Posts about geeks

The almost-post mortem for Patch

Screenshot 2013-12-16 at 9.25.59 AMDavid Carr all but writes the obit for Patch today. One could quibble and say it’s not quite dead, that Aol plans partnerships for the ill-fated ganglion of local sites. Fine, but it’s still not wrong to look back and ask what went wrong.

Before he started Patch — and before he went to Aol and brought it along — Tim Armstrong called me into his office asking me to advise Patch. I was listed as an official adviser but never was; I just offered what advice I had for free, over coffee, as I did for many others working in hyperlocal. Patch didn’t take it anyway.

I still believe in Armstrong’s vision that local communities need local information. But now I fear that its slow, tortured fall could — in the words of a friend — bring nuclear winter to hyperlocal. Radioactive hyperlocal cooties. It shouldn’t be. The problem with Patch wasn’t Armstrong’s vision about the value of local information. It was execution.

1. Patch did not get its business model in shape before multiplying its mistakes times 900. The essential business assumption — that having one reporter and one sales person in a town is inexpensive — is right, as many mom-and-pop hyperlocal blogs have demonstrated and as we modeled at CUNY. Patch wanted to scale that. But it went about that the wrong way.

2. Patch could have been a network of independent local sites. That’s what I advised, using the model of Glam, which Samir Arora built into a top-7 internet property not by creating and buying and owning content but instead by building an ad sales network and technology platform that now serves 4,000 independent and sustainable sites (triumphing over iVillage). Patch could have been the local version of that, but in the model of old media, it wanted to own everything. I heard executives there vow to kill the queen of hyperlocal, Baristanet. Now the queen has the last laugh.

3. Patch never played well with others. It was secretive and aggressive. In the NJ News Commons — an open network that I helped start (with aforementioned former queen Debbie Galant and others) — a few dozen sites across the state are now sharing content and audience (and soon, I hope, advertising) using Repost.US and BroadStreetAds. Repost enables sites to make their articles embeddable on other sites. It also enables sites to blacklist other sites that can’t take their content. Most sites I know wanted to blacklist Patch because it had been so nasty to them. In an ecosystem, what goes around comes around to bite you in the ass.

4. Patch sold advertising on its sites in the old-media model. The local advertisers I talked with said it was too expensive and, given the audience, didn’t perform. What Patch could have done was sell not only a network of local sites with more audience, but also a menu of digital services to local advertisers. Our research at CUNY shows that local merchants need more than ads; they need help with their digital presences in Google, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and so on. That’s what I’d like to see local sites working on now.

5. Patch was patchy in its editorial quality. This one amazes me. Patch had staffs of editors. It could have trained its local reporters in a system like About.com’s. It could have templated basic coverage — e.g., here are the 10 things you must do when a big storm hits. Some Patches did good work. Some were dreadful. In my first meeting with Patch, I also advised them to get some life, some humanity in what they did. But they thought they were a technology company, that the secret to their success would be their proprietary content management system. No, the secret to success in hyperlocal is passion: caring about your town. That’s always what Patch lacked.

After the fall of Patch, some will say again that hyperlocal has failed but they’d be wrong. Hyperlocal works in town after town. What doesn’t work is trying to instantly scale it by trying to own every town in sight. That was Patch’s fatal error: acting like an old-media company.

Hyperlocal works on a hyperlocal level. It’s damned hard work, as any hyperlocal proprietor will tell you. Last week, I went to the first Christmas party for the NJ News Commons and like a proud Frankenstein, I scanned a room filled with people who work hard to cover the towns and topics they care about. This term, I had two hyperlocal sites from New Jersey in my entrepreneurial journalism class at CUNY and they both need help to get their marketing and revenue strategies working. Next term, we have a handful of would-be hyperlocal entrepreneurs and we’ll work hard to get their model right. Hyperlocal is a matter of fighting for the next hill.

Hyperlocal will scale — as it is only beginning to in New Jersey — by helping these independent sites in a larger news ecosystem bring together their content, audience, advertising sales for mutual benefit. Patch could have been that network. Instead, it thought it could own — it could be — the ecosystem. Nobody can do that.

