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:
Posts about newbiznews
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.
A web-site redesign is often an expensive, time-consuming, over-hyped exercise in media navel-gazing: an expression of institutional ego over user need. So I will confess a preemptive shrug at news of the newest New York Times online.
But I retract my shrug. As I explored the new site and tweeted my reaction, I quickly warmed to this new haircut on an old friend. It’s neither revolutionary nor terribly disruptive and leaves me feeling as if the paper online has tried to pay tribute to the paper as paper (why did they feel the need to resurrect the mix of italic and roman headlines that was de rigueur a half-century ago?). Still, The Times does much right.
The redesign kills the irritating news-site habit of cutting stories into multiple parts. In print, we newspaper folk called that “jumping” from, say, the front page to one inside, and every reader survey ever performed told editors that their customers hated that. Newspapers continued to do it online not because scarce space forced us to but instead because we wanted to pump up our pageviews: The more pages you viewed, the more ads you saw, the more money we made — or so went the myth of old mass media carried over to online. That is also the economic genesis of sites’ slideshow disease.
The Times now lets us scroll through a story without clicking. But there could be an economic rationale for that, too. Web analytics company Chartbeat found that readers tend to let their eyes skip right past the banners atop pages — usually sold as the most valuable ads — and end up spending more time exposed to the ads embedded down within longer tomes. Time engaged can build greater value than pages clicked.
In an effort to increase said engagement, The Times has tried to make it as easy as licking your finger and turning the page to move to the next story … and the next. There’s an arrow on the right of every story that moves the reader to the following story displayed in a horizontal menu above. Once I figured the system out — I’ll confess it took me a few clicks to associate the arrow with the preview in the bar — I found it, well, engaging. But I also found this feature, like the ability to read today’s paper — that is, the stories as packaged in the physical artifact — a bit too nostalgic for the idea of editorial presentation and control.
Nonetheless, I salute The Times for putting less effort into its home page (which on The Times attracts more than half of its readers in a day but on many news sites draws as few as 10 percent) than into creating a satisfying experience around the meat of the matter: the article.
I’m also relieved that The Times did not follow the example of its much-ballyhooed — and so-often-aped — “snowfall” format, injecting animations and videos and sound and every manner of media into a simple text tale. There’s no digital Rococo in sight.
The new Times uses what geeks call the “hamburger button” (three parallel lines — two sandwiching the third) to get rid of the time-worn left-hand navigation bar. Speaking from experience running news sites, the nav bar became the basis of political turf wars, with editorial and commercial departments battling for more signage. With all that obvious information tucked away, there’s more room for what should be in a news site: news.
I’ll quibble that once one does mouse-over the hamburger (oh, what has become of our language?) the resulting menu is three layers wide (e.g., arts to books to best sellers) and can require the manual dexterity of a pianist to play it. But as I confessed, I quibble.
One other important change in this redesign is The Times’ ability to accommodate the next supposed media messiah after the pay wall: native advertising, which is code for fooling readers into thinking that marketing messages are actual content. We used to call these things advertorials — you know, those things you skipped past. Now media mythology has it that every brand should be media and all media need content. But the real question is: Do you find value in reading an opus from Dell about “Reaching Across the Office from Marketing to IT“? I don’t. I go to Dell to buy hardware, not words. As I recently warned a roomful of PR people itching to advertise natively: Content is a shitty business. Stay away! I predict that the fad will soon lose its luster.
But in the meantime, let’s at least give credit to The Times for doing native advertising right — that is, for being scrupulous about labeling it for what it is. “Paid for and posted by Dell,” says the warning atop every piece. “Written by Dell,” it says at the byline. “More paid posts from Dell,” it says to the right. Short of using the A-word — advertising — it can’t get much clearer than that. Now the question is: Will readers click and care? Will a 13-paragraph essay asking, “Can the Government Become Entrepreneurial?” sell more computers than a well-targeted coupon?
