Posts about geeks

Building trust in news

In their Trust Project, Richard Gingras, head of Google News, and Sally Lehrman, a fellow at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, argue the need to rebuild trust in news and they propose a set of practical tactics. I want to suggest further steps to support their campaign.

The reforms Gingras and Lehrman propose:
* News organizations and journalists should craft and publish statements of mission and ethics.
* Journalists should disclose their background to reveal both levels of expertise and areas of personal interest and conflict.
* For disclosure and accountability (and credit, I’d add), news organizations should reveal all the hands that work on content: researchers, editors, “even lawyers.”
* News organizations should aspire to an academic ethic of citations (links=footnotes) and corrections. They would also be wise to disclose their methodology — i.e., whom they interviewed, what they researched.

I agree with all that and with their contention that greater trust will yield greater value for news (through greater loyalty, engagement, attention, and promotion for worthwhile work).

A few added suggestions:

Google itself — particularly Google News — can encourage these behaviors by favoring news organizations, journalists, and other sources that follow standards such as these. This is not a manipulation of search. It is a proper use of legitimate signals of quality. Over the years, I’ve spoken with Google News creator Krishna Bharat and, on This Week in Google, with Google spam-killer Matt Cutts about their constant quest to find signals of originality and authority to improve search results and news ranking. For example, to avoid putting the 187th AP rewrite of a Washington Post story atop a cluster of articles, Google looks for citations referencing the Post, thus indicating that the Post has done original reporting and should get higher priority.

In particular, Google can encourage news organizations to cite sources through linking. News organizations and writers should be adhering to stricter standards for citation through linking: show us your sources; show us your work; let us judge those sources and that work for ourselves. This has clear benefit for the public. Journalists will learn that scrupulous linking can build trust, as Gingras and Lehrman argue. Rigorous citations through links will give Google more signals to judge quality and will give us all more data — which Google should publish — about what sources are cited across news organizations, so we can identify journalistic echo chambers.

Google’s prioritizing of original work over diluted rehashes has a further economic benefit: it supports the work of original journalism and reduces the traffic rewards everyone and his uncle gets today for deciding to publish his own “take” on someone else’s original reporting and work.

To encourage statements of disclosure, Google could revive its recently killed author program, this time giving prominent links not to the picture of the writer but to the writer’s disclosure statement when and if one exists. I’m not sure a statement of mission is necessary for every writer on the web (what’s my mission past truth, justice, and the internet way?). But disclosures are beneficial. Here are mine. (There you’ll find that I own shares of Google and have had my travel paid to speak at Google events but do not take fees from the company.)

Google can also support, encourage, and help distribute better corrections. Eight years ago, I wished for a means to subscribe to corrections related to news I’ve read — and, more importantly, stories I’ve written or linked to on my Twitter or Facebook feed or blog. Google is getting close to a means of doing that. Consider how good Google Now has become at recommending news to me based on the stories and topics I’ve been following on Chrome. (Calm your privacy panic; it’s fine with me; it’s a service that brings me relevance and value.) For example, Google knows I’m interested in the LG R watch and so it shows me news about when the gadget is going to be released. Why can’t Google also recommend that I read corrections that have been posted to stories since I read them?

I’m not suggesting that Google can or should do all this on its own. But as Gingras and Lehrman lead as individuals, Google can lead as a corporation, promulgating open standards that support better behavior and greater trust. With those standards, every curator could improve its recommendations.

Journalism schools should take a leadership role, too. At CUNY and most journalism schools, we require courses in law and ethics. We could help support these standards by having our students adhere to rigorous standards of linking and citation in their reporting and by having them publish disclosure statements. We can also help by fostering broader discussion of and research in trust. I’ll volunteer for that.

At a much higher level, trust is also a matter of business models. On the plus side, trust builds economic value, as Gingras and Lehrman contend. On the negative side, mass-media economics have had a significant role in corrupting media, news, and trust in them. As I will argue in my new book, Geeks Bearing Gifts: Imagining New Futures for News (out next month), importing mass-media models built on reach and frequency to digital news has resulted in the commodification of media and our epidemic of clickbait, cats, cynical manipulation (this link will change your life!), and endless takes on takes to scrounge up pageviews and ad impressions even as their value plummets toward zero.

