Posts about geeks

Geeks Bearing Gifts: Efficiency … The Final Cut

Here’s the next free chapter of Geeks Bearing Gifts about efficiency and news and ask what of journalism we must fight to save and what isn’t necessarily journalism or at least journalism we can’t necessarily afford anymore.

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Most discussions of the state and fate of the business of news start with revenue and a search for the means to recover what has been lost to the internet so we can pay for and thus protect newsrooms as they were. Sorry, but I will begin on the other side of the ledger with the cost of journalism. It has plummeted, not just because we have less money to spend but because we can now spend less to get and disseminate the news. Thanks to technology, specialization, and collaboration, news can be much more efficient today.

After exploring the many ways in which technology has saved the news business money since the ’70s, I add:

Even with all that disruption and downsizing, still greater efficiency and savings have been brought to news by the internet — particularly the web and its essential invention: the link, which rewards both specialization and collaboration. “Do what you do best and link to the rest” is my most quoted, retweeted, and PowerPointed utterance (it helps that it rhymes). Out of that dictum flows a series of new efficiencies and necessities for news. The first is to specialize. There’s little sense wasting your time writing the 25th-best account of a story when it will appear on the third page of a search request and in only a few tweets; mediocrity and repetition don’t pay anymore, at least not for long. But there is considerable value in creating the best, for others will end up linking to you. . . .

The link forces us to reexamine the scoop culture of news — the belief that being first is always worthwhile. Today the half-life of a scoop is measured in the time it takes to click. It simply doesn’t pay anymore to be the first to report what will happen in a press conference when that will then be reported by hundreds of competitors, each a click away. Neither does it pay to “match” a competitor’s scoop, duplicating its reporting when linking to it will do — unless your reporting does take a story further. A true scoop, something that is worth our precious resources, is an investigation that breaks new ground or an insight from a reporter who knows her beat and her community better than anyone else. The rest is just the next minute’s fishwrap, digital dust.

After exploring various efficiencies and trying to cut journalism and our definition of it to its critical essence (in which, for the sake of illustration, I will piss off sports reporters and even some foreign correspondents and, God help me, copy editors), I come to this:

The news organization of the future should be specialized, expert, collaborative, efficient — and as small as it can be so it is sustainable. The bottom line: News enterprises that become profitable on their digital revenue are bound to be much smaller than their print forebears because, for all the reasons explored above, there’s simply less digital revenue to be had. This hard fact forces us to redefine the core of our value and to rebuild from there rather than trying to hold onto the functions we used to perform because we’ve always performed them. We must cut the waste. . .

What are we trying to save of journalism? . . .

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

Geeks Bearing Gifts: Digital First — What Then?

Here’s another free chapter of Geeks Bearing Gifts: Imagining New Futures for News. Now we get into the business models and strategies for news companies, starting with the question many ask John Paton, who named his company with the phrase — “What’s digital first?” — and the question he asked me — “What comes next?”

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Here’s how I translate the catchphrase “digital first” into a business strategy for legacy media proprietors: They must transform their companies into fully sustainable digital enterprises before the day when print becomes unsustainable. And for the most part, print will become unsustainable. I needn’t explore in depth the causes of death, as the essence of mass media’s plight is now apparent: Publishers as well as broadcasters controlled scarcities — limited space in print and time on the air, each in a closed distribution channel — which afforded them enviable pricing power. The net creates abundance — no shortage of content and no end of advertising availabilities, not to mention the opportunity for brands and merchants to bypass media altogether and build direct relationships with customers. That abundance drives the value of content and advertising toward zero….

The solutions for media companies may not be obvious, but the arithmetic of sustainability is: Start by reducing costs to their most essential and efficient level — assuredly a fraction of what they were for an old, vertically integrated monopoly. Then maximize digital revenue — advertising volume, yes, but I will also argue for building greater advertising value through deeper, richer relationships with consumers. Build new products and services appropriate to the new opportunities that technology presents: digital services for advertisers, mobile applications, newsletters, and so on. And explore additional revenue streams, including events, direct commerce, and consumer revenue via patronage or paywalls. Digital revenue surely will not cover the legacy costs of a deposed monopoly, but one had better see a path to digital profitability. The alternative is just to milk the old print cow until she keels over.

And one more snippet from this chapter about Paton and the genesis of this entire book:

Back to John Paton: I remember the day in 2012 when he charted for his advisory board — at the time, Jay Rosen, Emily Bell, and me; Clay Shirky joined later — his path to fixing Digital First’s corporate structure, reducing costs to the minimum (selling every printing press, fleet of trucks, and office building that was not profitable on its own), and driving maximum revenue to digital. He explained the dynamics of working with hedge funds — a crucial factor to keep in mind when we see later how his story ends. Paton drew his projections on the whiteboard and said: OK, let’s imagine that at a date only a couple of years out, we get there — the company will be substantially sustainable as a digital enterprise. Then what? he asked. What are we then?

