Posts about geeks

Hot off the presses

Screenshot 2013-08-05 at 6.25.08 PM

Some quick thoughts on Jeff Bezos’ purchase of the Washington Post:

A reporter asked me whether this was “an act of philanthropy.” Probably yes, but I hope it is much more than that. I am glad Bezos is using his wealth to save a great and necessary American institution. But I hope and pray the real value he brings is his entrepreneurship, his innovation, his experience, and his fresh perspective, enabling him to reimagine news as an enterprise.

I’m ready for folks to cry for joy that Bezos knows how to sell content. He’ll know how to build pay walls, damnit! But I don’t think that’s his key value here. He knows how to sell and deliver unique not commodity content: entertainment mostly.

No, Bezos’ key competence is in building relationships. This is wishful thinking on my part, as I have been arguing that we in journalism need to stop thinking of ourselves as manufacturers of a mass commodity called content and start understanding that we are in a service business whose real outcome is informed individuals and communities. Thus we must be in the relationship business.

I have been arguing with newspapers lately that they must gather small data about their individual users — where they live, where they work, what their key interests are — so they can serve people with greater relevance and value. I hope that skill — building profiles and using them to improve relevance — is the first that Bezos brings to the Post.

I have one fear of Bezos: his secrecy. A news organization must be open (there I’m a disciple of the Guardian’s Alan Rusbridger). I also want to see innovation and experimentation at the Post done in the open so the rest of the industry can benefit from it. Then perhaps Bezos can save more than one newspaper.

I do trust the Bezos understands the value of the Post and the necessity of — using my CUNY dean’s phrase — journalism’s eternal verities. I also trust that Don Graham would not have sold his family’s jewel to anyone who did not understand that.

Now mind you, Bezos also invested in Henry Blodget’s Business Insider. I’m a fan of Henry and what he has done there, but he is controversial in the halls of journalism schools. Bezos praises the Post for waiting to get things right. Henry is rather quicker on the trigger. I’m glad Bezos has an interest in both models; I think each can learn from the other.

Bottom line: I’m hopeful.

I am left with tremendous admiration for Don Graham, whose family not only built the Washington Post into its glory and protected it from political pressure to serve the people. Today, Don Graham made no doubt the toughest and bravest decision of his life: He admitted that he did not have the strategy to save his newspaper so he found someone he believes will. That takes courage.

Media, left out of the relationship

Note who’s missing in Tanzina Vega’s New York Times story today about the monster merger of ad agencies Publicis and Omnicom.

Media — TV, radio, magazines, newspapers, online — are nowhere to be seen. This merger, they all say, is about the ad agencies joining together to defend at the 11th hours against the real behemoth in the business, Google, as well as Facebook and Twitter. And the battleground is Big Data (when did that become a proper noun?) — that is, knowing about people, or having a relationship with them.

I’ve been arguing that media should stop thinking they’re in the content business and start believing they are in — or should be in — the relationship business. But we don’t know jack about people. We see people as a mass. We lived for a glorious century by the myth of mass media: that all readers see all ads so we can charge all advertisers for all readers. Thus we simply wanted *more* readers (or unique users, whatever you prefer to call us). Media companies are proud when they learn our email addresses but, of course, that is nothing but an excuse to spam us. My email address says *nothing* about me.

Media companies could know a great deal about us as individuals. Our content interests are a good signal — Google understands that and so does the NSA (says prior whistleblower Thomas Drake, “content is gold for determining intent”). But we in media have no good means to gather, analyze, act on, and exploit that signal beyond simple behavioral targeting.

I argue that media companies should be able to get people to build the trust to reveal themselves because media companies can give them value in return. Provide me traffic help and you’ll learn where I live and work and then you can target your content and advertising to my locale, delivering greater relevance and value. Right?

No. Google, Facebook, and Twitter listen to our signals. Omnicom and Publicis realize the value of those signals. They all understand the worth of relationships. And what do we do in media? We put up paywalls and scream about copyright. Garg.

LATER: Here’s Om Malik’s take on the merger. I agree that the net deflates.

