Posts about Media

Guardian column: Death of the page view

My Guardian column this week is a sanded and polished version of recent posting and linking about the death of the page view and, with it, the mass. (Nonregistration version here.)

Just when we were getting used to it, the page view has been declared dead. There are many reasons for its passing, having to do with how web pages are now made and how web content is now distributed. But there is one seismic implication to this – in media, mass is over. Size doesn’t matter.

It was only about a decade ago that I sat on a dreadfully boring committee of the American Audit Bureau of Circulations debating how to define a page view (rather than a hit) as the elemental measurement of new media. This body, which blesses the circulation counts of print products, tried to replicate its world-view online, verifying the circulation – that is, the audience and traffic – of internet properties. But as it turned out, no advertiser or publisher wanted these audits. All marketers cared about was verifying whether they got what they paid for: views, people, clicks. You see, overall circulation mattered only when you and your ads were stuck in the same pages with many other advertisers and you all got the same audience, whether that audience gave a damn about you or not. But now, online, you could find better ways to reach just the people you wanted or who wanted you. Thus, travel advertisers needn’t care about the circulation of Guardian Unlimited, only about who saw their ads on travel pages.

In recent times, the situation has grown more complicated because, on the web, a page is no longer a page. Video can be served on a page, but it is measured in time, not space. Flash and Ajax technology can make any individual page many levels deep, allowing users to interact with content – navigating maps, ordering merchandise, viewing slideshows, chatting – without ever leaving the page. So the activities that once would have added up to a dozen page views will now count as only one. This is having a significant impact on businesses such as Yahoo, which are using these technologies to improve the user experience, reducing clicks in the hopes of increasing time on the site or satisfaction or loyalty. But this reduces page views and with that, bragging rights and, in some cases, revenue.

Now add to this the widgetisation of the web. Content may be displayed not only on your pages but also in widgets – boxes, gadgets and applications – that are embedded in pages elsewhere. This is how much of MySpace is built and how YouTube spreads video all over the internet. The audience becomes the distributor. How do you count that?

And consider Google AdSense modules that are spread all across the web, from NYTimes.com to my humble blog. Shouldn’t each of those be counted as Google page views since Google revenue is attached? Doesn’t that make Google look even more gigantic than it already is? What this really means is that in the new distributed media economy, owning a site doesn’t matter so much as enabling a network. This, in a nutshell, is why Yahoo, the centralised media property, is at a disadvantage versus Google, the distributed network.

Things get even crazier when you consider that if you make a good commercial, the public will distribute it for you on YouTube – advertising becomes content. Now that is really an upside-down world.

Finally, consider the impossibility of the old means of measurement. TV ratings were based on a sampling that determined the proportion of the audience watching, say, channel 2 or 4. But in this new niche world, no sample can possibly be large enough to measure millions of blogs or online TV shows.

But more fundamental than all this is, again, that size doesn’t matter anymore, not in media. Oh, yes, the movie with the biggest box office or the book with the biggest sales still makes the most money – for now at least. But in more and more of the media, mass measurements are obsolete because we are now fragmented into the mass of niches. And the truth is that we, the audience, never cared how many more people were watching what we watched. And advertisers don’t care so much what we’re watching so long as we’re watching them.

In a world of so many choices, the audience care about trust, taste, relevance, usefulness, not ratings. And advertisers care more about targeting, efficiency, engagement, branding and return on investment. These are better measurements than print circulation or broadcast ratings or online page views. And so now, publishers, advertisers and technologists must catch up and change their yardsticks for success yet again. It is time to measure quality over quantity.

Gov.com

I don’t fully understand this but the British media regulator Ofcom is contemplating funding a new online competitor to the BBC to operate solely on the internet. Wouldn’t it be better to ise tat money to give tax breaks to media innovators and startups?

Choice and art

As a consumer, creator, and critic, I celebrate the choice and freedom our new medium-of-the-people gives us. But some fear that choice.

In one of those impossibly broad, I’ll-explain-the-world-to-you, year-end survey pieces in The Times’ arts section, Jon Pareles tackles the video of the people. It’s a fine summary of where we are but, like a newsmagazine piece, it really adds little new in information or thought. At first, he seems to celebrate this explosion of creativity. But just wait. . . .

All that free-flowing self-expression presents a grandly promising anarchy, an assault on established notions of professionalism, a legal morass and a technological remix of the processes of folk culture. And simply unleashing it could be the easy part. Now we have to figure out what to do with it: Ignore it? Sort it? Add more of our own? In utopian terms the great abundance of self-expression puts an end to the old, supposedly wrongheaded gatekeeping mechanisms: hit-driven recording companies, hidebound movie studios, timid broadcast radio stations, trend-seeking media coverage. But toss out those old obstacles to creativity and, lo and behold, people begin to crave a new set of filters.

