Beware the death pronouncements

It's dead, because I said soWhile everybody is always on the look-out for the next great thing, there’s an equally large number of writers and observers who are quick to point out the “death” of things as well. This just adds to the confusion about what roads we should take tactically, and it’s something about which those of us at AR&D talk frequently. The problem with these forecasts is that they’re usually wrong. They make nice headlines, but the problem is those headlines are often the only thing people see. When understanding of something is limited, people often skim as much as possible to try and bring their understanding up to speed. With tech — and especially the media 2.0 world — that can be a dangerous thing to do.

This is why a New York Times article this week is getting so much attention among those who have this understanding. Like most newspaper headlines, this one probably wasn’t written by the writer of the article.

Blogs Wane as the Young Drift to Sites Like Twitter

This headline is actually completely false, and it’s proven within the text of the article itself. Growth may be slowing, but blogs are still a growing phenomenon. To suggest that blogging is on the decline, therefore, is simply untrue, as Mathew Ingram pointed out for GigaOm:

In many ways, this “blogging is dying” theory is similar to the “web is dead” argument that Wired magazine tried to float last year, which really was about the web evolving and expanding into different areas. It’s true that Facebook and Twitter have led many away from blogging because they are so fast and easy to use, but they have also both helped to reinforce blogging in many ways.

,,,what we really have now is a multitude of platforms: there are the “micro-blogging” ones like Twitter, then there are those that allow for more interaction or multimedia content like Facebook, and both of those in turn can enhance existing blogging tools like WordPress and Blogger. And then there is Tumblr, which is like a combination of multiple formats. The fact that there are so many different choices means there is even more opportunity for people to find a publishing method they like. So while “blogging” may be on the decline, personal publishing has arguably never been healthier.

So now we have the “blogging is dead” meme to add to the “Web is dead” and “RSS is dead” concepts. None of these are true, and it’s why a new company called “Trove” got a reported $5-$10 million from the Washington Post. Trove, according to Poynter, is a “personalization engine” for the news.

The site, which will aggregate and personalize news from among 10,000 online sources, launches into public beta next month. It will be free at Trove.com, and on mobile apps for the iPad, iPhone and Android devices.

The effort drops the Post into the middle of a crowded field chasing the elusive goal of news personalization. Several — LiveStand from Yahoo!, News.Me, originally a New York Times creation, and Ongo, a project the Post itself is a partner in — have been announced just within the past month.

Trove…also faces a challenge from tablet-only competitors such as Flipboard and Pulse, and older Web-based services ranging from Google News to My Yahoo!.

Two things strike me about Trove. One, it’s pretty cool. Two, it’s nothing but a pre-loaded RSS reader, just like many media companies made and threw away 7-8 years ago. Perhaps it’s the portable nature of the Web today that makes these more viable, but the technology for these kinds of applications is good old (dead) RSS. This is why I keep hammering away that we’ve got to get into real-time, RSS-delivered advertising, but that’s another story. Personalization aggregators is not a new concept, but start-ups and now traditional media players are suddenly seeing the value of the technology in a whole new way. I think it’s great.

The caveat in studying new media is to read enough from reliable sources to avoid getting trapped by headlines in the New York Times, the Wall St. Journal and other mainstream business publications. You’ll break your neck on the rocks in the shallows of their trend stories, if you jump in head first.

Pick one: Gawker takes a hit/Gawker is coming back

I’m noting with interest today the reports that Gawker sites took a pageviews hit after their redesign. I’m not a big fan of pageviews as a measurement of right and wrong, but I’m a huge fan of the reverse chronological presentation of the blog format that Gawker gave up in the redesign. Here I am out there trying to encourage traditional media companies to embrace the format, and one of the original blog superstars, Nick Denton, switches Gawker around in the name of “moving past” the blog. It was confusing, to say the least, because what Denton really moved “to” is the traditional media, top-story presentation. That’s not moving past; that’s going backwards.

Let me restate some old points. The blog format of reverse chronological order was created of the Web, by the Web and for the Web. Traditional media types had nothing to do with it and wanted nothing to do with it. The entire back end infrastructure of the Web is designed to seek out and sort that which is new, that which is “at the top,” if you will. If you wish your work to shake hands with the Web, the Web will shake hands with that which is new, always. There is no aggregator that seeks out the top story, because the Web doesn’t care, and if you artificially seed your output, it will figure out what’s going on. It wants what’s new, and, well, that’s one of the definitions of “news” anyway, right?