Past the page

Watch this video and be astounded by what you can do with questions and answers, orders and actions, curiosities and information in voice using “OK, Google” (or, if you prefer, as I do, “OK, Jarvis”).

Now think about the diminished role of the page and what that will do to media. We publishers found ourselves unbundled online, so we shifted from selling people entire publications to trying to get them to come to just a page — any page — and then another page on the web, lingering long enough to shove one more ad at their eyeballs.

But just as the web disintermediated physical media, voice disintermediates the page. But media still depend on the page as their atomic unit, carrying their content, brand, ownership, and revenue. Now, when you want to know the score of the Jets game — if you dare — you don’t need to go to ESPN and find the page, you just say, “OK, Google. What’s the Jets score?” And the nice lady will tell you the bad news.

Now let’s go farther — because that’s what I live to do. Let’s also disintermediate the device. There’s nothing to say that you need to speak to your device to do this as long as you can get your question to Google in the cloud. So imagine that you carry with you a transponder that broadcasts your identity — it could be a phone or Google Glass or a watch or just a card in your wallet, if you still need a wallet — so that when you walk into a connected room, you can simply say out loud, “OK, Google,” and ask your question and you’ll get an answer from whatever device happens to be listening. You can be in a rental car that knows you’re you and tell Google to add a calendar item or make a phone call or look up a fact and you’ll not have to see a single page. Star Trek didn’t navigate the universe through pages.

So there’s the next kick in the kidneys to old media. There’s another reason to build relationships with people so we can be their agents of information rather than just manufacturers of pages filled with content. Page? Content? What’s that?

CMS as media salvation. Not.

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Cross-posting from Medium, for my archives…

It’s almost impossible to overstate the importance of the CMS when it comes to the question of who’s going to win the online-publishing wars.— Felix Salmon

Salmon thus accomplishes the almost impossible, writing an ode to the content management system as he argues that Vox Media, Business Insider, Gawker Media, Buzzfeed, Aol, Glam, and this very medium, Medium, are fighting for dominance with CMSes as their weapons of mass disruption.

Note that at the same moment, Forbes is licensing its CMS and Talking Points Memo celebrates the birth of its CMS. A few days ago, I found myself in an email conversation with a few fellow FONers in which they extolled the strategic advantage of the great CMS.

I will dare to disagree. My reasons….

First, I’ve seen this play before. When CMSes entered American newspapers, I watched first-hand as many wasted millions each developing their own systems because they each thought they were (intone this word as Church Lady) special. But they weren’t. They all put on their pants and and set type like everybody else.

The mid-’70s CMS at the Chicago Tribune was such a disaster that the paper dispatched its Pulitzer-proud reporting task force to investigate how it got so messed up. I witnessed similar knicker-knotting at Hearst and Time Inc. That rabbit hole finally got plugged with the arrival of the Macintosh as a standard publishing platform (my wife set up one of the first big installations when we started Entertainment Weekly in 1990, saving us about $3 million a year and making an enemy of the Time Inc. CMS department).

News people have long been terrible at technology. Now there is a movement afoot to fix that by trying to breed the unicorn hack-hacker (I’m on the side that doesn’t believe every journalist must code) and to concentrate effort on building the perfect — the special — CMS.

The fundamental problem I have is that a CMS is an extension of editorial ego. It’s all about us, about our content, about how we want to make it, how we want to present it to you, how we organize it, how we make money on it, how we protect it.

What we should be doing instead is turning our attention outward, from the content we make (surely after 600 years, we know how to do that) to our relationship with the public we serve and the ecosystems in which we operate.

Indeed some of the systems created by the companies listed above begin to do that. At Buzzfeed, founder Jonah Peretti sees content as a means of connecting people in conversation and his system is built for sharing. Nick Denton at Gawker is using his CMS to flip comments over content. Ev Williams here at Medium wants to enable collaboration — readers helping writers and writers gathering together around ideas.

Salmon is impressed with what Samir Arora has built at Glam and here we strongly agree. Glam is less about making content than making networks. That is the essence of CEO Arora’s vision. That is how Glam grew to be a top-10 net property not through owning and manufacturing content but through serving networks — and not just with technology but importantly with revenue (i.e., ad sales).

