Author Archives: Mike Fourcher

What We’ve Learned From Aldertrack (Part One)


November 25, 2014

aldertrack-logo

In early October, Jimm Dispensa and I launched the third and newest version of Aldertrack, a quadrennial Chicago politics reporting service that focuses on the Chicago municipal elections. It’s changed quite a bit as we’ve learned how to run over the years what I’m calling a “hobby vertical news service.”

The first version, for the 2007 elections, was an all-text website operated entirely by Jimm that aimed to gather every last article and tidbit about Chicago’s elections, then sort it all out by ward. In a proto-Twitter/Facebook world, the free website still managed to go viral among Chicago’s biggest politics junkies with it’s total devotion to Chicago’s arcane political process and election minutia.

Then, I joined up with Jimm for the second version in 2011 after convincing him that we should team up with a “real” news outlet and create a subscription political news service. All of Jimm’s work, I argued, should be paid for by the people spending big money on Chicago campaigns. And with Chicago’s first open-mayoral election in decades, there would be lots of interested people.

To Jimm’s credit, he was game for my crazy scheme.

After talking with a few different news outlets in town, we teamed up with the non-profit Chicago News Cooperative to create Early & Often. With Jimm’s obsession with detail, CNC’s great reporting and my marketing efforts, we set a low target of a thousand subscriptions, hopes for maybe three thousand subscribers and a price of $150 a head.

Things didn’t go as planned. Our free weekday email topped out at about 5,000 people, while only about 250 people purchased subscriptions. Without significant revenue Early & Often petered out after the election and so did the Chicago News Cooperative soon thereafter, their assets going to The Chicago Sun Times which later reinvigorated Early & Often as its own political news brand.

This Election Season’s Experiment

Racing Form front pageFor 2014/15 Jimm and I decided to do something that would fall between the 2007 and 2011 efforts. Jimm envisioned distributing a document, an incredibly detailed Chicago Racing Form  about every aldermanic candidate (there’s 250+) to be sold as a paper and a PDF edition. The paper edition would be sold for $7 in Chicago neighborhood taverns where folks tend to hang out and talk politics. The PDF would be sold online for $5. We’d promote everything to our old Aldertrack email list of politicos and politics junkies, as well as some new people we scraped from City of Chicago lobbyist declaration forms.

We knew from the beginning that Jimm’s Chicago Racing Form was going to be an insane bargain. The amount of detail Jimm planned was staggering–probably worth hundreds of dollars a copy. But we wanted to create something that anyone could afford, with a low enough barrier to purchase so that we could find out just how many people in Chicago are willing to pay something, anything, for Chicago political news. We decided to conduct a social/economic experiment.

aldertrack-2014-salesWe had a great launch day on Tuesday, October 7. That day we sold 60 copies online of the Chicago Racing Form. However, sales plummeted after the launch and we only sold about 120 in total. It was still early in the game though, since the federal/state elections hadn’t been held yet. The chief buyers we figured, were true hard-core politics junkies. We figured the next big surge would be when candidate ballot petitions became due, November 17.

Paper copies were another story. Sales were anemic, only a few dozen copies, as barkeeps lost track of the copies, actual sales and we offered no point-of-sale marketing. Admittedly, we had planned poorly. The worst part was the printing cost–just under $600 for 500 copies of a 56 page 8.5×11 document. It was was fun to handout and sell tangible, paper copies, but for us it was a total wash.

As we watched digital sales flatten out after launch, we remembered that in 2010 interest in the upcoming Chicago elections kicked up as petitions to get on the ballot were filed, so we decided to create a Second Edition with even more detail and daily updates at a slightly higher price: $10.

In Illinois, “the race before the race” is the effort to file ballot petitions and stay on the ballot. Every candidate needs to file a certain number of valid signatures from registered voters in their district to get on the ballot. “Valid” is the key word. After candidates file their petitions, opponents (or any citizen) can pull copies of petitions and then compare names and signatures to voter registration records on file with the Chicago Board of Elections. Then, if the opponent finds enough “invalid” signatures, they can file a legal objection with the Board to knock the candidate off the ballot.