Since 1920, US advertising industry revenues have hovered between 1 percent to 3 percent of the US gross domestic product. This pie is now shared between television, newspapers, magazines, radio, cable with Google, Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo and thousands of other digital outlets. Of course, Internet often brings measurability, targeting and interactivity — which leads to a sort of deflationary pressure on industries that have traditionally benefited from ambiguity. Stock brokerages and travel industry were the first two industry to be baffled by this new reality.

All hail Justin Smith

When people ask me for someone smart who’s doing innovative and successful things in magazines, I scan the known world and always end up at the same place: Justin Smith, who just announced that he is leaving Atlantic Media to become CEO of Bloomberg’s media group.

I’ve known Justin since he launched The Week in the U.S. and I’ve admired his work nonstop. He is rather unsung so it’s worth recounting some of his successes thus far:

* At The Week, he launched a *weekly* magazine with a *total* staff of 24 — which is fewer than the old butler staff at Time. The concept for The Week came from the U.K. It was the original news curator, taking advantage of the oversupply of news we still have. That wasn’t his. But his method for launching the magazine was new: He created an ad scarcity with limited pages to sell. He refused to waste a fortune on fees and returned copies on newsstands, selling it only in some bookstores. He launched essentially a subscription-only magazine and he let that grow organically, by demand, rather than bribing people to subscribe with costly sneakerphones. He thus didn’t spend a fortune on marketing.

* At Atlantic, Justin took a dying brand and rather than milking it and devaluing it with cheap stunts as others are, he increased its value by turning it into an online brand that happened to have a magazine (how cool). He understood that what appeared under the brand online would have little to do with the magazine and so he invested in new content. That included investing in writers as brands, for he recognized the attention and audience they could bring — thus Andrew Sullivan’s sojourn there on his Paul Theroux-like train tour of the internet.

* He had the guts to create new brands, starting with Quartz, relying on his experience starting a blog company outside of his job. He had the vision to invest in smart editorial talent and the patience to let them build.

* Like a few other publishers — Condé Nast included — he saw that he had to take on the role of an advertising agency, no longer just selling space on a page, print or digital, but offering creative and marketing services to advertisers. Yes, there was that stumble with Scientology, an important object lesson and warning for everyone dancing with the devil in mixing selling and informing under one brand. But all in all, his real lesson to the industry is to change the relationship of media to marketer. You can see him talking about this in a discussion he, John Paton, and I had at CUNY sometime ago — the video is below.

* LATER: Oh, yeah, I forgot: He also made a strategy at both companies at using events wisely as a way to brand the publications as a convener of important conversations and as a way to bring in sponsorship revenue — a model other media properties are just beginning to mimic.

* AND ONE MORE THING: He made Atlantic Media profitable.

Bloomberg can use him. It is a powerhouse, the one journalistic organization that is hiring — often our CUNY students, I’m happy to report — like no one else. It has a pay wall that really works with its truly valuable terminals (that don’t offer commodity information; they sell speed). It rescued BusinessWeek to own a consumer brand. It started an opinion site. It dabbles in TV.

What Justin can bring, I think, is much more consumer attention to the company. There are lots of very smart opinion makers writing for Bloomberg but I don’t see them in the conversation. There’s a considerable investment in video but I don’t see it embedded or talked about enough. There is much good journalism but to reach consumers it could stand to have a voice. And with a stronger brand and much technological muscle, I’m confident that Justin can bring a torrent of new advertising attention and revenue to the company.

It is a brilliant hire. I’m glad to see him be able to show off his stuff on a more visible stage.

Digital First and the Future of News from CUNY Grad School of Journalism on Vimeo.

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Google’s TV

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Google just demoted your television set into a second screen, a slave to your phone or tablet or laptop. With the $35 Chromecast you can with one click move anything you find on your internet-connected device — YouTube video, Netflix, a web page as well as music and pictures and soon, I’d imagine, games — onto your big TV screen, bypassing your cable box and all its ridiculous and expensive limitations.