As former Times wunderkind Brian Stelter writes at CNN.com, much of the import of The Times redesign occurs behind the scenes in a new content management system that the paper says will make it easier to iterate with new technologies, obsoleting not the present site but instead the concept of the redesign. I argue that CMSes — like redesigns — are another expression of editorial ego. I’ll be egotistical enough to quote what I blogged on the topic:
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.
The one thing missing from The Times redesign is me — or to put that less egotistically, you. I wish a news site would move away from its mass-production roots and devote just some proportion of its presentation to personal relevance, reducing noise and increasing engagement not through user interfaces but through delivering value. I’d like The Times to learn that I never read sports and often read about movies and devour media news and live in New Jersey and thus give me more relevance. Netflix knows what I like but my newspaper does not. Google knows where I live and work but my newspaper does not. Shouldn’t it?
This shift won’t require a redesign of pages and pixels or systems. It will require a rethinking of newsroom culture and commercial business models to emphasize service over content, outcomes over presentation, relationships over mass.
Oh, be warned: The Guardian is working on its own new systems and redesign.
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.
TV 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.
But 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 Cir.ca). 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.
Why 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 (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.
Most TV news sucks. But I don’t want to dwell on that.
I’d like to see TV news be reinvented, yet I’m astounded so little innovation is occurring in the medium. That could be because TV news is in better financial shape than print (for now). It could be because in a highly competitive market, no one wants to leave the pack and risk failure trying something new. Still, network TV’s audience is lurching toward the grave; cable news is struggling; and Pew says that for the once-indomitable local TV news, “future demographics do not bode well.” Like newspapers and magazines before them, broadcasters need to change, to take advantage of opportunities to work in new ways, to fend off the digital competitors who are sure to grasp the chance to disrupt, and simply to improve.
TV news is stuck holding onto its orthodoxy of inanity. It wastes resources trying to fool us with stand-ups at sites where news occurred 12 hours before and where there is nothing left to witness or report. It repeats much, saying little. It adores fires that affect few. It goes overboard on weather. It gives us BREAKING NEWS that isn’t breaking at all but is long over, predictable, obvious, or trivial. It gullibly and dutifully flacks for PR events created just for TV. It presents complex issues with false and simplistic balance. It speaks in the voice of plastic people. It stages reality (no that guy in the b-roll isn’t really typing on his laptop). It has little sense of the utility of what it presents. And did I mention its pyromania?
But I don’t want to dwell on that.
I want to dwell on what TV could do well, on its strengths and opportunities. TV can summarize, sometimes too well perhaps, but delivering a quick overview of what’s happening is a useful function of news. It can curate, bringing together divergent reports and viewpoints. It can explain a complex topic and doesn’t have to dumb it down. It can demonstrate. It can convene the public to action. It can collaborate, having witnesses share what they are seeing and what they know. It can discuss and doesn’t have to shout. It can give voice to countless new perspectives now that everyone has a camera on laptop or phone. It can humanize without cynically patronizing or manufacturing a personality.
There are sprouts of innovation in television (folks I know working in video online object to it being called television but I say they should co-opt the word, the medium, and the form). That innovation is generally not coming from other media companies, for newspapers and magazines have made the mistake of aping broadcast TV when they should exploring new directions. And the innovation that is occurring doesn’t take the form of incremental adjustment to the familiar form of TV news. Instead, true innovation is unrecognizable as television. On one end of the spectrum, there’s the six-second self-parody of viral video shallowness that is Vine as news. On the other, there’s the TWiT Network (of which I am a part), where we geeks can yammer on about single topics — Google, security, Android — for devoted if small audiences for two hours.
When Katie Couric announced that she’d be moving to Yahoo and NPR’s Weekend Edition asked me to yammer about it, I took the opportunity to push my own agenda and wish that Couric and Marissa Mayer would reinvent TV news because they’re both smart; Couric knows the form so well she knows what to break; Mayer is a disruptive innovator; and Yahoo needs to be something *new* not merely something changed.