Lots of unwary and unprepared candidates get knocked off the ballot. The process is tricky and very little of the law governing it is codified, mostly existing as obscure case law. Only about a dozen Illinois attorneys practice in this area and political bosses maintain crews of petition scrubbing experts to keep ballots clean of people they don’t want to deal with on election day.

This is exactly the kind of insider event that Aldertrack was built for. Jimm decided he would check in at the Board of Elections multiple times each day during filing week On the first and last days of filing he’d basically camp out at the Board, tweeting out candidate filings and some pictures while I’d retweet what candidates and the media put out.

We gained 400 Twitter followers in a week and sold 149 copies of the Racing Form during that time. Not bad. But have we penetrated the majority of the market? We’ll see if we do better down the line.

Here, so far, are the conclusions I think we can draw from the process so far.

1. The audience for Chicago politics isn’t actually that big. In 2011 we were backed by a trusted news brand, the Chicago News Cooperative, and ultimately gathered about 250 paid monthly subscriptions. This year, with a $10 flat fee, we’ve only gotten about 150 purchases. That number will probably increase, maybe even triple, but it’s far from on track to sustain a news organization.

2. Politics junkies aren’t interested in reporting and analysis, they’re interested in raw information and data. Most people interested and invested in political outcomes already know most of the rumors and have figured out the available chess table moves. What they really want to know is where the chess pieces are so they can understand if there are new moves to make. Thus, information scarcity is what drives people to pay for political coverage, not the insight and analysis political reporters love to talk about.

3. It takes a lot of effort and inside knowledge to produce a high quality product for junkies. From a reporter’s perspective, political insiders already know much more than they do. A strong news business is in the information arbitrage business, telling readers what they don’t know already. Finding reporters that can just have an intelligent conversation with political insiders, often talking in a very local, hyper-specific context, so they can understand available arbitrage points is very difficult. But if your news organization isn’t able to do that, your information product will not be valuable to insiders.

4. Traditional advertising doesn’t do much to increase penetration among junkies. We spent about $100 on Facebook and Twitter ads and they did nothing. Granted, what wasn’t very much money, but our potential audience isn’t very big. Instead we spent our efforts building our email list and creating a sales funnel: Twitter > Email > Racing Form purchase. Inbound email marketing for the win!

5. Facebook is useless for small audiences. The social network’s throttling of free posts to your audience makes it hard to demonstrate value to the audience and thus increase it. Our Facebook follower audience stalled at around 200 while our Twitter audience has surged with every big news event to close to 700. And our Tweets promoting the Racing Form has converted into sales. Facebook never has.

6. No matter how simple the purchase process, someone will always have a problem. We built a super simple front-page button purchase process that keeps buyers on the same page. Once you buy, you’re automatically directed to the download page. We’ve had problems with people downloading, clicking the purchase button multiple times (making multiple charges) and having ultra-low 800x600px screen resolution so they can’t see the whole purchase form. I’ve tried to provide within-the-hour customer service response to emails by taking orders over the phone, emailing files, etc. But even so, we’ve probably lost about 3% of our sales to technical issues.

7. Unless it delivers some specific value, print is dead as a medium for small runs. Our attempt to sell print editions was a total bust. Granted, we used non-traditional venues rather than bookstores or newsstands, but we found those difficult to negotiate and either way we had no point-of-sale marketing, which would have made a difference, but another sunken cost. I don’t think we’ll do another print version unless we start turning out tens of thousands of copies.

8. WordPress is the bomb. The development costs of our operation were laughably low.
Hosting – $50/mo
Wordpress – Free
Site design/ThemeForest – $12
Secure download code/CodeCanyon – $8
Member management/Wishlist Member – $79
Mailchimp – $50/mo
Stripe – 2.9% + 30¢ per transaction

Before our first sale, we paid about $200 to launch the digital operation. That’s the kind of thing anyone could do.

Stay tuned for another update further down the line on what we’ve learned so far.

Apple Pay: It’s Good For You


October 29, 2014

Last week Apple launched Apple Pay, a one-touch payment system using the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, that uses your existing credit cards at cash registers at hundreds of thousands of brick-and-mortar stores around the United States. Within the first week, Apple announced over 1 million credit cards had been activated with Apple Pay, making it already the number one “contactless payment system” in the world.