Unlike Apple TV and Airplay, this does not stream from your laptop to the TV; this streams directly to your TV — it’s plugged into an HDMI port — over wi-fi via the cloud … er, via Google, that is. Oh, and it works with Apple iOS devices, too.

I’m just beginning to get a grasp on all the implications. Here are some I see.

* Simply put, I’ll end up watching more internet content because it’s so easy now. According to today’s demonstration, as soon as I tell Chrome to move something to my TV, the Chromecast device will sense the command and take over the TV. Nevermind smart TVs and cable boxes; the net is now in charge. There’s no more awkward searching using the world’s slowest typing via my cable box or a web-connected TV. There’s no more switching manually from one box to another. If it’s as advertised, I’ll just click on my browser and up it comes on my TV. Voila.

* Because Google issued an API, every company with web video — my beloved TWiT, for example — is motivated to add a Chromecast button to its content.

* Thus Google knows more about what you’re watching, which will allow it to make recommendations to you. Google becomes a more effective search engine for entertainment: TV Guide reborn at last.

* Google gets more opportunities to sell higher-priced video advertising on its content, which is will surely promote.

* Google gets more opportunities to sell you shows and movies from its Play Store, competing with both Apple and Amazon.

* YouTube gets a big boost in creating channels and building a new revenue stream: subscriptions. This is a paywall that will work simply because entertainment is a unique product, unlike news, which is — sorry to break the news to you — a commodity. I also wonder whether Google is getting a reward for all the Netflix subscriptions it will sell.

* TV is no longer device-dependant but viewer-dependant. I can start watching a show in one room then watch it another and then take it with me and watch on my tablet from where I left off.

* I can throw out the device with the worst user interface on earth: the cable remote. Now I can control video via my phone and probably do much more with it (again, I’m imagining new game interfaces).

* I can take a Chromecast with me on the road and use it in hotel rooms or in conference rooms to give presentations.

Those are implications for me as a user or viewer or whatever the hell I am now. That’s why I quickly bought three Chromecasts: one for the family room, one for my office, one for the briefcase and the road. What the hell, they’re cheap.

Harder to fully catalog are the implications for the industry — make that industries — affected. Too often, TV and the oligopolies that control it have been declared dead yet they keep going. One of these days, one of the bullets shot at them will hit the heart. Is this it?

* Cable is hearing a loud, growing snipping sound on the horizon. This makes it yet easier for us all to cut the cord. This unravels their bundling of channels. I’ll never count these sharks out. But it looks like it could be Sharknado for them. I also anticipate them trying to screw up our internet bandwidth every way they can: limiting speeds and downloading or charging us through the nose for decent service if we use Chromecast — from their greedy perspective — “too much.”

* Networks should also start feeling sweaty, for there is even less need for their bundling when we can find the shows and stars we want without them. The broadcast networks will descend even deeper into the slough of crappy reality TV. Cable networks will find their subsidies via cable operators’ bundles threatened. TV — like music and news — may finally come unbundled. But then again, TV networks are the first to run for the lifeboats and steal the oars. I remember well the day when ABC decided to stream Desperate Housewives on the net the morning after it aired on broadcast, screwing its broadcast affiliates. They’d love to do the same to cable MSOs. Will this give them their excuse?

* Content creators have yet another huge opportunity to cut out two layers of middlemen and have direct relationships with fans, selling them their content or serving them more targeted and valuable ads. Creators can be discovered directly. But we know how difficult it is to be discovered. Who can help? Oh, yeah, Google.

* Apple? I’ll quote a tweet:

Yes, Apple could throw out its Apple TV and shift to this model. But it’s disadvantaged against Google because it doesn’t offer the same gateway to the entire wonderful world of web video; it offers things it makes deals for, things it wants to sell us.

* Amazon? Hmmm. On the one hand, if I can more easily shift things I buy at Amazon onto my TV screen — just as I read Kindle books on my Google Nexus 7 table, not on an Amazon Kindle. But Amazon is as much a control freak as Apple and I can’t imagine Jeff Bezos is laughing that laugh of his right now.