Tech oracles predicted long ago that by making worldwide distribution instantaneous, the Web would democratize art as well as other discourse, at least for those who are connected.

But in the end, this all turns out to be a rhetorical exercise: Pareles sets up the phenom of this grand era of self-expression only to shoot it down:

The open question is whether those new, quirky, homemade filters will find better art than the old, crassly commercial ones. The most-played songs from unsigned bands on MySpace — some played two million or three million times — tend to be as sappy as anything on the radio; the most-viewed videos on YouTube are novelty bits, and proudly dorky. Mouse-clicking individuals can be as tasteless, in the aggregate, as entertainment professionals.

Unlike the old media roadblocks, however, their filtering can easily be ignored. The promise of all the self-expression online is that genius will reach the public with fewer obstacles, bypassing the entrenched media. The reality is that genius has a bigger junk pile to climb out of than ever, one that requires just as much hustle and ingenuity as the old distribution system.

The entertainment business is already nostalgic for the days when it made and relied on big stars; parts of the public miss a sense of cultural unity that may never return. Instead both have to face the irrevocable fact of the Internet: There’s always another choice.

But choice is the fuel that feeds art. And the freedom to create is the match.

I return, as is my thumbsucking Sunday-survey-piece habit, to my time as a TV critic in the mid-80s, when choice — enabled with the remote control, VCR, and cable box — yielded better television. The entertainment industry had to fight harder to get our attention and could no longer forcefeed us their swill, and so TV improved. The Beverly Hillbillies yielded to Cosby and Seinfeld; Knots Landing yielded to The Sopranos.

Choice is good, not something to be lamented. Indeed, I find it ironic that a critic, of all people, should be complaining about choice. Choice is precisely what necessitates criticism.

Ah, but criticism, too, suffers fragmentation. It’s no longer possible — nor was it ever desirable — to be the one-size-fits-all-aesthetics critic because taste and choice go hand-in-hand: We all have different tastes and so we all want to choose what we like. This makes it damned hard — no, impossible — to be the critic for everyone, which is what a newspaper-for-everyone demands. No, I want critics who like the sorts of things I like to find the things I want. In other words, I want to know what my friends like. Friends whose taste we know, trust, and share have long been the most effective critics. Now, the internet provides the opportunity to make more such friends and I am confident we will see more and more systems to enable that.

In fact, I’d argue that this is a role of critics and their outlets. I don’t give a damn what the nation’s best-selling books are; that matters only to the publishers to print them. I would, however, love to know the best-selling books among New York Times readers are (or New Yorker or Guardian or Paid Content). That starts to get us to a smaller group of friends whose judgment matters.

Pareles makes the common mistake of bringing old-media, mass metrics to the new-media, niche world. We judged TV as a mass medium on the basis of the shows on the top of the ratings and that worked when there were three channels. But it didn’t work when we got 100 channels and the best of sci-fi had nothing to do with the best of history or food or sports or news or business on TV. And that critical worldview especially does not work in the new age of unlimited channels, when we all make our own networks.

It is a mistake to judge this new medium by the presence of junk; there is junk in all media. And it is a mistake to judge this new medium by the most-watched; those are merely the curiosities that happen to ignite for a moment. That analysis misses the great pockets of niche quality that are growing underneath: See Terry Teachout’s discovery of the treasures of jazz in YouTube.

Oh, and by the way, it is also a mistake to judge the value of a medium so new. The people’s TV is really less than a year old, for it was in this year that YouTube brought us the last piece to the puzzle enabling unlimited creativity — adding free distribution to the inexpensive equipment and easy tools and powerful marketing via links that we already had. The first days of TV produced crap (that was hardly the medium’s golden age; I say that age began when we got choice, starting in the mid-80s until, oh, about a year ago). Hey, babies make crap. But we know this baby will grow.

So the more intriguing question is what the role of criticism is in this new world of magnificent choice. That’s what I plan to explore in a new course I’ll be teaching next fall at CUNY: Criticism in the Age of Convergence. I hope I’ll get Parales to join me and my colleague Anthony DeCurtis — two of my favorite critics, by the way, both of whom I tried damned hard to hire when I started Entertainment Weekly — and Teachout, too, to explore the new opportunities and needs for criticism.

: Here’s a related Guardian column I wrote about criticism.

: LATER: Staci Kramer deftly dissects Pareles’ piece:

It’s close to a compulsion–this need for traditional media to expound on the real meaning of user-gen media. Social phenomenon. Old wine in new bottles. No substitute for pros. Pick one or all. . . . He views [MySpace and YouTube] as “empty vessels: brand-named, centralized repositories for whatever their members decide to contribute.” MySpace is “an ever-expanding heap of personal ads, random photos, private blathering, demo recordings and camcorder video clips.” YouTube is “a flood of grainy TV excerpts, snarkily edited film clips, homemade video diaries, amateur music videos and shots of people singing along with their stereos.” . . . “User-generated content” is “the paramount cultural buzz phrase of 2006″ but Pareles prefers self-expression. Whatever it’s called, it leads to more fragmentation countered by user ranking/filtering that mimics the old media gatekeepers–and a further splintering of “cultural unity” in an online world with endless choice. As he explores the cultural meaning, what Pareles skips over is that News Corp.and Google weren’t buying the content as much as the community, the massive traffic and the distribution MySpace.com and YouTube.com provide respectively. That, and the idea that sophisticated online advertising can overcome fragmentation. . . .