I’ve used it and think it’s nothing short of revolutionary. Apple also claims it is the safest, most secure system available to consumers, which makes it even more impressive. More on that further down.

I’ve been using Apple Pay since the launch; the process works like magic. It’s so fast, that a couple of times, when I used it in a store, both the checkout clerk and I were surprised at how quick things went. After I’d registered my credit card (which in itself was easy) and I got to the checkout counter, it went like this:

  1. I pulled out my phone and waved it by the payment box (often a PIN pad).
  2. The phone woke up on its own, then showed me my credit card and indicated I should use my fingerprint reader.
  3. I “thumbed” my phone and a tone went off.
  4. Since I use a debit card, the checkout asked for my pin. I punched it in.
  5. Payment complete, receipt started printing.

Had I used a regular credit card, it would have skipped the fourth step and been even faster.

I’ve since used Apple Pay at Walgreen’s, Whole Foods, a taxi I hailed on the street, and most awesome: a CTA Ventra turnstile (it charged me full fare, not the reduced Ventra card fare). Every stop brought the same experience.

If you’ve ever tried Google Wallet, Square, PayPal or any other phone-based payment system, you know there are often more awkward steps and is it sometimes slower than just using a regular old credit card. And unlike those other systems, Apple Pay doesn’t cost the consumer anything more: Apple gets paid a fraction of what banks pay credit card companies for the transaction. This means credit card companies don’t lose out, and like the system more than they’d like Google Wallet, Square or PayPal.

Apple really has nailed the user experience of the payment system. It is fast, requires one touch and very little thought. Much like Amazon’s “one-click” purchase if you have Amazon Prime, it’s addicting and could potentially lead to many more purchases, I imagine.

But it’s the under the hood stuff, the security aspects, that makes Apple Pay really worth your time and the best defense against getting your credit cards hijacked by mass hack-attacks like the ones that hit Target, Kmart, Albertson’s grocery and others. It’s all because Apple uses “tokenization” and a special secure chip, meaning neither your credit card number or any other personal information is revealed during your transaction. And because the Apple Pay transaction is so secure from hackers, reducing fraud risk, banks love it so much that some are paying their customers to try Apple Pay.

There are some good explanations of how tokenization works, but essentially it reduces your payment request to the bank into a one-time mathematical code that means gibberish to hackers that may try to reverse engineer it. And because Apple’s iPhone 6 and 6 Plus manage the transactions on a secure chip, insulated from every other part of the phone, no hacker could break into your phone to get transaction information. In fact, once you register your card, the only people who know what transactions you’ve completed are you and your bank.

This payment Nirvana, where only a few people get to know what you’re up to, is not part of many big retailers’ plans. That’s why a group called CurrentC, made up of companies like RiteAid and CVS, has been opposing Apple Pay. They want to use their system, due to be launched sometime next year, to manage your electronic payments. And yes, their system will be much less secure and it will provide participating retailers with a lot of information about you. Not an appealing option.

If you have a iPhone 6 or 6 Plus, Apple Pay is very useful. And if you’re considering a new phone, I’d say Apple Pay should tip the balance in favor of the iPhone.

Cord Cutting Will Kill Local TV Stations


October 19, 2014
Pretty soon, this sort of thing might be extinct. Credit: Lars Plougmann/Flickr.

Pretty soon, this sort of thing might be extinct. Credit: Lars Plougmann/Flickr.

All of a sudden, it seems like cord cutting is gaining big momentum from content providers. HBO, CBS, Univision and event the NBA are creating plans that will allow regular folks to get their shows and games streamed online, without a cable TV plan. Exciting stuff for those of us who want to go more a la carté with our television consumption, whittling down that $120 cable bill.

But as I’ve been looking at the coverage, almost all of it is written from the networks’, the cable companies’ and consumers’ perspective. What about the television middleman, local broadcast stations? Especially the non-O&O guys who lack their networks’ deep-pocketed protection?

