Author Archives: Mike Fourcher

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.

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 |