less about privacy and more about transparency and speech. The principles most offended here are those embedded in the First Amendment for those are the principles we rely upon to take part in the debate that is democracy.

I am asking for government to behave according to principles. I am also asking companies to do so. Twitter — whose behavior toward developers and users can sometimes mystify me — is apparently the platform most stalwart in standing for its users’ rights as a matter of principle. They apparently refused to make it easier for government to get data. Now one could argue that helping government thwart terrorists is also behaving according to principle. But again we and these companies aren’t allowed to have that debate. So I’d now advise following what is apparently Twitter’s route in only responding to demands, nothing more. And I’d advise following Google’s example in revealing government demands for information (though under FISA, once again, they’re not allowed to reveal — even by a count — them all).

There is much debate and sometimes conspiracy theorizing swirling around about what Google, Facebook, et al did and didn’t provide to government. I take Larry Page’s and Mark Zuckerberg’s statements at their literal word and agree with Declan McCullagh that I so far see no evidence that these companies handed the keys to their servers to the NSA. We know and they have long said that they comply with government orders, whether in the U.S. or China.

Though some are attacking him on this issue and though I often disagree with him on the state of the news business, I again say that I agree with David Simon on the unsophisticated and emotional interpretation of this news. Since the initial New York Times report on NSA “warrantless wiretapping,” I have understood that one of government’s goals is to use data to find anomalies but to do that it has to have a baseline of normal behavior. We’re the normal. This has been going on for sometime, as Simon says; we just haven’t known how.

Are we as a nation OK with allowing government to make such an analysis to find the terrorists’ anomalous behaviour or not? That’s a discussion that should occur according to principles, properly informed about the risks and benefits. Are we OK with government using that same data to fish for other crimes — like, say, leaking a PowerPoint to the Guardian? I am not. Are we OK with government treating whistleblowers and leakers as traitors — starting with Bradley Manning? I am not. I agree with Bruce Shneier: “We need whistleblowers.” Are we OK with government having access to our private communications without warrants? I say: most definitely not, as a matter of principle.

Under a regime of secrecy, assuming the worst becomes the default in the discussion. We assume the worst of government because they keep from us even activities they say are harmless and beneficial. We see people who want to be suspicious of technology and technology companies assuming the worst of them because, after all, we can’t know precisely what they are doing. I agree with Farhad Manjoo about the danger. People in other nations — I’m looking at you, EU — already distrust both the American government and American technology companies, often in the past for emotional reasons or with anti-American roots but now with more cause. You can bet we’ll hear governments across Europe and elsewhere push harder for legislation now in process to require that their citizens’ data be held outside the U.S. and to European standards because, well, they assume the worst. We’ll hear calls to boycott American-made platforms because — even if they try not to go along — their acquiescence to our government means they cannot be trusted. This is bad for the net and bad for the country. The fault lies with government.

This is a story about transparency and the lack of it. It is a story about secrecy and its damages. It is a story about principles that are being flouted. It should be a discussion about upholding principles.

To the dauntless lensmen

photographers

The Sun-Times was wrong and right when it fired its entire photo department.

Wrong: Images are more important than ever. Look at this page: Medium practically forces us to include a photo with every post. On Google+ posts sans images get little love. This week at my J-school, a dean emphasized that every item we publish should come illustrated.

Right: There are more photographers now than ever — all of us taking pictures with our phones and cameras and sharing them for everyone, including newspaper editors, to see. News doesn’t wait for an official staff photographer to show up. A single event doesn’t need to be captured by a hundred lenses. And besides, times are tough; something always has to go, right?

But the paper did it wrong. I would have changed the definition of a photo department and a photographer — and I have little doubt that most photographers there would go along with this notion.

Just as a reporter no longer does all the reporting — it’s collaborative — and just as reporters need to concentrate on adding value to flows of information that already exist, so can photographers build a new relationship with a new photo ecosystem.

It should be their job to get the best photos for their news organizations however they can do that. They’ve long done that, but now they have more ways to do it. They should become expert in culling the public’s photos to find the work of witnesses to news. They should cultivate amateurs who can shoot well. They should train every member of an editorial department and every amateur who wants it in how to capture news to the best of their ability.

The photo department should grab onto tools to help locate people who are at the site of news, to ask for people to take a shot that’s needed to illustrate a story (the obvious stuff: a picture of a building that was sold, an image of another damned snowstorm).

But then the photographers — the experienced, the pros, the artists — should go where they can add the greatest value, capturing the images that amateurs and reporters can’t and pushing the standards of their publication higher.

That is what the Sun-Times lost this week: the stellar photographer who can do what you and I can’t, who sees the world differently, who isn’t afraid to stick his nose and lens into the action.

