Posts about fon

The news we can afford

I want to see news organizations grow again. But first, they must finish shrinking. They must decide what they can afford to be.

That is what is happening with Advance reducing publication schedules and resources in New Orleans and other of its markets. That is what happening with Journal Register as it declares bankruptcy to restructure its liabilities given present reality. I recommend you read Josh Benton’s and Rick Edmonds’ analyses of this latest business move.

Now please take what I say here not just with a grain of salt but with a salt lick as I advise both Journal Register and Advance, where I also worked for a dozen years. I was not part of these decisions. But I support them because I want to see newspaper companies find their water level of sustainability so they can again invest in the future.

Of course, there is not one answer to the question of what they can afford. In his statement on Journal Register’s move, CEO John Paton said that legacy costs undertaken under different circumstances are now unsustainable. Bankruptcy presents an opportunity to renegotiate many of those costs, including leases, contracts, and pensions.

These are hard decisions with difficult consequences for many people. But not addressing the issue will only turn out worse, squandering dollars every day the tough decisions are put off.

After too many years in denial, we all know now that newspapers, no longer monopolies and having lost their pricing power in the face of abundant competition, must be smaller if they have any hope to survive; there is no magic bullet that will set things “right” and return the business to what it was. They must find new efficiencies through consolidation (see Digital First’s Project Thunderdome and other companies bringing together shared work), collaboration (with the community and a larger news ecosystem), and specialization (do what you do best — in the case of local newspapers, that is being local — and link to the rest). They must reconsider their business models, looking for new opportunities, and also their relationships with the public.

I do believe that newspapers, rethought, can be sustainable — that is, profitable. The first step is to make hard financial decisions such as the ones discussed here. The next is to make the transition to digital, to put digital first, to become sustainable digital enterprises.

But all that gets us is survival. Then comes the real work: rethinking what a newspaper is, what its relationship with its community can be, where it adds value and how it may then — and only then — extract value. That is why I also spend my time trying to challenge assumptions about the forms, relationships, and models of news, asking unpopular questions such as whether we should even consider ourselves a content business. That is why I teach entrepreneurial journalism: to empower students to start new businesses based on new visions without the drag of legacy assumptions and obligations. But I do believe that newspaper companies can also find their sustainable future. That’s why I work with them as well. I want to see them survive and once again prosper, innovate, and grow.

None of this is easy. Much of it is unpleasant. But it is necessary.

Reporters: Why are you in Tampa?

I challenge every journalist in Tampa for the Republican convention — every one of the 15-16,000 of you — to answer this:
* Why are you there?
* What will we learn from you?
* What actual reporting can you possibly do that delivers anything of value more than the infomercial — light on the info, heavy on the ‘mercial — that the conventions have become?
* Would you be better off back at home covering voters and their issues?
* Can we in the strapped news business afford this luxury?

Figure that those 15k journos spend $300 a night each on a hotel room times five nights, plus $500 for transportion. That’s $2,000. And I’m figuring they’ll be slurping up free meals and drinks. So $2,000 is probably (pardon me) conservative. That’s $30,000,000. Now multiply that times two conventions. That’s $60,000,000.

Why? For what?

Note that even while newspapers and news organizations have shrunken drastically, we are sending the same number of journalists to the conventions that we sent in 2008 and 2004.

Why? Editorial ego: It’s fun to be there, in the pack. It’s fun for a paper or station to say, “We have our man/woman in Tampa/Charlotte.” Well goody for you.

It’s a waste.

Take that $60,000,000 and divide it by a fully loaded labor cost of, say, $100,000 per head and it would pay for 600 reporters for a year. At $50,000 for a hyperlocal reporter, we’d get 1,200 towns covered — more than Patch! What could they do versus what you will do in Tampa and Charlotte transcribing marketing messages and horrid memes?

Or we could pay for Homicide Watch 1,500 times over, instead of just paying attention to a shooting that happens where tourists wander.

Those 15,000 journos will — three-to-one — cover 2,286 delegates (6,000 for those spendthrift Democrats) wearing funny hats, saying nothing new.

At least 3,775 newspaper jobs were lost last year; 39,806 since mid-2007; one in three newsroom jobs have been eliminated since 1989. How’s that make you feel, convention press corps?

We can see whatever we want to see on C-SPAN (and I don’t begrudge the networks for giving us America’s Got Talent instead of the conventions since at least AGT has surprises; the conventions are scripted).