Arora’s latest invention, Foodie, is not about making or managing content at all. It is about serving readers by aggregating tempting content (I want these muffins) and serving creators (wherever they are, using whatever system they use) by sending them traffic, also known as people. Arora showed me Foodie and as if often the case with his inspirations, it took me time to digest the implications. Arora told me Glam is “an ecosystem platform.” Chew on that.

Even as much as I’m impressed with these advances, I will still argue that no one has yet taken the next, biggest, and most important step, moving past the idea of managing content to enabling relationships. I’ve been saying this for sometime:

Content is that which fills something. Service is that which accomplishes something. Content starts with the desires of creators to make things. Service start with the needs of clients to achieve outcomes.

Service is built on relevance. Relevance comes via relationships: knowing enough about someone so you can learn how to serve them better, more effectively, more efficiently, with less noise, greater value.

Google understands that. Media do not.

Google, thanks to Waze, intuits where I live and work. My own local newspaper does not know that!

Google serves me with ever-more-exacting relevance, anticipating my needs before I do (telling me exactly how long it will take to get home this afternoon). My local newspaper gives me the same stuff it gives everyone else in exactly the same way.

Google treats me as an individual. Media treat me as a member of a mass.

The key skill that we in media are missing is not how to manage content but how to build relationships.

I’m not suggesting now that every newspaper turn around and stop building CMSes and start boning up on CRM (customer relationship management). No, the tools to build profiles of customers already exist — most media companies I know use Salesforce already to manage relationships with advertisers, why not with readers? The tools for targeting what is served to users already exist — most media companies use them, again, to serve advertising, but why not content?

We should at least begin by giving people reasons to reveal themselves to us because we give them value in return. We should understand how to build profiles around that knowledge and act on it for the benefit of users — and also for our benefit with higher value advertising or commerce. That is all doable today. Off the shelf.

But that is just the start. Next, we should take inspiration from Doc Searls’ VRM (vendor relationship management) movement, figuring out how the public should manage us so we can serve them better. We should learn by example from Waze, Twitter, Reddit, Instagram, Craigslist, Facebook, et al and explore the value of offering platforms to communities so they can do what they want and need to do (“elegant organization,” Mark Zuckerberg calls that), with us adding journalistic value to the flow of information that now can exist without us.

If you have media ambitions and want to build an application, build something that is useful to the public, not us. No one in the public will value us because of the CMS we made. They couldn’t and shouldn’t give a damn.

What we have to advance is not our technical skills but our culture: our social skills.

Maybe news is just more efficient

I wonder whether Andrew Kohut got his analysis of Pew Research’s latest survey of news consumption — as my West Virginia father would say — bassackwards.

Pew finds again that young people are spending less time with news — 46 minutes per day for millenials (ages 18-31) vs. 84 minutes for the so-called silent generation (ages 67-84 … though my 80+-tear-old parents are far from silent). That’s only a little over half as much time. This leads Kohut to predict a “perilous future for news.” Conventional wisdom would certainly agree. I have too, arguing for sometime that one of our biggest problems in news is declining engagement.

But what if instead Pew’s survey indicates that for young people news is simply more efficient? They don’t have to block out time to sift through a newspaper to find what matters to them and more time sitting, passively watching an hour or more of local and national TV news to get a one-size-fits-all summary that could be more efficiently delivered online: more meat, less bun.

Now I know that the public spending less time with news as currently configured is injurious to our egos and business models. But those models are based on the mass media equation of audience attention and time equaling exposure to more ads. See my argument with Google chief economist Hal Varian over just this point last week: Attention worked as a model when we in mass media operated by the myth that all readers or viewers saw all ads so we could charge all advertisers for all of them. In those good old days, more people giving us more time (in truth, only a proxy for attention) could be monetized through CPM mass advertising, whose price we controlled through our ownership of the scare resources of production and distribution. Great while it lasted. But abundance kills that model.

