Monthly Archives: March 2006

Newspapers in Feedworld

The Guardian’s Simon Waldman on what RSS means for the future of newspapers:

My hunch – based on some of the usage trends that we can see already is that many users, especially those who already know us – will still prefer to take the good old fashioned route to our front page to see what we have on offer. However, if we use feeds and distribution to our advantage, we will find we can attract an ever growing audience who will be brought in primarily through individual bits of content. And this leads me to the one trend which I believe is going to be critical for news organisations to understand. And that is that the story is the star.

Like other publishers and media owners we invest significant effort into the visual and intellectual context our content sits in. Page design, headling weight, story order and the decision to run one point of view one day and another the next – all are deliberate choices. In Feedworld, much of the design and structure we add to our content is removed and everything is reduced to most basic element. In our case – that is the story.

Our daily efforts therefore are broken up from being a unified whole: a newspaper, or even a website – and instead become a collection of fragments. ‘Small pieces loosely joined’ to steal the title of Dave Weinbergers’ excellent book.

Now, as with a corporate breakups you can see this either as destroying the value you have created through aggregation. However, being naturally bullish, I like to think of this as releasing the value of individual stories. In particular by combining feeds with a combination of search and social discovery tools, you can ensure that people can get exactly the bit, or bits of our content that they want: even if they didn’t know that they wanted it.

In this Feedworld, what matters more than anything else is the distinctive nature of our content. And I say ‘distinctive’ deliberately rather than the more nebulous ‘quality’.

When people have a dozen or more feeds in front of them – they soon learn to ignore those who are simply re-writing the same wire stories and following the same agenda that everyone else is.

As a result, this might be a new media landscape, but the currency is as old as journalism itself: original, accurate reporting and informed comment. And in this environment, success and growth will come to those who are both willing to invest in these, and who crack the commercial model for this new means of distribution.

Algorithm v editor

Nicholas Carr examines the differences between editors and algorithms. He concludes there’s hope for my species yet:

The crowd aggregates all individuals’ knowledge about variables while balancing out their personal biases and idiosyncracies. It’s not the “wisdom” of crowds that makes crowds useful, in other words; it’s their fundamental mindlessness. What crowds are good for is producing average results that are not subject to the biases and other quirks of human minds.

That’s also why search engines work pretty well with algorithms (until, at least, they begin to be gamed by individuals using their minds): They produce the result that best suits what the average searcher is looking for. You don’t want generally used search engines to reflect individual biases. Indeed, one of their main jobs is to filter out those biases – and revert to the average.

But that’s also why algorithms don’t work very well as editors. With an editor, you don’t want mindlessness; you want mindfulness. A good editor combines an understanding of what the audience wants with a healthy respect for the idiosyncracies of his own mind and the minds of others. A good editor doesn’t aim to provide a bland “average result”; he wants to wander widely around the average, at times even to strike out in the opposite direction altogether. The mindless crowd filters out personality along with idiosyncracy and bias. The mindful editor is all about personality.

Boris on Berlusconi

I’ve been an Italophile for a long time. It survived, just, a year running a company in Milan to the extent that my wedding was held in Italy. It’s been a couple of years since I’ve been there, but there are some aspects of life in Italy that nowhere else on earth can approach.

But my Italophilia has been severely strained by Silvio Berlusconi. There’s his ludicrous strutting and posing. His incompetence. The sordidness of his many conflicts of interest. But Boris Johnson thinks this is all a good thing. I suspect Boris sees a lot of himself (excepting the $12 billion and the face lifts) in Berlusconi:

Silvio Berlusconi is a landmark of modern politics. There is no one to touch him for sheer exuberant outrageousness. In his speech, in his dress, his bandanas, his face-lifts, his ludicrous 1950s cruise-ship sexism, he is a standing reproach to the parade of platitudinous Pooters that pass across the stage of international diplomacy.

He once called an important press conference with one of the Continent’s leading Euro-bores, Anders Fogh Rassmussen, the Danish prime minister, and announced that he was going to introduce Mr Rassmussen to his wife, because the Dane was so good-looking that he might divert her from the man with whom she was then romantically entangled, a chemistry professor called Cacciari.

Dio mio! said the journalists. Has any Italian prime minister ever behaved like that before? Has any politician ever cracked a joke about his wife’s boyfriend? Let alone in the presence of some po-faced, bearded and deeply mystified Dane? Only Berlusconi could get away with it, and – as he doubtless calculated – the remark does not seem to have hurt him in the polls, earning him as it did the sympathy of every cuckold and straying wife in Italy, a significant chunk of the electorate.

Do you want that film in Twi or Quecha, sir?

My friend Michael Smolens has just gone live with the beta site of his new project, dotSub. It’s a fascinating idea: provide Web-based tools to enable anyone to subtitle a film into any language. Michael and his colleagues have been motivated by two ideas. First, a profound belief that the stories of every culture should be available in every other one. Second, the recognition that most films never reach most cultures because of language barriers.

Although the beta site has a small catalogue of films at the moment, the subtitling tools are well developed. A neat demo lets you play translator for the day. For those with real translation skills, if they wanted to make a film accessible to native Quecha speakers in Bolivia, or to Twi speakers in Ghana, dotSub makes it possible.

Why would a filmmaker lodge her or his film in dotSub? It gives them access to markets that conventional subtitling and distribution arrangements could never approach. If you believe in the fortune at the bottom of the pyramid, dotSub is a great idea.

What should the WSJ do with its blogs?

