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Media’s evolving spheres of discovery

Here’s another in an occasional series of posts to that try to examine, explain, and illustrate the new structure of media. This one looks at how we discover content now.

Back in the day, a decade (to 50 decades) ago, we discovered media — news, information, or service — through brands: We went and bought the newspaper or magazine or turned on a channel on its schedule. That behavior and expectation was brought to the internet: Brands built sites and expected us to come to them.

Now there are other spheres of discovery — new spheres that are shifting in importance, effectiveness, and share. I believe they will overlap more and more to provide better — that is, more relevant, timely, and authoritative — means of discovery. These evolving spheres also change the relationships of creators and customers and the fundamental economics of media.

Start with brands. They decide what we want or should want and they succeed or fail based on that judgment. (They also succeeded because they controlled distribution and access.) They create the content and bear the risk. They depend on critical mass and economies of scale. One-way, one-size-fits-all, fleeting — these are the characteristics of branded media. Brands are disrupted by the spheres that follow, which disaggregate and disintermediate them, challenge their authority, compete on much lower cost bases (thanks to automation and collaboration), and provide better targeting and relevance (thanks to new means of gathering and analyzing data).

Next came search. Fundamental to search’s impact is that it shifted media from supply side to demand side: We, the people formerly known as the audience, initiate the sequence of a media transaction. In branded media, creators, editors, and producers decided what they’d give us and then we bought or didn’t. In search, we begin with our needs and curiosities. That theme of a reversed sequence carries through to other spheres. Search also provided the means to intuit intent and improve relevance, which is what feeds its higher value. Once a large universe of content became available to us all, value shifted from creator to curator. Content wasn’t scarce; organization was. The definition of scale was also upended: small could now succeed — highly specialized media can find its highly targeted public — but big became bigger than ever (see: Google). Search also commodified brands; it didn’t matter so much where we found an answer so long as we could search for it.

AlgorithmsGoogle News or Daylife (where I’m a partner) — also meet the organizational challenge of abundant content and they tackle the challenge of timeliness. For search to infer content’s relevance, it must gather data from our use — that was Google’s key insight — but that won’t work for news, whose value is perishable. So algorithmic aggregators use other signals — source, content analysis, timing, location, association — to cluster and present coverage in a nest of relevance. These algorithms enable content to coalesce into stories and topics that search will find because it gains depth and attracts links and clicks. Algorithmic aggregators exposed a key conflict in old v. new media worldviews: The old-media view is that aggregators extract value from content by displaying it; the new-media view is that they add value by creating audiences and causing links — this is the essence of the misunderstanding of the link economy.

Thanks to new tools — Twitter, Facebook, Buzz — human linksare exploding as a means of discovery, which gives lie to the old-media complaints of Rupert Murdoch et al that aggregators are stealing their content. When your own readers recommend and link to your content, is that stealing? Do you want to turn those people away and call them worthless? Facebook, according to Hitwise, is the fourth largest referrer of audience to media. Bit.ly alone causes two billion clicks a month, double Google News’ impact. Soon Buzz will be causing many links (teaching Google what’s hot and relevant, which is a key reason to start the service). And, of course, bloggers have shown the way as curators. Thanks to our newer, easier tools that enable links, humans are becoming a huge force in content discovery, reducing search’s and algorithms’ share and dominance.

Now we need to better understand the quality of those links and linkers. Clay Shirky craves algorithmic authority. Azeem Azhar is one of many entrepreneurs trying to systematize the annointing of more authoritative tweeters (read: linkers) at Viewsflow. On the latest This Week in Google, Google’s Matt Cutts talked about efforts to find more signals of quality so it can send us not to the crops of lowest-cost content farms but instead to original work. (The good news is that quality will out.) In the link economy, sending traffic to original work becomes an ethical imperative as links are the means to support that work. But it’s an old-media mistake — a leftover of the brand era — to think that authority can or should be one-for-all or that it’s the creator who establishes authority. Authority will vary by context and need as well as opinion (one man’s New York Times is another’s Fox News). Branded media was one-size-fits-all as was search and algorithmic aggregation. Now discovery will become personalized based on context (who you are, where you are, what you’re doing, what you’ve done, what you like…) as well as timing, taste, and quality.