When I was a cub reporter on Chicago Today, I remember my editor, Milt Hansen, calling our photographers dauntless lensmen (nevermind the gender; it was 1973) and giving them each a moniker, like Fearless Frankie Hanes. I went to cover small-scale riots with Frank and he schooled me and protected me even as he risked his own skull to get the best picture. No paper should ask an amateur or a reporter to do that.

Mind you, we are teaching all our students at CUNY how to take better photos. My colleague who does that recognizes the even greater need for his training now. That is well and good.

But reporters who are busy listening, parsing, asking questions, taking notes, and seeking out witnesses and experts isn’t going to do a good job also capturing the emotion, the mood, the feel, the special perspective of an event. Oh, they can be taught to take a decent picture of a guy at a podium or a building with the sun in the right place.

But we may have hit the limit of expecting journalists to be — in the words of one of my former students — eight-armed monsters, doing all that a reporter should do plus taking pictures plus taking video plus capturing audio plus begging for data plus thinking of graphics. Yes, they need to be able to do each of those things, that’s why we teach them those skills. But all those things? At once? Not without help. Not without the experienced, the pros, the artists.

Here’s to the dauntless lesmen.

Demo of Repost.US

I need to show someone how Repost.US allows a blogger or publisher to embed an entire article — with the creator’s brand, advertising, analytics, and links — in a site.

Thailand trims interest rate as economy cools (via AFP)

Thailand on Wednesday cut its benchmark interest rate by 0.25 percentage points, the first reduction in seven months, after the domestic economy contracted in the first quarter of the year. Sluggish economic growth in China, the United States and the European Union is weighing on the Thai economy,…


(more…)

In the End Was the Word and the Word Was the Sponsor’s

and-now-a-word-from-our-sponsor1
We used to know what ads were. They had borders around them — black lines in print, a rare millisecond of dead air on TV, the moment when the radio host’s voice became even friendlier, letting us know he was now being paid to peddle.

Today, under many ruses and many namessponsored content, native advertising, brand voice, thought leadership, content marketing, even brand journalism — advertisers are conspiring with desperate publishers to erase the black lines identifying ads.

When I started Entertainment Weekly, a sage editor sat me down and summarized in one sentence the magazine industry’s voluminous rules about labeling what we then called “advertorials”: “The reader must never be confused about the source of content.”

Confusing the audience is clearly the goal of native-sponsored-brand-content-voice-advertising. And the result has to be a dilution of the value of news brands.

Some say those brands are diminishing anyway. So sponsored content is just another way to milk the old cows as they die. Lately I’ve been shocked to hear some executives at news organizations, as well as some journalism students and even teachers, shrug at the risk. If I’m the guy who argues that news must find new paths to profitability, then what’s my problem?

Well, I fear that in the end we all become the Times of India, where paid advertising and news content are allegedly mixed so smoothly in some areas that readers can’t tell one from the other. Worse, at some news organizations, editorial staff do the work of writing this sponsored content. They become copywriters.

Mad Men Don Draper Peggy Olsen

At the same time, many of these news organizations are using their brands as candy to attract legions of new contributors, which can drastically lower the cost of content. Mind you, I’ve applauded that spirit of openness and collaboration as well as that newfound efficiency.

But here’s the issue: Some media properties have taught me to pause before following a link to them. Sometimes, I’ll find good information from a staffer or one of many contributors who brings real reporting or expertise. Sometimes, I’ll find a weak contributor — or staff — piece that adds no reporting or insight; it merely regurgitates what others have written when a link would be better. (Beware headlines that start with “how” or “why” or include the words “future of” or “death of” or end with a question mark; chances are, they add nothing.) And then sometimes I’ll find one of those sponsor-brand-native pieces only vaguely labeled to let me know its source.

My problems with these trends in news media:

Inconsistency. I no longer know what to expect from news organizations that do this. Yes, I’ve heard editors claim that they work with both contributors and sponsors to improve the quality of their submissions — but apparently, not enough.

Brands used to be selective both because the scarcity of paper or time forced them to be and because that became key to their value. Now they want more and more content. Making content to chase unique users and their page views rewards volume over value.

Conflict of interest. First, let me say that I think we in news became haughty and fetishistic about our church/state walls. The reason I teach entrepreneurial journalism is so that students learn about the business of journalism so they can become more responsible stewards of it. I argue that editors, too, must understand the business value and thus sustainability of what they produce.

That said, I worry about journalists who spend one day writing to serve the public and the next writing to serve sponsors. News organizations should never do that with staff, but I’m sorry to say that today, a few do. Freelance journalists are also turning to making sponsored content to pay the bills.

