Posts about geeks

Philanthropy and the news

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On a trip to Silicon Valley with my new dean, Sarah Bartlett, I heard technology people express concern about the state of news. That is good of them, for they have had a role in the disruption of news — and I’m glad they have. Now they need to consider taking the fruits of their technology and the innovation, efficiency, productivity, profitability, and wealth it has created and turn some of it and their attention toward the good of society and perhaps, with it, journalism.

But not as philanthropists. That was my plea to them. We in journalism need them to bring their innovation and investment to news, to teach us how to see and exploit new opportunities to improve news and sustain it. More on the role of technologists another day.

Today, I want to talk about the role of philanthropy. As I was thinking about my trip to the Bay Area — and in the midst of a magnum opus Twitter conversation about the future of news sparked and stoked by Marc Andreessen — I tweeted this:

My good friend Jay Rosen got angry with me, accusing me of being hostile to nonprofit news.

Not true, I replied. I am expressing a preference. Given a source of capital and given the state of innovation in news and media — this is 1472 in Gutenberg years — I prefer to see that precious resource go first to sustainability. Don’t buy a hungry man a fish — or a news-starved community another article. Don’t just teach them to fish. Build the damned fishing boats.

A few months ago, I went to an event in Washington for nonprofit news organizations put on by the Knight Foundation and Pew. Again and again, we heard that the problem with too many of these good organizations is that they put no resource into development — whether fundraising or sponsorship or events. I often hear journalists say that every dollar they get should go straight into reporting; anything else feels practically immoral to them. But so is letting their good work die and disappear: no more fish, no fishing boats, just fishwrap.

I also hear journalists say that they don’t want to concern themselves with the business of journalism. Clearly, I disagree. That is precisely why I started the Tow-Knight Center in Entrepreneurial Journalism.

In New Jersey, I have been doing a lot of work alongside the Dodge Foundation, Montclair State, and others to try to build the foundation for a sustainable news ecosystem that can grow and improve. We are working with sites to make them profitable by improving the services they sell to local merchants, by experimenting with new revenue streams like events, by building a network to share content and audience and — soon, I hope — advertising. We just received $2 million from Knight and one of their wise conditions was that we not spend the money on operations — on buying more stories — but instead on building infrastructure. That is why we are hiring a sustainability director to manage just that. (Know anyone who’d be great at the job?)

So I do see a role for philanthropy in news, an important role. But I’ll caution journalists — as will every foundation I know — that there is not enough money in the endowments of all the foundations interested in supporting news to pay for the work that needs to be done. Similarly, charity and patronage from individuals and companies can do much, whether that is supporting the work of public radio or now crowdfunding a worthy project from a journalist. But neither can that do it all. Charity runs out. That resource is precious and should go where it is most needed.

So now I’ll have the temerity to propose not rules but suggested guidelines for the use and role of philanthropy in news:

1. Philanthropy should support that which the market will not support. And it should wait patiently to determine what that is. In other words, just because something is not being done now does not mean that philanthropy should swoop in and take it over if the market may find opportunity in it.

2. Philanthropy should not compete with the market. We heard this some years ago when a new non-for-profit news entity sprouted in San Francisco and an executive at the crippled Chronicle complained that it could kill the paper. Thank goodness for the paper, the charity was worse run than it and the paper outlasted it.

3. Philanthropy should help build the economic sustainability and independence of news. Here’s the most self-serving thing I will say from my perch in a university: This includes training the next generation of news innovators. It also includes investing in infrastructure and innovation, new methods and models. Innovation in news requires patient capital that will fund not losses but instead experiments and daring failures. Philanthropy can do that.

4. Philanthropy — and journalism , too — should measure its success by the outcomes it accomplishes. Journalists have something to learn from foundations here: It’s not enough to produce content and build audience. Journalism has to help communities better themselves. That starts with listening to the public and its needs.

