“I did lose a million dollars last year. I expect to lose a million dollars this year. I expect to lose a million dollars next year. You know, Mr. Thather, at the rate of a million dollars a year I’ll have to close this place in 60 years.” – Citizen Kane
Archive for April, 2009
If Twitter (the biggest fad in journalism) can teach us one thing, it’s that the newer something is, the more valuable it is. And the best way to make a 140-word news blast even more valuable is to slap the word URGENT on it.
In some ways, the URGENT craze can be traced to cable news stations. A few years ago, CNN discovered the marketing power of the phrase BREAKING NEWS, and began applying it to every story, even ones that aren’t especially important. Digging deeper into mass communications history, Twitter honors the writing format pioneered by the Associated Press for the telegraph. Correspondents were trained send the most important stuff first, as concisely as possible, and to fill in detail later.
In the last few days, we’ve seen Twitter take this to a whole other level. The culprit: Swine flu. Every middling swine flu update rises to the level of URGENT. If this continues, people will become stressed by a constant stream of noise that sounds like bad news (think post-9/11). Either that or the word “URGENT” will lose its power.
There’s the risk that an URGENT story that’s totally false could gain a lot of traction very quickly on Twitter and cause a panic. So far this hasn’t happened in a bad way, but I see it happening on a small level with business gossip.
The worst offender is the Twitter service Breaking News Online. @BreakingNews has a small staff that monitors the newswires and sends out a Tweet every time something is happening. As of this morning, 290,253 people on Twitter are following the account. They have more subscribers than The Baltimore Sun. I follow it so I don’t miss something everybody else knows.
It’s the first really warm day of spring, and it’s a hell of a day to be in Spanish Harlem. I joined some volunteers for a New York Cares “Hands on New York Day” project at Thomas Jefferson Park up on 112th Street. I was part of a team painting a wall, some others did some gardening. Ambient sound: Kids playing baseball, dogs yipping, and the din of cars on the FDR. In the distance, Metro North trains passed on the overhead track out of Grand Central, and across the river the Amtraks crossed the Hell Gate Bridge. Pizza arrived for lunch, it had fried chicken on it. Our volunteer team included people from the Nielsen Company, JP Morgan Chase and News Corp. We chatted with the parks guys, got dirt and paint under our fingernails, and felt good about doing work.
This is the new Eminem music video for “We Made You,” which is brilliant, despite being the most un-PC thing you’ll see today. (Aside: Pharmaceutical companies should pay for product placements in his songs, if they don’t already.)
In a blog post that got a lot of attention today, a media thinker named Umair Haque proposed that The New York Times buy Twitter and use it to bolster its online news products.
It appears Haque put as much thought into this idea as I would if I were a consultant who wrote a blog on the side: Not much. His plan is a recipe for disaster. Here’s why I think so.
Let’s begin with a really important fact. Twitter and NYTimes.com don’t make money and there’s no evidence either one ever will. Just because you have a lot of useful data, a lot of traffic and a lot of customer engagement doesn’t mean you have a business. Twitter has tens of millions of members but no revenue. (The company says the money’s coming, just wait.) Traffic at NYTimes.com is huge—it’s the most popular newspaper site in America and growing. Yet digital business is still a mere sliver of The Times Company’s revenue—and it’s falling. Merging Twitter with The New York Times Company would unite two black holes into which cash vanishes.
(The New York Times Company’s best hope is that print advertising will come back roaring once the economy rights itself. Twitter’s best hope is that some profitable company will buy it for reasons of prestige and keep it running at a small loss. I’m rooting hard for both of those outcomes.)
From what I gather, Haque thinks Twitter’s value is in matching customers with companies, so the two sides can engage in a conversation. My, doesn’t that sound fun for everybody. Like a trip to the Post Office.
But I can’t fault Haque for tossing out a ludicrous idea on a business blog, because at least he made me think. On my commute home today, I kept thinking, What exactly is Twitter?
Of course it’s a virtual community of people. But what is it as a business? It’s a communication service, like a utility. Yet it offers no billable services, no advertising, no merchandise, no events, no product at all. Its software is simple and easily copied. Its database is valuable, but not valuable enough (so far) to command a price.
I kept trying to compare Twitter to some other enterprise. What’s something else that employs a skeleton staff (Twitter workforce: 29), earns no money, has virtually no valuable property, yet is consumed enthusiastically by tens of millions of people? I thought about celebrities, or popular music acts who don’t sell a lot of records, or political campaigns, or nonprofit organizations, or radio shows, or parks, or lighthouses, or drugs, or schools, or foods that doesn’t cost very much. But everything analogy I came up with falls apart. Not even other technology companies have achieved this level of success without a revenue engine behind them. (Even Wikipedia asks for donations.) In my limited scope of knowledge, there has never been a company in history like Twitter. Fascinating!
It’s easy to look at customer habits and conclude that newspapers are the past and Twitter is the future. But you’d be considering only part of the picture. Newspapers may be a dying business, but at least they’re a business.
All over my neighborhood, workers are tearing up streets to replace pipes and do work on other utilities. I have only a vague idea of what’s going on—they look like water pipes to me—but I take relief knowing there is some work going on to fix our infrastructure.
Infrastructure repair is a classic example of something important but not interesting.
You’ve heard politicians talk about it and you’ve read news stories about it. But are you really excited about infrastructure? Repairs are slow, expensive and often invisible. A project like the Hoover Dam and the Verrazano Narrows Bridge only comes along once in a while. Most such work is more like Water Tunnel 3—a $6 billion project you’ll never even notice. Yet the way we live demands electricity, running water, roads, data cables, and so on. These aren’t systems you can build once and let ride. You have to keep paying for them.