Barry Ritholtz gives The Wall Street Journal some valuable advice on its venture into the world of blogs. They could have paid a consultant vast fees for far less than this. Here’s a particularly interesting passage, but the whole post is worth a look if you’re interested in the intersection between mainstream media and blogs:

Editors need to recognize that blogging sucks juice away from writing. (Trust me on this one). Anyone working on a book will tell you that either blogging — or their deadline — goes on hiatus. And if you dangle this very addictive junk in front of your reporters, you may be pulling them away from meaningful investigative assignments. Understand what you are asking of your reporters if you want them to participate in this. (I’d love to see an insider editor blog describing his work day).

I’d imagine that out of this list, a few blogs would really gain traction. Focus on those, and use them to promote the weaker sisters. The blogosphere is full of examples of blogs that were unknown for along while and then suddenly blossomed. (Its the equivalent of Arrested Development cancelled by Fox). Again, it really depends upon what the corporate goal of Dow Jones is with these projects.

In addition to that list above, I’d like to see a senior editor and someone from the business side from Dow Jones Inc. start blogging. An inside publishing kind of thing, looking at the numbers, circulation, advertising, business dealings. Dave Kansas, or someone from the Publishing side. That would be way cool, especially if someone had the charisma and mad skillz to pull it off.

There is a caveat to all this good advice: Don’t do this half-assed. Have the cajones to step up. Be willing to cannibalize yourselves to prevent someone else from doing it anyway. Work outside your comfort zone. Allow your writers to develop a unique voice, some snark. Give them latitude to have a viewpoint. Embrace a new business model that may hurt your present operations, but will ultimately save it 10 years down the road.

"Integrate or become less relevant"

The speech by Reuters’ Tom Glocer hailed by Jeff Jarvis has been published in the Financial Times (a couple of weeks after it published a snarky, fairly clueless piece diminishing blogs). It has been a long time since I thought of Reuters as anything other than a dozy company, but Glocer is pretty spot on:

First, media companies need to be “seeders of clouds”. To have access to high-value new content, we need to attract a community around us. To achieve that we have to produce high-quality content ourselves, then display it and let people interact with it. If you attract an audience to your content and build a brand, people will want to join your community. This is as true for traditional “letters to the editor” as for MySpace.com.

Second, we need to be “the provider of tools”. This means promoting open standards and interoperability, which will allow a diverse set of consumer-creators to combine disparate types of content.

Third, we must improve on our skills as the “filter and editor”. Media have always had these functions. The world will always need editing: consumers place value in others making decisions about what is good and what is not.

After all, just because everyone now has the ability to publish their own work does not make them the next Salam Pax, the pseudonymous blogger at the time of the invasion of Iraq. It is our job as media companies to find that new content gold in the pan of dust and dirt and give it a mass audience.

In the news industry, professional and “amateur” content combined creates a better product. It tells the story at a deeper level. Take the tragic Boxing Day tsunami in 2004. For the first 24 hours the best and only photos and video came from tourists. By day two, professional news organisations got to the scene and captured the horror of the aftermath, influencing the international response by capturing the sheer scale of the disaster. A pro-am co-operation meant telling the story at another level – the horror of the wave strike and the tragedy of the aftermath.

You have to be open to both amateur and professional content to tell the story completely. I believe that professional articles and photographs, if available, will generally be authoritative. But, in the first instance, they can be complemented by content created by amateurs.

We are now at our crossroads. Old media – and I now would include the first wave of online publishing – have a choice: integrate the new world or risk becoming less relevant. Our industry must not fall into the old protectionist strategies that defined the first phase of the internet. The internet was not invented just to show a replica of yesterday’s newspaper with a few banner advertisements. We cannot be the choke-hold, blocking the new creators in a bid to protect our legacy businesses.

The new center of the media universe

Tracey Taylor: “The Guardian has just under 400,000 readers. Its website, however, has 11 million readers a month.”

Tracey heard Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger speaking last night at Berkeley’s journalism school. He was here as part of a trip to key thinkers/potential allies/exemplary companies in the Bay Area. I think it’s fascinating that a British editor and his colleagues (there’s a whole gang of Guardian executives with Rusbridger) come here to seek enlightenment, rather than making the more familiar trip to New York.

A further sign that The Guardian understands the new media world better than just about anyone else.

Civil liberties be damned

Every day, in supposedly caring, sensible Berkeley, I see people do incredibly stupid things while driving. They turn suddenly in front of oncoming traffic. They pull out from a side street without warning. They fail to stop at a pedestrian crossing. The majority of the time, they are chatting away on their cellphone.

Astoundingly, it isn’t illegal to talk on a cellphone while driving in California. I don’t know whether legislators have failed to catch up with the growth of a comparatively new technology, or whether they have decided on a course of wilful neglect. The evidence of cellphone use impairing driver attentiveness is indisputable, which is why many other countries (like Britain) have banned their use.

So a part of me welcomes the proposal in Britain to expand the use of surveillance cameras to catch those using their cellphones while driving, or not wearing seatbelts. When the law changes here in California, and I’m certain it eventually will, it would be nice to have an effective enforcement mechanism.

The other part of me, with the steady erosion of so many civil liberties in mind, shudders at the thought. There’s a lot about the US polity that troubles me, but I think it would be impossible to imagine the final sentence of The Guardian’s coverage if it were transposed to the US: “A spokeswoman for Liberty said increasing the use of cameras to catch drivers breaking the law would not be a curb on their civil liberties.”

The reality of relative decline

Philip Stephens in the Financial Times makes some important comments on the challenge the US and Europe face as economic power shifts to the emerging nations of what used to be called the south (subscribers only): “I have often heard it said that economic interdependence is a sure safeguard against great-power conflict. How could the US and China go to war over Taiwan when their prosperity is so intertwined? The next phase of globalisation, though, will confront established powers with the reality of relative decline. We have reached a dangerous moment.”