Posts about geeks

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

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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.

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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.

It’s not about content: Part I

Brands (read: advertisers) are following media down the wrong path, deciding that they, too, are media now and that they, too, should make content to draw customers to their messages (thereby, by the way, getting rid of that middleman, media).

I’ve been arguing that media should build their futures around relationships, using content as a tool to that end. I’d say that is even more true of brands.

Yesterday, Samir Arora, CEO of Glam (where — full disclosure — I’ve been an adviser), tweeted a link to Marc Andreessen arguing that Ning, the company he cofounded and sold to Glam, is about to come into its own as it is remade for brands. That got me thinking about brands’ direction.

Whatever platform they use — Ning, Facebook, Google+, Twitter, blogs or all of the above — is less the issue than the culture that enables its brands and its employees — every one — to talk with and build relationships of value and trust with customers.

We’ve all seen this happen on Twitter when we get pissed off at some unfair or unrighteous action by a company; we appeal to sanity; an employee — sometimes the official tweeter, sometimes just a decent soul — rescues us; our relationship with the company is redeemed.

That is the model for brands online. I thought we’d learned that years go. Apparently not quite. Today not only are brands making content in their own domains but they now want to make content in media’s space; we used to call that an advertorial but now that is apparently called — in jargon that appeared from nowhere — “native advertising.” WTF does that mean?

Mind you, brands should indeed create content and make it available — about their products so we can find every question we have answered. But that’s utility. That’s not what brands talk about when they become media. They make this:

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Huh? How is that really any different from slapping a banner onto content? Oh, yes, it’s supposed to make us associate the Droid Razr Maxx HD with exotic locales and long battery life. But Motorola would do better to finally produce a decent phone, in which case, we the users would advertise it. I do hope that’s a lesson Google teaches them. Google understands the value of building relationships with individuals and using knowledge about them to deliver relevance and value. Isn’t that the wise future of media … and marketing?

Voluntary media

Two important but too-unsung women in media — performer Amanda Palmer and Google ad exec Susan Wojcicki — met at an idea this week: that media and advertising are becoming voluntary.

They also touch on ideas I’ve been trying to write about: that media should be in the relationship business, not just the content business. In other words, media’s value isn’t necessarily intrinsic in content — as in, “you should pay for this product because the work to create it has value” — but can be realized in the relationships that form around content.

First, the amazing Amanda: She gave a rousingly received TED talk that has been seen almost half a million times already in which she argues that artists should not be afraid to ask for support, a lesson she learned as a street and stage performer and on Kickstarter. The nut of it via BoingBoing: “By asking people, you connect with them, and by connecting with them, they want to help you. ‘When we really see each other, we want to help each other. People have been obsessed with the wrong question, which is, How do we make people pay for music? What if we started asking, How do we let people pay for music?’”

Value comes to Amanda through relationships. Given the opportunity, people want to support her. In a very good post today, Reuters’ Felix Salmon contrasts her model with Andrew Sullivan’s. His purposefully mimics big media’s — from The New York Times to The Times of London: building a pay wall around content because content is valuable, damnit.

I’ve been arguing to media that relationships are more valuable. Knowing people because you have their trust and give them value builds a rich and deep relationship — builds data about that relationship — that can be far more valuable for far longer than a mere transaction.

The problem in media is that we are not built for that. We are built to serve the masses. Hell, we made the masses. Our manufacturing and investment and technology and business models have all been aimed at serving people in bulk, never as individuals because that wouldn’t scale, not in the age of presses and broadcast towers.

But now relationships do scale. See: Google. Now serving individuals scales even better and is even more valuable than mass media. Enter Susan Wojcicki, senior VP of advertising at Google, who wrote an important post on Google+ about the future of advertising. The nut of it: “In years to come, most ad views will effectively become voluntary.” Or as she also put it, choice shifts to the user in both content and advertising.

Just as it becomes difficult — in an abundance-based media world — to force people to pay for content, which is no longer scarce, it also becomes impossible to force them to see advertising, which may become more scarce (and perhaps more valuable). That means it won’t be advertising. It will be something no one — including Google — has invented yet. But Wojcicki’s thinking about what that can be. I’d bet on her finding it over a legacy media company just as I’d bet on Palmer finding a new model faster than a record company can.

The argument about paywalls — and copyright and the value of content — is the wrong argument. It’s an argument about trying to preserve old, industrial media model in a very different technological reality. I get accused of trying to kill paywalls or free content. I’m not. I’m just arguing that we need to recognize new opportunities because if we don’t, someone else will. Read: Google. Read: a street performer.

The discussion we should be having is how better to build valuable relationships of trust with people as people, not masses, and then how to exploit that value to support the work they want us to do. We can’t force them to do what we want anymore. For now, media are voluntary.

Atomizing the article

The Washington Post did good reporting under the headline above on the state of negotiations on the so-called fiscal cliff. But the report is long because it carries all the equipment an article carries — the background paragraph (the sixth paragraph), atmospherics (seventh paragraph), quotes (eighth, ninth paragraphs), play-by-play (paragraphs 10-22), getting to some key details on the third screen.

Compare and contrast that with Henry Blodget’s summary under this headline. Now some will say that Henry — like a anthropologist with a camera in a remote village that has never seen one — stole the soul of the Post’s article. But I say he performed a service: He pulled out just the key facts of what’s new in five cogent bullets plus two additional paragraphs, giving us facts the Post didn’t get to until paragraphs 25-28. He read all that so we don’t have to.

