The lesson of Bill Simmons and ESPN

bs_report_300The always astute James Andrew Miller, writing for Vanity Fair, makes an important observation for all media in his “Inside the Shocking, Abrupt Divorce of Bill Simmons and ESPN.”

In the end, one could say with minimal originality, but considerable accuracy, that Bill Simmons simply flew too close to the sun. He miscalculated how much value ESPN put on him and on his unique abilities and talents. He might also have forgotten a cardinal company rule that remains sacred whether it’s ESPN’s Old Guard talking or its new one: Nobody, but nobody, can be bigger than those four initials.

On the other hand, it could be said that Bristol forgot a kind of cardinal rule itself: In an era where fans can get not just scores but highlights, and a ton more, on their smart phones, distinctive and original content is the way to engage and hold onto an audience plopped in front of big 99-inch screens. That content often comes with a big price tag—and with a requirement that the people with unique abilities and talent who create it be treated like the stars you’ve paid for.

In a world of mass media, the single brand of the company rides atop every other marketing concern. This is a core Madison Avenue concept and the truth behind Miller’s statement that “nobody can be bigger than those four initials (ESPN).” In the next paragraph, however, he describes the truth of Jay Rosen’s The Great Horizontal, which is the newer and greater reality of today and, especially, tomorrow.

So allow me to restate what I believe is obvious. Media is increasingly about personal brands, because those are what’s permitted in the revolutionary conversation taking place among the people formerly known as the audience (another Rosen witticism). Even where brands are able to “act” like people, they are not, and this is the harsh reality of doing commerce in the age of the consumer. Harvard’s brilliant Umair Haque noted long ago that companies should be spending money on products instead of marketing, and his justification was this very thing.

This is why I encourage students and people already in the media industries to expend the energy necessary to create and maintain their personal brands. In the end, it’s the only thing that really matters in a networked world, where exchanges of knowledge and information occur at the personal level. The age of slick marketing is drawing to a close. You won’t be able to buy your way into anything downstream, because the process for doing such is slowly disintegrating. In 15 years of trying, Madison Avenue has returned to an old stand-by — one that empowered consumers have already dismissed — the pop-up ad. It’s truly amazing that, just like The Odd Couple, this tired old irritant is back with a vengeance. How true is the old saw that if your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

Commerce in the Great Horizontal will require great products and services and people willing and able to pass them around. There’s already the idea that “influencers” at the personal level are what product manufacturers need to buy, but that’s merely wishful thinking from the hammer known as Madison Avenue. I don’t have a map with the route from here to there charted, but the laws of attraction will be more useful than the laws of promotion.

Thou shalt not bear false witness!

People wonder why I come off as angry, especially a certain crowd on Facebook. Well, let me be blunt. The world is so swimming in the muck of lies and distortion that we’re all drowning in our own bullshit. If you dare, take a look at this. It was posted on Facebook by a prominent Christian author, speaker and radio show host, Dr. Michael Brown. As of this writing, it’s been shared by over 2,100 fans. The comments are a long stream of attaboys, backslapping, and “thank you for the truth” accolades. The problem is it’s all crap.

fakemuslimwomen

The problem here is that this isn’t a photo of some random gathering of Muslim women! Who knew, right? I mean, it fits the message so beautifully that I’m surprised Bill Maher hasn’t used it already. I did a Tineye search of that image and discovered that the copyright is owned by a photographer named Scott Nelson, who writes this in his description:

BAGHDAD,IRAQ-APRIL 03: Female members of the al-Mehdi Army march in Military formation during an April 03, 2004 military parade through the streets of the Sadr City neighborhood in east Baghdad, Iraq. The Al-Mehdi Army is a Shia militia aligned with controversial Shia cleric Moqtada Sadr, and the parade was meant to be a show of force in tandem with Sadr supporters’ continued protest against the occupation of Iraq by the U.S. lead coalition forces.

Wait, what? Their faces are covered for good reason? This was a Shi’a (Iranian roots) militia marching in a public parade in Baghdad after we took over their country. In his keywords, Nelson used military and war terms and was careful not to use the word “burka,” Muslim women, oppression,or anything else inflammatory. It is in no way representative of women without political rights. It’s a con job and one that is designed to inspire fear.

Yet the picture has been used in the Dr. Michael Brown context 80 times since. His clever poster is just the latest.

And so I ask, where is journalism in any of this? Why is Snopes the only website dedicated to sniffing out these frauds? Culture is being torn apart by lies, and our only worry is who’s going to pay for “journalism” in the future.

Shame on us!

We could solve this

President Obama on Baltimore:

“…if our society really wanted to solve the problem, we could.  It’s just it would require everybody saying this is important, this is significant — and that we don’t just pay attention to these communities when a CVS burns, and we don’t just pay attention when a young man gets shot or has his spine snapped.  We’re paying attention all the time because we consider those kids our kids, and we think they’re important.”

Jeremiah to the unrighteous King Shallum (son of Josiah, a righteous king) in prophesying the end of his reign: “Your father, Josiah, also had plenty to eat and drink. But he was just and right in all his dealings. That is why God blessed him. He gave justice and help to the poor and needy, and everything went well for him. Isn’t that what it means to know me?” says the LORD.

