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).

Free Range Content Consumption

flytvsmHere is the latest in my ongoing series of essays, Local Media in a Postmodern World.

Free Range Content

Facebook’s wish to put media content inside its own application is potentially self-destructive to those providing the content. Moreover, for Facebook, it smacks of the days of AOL. All of this would be irrelevant, if media could bring itself to release its content into the wild of the Net, but that appears more and more to be an impossible task.

To media companies, their competition is and always has been other media, which is an absurd proposition online. When a TV station, for example, behaves online only as it does in the linear world, it has already lost in the battle for relevance.

The problem with RSS

RSS logoGoogle shuts down its RSS reader soon, and this has the usual suspects talking about what’s “wrong” with RSS. I’ve written much about the technology, and I’ve always been an enormous fan. Dave Winer basically invented the concept of moving content around the Web sans formatting, and it’s always “worked” for me. I built aggregators in Nashville that were enormously popular among the web crowd, and I’ve supported Dave at every turn. Dave likes news rivers, and I do, too, but I don’t believe that’s the best use of RSS. One of the interesting things about RSS is its versatility, as Dave explains:

“…people who believe in mailbox-style RSS readers are in a RDF. If I say “I like a river style of news” they almost explode in passion and sometimes rage. They tell you what they need. At length, in great detail. I never understood why they do this. But I have found the solution. Just say ‘Hey I can have a river and you can have a mailbox and the earth will still revolve around the sun, birds will sing in the morning, people will fall in love and have babies, etc etc.’ My getting what I want won’t effect you getting what you want.”

In my view, RSS is an XML software that stands alone in the distribution of unbundled media. The reason it hasn’t blossomed into what it could be is that the people who make the content that we presumably want to read/watch make their money via THEIR infrastructures, not the content directly. Therefore, they are disincentivized to participate in anything that lessens the need for that infrastructure. This has led to media companies using the “headline and couple sentence” format in their RSS distribution.

Imagine Twitter being handled this way. Instead of 140 characters, everybody sent just 40 characters, with the requirement that the user had to click on the Twitter item in order to read the remaining 100 characters. Obviously, that would be a pain-in-the-ass, and Twitter would soon cease to exist. This is different than tweets that contain links. In my example, access to the link would be beyond the first 40 characters. To me, this has been the misuse of this great piece of technology. I profoundly believe in full-feed RSS. To me, that’s its most powerful product, and until we find a way to play in that environment, RSS will never reach its full potential.

The dawn of so-called “Native Advertising” could bring with it a market for distributing this kind of content via RSS, and that might open the flood gates of revenue for entrepreneurs and those who make the content.

I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

The Pomo Blog is back in business

Greetings, fellow travelers.

This blog has been sick for nearly three years, but today I can pronounce it healthy and recovered. Long-term readers will recall I was infected by a virus that likely came in via the shared hosting I was unfortunately using at the time. The event corrupted all of my archives at that point and broke everything. While I was able to get it up and running, it wasn’t the same until these last few weeks and months. I’m now on a dedicated Unix server with people I really trust, and all ten years of my archives have been fully restored (3,000+ posts).

Tony Cecala

I want to thank Tony Cecala, Ph.D., Dallas area WordPress guru, and alpha geek for his effort in fixing what was an incredible mess. I’m also taking some advanced classes with Tony and hope to better my skills at using the software that has become the default, go-to CMS for the open source community. I can’t possibly over recommend Tony and his knowledge and experience with WordPress. If you really need an expert (as I did), he’s your guy.

I’ve also been very busy writing other things the past year and haven’t really been able to dedicate the time necessary to serious blogging. It’s looking like that’s about to change, so I promise I’m back with a serious intent to spend more quality time here.

I want to also take a moment to point to what Dave Winer’s doing with tabbed rivers that run on RSS. The future for information distribution lies here, not in privately held profit centers like Facebook or Twitter. I hope to be adding my 2 cents to this important discussion, for nothing less that the future of our industry (and perhaps even press freedom) is at stake.

Thanks for being with me over the last couple of years. Keep coming back.

We need to get back to basics

Symbol for RSSThe issue is RSS, really simple syndication, a Web protocol that is EXTREMELY efficient for moving content from place to place along the byways of the Web. It’s an XML protocol, which means it passes content separate from formatting, to be reconstructed at the other end. It frustrates media companies, because it removes “their” content from the infrastructure within which they make their money.

I’ve been a student of all things new media for over 14 years, and the current spinning & whirling hodgepodge of everything from this to that has caused me to take a big step back for a bit. When this happens, I start looking at fundamentals and those “big” trends that I’ve talked about often. Maybe it’s the pending Facebook IPO, but I sense forces building for some form of cosmic explosion that will force everyone back to basics. Let me explain.