In just a few short years, cord cutting is going to create a financial drought for non-O&O stations. Built on the dependency of people watching a riveting episode of “The Good Wife”, and then keeping the channel on for the local news, or maybe turning it on before Letterman starts, CBS’ new streaming plan is going obliterate that long-standing system.

And advertising surrounding the news at 4:30, 5 and 10 are what have kept local stations afloat all these years. If people can get “The Good Wife” and Letterman streamed to their laptops for just $6 a month, do you think they’ll turn on the TV to watch Birmingham’s CBS42 News at 10’s Daily Pledge?

All of a sudden deals like Tribune’s $2.7 billion local TV station purchase don’t look so good.

Yes, local TV audiences have climbed a bit in the last year. And yes, local TV ad revenue has been going up, especially due to increased bi-annual political ad spending.

But local tv ad revenues are dependent on the current status quo. The networks’ growing support of cord cutting is going change everything in just a few short years.

Very soon, we’ll start to see small local TV stations closing up shop and ad spending will consolidate. There will no longer be room for three (or four) local TV news reports. Just like the merger of small daily newspapers, small TV stations will close up or join forces. And it won’t be pretty.

Just A Good Sandwich


October 9, 2014
Olga Bauer makes a smoked butt sandwich. Credit: Mike Fourcher

Olga Bauer makes a smoked butt sandwich. Credit: Mike Fourcher

Olga’s Delicatessen, in Chicago’s Albany Park, makes, flat out, some of the best sandwiches I’ve ever had. I’ve been twice in the last two weeks, and each time she created an amazing Germanic pile of meat on great bread slathered with vinegary brown mustard. But first she would insist on offering me tastes of the various cuts she had on hand: Chicken and pork schnitzel, smoked butt, roast beef. All warm and fresh from the oven.

Sandwich and Jay’s potato chips: $7, including tax.

A glance around the place can be a bit…unsettling. It’s ostensibly a grocery store with a deli in the back. And many of the items on the shelves seem to have been placed–along with their dust–in the early 1980’s. Notice how she’s not using gloves in the picture?

The place is a throwback. Not just the decor, but the entire way of doing business. In the Chicago of my youth, back in the 80’s, there were dozens, if not hundreds of these kinds of places across the city. Slapdash lunch places where the food was cooked on a stove in back or upstairs with a decidedly less hygienic decor. Maybe some fly paper strips loaded with insects.

A chicken and pork schnitzel sandwich.

My chicken and pork schnitzel sandwich from Olga’s. Devoured in short order.

Walking from school to the L, every afternoon I passed a hot dog stand on North and North Park. It was a squat, dingy brick shack, painted white, just large enough for the grill, a counter and five stools against a foot-wide table on the wall. I’d pick up a bag of fries for a dollar now and then, as much as my teenage budget would allow. They were hot and covered with ketchup, keeping my fingers warm as I’d wait on the train platform a block away.

That place is an empty lot now, a victim of raising property values. But other similarly, low rent spots have fallen off the map as more efficient Potbelly’s, Costello’s and Chipotles have hoovered up customers looking for a decent lunch at a decent price…and hygienic conditions.

But we didn’t all die in the 1980’s when we went to the dusty spots. And I didn’t either after I ate at Olga’s. In fact, I enjoyed it. And I think you will too. You should go. 3209 W. Irving Park Rd.

Seeking: Diverse Childhood For Chicago Kid


October 9, 2014
Waters Elementary

Waters Elementary School in Chicago’s Lincoln Square neighborhood. Credit: Mike Fourcher

It takes work to live a diverse life in Chicago. For someone raised by contentious, activist parents and who worked in minority Democratic politics for a dozen years, it’s an inescapable reality. And I’m beginning to believe that, unless my wife and I make some serious changes in where we live and how we spend our time–by deliberately seeking out diversity, nothing is going to change for us.

And let me be clear: By diversity I mean Latino and African American people. Asians. Native Americans. People of color. Brown people. I know that my neighborhood, Lincoln Square/North Center, is a generally higher income area, but not all of it (for now anyway). Yet according to the 2009 census, Lincoln Square is 61% white and North Center is 78% white. Why the heck don’t more people of color live in my neighborhood?

