The blogosphere, circa 2012 (Hint: it ain’t dead or dying)

One could argue, I suppose, that blogging has always been a cry for attention, but then you’d have to admit the same for all forms of media. As Dave Winer so brilliantly points out, “the readers are the product, and the customers are the advertisers,” so who can blame content creators for wanting attention? It’s one thing to have an idea and to put that on paper, but it’s like the proverbial tree falling in the forest unless somebody else reads it. However, when money is exchanged for content creation, everything changes, because the paradigm moves from just being read to the number of people reading. This is called mass marketing. Media has always thought it was the content business, but Dave rightly discerns, attention for advertisers is the real business.

Much has been written over the last few years about blogging and blogging’s future since the dawn of social media. The latest is Jeremiah Owyang’s “End of an Era: The Golden Age of Tech Blogging is Over.” I won’t attempt to deconstruct this view, because others with greater credentials than mine have already done so. I do wish to comment about what’s happened to blogging, however, because 2012 will be my 10th year with The Pomo Blog.

There are many definitions of blogging, but mine most closely resembles, again, Dave Winer’s. He’s writing here about how some tech blogs, most notably TechCrunch, moved from being “blogs” to being media companies writing about technology, like CNET.

It’s understandable because they earn their salaries based on how much they please advertisers. It’s like the hamster-farms they write about — the readers are the product, and the customers are the advertisers. Bloggers, as I use the term, are the product without bothering with the advertisers. It’s people and their ideas, for better or worse, and nothing more than that.

This is The Pomo Blog. You won’t see any advertising here, because this blog isn’t about attention; it’s about ideas and the challenging of assumptions. It’s a teaching vehicle, and the student is me. That’s all it is, and this brings me to the social media disruption.

Technology spawned the personal media revolution — the “Great Horizontal” to which Jay Rosen refers — which has given voice to the formerly voiceless. Telling the world what you think only requires time. Everything else is free. If you follow closely (from a distance) all that’s taken place with this in the past ten years, however, you’ll find thousands of people who’ve interpreted this as a way to “make their mark” and pursue dreams that aren’t so horizontal as much as they are hierarchical.

I always used to argue that bloggers were not really competing with traditional media companies until I began seeing the various A-list, B-list, C-list rankings. It was clear that some people were in it for the rankings, and in that sense — and just as Dave asserts — they were trying to generate a mass following. But regular blogging takes time, so when social media came along, these people fled the blogosphere to find the audience — the “Klout” — they were seeking elsewhere, because, well, it was more efficient and a whole lot easier to grow a reputation using connected social media.

Personal branding burst onto the scene, and we started seeing stories, posts, tweets about how to advance our personal brands. I wrote a tongue-in-cheek post “How to ‘be somebody’ on Twitter” that was based entirely on practices I had observed from those whose primary purpose on Twitter (and especially when tied together with Facebook) appeared to be growing an audience. There’s, of course, nothing wrong with that, but it has separated the wheat from the chaff in terms of blogging and the blogosphere.

I’m not suggesting anything untoward or disingenuous about this. It simply is what it is.

What I am trying to suggest is that this wing of the blogosphere has indeed vanished or transformed into plain old fashioned media designed to accrue an audience, and as long as this continues to be its goal, I’m not sure it’s all that sustainable, because their product — the audience — isn’t as necessary as it once was. That’s because the people who used to want that product — the advertisers — are now using the same technology to route around inefficient middlemen and go directly to the customers they seek. Further carving up the same old pie nets only smaller pieces and more confusion for the people who have the money in the first place. Any business model today based on traditional advertising has a rude awakening ahead.

I’ll never disrespect or discourage anyone for crying for attention, but if the end game is an audience for advertising, you might want to rethink your future.

(Disclosure: The Pomo Blog wouldn’t be here had it not been for the direct assistance of Dave Winer in getting me started.)

NYT & union on collision course

New York Times logoI feel pretty sad about the “profound dismay” expressed by former and current New York Times’ employees due to a decision by management to freeze the pension plan for foreign bureau employees and other “recent developments.” The union sent a petition letter (384 signatures as of this writing) to publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. expressing their concern.

We have worked long and hard for this company and have given up pay to keep it solvent. Some of us have risked our lives for it. You have eloquently recognized and paid moving tribute to our work and devotion. The deep disconnect between those words and the demands of your negotiators have given rise to a sense of betrayal.

A Huffington Post article on the matter by Michael Calderone notes that it could have been worse.

Bill O’Meara, president of the New York Newspaper Guild, said some staffers had considered even “more dramatic” actions.

