Posts about content

Geeks Bearing Gifts: Content vs. Service

Here is the second chapter of my book, up on Medium for free. It argues that journalism is a service. That means that we’re not in the content business. That is heresy. So shoot me. The lede:

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Is news really a content business? Should it be? Perhaps defining ourselves as content creators is a trap. That worldview convinces us that our value is embodied entirely in what we make rather than in the good people derive from it. The belief that our business is to produce a product called content is what drives us to build paywalls around it — to argue that the public should pay for what we make because it costs us money to make it and, besides, they’ve always paid for it. It motivates us to fight over protecting our content from what we view as theft — using copyright — rather than recognizing the value that content and the information in it can bring in informing relationships. As content creators, we separate ourselves from the public while we create our product until we are finished and make it public — because that is what our means of production and distribution long demanded; only now are we learning to collaborate during the process. Our monopoly over those means of production also convinced us that we could own, control, and wield pricing power over this scarcity called content. 

These circumstances left us ill-prepared for a technological era when copies cost nothing; when content and thus competition are abundant; when information becomes a commodity the instant it can be passed on with a link and click; and when the value of information — before it is spread and known — has a half-life now measured in milliseconds. Content, it turns out, is not a great business. 

To suggest that we are not in the content business is to argue that journalists are not primarily storytellers: high heresy indeed. That idea pulls the rug out from under everything we assume and hold dear about our craft and trade: our job descriptions, our production processes, our legal status, our measures of success, and certainly our business models. Fear not: Content will continue to be valued. But content’s value may be more as a tool than as an end in itself and certainly not as our only product. 

Well then, if we are not in the content business, what business are we in? Consider journalism as a service….

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

Past the page

Watch this video and be astounded by what you can do with questions and answers, orders and actions, curiosities and information in voice using “OK, Google” (or, if you prefer, as I do, “OK, Jarvis”).

Now think about the diminished role of the page and what that will do to media. We publishers found ourselves unbundled online, so we shifted from selling people entire publications to trying to get them to come to just a page — any page — and then another page on the web, lingering long enough to shove one more ad at their eyeballs.

But just as the web disintermediated physical media, voice disintermediates the page. But media still depend on the page as their atomic unit, carrying their content, brand, ownership, and revenue. Now, when you want to know the score of the Jets game — if you dare — you don’t need to go to ESPN and find the page, you just say, “OK, Google. What’s the Jets score?” And the nice lady will tell you the bad news.

Now let’s go farther — because that’s what I live to do. Let’s also disintermediate the device. There’s nothing to say that you need to speak to your device to do this as long as you can get your question to Google in the cloud. So imagine that you carry with you a transponder that broadcasts your identity — it could be a phone or Google Glass or a watch or just a card in your wallet, if you still need a wallet — so that when you walk into a connected room, you can simply say out loud, “OK, Google,” and ask your question and you’ll get an answer from whatever device happens to be listening. You can be in a rental car that knows you’re you and tell Google to add a calendar item or make a phone call or look up a fact and you’ll not have to see a single page. Star Trek didn’t navigate the universe through pages.

So there’s the next kick in the kidneys to old media. There’s another reason to build relationships with people so we can be their agents of information rather than just manufacturers of pages filled with content. Page? Content? What’s that?

It’s not about content: Part I

Brands (read: advertisers) are following media down the wrong path, deciding that they, too, are media now and that they, too, should make content to draw customers to their messages (thereby, by the way, getting rid of that middleman, media).

I’ve been arguing that media should build their futures around relationships, using content as a tool to that end. I’d say that is even more true of brands.

Yesterday, Samir Arora, CEO of Glam (where — full disclosure — I’ve been an adviser), tweeted a link to Marc Andreessen arguing that Ning, the company he cofounded and sold to Glam, is about to come into its own as it is remade for brands. That got me thinking about brands’ direction.

Whatever platform they use — Ning, Facebook, Google+, Twitter, blogs or all of the above — is less the issue than the culture that enables its brands and its employees — every one — to talk with and build relationships of value and trust with customers.

