First Look’s Failure To Experiment–And Launch


July 29, 2014
Pierre Omidyar. Credit: OnInnovation/Flickr

Pierre Omidyar. Credit: OnInnovation/Flickr

Nine months ago the media world was treated to intense hyperventilation as billionaire Pierre Omidyar and lone ranger journalist Glenn Greenwald launched First Look Media. From the start, the project was light on details–in fact the best explanation came from non-employee/consultant Jay Rosen. Yet, all we really knew for sure was that Omidyar had committed $250 million to the project and Greenwald would be part of it.

In the time since its announcement hoo-hah, First Look has suffered from a general failure to launch. Yes, The Intercept has launched, but it remains a stunningly low-tech site with few significant scoops and no visible new ideas on how to interact with readers or create a sustainable business. Matt Tabibi, another great journalist, was brought on in early June, but his planned publication has changed from “a publication focusing on financial and political corruption” to “a satirical approach to American politics and culture.” That seems like a big change, without much explanation doesn’t it?

It’s too early to question Greenwald’s, Taibbi’s or Omidyar’s commitment to the project, after all nobody’s left the project and Omidyar’s blog post yesterday reflects what seem to be some deep thought on the best way to do things. The title of Omidyar’s post says, “First Look is Still Very Much a Startup.” They’re experimenting. That’s good.

But the thing about media experiments is that they require audiences to test the theory. So what are they doing to build an audience? Other news media projects actively test their models with the outside world. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. SB Nation, NSFWCORP, Pando Daily, Buzzfeed and The Information have/had considerably less funding than First Look Media, but they certainly seem to be doing a lot of experimenting.

When will First Look ante up and start testing something real?

Ways to Differentiate Content


July 22, 2014

There are four basic ways to differentiate content:

  • Solve information scarcity;
  • Unique analysis;
  • A unique tone or voice; or
  • Presentation.

1. Scarcity

Most information is no longer scarce. At any moment consumers have a dozen ways to check the weather, learn traffic, get national and local headlines and even check prices on products.

Similarly, because information delivery is so efficient today, truly scarce information does not stay scarce for long. And the more relevant the information may be to a larger group of people, the briefer the half-life of its scarcity (e.g. death of Michael Jackson crashing Twitter and Google News).

Information that is highly valuable to small groups of people can remain scarce for long periods of time, usually because its distribution is guarded either through paywalls, subscriptions or secrecy.

If you actually manage to solve for scarcity (really provide something nobody else is doing in any other channel), it is the surest way to obtain and retain an audience. The trickiest part, however, is to ensure the information you’re providing is relevant to somebody.

For instance, if I could tell all people of New Glarus, Wisconsin with some certainly, which days their bosses will yell at them so they can plan vacation for those days, most of New Glarans would be very interested in my reports. But outside of the town, the information would be worthless–hardly fodder for a national report. A simple concept but: When attempting to solve for scarcity, make sure the information you’ll provide will be relevant to a large enough audience to be profitable.

2. Perspective and Analysis

Consumers have an almost limitless variety of choices for obtaining information. With low switching costs, basic facts are no longer their guiding factor for choosing. How it is presented has become important. Today, consumers demand and receive:

  • Content that reinforces their self-image and worldview. (e.g. Conservative talk radio)
  • Presentation and channels that matches their lifestyle. (e.g. Video like Vice News vs. newspapers vs. web-based text reports )
  • Content that presents information in a new perspective. (e.g. explainer websites, like Vox and 538.com)

It is tempting to believe that by choosing to present your news in a particular form of perspective or analysis you are limiting yourself to one segment of the general audience. Another frame of reference might be: What perspective or form of analysis are news consumers currently seeking? In other words: All news consumers already want a certain perspective and in today’s hyper-efficient marketplace someone is going to serve it. So which segment are you going to choose to serve?

3. Tone and Voice

A change in content tone can mean the difference between Mother Jones and The New York Times. Both may have investigated and gathered the same facts, but one is shrill and the other measured. Content tone and emphasis placed on voice when presenting information (i.e. MSNBC vs. Walter Cronkite) makes a significant difference in emotional impact for the consumer.

Consider the impact of voice:

  • What if the TMZ TV show was presented like national evening news?
  • What if DrudgeReport.com was presented like harpers.org?
  • What if This American Life sounded like a morning shock jock?

Finding the right tone and voice is often “found” only after significant experimentation by even the best writers and producers.

4. Presentation: Channels and User Interface

Ultimately, channels are different user interfaces. You listen to the radio, you read a website, you watch television. You need physical or digital controls to manipulate those interfaces, and while they may all include duplicate flashy graphics or easy to use buttons, the manner in which the content is consumed: listening, watching, reading; directly affects how you perceive the content.