That’s a naive question, I know. Yet, I’m told my ZIP code has the highest number of Sierra Club members in Illinois. My ward was the one of the biggest vote getters for Miguel del Valle in the 2011 mayoral election. On the face of it, we’re a liberal, open community. So why don’t people of color feel welcome and want to move to Lincoln Square?

In fact, I feel like our community is getting even more lily white.

This year my son started kindergarten at our neighborhood elementary school, Waters Elementary. Since I once operated a community news site, I’d noticed that Waters seemed relatively diverse, with a significant Latino population, even hosting a fairly well-attended annual Dia del Muertos celebration. My wife and I, who both lacked diverse elementary school experiences, were looking forward to our son getting, “the full city experience.”

But something else important has been happening with Waters: relatively well-to-do families in Lincoln Square have been stuck in their mortgages, unable to move to the suburbs and unwilling to fork out tens of thousands of dollars a year for increasingly expensive private school. All of a sudden, over the last five years Waters Elementary has become, “a good neighborhood school,” where upwardly mobile parents volunteer in droves and plan to enroll their kids.

After the first day of school this year, Waters’ principal announced there would only be neighborhood kids in the Kindergarten class. Local demand was so high it could not take in children outside the Chicago Public Schools-defined boundary. In addition, the two kindergarten classes would reach the legal maximum of 33 kids each.

Sitting in evening orientation sessions, waiting on the playground for the morning opening bell to ring, my wife and I looked around and greeted the other parents of kindergarteners. They all looked like us: white professionals with a heavy sprinkling of white stay-at-home moms. Maybe a couple of Latino families–one a emigrant professional from Buenos Aires.

The diversity we had sought for our son seems to have eluded us.

Yes, the average single family home price is bumping up on $800k in the area immediately surrounding the school. And I recognize the average income disparity between people of color and whites is significant. Is it purely money? Or is there more?

But to ask a more concrete question: If I want my son to experience diversity in his childhood, do we need to move to another neighborhood?

I don’t have answers to these questions. Maybe you do.

ONA: Great Conference, But Missing Something


September 28, 2014

This past week brought the Online News Association conference to Chicago for the first time. Markedly different from so many other news conventions, ONA focuses entirely on digital without an ounce of print or broadcast–except to discuss the struggles of working within legacy organizations.

It was the first time I’ve attended ONA, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Extraordinarily well managed, the conference brought an all-time high of 1,900 attendees, according to the organizers, and exuded a vitality and optimism missing from most news-related gatherings these days. I ran into colleagues I hadn’t seen for years, met some people I’d long admired and got some great insight into how other news organizations are thinking about their work. Well worth the experience, and I’ll try to go again next year when it’s in Los Angeles.

And then, in the middle of everything, on Friday, Rafat Ali, creator of Skift.com and Paid Content (now part of GigaOm), posted This Vertical Life: The Media Models I Admire. He says:

While the rest of the media writes about the same five so-called-innovative-news/media/content-startups over and over again (check any Carr/Ingram/any-other-media-reporter article about BuzzVoxViceAtavistQuartz538GawkerUpworthyFirstLookInformation & ilk), verticals in digital have been buzzing even before blogs became mainstream, and a lot of them have experimented and thrived beyond just media-as-product.

Ali, who spends a lot of time writing and thinking about news business models slams the media world pretty hard. But, the post is well worth reading all the way through, especially for the list of models he likes. I’m not sure if he meant to publish his post smack in the middle of the ONA gathering, but in my eyes he certainly pointed out the biggest problems with the convention: the lack of connection between news production and money-making, and the tendency to laud the same well-known brands again and again.

Granted, ONA did host an interesting track of sessions on Business Leadership, but most of it was focused on the operations of building news organizations, rather than the monetizing. The conference also made a concerted effort to bring a number of news startups to the exhibitor hall (including my own, Rivet) which was probably one of the most interesting exhibitor halls I’ve seen at any conference. There were also numerous other startup workshops and judging panels that, while I didn’t attend (because there was just too much other good stuff), certainly looked like they had worthy speakers and discussion.