Chartbeat’s Tony Haile has been beating the attention drum, arguing that selling time over space will lead to greater engagement, higher quality content, greater performance for advertisers, and greater value for media. Rewarding media for value over volume would be a big step in the right direction. I argue in Geeks Bearing Gifts that knowing the public we serve not as a mass but as individuals and communities and serving them with greater relevance as a result will also yield greater value for them and thus for media. I further argue that seeing journalism as a service that helps people and communities meet their goals — and measures its effectiveness that way — rather than as a content factory that merely assaults their eyeballs stories and messages will result in more meaningful relationships and greater accountability and thus greater trust and value.

There are other threats to trust rooted in business, of course. Cable TV’s continued reliance on mass-media economics is what leads to missing-jet-mania and ebola-panic-mongering. This is why I find promise in Reuters new TV news service, which will no longer fill a clock and pimp for viewers but will instead offer personalized, relevant, up-to-the-minute, and nonrepetitive newscasts for individuals.

I worry greatly about native advertising/sponsored content/brand journalism’s potential to poison trust, confusing readers as to the source of content and devaluing news and media brands. This is why we must have serious discussions about the ethics and standards of native advertising (I hope to hold a summit on the topic at CUNY next year). Here, too, Google is already helping by warning that poor disclosure of sponsors’ involvement in the creation of content will lower its status in search.

Finally, I always tell my entrepreneurial students that when they see a problem like the one that Gingras and Lehrman identify, they should not stop at pointing to it (as journalists usually do) but should find the opportunity in it. The proliferation of content and confusion and the crisis in journalistic trust can lead to many entrepreneurial opportunities. The king of corrections, Craig Silverman, is developing Emergent, a new tool to help identify misinformation on the web, and is building a business around it. Storyful developed systems to find and verify witnesses’ accounts of news events and News Corp. bought it.

I see more opportunities in building systems and companies around:
* gathering and analyzing signals of authority;
* building relationship data and analysis for media companies to increase their relevance;
* membership structures for media organizations to give clients — the public — greater voice in the use of journalistic resources;
* establishing new metrics for news as a service (did we improve your life and your community?), enhancing accountability;
* creating the means for trusted, recipient-controlled communication that is free of trolls and other online plagues (as opposed to email, Twitter, et al, which are sender controlled);
* advertising and revenue models that value quality over volume;
* new forms of TV news that do not rely on cheap tricks to fill time and build volume but instead get rewarded for delivering value; and on and on.
Technology companies — not just Google — and investors, media companies, universities, and foundations can invest in and support such innovation to build trust.

To rebuild journalism, news, and media around trust means rebuilding not just some behaviors but more fundamentally journalism’s business models, metrics, forms, and fundamental relationship with the public. That work is in the interest of members of the media ecosystem: news organizations, media companies, journalists, advertising agencies, networks, brands, and, again, Google and other internet companies. Project Trust is a start.

Cross-posted from Medium.

Inside an entrepreneur’s sausage factory

I will be assigning all my entrepreneurial journalism students to listen to every episode of Alex Blumberg’s podcast about starting a podcast company. It is an open, honest, true portrayal of the making of an entrepreneur.

Blumberg, you’ll recall, was a producer and voice on This American Life and one of the geniuses — along with NPR economic correspondent Adam Davidson — behind its Giant Pool of Money and then their podcast and blog Planet Money.

He decided to pick up and start a new company to produce quality, journalistic podcasts because he wisely saw the opportunity — we’ll all be streamin’ while we’re drivin’ — and because he saw their success in public radio.

Blumberg’s progress sounds so much like that of our entrepreneurial students. He starts with a passion to make what he does now pay. He faces and admits to many tough reality checks: How can he get the business to scale? Does he have the business and technical skills needed to make the enterprise sustainable? He faces fundamental choices: whether to become a content or a technology company. He learns that venture capitalists fund only technology companies; they fund scale. He learns the importance of the elevator pitch and clarity of vision. He learns the importance of learning from pitches.

