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.

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.

NAB opens while surrounded by warning signs

Here is the latest in my ongoing series, Local Media in a Postmodern World:

Headlines Shout the Warning Signs for Broadcasters

NAB2015Thousands of people associated with the broadcast industry swarm the convention center in Las Vegas every year for exposure to the latest in industry thinking and products. This is all well and good, but as I’ve said many times in the past, the National Association of Broadcasters does a disservice to its members by only discussing and presenting technology that helps broadcasters be more efficient, instead of providing a platform for debating its disrupted business model. It’s eerily similar to my satirical post a couple of years ago about a 19th Century whale oil convention: Ignoring the Obvious.

While regular readers here might not find anything new in this essay, the validation provided by recent headlines proclaims a loud “amen” to what we’ve all known for years: broadcasting is in the midst of a raging storm. Sadly, you won’t hear anything about that from the NAB.

Solving the Wrong Problem

simulpath2smBusinesses and institutions spend money to solve problems big and small, because it is in the solving of problems that products and services advance. As Clay Shirky pointed out in his 2010 speech to SXSW, however, a necessary part of this is maintenance of the problem being solved, for that is what drives the institutional engine.

“Curiously, an organization that commits to helping society manage a problem also commits itself to the preservation of that same problem, as its institutional existence hinges on society’s continued need for its very management.”

There would be no demand for automobiles, for example, if people didn’t have to solve the problem of getting from here to there efficiently.

Trouble begins when new solutions for those problems are developed, for the difficulty then becomes ensuring that old solutions are still required. Problem-solving shifts from meeting external needs to solving those that are internal, and the business model itself becomes the problem requiring solution. As Clayton Christensen has so brilliantly expressed in his work on disruptive innovations, by the time a company figures out what’s really taking place, it’s too late.

The internal combustion engine is the automobile industry’s solution, and it must protect it at all costs. Tesla is a disruptor offering a different solution. Who will eventually determine the winner? The people who have the original problem, not any industry currently solving it.

This paradigm shift is the scalpel with which mass media — broadcasting, newspapers, and the institution of journalism — is administering its own death by a thousand cuts. Our very future depends on how we respond, so let’s begin at the beginning and ask ourselves, what problem does media solve?

The answer is communications between humans, especially those containing information. The word is the plural of “medium,” which refers to the method of that communication, and it includes everything from one-to-one communications to that which is one-to-many, what we call “mass media.”

There are a great many disruptors today working on ways the solve the problem of communications between humans. Yet, not one is a traditional or “mainline” media company. They are too busy trying to solve the internal problem of how to stay relevant and continue to produce profits. The problem is their strategic focus has been diluted by self-protection.

In a fascinating NetNewsCheck article (Engagement, Personalization Emerging as Keys to Monetizing Mobile), we find The McClatchy Company offering its views on how to respond to one such disruption. Notice the underlying theme of status quo problem solving in these excerpts:

“Our mobile Web audience is mostly one-time visitors,” says Grey Montgomery, the company’s director of mobile initiatives, who added that only 1% of those mobile Web users are paying subscribers…

…He organizes mobile Web users into four buckets: one-time visitors; rare visitors, who come by only about twice per month; visitors who read until they hit the paywall; and subscribers.

“Our job is to level these users up,” Montgomery says. “We know how much each is worth to us on an annual basis, so we are looking now at how to apply marketing to get them to level up.”

McClatchy, which Montgomery says is engaged in a “big redo” of its digital product, has also been gathering data on how its app users behave. A November study of 1,000 users of the Charlotte Observer app uncovered big surprises. While 60% of users selected stories from the home page, only 6% used the navigation and only 2% swiped through sections to find something to read, Montgomery says. “The profound takeaway here is that if the content wasn’t on the home page, users never got to it.”

I’m sure McClatchy is doing what it thinks is in its best interests in this “big redo,” but leveling up users has absolutely nothing to do with the people who make up the mobile audience. They are being led today by disruptors who have their best interests, not McClatchy’s, at heart. Jay Rosen calls them “the people formerly known as the audience,” people who continue to want the problem of being carpet bombed relentlessly by advertising solved for them. This, however, IS the business model of McClatchy and other mass media companies, so there is a functional disconnect between media and many of the people who had no choice prior to the Net in avoiding whatever any media company put in front of their eyes. Like animals trapped in a cage who escape to freedom, they are never coming back.

Moreover, the “takeaway” that Mr. Montgomery describes as “profound” regarding the home page is actually very old news, and this is the issue when your focus is self-driven. One of the earliest Net solutions to the problem of communications between humans was the blog, with its chronologically scrolling home page and RSS feed to help people discover its content. Bear in mind that this solution did not come from anybody in traditional media; not even close. Blogs first came on the scene 20 years ago and hit their stride about 5 years later. I have been blogging for 13 years! The model continues to advance today through applications like Facebook, Twitter and hundreds of other new media companies, yet traditional media continues to press for its own presentation schemas.

Media companies of all stripes must continue their efforts to find profit and relevancy in what is by now an evolved space. We need to do so, however, with both eyes open and by exploring the disruptions taking place in the world of advertising, the communication of information about products and services available to humans. There’s a demand for that and problems with it that need to be solved. It’s currently a scientific adventure in data and targeting by data, neither of which are our specialties, but much of that is driven by an ad industry suffering from the same disruptive influences as media.

We’ve simply got to look beyond our own needs, for that is the path to a reserved seat at tomorrow’s media business table.