Beta life

Three apparently unrelated items on the shift from valuing the product to valuing the process as the product:

* Trendwatching tells the story of what it calls “foreverism” – that is, that things never end (friendships, news stories, product development) and uses as illustration not only process journalism but also beta chocolate. TCHO is a chocolate company populated with geeks and so they brought betathink to their candy, releasing it as a beta, taking feedback from customers, and iterating it 1,026 times before coming out with the 1.0 chocolate. They didn’t put out bad chocolate to start with; they did their best. But then their customers helped make it better, ever better.

* reports – translating the newspaper La Stampa – that Italians are buying goods less often and renting them more often.

But the real revolution is that renting is becoming a way of life which is changing consumption and society. Car sharing, bike sharing, i.e. quick rentals of cars and bikes, but also dress sharing, i.e. the rental of clothes and handbags. There is toy sharing: children toys, small machines, lego, and puzzles. Even tools for the disabled, wheelchairs, orthopaedic supports, computers, and whatever you might need in the gym, sports or vacation. You don’t need to buy, you can just rent.

I think this ties into the idea of process: You can always rent the latest without having to buy it. You can afford to do so because you are sharing the cost with other users. Companies can find larger customer bases who are likely to be satisfied more because they are getting the latest. We move from a consumption economy to a use economy.

* NYU student Cody Brown delivers a neat take on the discussion about process v. product journalism last week, making distinctions between batch and real-time processing of journalism (read: The New York Times as opposed to blogs). Because The Times’ brand hinges on it as a product that has been curated and edited and checked and polished – note editor Bill Keller’s language on The Daily Show about his package – it finds itself in dangerous territory trying to compete in real time with those whose brand expectations are entirely different.

Brown says that for print, the “gestalt” is “batch processing.” How should it develop its brand? “As the voice of god.” How should it publish information on a developing story? “Cautiously. It should triple check it’s information and call every source involved in the story to give them an opportunity to comment.” How should it produce its product? “Into tight neatly written comprehensive articles … meant to exist as a ‘first draft of history.’” Who should do this? “Professionals. It’s expensive. A finite number of pages means a constant question: what is newsworthy to the most number of people?”

Compare and contrast with his take on online. Gestalt: “”Real Time Processing. Information is processed on the fly.” Brand? “An open platform…. Take the values/tactics that go on behind the walls of a newsroom (’the magic journalism box’) and execute them publicly.” How to publish? “Instantly. When a page is able to be updated at any frequency, corrections can be made just as fast. Rumors and gossip can be used as leverage to get sources, who otherwise wouldn’t, to spill what they know. Publishing incomplete information is the fastest way to get users to contribute to the bigger picture. This is a tactic in effective commons-based-peer production and it is how Wikpedia grew so fast and so well. As Harvard Law Professor, Yochai Benkler, describes, it often looks like a ‘disaster area.’ This is the ’scuttlebutt’ the Times can’t wrap its head around.” How should it produce its work? “API.” Who should do it? “Everyone in the beat. When a website has unlimited pages: there is no excuse.”

Brown says it’s possible for one to produce like the other But “the challenge is in branding.”

The messy, opinionated, incomplete, rumorladen, shit-show that is actual news production is hidden away. If you want a real time news website, it must be brought to the surface. This isn’t a problem for a brand like Tech Crunch, but it puts print news brands in a terribly awkward position. How does The New York Times show the mess under its articles without wrecking the omniscient aura of the brand it has worked so hard for? …

Batch is killing them. Online, it is expensive, slow, and wasteful. It’s not sustainable and it’s a problem that will only get bigger for the The New York Times. … The fundamental problem The New York Times has online is that its brand carries too much weight. The Times stamp means a piece has been packaged, and is no longer in process. If they’re interested in participating in the journalism of the 21st century, they need to shed the baggage of the last one.

They won’t.

Very neat take on the question. It’s not just the standards, tradition, and ego of the legacy press that prevents it from enjoying the benefits of beta, Brown argues, but the perception and value of its practices and reputation. That would seem to argue that it’s impossible for the legacy to update from product to process. I’m not sure I agree, but I do think that Brown put the challenge clearly through one end of the prism. The question is whether the legacy press – for the benefit of its staff even more than its audience – can issue enough caveats to enable it to work real-time. Forget blogs in this discussion. Will The New York Times ever be comfortable working on the standards and practices of 24-hour cable news? Can it afford to? Don’t they have to?

