Archive for the ‘Media’ Category

Tue 16 Jun 2009 7:16 am   //   Posted in: It's a trap!, Media, Technology

Confirmed: Twitter users like reading about Twitter

This post at work will easily be the most popular thing I write all week:
PDNPulse: Iran Protest Photos Key To Twitter Coverage

Why will it be a hit? Because it’s about Twitter. Certainly not because it’s a good story. (I mean, it’s not awful.) As soon as you write about Twitter, people on Twitter forward the story around, and you’ve instantly got a substantial audience. It’s lightning fast, instant attention. Highly rewarding, highly addictive.

There’s a strong temptation to write about Twitter every day, because readers like it, it’s easy traffic and it actually feels important. It’s a trap! The medium is not the message. As is the case in Iran, what’s important is what people are saying, not what medium they’re choosing to say it in.

Previous posts about Twitter:
Twitter kills Patrick Swayze. Will it kill again?
URGENT! Don’t ask why, just panic!

Sat 6 Jun 2009 4:25 pm   //   Posted in: Media, Technology

Two opinions on Twitter

Time magazine Twitter cover

Metro newspaper Twitter cover

Fri 29 May 2009 8:24 am   //   Posted in: Media, Technology

The gatekeepers (part II)

This is the second part of a two-part blog post. Read Part I.

Google killed the gatekeepers, now it is the gatekeeper. Its influence on culture and business is downright scary. Online, its supremacy is unquestioned. Publishers kiss its feet and digital developers torture their creations to accommodate the whims of the Google search algorithm.

But empires fall, and the forces that gave Google its power could also destroy it. Google is a great business and no serious person expects it to fail any time soon. But conceptually, Google is a contradiction.

Most people think of Google as a search engine and a set of free Internet services, but it’s actually an advertising business. Google is a public company with essentially one way to make money: text-based search ads. (Last year 97 percent of the company’s $21.7 billion in revenue was from advertising, and most of that came from AdWords.)

Google can make so much money in advertising because it sits at the biggest point of friction in the Internet. Google is the middleman between billions of people and the information they want to find.

In some respects, we’re lucky this is so. Google’s services are good and free.

But the more trust society places in Google, the greater the risk that something could go wrong. An unlikely scenario would be Google turning to the dark side: Levying some kind of Internet tax, using its gate-keeping powers to shut down smaller voices that can’t pay. A more likely scenario would be the collapse of the AdWords business. If AdWords fails, Google will have to find some other way to underwrite its search engine, G-Mail, YouTube, Google Maps, and so on. Any distruption could have serious consequences for commerce, free expression, and even wayfinding. (How many people do you know who would be lost without the map on their iPhones?)

Is AdWords in any real danger? I think so. The problem is AdWords depends on friction (advertisers lack a good way to identify potential customers), secrecy (ads are sold in a blind auction) and the authority of a single entity (Google’s search engine). Conceptually, these are obstacles that the Internet has proven adept at getting around. It’s inevitable that some replacement for Google AdWords will appear. And based on the history of the Internet, it will be cheaper, better and not controlled by Google.

For now, Google is thriving on the money that used to go to telephone directories and classified ads. Creative destruction took care of those businesses. How long until it dispatches Google too? And when it does, who will be the next gatekeeper?

Wed 27 May 2009 8:44 am   //   Posted in: Media, Technology

The gatekeepers (part I)

This is the first part of a two-part blog post. Read Part II.

I recently heard somebody refer to magazine editors as “gatekeepers,” a term that would boost my ego were it still true.

In the old world (up to, say, 2000), the media were controlled by powerful gatekeepers. That’s because there were many points of friction, where power concentrates. In the analog world, physics imposed severe limits on communication. Books, newspapers and magazines need ink and paper. The broadcast spectrum is limited. The expense of film and tape restricted the sharing of recorded information among consumers. People wanted to share way more information than was physically possible.

As a result, for any communication to take place, someone first had to allocate resources for it. That could be as simple as somebody writing a letter and affixing a stamp to an envelope. Or it could be as complex as a national TV network deciding what to air in prime time. Enter the gatekeepers. Not inherently good or evil, gatekeepers decide what should be seen and heard, and what shouldn’t. Media company owners hire managers, who hire editors, producers and ad sales forces. Each of these people has some gatekeeper function. To take newspapers as an example, editors are assigned to ensure only stories of interest to readers get published, and salespeople ensure only people with money get to advertise.

Then along came the Internet, which had the effect of an oil can applying lubricant to all those areas of friction. The result? Gatekeepers have less power and influence, while individuals have more. The trend is for there to be more gatekeepers, each with less influence. Soon, there may be no gatekeepers at all. Billions of people will each have a tiny amount of influence over communication. Editorial selections will be based on democratic rule, advertising will be sold at auction. Everything that reaches a large audience will do so with math backing it up. Stories will become popular because they are popular. This coming era of mob rule will open a whole new box of problems, but it is the inevitable end of this trend line.