That question inspired this essay. Trying to answer Paton’s question forced me to reexamine my own thinking about the future of news, to identify and push harder against my own assumptions that sprang from my experience in legacy media: the Gutenberg context, or pressthink, as Jay Rosen would call it. Paton was asking what news could be, what news should be. What is the strategy that takes us past mere survival to reinvention? Can we get there? I realized that until we reimagined our destination, we would be stuck recycling the past. What’s required to get to that goal is considerable imagination, experimentation, risk, failure, courage, and urgency — as well as patience.

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

Geeks Bearing Gifts: The Story So Far

After taking a bit of time off, I’m going to restart the posting of chapters from Geeks Bearing Gifts: Imagining New Futures for News — for free on Medium. This last half of the book is the meaty bit, the good part, the climax. This is the part about money and sustaining journalism.

Screenshot 2015-02-10 at 3.40.50 PMFirst, a brief recap of the first two sections of the book about relationships as the basis of a new strategy for news and then about new forms of news, then a preview of the rest of the book. It’s short, so I’ll quote the entire thing here:

I hear it often: News doesn’t have a journalism problem. It has a business-model problem. I will disagree on two counts. It is willfully blind and suicidally deaf to say that journalism doesn’t have a problem when its institutions are all suffering falling audience and plummeting trust — only about a fifth of Americans have “a great deal” or “quite a lot of” confidence in news media, according to Gallup. More important, to pose journalism’s plight as a problem is to suggest that journalism as it was needs saving, that there’s some fix out there that will make everything all right again if only we can find it. I prefer to state the quandary from an antipodal point of view: Journalism has no end of new opportunities and our problem is that we have not yet explored nearly enough of them.

In the first part of this essay, I explored the new relationships journalism can have with the public that it never could have before:

* understanding, interacting with, and serving people as individuals and communities rather than as a mass;
* shifting our goals, organizations, and cultures from manufacturing content to providing service, helping the public we serve meet its needs and goals;
* using, building, and offering new tools and transforming journalism into a platform with greater utility, often at scale;
* working collaboratively with the public and with fellow members of growing news ecosystems and networks;
* recasting the journalist as more than storyteller: as convener, partner, helper, educator, organizer, even advocate.

In the second part, I began to explore new forms for news that cascade from these new relationships. We can recast the article with new-media tools, then move past the article with new means of providing service: news through links, news via data, news as a flow, news through tools, news as a tool. More important than reconsidering the forms news can take is the value we can provide. Our new and richer relationships with the public we serve give us the opportunity to offer greater relevance in the context of their needs; to specialize in the journalistic skills that are most needed; to improve the quality of our work; to explore new methods to fulfill our mission. News can take on countless more forms I cannot begin to imagine because I am too old and the technologies are too new.

Now we arrive at the big question: how to sustain journalism. In this last half of the essay, I will explore business models for the new layers of news ecosystems that are supplanting the old, vertically integrated corporations that dominated news for more than a century: beat businesses, new news organizations (some of them rebuilt from the ashes of the old), networks, and platforms. For old or new news companies, I will suggest how to implement the relationship strategy as a business strategy, knowing our users better so we can increase the value we provide them and thus extend their use, engagement, and loyalty. I will suggest that knowing our users better will also yield greater value and revenue in advertising — using data about users not as a commodity to sell but as a tool to build worth. I will explore other revenue streams at small and large scale: events, digital services, ad networks, commerce, memberships, patronage, and consumer payment. I will suggest new metrics to drive our media businesses and new perspectives to consider regarding such protective concepts as copyright and intellectual property. In the end, instead of asking the question I so often hear — Who will pay for journalism? — I will ask the one that troubles me more: Who will invest in innovation? Who will help us explore journalism’s many and promising but certainly unsure opportunities?

But first, we have some unpleasant business to get through. We must examine the weaknesses of the present business models for news and why they cannot carry over to our new digital world. And we need to explore further cost efficiencies, difficult as that can be. For journalism must finally reach the point at which the cutting ends so it can find ways to grow again.