And so then I started asking some folks what they’d suggest. I asked TWiT’s founder, Leo Laporte, and after more than 10 minutes’ discussion on two shows — hey, we have all the time in the world — he said that instead of giving us the news — we already get that — he’d want to see Couric give us rich interviews with newsmakers. I like that. When Katie was on Howard Stern’s show weeks ago, I called in to ask about him having a pure interview show on TV, since he has had a remarkable run of amazing interviews lately. Besides Charlie Rose, who really does that on TV?
I asked Michael Rosenblum about reinventing TV news. He has reinvented his share of newsrooms, converting the old three-person crews to so-called one-man bands, teaching people how to tell stories with video and without the silly conventions of stand-ups, establishing shots, b-roll, and cotton-candy scripts. He told me about returning from the UK, where he taught a few dozen journalists at the Independent and Evening Standard how to gather video news with their iPhones. If they can do it, anybody can.
I asked Shane Smith, founder of Vice, which just announced the start of a new news channel in 2014 (below), and he talked about the net’s ability to bring many new voices into the news.
Vice was smart enough to hire Tim Pool the guy who broadcast Occupy Wall Street live for 21 hours straight. Pool’s not sure what to call himself — a mobile journalist, a social journalist. Take a look at how he covered protests in Turkey, where he was the first journalist so far as he knows to broadcast live using Google Glass — the true eyewitness.
A few weeks ago, Pool came to my class and then sat in my office and so I asked him about the future of TV news. Speculating together — having nothing to do with Vice’s future plans — he didn’t start talking about video. He started talking about people — witnesses and commentators and how to find the best of them and connect them — and about technology and about user interfaces. There I started to hear the beginnings of a new vision for TV and news in which video is just one tool to use.
So how would you reinvent TV news? What advice would you give Katie Couric? What advice would you give the next Tim Pool? At CUNY’s Tow-Knight Center, I’d like to embark on projects to rethink the form of TV news, its relationship with the public, and its business models. What would you like to see us do? Try not to dwell on mocking the form and its weaknesses — Ron Burgundy has done enough of that for a lifetime (plus a sequel). Try instead to imagine you are a young (reincarnated) William Paley with all these tools and all these possibilities at hand. What do you invent? In Part II, I’ll add my own wishes and speculation.
David Carr all but writes the obit for Patch today. One could quibble and say it’s not quite dead, that Aol plans partnerships for the ill-fated ganglion of local sites. Fine, but it’s still not wrong to look back and ask what went wrong.
Before he started Patch — and before he went to Aol and brought it along — Tim Armstrong called me into his office asking me to advise Patch. I was listed as an official adviser but never was; I just offered what advice I had for free, over coffee, as I did for many others working in hyperlocal. Patch didn’t take it anyway.
I still believe in Armstrong’s vision that local communities need local information. But now I fear that its slow, tortured fall could — in the words of a friend — bring nuclear winter to hyperlocal. Radioactive hyperlocal cooties. It shouldn’t be. The problem with Patch wasn’t Armstrong’s vision about the value of local information. It was execution.
1. Patch did not get its business model in shape before multiplying its mistakes times 900. The essential business assumption — that having one reporter and one sales person in a town is inexpensive — is right, as many mom-and-pop hyperlocal blogs have demonstrated and as we modeled at CUNY. Patch wanted to scale that. But it went about that the wrong way.
2. Patch could have been a network of independent local sites. That’s what I advised, using the model of Glam, which Samir Arora built into a top-7 internet property not by creating and buying and owning content but instead by building an ad sales network and technology platform that now serves 4,000 independent and sustainable sites (triumphing over iVillage). Patch could have been the local version of that, but in the model of old media, it wanted to own everything. I heard executives there vow to kill the queen of hyperlocal, Baristanet. Now the queen has the last laugh.
3. Patch never played well with others. It was secretive and aggressive. In the NJ News Commons — an open network that I helped start (with aforementioned former queen Debbie Galant and others) — a few dozen sites across the state are now sharing content and audience (and soon, I hope, advertising) using Repost.US and BroadStreetAds. Repost enables sites to make their articles embeddable on other sites. It also enables sites to blacklist other sites that can’t take their content. Most sites I know wanted to blacklist Patch because it had been so nasty to them. In an ecosystem, what goes around comes around to bite you in the ass.