(By the way, the subject of last week’s NYT snipe, Michael Arrington, did well in an On the Media interview on his process with Bob Garfield.)

  • Mike Manitoba

    “The story that never ends.” “Process, not product.” How exactly are these new concepts to journalists?

    • Andy Freeman

      You’ll have to ask the NYT about that – they’re the ones who claimed that their “product” approach was journalism while TechCrunch’s “process” approach wasn’t.

      In doing so, they exaggerated the extent to which each fits the respective model, but I’ll let a defender argue how that makes the NYT look good.

      • Mike Manitoba

        Journalists don’t consider what they do as creating a product or that their newspaper is a product. That’s like claiming a book is a “product” to its author. The only ones who ever saw it that way were the boys in the head office and the advertising department.

        This perspective is revelatory only to bigwigs and entrepreneurs currently dominating the “future of journalism” discourse.

      • Mike Manitoba

        And isn’t it interesting that the primary language on either side of that battle is marketing jargon?

      • Andy Freeman

        Oh really?

        It might be accurate to say that this was a trial balloon. Establishment journalism’s defenders have been looking for an effective way to argue that the latest kind of new journalism is bad.

        At first glance, process vs product might look good on the theory that who could possibly argue for going public with something that might be wrong.

        The speed with which that idea unravelled tells us something….

      • Mike Manitoba

        So, Jeff Jarvis’ interpretation of a New York Times piece is the smoking gun?

      • Andy Freeman

        The statements of the NYT reporter and the biz editor are some of the smoking guns. The cited article provides links to those statements and some relevant discussion.

        For some reason, Manitoba finds that article inadequate. Perhaps he’ll tell us one that has even more information. Surely he won’t argue that we should just link to the statements and not the discussion.

      • Andy Freeman

        For better or worse, the two modes of operation identified by the NYT folk have been termed “process” and “product”.

        Does Manitoba really believe that the NYT folks weren’t arguing that bloggers do bad things at least in part because of their mode of operation? Does he really believe that the NYT folks weren’t arguing “we’re better because we work this other way”?

        If Manitoba has a beef with the idea that “process” journalism is unacceptable, he gets to take it up with the NYT folks. I’m sure that the arguments in the article that I cited can be improved.

  • One thought I took away from Arrington’s interview with “On the Media” is that his journalism is not as “real-time” or process-oriented as it is being portrayed. He describes assessing sources, conducting further reporting, and weighing the potential impact of being wrong — all prior to publishing a “rumor.” The New York Times, meanwhile, exhibits elements of process journalism when its news blog asks, “Landslide or Fraud? The Debate Online Over Iran’s Election Results” without knowing the answer.

    Now, certainly, there are large differences between the journalism practiced at TechCrunch and at the Times, and you, Cody Brown and others have done a great job in distinguishing them. (I especially liked how Brown brought in the economic incentives that influence the two approaches.) But I don’t think we get very far by describing a rigid dichotomy (product vs. process, batch vs. real-time, perfection vs. beta) when the reality is much more fluid.

    Much of this discussion is based on how TechCrunch and the Times portray themselves — and in the case of that initial piece, how the Times portrays TechCrunch. That is useful to a point, but as Brown notes, the Times has a stake in appearing authoritative just as TechCrunch has a stake in appearing to include its audience in reporting. Neither is totally true, of course. My guess is that the journalism at both news organizations will continue to converge on a set of common practices that mix batch and real-time methods, while publicly, they will portray themselves as further and further apart.

  • Jarvis —

    You defang Brown’s challenge with your conclusion: “Forget blogs in this discussion. Will The New York Times ever be comfortable working on the standards and practices of 24-hour cable news?”

    I see no threat to the Times‘ brand if its online embodiment produced the same deadlines, timeliness and professionalism as CNN. I suspect Brown assign CNN’s gestalt to the 20th century category and consign both 24-hour cable news and the newspaper to the anachronistic ash heap of history.

    • As timeless and professional as #cnnfail?

