Edelman, the world’s largest PR firm, finds itself between a lump of coal and a hard place by working for old energy companies while it also tries to appeal to corporate responsibility clients.
And therein lies an object lesson for media companies getting into the business of making and publishing native content. For that work — “telling brands’ stories,” as we euphemistically put it — puts the media company into the business of a public relations or advertising agency. It forces us to ask: Whom do we serve? And what does our brand stand for?
In What Would Google Do? — inspired by ad genius Rishad Tobaccowala — I came to argue that public relations firms should take their title seriously and represent the public to the company rather than the company to the public. It necessarily follows that if a brand owner flouts the advice of such a public envoy, then the envoy needs to fire the client or it will lose its trust from the public.
Are public relations (or advertising) companies willing to do that? Judging by the evidence of the story pictured above, no. And that’s not at all surprising. PR companies exist to fall on their own swords for their clients.
But what of news companies? Will they be willing to fire a brand and give up the business of telling its story? Where are the lines? What if Shell Oil comes to your news organization, checkbook in hand, to tell its story, or that fracking company that advertises every Sunday morning wants you to make a video about the wonders they enable? Or a gun maker while you’re exposing deaths by firearms? Or a drug manufacturer when your newsroom is busy exposing how drug makers addict children to opioids? Is it one matter to publish their ads and another to make them?
I’ve just posted the final chapter — and an afterword on journalism education — from Geeks Bearing Gifts: Imagining New Futures for News. So it’s not all online for free. But you can buy the book here.
This last chapter is about the impatient innovation but patient capital we will need to reinvent news and find new, sustainable business models. Here’s a sample:
In the development of the internet and of news in its age, we are — as I write this — only two decades past the introduction of the commercial browser and web in 1994. In Gutenberg years, this is 1470. I doubt we can yet imagine how society will inform itself. We have been too busy trying to save the news we knew to invent what news will be. As far as the newspaper was from the town crier and the balladeer, so will news of the future likely look unrecognizable to us today. There is much innovation, invention, development, risk, and failure yet to come. I am more concerned about funding that work than keeping afloat the ongoing operations of legacy news organizations, for it’s that investment that will build the future. . . .
News’ rebirth requires investment at every level: to get beat businesses off the ground and multiplying to scale (tens of thousands of dollars each); to build new and larger-scale news enterprises (low millions of dollars); to innovate and experiment in and rebuild the legacy news companies that survive (tens of millions of dollars each); and to build the technologies that will facilitate the development of new forms of news (anywhere from from a few thousand dollars in a Kickstarter campaign to hundreds of millions for the next Twitter or Google). Where will this money come from? We don’t have enough friends-and-family money and enough charitable and philanthropic dollars to support all that needs to be done. Private equity and hedge funds will not have the long-term perspective needed for this work and the stock market certainly does not. Venture capital? When I visit VCs in Silicon Valley or Alley and argue that there are opportunities in the future of news and journalism, I am often met with polite, sad smiles. Yes, some say, you have opportunities, but not as worthy as those from technology companies. We don’t invest in content, they say. Venture capital is predicated on earning huge returns building disruptive technological platforms that scale. Journalism — content — doesn’t scale. They’re right. This is one reason why I think we must get out of the business of primarily making content and get into the business of building, adapting, or distributing platforms that enable people to share their own information, adding journalistic value to that process (sometimes with content). This is the relationship strategy. I also believe that in many areas — especially local news — scale will come not from the top-down (à la Patch) but instead from the bottom up with the messy, disorganized proliferation of beat businesses: free-agent-nation, mom-or-pop news bakeries. I do not imagine — and do not want — to think that a single behemoth, a Google or Facebook or (heaven help us) a Comcast or Verizon of news, will suddenly rise up to meet all our journalistic and information needs. Venture capital has indeed funded some media ventures, like BuzzFeed, Business Insider, Vox Media, and Vice. Some of these are transitional companies that cleverly exploit opportunities and vulnerabilities in the present marketplace — search-engine optimization or social optimization, for example — but still largely operate under the old, mass-media economics of volume.
And a snippet from the afterword on journalism education:
We face the challenges every journalism school faces today: how to teach change; how to teach enough tools so students leave proficient in them without letting that rob vital time from the teaching of the basic skills and verities of journalism; how to stay ahead of change in the field while still preparing students for the jobs that exist today. It’s not easy. But there is no better time to teach journalism and no better time to become a journalist. Youth, I tell my students, used to be something to get over. Now youth is an asset. Our students today are not only more technically skilled than we could be, they see the world in new ways. I urge them to guard that fresh perspective and to use it to question and challenge all of our assumptions so they can imagine and build a new future for journalism.
I hope you’re finding value in the book. Please pass it around.