Commentary? There’ll be more than we can possibly use this year on Twitter and Google+ and blogs and everywhere. We don’t need to pundits’ palaver. Citizens will comment this year.

So enjoy yourself, hacks. You’re living off the last dollars of your business. And for what? Tradition? Where has that gotten us?

Please prove me wrong. In a week, show me the amazing reporting we couldn’t have gotten if you weren’t there.

Without mediation

The shooting near the Empire State Building today demonstrated in yet more ways how news will arrive without mediation.

On Twitter, some objected to my linking to photos from the scene taken by witnesses immediately after the crime, without warning of their graphic nature. The murder victim lay in his blood, so bright red that someone else on Twitter wondered whether the image had been doctored. No, we’re simply not accustomed to seeing so much blood so fresh. We have waited until news photographers arrived, until after the bodies have been taken away, replaced by chalk outlines behind yellow ribbons with only dried, brown-red stains remaining. We are used to seeing the sometimes ugly world packaged and sanitized for our protection by media.

So it’s doubly shocking, perhaps, when media now shows such images from those witnesses.

Jim Romenesko asked The Times about running that photo on its home page, albeit briefly, and they gave what I’d call a right answer: “It is an extremely graphic image and we understand why many people found it jarring. Our editorial judgment is that it is a newsworthy photograph that shows the result and impact of a public act of violence.”

I say it is a good thing that we see a more unvarnished world. Perhaps then we’ll have a real debate about guns the way we were forced to face Vietnam through scenes of death on the evening news, as some of my defenders on Twitter pointed out. “Death by gunshot is graphic. Now uncontainable,” said the Guardian’s Charles Arthur (though the Guardian tried to contain it)

I also say that in any case, we’d best get used to it, for as we all well know, news and images of it won’t come from reporters and credentialed photographers first and won’t be filtered through media before it comes to us. It is coming from witnesses who go by names like @yoassman [the name and a Seinfeld tribute, no doubt] and Mr. Mookie, who may write indelicate comments like, “They shoot, aw made you look. No really tho. Dude got popped!” and “Why yall keep saying it could be someone I know? I don’t have anymore room for RIP tatts on my arm. I’ve seen my friends with they heads blown off in the street. Yea it happens to me too and I get over it. Its life.”

Yeah, welcome to life. Most such life isn’t reported with such a splash because it doesn’t happen in such a public place. It happens in the Bronx or 19 times in a weekend in Chicago.

I think we’ve become much too accustomed to mediated news, to a world sanitized for our protection. That’s what makes people ask for warnings before being shown reality, even if the discussion is about murder, and even if they had to click on a link to see what I was writing about. They had to be curious enough to do that. But they weren’t curious enough to see news as it really happened. The image didn’t come into their homes on a TV screen with kids on the couch. It came through my Twitter feed. It was insensitive of me to link to it without warning, I was told. No, I think the problem is that media have made us insensitive — desensitized would be the cliché — to such a fact.

Don’t tell me you’re offended by murder. If you weren’t, that would be the problem. Of course, you are. So don’t tell me not to offend you with what it looks like once you click. And don’t tell me what to say and what not to say.

A man was killed in New York this morning. Now we know better what that looks like. That is news.

:Later: On the Media tells the story of that photo on The Times homepage. And here’s Poynter on the photo.

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.

Mobile’s not the next big thing, just a path to it

The Knight Foundation’s News Challenge just announced its next theme: mobile. And that’s a good thing because news organizations have been all-too pokey in figuring out how to serve people in this venue.

When Arthur Sulzberger announced his hiring of a new CEO, the BBC’s Mark Thompson, he said, “Our future is on to video, to social, to mobile.”

With respect, I’m not so sure. Saying that mobile is what comes next means, I fear, that we’re going to take what we do in media — making content, selling audiences — and figure out how to keep doing it on video, in social, and in mobile.

But that’s not what we really do.

Is Google just doing mobile next? Google has a mobile operating system. It has a Google-branded phone and tablet. It bought a phone manufacturer. It made apps for all its services for mobile. Even so, I don’t think Google is becoming a mobile company. For Google, mobile is a tool, a path to improve its real business.

What is its real business? The same as media’s business should be: Relationships — knowing people and serving them better because of what it knows about them.