One of the points of genius about this is that it respects the recipient of content, the customer, the user. It does this by presenting the time of day as the only filter, something that cannot be manipulated for gain by the content creator. It respects the intelligence of the user to figure out and find what’s important without the manipulating guiding hand of the editor. Traditional media has gone far by assuming that the average person needs our help in “shaping” his or her experience, to understand what’s important and what isn’t. The problem is that this has been twisted in the name of self-serving marketing and people have lost trust in our assumption. They want to decide for themselves, and a system based solely on time that allows them to do that is refreshing precisely because it’s not filtered in any way.

There are two spins on the story this week: one, Gawker’s pageviews went down when they launched their redesign and, two, Gawker’s pageviews are coming back after falling off the map, etc.

Erick Shonfeld of TechCrunch explained why the masses are abandoning Gawker:

You can revert to a traditional blog view, but the default is the “top story” view. Most people will probably never figure out how to toggle back to the comforts of the classic reverse-chron design, so they leave instead in frustration. Tweets about the redesign are more negative than positive.

Schonfeld included a graph from Sitemeter showing how pageviews fell completely off the map for the Gawker site, Gizmodo after the redesign. A nightmare.

Sitemeter stats for Gizmodo

Meanwhile, a report in Business Insider is more optimistic, citing that those who’ve remained are staying longer and clicking on more pages.

It’s too soon to say whether it’s working, but the data seems to say “cautiously optimistic.”

It’s entertaining to read the comments to stories like these, because they can be revealing. One TechCrunch commenter, for example, pointed out that if RSS is the way you’ve always consumed any Gawker product, nothing has changed. Of course, that’s because RSS is a part of the Web handshake that only recognizes what is new in a feed, as the blog format does naturally. I think that’s the point anyway.

Why Nick Denton is wrong

I'm confusedWhen I first read Nick Denton’s apologetic for moving away from the blog format for his Gawker empire, I thought I’d misread the whole thing. I spend a great deal of time convincing traditional media companies to embrace the blog model, so it’s more than a little surprising to read that one of the pioneers of blogging wants to do the opposite.

Denton is a smart fellow, but I think he’s made a decision that will ultimately cost him, for in turning his whole online bloggy magazine consortium into one, giant traditional media display, he’s assumed the role of disrupted instead of disruptor.

In his post announcing the decision — with the cleverly spun headline “Why Gawker is moving beyond the blog” (beyond the blog?) — Denton lists seven reasons for the move, but it’s really all about featuring what Gawker feels is important and monetizing that. In so doing, he’s making an unspoken confession that traditional media has it right, while the real time stream and flow made available online is wrong. His sites will keep the stream evident, “but subordinate” and moved to a sidebar with largely headlines and links.

This is a mistake on many levels, that I’ll get to in a minute, but first, here are his reasons.

  1. The power of the scoop, rediscovered…One law of media competition applies as strongly to web properties as it did to their predecessors: scoops drive audience growth…
  2. Aggregate or die… Our strength as an aggregator remains editorial curation; but we’re limited even in that by the blog format. The more short items we run, the more rapidly our high-value scoops are pushed off the page…
  3. Demonstrate a rounded personality…An undifferentiated blog column is such a poor showcase of our talents. We would laugh at any marketer that scrambled its message with such a random assortment of content, dozens of points to a page…
  4. The web is a visual medium…I used to think that our expertise was text; that TV companies would have an unmatchable advantage when it came to web video. But what is increasingly evident is that traditional media companies are encumbered by old formats in video as much as they are in written journalism. Gawker bloggers, once they’re as familiar with iMovie as with cut-and-paste, can beat them…
  5. The growth of video advertising…A growing proportion of web advertising too is built around video. Already, some 30-50% of agency RFPs indicate that the client has video assets, typically a 15-second spot…
  6. Appointment programming…The editorial calendar will remain for event and seasonal programming such as CES and holiday shopping. But many topics are less time-sensitive and they will be moved to a programming grid which owes more to TV than to magazines. For instance, Lifehacker’s personal finance coverage is popular with both readers and advertisers; like much of our more helpful content it is often lost in the blog flow. From next year, it will be showcased at a regular time, say Fridays at 3pm, a personal finance hour…
  7. Gawker is a branding vehicle…Gawker Media has already put distance between our properties and those of the commodity ad networks. We booted them out from our titles five years ago; they were cheapening the sites and devaluing the brand benefits to our directly sold campaigns. Today, a large proportion of our sales depend on those “roadblocks” which offer a marketer an exclusive presence on a front page for the day. These are branding opportunities which the ad networks cannot easily match.

