We need to stop underestimating our audience

Gary Vaynerchuk

Gary Vaynerchuk

I laughed out loud the other day while watching one of those wonderful Gary Vaynerchuk videos. You should already know what I mean by that, but if you don’t, here’s where to find Gary Vee, as he’s known: garyvaynerchuk.com.

“The customers’ bullshit radar is better than ever before,” was the line that put a smile on my face.

You know why we have an audience problem in the news business? It’s because we behave as though they’re stupid. We act as though we’re so much better than those with whom we’re sharing information, and it shows. This is at the heart of a massive cultural change in our world, because the people just aren’t as stupid as the elites of the Industrial Age, 20th Century think we are. And we’re getting smarter every day, and the smarter we get, the more disruptive we get. I wrote about this in The Evolving User Paradigm many years ago.

Vaynerchuk is absolutely right, because people have access to information that used to be protected by and for elites. This is not going to end well for the status quo, and journalists especially — who think of our trade as a profession — are incredibly vulnerable in separating ourselves so arrogantly from the people we serve.

I’ve written before of Edward Bernays’ (The “father” of public relations) 1947 essay The Engineering of Consent, in which he wrote:

“If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, it is now possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing it.”

The point is that the ruling class of the 20th Century is being disrupted by the Internet and its ability to put information in the hands of everyday people. It makes Bernays’ cleverness much more difficult, which prompts observers like Gary Vee to note that “The customers’ bullshit radar is better than ever before.”

In a recent interview with SFGATE, CBS Evening News anchor Scott Pelley tried to explain a recent uptick in ratings for network newscasts.

“Because never in human history has so much information been available to so many people, but unfortunately that also means that never in human history has so much bad information been available to so many people.”

“We may not get it right all the time, but at least (viewers) know serious journalists and serious editors are trying to get the news right.”

No they don’t, Mr. Pelley, as the Gallup survey of media trust going back to 1973 reveals a serious decline in trust of the press by the American public. Only 1 in 5 believe these kinds of statements. For the others (80% of us) what Mr. Pelley is selling is, well, bullshit.

But it goes far beyond that culturally.

In this simple statement, Mr. Pelley reveals his bias and represents the central argument of colonialism — that people are stupid and need the brilliance and experience of experts in order to survive and thrive. Along the way, these experts make a very fine living as parts of the hierarchical ecosystem that feeds the masses. Every institution of Western Civilization functions on this tenet, which needs to be the functional reality in order for the elites to manage everybody, whether they know it or not. It’s eerily similar to the way things where in 15th Century Europe when Gutenberg challenged the ruling authority of the Roman Church by printing the Bible and subsequently, a common English language version.

TVNewsCheck ran an article recently about WBIR-TV news director Christy Moreno in Knoxville who regularly asks for feedback from viewers on daily decision-making. Notice the response of the Poynter Institute, that bastion of journalistic tradition.

Purists, such as Kelly McBride, Poynter’s expert on journalistic ethics, however, don’t like the idea, saying the average TV watcher doesn’t have the skills it takes to resolve journalistic issues.

“Making ethical decisions about journalism is a process,” McBride says. “When you crowd source a decision, you come out with the lowest common denominator. That’s just the math of it.

So easily do these words flow from Ms. McBride’s mouth (and, let’s be honest here, the mouths of “most” professional journalists) that there’s not even the slightest thought that the idea may be insulting to a person with even average intelligence. This delusional gap between journalist and average citizen is at the heart of the people’s mistrust of the press.

I keep running into TV news directors who view their websites as a distribution point for what we call “Finished Product News,” in other words a completed, fully-vetted story filled with every detail and pictures or video that we have (see my 2007 essay “News is a Process, Not a Finished Product”). It’s not; it’s a distribution point for bits and pieces. Our TV newscasts are our “finished products.” This, too, is a failure to recognize a) that people understand the moving, changing, evolving nature of news in the process of development and b) that they don’t need us to assemble everything for them.

Citizen media pioneer Dan Gillmor and author of the seminal “We, The Media,” once wrote “My readers know more than I do.” He was speaking of his readers as a group, and he spoke to them always with respect and humility. We could use a whole lot more of that ourselves as we deal with both the changing nature of news on the Web and the changing cultural roles brought about by the cultural shift to postmodernism.