That said, the vast majority of the conference was about the craft of news making, reaching and building audiences. But I don’t think that was really the fault of the conference organizers as much as an ingrained way the news industry encourages a vast gulf between business and editorial. One editorial colleague I talked to at ONA, contemplating a move from news to advertising, spoke of it as, “selling my soul to the dark side,” for the sake of supporting boring brands.

And there, in a nutshell, remains the biggest problem the news industry needs to overcome: Believing that making money with news, branded content or advertising is not an evil deed. When the salesmen in your company say, “Readers want to see the ads, it helps them,” they are not bullshitting you. Devoting time to creating enticing branded content is not hucksterism: It’s paying the bills. Which is noble, creates jobs and makes the world go around.

While news, through digital distribution, is experiencing some of it’s biggest readerships and investment ever, the truly knotty problems are not in editorial or audience growth: They’re in business models and the broader news industry’s sluggish pace to adapt to new ways to profitably serve audiences. Most news editorial folks, shielded from the grubby process of money-making and sales from the outset of their careers, are shamelessly unaware of how news organizations sell their product. And many news organization business leaders, used to decades of quarterly gains, remain generally clueless about why audiences consume their product, or any other media product.

I’m not sure how, but I’d like to see some sort of conference that brought out people like Ali to talk about new business models and their money-making viability. News business leaders need to learn why audiences choose certain content. Editorial leaders need to learn how things get sold. Only when there’s more hybrid thinkers, will the news business really return to it’s glory days.

iPhone 6: Fast And Slippery


September 21, 2014

I admit it: I really wanted the iPhone 6. It had been two years since I’d upgraded to a 4S and a couple weeks ago I shattered my old phone’s screen. It was time.

After a couple of days of ownership, I’ve got some impressions to share.

Staying with Apple and not switching to Android was a no-brainer for me. I don’t trust any of Google’s security measures and navigating the many Android models and OS upgrade paths seems daunting. Plus, my wife and I have a ton of apps we depend on together, not to mention all the photos we share.

I had pre-ordered new iPhone 6s for my wife and I, so they arrived at our house Friday mid-afternoon via UPS. I came home from some late afternoon appointments and there they were. No lines, no fuss. I waited in line for the first iPhone in 2007, which was fun and silly. But I don’t understand the excitement of waiting in line for just about anything any more when UPS can do a much better job at no additional cost.

Setting up the phone and linking it to existing AT&T accounts and phone numbers was effortless–all done at my dining room table with no instruction manual. And within 15 minutes of setting up my new phone I got a call. Remembering how hard it was for me to set up some of my earliest, non-Apple phones back in the early Naughts, the whole process just seemed magical.

Almost immediately, the thinness and lightweight of the iPhone 6 was noticeable, especially compared to my old 4S. The rounded edges and metal back of the 6 also make it slippery. Even though the 4S was all glass, I feared breaking it less than I do the 6. Somehow, my new iPhone seems much more fragile.

In the summer I usually just stick my phone in my back pocket, sometimes forgetting about it untilI sit down on a hard surface. Now, when I look at the new iPhone 6 lightness and thin profile, I find it hard to believe that behavior won’t just snap it in two at some point. Because I’m generally forgetful, I’m terrified that The Snapping will ultimately happen some afternoon when I plop down heavily on a park bench or something. I hope Apple’s materials engineers are better than my self-awareness.

While there are plenty of big improvements over the 4S, like camera, battery life and data speed, what constantly grabs me is the screen size and processor speed. My son loves to play a racing game, Asphalt 8, on the iPad. My wife and I downloaded the iPhone version and then discovered we could all compete against each other on local wi-fi, resulting in one of the coolest new family events: All of us staring at, gripping and wildly turning our devices while yelling taunts at each other across the room.

Asphalt 8 totally took over our house for a while, as my family all raced against each other.

Asphalt 8 totally took over our house for a while, as my family all raced against each other.

The graphics, music, and responsiveness is amazing. The fact that my iPhone allows me to run a gaming server for a graphically supercharged game (for up 8 people!) is an incredible feat of computation on such a small device. It brought to mind late-night Doom LAN parties in the 90’s I’d have in my office, and how our gaming would bring all local tech to a crawl. It was enough of a concern on the Hill that the House of Representatives IT Office issued a warning memo.