Did you catch the assumptions? Scoops drive growth? Scrambling their “message?” Gawker bloggers can beat TV companies? Helpful content gets lost? Most of the reasons Denton cites relate not to news but to what the company feels is editorially important to display to everybody. It assumes that people come to their site once a day and need immediate guidance as to what’s important or what should be seen or viewed, as if they need and want such guidance.

This is the same process traditional media has followed forever in crafting a finished product out of the stream that is news. The New York Times commented that this is the same thing the newspaper industry discovered over a century ago.

… if you pick up a New York Times newspaper today you will see only 6 main story headlines, all carefully chosen and placed on the page.

This change happened at The Times—and simultaneously to other newspapers—over a number of decades as designers and editors figured out that readers didn’t want more news, but instead wanted a more concise culling of news.

And what have readers done to this model? They’ve rejected it, but Nick thinks this is the way to go.

It’s actually quite a colonialist insult, because it questions the competence of the audience to figure things out on their own, and it puts the real time digital stream of news and information into the same category of headlines on a printed page.This is exactly what Denton is doing with this move, and it doesn’t suit the advances technology has given us in the last two decades. Moreover, the 6 headlines referenced by the Times do nothing to help people find anything through search. Google alerts, for example, LIKES lots of new updates to ongoing issues, which the blog format does exceedingly well. This is one of the problems we have with clients who don’t fully understand the concept of Continuous News. The blog format was created by the Web, for the Web, and the back end handshake is what’s so critical for digital news ventures. No amount of re-organizing the front page is going to help with that.

In response to the Times commentary, Dave Winer noted via Twitter, “Fine, but Gawker isn’t a blog, it’s a professionally edited news site.” A professionally edited news site, indeed. That’s what Nick Denton wants to be considered, and in so doing, he’s not advanced anything.

He’s taken a giant step backwards.

UPDATE: Here are more of my thoughts on the subject.

Journalism's (artificial) decorum disrupted

an air about usA few years ago, I attended a high level conference on the future of journalism, specifically TV news. The two-day event opened with a video by NBC News anchor Brian Williams, who set forth the threat to professional journalism — and by extension, the whole country — by a ragamuffin band of losers called “bloggers.” To make the most of his argument about such foolishness (imagine, everyday people presuming THEY could be journalists, tsk-tsk), Williams quoted from a blog about — get ready for it — nasal hair. Everybody gasped and laughed, and we all got the point.

Nice way to frame a serious discussion, eh?

Professional journalists are a pissy, pernickety bunch, aren’t we? We have an air about us of privilege and prestige, certainly not a bit beneath even the most elite of those we cover. Over time, our agreement with culture has evolved to this:

We’ll provide “real” journalism without a point-of-view, so that you can feel good about running your advertisements in our midst. We’ll provide the lines of decency for all to follow, so that all will feel safe in our midst, including both news consumer and news maker, especially those of a political nature. Not only will we be fair, but we’ll go out of our way to be kind, so that you will grant us the access that both of us need to do our jobs. You need access to us, because you need us to make your position known. We need access to you, because we need to know what’s going on in order to make judgements about what’s important and what’s not. All the while, we’ll behave as adult colleagues, because together we help manage the difficult issues of the day.

This unwritten understanding exists wherever I’ve worked, even though few would mention or acknowledge it publicly. We’re government watchdogs, we tell everybody, but in practice we’re in a comfy, two-way relationship with those we cover. Even when we do “watch,” it’s often because some friend, associate or needed source has an agenda (think Watergate here). Regardless, this air of “professionalism” that accompanies our work is part and parcel to survival in the mainstream today. The decorum is artificial, to be kind.

Can you see how nose hair is such a threat?

But technology is now making it possible for those newsmakers who used to need us to take their message around us, so the cozy deal isn’t quite as necessary for them as it once was. Those who manipulate us need us, of course, although we don’t think or admit that this is occurring.

We all wonder where journalism is going.

In the past week, I’ve encountered three instances of journalism being practiced that was outside the handshake zone of the professional press, and I’m beginning to wonder if we pros don’t have it entirely wrong.