Unlike days of yore, where channels were strongly defended: radio was music, television was moving pictures and newsprint were words; channels are much less differentiated than they once were. For instance, DNAInfo Chicago includes text, video, pictures and even it’s own digital radio – all on the same website. Since anyone can access all of these through a phone or tablet, how does a news consumer figure out the difference between the channels?

The answer is: Consumers don’t care. When the same or similar content is offered through different channels, consumers will choose the channel and user interface that best fits their lifestyle–or is easiest to use.

As channels continue to merge and digital content ends up covering basically every kind of content, user interfaces become increasingly valuable. When every content source includes a combination of text, video, pictures and words, the amount of friction between getting the content you want and enjoying it becomes the main way consumers decide whether or not you choose a content source.

Types of Content And Their Monetization


July 16, 2014

Content can do one of three things for consumers. It can:

  • Entertain;
  • Edify; or
  • Be Essential.

For example: People Magazine entertains. The Chicago Tribune edifies. Some believe Platt’s Oil News is essential.

Entertaining content is the most broadly desired; everybody likes it, since many of us want to know Brangelina’s latest. But entertaining content has has the least “stickiness” since none of us really need to know. If you move, forget to renew your subscription or cut back on your budget, People is the first to go.

Edifying content makes people feel better about themselves because they eat their “news vegetables.” You’re glad to know more about the latest city hall battle, but chances are it doesn’t directly affect you, so if you don’t read it, your life hasn’t really changed. This defines just about every metro daily newspaper in the United States.

Essential content is just that: Consumers believe that the information will change their lives or businesses in a meaningful way. Some people may believe weekly counts of oil wells drilled is essential, for some it may be a detailed list of things they can do with their kids in the city next weekend. Typically, essential content is very useful for a small group, but useless for the population at large.

Monetizing content heavily depends on how it engages people. Small groups of readers will pay high amounts and endure terrible interfaces if they believe the content is essential. Large groups of people will consume entertaining information, but only if the experience is relatively frictionless and at a low cost. Platt’s Oil News costs thousands of dollars a year, serving a few thousand people that make million-dollar decisions based on the information it provides. People Magazine is virtually free (if you play the subscription offers right!) serving tens of millions of people every day who view their website and display ads looking to learn about Bragelina’s latest hair style.

In the middle of all this, edifying content providers are in a terrible squeeze position. Without information essential to their readers’ daily life and a large enough audience to scale up advertising, you can’t get enough subscription revenue or attract enough readers to for a big enough advertising base. This is the fate of the metro daily newspaper. The Washington Post and The New York Times may prove the exception, because they have national readership.

Suburban weeklies and small-town dailies help connect their communities, where there isn’t any other good way to learn the news, so they remain essential. But in the biggest markets, news consumers are bombarded with local news, and thus don’t need their metro dailies. And so neither do advertisers.

 

Beyond Thunderdome: Innovate How News Is Sold


April 3, 2014

Dan Kennedy has a good wrap-up (and so does Newsosaur) of the demise of Digital First Media’s impending collapse following the closure of their Thunderdome Project.

I believe Thunderdome was an innovative process, but it was not enough innovation, sticking to the production side of things, rather than the actual model of news content was sold. Little there has changed: Digital First Media is still producing newspapers (and websites), then trying to get advertisers to advertise in them while also trying to get readers to subscribe to them. What changed was not the business model, but the way the newspapers and websites got made: with a centralized news production process.

Creating a centralized desk for news production is a significant effort; The News Gods know how resistant journalists are to change. But while it attacks the issue of cost (much in the same way Journatic attempted), it does nothing to actually change the system for how compensation is obtained for the news created.

If you’ve looked at any news organization’s P&L, you wouldn’t likely find much innovation in Digital First Media. It was still make news > get subscribers > get advertisers. The innovators are ditching the advertising models, or minimizing them.

In the last year, we’ve seen the launch of ReCode.net, Walt Mossberg & Kara Swisher’s tech site that relies on conference revenue, as does Digiday.com, the ad and publishing news site and Pando.com, a tech news site that’s beginning to focus on new conference offerings. TheInformation.com, a tech news site launched by former WSJ staff, is subscription-based. Skift.com, a travel industry news site founded by the creator of PaidContent.com, Rafat Ali, makes its money from travel industry analysis reports.

It’s not innovation anymore to change how you make the news, you have to change how you sell the news.