But now, with my little iPhone, I can play a graphically cutting-edge game on any old home network without a care. So much computational power in your pocket is incredible to me, and makes me think that with so much distributed horsepower, there’s got to be a new kind of information disruption coming.

We’ve already seen how quickly information can be distributed and how faster local networks allow larger data chunks to be moved. The iPhone 6’s speed, along with the inevitable speed bumps of coming phones, suggest to me that we should be looking for new kinds of local data crunching and computational analysis only now possible with today’s processors.

Let’s just hope I don’t crush my new supercomputer with my butt.

iTunes-U2 Distribution Deal Is Portent of Things To Come


September 16, 2014

There’s been a lot of complaining and moaning about Apple putting a free, not-so-good U2 album in 100 million iTunes accounts. It’s a true First World problem we have, that so many people have been subjected to music they don’t want. Music consumers just have too much to complain about.

But from the distribution perspective, the free U2 album is an incredible portent of what’s to come in media as well as the growing power of big distributors. Consider these facts:

  • Apple distributed content in a “friction-free” manner to hundreds of millions of consumers.
  • The U2 album (regardless of how good it might be) is exclusively available on iTunes for one month.
  • The amount of buzz about the album (regardless of how good it might be) is enormous.
  • The number of companies with this breadth of distribution is limited to only a handful (Apple, Amazon, Pandora).

Push distribution is not new, but consumers tend to have very personal relationships with their curated lists of media (“What’s on your iPod?”), which makes the iTunes-U2 deal very different from others. A media distributor’s ability to monkey with playlists is very powerful indeed. Philip Ingelbrecht at TechCrunch adeptly lays out how Apple has single-handedly elevated the concept of “windowing”, where new digital media is made available only on certain distribution platforms for limited periods, drawing new customers who demand particular content. But there’s another aspect here too: Pushing content at people who would never have been otherwise aware of it.

What if a video recording of the President detailing how Obamacare works was pushed to your iTunes playlist? What if it was a campaign video? What if Aerosmith decided to resuscitate their career by pushing a new album to everyone in the US for a week? What if This American Life pushed an episode?

What if you signed up for “Interesting Music” and Apple or Pandora pushed new content to you regularly? What if 60 Minutes pushed out a devastating report on the NFL on the Friday before the Super Bowl?

You wouldn’t have to watch or listen to it. But it would be there. In your playlist. You could ignore it, or listen to/watch it.

This, in digital form, is basically the power newspapers used to have when they landed on everyone’s doorstep. You didn’t have to read the ads, but they were there, and you could see them.

Today, Apple has 800 million customers. Pandora has 75 million active customers. Amazon Prime has 20 million customers. Friction-less push of content to people’s devices is the future.

Buzzfeed Investment: News Is About Execution, Not Innovation


August 11, 2014
Buzzfeed founder Jonah Peretti. (Kevin Moloney/Fortune Brainstorm TECH)

Buzzfeed founder Jonah Peretti. (Kevin Moloney/Fortune Brainstorm TECH)

Yesterday’s $50 million investment in Buzzfeed from Andreessen Horowitz suggests the future of news is about execution rather than innovation. To continue talking about “news innovation” at this point is just a distraction from just getting things done.

The brilliance of Buzzfeed is that they created and operate almost every aspect of their business. Investor Chris Dixon calls it a “full stack start-up” and has referred to Buzzfeed as such. Vertical integration has been Buzzfeed’s conscious strategy for at least three years, as founder Jonah Peretti detailed in a 2012 internal memo and then reiterated again in another staff memo in 2013.

Buzzfeed has created its own analytics, methods for tracking reader interest, ad units, CMS and editorial structure. Individually, little of what they have done is particularly innovative or even interesting–It is the fact that they’ve “built the whole enchilada” to quote Peretti, that makes Buzzfeed interesting.

There are a dozen examples of news organizations creating many of these individual components. Smaller organizations tend to stumble when it comes to obtaining the resources to really polish their creations. Larger organizations choke on getting their culture to adapt to the new technologies and their demands, or end up building kludges designed by committee.