Thus, I hear of some journalism educators who wonder whether they should be teaching their students to write for brands. Please, no. My journalism school doesn’t do that. Others schools already include courses in PR and advertising, so I suppose the leap isn’t so far. In any case, brands will hire our students because of the media skills we teach them and we need to prepare them for the ethical challenge that brings.

Brand value. Some news companies are exchanging their brand equity for free or cheap content of questionable quality and advertising dollars of questionable intent. As someone who champions disruption in the news industry, you’d think I wouldn’t care about dying legacy media brands. But I do. I see how legacy news companies can bring value to the growing news ecosystem around them through sharing content and audience and someday soon, I hope, revenue. If the legacy institutions lose their value — their trust, their audience, their advertisers — then they have less to give, and if they die, there’s more to replace.

Now here’s the funny part: Brands are chasing the wrong goal. Marketers shouldn’t want to make content. Don’t they know that content is a lousy business? As adman Rishad Tobaccowala said to me in an email, content is not scalable for advertisers, either. He says the future of marketing isn’t advertising but utilities and services. I say the same for news: It is a service.

I’ve been arguing to news organizations that they should stop thinking of themselves as content businesses and start understanding that they are in a relationship business.

News organizations should not treat people as a mass now that they — like Google, Amazon, and Facebook — can learn to serve them as individuals. Can’t the same be said of the brands that are now rushing to make content? They’re listening to too many tweeted media aphorisms: that content is king, that brands are media. Bull.

A brand is a relationship. It signifies trust and value. Advertising and public relations disintermediated the relationship that commercial enterprises used to have with customers over the cracker barrel. Mass media helped them bring scale to marketing. But now the net enables brands to return to having direct relationships with customers. That’s what we see happening on Twitter. Smart companies are using it not to make content but to talk one-on-one with customers.

Here’s where I fear this lands: As news brands continue to believe in their content imperative, they dilute their equity by using cheap-content tricks to build volume and by handing their brand value to advertisers to replace lost ad revenue. Marketers help publishers milk those brands. And the public? We’re smarter than they think we are. We’ll understand when news organizations become paid shills. We understand that marketers would still rather force-feed us their messages than simply serve us.

What to do? The reflex in my industries — journalism and education — is to convene august groups to compose rules. But rules are made to be pushed, stretched, and broken. That is why that wise Time Inc. editor over me at Entertainment Weekly (as opposed to the oily ones who tried to force me to force my critics to write nicer reviews) summed up those rules as a statement of ethics. Again: “The reader must never be confused about the source of content.”

Well, if we’re not in the content business, then what is the ethic by which we should operate now? I think it’s even simpler: “We serve the public.”

If we’re doing what we do to fool the public, to sell them crappy content or a shill’s swill, to prioritize paying customers’ interests over readers’, then we will cannibalize whatever credibility, trust, and value our brands have until they dry up.

So am I merely drawing a black rule around advertising again? Don’t we hear contributors to a hundred news sites rewrite the same story every day — that advertising is dead? Well, yes, advertising as one-way messaging is as outmoded as one-way media. Oh, we in media will milk advertising as long as advertisers are willing to pay for it. But we know where this is headed.

Then do media companies have any commercial connection with brands? Can we still get money from them to support news? I think it’s possible for media companies to help brands understand how to use the net to build honest, open relationships with people as individuals. But we can teach them that only if we first learn how to do it ourselves.

Some will accuse me of chronic Google fanboyism for suggesting this, but we can learn that lesson from Google. It makes 98% of its fortune from advertising but it does so by serving us, each of us, first. It addresses its obvious conflict with the admonition, “Don’t be evil.” (When Google has failed to live up to that ethic — and it has — its fall came not from taking advertisers’ dollars but instead from seeking growth with the help of malevolent telcos or tyrannical governments.) Note well that Google sees the danger of sponsored content, which is why it has banned such content from Google News.

Whether you like Google or you don’t, know well that it provides service over content, enabling it to build relationships with each of us as individuals while also serving advertisers without creating confusion. Google is taking over huge swaths of the ad market by providing service to users and sharing risk with advertisers, not by selling its soul in exchange for this quarter’s revenue, as some news organizations are doing.

My advice to news organizations: Move out of the content — and sponsored content — business and get into the service business, where content is just one of your tools to serve the public.

downton1

(Crossposted from Medium.)

Selling ads by time, not space

I just saw some mind-bending work Chartbeat is about to release about measuring the time users spend exposed to an ad online.

