Posts about reboot

Oh, to be the Economist

When newspaper people in the U.S. aren’t wishing they were the Wall Street Journal – “well, they can charge” – they aspire to be The Economist.

Dream on.

I just got email announcing The Economist Group’s latest financials.

* Operating profit up 26% to £56m
* Revenue up 17% to £313m
* Full year dividend of 97.3p per share, an increase of 8%
* The Economist’s worldwide circulation grew 6.4% to 1,390,780 (July-December 2008 ABC). It was named Magazine of the Year by Advertising Age and topped Adweek’s Hot List for the second year running
* Economist.com’s performance has been strong, driven by a strategy to make it a place for intelligent debate; advertising revenue is up 29% and page views 53%

The good news is that quality still sells.

The Economist is to the rest of the news industry as Apple is to Google. In What Would Google Do?, I argue that Apple is the unGoogle. It violates practically every one of the 40 rules I set out. But it succeeds. Why? It’s that good, uniquely good. There’s room for one such company, probably, in any industry – and that spot isn’t always filled (name me the Apple or The Economist of phone companies, airlines, cable companies, or retail).

In news, the Economist is the exception that proves the rules. It doesn’t have the individual voices and brands that succeed elsewhere on the internet; it has a single, institutional voice (but a charming one). In a sense, it’s a general-interest publication in the age of specialization (and every other general-interest product, from Time to the metro daily is failing). It has built a strong online product but it’s still not known for that; it’s a magazine (pardon me, newspaper) that still relies on and succeeds in print.

The problem for the rest of the industry is that they can’t all break the rules as The Economist does because they’re just not that good. You have to be great to the The Economist or Apple and if you fall short, you fall all the way. And staying great is constant work.

I was at The Economist’s offices in New York last week for lunch with editors. Don’t think that they are resting on their laurels. They, too, are trying to understand The Economist’s role on the new media age (my advice: they have just about the smartest crowd anywhere and I hope the company asks how that crowd can be empowered to connect, share, and create). But it’s a nice perch from which to be wondering what to do next. While other publications are looking for a limb to grab onto as they fall, The Economist is looking for the next higher branch.

‘No longer the province of elites’

In a Guardian interview, UK PM Gordon Brown says that the internet changes foreign affairs forever:

He described the internet era as “more tumultuous than any previous economic or social revolution”. “For centuries, individuals have been learning how to live with their next-door neighbours,” he added.

“Now, uniquely, we’re having to learn to live with people who we don’t know.

“People have now got the ability to speak to each other across continents, to join with each other in communities that are not based simply on territory, streets, but networks; and you’ve got the possibility of people building alliances right across the world.”

This, he said, has huge implications. “That flow of information means that foreign policy can never be the same again.

“You cannot have Rwanda again because information would come out far more quickly about what is actually going on and the public opinion would grow to the point where action would need to be taken.

“Foreign policy can no longer be the province of just a few elites.”

Neither government nor business nor education.

User economy v. consumer economy

I’m fascinated with the services that are popping up in Italy – and now, I see, in the U.S. – enabling people to rent instead of buy things and to rent out the things they have: to share, in short.

The Washington Post writes about Zilock.com, Rent-instead.com, Chegg.com for textbooks, and Babyplays.com for toys (well-sanitized, one hopes). Not to mention the ultimate in sharing things, Zipcar.

I take a tour around my house and it’s hard to come up with a long list of things I’d only want to rent and no longer need to buy – tools, mainly, because I’m a klutz and try to avoid all handyman chores (whenever I tell people who know me that I’m using a chainsaw, they shudder at the thought). But I can imagine things I might not buy but would want to rent: a great digital camera or video camera, for example.

So I don’t see this phenom as a major force in the economy. I think we’re more likely to see sharing brought to assets like office space and equipment. Still, it’s just one more case of innovation yielding efficiency instead of growth.

Here’s the Post on these services:

Zilock.com came about like this: In the fall of 2007, a couple of friends in France were trying to hang something up on a wall and didn’t have a drill. They thought about buying one but somehow calculated that a drill is used only an average of 12 minutes in a lifetime. It made no sense to buy one, they argued.