In earlier days of The Pomo Blog and in my earlier essays, I wrote of the revolution in what I called “unbundled media.” People were sharing individual cuts from albums and newspaper articles and TV clips among other things, all separated from their infrastructures. Today, it seems the successful ventures (can you say “Instagram?”) are trying to do the opposite: putting media into infrastructures like, well, Facebook. This is why I think we all need to be very careful today, because in big money’s attempt to inject artificial equilibrium into the chaos of the Web, things are moving in opposite directions. There will be a day of reckoning.

Back in the early days, I wrote of unbundling news stories and of building newsrooms that would function in such an environment. I even wrote about a revenue play with unbundled content, in some cases, created by the people formerly known as the advertisers. None of it has materialized yet to the extent that I saw, and I’ve always wondered why. I mean, I knew that media companies would struggle with the concept of making money apart from their infrastructures, but I felt (still do) that the right people with money could force this on unwilling industries and that media would eventually see and seize the new value.

There were others on this particular vibe back then, people I had already grown to respect. Umair Haque wrote of the difference between a blockbuster and a snowball rolling downhill, the latter of which is a part of a networked world. He also wrote of unbundled media and the value of quality content over marketing. Dave Winer was putting forth a concept called “rivers of news” based on the simple process of RSS — which he actually invented — and I felt I was joined at the hip with Dave. RSS was and is the perfect distribution vehicle for unbundled bits of media, but it, too, has not yet reached anything near its potential. Dave blames an almost conspiratorial effort by leaders in tech media. RSS, after all, is free and unencumbered. How does Silicon Valley make its fortune from that? Jeff Jarvis, Doc Searls, Jay Rosen and others were also on the vibe, and if anyone claims provenance for the whole thing, I think I’d have a problem with that. It doesn’t matter who got there first; the point is that a handful of people (much smarter than me) were all exploring this obvious (to us) development at about the same time, but it has seemingly sat there unattended.

Dave Winer never gave up. Heck, I don’t think any of us gave up, but he’s the one who has kept trying to move the rock while the rest of us have been basically cheering him on. Now this week, he’s posted “River of News — FTW!” and it bears a fresh jolt of energy and enthusiasm.

I wish I could work with the teams of the best publications. If that could happen, we’d kick ass. But I’m here on the sidelines giving advice that you guys take on very very slowly. It’s frustrating, because it’s been clear that rivers are the way to go, to me, for a very long time. A lot of ground has been lost in the publishing business while we wait. There’s a lot of running room in front of this idea. We can move quickly, if publishers have the will.

Dave Winer is a very interesting fellow. A lot of people misinterpret his genius for self absorption or worse, and I think the tech industry is the real loser for it. The more I read Dave, the more I get to know him, and the more I get to know him, the more convinced I become that he’s right.

Doc Searls followed Dave’s piece this week with “Take us to The Rivers.” Doc admonishes his readers to take up arms with Dave, encouraged by this piece by Jason Pontin of Technology Review.”

The bigger and older the industry, the harder it is to make fundamental reforms, or to embrace disruption. Publishing, including newspapers, had been working the same way for many generations, so it has taken awhile for the obvious to sink in…

Last fall, we moved all the editorial in our apps, including the magazine, into a simple RSS feed in a river of news. We dumped the digital replica. Now we’re redesigning Technologyreview.com, which we made entirely free for use, and we’ll follow the Financial Times in using HTML5, so that a reader will see Web pages optimized for any device, whether a desktop or laptop computer, a tablet, or a smart phone. Then we’ll kill our apps, too.

Now back to Dave… Please, this time, listen to the man. While you still can.

My sword is with this group to any extent possible, but I have some advice. Unless and until we set our minds to resolving the revenue problem for media, we’re going to have a hard time (with people who really count) being taken seriously. That’s not intended as a swipe at anybody; it’s a simple fact. How does a media company put ads into its river without insulting people? Is that something we cannot tolerate at all, or would it be best for us to create the rules and protocols? And what about using RSS as a commerce mechanism? The people putting out the content that really matters today are those who used to be advertisers. What’s so wrong with using this technology to resolve their problems. Again, if we could influence the rules, wouldn’t that be worth the effort? And besides, content from advertisers is news in many ways.

I wrote about this back in the day in “The Economy of Unbundled Advertising,” and while the ideas expressed there were perhaps ahead of their time, I believe fundamentally in their hand shake with the Web, and that’s via RSS.

I owe my blogging history to Dave Winer, for he helped me get started. He’s right as rain on this, but the anti-capitalist nature of an open, seemingly chaotic architecture is what’s causing so much grief for those institutions and industries who exist in the old-fashioned, top-down world of modernity. This is the pragmatic postmodernism about which I write and preach. It’s also why, I suspect, I’m so drawn to the minds of people like Dave, Doc, Umair, David Weinberger, Kevin Kelly, and many others. None are opposed to making money; they simply all see the limits of doing it the top-down way.