We’ve all seen this happen on Twitter when we get pissed off at some unfair or unrighteous action by a company; we appeal to sanity; an employee — sometimes the official tweeter, sometimes just a decent soul — rescues us; our relationship with the company is redeemed.

That is the model for brands online. I thought we’d learned that years go. Apparently not quite. Today not only are brands making content in their own domains but they now want to make content in media’s space; we used to call that an advertorial but now that is apparently called — in jargon that appeared from nowhere — “native advertising.” WTF does that mean?

Mind you, brands should indeed create content and make it available — about their products so we can find every question we have answered. But that’s utility. That’s not what brands talk about when they become media. They make this:

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Huh? How is that really any different from slapping a banner onto content? Oh, yes, it’s supposed to make us associate the Droid Razr Maxx HD with exotic locales and long battery life. But Motorola would do better to finally produce a decent phone, in which case, we the users would advertise it. I do hope that’s a lesson Google teaches them. Google understands the value of building relationships with individuals and using knowledge about them to deliver relevance and value. Isn’t that the wise future of media … and marketing?

Copyright v creditright

I wrote a post on Ev Williams’ and Biz Stone’s new Medium platform about rethinking copyright from a legal right not to be copied to a moral right to be credited: creditright. Please go read it there first. Then please join in the excellent discussion about the topic at Google+. Now I’ll add more points here…

* Content is not king. The assumption that content contains all our value in media leads us to sell it and prevent others from copying it, true — but it also leads to missing opportunities, such as realizing the value in relationships.

* If relationships have value, then creators want to assure connections to people through links and data: “Who read or commented on or shared my idea and what can we do together?”

* Those relationships can be exploited in a few ways: Events (see Togather for authors), direct sales (see — and buy — my Kindle Single, please), contributions (contribute to my entrepreneurial graduate on Kickstarter)…. None of that means riches are assured. In the copyright regime, they certainly weren’t either.

* This notion does not kill advertising support for creation. But it says that revenue should travel with content as it is shared. I’ve been arguing for sometime for the embeddable article, which would go to readers rather than making readers come to it. It would need to carry brand (i.e., credit), revenue (likely advertising), analytics (see data point above), and links. I was getting ready to build a demonstration when Debbie Galant found Repost.US, a cool company whose service does exactly this, carrying an article’s logo and its own ads and analytics with links back to the original (and a Repost.US advert added to pay the bills). I spoke with their CEO and he said that when an article is shared it receives by large measure a new, incremental audience. I have some networks and companies very excited about being able to share their content — that is, find new relationships — this way. I wish that media and entertainment companies would learn to go with the flow of links and make their content embeddable and spreadable now that some have shown how they can still get the benefit of brand, monetization, data, and links.

* When credit is given for ideas, then whole articles (or books) don’t need to be copied or embedded. Just the ideas are. The day after I talked with Repost.US, I went to see my friends at 33Across (where — disclosure — I am a mini/micro/nano investor), which just bought Tynt a company that appends a link to the source when you cut-and-paste content from a web page onto a blog or into an email. This is a way to make credit travel with ideas. When you enable and encourage that to happen, you learn a lot more about your content: what ideas are spread, by whom, where and how. That has value. As I’ve been saying, Facebook and Google know how to exploit those signals. Media — content creators — don’t.

* When copyright changes, the idea of plagiarism changes. As I said in the Medium post, the old sin was not rewriting enough; the new sin is not attributing *and* linking. All newspaper and magazine articles should carry footnotes to their sources. I learned that ethic of linking in blogs and the practice of footnoting in writing Public Parts. There’s every reason that other media should take it up. Readers deserve it. Sources and creators deserve it. The record deserves it.

* When creditright takes over, then fair comment becomes a different beast. No longer do we fight over how much — how long an excerpt – is necessary and fair for comment. Now, the more comment the better. Just credit.

