Posts about geeks

It’s the relationship, stupid

On Friday, I wrote a wishlist for what I’d like to see Facebook do for news, hoping it would allow publishers to embed content — with business model attached — on the service. Today, The New York Times reports that Facebook is talking with some publishers about serving their content directly.

I have one bit of advice: Don’t do it without the data, people.

It’s a damned fine idea to go to the readers rather than make them come to you — BuzzFeed does it; so does Vox; so does Reported.ly. It’s wonderful to get more audience and branding on Facebook. It’d be super peachy to get a share of revenue from Facebook at last. All that is great.

But keep in mind where the real value is: in the relationship, in knowing what people — individuals and communities, not a faceless, anonymous mass — need and want and know so you can give them relevance and value and so they will give you greater usage, engagement, attention, loyalty, and advertising value in return. This, I argue in Geeks Bearing Gifts, is the essence of a new strategy for sustaining news — quality news.

Here’s some of what I wrote Friday:

Facebook could go to the next level — a quantum leap, in fact — because it has the environment in which users like to consume and share content and it has überdata about their interests, connections, and behavior. Facebook knows what we Like and what we like. Google just has Google+ (and I say that with kindness and respect as a member of that remote tribe).

Now why the hell would Facebook ever share any of the gold from its rainbow pot? Because it fears that these 98-pound weakling publishers will start bullying it as they have Google? Maybe, but that’s not the foundation of a lasting friendship. Should Facebook feel sorry for publishers? No, it’s publishers’ own damned fault that they continued their mass-media ways online and failed to use the new tools available to them to build relationships of relevance and value with the people they serve.

Instead, Facebook could — and I believe should — share data about users and content to benefit its users and itself. Enlightened self-interest is the basis of all good products and partnerships.

Imagine this simple scenario: On Facebook, I show an interest in a particular entity or topic — say, I keep giving Jim Brady and my son sympathy for their affection for the Jets or I roll my eyes at the drummed-up media hubbub over Hillary Clinton’s email. I also happen to like, follow, or frequently link to and discuss news outlets that cover these things. Now imagine that Facebook asks me a simple question: Jeff, we see you are interested in these subjects, would you like NJ.com to alert you to news — perhaps just the rare good news — about the Jets? Would you like the Guardian to recommend some intelligent conversation about Clinton?

If I say yes to that question, goodness abounds:
First, I get relevant relevant content from sources I like.
Second — and this is huge — by giving my consent to this transaction, I am cutting off any technopanic about privacy; I asked Facebook to share my information because I got something I valued in return.
Third, I’m not only getting more content of interest to me but I am getting content that might be of interest to friends, which I’m likely to share, and that benefits Facebook: more usage, more connections, more data.
Finally — and this is the money shot — each publisher gets information about me as an individual with a name and can use that with my permission to serve me better not only on Facebook but on its own site and elsewhere on the web. It also has a mechanism to learn what users want.
What’s not to love?

This scheme will not work if Facebook keeps all the data and all the money and can pull the rug out from under the publishers at its whim. Or to put this more positively: This idea could work if readers benefit with more relevance and less noise and if publishers can share in revenue and what’s even more valuable — data — and if they can trust Facebook to act in mutual interest.

I would propose that both the containers for embeddable content and the means of consensual transfer of data about users and interests should be open standards so users can get these benefits of relevance and sharing wherever they want: on Facebook, on Twitter, on Tumblr, on Reddit, on blogs … yes, even on Google+ (and I crack that joke with love). May the best services win our hearts, minds, effort, and attention.

Indeed, what I’d really like to see is a scheme — an open-source data scheme, that is — that would allow users to control their own interest data, how it is shared, and with whom. (I have an idea about how blockchain contracts could enable that; more on that another day.) I could tell just certain sites that I want news about some obscure topic I care about — say, Chromebooks. I could even express an interest in buying one, but I would determine the conditions under which I share that fact. That is, I would tell stores to STFU about Chromebooks after I’ve bought one (unlike those damned retargeting ads that follow us everywhere on the net for weeks on end if we make the mistake of so much as glancing sideways at a laptop on Amazon). This is the essence of what Doc Searls has been advocating with his vision of vendor relationship management (VRM v. CRM), putting users and customers in control.