  • The first is the story of Steve Southwell, the Lewisville, Texas blogger who ran afoul of the school board for having the temerity to ask three school principals why they allowed evangelical Christian youth pastors to hobnob with students during the lunch hour. He was a guest of mine with the ethics class I teach at the University of North Texas. Southwell is an everyday guy practicing journalism by truly watchdogging local government in Lewisville. He’s the real deal when it comes to practicing the work of the Fourth Estate, although the school board voted they didn’t have to talk to him, because he isn’t credentialed. “Credentialed” journalists, you see, play by the rules of decorum. Southwell does not.
  • Next, I was referred to the work of Joey Dauben, the “publisher” of the online Ellis County Observer. Dauben has a unique, vocal and angry history with law enforcement and local governments in rural counties southwest of Dallas, and he once served as news editor of the Ellis County Press. He operates an unknown number of “journalism” sites, which he uses to get his version of truth to anybody paying attention. I don’t vouch for the veracity of Mr. Dauben, but he does represent another fellow keeping an eye on the comings and goings of those in power.
  • Finally, there’s the story out of Anchorage this week about the editor of the Alaska Dispatch website, Tony Hopfinger, being handcuffed and detained by security guards for a Republican Senate candidate he was trying to interview. Anchorage police arrived later and told the guards to release him, and no charges have been filed.

    The Miller campaign released a written one-paragraph statement from Fuller, then followed with a statement titled, “Liberal Blogger ‘Loses It’ at Town Hall Meeting.” In that statement, Miller accused Hopfinger of assaulting someone and of taking advantage of the meeting to “create a publicity stunt.”

    He said his personal security detail had to take action to detain “the irrational blogger.”

    The Nieman Journalism Lab published a feature on the handcuffed editor earlier this week, noting that the site now employs 10 reporters and editors, plus a small ad sales team.”

None of these three examples are what the traditional press would consider “their” peers, yet each, in his own way, is practicing journalism or a form thereof. Their tactics are aggressive, and they’re all watching those in power. What they’re not doing is participating in this sense of “the rules of decorum” that the American press has taken as its own, and I’m not sure that’s a bad thing.

How did we ever get so comfortable in doing what we’re doing anyway?

(Originally posted in AR&D’s Media 2.0 Intel Newsletter)

Death of RSS readers? I don't think so.

RSSEarly on in my Web education, I discovered RSS, and it changed my news consumption habits completely. Thank God for Dave Winer. I don’t think anybody who knows of me and my work would be surprised by that, but RSS has not lived up to my expectations as a distribution mechanism for traditional news. I think this is traditional media’s fault, because we don’t see the benefits of playing the RSS game.

There’s a meme out there — and it’s been around forever — that RSS is just too complicated for the average Joe, that you need some technical chops to be able to use it. I sayBS. That may have been true at one time, but this is 2010, for crying out loud. If people can load apps, they can load an RSS reader. In fact, that’s what many apps are!

RSS doesn’t work for the masses, because the news industry doesn’t want it to work for the masses. Nobody has unlocked the secret sauce of monetizing place-based content, and so the best we can do with RSS is to make it a teaser tool, a way to get people to our websites where we can blind them with traditional online display or other marketing. This is a shame, for all it does is display our ignorance.

WordPress, that maker of many, many RSS feeds through its marvelous blogging software, announced this week a new form of reader service via WordPress.com called, cleverly, Subscriptions. The service is built upon the complexity meme:

Do you have trouble keeping track of all the blogs you read each morning? You may use RSS feeds to keep track, but those can be tricky to manage for a non-technical person…Let’s face it, keeping up to speed with multiple blogs is tougher than it should be.

Puh-LEEZE!

RSS is the easiest technology around to manage. All you need is a simple RSS reader. The reason RSS hasn’t caught on is because the vast majority of “real” news isn’t available via RSS, only a headline and a snippet. Until this changes — and change it will — RSS readers will simply flounder with the general public.

In fact, Joseph Tartakoff at PaidContent.org thinks they’ve already jumped the shark, but he’s not seeing the whole picture. He writes of Bloglines shutting down and adds that to shrinking Google Reader numbers to conclude “The Death Of The RSS Reader.” This, again, is bullshit, but here’s his thinking:

Likely to blame is that people are increasingly turning to services like Facebook and Twitter to manage what they read instead of RSS readers.

In announcing their decision, Bloglines referenced certain realities about consumer behavior. It’s pretty hard to disagree, but it doesn’t change the fact that traditional media RSS feeds are garbage.

Today RSS is the enabling technology — the infrastructure, the delivery system. RSS is a means to an end, not a consumer experience in and of itself. As a result, RSS aggregator usage has slowed significantly, and Bloglines isn’t the only service to feel the impact. The writing is on the wall.