* Under creditright, piracy is also redefined. The crime is not copying and sharing someone’s work, the crime is violating the means that creators provide — a la Creative Commons or Repost.US — for its use. This also infers that creators who do not provide those means — who do not make their content spreadable and embeddable — are just plain fools. That is in essence what is happening with much supposed theft and piracy today: How often do you hear people say they would buy the show or movie or record if they could, but when they can’t, they head to a torrent site? This is not to say that a creator *must* provide the means to make content spreadable. But it does say that once we have the means to take economic advantage of spreadable content, spreading it becomes acceptable, even the norm. Wouldn’t that be smart?

Finally, we need to recall the genesis of patent and copyright regimes: to encourage creation and the open sharing of knowledge. Each is becoming outmoded in its way. Patents are used to lock up even common practices — even the information that is our own genome — so they cannot be used. Copyright is used to prevent sharing and the creation that comes from inspiration of what came before. Creditright address at least the shortcomings of copyright by returning to the original purpose of encouraging creation, helping to support it given current technology and reality, and enabling creation upon creation.

: LATER: Related: How plagiarism helped fuel the American Revolution. Commonplace books as a predecessor to Pinterest.

The trouble with content

Yesterday, I got to speak about speaking with the speakers of the National Speakers Association in Indianapolis. How meta.

I was more controversial than I thought I’d be. For I suggested — and demonstrated — that speakers would do well to have conversations with the people in the room and not just lecture them. I said I’ve learned as a speaker that there is an opportunity to become both a catalyst and a platform for sharing. I talked about my wish to do a project built around events and conversation — process as product — with a book perhaps as an afterthought, a result. And I talked about testing a business model with Kickstarter that could help speakers and the people formerly known as the audience wrest back control of events from conference organizers and speakers’ agents.

Some liked what I said. Some didn’t. And even those who liked it said on Twitter and in the hall that it was disruptive and controversial.

When I went into the room to have a conversation with these speakers — Oprahing — I heard this from some of them: We create content. That content has value. Implicit in this: We don’t want to share the stage with the audience. And I would ask whether that means they don’t sufficiently value the audience and the wisdom it brings.

That is precisely what I have heard over the years from newspapers, magazine, and media people: We create content. We control content. It’s ours. Pay us for it. We don’t want to lose control of it by opening up.

This made me see this content worldview as a problem, a seduction.

If you think that all you do is create and sell content, then you box yourself in and cut yourself off from other opportunities, including acting as a platform for sharing knowledge. That’s the problem news organizations have had. Apparently, so do some speakers.

Now, of course, content can have value. But that’s a high bar to jump. It’s proving to be more and more difficult to extract that value. If you make a great movie or write a great novel or sing a great song, then that’s unique and I’ll agree that it has value (though, of course, it’s getting harder to get paid as much as you used to for those creations). Still, if what you do is unique and great, it’s possible. Hard, but possible.

News is not unique. That’s why my industry has gotten in such trouble holding onto the idea that it creates content. Period. The attention they used to hold captive is now free to roam anywhere, including to an abundance of free competitors. I’d warn speakers, too, that some of them could be replaced by a YouTube video or a Google+ Hangout, unless they embrace these threats as opportunities.

Oh, yes, there’s still a business in content. But it’s an increasingly difficult business to survive in. It’s a limiting business. It’s an expensive business. It’s a business with more and more competitors and more and more price pressure. It’s a business that still requires blockbusters but they are harder to come by. It’s a business in which the bar to success is constantly rising.

Are you *sure* you want to be in the content business?

Are media in the content business?

The Guardian launches its new Media Network my essay asking whether we in media are really in the content business. Here’s the first half (in the rest, I catalog the methods I think are worth exploring to rethink our role…. I’ll be expanding on that later).

* * *

What if we in media are not in the content business?

Oh, yes, we will produce content; that’s what we do. But perhaps our greatest value is not in what we produce but in what it produces: signals about people’s interests, about authority, about topics and trends.