Blumberg is a master storyteller and so this tale has plenty of suspense. I’ll be listening to every episode — and assigning every episode as well. Here are the first three:

Technoeuropanic

Europe is at it again. Or still. I’m told that a consortium of European publishers will run an ad in European papers this weekend attacking Google and the EU’s antitrust deal with the company. It’s the same old stuff: publishers whining and stomping their feet that it’s just not fair that Google is doing better than they are and government should step in to do something about this, this damned, uh … competitor.

Screenshot 2014-09-04 at 8.17.21 PMIn the ad, the publishers’ argument is that Google’s search is not “impartial.” First, who said it has to be? Second, Google does point to its competitors; see this search for “maps” to the left. Third, who requires the publishers to promote their competitors? Here, the so-called Open Internet Project — a front started by German publisher Axel Springer — demands “equal search” (what the hell would that be?) for, say, shoe listings, complaining that Google makes money pointing to its shoe advertisers. Hmmm. And here is Bild, Springer’s gigantic newspaper, selling shoes itself. I don’t see them linking to Google’s shoe ads. Shouldn’t a news publication be — what’s the word? — impartial?

But, of course, this isn’t the point. It’s a game. I’ve seen German publishers chuckling about it that way. They think they can use government and political pressure to cut some flesh out of Google. But they should beware the unintended consequences. They are helping Europe — and particularly Germany — get a reputation for being hostile or at least inhospitable to technology. Here is the Economist writing about “Germany’s Googlephobia.”

It so happens that I’m going to Berlin next week to speak at the IFA technology show about just this topic: Europe (specifically Germany) and technology specifically American technology companies). I worry about Europe.

Germany just banned Uber (despite the advice of EC VP Neelie Kroes). A European court instituted the ludicrous and dangerous Right to be Forgotten (what about the right to remember?). German government officials harassed Google over Street View so much that Google gave up photographing its streets (so much for Blurmany). German publishers got government to pass an ancillary copyright to go after Google quoting and linking to their content (but then lost a round in court). The German book industry gave technosceptic Jaron Lanier its big-deal peace prize and Dave Eggers’ dystopian novel is roaring up the charts. A German pol is threatening to break up Google (how?). Spain is looking to tax the link. The head of powerful German publisher Axel Springer raises the spectre of Google starting its own nation without laws. A German government agency is talking about declaring Google a utility and regulating it as such; I’d call that quasi-nationalization. “It is the core task of liberalism and social democracy to tame and restrain data capitalism gone wild,” declared Social Democratic Chairman Sigmar Gabriel in a German paper. “Either we defend our freedom and change our policies, or we become digitally hypnotised subjects of a digital rulership.” I could go on….

Would you invest in technology in Europe and specifically in Germany? I sure wouldn’t.

Some of this is about disrupted companies and institutions rallying to try to hobble their disruptor. Some of this is cultural technopanic. In either case, the damage to Europe and particularly Germany could be great.

At IFA, I plan to tell the technology executives there that they need to step up and defend progress or they might find themselves left behind.

Screenshot 2014-09-04 at 8.05.22 PM

The problem with “takes” is the business model of mass media

A very good take on why all news organizations think they “need a take on that” becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, being followed by another take and then another take on the Awl’s take on takes. Shoot us all now.

No, shoot the business model and the presumptions of mass media economics. That is what is causing this ridiculous treadmill of making content for content’s sake to get audience for audience’s sake with any original reporting or original thinking being copied and copied again and again until it looks like a the fuzzy, unreadable, 87th Xerox copy of a bad carbon copy. That is what makes media companies think the answer to any business problem is to make more content because that’s what we content makers do.

The problem is that the old business model of mass media rewards volume not value. The problem is also that we mistake our job as content makers rather than as service providers.

Advertising is bought on eyeballs by the ton — that is, every 1,000 set of eyeballs a media site can deliver. Advertisers then deliver their messages to said eyeballs. That’s because that’s the way old, one-way, mass media had to work. That’s all that print and broadcast allowed. And we are still, two decades after the introduction of commercial web, trying to copy our old business models in a new media reality. Spoiler: It won’t work.