This post is about media, but you can look at many other fields to see how computer networks have caused a disruptive reduction in friction: travel agencies, retail, financial services, academic research. The disruptive changes caused by computer networks are just getting started. Having torn apart media, information technology is poised to do the same for high-friction industries like real estate, health care, cars, you name it.

We need to watch where the new concentrations of power are forming. The Internet might destroy the old gatekeepers, but does the Internet have its own gatekeepers?

It does. They keep changing. The Internet itself might go away and be replaced with a whole other information system. But right now, in 2009, there is only one gatekeeper that matters: Google.

Read Part II.

Tue 19 May 2009 9:11 pm   //   Posted in: Media, Technology

Twitter kills Patrick Swayze. Will it kill again?

At 11:24 a.m. today, this Twitter message went out on an account with over 410,000 followers:

Image of Twitter post about Patrick Swayze

Patrick Swayze was alive, but the false report of his death was “retweeted” by thousands of users until, 50 minutes later, @BreakingNews knocked down its own report:

“JUST IN — A representative for Patrick Swayze tells People Magazine that the actor is still alive.”

This mistake was as predictable as it is unacceptable. As I wrote last month in a post about swine flu: “There’s the risk that an URGENT story that’s totally false could gain a lot of traction very quickly on Twitter.” And I singled out @BreakingNews as the “worst offender.” I hope they learn from this debacle and get better at simple reporting.

The death of an actor isn’t something that could cause a panic, but this was a 100% false news report of significance, and it spread very fast. Watch for more of this!

Wed 13 May 2009 8:41 am   //   Posted in: Media

Newspaper bailout? Bad idea.

I watched the Senate committee hearing on newspapers and journalism last week. Interesting to watch David Simon (who I think is a rock star) and Ariana Huffington (who I find annoying) fight about what’s killing journalism and how to save it. (Neither of them has plans that will work.)

The fact that the hearing happened at all (it was led by Sen. John Kerry) is a sign that we’re moving closer to some government action to help newspapers. Unless everyone has lost their minds, there won’t be a newspaper bailout. With government aid comes regulation, and regulating journalism would violate all of the traditions of American newspapers. The press needs to sort out its financial problems independently, or it will be doomed to forever beg for handouts.

Government intervention in newspapers has a history of failure. Richard Nixon signed the Newspaper Preservation Act in 1970 which allowed troubled newspapers in two-newspaper cites to enter into JOAs. How’d that work out for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Rocky Mountain News?

Tue 5 May 2009 9:50 pm   //   Posted in: Labeling, Media, Technology

“Content” is a dirty word

This Tom Tomorrow cartoon (a portion of which appears above) articulates how insulting the phrase “content provider” sounds to creative people. A stooge in the cartoon asks, “Who do these storytellers think they are, expecting to be paid for their so-called work?”

It’s not a small point. Today, Web sites refer to all the information they publish as “content.” Yet it’s a degrading word and it’s has caused a serious branding problem. “Content” is a commodity shoveled out of a grain silo. It evokes packaged cereals, where the only variance is the difference between Fruit Loops and Grape Nuts. No wonder consumers think anything published online is cheap and interchangeable!

This label has proven impossible to shake. Tribune newspapers are handing out new titles like “content editor” and “director of content.” WNBC recently changed the name of the newsroom to the “content center” (then, to their credit, changed it back). Once you start listening for content, you’ll hear it everywhere, like nails on a chalkboard. I don’t mean to over-inflate what I do for a living, but I don’t generate content. I write stories or articles, I edit videos, I create presentations. I acknowledge the word “content” when I’m in a meeting or dealing with internal communication, but only because I don’t want to sound out of step.

By the way, the “This Modern World” cartoon I linked to above? It was published in March 1997. The more things change…

Mon 4 May 2009 8:15 am   //   Posted in: Labeling, Media

Headline writing is… TK TK TK

Headline writing is a tough job, and I salute anyone who can reliable do it well. I suck at it.

Yesterday I was working on a short item for work about a photographer who shot a portrait of a trombone player. I was trying hard to come up with a concise, pithy headline to slap on it. (The item is part of a department in the magazine, so it doesn’t demand a full headline. Short headlines are hardest to write.) The best I could come up with was “The Music Man.” Weak.

The instant my alarm clock went off this morning, I had a curious phrase in my head: “Top Brass.” There’s my headline. Not great, but 10 times better than “The Music Man.” It’s crazy the things that go on in your brain while you sleep.

Tue 28 Apr 2009 7:45 am   //   Posted in: In the news, Media, Technology

URGENT! Don’t ask why, just panic!

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.


Thu 23 Apr 2009 9:58 pm   //   Posted in: Media, Technology

Sorry. Twitter will not save your newspaper.

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 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 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.