That personalization will disarm the dark art of search-engine optimization — because it will be hard to game everyone’s search results and will already disrupt even the farms and make critical mass harder to reach (and not soon enough for some tastes). But I remind people not to miss a key insight that underpins the most prominent factory farm, Demand Media: predictive creation. That is, Demand listens to us — via search queries — and to the market — via ad demand — and enables the public to assign its writers (assuring its success, reducing its risk). Return to the point above about the reversed sequence of the media transaction: now creation does not start with the creator but with the consumer (pardon my use of the term; it fits in this context). Isn’t that the way it should be (and not just in content but for most any product or service)?

There’s another dimension I didn’t include in my silly little diagram: being distributed instead of merely discoverable (serving the fabled young woman who said, “if the news is that important, it will find me“). We can no longer expect our consumers/readers/users to come to us and wait for us; we must anticipate their needs by listening to their signals and go to them.

That reversal of the distribution pipe will force content creators to break out of the silos I’ve described above and mix the best of all these methods. Brand can still matter; it will be a signal of authority (or the lack of it) once content is discovered. Search will still matter but it will be sensitive to many signals and demands, from each of us and from the market. Algorithms will also use these signals to target and add relevance to content, helping us to prioritize our hyperpersonal news streams. We will discover more and more content through people we trust. We will wish that someone would create content to answer a question or cover an event and if content creators are listening and if enough of us want it, they will seize the opportunity (this is how the Demand model can come to news). They will even anticipate our needs — that’s why the airline gives me the weather in Florida on my boarding pass when I fly there.

Note in that example that media doesn’t come just from media anymore. Retailers, airlines, government, doctors, teachers, communities — any and all of us — will all be media, understanding the needs of a public and using all these tools to answer them without having to go through the old media brands to create content or reach an audience. That’s the lesson of blogs. And that may be the most profound change of all: the complete and utter disaggregation and disintermediation of media, turning everything about it upside-down: content starts with the consumer instead of the creator; authority is established by the public instead of the brand; the audience is the distributor.

So imagine a content ecosystem where users — who already do most of the information sharing themselves — decide where and how value can be added, explicitly or through our usage data. Imagine that these creations come to us through recommendations from peers we trust, prioritized by formulae (human-aided algorithms and algorithmically aided humans), or through search. Imagine that the creation isn’t a static piece of content but instead that nest of relevance with updates powered by collaboration and links. News and media start to look very different.

What does this mean for the economics of media? We don’t know yet; that’s why we must create new models and enterprises to figure it out. I tell my students that the marginal cost of the sharing of information and the creation of content is now zero; the internet makes it possible for that to happen on its own. So there is no value in doing what others have already done (even the value of one more page about fixing a toilet — no matter how clever its SEO — is diminishing); commodification is death. They should take advantage of the great efficiency the internet enables through platforms, specialization, and collaboration. They should then ask where they add unique value as journalists — finding or even anticipating needs and answering them by reporting, correcting, explaining, curating, organizing, training. That will be true for anyone in media.

And how is money made? We don’t know that yet, either, of course. At Friday’s PaidContent event on [cough] paid content, Forrester’s James McQuivey argued that we’ve never paid for content. He said we do pay for access, but I think it’s hard to make money in access long-term because somebody can provide it cheaper, faster, better. Can we still deliver audiences to advertisers? I hope so, but Bob Garfield warns that as merchants and manufacturers build their own direct relationships with customers — as they become media — there’ll be less to spend on media. I think the value is in the relationships, which is the question I asked of the well-media-trained New York Times executives at Friday’s event: In how many ways can you find value in a deep relationship with your public (selling goods and services, acting as a platform, selling education, selling events….); the implication of my question is that putting up a toll booth turns away those relationships and can reduce that value. But then, that’s just my theory. Everything is.

The one thing I know with some confidence is that we have to build to a new reality and this is a simple way to begin to express some of that change.