Why do you think, as illustrated in this handy chart provided by First Monday, that Google’s value has soared 1,000 percent in that time while news media companies’ value has swirled down the toilet bowl?

monday note chart

Easy: Google sells value. To users, it provides relevance. To advertisers, it promises performance. Meanwhile, media still sell mass. They deliver one-size-fits-all products (“come see our home page, all of you; we’ll bet one of the hundred or so headlines there will grab you!”) to users. They deliver mere impressions to advertisers. Shouldn’t we be asking [cough] what would Google do?

There’s another reason that journalists like to issue their own takes on takes: ego. Back in the day, reporters were assigned to “match” other publications’ reporting not because they were scientists replicating others’ research and adding value to it but mostly because they wanted their own bylines and their on brands over their own stories in their own pages. And that made a modicum of sense in paper economics. But it doesn’t make sense anymore. Indeed, we cannot afford to use precious journalistic resources parroting what others have already done, reporting what our readers already know. The net — as distinct from mass media — rewards specialization and quality, the thing people link to because it’s good. Quality. Value. As a dividend, the link also brings news organizations the opportunity to recognize efficiencies by not trying to do everything for everyone. Dare I repeat this, too: Do what you do best and link to the rest.

The lessons of this story are painfully obvious: Stop making content. Start delivering service and value. Stop copying others’ work. Link to it. And to advertisers: Stop buying impressions. Buy performance. And to all: Challenge old assumptions. Innovation over inertia. Value over volume.

So was this just another take on the takes on takes? So shoot me.

Absolution? Hell, no

sarducciovalThe good Reverend David Carr grants us absolution. “So whose fault is it?” he asks after chronicling the excommunication of newspapers and magazines from media companies casting off their old, print ancestors to starve and die. “No one’s,” Carr decrees.

Not so fast, preacher. It is our fault. Who else could be at fault? We journalists, publishers, and journalism schools have turned out to be irresponsible stewards of journalism. We squandered our trust and our cash flow. This was was our institution to nurture and protect and Carr says it’s all but dead.

Wait a minute, Father David. That depends on what you define as our institution. He sees it as print. Well, hell, I’ve spent years now begging my journalistic coreligionists to stop defining themselves by their medium — by their means of production and distribution — otherwise they’d all end up just where they are today: the baby swirling down the drain with the holy water.

But there was good news for media companies this weekend, wasn’t there? BuzzFeed got a $50 million investment from Andreessen Horowitz. I thought venture capitalists didn’t invest in content because it has cooties, no? But its new board member, Chris Dixon, says that’s because BuzzFeed’s not a media company. “We think of BuzzFeed as more of a technology company.”

cat baptismWell, hold on, you moneychanger in the temple, you (and mind you, sir, we’re glad to have you here; please make yourself at home). BuzzFeed is still a mass media company because it still operates by mass-media economics based on volume: the more people it can tempt into its harem with the siren call of its cats, the more people it can serve to advertisers (no matter what it calls its advertising). It is a last-gasp, clever (some might say cynical) exploitation of those old-media ways, grabbing the last dollars from the cold, dead hands of Carr’s congregation. It is the newest old-media company.

But I have faith that BuzzFeed’s founder, Jonah Peretti, can invent his way out of this — that’s why Andreessen Horowitz is not nuts to invest in him. He can use the cash flow the old ways bring him to invent something new. But he hasn’t yet. And that’s the point: There’s still time. Old media companies still have cash flow they, too, should be using to reinvent themselves.

But Brother Carr has renounced his vows right from inside the old scriptorium. Fucking Gutenberg. “Nothing is wrong in a fundamental sense,” he writes. “A free-market economy is moving to reallocate capital to its more productive uses, which happens all the time. Ask Kodak. Or Blockbuster. Or the makers of personal computers. Just because the product being manufactured is news in print does not make it sacrosanct or immune to the natural order.” Or how about asking Netflix?

No, market forces are not an excuse for fatalism and ultimately suicide. Market forces are an opportunity for — forgive me, for I do know I’m getting carried away with this religion thing — resurrection. There is still time as no one has yet challenged all our old-media assumptions about content and print and reinvented journalism as what it should be.