And if you don’t pay? Single failures can have an impact way out of proportion to the initial problem (like the 2003 blackout) or kill people (the 2007 bridge collapse in Minneapolis). If you’ve ever traveled in a developing country, you know what a difference it makes when things don’t work. Here in the U.S., we’ve had it good for a long time. But too many of the systems on which we depend are old, stressed, patchwork, unfinished, or in need of repair. We have to spend the money.
- All hail the triumph of the numbered list!
- For some reason, curious readers can’t resist a series of facts boiled down into numbered sentences.
- Editors who write magazine coverlines have understood the magnetic power of numbered lists for years. (See every Cosmopolitan cover ever.)
- Recently, numbered lists reached a tipping point on the Internet. They’re everywhere.
- As much as I like lists, creativity suffers under this format.
- Blame lies with CPM advertising and Digg’s home page—a huge driver of impressions, and one that favors nifty lists. For example, a top story on Digg today is “Ten Fictional Movie Presidents that Rocked.” Digg is an exercise in headline writing. It’s no different than the cover of Cosmo.
- Some businesses have sprouted that do nothing but post random lists of “50 best” or “100 best” things online and sell advertising around them. At some point, you’ve probably clicked on a link to such bottom feeders as OnlineBestColleges.com, Smashing Magazine and Free & Cool.
- I don’t know how many lists of “## Best Photography Sites” my company’s site appears on, but it’s at least two.
- I am also guilty of exploiting this phenomenon. Example: 20 Great Animal Portraits. It works, trust me.
- Not everyone understands lists, however. Some lists are way longer than they need to be. Do you really want to read about 99 Essential Twitter Tools And Applications? Of course not.
- You know who’s the master of this format? Casey Kasem.
- Also, David Letterman.
- Also, people who write books of jokes for kids.
- If I had the time, I’d start a site called “The Top 1,000 Numbered Lists on the Internet.”
- This post isn’t really a list. It’s just a bunch of numbered paragraphs.
The Pulitzer Prizes will be announced today at 3 p.m.
The Pulitzers are good fun, and when they’re announced, hysteria ensues at news publications. This happens even though the contest has some branding problems. The Pulitzers honor a broad range of categories including drama, literature and music—Did you know Bob Dylan won a Pulitzer last year?—but most people think them only as prizes for journalism. Even then, they’re hardly a reflection of the year’s best journalism. They’re limited to American newspapers and Web sites, and thus ignore great swaths of the journalism landscape (such as The New Yorker, 60 Minutes and Photo District News [kidding]). The prizes always tilt in favor of the old guard of East Coast-based national newspapers. But whoever said life was fair?
Of course we cover the photo categories at PDN. The game plan is easy: At 3 p.m., I open the Pulitzer web site and hit “reload” every few seconds. (I don’t bother riding uptown to the press conference.) I’ll also check Editor & Publisher, Yahoo! News and a few other sites. One way or another, I’ll have the winners list by 3:15. I’ll immediately copy and paste the photography winners onto the PDNOnline Twitter feed and I’ll post a story a few minutes later on the PDN site. I’ll have a shell story entered into our CMS in advance to save a few seconds of typing (“The 2009 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news photography went to TK….”). I have no clue who’s going to win and guessing would be unproductive, given that I’ve always guessed wrong in the past.
However, on this blog, I will venture a guess in the Feature Writing category. This story should win: A Butler Well Served by This Election by Wil Haygood of the Washington Post.
UPDATE: I was wrong about the Feature Writing category. However, I announced the two photo winners on Twitter at 3:00 and 3:01, and had a story live at 3:08 p.m. Not bad.
Recently I sat down to watch “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” the 2005 documentary about one of the biggest business failures in American history. This movie literally put me to sleep. Why?
I think it’s because Enron, despite being an epic failure, is just a bad story. Enron traded products like natural gas, something you can’t actually see, and electricity distribution, which is just a concept. “The Smartest Guys in the Room” is stuck using footage of mirrored-glass office buildings with rows of empty workstations inside. The executives profiled in the film aren’t especially interesting. Their motivations—to make money and ruthlessly crush the competition—are easy to understand, and their downfall is a simple morality play. And what exactly happened to Enron is so hard to explain that if the most interesting person in the world told a story about it, you’d be bored to tears.
Enron built a journalism-proof company. Some reporters understood the company was doomed and even managed to get articles published before the company collapsed. Nobody paid any attention. It was just too boring!
The opposite of Enron, in terms off journalism, is General Motors. A proud, historic company, it has tens of thousands of workers and vast acres of American industrial infrastructure at its disposal. You’ve got great visuals: Cars, trucks, gigantic assembly plants, rusting factory towns. You’ve got personal stories of unemployed workers. The product is something almost everyone uses. GM has been the subject of countless books and articles, and two of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen: “Roger & Me” and “Who Killed the Electric Car?”
As a result, everybody knows GM is on the brink of failure—unlike Enron in late 2001.
Unfortunately, most companies don’t lend themselves to popular stories as neatly as GM. Did we really learn anything from Enron? The AIGs and Countrywides and Washington Mutuals and Wachovias and Merrill Lynchs are still poisoning our economy with schenanigans similar to those that brought down Enron. Our economy has stopped rewarding people who create stuff and instead rewards people who trade stuff that already exists. Then it was energy, this time it’s debt and real estate.
Journalists and regulators know what’s going on. Some watchdogs actually bark. The problem is human nature. People don’t want to hear barking, they want to hear a good yarn.