      CNN deals with big developing international stories but their strategy is still rooted in batch processing insofar as they’re hesitant about dropping stories. This is the reason that @cnnbrk has only tweeted 4 times over the weekend despite having a constant stream of information about Iran.

      I’m not sure if you read my post or not but this is not about Old vs. New so much it is about what works in two distinct mediums.

      • cody —

        you misconstrued my comment. Jarvis was suggesting that the Times could move a step away from batch and towards your model of RT journalism by following the standards and practices of 24-hour cable news. I was arguing that your criteria for a successful RT news organization were much more radical than CNN’s standards. It seems, reading your own comments, that I did understand you properly. You say: “RT tactics are at times used by brands like CNN when there is a hurricane or a school shooting, but there are still understandable verification steps that go on behind their ‘magic journalism box’.”

        By the way, I did not mention CNN in order to defend its Iran coverage…and I mentioned CNN’s timeliness not its timelessness.

      • @Andrew

        Sorry, I misread – we are actually in agreement.

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  • I like to think that people are not suffering too much without reading an in-depth analysis every day. Information can be published in its incomplete form, but then, perhaps not as constantly as is seen in a “batch” form, one can publish the deeper insights. With a constant stream of both, I don’t think the people will suffer. Seems delusional to think other wise.

    If you could get a reputable community that actively participates in this journalistic process, you could brand it. Branding it is perhaps the easiest step, the hardest being original information. Plus, the media’s reputation that it does not at all deserve has not truly been torn down yet. If it were attacked in an intelligent manner, people would look to a new source. Of course, this would have a greater meaning for society than just changing the newspapers they read.

  • If chocolate can be iterated 1,026 times, then why not forever items such as friendships. Privacy preferences nonwithstanding, imagine how much one’s relationships might be improved if they were crowdsourced (reality TV made personalized). Not that one would want crowdsourced suggestions in one’s intimate relationship. Progress and iteration only go so far!

  • Robert Levine

    Has any newspaper cut as high a percentage of its staff as MySpace just did?

    • Yes, the Ledger lost 40 percent. The LA Times newsroom is less than 50 percent of its high…. So?

      • Rob Levine

        You obviously believe that newspaper layoffs reflect poorly on the future of the newspaper business. I’m curious if you think that the MySpace layoffs reflect poorly on the future of the social networking business.

        • No. I think MySpace was nothing but an overgrown homepage maker. Facebook continues to grow.

        • Robert Levine

          But Facebook has a very similar business model. And MySpace is one of the only big Web 2.0 companies that’s actually profitable. YouTube, Facebook, HuffPo and Twitter all aren’t. The Emperor – less covered up than he first appeared.

        • Andy Freeman

          It’s not clear that Youtube isn’t profitable. (The folks who claimed that it was horribly in the red don’t understand that Google peers with the other big boys, or even what that means.)

        • Rob Levine

          Come on. I’d believe it’s not as unprofitable as some have claimed, but I just can’t believe that it’s actually making money. And if they were, why wouldn’t they announce that? Also, even if YouTube’s costs are falling, online CPM is falling faster.

        • Andy Freeman

          You can believe whatever you’d like, but what’s the basis for your beliefs? For example, what understanding do you have of their cost structure? (I’m not claiming that you don’t – I’m asking you to tell us why your opinion is credible.)

          Note that ads on YouTube aren’t the only relevant factor. Google is widely believed to use behavioral information collected on each service to improve its behavior everywhere. That’s important because Youtube gets enough traffic that it could improve advert selection elsewhere by >1-2%. What’s that worth? (Again, what’s the basis for your opinion.)

          Looking at things from their point of view, I don’t see what benefit they’d get from saying that Youtube isn’t as profitable as they’d like. (No, proving you wrong isn’t important to them.)

          Google plays most things close to the vest. Why do you think that Youtube would be an exception?

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  • Mike Manitoba

    “You can believe whatever you’d like, but what’s the basis for your beliefs?”

    I believe that question can be applied to literally every argument you make.

  • I agree with Aurelia that people are not suffering too much without reading an in-depth analysis every day. The means for obtaining information are changing dramatically but that does not mean that it has to be bad. It’s probably not bad and it’s probably not better. It’s only different and the publishing world has to adapt to the new behaviour.

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