The Web’s budding streams and flows

Streams and flowsAR&D clients are enjoying great success with the concept of Continuous News, with LEX18.com leading the way. We’re also delighted to see other media companies doing the same, and note especially the new design of KSL-TV’s website, the biggest TV station website in the world. This is still in its infancy, and we’re learning as much as we’re teaching. What follows is a continuation of the thought stream about real time that began a couple of weeks ago in our newsletter.

As the news business evolves to real time, we must begin thinking of the news product differently. This will alter everything about the news business itself, because since the dawn of the printing press, the news business has been constructed around the production cycle of newspapers and later television stations.

Deadlines are meant to serve the production cycle, which means the definition of “the story” is too. The story includes that which we can put into it by the production cycle’s deadline. We “go with what we’ve got” multiple times for TV news and daily with newspapers. The delivery cycle — be it via the printed word or broadcast video — sets in motion everything about the news business itself. We call it “the news cycle,” and the ecosystem that is news is built around it. Newspapers went from afternoons to mornings, which changed the cycle completely, just as TV stations are now shifting from evening to mornings. When deadlines change, the business changes.

This “news cycle” is fed by the other side of journalism’s coin, the public relations industry. Events are timed for live coverage or to “fit” everybody’s deadlines, because the cycle is what really matters. If an event occurs close to the deadline, it wears the coveted title of “breaking news,” the marketing managers’ dream.

All of this is changing today, thanks to the real-time Web, the disintermediation of news delivery and the hyperconnectivity that puts all of us just a few bits away from each other. It is the most amazing time in communications’ history, and yet those who cling to the product cycle have difficulty appreciating it. The product cycle is manageable. Real time is not. In my discussions with executives and in observations at various conferences, I find this to be the core disruption that puzzles media companies most.

This was first evidenced by how media companies originally attacked the Web marketplace. We built “pages” and determined that the product cycle of news could be simply moved to an online version of what we did offline. This was a critical, but understandable miscalculation and one that many venture-capital-supported “new media” entities exploited to suck money away from the news ecosystem. We look at Web “pages” and connect everything with that. The flows and streams of the Web, however, aren’t driven by the page concept, so it makes no sense to us.

The point at which “the news” is consumed today may be a “page,” but it’s also every bit as likely to be something else, some application that updates in real time. It’s very likely to be via a smartphone or PDA. It may be alongside something else, augmenting the other content or not. Everything about addressing the news consumer in this context is quite different than addressing them via “the page,” and everything about making money via the stream is likewise different.

  • The page is vetted and finished. The flow or stream is constant, unfinished and may or may not be vetted fully.
  • The page is shaped by “the story,” whereas the flow or stream contributes to the story, allowing users to put the pieces together for themselves.
  • The page is created for adjacent advertising. Advertising is a part of the stream, not adjacent to it.
  • The page assumes consumers will browse and look around. The flow is here one moment and gone the next.
  • The page exists to help people make sense. The stream assumes people can make sense as it flows along.
  • The page is all about pushing content. The flow is about what people want to pull to themselves.

Twitter is a great example of a stream and flow. Constantly moving, people can decide what messages or people they wish to have in their stream and use software such as Tweetdeck to help them accomplish it. Twitter feeds the bigger stream that is the real-time Web, and the technologies designed to serve the bigger stream are still being created. Traditional media companies would do well to think about this as they begin to conceptualize news of tomorrow.

Perhaps the biggest practical difficulty that legacy media companies have with “the stream” is the need to own it. We can understand the live nature and perhaps even agree that it is a very efficient method of getting news to the consumer, but we cannot bring ourselves to see that “our” stream is but a part of “the” stream. We stop at what we see, which has always been the curse of traditional media and the Web. We confuse the page with the flow, which produces an artificial sense of accomplishment for those who’ve made the leap to, for example, Continuous News. It’s artificial, because we’re merely creating a new kind of “page.”

I often encounter those who are desperate to place a “top story” block atop the Continuous News section of their news websites. The argument is a good one, if “the page” was all that mattered: we’d need to be able to show people coming to our site what we think is important. I don’t argue that there are still people who view the Web this way, but in emphasizing the page over all else, we overlook the pertinent concept that it’s not what’s on our page that matters but that which is distributed raw into the stream. We simply cannot do this and expect to be relevant in a universe that is shifting to real time.

Deciding “what’s important,” moreover, is increasingly the purview of the news consumer, thanks to technology. Our editorial decisions are a part of what has led to 57% of adults in the U.S. distrusting the press, an all-time high. The idea of journalists being the unquestioned guides of the news is a relic of the past, yet those who view the web as a “page” insist that our “top stories” are a measurement of our relevance in the world today.

The technology that “sends” our content to “the stream” is RSS. If you want a clear illustration of how important any news organization views the stream, take a close look at its RSS feeds. Chances are you’ll find a headline, a couple of sentences, and a link back to a story page. News businesses that do this are telling the Web that they want nothing to do with its wild and wooly real-time and that they’re quite happy, thank you very much, to keep things just as they are. This is handing the future over to the upstarts by default, because we just won’t view the Web as anything other than the page.

The concept of “flows and streams” applies equally to videos. Who will produce the real-time videos? We all will, and the two-fold challenge for those in the video news business will be similar to those of print today. One, how do we winnow the wheat that fits our needs from the chaff that’s only relevant to the people who created it? Two, how do we contribute to the stream ourselves?

On the answers to these questions hang our future in the news business. With real-time delivering what’s new, we won’t get to call our later analysis thereof “news,” because anything beyond real-time will be “olds.” I think this is actually a blessing, for it will help us determine the essence of the finished products we currently call “news.”

Meanwhile, we need to get busy immersing ourselves in the business of the streams and flows that are the strength of the Web.

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