I’ve warned you that I’m about done with a 55,000-word tome about that reinvention. I’ll give you the tl;dr now: Journalism needs to rebuild itself as a service to individuals and communities, which requires having relationships with them as people, not a mass, helping them reach their own goals in new ways — not just with content — and sustaining this work with business models built on value over volume.

That’s not what newspapers — even the digital-first among them — are yet. That’s not what BuzzFeed or Huffington Post or Business Insider or Vox is … yet. I don’t know what that is yet (thus my tome is no prophecy) but I suggest a few paths to the promised land.

At the end of his eulogy, Carr writes: “It’s a measure of the basic problem that many people haven’t cared or noticed as their hometown newspapers have reduced staffing, days of circulation, delivery and coverage. Will they notice or care when those newspapers go away altogether? I’m not optimistic about that.” Ah, but it’s a poor shepherd who blames his sheep.

So I’ll end this as good sermons should, with a charge to the congregation: Go forth and figure it out, people. Stop whining. Stop looking for excuses and forgiveness. Stop giving up. Your flock needs informing. Go find new ways to do that. And I don’t want to see your prodigal asses back in these pews until you do. That goes for us in the seminary, too.

Amen.

Come reinvent TV news

UPDATE: Registration is now open here. Our keynoter is VICE News Editor-in-Chief Jason Mojica and we’ll hear new ideas for TV News from Twitter’s Fred Graver, NowThisNews’s Sean Mills, and Occupy Wall Street chronicler Tim Pool.

lowell thomas

We’re going to reinvent TV news at CUNY on Sept. 19. Or rather, you will.

Do you have a wild vision for what TV news could or should be? Send it our way and you would win $1,000 and present your idea to an audience of TV people and TV disruptors at CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism on Sept. 19.

You’ll be joining some innovators we know and have invited to the event to present their visions for TV’s possibilities: The conditions for everyone: You can’t present anything you’ve already done. You have to show something you (or your organizations) haven’t had the guts to do.

Your presentation could be how to summarize the news in 3 minutes better than TV does now in 22. It could be rethinking those never-ending weather reports with the brevity and informative value of Forecast.io. It could be making assets of value like backgrounders and explainers instead of just filling time. It could be rethinking the talk show to make it productive. It could be rethinking the sports report or the predictable sports interview. The presentation could be a few minutes of video or a storyboard or a sketch on a whiteboard; it’s the vision we care about — not the production value. The audience will be TV people — whose minds should be blown — and innovators — who should be inspired with new ideas, new possibilities.

Among those we’ve invited who are scheduled to come: Tim Pool of Vice; Fred Graver, creator of Best Week Ever on VH1, now handling TV matters at Twitter; Merope Mills, the new head of video at the Guardian; the folks at Fusion; Tom Keene at Bloomberg; Robert King, head of news at ESPN, and more.

The day won’t be about bashing TV news. I’ve already done that. No, this is about possibilities. We will concentrate on what TV can do well and about innovation. We will also explore the business of TV news and the reasons why this medium is ready to follow newspapers and magazines into the giant maw of disruption. Finally, it’s time to challenge the orthodoxies of TV news and rethink the form.

So if you have an idea for a way to reinvent TV news — a new method, a new segment, a new show, a new site or service — summarize it here. You could win $1,000 and and the chance to show it to people who might help make it happen.

If you’re interested in coming to the event, sign up here for updates and we’ll let you know when invitations open up. Also sign up there to get a reminder so you can watch the event on a live stream or afterwards on video.

This is the beginning of a crusade at the Tow-Knight Center and CUNY, where we are also starting a course this fall in reinventing TV news. Expect to hear much more on the topic from us.

The decootification of media companies

LOCALADV DIGITAL PHOTO BY JUSTIN BEST Cooties for a Kristi column.

This pretty much completes the circle: Now Gannett is ready to spin-off its print properties, following Scripps in 2007, Belo in 2008, News Corp. in 2013, Tribune Company in 2014, and Time-Warner in 2014 — not to mention the Graham family putting the Washington Post up for adoption by Jeff Bezos.