5. Charity is finite. Yes, you can start a news organization on charity. Yes, we could support a great deal of the investigative reporting we have philanthropically. But I am more ambitious than that; the need is greater. The souce for investigative reporting is (1) whistleblowers and (2) beat reporting. We need to support beats at scale. That’s why I’m doing the work I’m doing in New Jersey and why I’m starting a new training program for beat businesses in a box. Charity doesn’t scale. Sustainability does.

Philanthropy is precious, important, useful. It is a gift to use well and wisely. It isn’t an excuse not do do our jobs. And our job is to rebuild journalism into a service that will last.

Cross-posted to Medium and HuffingtonPost.

What now for news?

I’ve been working on a long essay that tries to answer the question I often hear in one form or another: “Now that your damned internet has ruined news, what now?” I don’t pretend to make predictions, only to explore opportunities around three ideas: new relationships, not forms, and new business models for news. I’ve posted the opening to the first third of the essay — about relationships — at Medium so I can get your reaction and insight, as that’s what Medium is designed to provide. Please do wander over and leave comments there or here. Thanks. Here are links to three pieces:

Part I: No mas mass media
Part II: Content vs. service
Part III: Ecosystems and networks


Rethinking TV news, Part III: First, kill the stand-up

I was about to launch into writing a post about the most irritating habits of local TV news — starting with the most objectionable: the stand-up — when I got a surprising email from a producer at Fox Channel 5 News in New York: “We are working on a story about the most annoying things about local news,” he wrote. “Yes, we are really doing this. And it is for tonight.” I got a similar call from another network; more on that in a minute. So I spoke to the Channel 5 reporter for 10 minutes over Skype and they used one soundbite (which is another annoying thing TV news does, but I’m not complaining):

New York News

Points to Fox’ Joel Waldman for doing a stand-up ridiculing stand-ups.

Here’s why I hate the convention: The stand-up has zero journalistic value. It wastes time. It wastes precious reportorial resource. It turns the world into a mere backdrop for entertainment. It’s a fake. Take, for example, all the stand-ups we see these days at the George Washington Bridge because of the Christie scandal. Local TV news does it:

standup local 2

National TV news does it:

standup national

There is *no* reporting to be done at the bridge. None. There are no officials there. There are no sources to be found. The victims are long gone. So TV news wastes a reporter’s time and a crew’s time and the use of expensive equipment going to the bridge, standing there for an hour or more, where there is *nothing* happening, *nothing* to report. Why? Because TV thinks it must have video, style over substance, image über alles.

Think of how TV news covers, say, the ongoing deliberations of a jury in a trial. The anchor tells us what they’ve told us and what they’re going to tell us. The anchor throws to a reporter doing a stand-up in front of a courthouse where, of course, the jury is sequestered and there is nothing to learn and thus nothing to say. The reporter gives us a bit more background and tells us the jury is still out. The reporter throws back to the anchor. The anchor says they’ll be sure to tell us when something happens. All that hoo-ha could be replaced with the anchor reading one sentence: “The so-and-so jury is still out.” Bonus points if the anchor adds: “For background, see our web site.”

And on the web site, the TV station could have a standing piece explaining the background on the trial for anyone who has missed it. They’d waste less of their airtime and be able to give us, the audience, the public, more stories and/or more substance — wasting less of our time. More importantly, they’d free up the reporter to, well, *report* something rather than just regurgitating what we already know and nothing new: journalistic dry heaves.

I have taken to shouting at my TV when I see stand-ups in front of crime scenes where nothing has happened in at least 12 hours. Or when I hear anchors, particularly on network news, wasting precious seconds with empty transitions after reports: “Still much to learn” (no shit). Or when I see faked b-roll of someone walking down a hall or typing or talking on a phone to create images and easier edits — except this isn’t reality, it is staged, faked for us (how journalistic is that?). Or when I see team coverage of weather sticking rulers in snow or breaking eggs to fry (or now freeze) or demonstrating that ice is slick or that wind blows. Or when I see someone being interviewed and looking off-camera when they really should be talking to us (Hello? We’re over here!). And that is just a list of the silly orthodoxies of presentation on TV news, to say nothing of the quality, depth, originality, utility, wisdom, and incisiveness of the content itself.