Very little of what we’re seeing with Buzzfeed is actually new. The innovation is their ability to execute.

So much of the talk about news innovation is really just talking around the real problem: News organizations need to focus their energy on executing well.

Remembering The Consistency of Jim Oeffinger


August 10, 2014
Jim Oeffinger with his children and grandchildren.  Rarely did he smile for the camera. I'm in the red shirt.

Jim Oeffinger with his children and grandchildren for the annual gathering in August 2013. Rarely did he smile for the camera. I’m in the red shirt.

This time of year Versaillies, Kentucky is lush and green.  A small town twenty minutes west of Lexington, people here tend to drive trucks, wave to passers by and have slow internet connections. Politics and attitudes are decidedly conservative, and many people don’t see much need for change. With a moderate climate, a steady economy carried by the University of Kentucky and sprawling horse farms, keeping things the same in Versailles, (pronounced “ver-SAILS”) sounds pretty attractive.

It was the perfect kind of place for my father-in-law, Jim Oeffinger, who passed last week from injuries resulting from an experimental plane crash at the Oshkosh air show. A native of New Albany, Indiana, about 90 minutes north of his final home, Jim had lived in Northern Illinois and Chicago suburbs most of his life, changing homes to follow well-paying, steady work as sales engineers for Honeywell, Wang Computer and Digital Equipment Corporation.

The snow, commuter traffic and big-state taxes grated on him, as he was happy to tell you if conversation swerved that way. Pro-gun, NASCAR-watching and a regularly attending Roman Catholic, big city, Northern life didn’t fit him well. Although Jim had been retired from the computer industry for more than fifteen years when he moved South in early 2013, Kentucky seemed to be the beginning of his real retirement.

While he was an early tech worker, Jim never identified with the high-flying gizmo people of today’s internet economy. His passions lay elsewhere, with piston-driven fast cars and planes. As a young man he worked the Indianapolis 500 pits every year and for the last forty years he always owned at least one plane, earning flight ratings for fixed wing, helicopters, gliders and flight instruction.

Passing on the love of flight was his real passion. Dedicated to the Young Eagles program, Jim loved to take children on their first flights, and regularly boasted about that one kid who eventually became a Top Gun instructor for the U.S. Navy.

Besides his wife, Juliet, a fellow programmer he met while working for Honeywell in the early 1960’s, Jim had three daughters, not one of them a slouch. Firm and a stickler for rules, as a father Jim had few words, but was mightily consistent. Dinner at 6:15 with the whole family at the table every weeknight. Homework done right after with his help if they needed it.

One daughter, my wife, is a successful architect, another an accomplished research scientist and the oldest is a homemaker who seems to head up every school and community group her children encounter. Smart, self-possessed and worldly, Jim’s children never shy from a challenge and never once wondered what, “a woman’s place,” is supposed to be. It’s whatever they decide it should be.

The basis of conservatism is consistency with little change; that is how Jim lived with his daughters and wife. Affection and attention were meted out carefully and in small doses. Deliberate and process obsessed, his basement is filled with original boxes for things purchased decades ago, and his meticulously organized personal files contain owner’s manuals for every household gadget purchased over the last fifteen years.

His demand for structure and control, with few displays of affection, at times wore on his family. He was hard to connect with and tended to pull away from noisy, boisterous gatherings, inevitable when all the grandchildren were visiting for the holidays. But in the last few years he began to sequester himself with one or two grandchildren at a time to play or talk about small things. It was a big, welcome change from a man known for his reserve.

Jim’s values were molded in the small-town, southern Indiana of the 1950’s, where men were taught to stand alone and strong and that consistency and safety were the greatest gifts you could give your family. In that era, Jim would probably have been considered an unrivaled success. But in today’s world of unbridled consumerism and constant emotional expression, Jim’s steadfastness could seem old fashioned and awkward.

Yet Jim’s consistency is what we will miss the most. There are no crazy children or giant family dramas. Everyone knows their own ability and that what he left behind is steady and strong. It is a legacy of which any man could be proud and fits the Kentucky values he honored.