The Re-Rise of the Newsletter

The professional news industry is being forced to return to its roots by a world it doesn’t — and probably never will — fully understand. It began with the industry’s initial response to the digital disruption, which was to reproduce its entire finished product for the web. The web, however, wasn’t built by newspapers; it was built by highly creative and rebellious geeks who changed the world without the status quo telling them it needed changing.

The web was a brand new communications invention, not a new distribution channel for old ways of doing things, and in missing this truth, the industry was completely lost. The newspaper people wanted to present their finished product online, but the geeks knew from the start that this was inefficient and a cheap substitute for what was possible.

Blog software, with its reverse chronological flow, came first, quickly followed by ways to distribute content apart from its host. Social media is, at core, the news “audience” talking amongst themselves, which was contrary to the top-down relationship that the press had with its readers. The shift to mobile brought new challenges, the biggest being a playing field built around scrolling and video in portrait mode. News drifted away from the finished product variety and into the world of continuous news.

Of course, the biggest disruptor by far was how advertising was changing to adapt to the new, and a realization that smart marketers could provide ads at the browser level and based on the behaviors of that browser. This offered a much greater likelihood of advertiser return-on-investment. History books will cite this as causing the death of newspapers, but it’s really more a case of ignorance, for newspapers still lack the technology and the networks to provide this to local advertisers. The industry has ceded defeat to Google without even firing a shot.

And, now comes the newest era of the email newsletter, a technology that’s been around since the dawn of email but generally only used to provide links to the industry’s “real” content online. The shift today, however, includes those who give the energy it takes to produce actual content for newsletters, and it’s a godsend to overwhelmed news consumers. This trend is going to continue until a company’s online newsletter will become the primary method that news organizations use to disseminate news and information.

People can pass them around, which often results in new subscribers.

The first trader newsletters during the Middle Ages — actual letters from observers in far away places — were the precursor to the newspaper industry. Wikipedia notes that “Trader’s newsletters covered various topics such as the availability and pricing of goods, political news, and other events that would influence trade.” This is the essence of today’s developing process, and it suits not only the web’s unique abilities but also that most precious of earthly commodities: time.

I’ll be 74 this summer, and I spend most of my days online in an endless search for knowledge. Even with all that time, I still feel uninformed, because studying modern times is like trying to take a sip from a firehose. It’s the primary reason I’ve turned to newsletters. They’re out there; you just have to find them. Here are five newsletters that hit my inbox overnight or every morning:

The New York Times: While this is primarily a tool to “drive traffic” back to its newspaper site, the content is growing to include small story summaries throughout. It’s a way to follow the Times without subscribing to its main product.

Mondoweiss: I have family of Palestinians that lived in Amman, Jordan for a great many years, so my window on the Middle East is a little different than most. I don’t trust the Israeli’s, and I need an outlet that understands this. Mondoweiss is a terrific example of a point-of-view news organization that represents an extreme minority in the West. I need that to stay informed.

Dave Winer: Dave is one of the real gems in providing important technology news in a highly conversational format. I also really like Dave as a person, and his takes on life in general also give me food for thought. Dave’s is a constant voice on Twitter, and he uses his newsletter to summarize those thoughts. Moreover, and this is important, Dave is always a yard ahead of everybody else, and if he’s taking the trouble to produce a newsletter, it’s something that requires my attention.

Mathew Ingram: Mathew provides summaries and links to the stories he finds important. I trust Mathew and lean on his understanding to help my own.

Brian Stelter and Oliver Darcy: CNN’s Reliable Sources is (by a mile) the most useful contemporary newsletter in the market today. It is the model for others to copy, for it’s loaded with content written for readers of the newsletter. What a concept! Oh, it contains marketing and links, but it is written to be read, and the summaries are specifically aimed at people such as myself and all of those who just don’t have the time to invest in reading complete stories.

There are many others out there, and I’ll probably be extending my subscription list as I find those suited to my tastes. The point is that I get to decide what I wish to influence my thinking, not the forced and irritating offerings of the artificial and manipulative hegemony known as objectivity. That old standard disappeared with the advent of continuous streams of news. Journalism has always spoken with the authority of overseers, which is the luxury afforded to those who could afford a printing press. Today, every single person on the net is a media company and able to distribute their content just like the big boys.

To those who would drag out the ol’ echo chamber meme to accuse me of circular logic, let me state once again that my experience in helping to create right wing news means that I know that it’s just political propaganda disguised as news. Give me a little credit for that tidbit, because I’ve already turned the page on it.