* Advertisers will see the opportunity to directly subsidize content and learn more about consumers through direct relationships, no longer mediated by both channels and cable companies. (That presumes that advertisers and their agencies are smart enough to build audiences rather than just buying mass; so far, too many of them haven’t been.) Though there will be more entertainment behind pay walls, I think, there’ll still be plenty of free entertainment to piggyback on.

* Kids in garages with cameras will find path to the big screen is now direct if anybody wants to watch their stuff.

What other implications do you see?

There are no journalists

There are no journalists, there is only the service of journalism.

Yes, I know that in condensed form, that may sound like a parodic tweet. But please consider the idea.

scrivener

Thanks to the Snowden-Greenwald NSA story, we are headed into another spate of debate about who is and isn’t a journalist. I’ve long said it’s the wrong question now that anyone can perform an act of journalism: a witness sharing news directly with the world; an expert explaining news without need of gatekeepers; a whistleblower opening up documents to sunlight; anyone informing everyone. It’s the wrong question when we reconsider journalism not as the manufacture of content but instead as a service whose goal is an informed public.

Why must we define a journalist? Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan felt compelled to because the newspaper took it upon itself to decide who may wear the cloak, because of debates about Glenn Greenwald as an advocate, and because of questions of law. Her wise and compelling conclusion: “A real journalist is one who understands, at a cellular level, and doesn’t shy away from, the adversarial relationship between government and press – the very tension that America’s founders had in mind with the First Amendment.” Sadly, we don’t often see that definition of journalism played out from TV or the Beltway or especially the overlap of the two.

John McQuaid felt the need to ask why Greenwald is driving other journalists crazy. He concludes that asking who is (and isn’t) a journalist is often “a prelude to delegitimizing their work and what they have to say. It quickly devolves to tribalism.” Read: journalists v. bloggers. Sigh.

God help us, Dick Durbin felt empowered to propose that legislators should decide who is (and isn’t) a journalist, though in truth they already are when it comes to deciding who is protected by shield laws. But I certainly don’t want government licensing (or unlicensing) journalists.

All that discussion in just a few days. All that rehashing a question that has been asked and not answered — or answered all too often and in too many ways — for years. Enough.

Journalism is not content. It is not a noun. It need not be a profession or an industry. It is not the province of a guild. It is not a scarcity to be controlled. It no longer happens in newsrooms. It is no longer confined to narrative form.

So then what the hell is journalism?

It is a service. It is a service whose end, again, is an informed public. For my entrepreneurial journalism students, I give them a broad umbrella of a definition: Journalism helps communities organize their knowledge so they can better organize themselves.

Thus anything that reliably serves the end of an informed community is journalism. Anyone can help do that. The true journalist should want anyone to join the task. That, in the end, is why I wrote Public Parts: because I celebrate the value that rises from publicness, from the ability of anyone to share what he or she knows with everyone and the ethic that says sharing is a generous and social act and transparency should be the default for our institutions.

Is there a role for people to help in that process? Absolutely. I say that organizations can first help enable the flow and collection of information, which can now occur without them, by offering platforms for communities to share what they know. Next, I say that someone is often needed to add value to that process by:
* asking the questions that are not answered in the flow,
* verifying facts,
* debunking rumors,
* adding context, explanation, and background,
* providing functionality that enables sharing,
* organizing efforts to collaborate by communities, witnesses, experts.

So am I just rebuilding the job description of the journalist? I’m coming to see that perhaps we shouldn’t call it that, for it’s clear that the word “journalist” brings a few centuries’ baggage and a fight for who controls it. These functions — and others — need not come from one kind of person or organization.

Well but what about the legal question? Shouldn’t we at least have a definition of journalist so we know who is protected by a shield law? No. For that also defines others who are not protected. Those others are sometimes called whistleblowers and instead of protecting them, our government is at war with them and what they share: information, information about our government, information about us, information that will help us better organize ourselves as a free society.

No, we should be discussing this question — like others today — as a matter of principle: protecting not a person with a job description and a desk and a paycheck but instead protecting the ideals of a transparent government and an informed society as necessary conditions of democracy.