That is how Facebook, Google, Twitter and company see content – as a signal generator. That is how they extract value from it, by using those signals to serve more relevant content, services, and advertising. But they are not in the content business. They are in the relationship business. Shouldn’t we also be?

A US TV news executive I know complained to me recently that Facebook and Google, in his words, use media’s steel to build their cars. “Mark Zuckerberg,” he said, “does not value content.”

No, I said, Zuckerberg values more content than we do. We think content is that which we make because we are content people – we see content as a scarcity we produce and control. Facebook and Google, on the other hand, see content everywhere – in the allegedly useless creations, chatter and links made by people in the course of their lives. They see content as an abundant resource to learn from, value and exploit.

The problem is, the media is not built for relationships because our industry was born in a time of factories, not services. We rarely know who our readers are (and we still call them just readers or at best commenters, not creators or collaborators). We do not have the means to gather, analyse and act on data about their activities and interests at an individual level. Thus we cannot serve them as individuals.

Our product, content, is not built for that. It is built for masses. That is what our means of production and distribution demanded. So now we try to adapt that content for new tools, impressed that we can add motion, sound or touch to what we have long done. But our online books, magazines, and newspapers are still recognisable as such. We haven’t gone nearly far enough yet to rethink and reinvent them….

Content, dethroned

Jonathan Knee uses Netflix to argue in The Atlantic that content is not king and that aggregators are better at capturing value. That will be raw meat to those who claim that aggregators are content kleptomanics.

Knee’s analysis is good but there’s a critical element that needs to be underscored: Aggregation itself is not sufficient. Netflix gains its advantage because it has a substantive relationship with its customers, which yields data about their desires that the company uses to superserve them, making highly relevant recommendations and filtering noise (give me the filter bubble!).

This business strategy makes us rethink where the core of value is in media: in the content or in the relationship and data. What is Facebook’s answer? Google’s? I address that in my link economy treatise here:

Rather than concentrating on total audience, we should concentrate on the net future value of each reader. Where does that value reside? That question raises a fundamental strategic—and religious—issue: We in news and media keep saying that our content has value. Well, yes; no one will disagree. But we need to ask whether the greater value resides in the content or in the relationships and data it can spawn. Yes, the content has value, but how best do we extract that value?

Over lunch recently a media executive repeated the accepted wisdom that “our content has value.” That often leads next to the contention that we “should be paid for it,” though I counter that “should” is never the basis of a business model. In news, of course, we have always extracted more value for our work through selling our audiences to advertisers than selling our content to audiences. Why would that change today?

This executive also complained that digital companies, such as Google and Facebook, don’t value our content. But look at this new media ecosystem from the perspective of Facebook, a company that by some reckoning could be valued at as much as $100 billion by the time it goes public within a year. What does Facebook itself value? Relationships. Data. Relevance.

As for content, Facebook doesn’t so much refuse to value it, as my media friend implied, but instead finds value in a much more expansive view of content. It finds worth in all that apparently useless blathering we do in what Facebook calls, to journalists’ derision, its members’ “News Feeds.” That’s not news, the news people say; news is what we make. That may have been the case in a scarcity-based content economy, when there was room for only so much news in the world’s publications and airwaves. Now content—like advertising—is abundant. The incumbent content companies are having trouble taking advantage of that growth because their definition of content remains limited and their models based on controlling scarcity. Facebook, like Google, sees content everywhere, made by everyone, and each in its own way is better than legacy content companies at finding value in it. Each uses content to gain more signals about users and to use that data to target content, services, and advertising.

My lunch companion said that media companies’ content is the “steel” that makes Google’s “cars.” That metaphor still assumes that content is a scarce, consumable, and perishable commodity. Digital companies’ ability to make money on the back any content—Facebook enables the creation of it; Google organizes it—irks the content makers. This is why Rupert Murdoch and his News Corp. lieutenants (in a list curated by Arianna Huffington) accuse Google and its ilk of being “parasites,” “content kleptomaniacs,” “vampires,” and “tech tapeworms in the intestines of the Internets” who “steal all our copyright.”