If you don’t subscribe to newsletters, my advice is to begin today. Click on the links I’ve provided, if you’re interested in those. If you find yourself being fed content that you find bitter or tasteless, unsubscribing is just a click away.

To those in the news industry, if you don’t produce a newsletter, what are you waiting for? The only rules are that it can’t be a vehicle that merely “drives traffic” back to its point of origin, and ads should be presented as content, perhaps even written by the newsletter’s author(s).

Passages: Put a fork in me, media. I’m done!

terrywhole2As I approach my 8th decade on the planet this summer, I’ve decided to move along in my professional life to something a bit different. I’d like to share it all with you, my friends.

It’s a heady thing when people choose to read the things you write, and I’ve always been extremely grateful and humbled by that. I’ve been writing The Pomo Blog for 15 years now, and we’ve covered a lot of ground in the posts and the essays. I’ve organized groups of bloggers, helped write the book on aggregation, helped originate the idea of unbundled media, wrote about data long before anybody could grasp the meaning, innovated the concepts of Continuous News (which is now everywhere), local ad networks, and advertising as content (aka “content marketing”), and identified things that are still influencing media and far beyond, such as the concepts of spectrum within spectrum and the evolving user paradigm. I’m also the only person who continues to study postmodern journalism and its consequences for tomorrow.

And for all of that, I’m broke.

And you know why? Because the industry that I’ve been trying to help for the last 15 years, local broadcasting, doesn’t give a ripple chip about any of it. Oh, the people in the trenches certainly do, but not those who live in the towers and write the paychecks, including mine. I’m tired of beating a dead horse, and that’s what local TV has become (thanks, Harry). What used to be a thriving industry of innovation, public service, and people who wanted to change the world has become the lifeless bones of an aging and smelly corporate carcass whose owners specialize in sucking the marrow to milk whatever profit is left. These wealthy bean counters, lawyers, and “managers” beat the drums of self-righteousness and the law, while picking the bones through cost-cutting, consolidation, and clout. Am I bitter? Of course I am, but not because I’ve been rejected, but because I actually believed they would want the industry to survive and thrive the disruptions to its core. That’s not the case, however, for the true inspiration of the people who run these companies is a comfy retirement, and the pathway is happy shareholders — the people who care ONLY about profits. Those people are also a part of the 1 percent, each seeking their own comfy retirement, too. I guess I’m angry with myself for ever believing something different was possible.

And so, I don’t care anymore now, and I’ve chosen to say “f**k it.” Effective immediately, I’m removing media and new media from the focus of my attention and moving on into other parts of culture, especially religion. I’m unsubscribing from all the newsletters, RSS feeds, and anything that has anything to do with media, advertising, etc. I’ve finished a new book, “How Jesus Joined the GOP” and while it’s being edited, I’m searching for the right agent and publisher. I was responsible for executing Pat Robertson’s plan to use television to “change America for Jesus,” and I know things about that process that are both fascinating and frightening, especially as it relates to today’s political landscape.

But the most remarkable observation to me is that I have studied cultural postmodernism through a different lens than those who’ve studied it in the name of “the church” and yet we’ve come to similar conclusions. I believe I have a lot to offer this world, and that’s my goal. There may not be much in the way of profit for me financially, but I’m used to that by now. What’s clear to me today is that life itself is changing before our eyes here in the 21st Century, and it goes far beyond the limiting scope of media. That’s where I want to be and need to be. It’s calling me — quite loudly, I think — and that’s where I’m going.

There are incredible events taking place in the world of spiritual understanding. It’s a transformation brought on by the same energy and innovations that are changing media, the kind of stuff that will shock and reinvent religion’s role in culture for the better. Its exhilarating and filled with people who really care about what’s happening. They need (and I hope they want) my eyes and the knowledge I’ve acquired as a cultural observer.

So I hope you’ll join me on this journey, but if you don’t, that’s okay. I’m very proud of the work I’ve done since I left the TV News business in 1998, despite the lack of proof that it has meant anything to the industry that was my life for so long. I’m alright with that, because the end of that story hasn’t been written yet, and who really knows where anyone will end up in the sands of tomorrow? I only know one thing for certain: I have touched The Unbroken Web, and that is worth any price I have to pay in this life.

May God bless and keep you all.

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:

“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.