Like I said, it’s time for all of us to get back to the fundamentals.

TMZ.com goes full-feed RSS

TMZ logoSomething extraordinary happened in the world of online media this week, and nobody seems to have noticed. TMZ.com, that entertainment news and gossip juggernaut, became the biggest site on the planet to offer full-feed RSS. As of this writing, TMZ has not gotten back to me for comments, so the best I can do is speculate. As a person who has followed TMZ since its humble beginnings — and reported extensively (here) on their model, which we call “Continuous News” — I can assure you that full-feed RSS from them is significant.

What is full-feed RSS and why is it so important?

Traditional media companies all have RSS feeds, but the distributed XML portion of new items is capped at a headline and one or two sentences. This is driven by strategy: the media companies want people to read their content on their own websites, because that’s where the money is (they think). This type of feed requires people click on a link to be taken to the company’s own website. It makes sense if mass media is your model, but it makes no sense in the world of distributed (unbundled) media. Traditional media companies have, therefore, used RSS only as a marketing toy, a notification system, of sorts.

But it wasn’t created for that, and every blogger knows it. And apparently, TMZ.com now knows it, too. Here’s the way their feed looked in my RSS reader this week. Before this week, the only thing I’d see in the viewing panel was a headline and a sentence. Now, the entire story is available for viewing WITHOUT me bringing up their website in the browser associated with my reader.

TMZ's RSS feed

Let’s say your TV station carries the syndicated TMZ program. You can now create an RSS widget that brings all of their news into your window. If you’re creating an aggregator of entertainment news using RSS, TMZ’s content will stand out, because it will all “be there.” This is the beauty of place-based distribution, because it doesn’t care where it’s posted; it simply wants to be seen.

This flies in the face of traditional mass media thinking. Who would be so crazy, the thinking goes, as to “give” their exclusive content away like that? The proverbial “crazy like a fox,” that’s who.

Let me state clearly why this is so important.

  • Distributed or unbundled content IS the future of news content. It “fits” the handshake, the touchpoint, the missing puzzle piece of the Web. Downstream, every piece of exclusive content will be unbundled, because if it’s not, it won’t be a part of the coming aggregation plays, those business that SERVE users by filtering or curating the content of the many for the consumption of the one. This is inevitable, no matter how much traditional media kicks and screams against it.
  • Advertising “as items” in an RSS feed are where the real future money is, although it’s only there in a trickle today. These ads are visible. There’s no “banner blindness.” And they provide real SEO value (see below). Look at the image of my reader again. Above the viewing panel is, like any email software, the headlines of the feed. If I see a headline I like, I can read its content below. Now imagine if, say, every 10th headline began with: “ADVERTISEMENT” or “SPONSOR.” I could look at it or not. Ads done this way are of very high value. As I noted a few weeks ago, John Gruber of the geek blog “Daring Fireball” sells a weekly sponsorship for his blog for $5,500 (that’s $22k a month). He’s currently sold out through mid-July. Here’s the way that looks in my reader:Daring Fireball's RSS feed
  • An advertisement as a part of content on a media website is worth another $250 a month, simply due to search engine optimization (SEO) value. It’s a permanent piece of content with a link or multiple links back to the sponsor, and it has significant value back to the advertiser. I know one advertiser who buys the cheapest ad deals possible simply to get his ads (with links) “on” the pages of big websites. Why? He doesn’t care if people actually “see” the ads; for him, it’s all about SEO.
  • There are ad networks that will populate your RSS feed with banners, including all the standard IAB sizes. The problem with these in a viewing panel of a headline-and-sentence feed is that the banner dominates everything, and frankly, that’s an insult. For example, here’s what TMZ competitor Enews Daily’s feed looks like:Enews Daily RSS feedYou can see how ridiculous (and transparent) that looks compared to a whole story with an ad.

RSS advertising hasn’t taken off for the same reason RSS hasn’t fully taken off: the media industry doesn’t see the value (or like it), but I expect that to be changing sooner than later. When that happens, we’ll discover even more about how to monetize that distributed content. There’s been a lot of talk lately about RSS “dying” due to social media, but RSS is the mechanism by which unbundled media moves around the Web, and contrary to dying, I think it’s just moved from the bottle to solid food.

TMZ.com pioneered the Continuous News model by proving that they could produce compelling news content in blog format, item by item and bit by bit. They saw the demand and had the courage to go with the “latest item on top” concept of Web display, something traditional media companies have a hard time grasping. It has served them well

What about you and your company? Are you going to wait until somebody else writes the rules about unbundled advertising, or do you have the courage and conviction to do that yourself?