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.

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.

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.

New Pew report should open eyes

Today’s new report from the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism reveals some unsurprising but damning information about news websites that we can ill afford to ignore. Here are the key findings:

  • In-House ads, ads selling or promoting a news organizations own products, fill more space across these news websites than any other advertising category.
  • The finance industry is represented far more than any other on the news websites studied.
  • Discount or coupon advertising such as Groupon was fairly limited.
  • Most of the news sites did not feature ads targeted to consumers based on their online behavior.
  • News organizations tend to rely most heavily on static banner ads.
  • Even though search ads don’t appear on most news sites, Google’s advertising presence is still strong there.

What this says to me is that media companies continue to try and force “their” business model into a medium that rejects it. Moreover, I think this is right where Silicon Valley wants us.

Media, in its purest business sense, is an order-taker world. What we have is so scarce and so important that people call us to spend their money with us. In the good old days, regardless of which form of media we’re talking about, the sales force got into a nice rhythm of sitting at desks and counting the money. Oh I know that people will debate this, but a replacement for that rhythm is what we desperately seek today. We need something to replace it, because if we have to work harder to make and sell our audiences, the price of sale (POS) goes way up, and our business model itself collapses.

Searching for this replacement online, however, has been our mistake, because the obvious benefits of mass marketing are utterly disrupted by the Web, and mass marketing is all we know. All we’ve done is waste our time, and the Pew report makes that statement loud and clear.

Beginning with newspapers and continuing with television and other forms of media, we’ve built websites that serve (we think) the business model of mass marketing, and that has been nothing less than suicidal. So far downstream are we in this error that we can’t even imagine anything different for now, so let’s begin with a few basics:

  • Time is the new currency. We don’t care about this in the outside world, where scarcity earns us the right to stomp all over people in the name of “serving” them, but online, this is a crucial, crucial reality. We must conform our online products to this reality.
  • Do what you do best and link to the rest. In a world where infrastructure carries the monetization mechanism, it’s necessary to keep people inside that infrastructure for as long as possible. This doesn’t work forever online, however (think AOL, not Facebook), because the Web is bigger than anybody’s application. One of the oldest Web axioms is “If you send people away, they will come back.” This is a habit unpracticed by media companies, but one we must begin embracing.
  • Create “for” the Web by accepting the following: The Web is not TV. The Web is not newspapers. “The Web is more a social creation than a technical one,” said Sir Tim Berners-Lee. The Web is a three-way form of communication: up/down, down/up and sideways. The Web is real-time flows and streams, not static displays.
  • News content online must be unbundled, so that users in the network can pass it around to meet their needs to inform and share. Our need to drive users to our infrastructure is contrary to this, and we must find the courage and creativity to do something about it.
  • Advertising is content — the only new content that really matters. Advertisers are the new content makers, and we need to be exploiting our strengths as experts in the world of content creation in order to serve this burgeoning market.

There are so many things I could say about what we need to be doing, but that would take all day and then some. The point of this Pew report — and many others like it — is that what we’re doing isn’t working, and that’s being kind.

We’ll never get out of this hole unless we first stop digging.