I’m speaking next week before the third World Journalism Education Congress. I was planning to ask them to challenge our industrial age assumptions about the relationships, forms, and business models of news and to reconsider what and how we teach journalism. I was also planning to suggest that if they call their programs “mass communication,” they should change that, since the title itself is an insult to the public we serve. For as Jay Rosen taught me long ago, sociologist Raymond Williams said: “There are in fact no masses; there are only ways to see people as masses.” No more.

Now I’m wondering whether we should discuss the idea that we’re not journalists. Even trying to define a journalist — to fence in the functions and value of the role to a particular job description — is limiting and ultimately defeats the greater purpose of informing society.

So what are we? We are servants of an informed society. We always have been.

All journalism is advocacy (or it isn’t)

Jay Rosen wrote an insightful post forking the practice of journalism into “politics: none” (that is, traditional American journalism: objective, it thinks) and “politics: some” (that is, the kind just practised by Glenn Greenwald and the Guardian). Jay catalogs the presumptions and advantages of each. As both he and The New York Times’ Margaret Sullivan observe, Edward Snowden took his leaks to Greenwald and the Guardian because they exemplify “politics: some.”

I want to take this farther and argue first that what Greenwald and the Guardian were practising was less politics than advocacy, and second that all journalism is advocacy (or is it journalism?).

To the first point: Greenwald and the Guardian were not bolstering their own politics in the NSA story. To the contrary, Greenwald and the Guardian both identify politically as liberal — the Guardian’s mission is to be nothing less than “the world’s leading liberal voice” — yet they attacked programs run and justified by a liberal American administration and no doubt caused that administration discomfort or worse. In so doing, Greenwald and the Guardian exhibited the highest value of journalism: intellectual honesty. That does not mean they were unbiased. It means they were willing to do damage to their political side in the name of truth. Greenwald and the Guardian were practising advocacy not for politics — not for their team — but for principles: protection of privacy, government transparency and accountability, the balance of powers, and the public’s right to know.

Now to my second point: Seen this way, isn’t all journalism properly advocacy? And isn’t advocacy on behalf of principles and the public the true test of journalism? The choices we make about what to cover and how we cover it and what the public needs to know are acts of advocacy on the public’s behalf. Don’t we believe that we act in their interest? As James Carey said: “The god term of journalism — the be-all and end-all, the term without which the enterprise fails to make sense, is the public.”

When the Washington Post — whose former editor famously refused to vote to uphold his vision of Jay’s “politics: none” ethic — chooses to report on government secrecy or on abuse of veterans at a government hospital or, of course, on presidential malfeasance and coverups, it is, of course, advocating. When an editor assigns reporters to expose a consumer scam or Wall Street fraud or misappropriation of government funds, that’s advocacy. When a newspaper takes on the cause of the poor, the disadvantaged, the abused, the forgotten, or just the little guy against The Man, that’s advocacy. When health reporters tell you how to avoid cancer or even lose weight, that’s advocacy on your behalf. I might even argue that a critic reviewing a movie to save you from wasting your money on a turkey could be advocacy (though we don’t necessarily need critics for that anymore).

But what about a TV station sending a crew or a helicopter to give us video of the fire du jour, a tragic accident with no lesson to be learned? Is that advocacy? No. When a TV network — not to pick on TV — devotes hours and hours to the salacious details of, say, the Jodi Arias crime, which affects none of our lives, is that advocacy? No. When an online site collects pictures of cute cats, is that advocacy? Hardly. When a newspaper devotes resources to covering football games, is that advocacy? No. Is any of that journalism? Under the test I put forth here, no.

So what is it then, the stuff we call journalism that doesn’t advocate for people or principles, that doesn’t serve the public need? At worst, it’s exploitation — audience- or sales- or click- or ratings-bait — at best it’s entertainment. The first is pejorative, the second need not be, as entertainment — whether a journalistic narrative or a book or a show or movie — can still inform and enlighten. But if it doesn’t carry information that people can use to better organize their lives or their society, I’d say it fails the journalism test.