There are two problems with the Murdoch worldview: First, according to my thesis of the link economy, Google, Huffington Post, curators, aggregators, bloggers, and readers linking via Facebook and Twitter do not steal value but instead add value when they direct readers to content. In response to News Corp.’s accusations and epithets, Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt said in Murdoch’s own Wall Street Journal in December 2009 that Google causes 4 billion clicks a month to news publishers, a quarter of that from aggregator Google News.

In an apples-to-pineapples comparison, only a few months later, Bit.ly, the leading URL-shortener used in Twitter, passed that 4 billion mark and a year later it doubled that (though not all that goes to news sites). There we see the rising power of the peer’s recommendation, the human link. In early 2011, the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism confirmed that social services were driving higher proportions of traffic to news sites, with Facebook coming in second or third in the list of referrers to five of the top 25 news sites.

The second issue with the Murdoch view of links is that it fails to take account of the new ways that digital companies mine value in content, links, and relationships. For them, content is not a product to sell but is more a device to generate information about users to increase their value. Content is a signal generator that reveals interests, needs, sometimes location, and more. Facebook can find out that you are a fan of Green Day if you read articles about it but also if you write about it or your friends are fans or you listen to or recommend its music. Then Facebook wants to sell you a ticket to the next Green Day concert near you (and Facebook knows where you are). In this example, content takes many forms—an article, a conversation, a song—and monetization comes not from advertising but from commerce. Does Facebook need a publisher’s article to make these economics work? Is it the steel without which there can be no car? Hardly.

A more extreme example: In 2010, researchers used a set of keywords to track aggregate moods in Twitter messages and found they could predict daily ups and downs in the Dow Jones Industrial Average with up to 87.6 percent accuracy. A hedge fund now uses the formula in partnership with one of the scientists. The content—very broadly defined—created by millions of Twitter users produces value, if you know how to look for it.

In our research, we will need to catalogue such additional sources of worth and revenue. For part of the lesson to content creators and link recipients should be that there are more ways to recognize value than the traditional way of selling audiences to advertisers. At the e-G8 conference in Paris in May 2011, Zuckerberg bragged that Zynga, built atop Facebook’s open platform, had just past game champion Electronic Arts in market capitalization. He said Zynga succeeded because it understood not only games but also people and relationships. He suggested that the next winners in music, for example, would similarly understand both (see: Lady Gaga). How will the similarly savvy news company succeed?

I’m not suggesting that editors call the people formerly known as the audience little monsters and don bodacious bustier to earn a buck. But I do believe we must challenge our every assumption about the role of content and its creators in a new media economy. Media’s role was to make and distribute content because it controlled the means of both. Now they do not. The former audience can make content and media’s role may be to support them in that with tools, platforms, aggregation, curation, promotion, training. The former audience has also taken over the role of distributor when they link, recommend, discuss, and embed content and so the question for media is how to take full advantage of that. Where do the former content controllers fit into this new ecosystem? How do we add and extract value?

The simple question—how do we increase the number and value of links and clicks for media—raises these larger questions. This research can hardly answer them all but perhaps it can inspire new ways to see value and new structures and methods to realize it.

It’s not all about content and work

In his column complaining about Huffington Post and the new economics of content competition, I think David Carr makes two understandable but fundamentally fallacious assumptions about news and media: that the value in journalism is in content and that making content must be work. Because that’s the way it used to be.

In their op-ed the next day in The New York Times complaining about copyright losing its hardness, Scott Turow, Paul Aiken, and James Shapiro extend the error to entertainment, assuming that content is entertainment and content is what content makers make.

Not necessarily.

Pull back to view the true value of these things: information, knowledge, enlightenment, amusement, experience, engagement. Content can be and has been a vessel to deliver their worth. But it is not the only one. That is the lesson of the internet — indeed, of Huffington Post itself. I have argued that The New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN, the BBC, and other media should have but never would have started the Huffington Post because they, like the gentlemen above, still see content as value in itself and further believe that content is their own franchise (granted by their control of the means of production and distribution). So the benefits of content cannot come from others — bloggers, commenters, citizens, amateurs — as new wine in new casks. They instead want to put their old wine in the new skins (witness The Daily).