When advertising enters the stream

Here’s the latest in my on-going series of essays, Local Media in a Postmodern World. I think this may be one of the most important I’ve ever published, so read on.

When Advertising Enters the Stream

Thanks to the Web, the world of digital news and information is moving from static pages to real-time streams, à la Twitter and Facebook. My friend and Harvard geek David Weinberger recently wrote that the Net has altered his personal time scale, and I feel that, too. “The Net can do a hundred years in a gulp,” Weinberger wrote.” Ten thousand years is the new century.” That sense of accelerated time is what’s also contributing to a very old and archaic sense that becomes obvious when consuming various forms of news as a finished product. This is all a work-in-progress, and nobody really knows where it’s all headed.

One thing is certain, however. For this to make any sense, the ad industry is going to have to be a part of it, because content producers won’t contribute to live streams unless they get paid. For the first time, in just the past month, I read an informed article about this, and it prompted an immediate advisory to our clients. This essay expands that thinking and explains why I think it’s time for real action.

Clearing away the confusion

It’s all so confusing to traditional media folks, this thing called “new” news. Permit me the chance to provide a little clarity.

Mathew Ingram (The future of news and why Digital First matters) points to a piece by Seattle Times associate producer and blogger Lauren Rabaino with nine questions:

The big questions I see popping up in newsrooms like my own are:

  1. Do we tweet if we don’t have a link to direct users to?
  2. Do we send an email alert if we don’t have a link to direct users to?
  3. When do we write a story as a blog post vs. a web story?
  4. When do we append an update to the top of a post vs. writing a new post?
  5. When do we stop writing blog post updates and switch over to the print story?
  6. After switching to a print story, do subsequent updates go to the print story or in the blog?
  7. How do we update the blog posts to direct users to the newest information in the print story?
  8. How do we institutionalize the act of adding hyperlinks within previous coverage to newest coverage?
  9. How the hell do we make this all make sense to our users?

To begin with, these questions become easier to answer if we separate our thinking into two streams: continuous news and finished product news. These are two different animals entirely and require different kinds of thinking. If we’re a newspaper, our finished product is the paper and our brand-extension, traditional website. Our continuous news efforts (Web, Twitter, Facebook) are separate, because the nature of the medium suits them better than finished product news. Most importantly, we must not assume that the business model for each is the same. This assumption is the mother of all online mistakes (and confusion) by traditional media companies. I’m not sure we’ve found the right business model for continuous news just yet, but we’re working on it here at AR&D. A traditional media company can do both, but the point is that they must be approached differently.

With that in mind, let’s address these nine questions.

  1. Do we tweet if we don’t have a link to direct users to? Yes, of course. Always. We’re in the news business, not the linking back business. Linking back is a finished product strategy. Remember: separate the two. Speed is what matters in the net. Don’t wait until you have a link. That can come later. This is especially important during breaking news events.
  2. Do we send an email alert if we don’t have a link to direct users to? Not unless it’s the second coming, because you can provide a link to your Twitter or Facebook stream. Link to continuous news.
  3. When do we write a story as a blog post vs. a web story? The question assumes it’s either/or. The answer is both, and to the extent that blogs are a part of your continuous news strategy, then the blog would come first.
  4. When do we append an update to the top of a post vs. writing a new post? It’s always, always, always a new post. Google news doesn’t “see” updates, but it sees new posts and ranks you accordingly. Software can handle “full coverage” — a link to all the pieces relating to a topic — so don’t worry about updating. Save the finished work for your finished product(s).
  5. share of device use by daypartWhen do we stop writing blog post updates and switch over to the print story? Watch traffic to your efforts during the day, and your own users will tip you as to when this “should” occur. Again, I don’t view this as either/or, because it all depends on the situation. The time for finished product online stuff increasingly appears to be late evening (see the chart from comScore) while the continuous news audience is mostly a daytime phenomenon.
  6. After switching to a print story, do subsequent updates go to the print story or in the blog? Again, the answer is easy if you view these as two separate services. This is especially important when the story originated in the continuous news service, so the correct answer is both.
  7. How do we update the blog posts to direct users to the newest information in the print story? You don’t, as long as you view the services as separate with separate audiences.
  8. How do we institutionalize the act of adding hyperlinks within previous coverage to newest coverage? This kind of question flows from the earlier traditions of “guiding” readers/viewers (because they’re too stupid to guide themselves). I’d argue that this is unnecessary, as long as you separate continuous from finished product. Where it is necessary, let software do it for you.
  9. How the hell do we make this all make sense to our users? Again, I think they make sense of it easier than you think, and the question itself is actually pretty insulting. Regardless, clients of ours who practice continuous news AND finished product news find that the most important thing to emphasize is a commitment to “if it’s happening now, we’ll bring it to you.” The rest is intuitive or requires a very short learning curve.