There were people who wanted to storm Arthur Sulzberger’s office,” O’Meara told The Huffington Post. “There were people who wanted to stage a walkout.”

The problem here is that this is 1960’s style labor posturing that really feels ancient in today’s media world. I don’t like it anymore than anybody else, but crying for yesterday does nothing to solve today’s problems. Managers of public companies have fiduciary responsibilities to their owners, the shareholders, and people don’t buy or hold stocks in companies that can’t produce growth. It’s not about how much money one makes, nor is it directly about margins; it’s about growth, and there are only two ways to do that. You can increase revenue, which isn’t happening anymore, or you can cut expenses, and that’s what’s happening here.

There’s very little growth in any sector of our economy right now, but this is more than just an economic problem. This is a problem of core business decay, and it will not get any better unless there’s a total reinvention undertaken. The truth and the laws of economics apply to everyone, even a vaunted institution like the New York Times.

What can be done? Take a look at the marvelous work of Lewis DVorkin at Forbes. Here’s a company that has blown out the original concept of making media and replaced it with a much leaner, more nimble and flexible system. The problem, of course, is that there’s no room whatsoever for organized labor’s perspective, which is now simply dead weight around the necks of the people who are trying to save the institution.

But beyond that — and to every individual in media today — the safe harbor that once was “the collective” is no more. It is literally every man and woman for themselves. If your organizations won’t or aren’t able to assist you in reinventing you, then you must do it yourself. I get the letter to the boss, but the arguments are sadly and unfortunately irrelevant. You must take care of you, because nobody will do it for you.

Dean Starkman and the FONers

Captain J fights the FON dragonBack when Dean Starkman first struck out at those who present a view of the future of news (FON) other than his, I wrote a scathing retort but never published it. Others were saying the same things, and besides, I went after him for lazy intellectualism, which is always hard to prove. So I stayed home and let the FONers speak for themselves.

But wait! I’m a FONer myself, and now Mr. Starkman has struck out again, this time choosing to “interact” with one of his chief targets, Clay Shirky. Shirky had responded to his rant, so Mr. Starkman chose to engage Shirky and clarify his disregard for the FON crowd. After conceding four points that Shirky made, Mr. Starkman boiled his concern down to one simple thought — the story.

But all of this misses the point; the talk here is all about process and structure. I’m talking about great stories. As I said in the piece, I care about institutions only to the extent that they can produce them.

…I do kind of believe that newspapers must find ways to blah blah and whatever, but in fact I care far less about that than that they produce agenda-setting stories.

And this leads me to what seems to be a gaping hole in FON theory, and that is this: It doesn’t have any great stories, and, worryingly, it doesn’t seem to have any way to produce them.

There are many ways to go in response to this thinking, but let me state just three.

  1. The problem with news in the future has nothing to do with content; it’s in how we get paid for making whatever content is required. News institutions aren’t really in the content business, they’re in the advertising business, so the argument about stories is irrelevant to the problem facing organizations that shoulder a free press responsibility.
  2. The story” is a product of production processes and schedules. Many of us have written about this extensively, myself included (News is Not a Story). I think I know what Mr. Starkman means by “the story” in the above, and it’s more about the process than the product. He’s speaking of delving into some heretofore untold or hidden narrative and bringing it into the light of day through good old legwork and other journalistic practices. Clinging to this, however, as a justification to strike out at the FONers is problematic, because the very process that Mr. Starkman holds dear is being disrupted by the next factor.
  3. Communications is now horizontal and in real time. This completely destroys the top-down framework within which Mr. Starkman’s story paradigm works. He proposes that the world needs educated and experienced professionals to generate and follow-up on their leads, knowledge and suspicions, and to do it in such a way that follows the ethical and legal requirements of the profession. The results are then turned over to another even more educated and experienced group for vetting and final preparation before being dispatched to a large audience for maximum effect, thereby engaging with the issues of society. It’s neat. It’s ordered. It served us well for centuries. But the world itself has changed, and in a horizontal, real time communications paradigm, no feed is special.

Mr. Starkman is asking for a replacement for that concept within the new, and there isn’t any so far. I’m not sure there ever will be, due to factor number one. Moreover, I don’t think this is the only or even the preferred way for journalism to function by default, because it produces inertia and inefficiencies along with the occasional, “agenda-setting” story.

And if we’re really going to be honest, we must ask ourselves, too, if the hiding of the various facts that make up “the story” before it’s deemed ready to publish is really always necessary in a horizontal world. If the newsgathering process is made public, we can all participate, including those who can advance “the story” separate from the person or organization who first started the snowball on its downhill adventure. I realize this may not be applicable to every situation, and that there may be times when keeping quiet is necessary. In those cases, however, I believe the new culture will figure out ways to do it without breaking the bank.