I shouted at my TV and it didn’t listen … until now. Not only did I get that email from Fox 5 New York, but when I was in Davos, I spoke to a crew from Fusion, the new partnership of Univison and ABC, and couldn’t resist poking fun at the form, turning from the producer asking questions off-camera and staring instead directly into the camera to beg them to give up this silly, stilted convention. They didn’t air it. [CORRECTION: Turns out, they did air it, starting at :35.] Instead, they called me into the studio for a conversation with anchor Jorge Ramos.

We talked about the conventions of TV news:

And then Ramos asked me for my advice to Fusion:

I said in my first post on reinventing TV news that I wouldn’t dwell on the negative — preferring in a second post to concentrate on new opportunities — yet here I have focused on the bad, the silly, the wasteful. For we do need to get rid of the idea that real television news, professional television news must have stand-ups and establishing shots and staged b-roll and frothy transitions. We need to clean away that ancient filigree to free up resources and time to make TV news better, because it can be.

* * *

Here is the complete, 11-minute Fusion conversation:

Jeff Jarvis on AMERICA with Jorge Ramos from Fusion America on Vimeo.

News as assets

All the excited buzz about Ezra Klein’s new venture at Vox Media (congratulations to both) misses the real significance, I think: that, as best as I can tell, Klein & Co. will specialize not so much in topics but in forms of journalism, tearing apart the old, omnibus article and specializing in the explainer or backgrounder as a journalistic asset.

The Washington Post’s coverage of losing Klein to a new mistress concentrates on the litany of losses big media have suffered at the hands of younger competitors: Nate Silver from the New York Times, Andrew Sullivan from the Atlantic, Kara Swisher et al from the Wall Street Journal.

In his thumbsucker on the event, David Carr decides that this is the moment when tech companies that produce journalism supersede journalism companies that do tech. I disagree as I think concentrating on technology — that is, content management systems — as the root of value is still an expression of editorial ego: it’s about how *we* do our jobs rather than how the public benefits from the services we perform.

I couldn’t much understand what Klein will be up to from his announcement in Vox’ Verge. I started to understand it here: “Our mission is to create a site that’s as good at explaining the world as it is at reporting on it.” I better understood it, thanks to a Jay Rosen tweet, from the job posting for the venture (my emphasis):

We’ll have regular coverage of everything from tax policy to True Detective, but instead of letting that reporting gather dust in an archive, we’ll use it to build and continuously update a comprehensive set of explainers of the topics we cover. We want to create the single best resources for news consumers anywhere. We’ll need writers who are obsessively knowledgeable about their subjects to do that reporting and write those explainers — as well as ambitious feature pieces. We’ll need D3 hackers and other data viz geniuses who can explain the news in ways words can’t. We’ll need video producers who can make a two-minute cartoon that summarizes the Volcker rule perfectly. We’ll need coders and designers who can build the world’s first hybrid news site/encyclopedia. And we’ll need people who want to join Vox’s great creative team because they believe in making ads so beautiful that our readers actually come back for them too.

Aha. This is a step along a path Rosen began exploring in 2008, looking at the value of the explainer. And that is a step along a path I’ve been exploring in seeing news as a set of assets with different paths through them: what’s new (perhaps from Twitter), backgrounders (from Wikipedia), explainers (from KleinCo?), timelines from somewhere else, dramatis personæ from yet somewhere else, quotes in the story (from Cir.Ca), and so on….

What Klein is apparently doing is specializing in an asset type of news: the explainer. I think there’s a lot of value in that. You can get the latest on a story in so many places now — from Twitter, on TV, from wire services, and, yes, from news organizations. In all that coverage the old background paragraph — a vestige of the limitations of print — ill-served everyone: the novice is underserved (how can you catch up on the saga of Libya in five lines?) and the expert’s time is wasted (how much effort to we expend trying to skip over the old stuff in news articles?).

I’ve also been telling TV folks lately that, freed by the net of the need to fill a clock, they can use their medium to create explainers as assets that have ongoing value.