4. Patch sold advertising on its sites in the old-media model. The local advertisers I talked with said it was too expensive and, given the audience, didn’t perform. What Patch could have done was sell not only a network of local sites with more audience, but also a menu of digital services to local advertisers. Our research at CUNY shows that local merchants need more than ads; they need help with their digital presences in Google, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and so on. That’s what I’d like to see local sites working on now.
5. Patch was patchy in its editorial quality. This one amazes me. Patch had staffs of editors. It could have trained its local reporters in a system like About.com’s. It could have templated basic coverage — e.g., here are the 10 things you must do when a big storm hits. Some Patches did good work. Some were dreadful. In my first meeting with Patch, I also advised them to get some life, some humanity in what they did. But they thought they were a technology company, that the secret to their success would be their proprietary content management system. No, the secret to success in hyperlocal is passion: caring about your town. That’s always what Patch lacked.
After the fall of Patch, some will say again that hyperlocal has failed but they’d be wrong. Hyperlocal works in town after town. What doesn’t work is trying to instantly scale it by trying to own every town in sight. That was Patch’s fatal error: acting like an old-media company.
Hyperlocal works on a hyperlocal level. It’s damned hard work, as any hyperlocal proprietor will tell you. Last week, I went to the first Christmas party for the NJ News Commons and like a proud Frankenstein, I scanned a room filled with people who work hard to cover the towns and topics they care about. This term, I had two hyperlocal sites from New Jersey in my entrepreneurial journalism class at CUNY and they both need help to get their marketing and revenue strategies working. Next term, we have a handful of would-be hyperlocal entrepreneurs and we’ll work hard to get their model right. Hyperlocal is a matter of fighting for the next hill.
Hyperlocal will scale — as it is only beginning to in New Jersey — by helping these independent sites in a larger news ecosystem bring together their content, audience, advertising sales for mutual benefit. Patch could have been that network. Instead, it thought it could own — it could be — the ecosystem. Nobody can do that.
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.
I wonder whether Andrew Kohut got his analysis of Pew Research’s latest survey of news consumption — as my West Virginia father would say — bassackwards.
Pew finds again that young people are spending less time with news — 46 minutes per day for millenials (ages 18-31) vs. 84 minutes for the so-called silent generation (ages 67-84 … though my 80+-tear-old parents are far from silent). That’s only a little over half as much time. This leads Kohut to predict a “perilous future for news.” Conventional wisdom would certainly agree. I have too, arguing for sometime that one of our biggest problems in news is declining engagement.
But what if instead Pew’s survey indicates that for young people news is simply more efficient? They don’t have to block out time to sift through a newspaper to find what matters to them and more time sitting, passively watching an hour or more of local and national TV news to get a one-size-fits-all summary that could be more efficiently delivered online: more meat, less bun.
— LLS (@lls404) October 6, 2013
Now I know that the public spending less time with news as currently configured is injurious to our egos and business models. But those models are based on the mass media equation of audience attention and time equaling exposure to more ads. See my argument with Google chief economist Hal Varian over just this point last week: Attention worked as a model when we in mass media operated by the myth that all readers or viewers saw all ads so we could charge all advertisers for all of them. In those good old days, more people giving us more time (in truth, only a proxy for attention) could be monetized through CPM mass advertising, whose price we controlled through our ownership of the scare resources of production and distribution. Great while it lasted. But abundance kills that model.
Thus Pew’s latest survey makes me think we are still chasing the wrong horse. Instead of seeking an engaged audience — that’s a metric better suited for movies and prime-time TV — we in news should be seeking an informed public, using new tools to make them better informed with greater relevance and more efficiency. Instead of measuring our success by how much more time we can get them to spend with us, we should measure it by how much less time they need to spend with us to reach their own goals.
I always tell my students that where they see a problem, they should look for the opportunity in it. Journalists tend to find problems and stop there, complaining. Engineers find problems and seek solutions. If the problem is that young people spend less time with news, where is the opportunity in that? I say it is in helping anyone of any age spend even less time, getting more information more efficiently.