Just remember that these are two separate forms of serving the community. Continuous news precedes finished product news, because it is actually the news-gathering process made public.

Advancing the second-day lead

Advancing the 2nd day leadThe rapid growth of real-time news and information has turned the news world on its ear. We’ve been talking about what we call “Continuous News” for almost five years now, and many of our clients have embraced the concept. I don’t need to go into a big review, but the essential nut is this: the Web allows us to make the news-gathering process public, so that our followers can participate in it throughout the day. Twitter is an ideal tool for this, but so is Facebook, Tumblr and many other applications. We believe it should be the central focus of any media organization during the prime time for online news reading, Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

As that strengthens, it becomes clear that the challenge for “finished product” news BEGINS with the acceptance that the audience, whether readers or listeners or viewers, is already aware of the news-of-the-day. To publish “the news” as it has always been done, therefore, insults the intelligence of a potential audience for that news, and again, it doesn’t matter whether this is in print or broadcast. A simple shift in our language alone would do wonders at enabling the trust we have lost by, among many other things, pretending that there’s a market for information people already have.

I still am convinced there’s a market for finished product news. The morning paper still has appeal for many reasons, although none of them are associated with ink on paper. It’s the summary of news and its associated serendipity that has appeal. At AR&D, we are absolutely convinced the evening newscast has considerable value, although we think the time period needs reinventing. Passive participation in “the news” may not be for everybody, but it certainly is for a large enough group for it to be profitable. The problem is we won’t mean a thing to that potential audience unless we do something other than what we did that drove them away.

The key to unlocking finished product news is recognizing that its audience already knows the basic facts of the news of the day. That shifts the entire enterprise forward and advances the second-day lead to the forefront. The fire itself is the first-day lead. Reaction to it is often the second-day lead. That story moves to the front in a universe where the audience already knows the who, what, why, where and when. Tom Snyder used to say that it was the “how come” that needs exploration, and that, too, is a second-day lead.

The second-day lead is often where the real practice of journalism begins. Anybody can stand in front of a fire and describe what’s going on, and we already know that this is increasingly being done by amateurs with a curiosity and, by chance, happen to be on-the-scene before anybody else. Word spreads fast, and before you know it, the Web knows it, and so it goes. The second-day lead requires thought, and so the job of the journalist may be harder in this world, but we can adapt. Frankly, it’s a challenge that’s worth exploring, for the benefits are obvious.

The entire cycle of news has accelerated. Whereas our production cycles used to determine everything about us, including our invention and distribution of “the article” — see the work of Jeff Jarvis — today’s news is dictated by the events and coverage itself. We’re at the dawn of the Age of Participation, and that includes the news gathering process. Real-time is where it’s at, and while we need to be the curators of record in the new world, we must also be the analyzers and advancers of the news as well. That is best done via finished products, because real-time can (and will) lead to errors. Oh, the network can correct them, but the market for the vetted advancing of stories will always be with us.

Even if real-time news is taken over by others, media companies can still make significant contributions to the industry by owning the second-day lead and, thereby, advancing the issues and stories of the day. This is no small assignment, and it should give everybody in the business — from journalism professor to the experienced practicing veteran — something to shoot for downstream.

The conversation goes on, with or without us

Sarah HillI got a tweet from Sarah Hill, anchor for KOMU-TV in Columbia, Missouri yesterday that says much about the current state of journalism and how social “media” is impacting the institution. We’d been exchanging direct messages about their coverage of the horrible disaster in Joplin, when she wrote:

The telethon has raised $175K thus far and it doesn’t start til Thursday.