But I don’t want to get ahead of myself seeking a moonshot when we don’t yet know how to climb the stairs. All I want to start is a demonstration of embeddable content and consensual data sharing from one service.

That’s one thing Facebook could do for news.

That Facebook’s head of product, Chris Cox, cares about news and is working on ways to work with publishers is great. I do not fear that the borg will eat us up. But I do fear that some of us will be bad negotiators. Now is the time to join together to become stronger negotiating as a group than alone. Now is the time to play Facebook, Google, Twitter, Snapchat, et al off each other and get the best deal possible. Now is the time to get access to the data that will build more than today’s cash flow but will instead build tomorrow’s strategy.

Who needs edittors?

feral cat
I am editorially feral.

I got email yesterday from an editor at The Washington Post asking whether I wanted to write an opinion piece picking and debunking five myths about Google. Well, I love The Post, so sure. I was honored. I sent them five myths and left work to start work on it. Then the editor responded wanting to change my myths before I’d written anything. Change my opinion? No thanks. I said that I no longer live in the civilization of editors. I’m a blogger. I can write my opinion anywhere: here, on Medium, on Huffington Post, on LinkedIn, on Facebook, on Tumblr. The editor said: “We are the Washington Post, we believe in strong editing.” This was not going to work.

Of course, I can always stand editing. You know that if you read me here. My editor for What Would Google Do? and Public Parts did wonders for me. I sought editing from many colleagues for Geeks Bearing Gifts.

But for a simple little opinion piece about Google? Why ask for my opinion if you don’t want it? Anyway, my little opinion hardly seems worth the effort. Indeed, in a time of dwindling, precious journalistic resources, I’m not sure we can afford the effort to edit — let alone write — such as that. And besides, who determined that the world needs five myths about Google made up and debunked? Who in the public asked for it?

This kind of thing comes from our content mentality: We have a section to fill. We will come up with the ideas to do that. We will find somebody to write it. We will edit it. A day’s work. Tomorrow’s another day to fill.

A service mentality in journalism would dictate a different job: We observe and listen to what the public needs. We determine what will answer that need. We will measure our success by whether that need is met.

I’m just not made for the former anymore. Neither am I made for the idea that we are primarily storytellers whose job is to engage–nay, entertain–the public. I’m not criticizing The Post or the editor who contacted me. They are doing exactly what good editors do: edit. Instead, I’m starting to try to figure out new organizations, structures, tasks, roles, outcomes, and metrics for what we used to call newspapers and newsrooms.

When I talk with places like Vox or Facebook, I see entirely new–and still forming–job descriptions built around small teams made up of product developers, project managers, designers, and developers who build services and products. They don’t edit, not so much.

Am I killing all the editors? Of course, not. I am envisioning completely new roles for them. In my social-journalism and entrepreneurial-journalism worldview, editors and journalists become links to, advocates for, and servants of the public. They see and translate needs into products and services. They support platforms, systems, and networks that bring coverage from many sources in many forms: stories, yes, but so much more because now we can do so much more.

So I don’t fit in the civilization of editors. And they don’t know what to do with a mangy beast such as me.

feral cat 2

:LATER: I’ve heard from folks at the Post who took insult at what I said here. I just want to emphasize that was not my intent. I wanted to jump off this moment to reflect on changes in our trade — its goals, roles, and organizations — and in my relationship to it. I’m the odd one here.

Geeks Bearing Gifts: Advertising, the Myth of Mass Media, and the Relationship Strategy

OK, folks, now we are at the nut of Geeks Bearing Gifts: Imagining New Futures for News. This is where I begin exploring how the relationship strategy I advocate can bring business benefit to the news industry. Here’s the entire chapter, free on Medium. Here’s the start:

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The myth of mass media, lovely while it lasted, was this: All readers see all ads, so we charge all advertisers for all readers. The unbundling of mass media and the rise of endless competition punctures that myth and robs legacy companies of the pricing power — and monopolies — they had so enjoyed. Today, I believe we need to shift to a business built on the relationship strategy I began outlining in the first part of this essay. There, I argued that knowing people as individuals and communities — no longer as a mass — will allow us to build better services, and that, in turn, pushes us to develop new forms of news. Now I will look at how that relationship strategy can form the foundation of a stronger advertising business for news and media.