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

Geeks Bearing Gifts: Reinventing TV News

Here’s another chapter from Geeks Bearing Gifts, this one about a topic I’ve discussed here: reinventing TV news. Read the whole thing on Medium. A snippet:

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I know people who are innovating with the form online and who object to calling what they do “television” because they don’t want the word’s baggage. But I say they should co-opt the word, revolutionizing the concept of television instead of letting it languish in its past. It’s true that there’ll soon be no way to distinguish among media. What used to be a text article in a print publication now, online, has video and audio; what used to be a TV story can now carry text and photos online; both can include interactivity and discussion and more. Still, I see value in commandeering the word television because I want innovators to take over the medium itself, pressuring its legacy owners to cast off their orthodoxies and idiocies. Those not-so-old broadcast companies, though weakened by the ceaseless growth of new competitors, still have good businesses and still attract the largest news audiences. They have had little motivation to change. Even newspapers and magazines, finally able to make video, have made the mistake of trying to ape broadcast TV. Change will have to come from outside media.

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

Geeks Bearing Gifts: Mobile=Local=Me: Context over Content

Back from the holidays, here’s the next chapter from Geeks Bearing Gifts, posted for free on Medium. Spoiler: I say this is a chapter about mobile but instead it ends up being about understanding different use cases for news, no matter the device or medium. I argue that thinking of mobile as just another content-delivery medium is short-sighted. Mobile is about context. Instead of organizing our services around platforms, we should be organizing them around people and their specific needs. A snippet:

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Usage and traffic for mobile is fast outpacing the web. Many news sites see or are about to see a majority of their traffic from what is classified as mobile. I had a conversation with a Google executive in which I whined about functions I wanted to see added to their web services and he pshawed me, dismissing the old web as practically passé. Google is devoting itself monomaniacally to mobile, where it provides us with no end of useful and specifically built apps — mail, maps, documents, calendar, photos, entertainment, communication — that all know me as a single user. Mark Zuckerberg, meanwhile, told The New York Times that he is deconstructing his big, blue mobile Facebook application and buying or building a chain of specialized new apps — like WhatsApp, Instagram, and the beautiful Paper — to lay atop his relationships with users and his data about them. Facebook’s apps are built for specific uses — one for checking updates, another for instant messages and chat, another for sharing pictures, and so on. Facebook’s apps all offer connections. Google’s apps all offer services. Both companies’ apps are built atop their relationship databases. Google and Facebook are in the relationship business. We are not. 

Perhaps our problem in media is that we offer but one thing: content, or at least that is how we present what we offer. We make users come to single portals so crammed with our stuff it’s hard for them to find what they want, especially in cramped mobile screens. What Google and Facebook offer instead is context in the user’s terms: When you want to mail, you use the mail app; when you want to drive, you open maps; when you want to check in on friends, you open Facebook; and so on. Interestingly, both Google and Facebook have so far failed in their attempts to deliver news on web or mobile. Perhaps that was because they were trying to deliver our content without personal context. 

What happens if we rethink the value of news expansively in the contexts of its many uses?

Read on for my answers in the rest of the chapter here. If you can’t wait for the rest of the book, then you can buy it here.

Geeks Bearing Gifts: Curation & Data

I’ve posted two really short chapters from Geeks Bearing Gifts today on Medium: one on curation, one on data. Then I’ll take a break for the holiday and come back with a bigger chapter on rethinking what mobile really means for news.

A snippet from the chapter on curation (relevant to current discussions about Google and news in Europe):

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As early as 2009, Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt responded that Google News was sending one billion clicks a month — Google as a whole three billion a month — to publishers. “That is 100,000 opportunities a minute to win loyal readers and generate revenue — for free,” he wrote. Right. Curation — being curated — is a means of discovery and distribution for content. In an ecosystem of abundant content and no end of competitors for a reader’s attention, publishers should want to be curated so that readers may find their content. Later, in a discussion of the link economy and copyright, I will explore the business implications of valuing not only the creation of content but also the creation of an audience for it — sometimes, through curation.

And here’s a snippet from the chapter on data:

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Data is a critical new opportunity for news organizations. What journalists have to ask — as with the flow of news — is how they add value to data by helping to gather it (with effort, clout, tools, and the ability to convene a community), analyze it (by calling upon or hiring experts who bring context and questions or by writing algorithms), and present it (contributing, most importantly, context and explanation). . . . 

Data needs to become a mindset and a skill set in news organizations. Journalists should receive training to become literate in the opportunities and requirements of using data. Journalists also have to work with specialists who can analyze, interpret, and present data, and who can create tools allowing both reporters and the public to work with it. From a business perspective, data should be seen as an asset worth investing in, one that can yield news and new engagement often at a low cost. Data is/are a step past the article.

Read the rest of each chapter here and here. If you can’t wait for the rest, then you can buy the book here. The perfect gift for the journowonk on your list.

Geeks Bearing Gifts, Part II: Forms – The Article is Dead. Long Live the Article.