Enough is enough, saith the people

horizontalHere is the latest in my ongoing series of essays, Local Media in a Postmodern World:

Humanity’s Greatest Challenge

In discussing what’s happening to traditional media — including at the local level — we need to understand how the culture around us is influencing its disruption. It is culture, not technology, that is fueling institutional disruption in the 21st Century, and it’s going to continue for a very long time. The bottom of culture is rising up to challenge the underpinnings of the ruling class, led by a simple tool of the postmodernist, deconstruction.

Pro Journalism’s Erroneous Assumption

By now you’ve probably heard the story of two recent Pulitzer Prize winners who had already left “the industry” for jobs in either public relations or academia. The story brought out the usual suspects saying the usual things about how that damned Internet has robbed the newspaper industry, the result being a great loss to citizens of the U.S.A. The latest is from the Washington Post: Why the PR industry is sucking up Pulitzer winners.

FT_Salary_GapThe piece says it’s all about money and displays a PEW graphic showing the disparity between journalists and PR. Then, it drifts into the cause, which author Jim Tankersley describes as “a free rider problem – if no one pays, eventually the service shuts down – and it’s a different sort of economic disruption that (sic) the ones cause (sic) by other American industries that have shriveled or disappeared or migrated in recent decades.”

When, for example, a corner grocery in Michigan is driven out of business by a big chain based in Arkansas, the people in Michigan still have somewhere to shop. If regional news outlets die, who will dig up corruption by their local lawmakers? Start-up news organizations across the country are trying, but they’re largely struggling to find a for-profit model that works.

It’s fair to ask, in the midst of this, how smaller newsrooms still do so much valuable journalism — and whether they should. As newsrooms shrink, the sort of deep project reporting that often wins Pulitzers has become “harder to justify economically,” Bhatia (former Oregonian editor, Peter Bhatia) said. But it must continue, he added, for business reasons, not just accolades: “It reminds the community of the essential role that ‘traditional media’ plays where people live.”

And there we have it, the sob story of how valuable “the old way” was and is to communities. This is not a fact, at least not anymore; it’s an assumption that is not supported by current data. Public trust in “the press” is at an all-time low. Only 1 in 5 people tell Gallup that they have any trust in the press whatsoever. So all this tearful nonsense about Pulitzers and “shoe leather” and “holding the powerful accountable” is just hyperbole used to defend the indefensible.

Moreover, PR today is another changing animal. Businesses and industries are learning that the best way to get THEIR stories out is through real stories. This is due to the growing education of the public through experience provided by life in a networked world. Attraction, not promotion, is the new paradigm, and this requires people who can write beautiful stories, not “cover” blood and guts.

As Lisa Williams wrote in 2008, journalism will survive the death of its institutions. Professional journalists, however, likely won’t be a part of it, unless they can step off this relentlessly drum-beating high horse.

Google rewards responsive design

Screen Shot 2015-04-18 at 8.24.35 AMThe search engine giant (and smart, smart, smart network master) is tweaking its MOBILE search algorithm, and the result could be a disaster of Biblical proportions for all those TV station websites still clinging to the bloated design of popular CMS providers. As I’ve written a billion times, the path to downstream irrelevancy for broadcasters is clinging to old models, and these CMS templates are as old as it gets in web years. According to the AP, Google’s move will take place Tuesday and will “sway where millions of people shop, eat and find information.”

Google’s move will push every online provider to be more “mobile friendly,” and most TV station websites aren’t.

To stay in Google’s good graces, websites must be designed so they load quickly on mobile devices. Content must also be easily accessible by scrolling up and down — without having to also swipe to the left or right. It also helps if all buttons for making purchases or taking other actions on the website can be easily seen and touched on smaller screens.

If a website has been designed only with PC users in mind, the graphics take longer to load on mobile devices and the columns of text don’t all fit on the smaller screens, to the aggravation of someone trying to read it.

Google has been urging websites to cater to mobile device for years, mainly because that is where people are increasingly searching for information.

Go read the whole article via NetNewsCheck, because it’s filled with important stuff.

The essence of the problem is that local broadcasters are still competing with each other online. They’re trying to be TV stations online, because they cannot or will not look beyond their own industry to see what’s really happening in the networked world. TV stations are mass media vehicles and the “broad” in broadcasting is rightly interpreted as one-stop-shops for all entertainment and information. This is ridiculous online, but TV people keep adding content and sections to their sites. And of course when you do this, you feel obligated to provide a doorway to all that precious cargo, so deep navigation becomes an essential part of any page. Moreover, an interrupted television signal is an emergency for broadcast stations, so the same paranoia is applied to their websites, which elevates the importance of stability in their approach to content management. These are the things to which broadcasters cling, and Google is about to shove it all right up their backsides. Why? Because none of it is “mobile friendly.”

And good luck with those apps of yours, too. If Google’s spiders can’t see it, it means nothing in search.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This post is an addendum to my essay Time to Revisit Our Mobile Strategy.