To start, if we provide our users with better relevance and value, that surely will build greater engagement, loyalty, usage, and attention, and that in turn will create more ad inventory to sell (though, granted, hardly any media company sells all the inventory it has today anyway). More important, the relationship strategy gives us the opportunity to increase the value of what we sell to advertisers. By knowing more about who our users are, we can sell and deliver more targeted advertising that is more relevant to their customers and thus more effective. Rather than serving only one-size-fits-all “impressions” to anonymous “eyeballs” by the thousands as advertisers and media companies do now, we can offer more productive measures of value like attention, engagement, action, impact, and even sales. We can serve specific groups of users to advertisers who value them highly. With privacy properly protected, we have the opportunity to become a trusted broker of data we gather about our users. And if we get good at the relationship business, we have a brief window of opportunity to teach and sell these skills to advertisers as a service — presuming they don’t wake up and learn them before we do. We also have the opportunity to move past selling advertising to selling products and services directly to users, venturing into commerce — which really is just a truncated form of marketing and advertising. The relationship strategy is one defense against the commodification of media’s old content business by new competitors and new technologies.

Read the rest here.

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

Geeks Bearing Gifts: Business Ecosystems

Time for another free chapter of Geeks Bearing Gifts: Imagining New Futures for News. In the last chapter, I wrote about beats as businesses and building blocks of a new news ecosystem. Now I write about the rest of the ecosystem. Vertically integrated companies, industries, and monopolies that dominated news are new replaced with messy, growing (I hope) ecosystems made up of many players operating under many different motives and business models.

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As specialists, beats are efficient. But they are hardly sufficient to meet the complete needs of the larger community. Other, larger entities are required to complement and bring quality and scale to coverage, distribution, and advertising. These additional entities can become efficient and sustainable because together, all these enterprises, large and small, can benefit one another — if they learn to collaborate. These entities can include new news organizations, reformed legacy institutions, not-for-profit investigative organizations, public media, specialists of various sorts, networks, and enterprises I’ve not yet seen or imagined. Together, they make up the new news ecosystem.

Read the rest here.

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

Geeks Bearing Gifts: Beat Businesses as Building Blocks of News Ecosystems

The latest chapter of Geeks Bearing Gifts: Imagining New Futures for News is posted free on Medium. The topic this time, one of my favorites: beat businesses (hyperlocal, hyperinterest, vertical sites serving specific communities) as building blocks of a new news ecosystem. The opening:

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In research conducted at CUNY’s Tow-Knight Center in 2009 and again in 2014, modeling the news ecosystem of a market the size of Boston and then of New Jersey, we found that beats can indeed be businesses. We found examples scattered across the country — and I emphasize the word scattered — of hyperlocal blogs covering towns or urban neighborhoods of about 50,000 people that were earning upwards of $250,000 to $350,000 a year, mostly in advertising revenue. It is grindingly hard work. To serve, attract, and maintain a loyal audience of sufficient size within the community, the blogger must feed the beast not merely daily but many times per day. She must constantly be out in the community, talking with people. She has to perform not just journalistic functions but also commercial functions, getting over the journalist’s common phobia of business — specifically of arithmetic, advertising, and sales. To do all that alone is nigh unto impossible, so the hyperlocal blogger often works with partners — sometimes spouses — and has to earn the trust and affection of members of the community as collaborators. She also has to grapple with conflicts of interest more easily compartmentalized in large news organizations with their still-sprawling organization charts and lawyers on call — namely, how to deal with a local merchant as a reader, a subject, a source, and often an official of the town as well as a customer, while maintaining her own independence and credibility. It’s tough. It’s exhausting. It defeats many who try it. But still, there are many examples of success — from Baristanet to the West Seattle Blog to Red Bank Green, from The Batavian to The Lo-Down to Watershed Post. These are people who care about their own communities, who want to serve them, who sacrifice their days and any prayer of vacations, who pour sweat equity into their enterprises with no hope of the exits that other entrepreneurs work toward. And thank goodness for them.

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

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.

Screenshot 2015-02-24 at 2.47.46 PM

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.