Then there’s this: Mr. Starkman’s piece in the Columbia Journalism Review — a highfaluting industry institution — is broken into two pages, presumably to play the old media game of page views. You won’t find anything similar among the FONers or their responses to Mr. Starkman. Not Mr. Shirky, not Jeff Jarvis, not Jay Rosen, not Mathew Ingram, not the host of others who fit the definition. This is itself a clue about tomorrow, for those who consume digital media are not unaware that the companies who practice such irritating tactics are merely raising the cost they have to pay for interaction. This won’t be tolerated forever. Scrolling is much more user-friendly than clicking.

The FONers know this. Mr. Starkman and those of his ilk either do not or don’t care.

The power of the personal brand (in a social world)

Kim KardashianIn a recent Nieman Journalism Lab article on the possibility of newspapers making money by selling ads on Twitter, Justin Ellis notes the successful efforts pioneered by celebrities and athletes. The fact is that the reach of certain celebrities far exceeds that of traditional media companies, so why shouldn’t advertisers pay them instead of media companies to get their word out? Besides, there’s that whole illusion of endorsement thing.

Mr. Ellis says much in a tongue-in-cheek reference to a certain reality show “star.”

Not to mention non-news outlets like, um, Kim Kardashian, for whom pay-per-tweet is a long-standing phenomenon.

Kardashian may be a “non-news outlet,” but she is so only in the sense of a traditional view of “news.” Prior to social media, celebrities required the filter of news organizations in order to be promoted, but much of that is now in their own hands. Are they “media companies?” Of course they are. And just as Wal-Mart has a bigger advertising platform than the New York Times and the Washington Post combined, Hollywood and our athletic fields are cranking out new platforms regularly. It’s into this environment that the efforts of newspapers to play copycat look just a little weak in comparison.

In the last few weeks, The Hartford Courant and The (New Orleans) Times-Picayune have experimented with using Twitter as a new advertising channel. At the Courant, they’ve started offering twice-daily deals to local businesses — think Groupon by tweet — to their followers. The Times-Picayune, more controversially, used Twitter to advertise itself — or at least its website, as the online division of its parent company, Advance Publications, paid New Orleans Saints players to tweet about the newspaper’s relaunched Saints site on Nola.com.

Mr. Ellis notes that the hashtag #spon, which appears at the end of some tweets is a “semi-legible indicator of a sponsored tweet.”

A Twitter search for #spon is an enlightening look,” he adds, “into what sorts of companies are paying people to tweet: at the moment, Verizon, Clorox, Pepperidge Farm, and Q-Tips.”

I like what Advance Publications did in employing NFL celebrities to promote its website, but the use of a mass media Twitter news stream is problematic. It’s is a part of what I dubbed “unbundled advertising” in a 2005 essay about how to make money in the unbundled universe of the Web. It was written prior to Twitter.

If unbundled media is where we’re headed, then unbundled advertising must necessarily follow. This is a scary concept, however, for there is no command and control mechanism or manipulable infrastructure in the unbundled world. The upside, though, is that it costs very little to participate. All that’s necessary is the release what I call “ad pieces” into the seeming chaos of the Internet, where other businesses will take those pieces and reassemble them when summoned by customers who are trading their scarcity for information they actually want.

So while I fully support the concept here, we need to go back to the comparison with Kim Kardashian to understand why media companies using this particular application — in their own streams — is suspect strategically. The problem is that Kim Kardashian is a real person; The Hartford Courant is not. Ms. Kardashian’s brand is personal and as transparent as a reality star can be. Followers and fans connect with her on a visceral level. They experience emotions in their vicarious relationship with her. When Ms. Kardashian tweets for a sponsor, there’s an inference that she wouldn’t try to “fool” her fans. The endorsement also benefits her directly, and fans understand, accept and appreciate that. The few seconds it takes to “see” the endorsement isn’t wasted; it supports a real person with whom fans are connected.

Moreover, the purpose of following a celebrity on Twitter is different than the purpose of following a news organization’s stream. For Ms. Kardashian, it’s about the connection. With The Hartford Courant, it’s about the news feed. To the former, therefore, a sponsored tweet is about the person, but to the latter, it’s about noise, an interference. A sponsored tweet in the midst of a stream of news is an interruption. It’s, well, advertising.