Here (after a delay … sorry) is another free chapter from Geeks Bearing Gifts. This one explores the idea that we need a marketplace that values not just content but also the creation of an audience for it, and how that might occur. This is a critical topic as we look at distributing news off media’s own sites and through Facebook and other platforms and streams. You can read the entire chapter here; a snippet:
There have long been two creations of value in media: the creation of content, yes, but also the creation of a public — an audience — for it. In legacy news media, the two were usually attached: the creator and the distributor were one in a vertically integrated enterprise (read: a publication). We often debated whether content or distribution was king. The answer didn’t much matter because they were inseparable; they shared the throne. Now these two tasks are — like so much else online — unbundled. Anyone can make content. Anyone can distribute content: its creator (inside or outside an institution), a reader who recommends it, an aggregator or curator who collects it, a search engine that points to it.
Media people tend to believe that content has intrinsic value — that is why they say people should pay for it and why some object when Google quotes snippets from it. But in an ecosystem of links online, new economics are in force. Online, content with no links has no value because it has no audience. Content gains value as it gains links. That formula was the key insight behind Google: that links to content are a signal of its value; thus, the more links to a page from sites that themselves have more links, the more useful, relevant, or valuable that content is likely to be.
The problem for us in the media industry is that we have no marketplace to value the gathering of links and audiences. Our systems are still built primarily around extracting the value of content: paying creators to make it; buying or subscribing to publications that contain it; or syndicating it from one publication to the next. These models are being made obsolete. Huffington Post and Twitter can get thousands of writers — including me — to make content for free because it brings us audience and attention. Selling content is difficult when you compete against others who offer content for free. And syndication is all but outmoded, for why should I buy a piece of content if instead I can link to it for nothing?
Consider an alternative to syndication. I’ll call it reverse syndication. Instead of selling my content to you, what say I give it to you for free? Better yet, I pay you to publish it on your site. The condition: I get to put my ad on the content. I will pay you a share of what I earn from that ad based on how much audience you bring me. That model values the creation of the audience. When The New York Times complains about Huffington Post summarizing its articles, perhaps The Times would be better off offering Huffington Post this deal: Take our stories but keep them intact with Times branding, advertising, and links. We’ll give you a share of what we earn for each story based on the size — and perhaps quality, as measured in attention and demographics — of the audience you bring to it.
For that matter, why should media always force our readers to come to us? Why shouldn’t our content go to them? Before Gutenberg’s press, scholars had to travel to books; after Gutenberg, the books traveled to the scholars. We’ve long had home delivery for newspapers, magazines, and TV, so why not extend that service to content on the web? For years, I had wished for a means to make articles and blog posts embeddable on other sites, just like YouTube videos. If content could travel with its business model attached, we could set it free to travel across the web, gathering recommendations and audience and value as it goes, and thus ending at least part of the fight over the question of whether aggregation is theft.
Read the rest here.
If you can’t wait for the rest of the book, then you can buy it here.
This chapter from Geeks Bearing Gifts deals with a fundamental strategic question for the future of news: Why does the information business suck? Does it need to? Yes, it does. Here’s the start of the chapter. You can read the rest here.
In Adam Smith’s paradox of value, he wondered why, if water is vital to life and diamonds are not, diamonds are worth so much more than water. The pricing paradox of information presents a similar quandary: If information is so much more valuable to society than entertainment, why is it so hard to build a business — namely, journalism — around selling access to information? Journalism at its most useful is information-rich but information is quickly commodified. Entertainment, on the other hand, is unique and engaging and — for reasons I’ll explain in a moment — receives greater legal protection under copyright than information does. We have conflated journalism as an information business with entertainment as an engagement business in large part because both are are built on “stories.”
Information is less valuable in the market because it flows freely. Once a bit of information, a fact, appears in a newspaper, it can be repeated and spread, citizen to citizen, TV anchor to audience: “Oyez, oyez, oyez” shouts the town crier. “The king is dead. Long live the king. Pass it on.” Information itself cannot and must not be owned. Under copyright law, a creator cannot protect ownership of underlying facts or knowledge, only of their treatment. That is, you cannot copyright the fact that the Higgs boson was discovered at CERN in 2012, you can copyright only your treatment of that information: your cogent backgrounder or natty graphic that explains WTF a boson is. A well-informed society must protect and celebrate the easy sharing of information even if that does support freeloaders like TV news, which build businesses on the repetition of information others have uncovered. Society cannot find itself in a position in which information is property to be owned, for then the authorities will tell some people — whether they are academics or scientists or students or citizens — what they are not allowed to know because they didn’t buy permission to know it. Therein lies a fundamental flaw in the presumption that the public should and will pay for access to information — a fundamental flaw in the business model of journalism. I’m not saying that information wants to be free. I agree that information often is expensive to gather. Instead I am saying that the mission of journalism is to inform society by unlocking and spreading information. Journalism frees information.
Read the rest here.
If you can’t wait for the rest of the book, then you can buy it here.