Thus Pew’s latest survey makes me think we are still chasing the wrong horse. Instead of seeking an engaged audience — that’s a metric better suited for movies and prime-time TV — we in news should be seeking an informed public, using new tools to make them better informed with greater relevance and more efficiency. Instead of measuring our success by how much more time we can get them to spend with us, we should measure it by how much less time they need to spend with us to reach their own goals.

I always tell my students that where they see a problem, they should look for the opportunity in it. Journalists tend to find problems and stop there, complaining. Engineers find problems and seek solutions. If the problem is that young people spend less time with news, where is the opportunity in that? I say it is in helping anyone of any age spend even less time, getting more information more efficiently.

So let’s look at this issue entrepreneurially and invent a new service: News Pal.

News Pal requires knowing you and what you want. Google should be good at this but, surprisingly, Google News has left that opportunity for others to grab. It feeds me the same Google News everyone else gets. If I want to get something more relevant, it makes me go through the effort of manipulating sliders for various categories and adding keywords. That is so 1998, so My Yahoo, which is better under Marissa Mayer but which still requires me to make my own predictive personalization decisions. Some 15 years ago, I filled out that Yahoo form … and never returned. Four years ago, when still at Google, Mayer dreamed of a hyperpersonal news stream, but neither Google nor Yahoo has yet built it.

I want News Pal to be an emergent system that watches what I watch in news and feeds me accordingly with no effort on my part. If it sees that I watch news about Android, it should prioritize Android news. If it sees that I stop caring about Android after I buy a phone, it should stop caring for me. If it sees that I never read sports, it shouldn’t give me football stories. If it knows where I live and work, it should give me relevant news for those locations. Of course, this system should also give me the news that everyone will want to know, feeding me reports on the Kenyan mall attack even if I haven’t shown an attraction to Kenyan news. Editors recognize those breakthrough stories. So does Google News’ algorithm.

I also want News Pal to cut through the worsening clutter of repetition. Look at the tech blog landscape, where the slightest morsel of news or rumor replicates like The Andromeda Strain, mutating as it gets farther from the source. Google and Google News have made efforts in recent years to seek more signals of authority and originality of reporting as did the startup where I was a partner, Daylife. But they and others can do much more. They all have made the mistake of trying to analyze media as news sources. The real winner will also use Twitter, Google+, Facebook, YouTube, et al to find original sources in a larger information ecosystem: difficult but doable.

Cir.ca is a worthy News Pal competitor, for it offers two bits of value I want. It cuts up articles into constituent elements and so, if you’ve already seen an element of a story, it doesn’t waste your time giving it to you again. It also enables you to follow a story as it happens — not predicting a tag of interest as required by Google News and My Yahoo.

In the net, my News Pal would give me greater relevance because it knows me, higher quality because it knows news sources, and greater efficiency because it reduces the noise in news. It would take the advice of Medium founder Ev Williams — who has twice changed media, thus changed the world (and earned a billion-plus bucks via Blogger and Twitter) — adding effiency. Wired summarized its interview with him:

The bottom line, Williams said, is that the internet is “a giant machine designed to give people what they want.” It’s not a utopia. It’s not magical. It’s simply an engine of convenience. Those who can tune that engine well — who solve basic human problems with greater speed and simplicity than those who came before — will profit immensely….

There’s an organizing principle that explains what thrives on the internet and could potentially predict what will thrive in the future: Convenience.

“The internet makes human desires more easily attainable. In other words, it offers convenience,” he said. “Convenience on the internet is basically achieved by two things: speed, and cognitive ease.” In other words, people don’t want to wait, and they don’t want to think — and the internet should respond to that. “If you study what the really big things on the internet are, you realize they are masters at making things fast and not making people think.”

Or waste time, as news makes us do now. That is the lesson from so-called millennials in Pew’s study: They are more efficient with their news.

What about the business model? News Pal would gain my loyalty — and, ironically, my attention — making the switching cost away from it high. If it really builds my hyperpersonal news stream — including such streams as my email — it could compete with Google and Twitter. It would gather valuable signals about me and my interest that it could exploit with higher value advertising and commerce and data. News Pal itself would be quite efficient, depending on smart algorithms.