Journalism-as-advocacy has been bundled with journalism-as-entertainment for economic reasons: Entertainment can draw people to a media entity and help subsidize the cost of its journalism. But it was a mistake to then put an umbrella over it all: If a newspaper creates journalism then everything its journalists create in that newspaper is journalism, right? No. The corollary: People who are not journalists can do journalism. It’s a function of the value delivered, not the job title. (I’ll write another post later looking a pricing paradox embedded in this split.)

Why does what seems like definitional hair-splitting matter? Because when a whistleblower knocks on your door, you must decide not whose side you’re on but whom and what principles you serve. This is a way to recast the specific argument journalists are having now about whether Snowden is a hero or a traitor. Wrong question. As a journalistic organization, the Guardian had to ask whether the public had a right to the information Snowden carried, no matter which side it benefitted (so long as the public’s interests — in terms of security — were not harmed).

The next issue for the Guardian was whether and how it adds journalistic value. That is, of course, another journalistic test. Edward Snowden, like Wikileaks, delivered a bunch of raw and secret documents. In both cases, news organization added value by (1) using judgment to redact what could be harmful, (2) bringing audience to the revelation, and most important, (3) adding reporting to this raw information to verify and explain.

Based on his Q&A with the Guardian audience, I’d say that Snowden is proving to be big on rhetoric and perhaps guts but less so on specifics. I still am not clear how much direct operational knowledge he has or whether he — like Bradley Manning — simply had access to documents. So more reporting was and still is necessary. This Associated Press story is a good example of taking time to add reporting, context, and explanation to Snowden’s still-unclear and still-debated documents.

Both these organizations made their decisions about what to reveal and what to report based on their belief that we have a right and need to know. That’s journalism. That’s advocacy.

In the End Was the Word and the Word Was the Sponsor’s

and-now-a-word-from-our-sponsor1
We used to know what ads were. They had borders around them — black lines in print, a rare millisecond of dead air on TV, the moment when the radio host’s voice became even friendlier, letting us know he was now being paid to peddle.

Today, under many ruses and many namessponsored content, native advertising, brand voice, thought leadership, content marketing, even brand journalism — advertisers are conspiring with desperate publishers to erase the black lines identifying ads.

When I started Entertainment Weekly, a sage editor sat me down and summarized in one sentence the magazine industry’s voluminous rules about labeling what we then called “advertorials”: “The reader must never be confused about the source of content.”

Confusing the audience is clearly the goal of native-sponsored-brand-content-voice-advertising. And the result has to be a dilution of the value of news brands.

Some say those brands are diminishing anyway. So sponsored content is just another way to milk the old cows as they die. Lately I’ve been shocked to hear some executives at news organizations, as well as some journalism students and even teachers, shrug at the risk. If I’m the guy who argues that news must find new paths to profitability, then what’s my problem?

Well, I fear that in the end we all become the Times of India, where paid advertising and news content are allegedly mixed so smoothly in some areas that readers can’t tell one from the other. Worse, at some news organizations, editorial staff do the work of writing this sponsored content. They become copywriters.

Mad Men Don Draper Peggy Olsen

At the same time, many of these news organizations are using their brands as candy to attract legions of new contributors, which can drastically lower the cost of content. Mind you, I’ve applauded that spirit of openness and collaboration as well as that newfound efficiency.

But here’s the issue: Some media properties have taught me to pause before following a link to them. Sometimes, I’ll find good information from a staffer or one of many contributors who brings real reporting or expertise. Sometimes, I’ll find a weak contributor — or staff — piece that adds no reporting or insight; it merely regurgitates what others have written when a link would be better. (Beware headlines that start with “how” or “why” or include the words “future of” or “death of” or end with a question mark; chances are, they add nothing.) And then sometimes I’ll find one of those sponsor-brand-native pieces only vaguely labeled to let me know its source.

My problems with these trends in news media:

Inconsistency. I no longer know what to expect from news organizations that do this. Yes, I’ve heard editors claim that they work with both contributors and sponsors to improve the quality of their submissions — but apparently, not enough.