In the end, I think — I hope — what Klein is doing is staking his ground and following a dictum I started thinking about in 2007: Do what you do best and link to the rest. What he wants to do best is explain the news and the world to the public. That’s a tall order but I like the mission. And he can leave the cute cats to someone else.

Rethinking TV news part II: Experiments with forms and models

Allow me to speculate on new forms and models for TV news after Part I of this post looked at what’s broken and what’s possible.

webcast1TV with many eyes: First, a tale… Roger Ailes’ brilliance at Fox News was economic, not political. He realized that chatting about the news rather than gathering it would get higher ratings at a far lower cost. Just one weakness: The Fox folk need someone to chat with. I know because I used to work a block away and was often called in at a moment’s notice to blather, but when the guest they really wanted arrived, they gave me the bum’s rush. So I was talking with an old friend, former boss, and News Corp. executive many, many years ago, telling her about the wonders of these newfangled things called webcams. Put one of those in Judge Napolitano’s house and office and he can come on the air to yammer about the latest trial at a moment’s notice. She had me talk with some Fox VP about the notion and he dismissed it out of hand because, of course, the quality [lower voice to stentorian TV voice when saying this] was not broadcast quality. (I am relieved I did nothing in the service of Fox News.) But of course, soon thereafter, his own network proved him wrong as Oliver North was jerkily (in as many definitions of the word as you like) broadcasting from the Iraq war over satphone. And I was doing regular segments on MSNBC’s Coast to Coast from my den at home. Suddenly and briefly webcams themselves were hot. Now they are indeed used to bring remote guests on screen.

Brady-Bunch-GridBut webcams still have not been used to their fuller potential. Since those days, I’ve wanted to see a show that could call on a panel of guests — new voices, like old people ready to talk about a change in Social Security or geeks about the latest from the NSA. Imagine Wolf Blitzer’s giant screen as a matrix with a dozen people on it, and below each is a line of text — now a tweet — with his or her thoughts so Wolf can point to any of them to bring them on air. That was my old idea.

I was talking with someone smart about this the other day and he asked why we’d need Wolf. The audience is Wolf. A user, given a proper tool, can select who to hear from and broadcast the result: May the best show win. The audience can also go out and find new streams and add them to the mix. Imagine how useful that would be at a live event with many cams and phones trained on the action from different perspectives. Imagine, too, that the people formerly known as the audience can be a resource to answer questions (that’s what the chat room does in TWiT shows) or ask questions and thus direct coverage.

Now a webcam is far more than a cheap, remote camera without a satellite truck. It is a window onto new worlds of witnesses, experts, commentators, and people affected by the news: new voices, new perspectives. The prototype tool for this pretty much exists in Google+ Hangouts; I’d start experimenting with it to cover events and have topical discussions. Former local anchor Sarah Hill was a pioneer using Hangouts in her show. Huffington Post TV and TWiG have used Hangouts as well. But I think the tool can be pushed much more, having people use their phones not just for video selfies but for reporting from the field. Or when news breaks around an issue that affects one community’s or another’s lives, instead of having the same old “experts” on, why not seek out the voices of those affected by the news and have them on to get new perspectives? Or when you do have an expert, instead of having just one interviewer question her, why not have more experts or more people from an affected community ask their questions? There are a million TV cameras out there now. There are a million possibilities.

The (very) latest: Cable news’ greatest strength — breaking news — is also its greatest weakness, for after someone has read to us what’s known now, they just keep repeating the same facts (or speculations) and looping the same video, trying to fool us into thinking we’re up to date when they might not be. That’s because they have the constantly open maw of a channel to fill and they have competitors.