I remember sitting in a meeting with Yahoo founder Jerry Yang many years ago when he said it was his job to get you want you needed as quickly as possible. The quicker your visit to Yahoo, he said then, the better its service. That changed, of course, when Yahoo adopted the mass-media advertising model built around attention and impressions, loading it up with content. Yahoo could have been News Pal if it had followed Yang’s vision of efficiency over drag. Therein lies the real lesson of Pew’s latest survey, I think.

Efficiency isn’t the enemy of news. It should be the goal.

Viral bullshit as the new classifieds

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A very well-done post about viral bullshit on Gawker (et al) by Mathew Ingram really comes down to this: Journalism used to be subsidized by classifieds and fluff, now it is built atop viral bullshit. The argument: Sure, we serve crap — or cats — but that’s what brings in the traffic for the good stuff.

Quoting Gawker’s editor in chief, John Cook: “Part of our job is to make sure we’re writing about things that people are talking about on the internet, and the incentive structure of this company is organized to make sure that we are on top of things that are going viral… we are tasked both with extending the legacy of what Gawker has always been — ruthless honesty — and be reliably and speedily on top of internet culture all while getting a shit-ton of traffic. Those goals are sometimes in tension.”

Of course, that is a bankrupt model, for soon it becomes impossible to find the diamond in the sewage: the one decent, worthwhile, true report buried amid native advertising, viral bullshit, trolls’ comments, breaking rumors, and staff’s snark. Soon, the brand’s value is nil — but, hey, the traffic is humongous. And the advertisers still pay because we gave them a home for their bullshit and the faint though fraudulent promise that we can make them viral, too.

I think a new business model emerges from the swamp: the news outlet that tries, at least, to deliver the truth. That’s what all journalism fancies itself to be, of course, but the field would suffer in an audit of how much of that claim is true. I’m biased, but I’d say the Guardian is one outlet that is trying to live by that goal, though many will quickly point out that it won’t live if it can’t also have a goal of making profit.

At my journalism school, I was having a discussion about an unrelated matter the other day and as I railed on about a certain faux-news outlet that appeared to be all offal, a colleague smiled and said, “I love it, Jarvis, when *you* launch into a conservative rant about journalism.” Yes, I’m known as the guy who wants to open up media to the world to hear more voices and the cacophony of democracy, to equip anyone to commit an act of journalism, to confess our fallibility and admit that news is always in beta.

But I have long believed that the real job of journalism is to add value to what a community knows — real value in the form of confirmation and debunking and context and explanation and most of all *reporting* to ask the questions and get the answers — the facts — that aren’t already in the flow. The journalist’s and journalism organization’s ability to do that depends on trust over traffic.

In the earlier days of the web, I’ve argued that many made the mistake of thinking of the net as a medium and so whenever they saw a comment or mistake from a civilian, they thought the entire enterprise had been ruined as if The New York Times had published porn. No, I said, don’t expect the web to be a medium that’s published and packaged and polished. It’s just another streetcorner. At Broadway and 40th, you might overhear an idiot or see a drooler but you don’t propose to reject all New York because of that.

Too many would-be journalistic outlets today are making the mistake of thinking that they want to *be* the web, to hitch onto every speeding meme, riding it to … where? I think we can see where: to the oblivion where memes go to fizzle and die. Journalists would make a fatal mistake to think that they are viruses when what they should be are the leukocytes that kill them.

Attention v. relationship economy

Oddly, Google chief economist Hal Varian analyzes newspapers‘ problems and prescribes solutions strictly from an old-media perspective — based on attention to marketing messages — rather than an internet (namely, Google) perspective of relevance and relationships.

In a speech to Italian journalists, Varian says that “the basic economic problem facing news is increased competition for attention” and that newspapers must use such tricks as tablets and dayparts to get people to spend more leisure time with news so they can show them more ads (ignoring, for one thing, the fact that advertising abundance — championed by Google — lowers advertising prices and takes from newspapers the pricing power they once had). “The fundamental challenge facing newspapers is to increase the time people spend on their content,” Varian says. “More time reading the newspaper online translates into more online ad revenue.”

I couldn’t disagree more. Pardon me for suggesting to a Googler that we would be better off asking, what would Google do?

