Posts about geeks

Geeks Bearing Gifts: The Pricing Paradox of Information

This chapter from Geeks Bearing Gifts deals with a fundamental strategic question for the future of news: Why does the information business suck? Does it need to? Yes, it does. Here’s the start of the chapter. You can read the rest here.

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In Adam Smith’s paradox of value, he wondered why, if water is vital to life and diamonds are not, diamonds are worth so much more than water. The pricing paradox of information presents a similar quandary: If information is so much more valuable to society than entertainment, why is it so hard to build a business — namely, journalism — around selling access to information? Journalism at its most useful is information-rich but information is quickly commodified. Entertainment, on the other hand, is unique and engaging and — for reasons I’ll explain in a moment — receives greater legal protection under copyright than information does. We have conflated journalism as an information business with entertainment as an engagement business in large part because both are are built on “stories.”

Information is less valuable in the market because it flows freely. Once a bit of information, a fact, appears in a newspaper, it can be repeated and spread, citizen to citizen, TV anchor to audience: “Oyez, oyez, oyez” shouts the town crier. “The king is dead. Long live the king. Pass it on.” Information itself cannot and must not be owned. Under copyright law, a creator cannot protect ownership of underlying facts or knowledge, only of their treatment. That is, you cannot copyright the fact that the Higgs boson was discovered at CERN in 2012, you can copyright only your treatment of that information: your cogent backgrounder or natty graphic that explains WTF a boson is. A well-informed society must protect and celebrate the easy sharing of information even if that does support freeloaders like TV news, which build businesses on the repetition of information others have uncovered. Society cannot find itself in a position in which information is property to be owned, for then the authorities will tell some people — whether they are academics or scientists or students or citizens — what they are not allowed to know because they didn’t buy permission to know it. Therein lies a fundamental flaw in the presumption that the public should and will pay for access to information — a fundamental flaw in the business model of journalism. I’m not saying that information wants to be free. I agree that information often is expensive to gather. Instead I am saying that the mission of journalism is to inform society by unlocking and spreading information. Journalism frees information.

Read the rest here.

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

Geeks Bearing Gifts: Paywalls

Screenshot 2015-04-14 at 7.49.54 AMSorry. Haven’t uploaded a new chapter from Geeks Bearing Gifts in two weeks. Busy, you know. So here’s the latest, on paywalls. Uh-oh. The start of it:

There is no more emotion-laden topic, no fiercer battleground in the hunt for new business models for news than the discussion of paywalls. I have personally been taken to task in the once-august Columbia Journalism Review and by no less than The New York Times’ media critic, David Carr, to name only a few, for challenging the wisdom of the wall. The arguments in favor of paywalls are apparent: Readers used to pay for content when they bought newspapers and magazines and so they should still. It was an original sin for content ever to have been given away for free online. The people who use news sites the most value the content there and would be willing to pay for it, and so they should. News organizations should have multiple revenue streams so they are not so dependent on advertising alone (see: doomsday, above). And news — quality news — is expensive. Who should pay to maintain the newsroom and the Baghdad bureau? Besides, it’s working at The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the Financial Times, why shouldn’t it work elsewhere?

My responses: I have never seen a business model built on the verb “should.” Customers pay for products and services based on the value to them in a competitive market. The arguments in favor of maintaining paywalls around content tend to ignore the new reality of a media ecosystem built on abundance, no longer on a scarcity controlled by media proprietors who have long since lost their pricing power. In such a market, someone will always be able to sell a product like yours cheaper than you. Some spoiler might even figure out a way to make that product free, and it’s impossible to compete with free. Nevermind that the competitor’s product may not be as good. In the market, what matters in the end is this: Is it good enough? In such an ecosystem of abundance, I say it was wise, not sinful, for news organizations to open up and build an audience — bigger online than ever in print — before it could be stolen away by more efficient new competitors: from CompuServe to Yahoo, from a million bloggers to Huffington Post, from Business Insider to BuzzFeed. I will argue in a moment that if we’re going to charge anyone, perhaps it should not be our most loyal, engaged, and valuable customers on whom we make money through advertising, but instead the occasional visitor and freeloader. As for the argument that news is expensive: Well, yes, it was, but we know it can be more efficient today. Besides, thanks to advertisers’ support and subsidies, the truth is that readers never truly paid for news, never fully supported the cost of the newsroom. And in a competitive market, one cannot price one’s offerings based on cost plus profit; that works only in a monopoly, which news organizations have now lost.

Read the rest here.

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

Want to turn a beat into a business? We will train and support you. For free. Apply now!

This is a big opportunity for anyone who wants to take a beat — covering a town or part of a city or covering a topic or serving a community — and make that into a sustainable business (that is, one that will feed the journalist). At CUNY’s Tow-Knight Center, we will be running tuition-free training and mentorship starting this summer for the 15 best applicants who come to us.

There are now lots of examples of beat businesses that are sustainable: hyperlocal services like Baristanet, West Seattle Blog, Red Bank Green, plus business-to-business sites like Skift, and no end of tech blogs, and many more. We know what that business needs to succeed, in content, in marketing, in sales, in technology.

I wrote in my book about beat businesses as the building blocks of new news ecosystems. I have been doing a lot of work in New York and especially in New Jersey — in partnership with the Dodge Foundation, the Knight Foundation, Montclair State, and others — to support the ecosystem there.

Now we must grow the ecosystem. That is what this training is about.

And now we must support journalists who want to continue serving communities even though they no longer work for newspapers or other news outlets.

At CUNY, we are hiring great trainers who have helped many of the existing businesses, Janet and Rusty Coats. They, in turn, are bringing on experienced mentors to give ongoing support. All the details of the training are here. You will come out of this program with a realistic, workable business and product plan, and access to a powerful network of fellow entrepreneurs and media experts.

All you need to do is have the energy and passion to serve a community. You tell us what community that is and why you think you’re right to do it. We will help you start.

And if you’re lucky enough to work in New Jersey or New York, you will get even more ongoing support with well-established networks in both places.

So apply. Or pass it on to a journalist or community member who wants to turn a beat into a living.

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.