I use RSS Graffiti via Facebook to share my blog entries with my friends on Facebook, so the above is correct in that RSS is the infrastructure for place-based distribution. But what traditional media is distributing is helping determine how feeds are used, and I still firmly believe we’ve just scratched the surface with RSS.

One of the real beauties of Washington’s TBD.com is its RSS feed. It’s a great example of a new media company offering everything it has via RSS. Could you create a business model that would work for everybody, if this was the way media organizations treated RSS? Absolutely, but traditional media — like the record companies before them — are terrified of disconnecting content from its source. Do we really have a choice here?

Are readers dead? Hell no! Everything is becoming a form of RSS reader, and even those that simply pull feeds from wherever and display them in a box have a solid future, if and when media companies realize their value.

(I’ve used Feedreader for years, and I love it. Same with Viigo on my Blackberry.)

Forbes: One reporter, one blog

forbes.com logoUnder new management, Forbes Media is making a very smart move that I think more media companies should emulate. Under the edict “one reporter, one blog,” every reporter on staff gets a blog, most starting from scratch. This is a far cry from the old regime, headed by former Forbes.com CEO Jim Spanfeller. According to Business Insider, Spanfeller, who retired last year, was very anti-blog.

Lewis D'VorkinBut Forbes’ new editorial director is Lewis D’Vorkin — known to some staffers as “Darth” D’Vorkin. D’Vorkin came to the company in its acquisition of his freelance blogging startup, True/Slant, so the idea of shifting to a more blog-dominant environment should come as no surprise.

In an article in the New York Observer after D’Vorkin’s appointment as Forbes’ chief product officer, Zeke Turner wrote that the magazine was also adopting D’Vorkin’s controversial views of the business of journalism.

Mr. D’Vorkin…thinks of stories as product. And the most efficient way to churn out and make money from this product is to create a more efficient editing process with fewer layers. “Moving forward, when I look at an operation like Forbes, I look at a mixture of a full-time staff base and hundreds and hundreds, if not thousands, of freelance contributors. It’s that blend,” Mr. D’Vorkin said.

…”There is a fit and finish that you must have in print. Online, it’s not about fit and finish; it’s about the flow of information, the updates of information. It’s about relevance and timeliness. It’s not about craftsmanship. Quality online does not equal craftsmanship. In print, quality does equal craftsmanship.”

D’Vorkin hinted to Daily Finance last month that Forbes needed to become a “content creation force.”

Dvorkin, a former AOL executive, believes his model, which he calls “entrepreneurial journalism,” is a big part of what Forbes needs to start growing again. Entrepreneurial journalism — in which writers function as freelance contractors with a financial interest in building their own readership — is the golden middle road, he says, between the old paradigm represented by print magazines and newspapers, and the new one represented by blogs and websites.

I think D’Vorkin’s model is spot-on for local media companies, too, and I’ll be eagerly watching him develop and execute the strategy. There are three reasons I think he’s right.

  1. The flow of information does not require complex packaging, so the need for layers of management is diminished. When speed is of value, this is especially true, and independently-functioning journalists can operate more freely in such an environment as D’Vorkin proposes. News and information is a real-time service today, and that demands nimble systems able to move on a dime.
  2. Independent journalists are less expensive, more efficient, more motivated and easier to manage than employees. It is inevitable, given the economics involved in the business of content, that resources slide to that which is most efficient. Journalists, too, will discover the freedoms of working independently, the ability to set their own schedules and the cost savings of being an independent contractor are sufficiently compelling to give up the questionable “benefits” of being employees.
  3. Personal brands are able to compete in the social context of modern media where institutional brands cannot. Personal brands, not media brands, will carry the journalism torch well into the future, and the sooner we all get started, the better. This is why the concept of “one reporter, one blog” resonates so well with me. These reporters, whether they realize it or not, are being given the opportunity to start promoting their own brands. They should jump at the chance.

So the Forbes empire will be a place to watch over the months and years ahead, as it attempts to develop, under its own brand, what AOL and content farms like Demand Media are attempting to do on a larger scale. In a world where people are all networked together, this seems incredible smart to me, and I believe the model is workable on any niche level, including those defined by geography.

Let’s hope the employees and staff of Forbes are able to see that the benefits of “Darth” D’Vorkin’s plan vastly outweigh the perceived downsides.

(Originally posted in AR&D’s Media 2.0 Intel Newsletter)