Thus ends the decootification of media companies: entertainment here/print there; future here/past there; profitable here/screwed there. In corporate transactions, an unnamed venture is called a newco. In these media transactions, the abandoning parents might as well have called each progeny a crapco. They are not only set off on ice floes like elderly Eskimos awaiting a cold death, but some of their abusive parents — namely Time-Warner and Tribune — saddled them with horrendous debt. A few didn’t. Gannett’s spin-off is to be debt-free. Give considerable credit to Rupert Murdoch — who does love newspapers — leaving News Corp. with no debut and $2.6 billion in cash.

This is happening because the bad news for news isn’t over. The last best category of advertising in newspapers is the distribution of FSIs, free-standing inserts — circulars and coupons — which by one account adds up to 30-50 percent of newspapers’ retail advertising (though retail advertising continues to plummet). The last, best reason to keep printing and distributing a newspaper is FSIs. When you see papers cut frequency of printing or distribution to a few days a week, those are not hot news days; those are the days that bring FSIs and their revenue.

I’ve been saying here for some time that FSIs will go away. About two years ago, I asked a big-box retailer that makes much money from its circulars (from charging brands for presence in them) how long it would be before the circulation of print newspapers would fall below critical mass. The reply: 24-36 months. Note how long ago that was. FSIs are holding on for now but they are bound to start dropping off (a cliff) when (1) newspaper penetration — now running about a third of the country — continues to die off and as (2) consumer adoption of digital and especially mobile couponing rises and as (3) retail itself suffers in the face of Amazon and now Amazon, Google, and eBay all experimenting with same-day local delivery. Add (4): At the PostalVision2020 conference a year ago, the postmaster general described the entire business model of the United States Post Service as an advertising delivery medium; it will compete with newspapers for those last printed circulars and coupons and it is just as desperate for them.

I’ve also been saying here for some time that the real goal of newspaper publishers should be to become sustainable digital enterprises before the day when print becomes unsustainable. I’ve worked with two companies that are trying. Digital First started down the path but hasn’t arrived; it is a more digital and more viable company but still has a way to go to reach the promised land. Advance has consolidated digital and print in its markets, reducing print frequency in some and in all markets making digital the primary product for consumers and advertisers as well as staff and print a byproduct that still produces cash. Other companies have gone for short-term cash-flow fixes — namely, paywalls, whose growth has stalled both at Gannett (about 1 percent after a year) and now at The New York Times (in its latest quarterly report, the paper said growth of core digital subscriptions — apart from new digital products that themselves didn’t sell so well — stalled at just over 1 percent).

The job of turning a legacy news organization into a new digital organization is both wrenching and expensive. It requires urgency. It also requires patience and patient capital to fund reorganizations but especially innovation, which entails experimentation and thus failure — in a word, risk.

What these spin-offs signals is that media companies do not have the stomach, patience, capital, or guts to do the hard work that is still needed to finish turning around legacy media. So they spin them off. What used to be Gannett, Tribune, Scripps, and Belo are now TV companies. What used to be News Corp. and Time Warner are now entertainment companies — companies that might merge not, in my opinion, because that’s such a wonderful deal but because the best path they see to growth is not innovation there either but instead cutting costs and consolidating negotiating power to outmaneuver (with help from legacy telcos) the Netflixes of the future.

I see something else happening here: the end of the mass-media business model built on reach and frequency (unique users and pageviews) — in a word, volume. Google, Facebook, retargeting, programmatic advertising, all the companies and trends that are growing in advertising focus on individuals over masses, on data over mere exposure. If news companies do not figure out how to know people as individuals and find value there, reconstituting themselves as relationship rather than merely content companies, then they will find the ice floes under them melting sooner than later.

: LATER: Here I am on Bloomberg TV Market Makers on this story today.

No silver bullets

Screenshot 2014-07-18 at 9.55.56 AM
Lewis DVorkin performed a miracle with Forbes … almost. He almost rescued a dying brand, almost helped get it sold to a new owner, and almost rescued the Forbes family and its no-doubt-regretful investor Elevation Partners. I respect Lewis’ inventiveness and innovation. He has done the best he could with the brand he had.

But there’s only so much that can be done urgently with old media on the descent. As Steve Forbes himself said announcing the sale of a majority stake in his company to a group of Asian private-equity investors and cataloguing how his business used to be run: “The web has made this way of doing things obsolete.”