With newspaper companies, I’ve been arguing that they should abandon page views as a metric because it has been a corrupting influence that carried on the old-media myth that the more “audience” you have the more you can charge advertisers and the more money you’ll make. The pursuit of page views has led news organizations to draw traffic — people — they cannot monetize (because they come from outside the market or come just once from search or Drudge). And the insistence that they remain in the content business has led news organizations to believe they must still sell that content; thus, pay walls.

Google views content — our content — as a tool that generates signals about their users, building relationships, data, and value. Google views mobile as a tool that also generates signals and provides opportunities to target content and services to the individual, where she is, and what she’s doing now (thus Android’s Google Now).

We in news and media should bring those strands together to knit a mobile strategy around learning about people and serving them better as a result — not just serving content on smaller screens. Mobile=local=me now. We should build a strategy on people over content, on relationships.

That’s what mobile means to me: a path to get us to the real value in our business. For you folks cooking up ideas for the Knight News Challenge (and for you, my new neighbor, Mr. Thompson) I suggest starting there.

P.S. When I tweeted a link to this post, I said the lesson is, “Mobile is a path not a destination.” Felix Salmon thought a fake me — or Deepak Chopra — had taken over my account. No, I just want that on a bumpersticker. I’ll license rights to T-shirts and hats.

The responsibilities and opportunities of the platform

Technology companies and news organizations have a lot to learn from each other about the responsibilities of running platforms.

I have been arguing that news organizations should reimagine and rebuild themselves as platforms for their communities, enabling people to share what they know and adding journalistic value to that. As such, they should study technology companies.

But technology companies also need to learn lessons from news organizations about the perils of violating trust and the need to establish principles to work by. That, of course, is a topic of conversation these days thanks to Twitter’s favoring a sponsor when it killed journalist Guy Adams’ account (later reinstated under pressure) and its abandonment of the developers who made Twitter what it is today.

One question that hangs over this discussion is advertising and whether it is possible to maintain trust when taking sponsors’ dollars — see efforts to start app.net as a user-supported Twitter; see Seth Godin suggesting just that; see, also, discussion about ad-supported NBC ill-serving Olympics fans vs. the viewer-support BBC super-serving them. I have not given up on advertising support because we can’t afford do; without it, my business, news, would implode and we’d all end up with less and more expensive media and services. So we’d better hope companies getting advertiser support learn how to maintain their integrity.

In the discussion on Twitter about Twitter’s failings in the Adams affair, Anil Dash suggested drafting the policy Twitter should adapt. Even I wouldn’t be so presumptuous. But I would like to see a discussion — not just for technology companies but also for media companies and governments and universities of institutions in many shapes — of the responsibilities that come with providing a platform.

For the opportunities and benefits of building that platform are many: Your users will distribute you. Developers will build and improve you. You can reach critical mass quickly and inexpensively. As vertically integrated firms are replaced by ecosystems — platforms, entrepreneurial endeavors, and networks — huge value falls to the platforms. It’s worthwhile being a platform.

But if you lose trust, you lose users, and you lose everything. So that leads to a first principle:

Users come first. A platform without users is nothing. That is why was wrong for Twitter to put a sponsor ahead of users. That is why Twitter is right to fight efforts to hand over data about users to government. That is why newspapers built church/state walls to try to protect their integrity against accusations of sponsor influence. That is why Yahoo was wrong to hand over an email user to Chinese authorities; who in China would ever use it again? Screw your users, screw yourself.

I believe the true mark of a platform is that users take it over and use it in ways the creators never imagined. Twitter didn’t know it would become a platform for communication and news. Craigslist wasn’t designed for disaster relief. That leads to another principle:

A platform is defined by its users. In other words: Hand over control to your users. Give them power. Design in flexibility. That’s not easy for companies to do.

But, of course, it’s not just users who make a platform what it is. It’s developers and other collaborators. In the case of Twitter, developers created the applications that let us use it on our phones and desktops — until Twitter decided it would rather control that. If I were a developer [oh, if only] I’d be gun-shy about building atop such a platform now. Similarly, if a news organization becomes a platform for its community to share information and for others to build atop it, then it has to keep in sight their interests and protect them. So:

Platforms collaborate. Platforms have APIs. They reveal the keys to the kingdom so others can work with them and atop them. Are they open-source? Not necessarily. Though making its underlying platform open is what made WordPress such a success.

In the discussion about Adams and Twitter, some said that Twitter is a business and thus cannot be a platform for free speech. I disagree. It is a platform for speech. And if that speech is not free, then it’s no platform at all. Speech is its business.