The people of mid-Missouri are coming together to raise money for the relief effort, and Twitter, texting and Facebook have made it easy for people to connect with the cause. This is an excellent use of social media by a TV station in trying to make a difference, but it says even more about their recognition of the reality that is journalism today, that it’s no longer about us. We wish them well on the telethon.

Here’s the thing: fundraising efforts are also taking place beyond what a traditional media company is and can do, as everyday people pick up the cause and pass it along. This is the “Great Horizontal” of which Jay Rosen speaks, that remarkable new empowering of the people with which, sooner or later, those who practice professional journalism must come to grips. The question for the pros is this: do the people really need us anymore, or perhaps it’s better to ask “How can we as pros best fit into this conversation?” There are those who say that the pros should “lead” the conversation, but City University of New York professor and author Jeff Jarvis isn’t one of them.

I think the conversation is happening all around us, with or without the journalists. I teach now that it’s the role of the journalist to add value to that conversation: verification, debunking, facts, reporting, context, platforms, teaching…. The late James Carey defines the role differently. As Jay Rosen explains in the Carey Reader: “The press does not ‘inform’ the public. It is ‘the public’ that ought to inform the press. The true subject matter of journalism is the conversation the public is having with itself.”

But I’m seeing that news organizations think it is their role to lead the conversation (they set the agenda), allow the conversation (you may now comment on our story, now that it’s done), and judge the conversation (see Bill Keller’s sniffing at vox polloi).

…that is the reflex of the journalist: to control the conversation.

In a conversation with Michael Arrington this week (see below), Jarvis clarified the concept:

The conversation goes on without us. We in journalism thought the conversation needed us. That’s not the case anymore. It’s end to end, like the Internet. We can add value to that in all kinds of ways. We can vet and find good people and find nodes and networks, and give perspective to journalism.

This is why the word “curation” must be a part of our everyday language and practice. Here’s a series of images that I use to convey the concept. It begins with the output of a traditional news organization on a 24-hour, horizontal scale. “Real time” is what’s being outputted horizontally. That line moves across the horizontal line as the clock ticks. This is continuous news.

news in real time

This would be fine if it weren’t for the fact that millions of others are outputting what’s important to them at the same time. So news in real time doesn’t just refer to our horizontal line; it includes everybody’s.

other streams are added to ours, but the vertical slice remains

The opportunity, therefore, for “new” journalism is the ability to slice through all of those horizontal lines and makes sense of it all for others. This is what Jeff is talking about, and any attempt to exclude those other streams is not journalism in the 21st Century. Technology will help with the task, but it involves human judgment at some point.

news in real time

We’ve come a long way since the days of criticizing “citizen journalists” in understanding what’s evolving before our eyes with news in the network. People aren’t stupid and no special group has a license on the practice of journalism. We all want to know what’s going on, and as the events in Missouri confirm, participate in what we can do to fix things that are broken. This may whack the fatted calf of professional journalism, but that’s a small price to pay for a more involved citizenry (and electorate). The more, the merrier, and while it does present challenges (certainly), we’re all better off for it in the long run.

The window for mass media to carve out a profitable role within this new hegemony is still open, but it will be closing slowly as more and more smart people get into the curation act. Traditional media companies still have the local muscle to block such efforts, but we must be smart, and that begins by acknowledging that the news conversation IS going on, with or without us.

An open letter to television managers

Dear Television Manager,

This letter is offered in good faith and asks some fundamental strategic questions that have probably already been on your mind. If not, this might be eye-opening. Either way, it’s my hope you will act on what’s stated here.

When I first began consulting nearly ten years ago, I was known for little sayings about news that people dubbed “Heatonisms.” Here’s the very first: “Revenue isn’t the problem; audience is the problem. Fix the problem.” What television did back then is the same thing we’re doing today, we’re trying to fix a secondary revenue problem while the real problem just keeps getting worse.

Television news just isn’t what it used to be, and it never will be again. We look at research proving we’re still the best advertising bang for the buck and completely miss the point that it won’t matter soon, because the trend lines are unmistakable. Viewing has been dropping for many years, and nothing is going to change that, absent some totally different way of presenting some local product.

