Author Archives: Mike Fourcher

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 |

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 |