Nevertheless, it’s good strategic thinking, because it gets us into the world of unbundling, where aggregation is the real value proposition. We’d do much better, however, if we would take up the challenge of developing the personal brands of our news people and helping them create the relational types of connections with fans enjoyed by others with celebrity. This would directly conflict with the core value proposition of mass media — the maintenance of a sterile stage from which to place advertisements — so it’s not likely a concept that media companies will enthusiastically embrace. Moreover, media companies think of employees as “theirs,” so the idea of trumpeting a brand that might one day quit and go elsewhere seems counterintuitive. This is, however, precisely the kind of thinking we need to employ, for today’s media is increasingly unbundled and social, and people follow people, not institutions.

But Mr. Ellis nails the real problem. “Newspapers,” he wrote, “are trying to insert themselves as a middleman in a medium that doesn’t require one.” He’s right. With the possible exception of aggregators, there’s just no market for middlemen online. Advertising is the new content king, because they can place that content directly in front of people in the same way we can. The people formerly known as the advertisers are now competing with us for the same eyeballs.

It’s a battle we’ll lose, because they have the money.

Parenting disrupted, reinvented

children are a part of the Great HorizontalAs many more learned than I have claimed, the Internet weakens top-down authority by scattering formerly protected or hard-to-access knowledge sideways to everyday people. In the decades that followed Gutenberg’s printing of the Bible, a quote among the clergy noted the “the Jewel of the elites is in the hands of the laity.” So it is increasingly today.

JP Rangaswami wrote that “the web makes experts ‘dumb’ by reducing the privileged nature of their expertise.” Jay Rosen noted that the Internet weakens authority by overcoming what he calls “audience atomization.” The result is “The Great Horizontal,” and it’s changing everything. “One of the biggest factors changing our world,” he wrote, “is the falling cost for like-minded people to locate each other, share information, trade impressions and realize their number.” And then there’s Rishad Tobaccowala’s great quote from 2004: “We have entered an empowered era in which humans are God, because technology allows them to be godlike.”

Make no mistake. This is and will impact every hierarchical institution in the West, as long as it is allowed to continue, and that’s a pretty big “if.” Those organizations that benefit from the status quo are doing and will do everything in their power to stop it, and it’s going to get very ugly before we arrive at a reinvented culture.

One area of hierarchical authority that’s being almost unnoticeably transformed is parenting. Every generation’s teenagers go through a period when they’re convinced they know more or better than their parent’s generation, but this time, it may actually be true. Armed with knowledge at their fingertips — and the fearless ability to find it — it’s a useless proposition to try and BS any teen today. Reasoning must be backed up by facts, because kids can challenge any justification for behavioral limits aside from the sheer weight of authority. The flip side of this, however, is that they can also see and read about real dangers that only parents could impart in days gone by. Poking your eye out, face freezing, going out with wet hair, running with scissors, the bogeyman, and a hundred other older methods of making children mind are now subject to a simple Google search.

This has vast political ramifications, too — unintended consequences — that will redefine how we make things work in the West. Young people learning to search and follow links also learn the associative nature of everything. Unknowingly, as Peter Lurie wrote in an important 2003 essay — “Why the Web Will Win the Culture Wars for the Left: Deconstructing Hyperlinks” — they’re participating in the postmodern practice of deconstruction, and “a community of citizens who think like Jacques Derrida will not be a particularly conservative one.” One of social conservatism’s core principles is respect for authority, but in the world to come, that’s going to have to be earned, not assumed.

Young people eventually take over the world, and it will be interesting to see what today’s current crop will come up with for tomorrow. Absent interference from the status quo, it will most certainly be different than what we have today. It’s unlikely to occur during my lifetime, so I encourage my fellow observers to keep an eye fixed in this direction. There will be tweets and status updates and blog entries and media accounts and books and videos and movies and TV shows on the subject.

Education is also going to have to deal with this easy spread of information and knowledge, and that, too, will demand reinvention.

Who will teach parenting in 2050? Who will write the book for dummies? Perhaps a new institution will arise, but one thing’s for certain: it’s going to be a bumpy ride between here and there.

2012: Finding Our Edges

Here’s the latest in my ongoing essay series, “Local Media in a Postmodern World.”

2012: Finding Our Edges

This is my annual look at trends and a key piece of advice for the coming year. This is a business strategy, not a content strategy, because I don’t think content is going to fix what’s really wrong with mass media.

2012 is a dangerous year for all mass media, because decay in our core competency will again be hidden by record revenues (in some cases) due to what promises to be a huge political year. Despite advances in communications’ methods, politicians fall back on the tried and true during elections, and that means big money for an industry that’s struggling. The money will distract us from the real issues, and before you know it, 2013 will be here. It’s time to do something completely different.

May each and every one of you have a joyous holiday season.