Screenshot 2014-12-18 at 9.47.58 AMNow I start sharing chapters from the second part of Geeks Bearing Gifts: Imagining New Futures for News. In the first, I reimagined the relationship journalism has with the public it serves. In the second part, I examine new forms journalism can take. (In the third, I’ll get to the sexy part: business.) The entire book is being posted to Medium, chapter by chapter, here. In this chapter, I deconstruct the article and let links put it back together again. You can read the entire chapter here. The opening:

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I come not to bury the article but to praise it. Machined to near-perfection over a century of production, the article is ideally suited to its form. It has developed a well-defined role for each of its elements: lede imparting the latest — the news; nut graph delivering the essence of the story and telling us why we should bother to read the rest; background graph bringing us up to speed; timelines and catalogues of issues and players to set the stage; explanations to give context; quotes from various perspectives; and as many anecdotes and examples as fit in print. All this is prioritized so readers can easily navigate through and extract information and so typesetters in newspaper composing rooms with scarce time and limited space could lop off lines of type at the bottom of a story — bars of molded lead — without losing the essence of it. This is our inverted pyramid. It is the form we teach in journalism school, and with it the skills of summary and abstraction (what is the story? — perhaps the most difficult skill a journalist learns), of evidence and example, of completeness and fairness, of narrative and engagement, of prioritization and news judgment. This is the form that envelops the essential logic of journalism: that any event, issue, battle, or person can be packaged and delivered in so many lines of type. That is what we do.

Given the gifts of geeks with many new media technologies, we’ve enhanced the digital article, adding not just photos but slideshows, and not just slideshows but video and audio. We’ve added explanatory visualizations and graphics that move and interact with readers’ commands. We’ve curated related links to give readers more from our own archives or from anywhere on the web. For good and ill, we’ve added comments. The article is enhanced, improved, updated. 

But now let’s deconstruct the article into its core assets. Let’s unbundle its elements just as news publications themselves have been unbundled. Draw that inverted pyramid and its constituent elements and then imagine each as a separate entity in its optimal form. . . .

Read the rest of each chapter here. If you can’t wait for the rest, then you can buy the book here. The perfect gift for the journowonk on your list.

Image from Daily Writing Tips.

Geeks Bearing Gifts: New roles for journalists

A two-fer today: I’m posting the last two chapters of the first section of Geeks Bearing Gifts as they are both about new roles and relationships for journalists: one explores engagement, collaboration, and membership; the other looks at the journalist as organizer, advocate, and educator. Earlier drafts of these chapters have appeared online before. Tomorrow, I’ll start posting chapters about new forms and business models, which haven’t appeared before. Snippets from these two chapters:

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What would it mean for members of the community to be truly engaged in news? At the high end of collaboration, a news organization and its journalists could stand ready to complete the assignments conjured up by a community: “We need to know this,” the community says, “and we want you to use your power as a convener to bring us together to gather this information and then to add journalistic value to that work.” True, the community could organize its own task through, say, Facebook or Twitter. But the news organization can help by convening the work, by instructing people how to meet their goal, by verifying facts, by adding context and explanation, and by offering organization.

What does a member give to become a member? Membership is seen by some as just another word for subscription: Give us your money and we will give you access to see our content. It’s another way to say “customer.” A member might well give money to support a journalistic endeavor but a true member will likely want some voice in return. Of course, a journalist will want to make sure that she is not co-opted by her patron’s funds. Journalists should also see that members can contribute value in ways other than money: giving ideas, tips, content, promotion, effort. Membership requires an exchange of value, with each side of the transaction giving something to get something. 

There is one other way to look at membership, one that does not put the news organization at the egocentric middle of the Venn diagram but at the edge: The community already exists and the news organization is just another member of it, contributing value to receive value. . . . Membership is not just a tollbooth. It is a two-way street.

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“Community organizer” sounds like a punchline to a Fox News joke about Barack Obama. But if news organizations are to serve communities, they often need to act as community organizers to marshal the forces of communities in very practical ways: listening to their needs, drawing their attention to an issue, convening them to gather together and discuss the issue, urging them to action, and helping them reach their goals. That would seem to violate our professional myths of objectivity and distance — that, like the crew of the Starship Enterprise, we operate under a Prime Directive not to interfere with other life forms, only to observe them. But the truth is that news organizations have long convened communities to take action — isn’t that our desired outcome in investigative (that is, crusading) journalism: to get our readers to demand action of government, to have an impact, to bring change? I’ll avoid the tired battle over journalistic objectivity and confess that on this question I have a strongly held belief: We are not objective. 

If traditionalists in my field haven’t already crumpled up this essay — or whatever one does in disgust, post-paper, with a digital screen — at my contentions that we are not in the content business and are not first storytellers, this may cause them to strike a match or pull the plug. Still, I’ll go even farther and argue this: If it isn’t advocacy, it isn’t journalism.

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