That is why old media people are missing new opportunities. It’s not about the content (stupid). It’s about the value.

We can be informed now by many means: by our neighbors telling us what they know, enabled to do so by the net, at a marginal cost of zero, doing so not because it is work (and work must be paid) but because this is what neighbors do for each other. We can be entertained by many means: by clever people making songs and shows and telling stories because they love doing so and because they are compensated in attention rather than royalties (and that attention may well lead to money when they can finally detour around the gauntlet of old media’s closed ways to find audiences on their own).

Why do people write on Huffington Post? Because they can. Because they give a shit. Because they like the attention and conversation. Because they couldn’t before. Why do they sing their songs on YouTube? Same reasons.

Is there still a role for the journalist, the professional, the artist in this? Perhaps. I think so. That’s why I am teaching journalism school. But I’m not necessarily teaching them to make content. That is now only one of many, many ways to meet the goals of adding value to information, time, and society. Some of my entrepreneurial journalism students are, for example, creating businesses that will use data to impart information; they will add value by gathering and analyzing it and making it possible for you to find the intersecting points that matter to you. Other of my students are creating platforms for you to get more value out of your own data. Others are creating platforms for people to connect around interests and make and find their own value. Others are finding new ways to sustain reporting and the making of content. They are all valid if they bring value.

If you concentrate on the value, not the form — content — then the possibilities explode.

Turow et al shut down the idea that opening up information can yield greater value that protecting it. Sharers are…

… abetted by a handful of law professors and other experts who have made careers of fashioning counterintuitive arguments holding that copyright impedes creativity and progress. Their theory is that if we severely weaken copyright protections, innovation will truly flourish. It’s a seductive thought, but it ignores centuries of scientific and technological progress based on the principle that a creative person should have some assurance of being rewarded for his innovative work.

No, I’d say rather that there are more ways to open up value. If Wikipedia were copyrighted by a publisher, it never would have become Wikipedia because it would be owned, not shared. We now have a new means to collect value rather than merely to own content.

I remember at the DLD conference a few years ago when Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales defended himself from a ninja-knife-wielding Jason Calacanis over paying people to contribute to online resources. Calacanis, like Carr, called it work. Wales instead likened it to a pickup game of basketball. Viewed from a distance, basketball certainly looks like work; they sweat enough. So why don’t we demand that they be paid? Why aren’t we lamenting the loss of a marketplace for their value? Because that’s not where the value is. It’s in the fun.

Granted, what’s done with that fun — how it is exploited — is relevant. If I start charging admission to watch you play basketball — it is great content, after all — or if I put sponsors’ banners on the court — you did draw an audience — you might want a cut. If you can get it — if you can show that there aren’t a million competitors for court time in an open marketplace — great! But what if the gate or the ads merely support my ability to provide free court time to you or free uniforms to your town-team kids? The economics are not necessarily sweat = work = product = pay. Neither is it any longer true that owning the expensive means of production and distribution assures a return on that investment. There are other expressions of value.

The truth is that Huffington Post recognizes the value of professionalism. I’ve lately recalled Arianna Huffington talking with Guardian editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger in London a few years ago when he — with native irony, in front of his reporters — asked why the hell she was hiring reporters, who are a pain in the ass to manage and expensive to boot. Because their stories get more traffic, she said. They add value. That’s why she has editors and curators. They add value. That’s why she has technologists who make the Huffington Post such a social experience. They enable value.

That’s what I’m teaching my entrepreneurial students: add value. And be efficient: take advantage of the free exchange that is already happening — the free and open platforms and the information that now easily passes on them. Then put your precious resources where you most add value. Do that before you even think of extracting value. There are the new economics of what we used to think of as content.