Posts about newspapers

What is content, then?

In the discussion about the iPad, much has been made of its nature as a content consumption — versus creation — device. I lament its limitations as a tool of creation. Howard Owens, speaking for many, tells me that most people don’t want to create content.

But what’s content?

We in media have a bad habit of viewing the world in our image. We think the internet is a medium (I say instead it’s a place; this Cisco post says it is a language). We in media also think we get to define what content is: It’s what we make.

But Google, for one, doesn’t define content that way. It sees content everywhere, in everyone’s words and actions and it gains signals, knowledge, and value from that. We in media are blind to that value because we can’t see the content in that.

When we email a link to a friend, that act creates content. When we comment on content, we create content. When we mention a movie in Twitter — that’s just useless chatter, right? — our tweets add up to valuable content: a predictor of movie box office that’s 97.3% accurate. When we take a picture and load it up to Flickr — 4 billion times — that’s content. When we say something about those photos — tagging them or captioning them or saying where they were taken — that’s content. When we do these things on Facebook, which can see our social graph, that creates a meta layer that adds more value to our content. On Foursquare, our actions become content (the fact that this bar is more popular than that bar is information worth having). When we file a health complaint about a restaurant, that’s content. Our movements on highways, tracked through our cellphones, creates content: traffic reports. Our search queries are content (that awareness — that new ability to listen to the public’s questions — led Demand Media to a big business).

Do we all make content? Absolutely.

So when I complain about the iPad hampering our ability to create content, I mean that it makes it harder to share links and thoughts and images when I wish it had made it easier. And the apps media companies are making also make it hard to share our views and link into or out of their closed worlds. When they do that, they are shutting themselves off from the content people create every day and the value it holds.

There is content everywhere. You just have to be able to see it. And respect it.

Serendipity is unexpected relevance

Serendipity is not randomness. It is unexpected relevance.

I constantly hear the fear that serendipity is among the many things we’re supposedly set to lose as news moves out of newsrooms and off print to online. Serendipity, says The New York Times, is lost in the digital age. Serendipity, it is said, is something we get from that story we happen upon as we flip pages, the story we never would have searched for but find only or best in print. Serendipity, it is also said, is the province and value of editors, who pick the fluky and fortuitous for us. Without serendipity, as I hear it, we’ll be less-well informed (all work, no play, makes Jack a dull boy; all relevance, not serendipity, makes Jill a predictable girl).

A few days ago, a Guardian guy, inspired by Clay Shirky hacked together a serendipity generator: just a random story served up on a click. It wasn’t a serious solution, just fun. But it focused the serendipity question for me.

What is serendipity? It’s not a story from left field. It’s not, I think, “the opposite of what you normally consumed.” There’s a reason we find value in the supposedly serendipitous. When I started Entertainment Weekly, I said that our features had to satisfy a curiosity you didn’t know you had — but you end up having it. When we read a paper and find a good story that we couldn’t have predicted we’d have liked, we think that is serendipity. But there’s some reason we like it, that we find it relevant to us. Maybe that relevance is the unknown but now fed curiosity, maybe it’s enjoyment of good writing or a certain kind of tale, maybe the gift of some interesting fact we want to share and gain social equity for, maybe it’s a challenge to our ideas, maybe an answer to a question that has bugged us. In the end, it has value to us; it’s relevant.

Can that relevance be analyzed and served? Can we still get serendipity online? Of course, we can and do — mostly on Twitter and Facebook. Serendipity comes from friends who find that story and — like an editor — pass it on. If we share their judgment, we may like what they share and call that serendipity. But there’s plenty that passes me by on Twitter that I don’t like; it’s serendipitous by the usual definitions but it doesn’t work for me because it has no value; it’s not relevant.

Can an algorithm serve us serendipity? Maybe, if it has enough signals of what we and people we trust like, what interests us, what we need, our context. It can calculate and predict and try to serve our relevance and serendipity. I think serendipity comes not from one-size-fits-all editing but from better targeting across a larger pool of possibilities. If Google can intuit intent, I think it can also serve surprise and serendipity.

MORE: See also Chris Anderson and Matthew Ingram on serendipity.

The money graph

A new Pew study on the economics of news does not give comfort to news sites planning pay schemes. It also does not give me comfort that we’re wasting precious time futzing over walls when we should be paying attention to the big problems we have — one of which this Pew study points out: dreadful engagement and loyalty — and should be looking at other ways to give and gain value in our relationships with the public. The Pew data:

Over all, the evidence suggests the outlook is difficult both for paywalls and for online display advertising. While most people have not been asked to pay for content, even among the most avid news consumers online, only about one in five at this point say they would be willing to pay, and this does not include less voracious news consumers. At the same time, the vast majority of those online, 8 out of 10, say they basically ignore online ads.

In short, a good deal must change, the data suggests, before the digital age will begin to sustain itself.

About 71% of internet users, or 53% of all American adults, get news online today, a number that has held relatively steady in recent years.

Most of these online news consumers graze across multiple sites without having a primary one that they rely on. Only 35% of online news consumers have a favorite site.

To put it another way, 65% of online news consumers do not have a site that is so important to them that it stands out in their minds above all other sites they visit.

The users who do have a favorite site are pretty faithful. Some 65% of them check in with that favorite site at least once a day.

Yet even among these most loyal news consumers, only a minority (19%) said they would be willing to pay for news online, including those who already do so and those who would be willing to if asked.

Instead, a large majority – 82% – of those with a favorite site said they would find somewhere else to get the news.

Because so few online news consumers even have a favorite site this translates to only 7% of all people who get news online having a favorite online news source that they say they would pay for.

This is a sign of just how much initial difficulty the movement toward pay walls could have.

In sum, there appears to be only a very small cohort of voracious news consumers who have to have their news from a particular site, even if they have to pay for it. The vast majority of online news consumers, though, seem willing to browse for news from many sites, do not have a favorite online news source, and even if they do, are not willing to pay for that site’s content.

This is not to say that resistance might breakdown over time. . . .

All these findings speak to the natural disadvantage of news content: Most news is covered by more than one organization and people do not place enough value on the difference between the various reports. In other words, if a user had to pay for a New York Times article on Haiti, evidence suggests that he or she would just look for another source that could provide the basic information. The nuances of depth or breadth in the pay story may not be valued enough to induce payment over a free alternative.

Thus, if the news industry is going to make headway with pay-walls, they are going to have to break through what for now appears to be continuing reluctance, even among its most avid consumers.

News(paper)

Friend Michael Rosenblum forwarded word that the Star-Ledger in New Jersey was just nominated for seven local Emmys for its video work. Bravo for my old friends there and for Rosenblum, who trained them .

I remember when my old colleague Jim Willse, then editor of the Ledger, told me he wanted to get the paper into video and I begged him not to do what other papers had done: turn out pale copies and unintentional parodies of local TV news, something that deserves no emulation. I introduced him to Rosenblum, who came in an politely toured the TV studio the paper had just built and then said, “This is bullshit.” Nobody wants to see fake TV, he said. The newsroom is the story; it’s where the action is. So he had them set up cameras in the newsroom and he trained staffers to make video stories with a small camera and a Mac. I’ve watched my own students learn the Rosenblum Method and come out empowered, like the Ledger’s old paper people. Yes, anyone can make TV.

If I had it to do over again, I’d do one thing differently: bring in ad people to train them so they would understand the power of making TV and would sell it to advertisers and make video for them: so they, too, would think video.

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.