The Times, quoting unnamed sources, says the deal values Forbes at $475 million, but the Financial Times’ John Gapper properly asks:

Axel Springer, a leading European magazine publisher and digital company, was supposed to be interested in Forbes. But it and other media buyers dropped out early. Forbes had reportedly been hoping to sell the entire company for more than $400 million. That didn’t happen. Whatever the real valuation, given the buy-out of Elevation Partners — which had invested in Forbes in 2006 getting a reported 40% for $250-300 million, valuing the company then at under $750 million — and given the large chunk that Forbes is left with, I’d guess the family got something in the borderline nine figures. [I should add that as one commenter elsewhere points out, I'm not even trying to make a guess at such things as liquidation preferences for Elevation.] Not a deliriously happy ending for the Capitalist Tool, but — as people told me this week when I complained about turning 60 — it beats the alternative.

When DVorkin returned to Forbes in 2010, where he had been executive editor a decade before, with the purchase of his startup True/Slant, he brought with him what looked like a solution for a dying brand: He used that brand as candy to draw more than a thousand contributors to write mostly for free — the top few traffic attractors can make a decent buck — adding onto the work of a few score Forbes staff journalists. Thus he simultaneously exploded the quantity of content Forbes could serve while reducing the total cost of content to nearly nil. Now I’m all for media opening up to more voices, but let us acknowledge that not only the price but also the overall quality of Forbes content declined.

At the same time, the business side, headed by Mike Perlis, used that dying Forbes brand as candy for advertisers: Come appear on Forbes.com with your own pieces labeled “Brand Voice.”
Screenshot 2014-07-18 at 10.37.24 AM
I’ve long said that if you have to put a link next to a label saying “what’s this?” then the label clearly isn’t clear enough. This was a pioneering entry into the the so-called native advertising that is now overtaking media everywhere. Just as it was supposed to be the salvation of Forbes it is now supposed to save legacy media.

Beware the silver bullet. It can backfire.

The problem in the end for Forbes, I believe, is that the brand became even more devalued. I illustrate this very simply: Now, when I see a link to Forbes on Twitter, I don’t know whether it is going to take me to (1) the good work of a Forbes journalists, (2) the good work of a Forbes contributor, (3) the bad work of one of many Forbes contributors, or (4) the paid and wordy shilling of a Forbes advertiser, e.g.:

Thus, I hesitate three beats before clicking on a Forbes link. That is the definition of a devalued media brand. And that is precisely what other media companies should fear as they more and more try to fool their readers into thinking that what we used to call advertising is now something else that can comfortably live under brands, enigmatically labeled.

The real lesson of Forbes is that there are no easy answers and quick solutions for transforming legacy media companies. DVorkin became a key tourist attraction for media executives touring New York. I know because I took many of them to meet Lewis. He generously shared his means and methods. But I also told these executives that the path was not without the peril I just described.

Media executives are looking for quick fixes still.

Tablets were going to save them, returning to them the control of user experience and business model the link had taken from them. Hearst Magazines has had some success with tablets. But salvation does not this way lie.

Pay walls were going to save them, finally recognizing the value of their content online. But as Gannett has learned, after grabbing cash flow the first year, growth stops. No Moshiach there.

Ad marketplaces were going to save them — or at least let them compete with Google. But programmatic advertising — those ads that follow you all around the web telling you to buy that kayak you looked at once on Amazon — commodify media. They value direct data about a customer over the context media provides — that is, it’s better to show a kayak ad to a kayak buyer than to buy an ad next to a kayak story. This is why I argue in the start of a white paper I’m finishing now that we must shift to a business based on known relationships with people as individuals and communities rather than as a mass.

Shifting to a relationship and service strategy over a pure content strategy will take not only urgency but also time, with much experimentation and failure and a need for patient capital — likely not the Hong-Kong-based private-equity investors Forbes now has, not the hedge funds that Digital First Media has, not the public owners that Gannett and Time Inc. have. This won’t be easy.

I’m not saying that DVorkin and Perlis ever thought that what they were doing was easy. But others did. They hoped that Forbes would show the way to a solution for all their problems. Well, so much for that. That way lies the skin of your teeth.