The Project for Excellence in Journalism’s annual “State of the News Media” report earlier this year was straightforward about this:

The most basic problem facing local television news is that its traditional audience is shrinking. In 2010, audiences continued to decline in all three key time slots: morning, early evening and late night.

…A pattern noticed a year ago continued in 2010. Our analysis found that ratings dropped more sharply than share (emphasis mine) for all key time slots in most sweeps periods. Ratings measure the percentage of households with TVs that are tuned to a particular program. Share measures the percentage of people who actually have their TVs on at a particular time and who are tuned to a specific program. A ratings decline, while share holds steady, means a program has fewer total viewers but the same percentage of the available audience. To put it another way, one reason local TV news in the traditional time slots is losing viewers is because people are turning off their sets when the news is on (emphasis mine).

Why are they turning TV sets off during news time? Because “the news” is already known by the people formerly known as the audience. So we fiddle with managing revenue in an environment that needs — but doesn’t get — attention. Well, Terry, it is what it is. What would you have us do?

We are promoting a decaying strategy, so the first thing we need to do is to stop that, and nowhere is this worse than on the Web. We have websites. We use Twitter. We use Facebook. But our essential purpose in so doing is to be a better TV station online. Make no mistake about it, this is a dreadful error, for AR&D’s own research shows that up to 90% of a TV station website’s traffic is comprised of the station’s own viewers. We’re talking to a closed and shrinking universe. We brag when we beat our competition online with absolutely no sense of who that competition really is. We’re still competing with the other TV stations online, and how foolish is that? This is the same strategic flaw that produces convergence sales. The brand of a TV station is today both a blessing and a curse.

So, Mr. and Ms. Managers, lead the local TV cheers for your sales departments, because they won’t be inspired to sell otherwise, but let’s work on fixing what’s really broken: the loss of audience. Let’s begin with four simple acknowledgements.

  1. Television news as it’s currently presented is a dying beast. We can do lots of things to be top dog in our markets, but even the top dog is the equivalent of the last buggy whip maker. At AR&D, we’re working on some prototype program concepts, because we know that nobody’s going to come back for that from which they fled. Those people turning their sets off will never reverse themselves for the same old good-looking people with boxes over their shoulders. Online is the future (I consider mobile to be “online”), so let’s look there.
  2. Our online competition is not the other TV stations; it’s all the pureplay revenue grabs that aren’t bound by the rules of being a TV station online. The most important current and future use of our TV stations is to use them to promote our online offerings, and that’s smart strategy. That and feet-on-the-street are the only competitive advantages we have over those pureplays. Doing news online is a smart thing, but it needs to be in real-time across-the-board and not just Twitter and Facebook. News also needs to be aggregated and curated, and that means acknowledging the other news producers in the market. That’s what the pureplays do. They’re not encumbered by a local brand.
  3. We need to embrace the reality that content isn’t our “business;” advertising is our business, and we need to be immersed in the latest from the revolution in advertising. The biggest, most fruitful shift in advertising today is the sharing of risk. Google pioneered it (pay only for clicks); Groupon raised it to an art level (split revenue; no customers, no deal). However, I think the greatest innovations in this area are still ahead. Advertisers are the new media companies, and the idea of money for simple placement alone is slowly dying, unless you’re the Superbowl. Results are what the new advertising world wants, provable results, and unless we’re in there with those who are offering such, we’re simply going to be left behind. But this is an advertising problem, not a content problem, so content solutions won’t do much. If you believe that advertisements adjacent to content is the best business model for the Web, I feel sorry for you.
  4. Our content will be aggregated, and this is where we will compete with traditional and other forms of local media. We resist this at our own peril, and so the smart thing to do is develop strategies that make it profitable to completely unbundle our content from our owned infrastructure. We want our content aggregated. We want ours to shine among the rest. We want users to take our content with them and to interact with that at their convenience. We want to find new advertising opportunities within an aggregated environment.

The paradox of working in media today is that it’s both brutal and exciting at the same time, kind of like being at sea during a storm. The advice there is to keep your focus on the horizon dead ahead, for attention to the waves is will make you sick. Here, that focus must be on the truths made apparent by acceptance of certain big trends. Follow those and hang on for the bumpy ride.

There is a future, and it is bright.

Thanks for reading,