When a platform is a business, it becomes all the more important for it to subscribe to principles so it can be relied upon. Of course, the platform needs to make money. It needs to control certain aspects of its product and business. I don’t think anyone would argue with that. But if it keeps shifting that business so users and collaborators feel at risk, then in the long-run, it won’t work as a business.

Platforms need principles.

All this can, of course, be summed up in a single, simple principle: Don’t be evil. That’s why Google has that principle: because it’s good business; because if it is evil, it’s users — we — can call it out quickly and loudly and desert it. As Umair Haque says, when your users can talk about you, the cost of doing evil rises.

There are other behaviors of platforms that aren’t so much principles as virtues.

A good platform is transparent. Black boxes breed distrust.

A good platform enables portability. Knowing I can take my stuff and leave reduces the risk of staying.

A good platform is reliable. Oh, that.

What else?

#nbcfail economics

Reading the #nbcfail hashtag has been at least as entertaining as much of NBC’s coverage of the Olympics. It’s also enlightening — economically enlightening.

There’s the obvious:
* The people formerly known as the audience have a voice and boy are they using it to complain about NBC’s tape delays of races and the opening ceremonies, about its tasteless decision to block the UK tribute to its 7/7 victims, and about its commentators’ idiocies (led by Meredith Vieira’s ignorance of the inventor of the web; they could have used their extra three hours to enlighten her).
* Twitter is a gigantic spoiler machine. It would be nearly impossible to isolate oneself from news of results because even if you don’t read Twitter or Facebook or go to the net, someone you know, someone you run into will. Information can’t be controlled. Amen.
* We in the U.S. are being robbed of the opportunity to share a common experience with the world in a way that was never before possible.
Those arguments have all been made well and wittily on #nbcfail.

The counterargument has been an economic one: NBC has to maximize commercial revenue, which means maximizing prime time viewership, to recoup the billions paid for the rights to broadcast, billions that pay for the stadiums and security and ceremony. The argument is also made that NBC’s strategy is working because it is getting record ratings.

But there’s no way to know whether airing the Phelps race or the opening ceremonies live on TV would have decreased or increased prime-time viewing. Indeed, with spoilers everywhere, viewing is up. I can easily imagine people watching the Phelps defeat live tweeting their heads off telling friends to watch it in prime time. I can imagine people thanking NBC for curating the best of the day at night and giving folks a chance to watch the highlights. I tweeted: “I’m waiting for NBC to take credit for idea Twitter helps build buzz & ratings for tape-delayed events.” (Which led Piers Morgan’s producer, Jonathan Wald, to take joking credit and then the executive producer of the NBC Olympics, Jim Bell, to offer it. To his credit, Bell has engaged with at least one tweeted suggestion.)

If NBC superserved its viewers, the fans, wouldn’t that be strategy for maximum audience? The BBC is superserving its viewers. I went to TunnelBear so I could sample what the BBC is offering on the air and in its iPlayer — which, of course, we can’t use in the U.S. — and it’s awesome. But, of course, the BBC is supported by its viewers’ fees. So the argument is that the BBC serves viewers because they’re the boss while NBC serves advertisers because they pay the bills.

I still don’t buy it. I don’t want to buy it, for that pushes media companies to put all they do behind walls, to make us pay for what we want. I still see a future for advertising support and free content. I still believe that if NBC gave the fans what they wanted rather than trying to make them do what NBC thinks it wants, NBC could win by growing audience and engagement and thus better serving sponsors. I ask you to imagine what Olympics coverage would look like if Google had acquired the rights. It would give us what we want and make billions, I’ll bet.

The problem for NBC as for other media is that it is trying to preserve old business models in a new reality. To experiment with alternatives when billions are at stake is risky. But so is not experimenting and not learning when millions of your viewers can complain about you on Twitter.

The bottom-line lesson for all media is that business models built on imprisonment, on making us do what you want us to do because you give us no choice, is no strategy for the future. And there’s only so long you can hold off the future.

The bottom line for Olympics fans is that, as Bill Gross pointed out, much of the blame for what we’re seeing — and not seeing — falls to the IOC and the overblown economics of the games. There is the root of greed that leads to brand police who violate free speech rights in the UK by chilling use of the innocent words “2012” and “games”, and tape delays, and branded athletes. This is the spirit of the Olympics Games? It is now.

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?