Online, I can imagine another way to cover breaking news, inspired by Wikipedia. Wikipedia offers a snapshot of what is known now. If nothing new emerges in an hour, no one feels compelled to update the page. Imagine if an online news service offered us the promise of (a) summarizing what is known about a breaking story now, (b) updating only when something new is know, and (c) alerting us when that occurs and giving us the choice whether to watch the latest. So we go watch a video on, say, Yahoo or NBC, to get the latest, whether that takes two or five or 10 minutes to report. Then we can go away and do other things, secure in the knowledge that when more is known, we can be alerted to watch a new video. This benefits the provider because we have elected to follow or subscribe to its updates (a la If the provider abuses the privilege and sends us constant alerts, we’ll soon ignore that boy crying wolf. If you come into the middle of a story and need background, well, see the next idea.

Explainers and backgrounders: A bit of background before I get to the idea about background: I’ve been thinking a lot lately about deconstructing the time-honored article into assets and paths. When I draw an inverted pyramid in my classroom — the lede or what’s new on top, the nut paragraph that sums up the story next, the background paragraph next, and so on — I tell the students that the background graph ill serves everyone, giving too little to the newcomer and too much to the expert. What should it be online? I ask. A link, they dutifully respond. A link to what? Where to do we get our background these days? Wikipedia. Where do we get what’s new? Often Twitter. Where do we get explainers? Places like the Economist. Thus the article is unbundled into assets that can be made and maintained by various parties with various paths through them. Well, can’t TV — once freed of its linear prison — do the same?

Now imagine if one built and maintained a storehouse of explainers and backgrounders. They would not be ephemeral, gone with the last minute as on old TV. They would be assets that can get viewers and links over time, building value and reputation. They can also be updated. Video, known for dumbing down the news, could smarten itself and us up.

russertWhy video? Because, as I said in Part I, TV is good at explaining and demonstrating things. Explaining need not mean going crazy with computer graphics and interactivity or those now-hackneyed whiteboard animations with the hyperactive, disembodied hand making cute but uninformative pictures. No, I mean somebody who knows what the hell she’s talking about standing in front of a white board and ‘splaining something. That reminds me of the greatest invention in the history of television news graphics: Tim Russert’s whiteboard.

Backgrounders are a close cousin to explainers. Now return to the idea above about breaking news: You are watching updated segments giving you the latest on a developing story. But you don’t want to hear the background over and over again. Or if you come into the story late, you need background. So why not separate that into a distinct asset that can be maintained and updated, a la Wikipedia but with video and photos as appropriate?

silent film dialogueSilent (mobile video) movies: Media of all sorts are looking at mobile as just another content-delivery mechanism. I think it is many other things — a relationship-building tool (more on that soon) and also a time-waster. How do we use our phones most of the time? Not to make phone calls, but to (1) communicate by other means and (2) kill a few minutes while we’re waiting in line at the bank or waiting for a bus — that is when we encounter content. In those moments, most of us are not going to browse through a dozen pages on a news site or get ourselves some of that long-form journalism we hear so much about now and we’re not going to bother to get out earphones so we can watch and listen to TV news. And unless we’re assholes (like the ones on the Acela who don’t just talk on the phone but talk on the speakerphone … but that’s a rant for another day) we’re not going to play the sound on video and disturb the others on line with us. So it occurred to me that news video for mobile should resemble silent movies: big text and muted video where the video is appropriate and not just there to fill time.

Depth (with the good bits): I want to see TV give me depth — rich interviews, as Leo Laporte suggested for Katie Couric in Part I (see Tim Pool’s 18 minutes with Kim Dotcom or any Howard Stern interview hitting an hour and a half), or full video of an event, say — but I also want to get to the good bits. So what I really want is a user interface that lets us deep-link into an annotate and thus share or embed those bits. Of course, that technology exists — you can share a YouTube video from any spot — but I don’t see much video news taking advantage of it because TV producers, like print editors, want to deliver finished products. But I’ll bet that the ironic result of letting people cut to the good stuff is that more people will watch long video and more producers will make it. So let the interview go on and on. Don’t choose the sound bites for us. Let us choose them. Or let us watch the whole thing. TV no longer forces us to watch one same-size-fits-all product; it can give us choice.

What other experiments in the form of TV news can you imagine?

In Part III, I’ll look at business models, at legacy TV, and at some of the comments left on these posts.

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’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.


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.