So let’s look at this issue entrepreneurially and invent a new service: News Pal.
News Pal requires knowing you and what you want. Google should be good at this but, surprisingly, Google News has left that opportunity for others to grab. It feeds me the same Google News everyone else gets. If I want to get something more relevant, it makes me go through the effort of manipulating sliders for various categories and adding keywords. That is so 1998, so My Yahoo, which is better under Marissa Mayer but which still requires me to make my own predictive personalization decisions. Some 15 years ago, I filled out that Yahoo form … and never returned. Four years ago, when still at Google, Mayer dreamed of a hyperpersonal news stream, but neither Google nor Yahoo has yet built it.
I want News Pal to be an emergent system that watches what I watch in news and feeds me accordingly with no effort on my part. If it sees that I watch news about Android, it should prioritize Android news. If it sees that I stop caring about Android after I buy a phone, it should stop caring for me. If it sees that I never read sports, it shouldn’t give me football stories. If it knows where I live and work, it should give me relevant news for those locations. Of course, this system should also give me the news that everyone will want to know, feeding me reports on the Kenyan mall attack even if I haven’t shown an attraction to Kenyan news. Editors recognize those breakthrough stories. So does Google News’ algorithm.
I also want News Pal to cut through the worsening clutter of repetition. Look at the tech blog landscape, where the slightest morsel of news or rumor replicates like The Andromeda Strain, mutating as it gets farther from the source. Google and Google News have made efforts in recent years to seek more signals of authority and originality of reporting as did the startup where I was a partner, Daylife. But they and others can do much more. They all have made the mistake of trying to analyze media as news sources. The real winner will also use Twitter, Google+, Facebook, YouTube, et al to find original sources in a larger information ecosystem: difficult but doable.
Cir.ca is a worthy News Pal competitor, for it offers two bits of value I want. It cuts up articles into constituent elements and so, if you’ve already seen an element of a story, it doesn’t waste your time giving it to you again. It also enables you to follow a story as it happens — not predicting a tag of interest as required by Google News and My Yahoo.
In the net, my News Pal would give me greater relevance because it knows me, higher quality because it knows news sources, and greater efficiency because it reduces the noise in news. It would take the advice of Medium founder Ev Williams — who has twice changed media, thus changed the world (and earned a billion-plus bucks via Blogger and Twitter) — adding effiency. Wired summarized its interview with him:
The bottom line, Williams said, is that the internet is “a giant machine designed to give people what they want.” It’s not a utopia. It’s not magical. It’s simply an engine of convenience. Those who can tune that engine well — who solve basic human problems with greater speed and simplicity than those who came before — will profit immensely….
There’s an organizing principle that explains what thrives on the internet and could potentially predict what will thrive in the future: Convenience.
“The internet makes human desires more easily attainable. In other words, it offers convenience,” he said. “Convenience on the internet is basically achieved by two things: speed, and cognitive ease.” In other words, people don’t want to wait, and they don’t want to think — and the internet should respond to that. “If you study what the really big things on the internet are, you realize they are masters at making things fast and not making people think.”
Or waste time, as news makes us do now. That is the lesson from so-called millennials in Pew’s study: They are more efficient with their news.
What about the business model? News Pal would gain my loyalty — and, ironically, my attention — making the switching cost away from it high. If it really builds my hyperpersonal news stream — including such streams as my email — it could compete with Google and Twitter. It would gather valuable signals about me and my interest that it could exploit with higher value advertising and commerce and data. News Pal itself would be quite efficient, depending on smart algorithms.
I remember sitting in a meeting with Yahoo founder Jerry Yang many years ago when he said it was his job to get you want you needed as quickly as possible. The quicker your visit to Yahoo, he said then, the better its service. That changed, of course, when Yahoo adopted the mass-media advertising model built around attention and impressions, loading it up with content. Yahoo could have been News Pal if it had followed Yang’s vision of efficiency over drag. Therein lies the real lesson of Pew’s latest survey, I think.
Efficiency isn’t the enemy of news. It should be the goal.