Brands used to be selective both because the scarcity of paper or time forced them to be and because that became key to their value. Now they want more and more content. Making content to chase unique users and their page views rewards volume over value.

Conflict of interest. First, let me say that I think we in news became haughty and fetishistic about our church/state walls. The reason I teach entrepreneurial journalism is so that students learn about the business of journalism so they can become more responsible stewards of it. I argue that editors, too, must understand the business value and thus sustainability of what they produce.

That said, I worry about journalists who spend one day writing to serve the public and the next writing to serve sponsors. News organizations should never do that with staff, but I’m sorry to say that today, a few do. Freelance journalists are also turning to making sponsored content to pay the bills.

Thus, I hear of some journalism educators who wonder whether they should be teaching their students to write for brands. Please, no. My journalism school doesn’t do that. Others schools already include courses in PR and advertising, so I suppose the leap isn’t so far. In any case, brands will hire our students because of the media skills we teach them and we need to prepare them for the ethical challenge that brings.

Brand value. Some news companies are exchanging their brand equity for free or cheap content of questionable quality and advertising dollars of questionable intent. As someone who champions disruption in the news industry, you’d think I wouldn’t care about dying legacy media brands. But I do. I see how legacy news companies can bring value to the growing news ecosystem around them through sharing content and audience and someday soon, I hope, revenue. If the legacy institutions lose their value — their trust, their audience, their advertisers — then they have less to give, and if they die, there’s more to replace.

Now here’s the funny part: Brands are chasing the wrong goal. Marketers shouldn’t want to make content. Don’t they know that content is a lousy business? As adman Rishad Tobaccowala said to me in an email, content is not scalable for advertisers, either. He says the future of marketing isn’t advertising but utilities and services. I say the same for news: It is a service.

I’ve been arguing to news organizations that they should stop thinking of themselves as content businesses and start understanding that they are in a relationship business.

News organizations should not treat people as a mass now that they — like Google, Amazon, and Facebook — can learn to serve them as individuals. Can’t the same be said of the brands that are now rushing to make content? They’re listening to too many tweeted media aphorisms: that content is king, that brands are media. Bull.

A brand is a relationship. It signifies trust and value. Advertising and public relations disintermediated the relationship that commercial enterprises used to have with customers over the cracker barrel. Mass media helped them bring scale to marketing. But now the net enables brands to return to having direct relationships with customers. That’s what we see happening on Twitter. Smart companies are using it not to make content but to talk one-on-one with customers.

Here’s where I fear this lands: As news brands continue to believe in their content imperative, they dilute their equity by using cheap-content tricks to build volume and by handing their brand value to advertisers to replace lost ad revenue. Marketers help publishers milk those brands. And the public? We’re smarter than they think we are. We’ll understand when news organizations become paid shills. We understand that marketers would still rather force-feed us their messages than simply serve us.

What to do? The reflex in my industries — journalism and education — is to convene august groups to compose rules. But rules are made to be pushed, stretched, and broken. That is why that wise Time Inc. editor over me at Entertainment Weekly (as opposed to the oily ones who tried to force me to force my critics to write nicer reviews) summed up those rules as a statement of ethics. Again: “The reader must never be confused about the source of content.”

Well, if we’re not in the content business, then what is the ethic by which we should operate now? I think it’s even simpler: “We serve the public.”

If we’re doing what we do to fool the public, to sell them crappy content or a shill’s swill, to prioritize paying customers’ interests over readers’, then we will cannibalize whatever credibility, trust, and value our brands have until they dry up.

So am I merely drawing a black rule around advertising again? Don’t we hear contributors to a hundred news sites rewrite the same story every day — that advertising is dead? Well, yes, advertising as one-way messaging is as outmoded as one-way media. Oh, we in media will milk advertising as long as advertisers are willing to pay for it. But we know where this is headed.

Then do media companies have any commercial connection with brands? Can we still get money from them to support news? I think it’s possible for media companies to help brands understand how to use the net to build honest, open relationships with people as individuals. But we can teach them that only if we first learn how to do it ourselves.