“We were thinking about all of the drills lying around the building or the block and we had no access to it. We thought there are so many ways you can sell your things online but no way to borrow things,” Boudier said.

The peer-to-peer renting Web site first launched in France and Belgium. Once it took off, the founders expanded to the United Kingdom and the United States. Boudier, who is the U.S. general manager, said there are now 100,000 items for rent just in America. Not only are there drills up for grabs but infant car seats, camping gear, and digital cameras. “We are offering new ways for people to save and make money,” he said.

The API revolution

It soon will be – if it not already is – known as the Twitter revolution in Iran. But I’ll think of it as the API revolution.

For it’s Twitter’s architecture – which enables anyone to create applications that call and feed into it – that makes it all but impervious from blocking by tyrants’ censors. Twitter is not a site or a blog at an address. You don’t have to go to it. It can come to you (as newspapers should). Twitter is an outpost in the cloud and there can be unlimited points of access from every application and site using its API, so the crowd can always stay ahead of the people formerly known as the authorities. That, I believe, is the keystone in the architecture of the new infrastructure of unstoppable freedom of speech and democracy. That’s what enables Clay Shirky to declare, “This is it – the big one.”

It isn’t merely “social media” that make this a step-change in the internet’s impact on society and government, as the reporters who’ve been calling me and other pundits want us to say. Sree Sreenivasan tweeted, “on CNN just now, I asked – China quake, Mumbai attacks, US election, Iran… how many times can one technology ‘come of age’?” RIght. See January 16, 2001 when, as Howard Rheinhold recounts in Smart Mobs, tens of thousands of protesters against Philippine president Joseph Estrada were brought to a square with an SMS. See Mark Zuckerberg proudly talking about the Spanish-language Facebook being used to organize Colombians against FARC. Iran is just another example of people organizing themselves online for a cause or a revolution. The people will avail themselves the latest available technology to serve their needs and cause.

Twitter is different because it’s live and social – the retweet is the shot heard ’round the world – and because that API lets it survive any dictator’s game of whack-a-mole. But it’s by no means the final word in digital revolutions. I know we will soon see witnesses and participants to events such as these broadcasting them live from their mobile phones. We will see people organizing with Google Maps. We can’t imagine what will come next.

Twitter has been used in many ways in the Iran story:
* Citizens of Iran are using it to inform each other.
* They are using it, most importantly, to organize.
* They are using it to inform the world.
* We outside Iran are using us to see what people were saying and doing in Iran. Journalists are using it as a tip service to news and a way to find witnesses to interview. I’ve said in Twitter – to respond to the obvious complaint I hear – that, no, Twitter is no more the final source of news in and of itself than Wikipedia is the only source of knowledge. But it is a tip service for journalists who then still need to do their job and report.
* We can use it to see the interests of at least the Twitter demographic – limited though it may be – and then to use that to beat up CNN, Fox, and MSNBC for their terrible news judgment last weekend as they all but ignored a revolution.

Of course, Twitter – and Facebook and blogs and camera phones – alone cannot win a revolution. They cannot protect their users from government’s bullets and jails, as we have seen all to tragically in Iran. (This thought led Tom Friedman to the worst line on the New York Times editorial page, worse even than the worst of Maureen Dowd: “Bang-bang beats tweet-tweet.”) Fighting for freedom requires courage and risk we must not underestimate. But at least these tools allow allies to find each other and to let the world know of their plight. For thanks to the fact that anyone in the world – outside of North Korea – now has a printing press and a broadcast tower, they can be assured that the whole world is watching.

I recorded a Skype video interview for Al Jazeera English that will air at 20000 GMT today and looked at the camera and said, “Despots, beware.” Your days are numbered. This is more than a revolution. It is an evolution in the architecture of speech and freedom.

: LATER: Note that not just Iran is censoring the internet. Germany wants to, seeking a censorship infrastructure that can be used for one purpose today, another tomorrow. Oh, when will they ever learn?

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.

* Experientia.com 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.)