 

TV Networks’ Position Is Worse Than They Let On

From Cnet.com: CBS chief says network could go all-Internet if Aereo wins:

“If there are systems out there that try to hurt us, then we could go to OTT,” [CBS Chief Executive Leslie Moonves] said, using the abbreviation for over-the-top Internet television delivery. “If Aereo should work, if they should win, which we don’t think is going to happen, we could go OTT with CBS.”

There are so many reasons why doing this would be the networks cutting off their nose to spite their face:  such as the amount of money their O-and-Os still make over broadcast or the fact that many small market independently-owned stations only make money because they are the sole provider (via broadcast) of network content.

Don’t get me wrong, all the networks are going to have to make this move at some point. But right now their economics are set up for the broadcast model. Aereo is just hastening the inevitable reckoning. The question is: Will the networks be forced into a crash-change, or will they have enough time and foresight to create a gradual change?

The fact that multi-billion dollar deals like this are still happening makes me think the former is more likely.

March 11, 2014 |

NYT Announces Their Nate Silver Replacement: The Upshot

Via Quartz:

David Leonhardt, the Times’ former Washington bureau chief, who is in charge of The Upshot, told Quartz that the new venture will have a dedicated staff of 15, including three full-time graphic journalists, and is on track for a launch this spring.“The idea behind the name is, we are trying to help readers get to the essence of issues and understand them in a contextual and conversational way,” Leonhardt says. “Obviously, we will be using data a lot to do that, not because data is some secret code, but because it’s a particularly effective way, when used in moderate doses, of explaining reality to people.”

This sounds like it’ll be good, but there’s no way it will fully replace the traffic Nate Silver generated. He’s a very unique talent with a very unique approach.

March 10, 2014 |

Free Images: Getty Gets It


Notice something different? Yep, it’s the embed system that’s part of the Getty image. Starting today, most Getty images are now available for non-commercial use and sharing this way. Not sure if it will actually result in Getty making more money (and more photogs get paid), but it’s definitely thinking in the right direction, rather than the usual way creative content owners respond.

Note: There’s still some problems with Getty’s tech. Just fooling around a bit with the iframe height settings allow you to crop off the embed caption. And it doesn’t look like the images can be made responsive.

March 5, 2014 |

Pando Daily’s crossed the line with First Look

When determining journalistic integrity, there’s a blurry line between what is important and not important. At some point you begin chasing ghosts and ranting, rather than discussing real conflicts of interest.

With yesterday’s rant, I think Pando Daily has officially moved across the blurry line from asking reasonable questions into a witch hunt. There’s no there there, and if Pando’s team is reasonable, Glenn Greenwald’s measured response should pretty much close the book on the issue.

March 1, 2014 |

Seth Rogen’s ego attack, disguised as Alzheimer’s support

Earlier this week Seth Rogen made a celebrity appearance in the U.S. Senate to convey his personal experience with Alzheimer’s, his mother-in-law suffers from the disease. His speech was cute and included a weed joke, which is what you expect from Seth Rogen.

CSPAN video of the speech has gone far more viral than most CSPAN material, which is what celebrity Congressional testimony is designed to do. My father suffers from Alzheimer’s, so I’m excited when the disease gets any publicity, since people need to know how pervasive it is.

Following the speech however, Rogen went on a rant that almost nobody from the committee stayed to hear his speech. His most notable target was Illinois Senator Mark Kirk, who took a picture with Rogan, then tweeted out a picture of them meeting before the hearing. Rogan, upset that Kirk didn’t stay for his speech, later lambasted Kirk on Twitter.

Because I also worked in D.C. politics, I wasn’t surprised that Kirk left the hearing early. senators have to meet with lots of people. And listening to two hours of testimony, rather than reading it on paper later, or getting the TLDR version from their committee staff, is not something they should be expected to do. In fact, Lynn Sweet reported that Kirk left the hearing to meet with the head of Chicago’s Adler Planetarium.

As a result, Rogen managed to convert a strong appearance on behalf on Alzheimer’s research and turn it into his person ego attack. A loss for all of us.

February 28, 2014 |

News flash: Nobody wants to fund your news non-profit

An important confession from inewsource founder Lorie Hearn:

We journalists think we’re above talking about money, let alone asking for it. We’re too self-righteous for that. At least, I thought I was. Well, the cold hard facts about the future of accountability journalism lie in cold hard cash.

The biggest mistake I made in founding a journalism nonprofit was thinking that good work will automatically attract funding.

The number of great reporters who have suggested to me that if you just started a news non-profit, the money would roll in, are too many to count. Hearn tells an important real-world fact: That if you’re starting a news org, either for- or non-profit, make sure you know where your money is going to come from and what is your value-add to the consumer.

February 25, 2014 |