Google reinvented the advertising model, moving past attention as a proxy for intent (“if they see my ad I can convince them to buy my product”) and placement as a substitute for relevance (“men read the sports section and men buy tires, ergo we will advertise our tires in the sports section”). Google also killed the beloved myth of mass media that supported it for a century: All readers see all ads so we charge all advertisers for all readers. Google understands that users have variable value that is increased the closer it can get to delivering relevance and intuiting intent through signals — search, location, context, behavior as well as consuming content — which come from having a relationship of mutual value with the user.

The last thing newspapers should do is continue to try to shovel their old relationships, forms, and models into a new reality. No, don’t just sell space for messages to advertisers (for they’ll soon wake up and realize the pointlessness of the exercise). Don’t try to recreate old forms in new devices like tablets. Don’t measure the value of relationship as page views or time spent. Don’t think your primary value is manufacturing content that you then try to sell.

Newspapers and other former media outlets should become — as Google is — services that still inform — that is their core value — but now can use their own signals to learn about and return relevance to people as individuals and communities rather than masses, thus deriving greater value in the transaction.

For example, through my use of its Maps, Google knows where I live and work. My local newspaper doesn’t. When I ask for “pizza” in search, Google doesn’t give me a hundred archived articles with the word “pizza” in them but gives me the nearest pizza (soon, I hope, the best pizza, the pizza I’d most likely enjoy, the pizza my friends like with ever crisper relevance … and crusts). If my newspaper knew where I lived and worked — if it gave me reason to reveal that — it could target content to me the way it already tries to target ads. Why does *every* newspaper site still treat its home page as a one-size-fits-all print page when it could prioritize news that might be more relevant to me?

The reason: because newspapers still believe in the myth of mass media; they want to hope that with enough time you will look at all the pages they make and all the ads on them. That is the old attention-based media model Varian still recommends. This is also why newspapers continue to sell advertisers space for messages when instead they should be helping those merchants build better relationships with customers. But first, newspapers have to learn how to build relationships themselves.

That is the lesson Google teaches us. That is the new media market Google, more than anyone, created.

Patches

Tim Armstrong says he will close, sell, or find partners for 300 local Patch sites to reach profitability.

I have a fourth option, Tim: Invest. Set up independent entrepreneurs — your employees, my entrepreneurial graduates, unemployed newspaper folks — to take over the sites. Offer them the benefit of continued network ad sales — that’s enlightened self-interest for Patch and Aol. Offer them training. Offer them technology. And even offer them some startup capital.

You could end up better off than you ever were by being a member of an ecosystem instead of trying to own it. It can grow faster — just look at how Glam became gigantic: by supporting a network.

I still believe in hyperlocal. You’ve always believed in hyperlocal. I don’t want to see retrenchment of Patch give the naysayers as chance to nya-nya us.

So please consider another path: shrink the company but grow the network.

Jeff’s Post problem

One issue I’m surprised I haven’t seen discussed regarding Jeff Bezos’ acquisition of The Washington Post is what his tenure will mean to local advertisers.

They don’t like him. He’s helping putting them out of business.

Haven’t you seen: retail is in the tank. Stores have become showrooms for Amazon’s sales. Looking at the golf club? Go to the pro shop and try it out and learn about it and get advice about it, then go to Amazon and buy it for a better price.

Amazon is going into local markets with experiments in same-day delivery. He will do that in competition with local merchants.

eBay, on the other hand, says it will serve local merchants and help them with same-day delivery and online sales. Google is looking to test same-day local delivery and I would imagine it, too, would work with local businesses, who are its advertisers as well.

The New Republic wondered whether Bezos wants The Washington Post’s delivery trucks. I doubt that. Though as I remember, the Post was one of the first papers in the country to shift from large-scale delivery to small-scale (trucks to station wagons), the system is still not set up to do what a UPS truck does.

So how will Bezos finesse this? He’s not big on finesse, Jeff. He could come and find ways to reassure local advertisers. He could involve them in his local delivery scheme, just as he handed over his sales and technology platforms to more merchants. He could shrug and not worry about retail advertising since he’s killing retail anyway.

As with all speculation about the Bezos era in journalism, we’ll just have to wait and wonder.