Some will accuse me of chronic Google fanboyism for suggesting this, but we can learn that lesson from Google. It makes 98% of its fortune from advertising but it does so by serving us, each of us, first. It addresses its obvious conflict with the admonition, “Don’t be evil.” (When Google has failed to live up to that ethic — and it has — its fall came not from taking advertisers’ dollars but instead from seeking growth with the help of malevolent telcos or tyrannical governments.) Note well that Google sees the danger of sponsored content, which is why it has banned such content from Google News.

Whether you like Google or you don’t, know well that it provides service over content, enabling it to build relationships with each of us as individuals while also serving advertisers without creating confusion. Google is taking over huge swaths of the ad market by providing service to users and sharing risk with advertisers, not by selling its soul in exchange for this quarter’s revenue, as some news organizations are doing.

My advice to news organizations: Move out of the content — and sponsored content — business and get into the service business, where content is just one of your tools to serve the public.

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(Crossposted from Medium.)

And now the news: Here’s what we *don’t* know at this hour…

I often tell my students that where they see a problem, they should find the opportunity. Well, we’ve been told over and over this weekend that we had a big problem with misinformation after the Boston Marathon bombing. Breaking news, haven’t you heard, is broken.

So I see an opportunity, a big journalistic opportunity. I also tell my students this:

* Journalism should add value to a flow of information that can now occur without media’s mediation — verifying facts, vetting witnesses, debunking rumors, adding context, adding explanation, and most of all asking and answering the questions that aren’t in the flow, that aren’t being asked, i.e., reporting. Let’s acknowledge reality: There’s no stopping or fixing that flow. What witnesses see will be shared for all to see, which is good, along with rumors, rank speculation, and the work of the New York Fucking Post, which is bad.

* The key skill of journalism today is saying what we *don’t* know, issuing caveats and also inviting the public to tell us what they know. Note I didn’t say I want the public to tell us what they *think* or *guess.* I said *know*.

So the opportunity: If I ran a news organization, I would start a regular feature called, Here’s what you should know about what you’re hearing elsewhere.

Last week, that would have included nuggets such as these:

* You may have heard on CNN that an arrest was made. But you should know that no official confirmation has been made so you should doubt that, even if the report is repeated by the likes of the Associated Press.

* You may have heard reports repeated from police scanners about, for example, the remaining suspect vowing not to be taken alive. But you should know that police scanners are just people with microphones; they do not constitute official or confirmed police reports. Indeed, it may be important for those using police radio to repeat rumor or speculation — even from fake Twitter accounts created an hour ago — for they are the ones who need to verify whether these reports are true. Better safe than sorry is their motto.

* You may see on Reddit that people are speculating about who perpetrated these crimes, including speculation that it *could* be a missing college student. But you should know that these people are merely speculating and that is about as useful as a rumor, which is worthless. That’s not to say that the amateur sleuthing could not turn up a connection to the crime. But so far, it has not.

* You may have heard reports that there were more bombs. But you should know that we cannot track where these reports started and we have no official confirmation so you should not take those reports as credible. We are calling the police to find out whether they are true and we will let you know as soon as we know.

* You may have seen the New York Post report that there were 12 victims and you may have seen it publish a picture of men with backpacks, implicating them in this crime with no justification. But you should know that this is the New York Post. Need we say more?

That is journalism. That is what every news organization and site should be doing. That they don’t is only evidence of a major journalistic opportunity, perhaps even a business unto itself: The What We *Don’t* Know News, the only news show you can really trust. It doesn’t ignore breaking news or what you’re hearing. It adds value to that flow of both information and misinformation.

On Howie Kurtz’ CNN show this weekend, Erik Wemple said that news organizations should report nothing until it is confirmed. Lauren Ashburn countered that police did not confirm even the Marathon bombings until nearly an hour after they occurred, so clearly that’s untenable. She’s right. But this is easily solved if journalists say *how* they *know* what they *know*. We know a bomb went off because we saw it and we’re showing it to you over and over and over and over again. We don’t know whether a suspect has been arrested because we didn’t see it ourselves and police haven’t told us yet and hearing it on CNN isn’t good enough.

That is journalism.