As background, to quote Chartbeat CEO Tony Haile: “Chartbeat monitors activity by checking in with users every second and looking for signals (mouse movement, key strokes, etc) that show they are actively consuming the content in front of them. This means they can measure how long readers spend actively engaged on a page and what parts they’re reading. Because of this Chartbeat knows how long are actively reading while an ad is in view — both for an average user and the cumulative time of all users.” Chartbeat then did some internal research that found high correlation between engaged time exposed and a user’s ability to recall the advertiser’s brand and message. This has many implications:

* Measured this way, ads that appear down alongside the middle of a story turn out to be more valuable than the supposedly premium banners at the top of the page. That’s because people quickly scroll past those banners and all the big hair on the top of the page — logos, promos, and all that — to get to the substance of an article, where they spend time. So inventory that was undervalued becomes more valuable.

* Chartbeat suggests this means that quality content that engages people longer yields better ad performance. That, they say, would be a good thing for better content makers everywhere.

* Now web publishers can sell time like broadcasters — only this is assured exposure time. Advertisers like buying time. Will this make them more comfortable with buying on the web?

* I think this enables publishers to take on some risk for advertisers — guaranteeing them assured exposure time — thus increasing the value of what they sell.

* I wonder whether this spells trouble for the big-ass ads and takeovers we users try to escape as quickly as possible.

* I also wonder whether this spells trouble for the slideshows and other gimmicks that pump page views without increasing time spent exposed to an ad.

* I’d like to think this opens opportunities to find new value in ads next to videos and games and also — this could be important — mobile pages (though don’t think that mobile’s value will come from exposure to messaging; it will still come from knowing people and serving them relevance and value). The longer we spend on a page, the longer we see the ad, the more valuable the ad should be, right?

* I can only hope that this is another nail in the coffin of the dangerous, old-media-like metrics of unique users and pageviews. Engagement will matter more.

A sample report on an ad location:

Screenshot 2013-05-15 at 8.20.04 PM

Those who declare advertising dead are Mark-Twaining-it, I think. There are still many things to learn to find more effectiveness and value in advertising online. This is just one lesson. I say the real value of the net and mobile is in relationships: in learning more about people by delivering them more value so we can be trusted to deliver them greater relevance and value and, in turn, extract greater value from the interaction. More on that later….

Apologies

Howard Kurtz screwed up, yes, but he also just showed an admirable example of accountability in apologizing on his CNN show Reliable Sources — saying that as a media critic he should be held to a higher standard of media trust — and then submitting to grilling by David Folkenflik of NPR and Dylan Byers of Politico. The video is here.

Our first mistake in journalism is to pretend that we don’t make mistakes. That hubris has gone before many a fall. Now, of course, our imperfection is no excuse, no cover to make mistakes. But knowing they will be made, the real question is what we do about them. That is when credibility is truly tested. Kurtz and CNN just set a new example for what to do.

Imagine if Dan Rather of CBS or Judith Miller of The New York Times had submitted to being interviewed by outside journalists not after some stupid remark but after reporting that was called into serious question.

The grilling of Kurtz started to verge on S&M. He admitted that he screwed up with his remarks about the NBA’s Jason Collins and apologized and then was made to admit it again and to admit prior screw-ups. I’m not looking for the hairshirt to become the new uniform of the journalist. Just getting beaten up won’t get us anywhere.

Such sessions could accomplish a few things. They can teach lessons; Kurtz said he wanted to learn from this episode and I don’t doubt he will be more careful before he makes another offhand remark. These sessions can also examine facts and try to get the fuller story.

The part of this story that’s still a bit baffling is Kurtz’ involvement in The Daily Download, mainly because — as Jay Rosen has been saying on Twitter — the site itself is baffling. I’m not sure what it wants to be. I’m not sure what the Knight Foundation expected it to accomplish with the substantial funding it was given. I’m not sure why Kurtz was involved in it on top of what for anyone else would be two full-time jobs and whether this played a role in his departure from the Daily Beast. If Kurtz was just helping a friend in Daily Download founder Lauren Ashburn, he was using his good offices at CNN — by having her on the air often and by calling on others for help — to do that. None of that might matter much. But if I were an editor reviewing reporting on the Kurtz story, these are questions I’d say are still unanswered. That’s not to say there is anything suspicious. Just unanswered.

In the post below, I disclose my relationship — or really my lack of one — with the Daily Download. I am no longer listed as a member of its board of advisers simply because that reflects reality. (I am still listed as such on the About page, but I’m sure that will be updated soon.)

My bottom line at this moment: I like and respect Kurtz and his work, and today I have another reason to respect him. I hope he continues on Reliable Sources because I think media need coverage on a mass media outlet.

Much more coverage of this Kurtz episode would be navel-gazing — or perhaps navel-piercing — for a very small corner of the media wonk world. What I hope this story becomes is not more whither-Howie wondering but instead an examination of how to handle the mistakes we will make.