Now I’m not criticizing the Post here. It did the reporting. I’m criticizing the form. I’m also not criticizing the Post for following that form; that’s what print dictates: a one-size-fits-all, one-stop-shop for this story.

This is a wonderful example of how online provides journalists the opportunity to atomize the article into its component assets. Blodget gave us the what’s-new part. Someone else could create the background, play-by-play (from the middle of the Post article), players, timeline, quotes, and so on.

Now I know the argument we’ll hear: Blodget took value from the Post. But I say he added value for readers, for I’m sure many of us are sick of reading the same old stuff, we just want to know *what’s new* — that is, the *news*. That’s what the Post and newspapers should be paying attention to here: where is the value for the market?

We can quickly tie ourselves in knots discussing business models. Maybe the Post should run Blodget’s summary as value-added for its readers, giving him a share of the ad revenue. Does Henry pay the Post for the value of its reporting? Or is his link payment? That depends on how the links perform (I’ve been wanting to perform tests of that for research).

My point here is simply that, of course, reporting has value but that the full-blown, kitchen-sink article is not always the best way to convey that value. Here’s just one example.

Journalism as service: Lessons from Sandy

I was badly informed in the aftermath of Sandy. I blame the news. After all, isn’t that its job: to assure we’re informed? Shouldn’t news organizations be judged by that standard?

The other day, I argued that news should be seen as a service, not a product, and that journalists should measure their success not by column inches or by page views but by results: whether we, the public, know what we want and need to know. Sandy provides a good test-bed for this idea of outcomes-based journalism.

After Sandy, what journalists provided was mostly articles when what I wanted was specifics that those articles only summarized. Don’t give me stories. Give me lists.

I wanted lists of what streets were closed. I wanted lists of what streets the power company was finally working on. Oh, the utility, JCP&L, gave my town, Bernards Township, lists of streets, but they were bald-faced lies (I know because my street was on that list but their crews weren’t on my street). The town and our local media outlets only passed on these lists as fact without verifying. I wanted journalists to add value to those lists, going out to verify whether there were crews working on those streets. In a word: report.

I wanted media organizations or technology platforms to enable the people who knew the facts — my fellow townspeople — to share what they knew. Someone should have created a wiki that would let anyone in town annotate those lists of streets without power and streets — if any — where power crews were working. Someone should have created a map (Google Maps would do; Ushahidi would be deluxe) that we could have annotated not only with our notes and reports of what we knew but also with pictures. I’d have loved to have seen images of every street blocked by trees, not just for the sake of empathy but also so I could figure out how to get around town … and how likely it was that we’d be getting power back and how likely it would be that buses would be able to get through the streets so schools could re-open.

But instead, we got mostly articles. For that’s what journalists do, isn’t it? We write articles. We are storytellers! But not everything should be a story. Stories aren’t always the best vehicle for conveying information, for informing the public. Sometimes lists, data bases, photos, maps, wikis, and other new tools can do a better job.

My local weekly paper was as useful as always. Not. It gave me articles days after the fact that told me nothing I hadn’t already ferreted out. In my town, Patch* blew it. Here was its opportunity to be *the* hyperlocal resource for my town. Even though it had no newspaper to fill, it still insisted on giving me articles. When I couldn’t reliably find out about where power work was occurring from the town or Patch or the paper, I did use Patch to post an open letter to the town complaining about officials passing on JCP&L’s bogus lists and I learned more from the comments there than from those articles. NJ.com* gave me articles but also did give me some lists, constantly updated, which I hung on to find out the latest on roads and transit — and so I could decide whether I had any hope of getting into New York and work. Those lists were great but, a statewide paper being what it is, they couldn’t tell me about my neighborhood.

That’s where the need and opportunity remain: in very local information. No one has cracked the geographic nut well — not big papers, not big networks of sites, not Twitter. Desperate to find open gas stations, we gathered around the #njgas hashtag but it wasn’t terribly useful learning that a station 50 miles away just opened up. I needed someone to add value to that list of posts about stations by putting them on a map.

After my neighbors and I got out our chainsaws and cut through probably three dozen trees to free us from our blocked streets and driveways, I went to Nextdoor.com, a platform that enables neighbors with verified identities and addresses to create private networks.

In a neat bit of functionality, I was able to delineate my own neighborhood — which is valuable information to a site, knowing what someone considers a neighborhood to be. But Nextdoor scolded me and said I didn’t have enough neighbors, forcing me to include people who live 2.5 miles away I’ll never meet — because Nextdoor thinks it knows better. Its mapping data sucked and many of my neighbors couldn’t join but Nextdoor wouldn’t let us fix the addresses — even though we know better. We wanted to talk about power and buying generators and trees still lying over our streets and more but Nextdoor gave us a tab to talk about “crime and safety” because they think they know what we want. No. You’re a platform only if and when your users take over what you’ve built and use it in ways you never imagined because they find it that useful.

What I want from news and technology companies is a platform that enables us in the community to share our knowledge. I want them to provide an opportunity for — or shame — shame town officials, utility companies, transit officials, as well as local businesses — even gas stations — into using such a platform to share the data they have and invite residents to add to and improve that knowledge. I do not expect the journalists to be able to gather all that information. In the words of Emily Bell, Clay Shirky, and Chris Anderson in their new tome, Post-Industrial Journalism, I expect the journalist to move up the value chain. Or in my words, I want the journalist to add value, to ask and answer the questions that aren’t already known. Do what you do best and link to — or build a platform for — the rest.

* Disclosures: Patch has long listed me as an advisor though I am not one. I am, however, an adviser to NJ.com and helped start the service back in the day. I have no relationship with Nextdoor.