For the record

Martin Stabe has some of the best media links going.

Media wars

I spent some time on the phone this morning with Ed Roussel, head of online for the Telegraph, as he was quite properly crowing about the paper-site’s scoop last night on the hiring of BBC Chairman Michael Grade by struggling ITV. It’s big and surprising news in the U.K. and Telegraph editor-at-large Jeff Randall, a former BBC business editor, got the story way ahead of the competition — which, as Roussel enumerated, includes the BBC, which lost its boss; Murdoch’s Sky, which just invested in ITV; and the Guardian, the Telegraph’s fiercest competitor, which emphasizes its media coverage. The Telegraph has been taking its lumps from that fierce competitor for its shakeups and layoffs but I’m sympathetic on that score; revolution is not painless.

But I was curious about how the Telegraph’s integration of online and print in its much-vaunted Star Wars was going. Roussel said the Grade story was a model for how it should work on a new platform that can cut across all media and tools: The story went online at 9:50 p.m. and in no time, they put up audio and video and more content, forcing those competitors listed above to attribute the news to the Telegraph. Roussel said there is no more debate about putting stories online first. He said they are gaining advantage by hiring people like Randall, who have TV experience, and also by sending all staff through a week’s multimedia training. And he argued that the Telegraph newsroom — which puts him next to his print counterparts and tries to break down the barriers among departments and media — “made a huge difference, and I’m not bullshitting you” in getting last night’s scoop out. I asked what the endpoint is and how far along they are toward it. Roussel said it is when journalists respond like Randall, telling the story in all appropriate media: “Here’s your tool kid; how are you going to use it?” He thinks they are two-thirds of the way there.

Interestingly, Roussel argues that not only the newsroom is changing but so is the public. He says that people are more likely now to join in collaborative. They are getting soldiers to video their experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq (some of it too gruesome to show, Roussel says). And when they asked their readers to show the impact of warming on their gardens (there will always be an England), more than 600 sent in photos. Networked journalism, that is.

Roussel emphasizes that that they are not getting it all right and that they have contractual issues with print and online staff, workflow issues primarily involving production, and technical issues (what newspaper doesn’t?). But he says that the full story of the Telegraph’s successes is not being told.

Because I’m a media wonk, I’m fond of the coverage of the industry in British papers — it may be a bit much for some but I wish we had more such coverage here. And I also wish we had more competition here, for that would improve this coverage. By this afternoon, the Guardian responded late, by necessity, but compensated with volume; I count 27 links to coverage, including even a special-edition podcast. The Independent had up just a few links, but the BBC had more than a dozen. Sadly, the Press Gazette folded this week, so it was silent. Overdose? Not for media porn junkies. And that is the real moral to this story: competition is good for it is spawning innovation.

(Disclosures: I write and have consulted for the Telegraph’s fierce competitor and I was also introducing Roussel to Daylife).

Unintended consequences

Simon Caulkin in the Observer on innovation and media:

Take the rise of the bloggers. This is no simple accident of technology, but the price newspapers are paying for having treated readers as passive consumers without bothering to find out more about them as news users. In the same way, artificial TV reality shows are being challenged by the mushrooming growth of permanent reality spaces like YouTube, MySpace, Etribes and others, and 3D virtual-reality sites such as Second Life.

No one knows where these trends will end. Of course, traditional media companies are pitching in to buy up anything with Web 2.0 pretensions, however remote. But as the AOL-Time Life debacle graphically showed, there is no necessary synergy between old and new media, and unless attitudes to customers change radically, they may find that the benefits of innovation are not easily bought.

Flackwire

I find it amazing that the PR Newswire would be worth $1 billion. They distribute press releases and charge for the privilege. In a world of links, anyone who wants your flackerie, your company line, can come to your company site. But, of course, you’ll still want those who don’t want your stuff to see it and you’ll want writers to read it. But the days when one organization could charge for having a conduit to newsrooms is likely short-lived as is the value of getting just to newsrooms.

Prince of the air

Rarely is a puff piece so well-deserved as the one about TVNewser Brian Stelter in today’s NY Times — on Page One, yet. He is, indeed, a phenom.

The moral to the story is pretty much the same as the one in David Carr’s column on TMZ.com: “TMZ is yet another lesson — a depressing one for old media types — in the Web’s ability to create a brand at breakneck speed.”

Depressing unless you’re the one building it.