Saturday, March 1, 2014

Marc Andreessen's inspired post about the future of news

The future of news is fragmented, and that's a good thing, says Marc Andreessen.
"The news business is going to "grow 10X to 100X from where it is today. That is my starting point for any discussion about the future of journalism."
If that's his starting point, it can be ours too. The news business is booming, and hugely successful investor Marc Andreessen thinks that's a good thing. It certainly is if you're at the front of that wave, but anyone lagging behind should be very afraid, because it may already be too late.
"The main change is that news businesses from 1946-2005 were mostly monopolies and oligopolies. Now they aren’t."
The implications of the democratizing nature of the Internet and low-cost digital publishing available to anyone Andreessen summarizes in three points:

  1. Anyone can create and distribute content
  2. Formerly separate industries now compete directly online (think TV vs. newspaper vs. radio vs. wire service), which drives prices down.
  3. Many more people consume news today than did 10 years ago, and in 10 years the volume of consumption will be vastly higher than it is now.

Obviously, after talking about lower barriers to entry and the increasing volume of news content we see as a result, Andreessen moves on to financing. He offers eight different sources of funding, though the takeaway is that a news organization must blend all of these to be successful at paying for itself.

  1. Advertising: No tooth-whitening crap.
  2. Subscription: They will pay if it isn't crap.
  3. Premium content: Again, they will pay if it isn't crap.
  4. Conferences: Human presence is a premium you can charge for.
  5. Cross-media: Think books, TV, movies produced along with news.
  6. Crowdfunding: This is a big one. People will pay to support a specific project they believe in. [See the Planet Money T-shirt].
  7. Bitcoin for micropayments: Andreessen believes in Bitcoin.
  8. Philanthropy: "There is around $300 billion per year in philanthropic activity in the U.S. alone. It’s WAY underutilized in the news business."

Andreessen is a believer, and counters the argument that lower barriers to entry means more crap with the fact that crap and quality can coexist, and the more crap there is, the more demand for quality and trusted sources.

He lists 10 organizations that are getting it right [follow them all on Twitter with this list]:
  1. AnandTech: Don't know it, but a quick perusal does seem to show a fresh look at tech reviews.
  2. The Atlantic: Big digital push with properties like the Atlantic Wire and Quartz.
  3. BuzzFeed: Leveraging listicles to do "amazing in-depth long-form journalism".
  4. The Guardian: Expanding its reach online with great reporting.
  5. Politico: Must-read thanks to insider knowledge and aggressive online focus.
  6. Search Engine Land: News about search, leveraged into lead generation. Brilliant.
  7. The Verge: Tech news that is now a must-read, very good growth prospects.
  8. Vice: Made a decision to go into video and into online, exploded.
  9. Wirecutter: Innovative in its simplicity, takes reviews one step further with recommendations.
  10. Wired: Example of blending print and digital content with great success.

I am happy to say that I'm a regular consumer of 80% of these sites (I've bought based on Wirecutter recommendations, I read Politico every day and Vice every weekend, and Wired's iPad app is probably the best in the business), and am looking forward to visiting Search Engine Land a lot more starting today.

But one thing that ties most of these sites together that goes unmentioned is DESIGN. The online audience is very sophisticated now, and expects a level of visual quality that they didn't before. I would argue that design is a huge part of the success of every organization on this list, especially The Atlantic, Vice, The Verge, Wired, Guardian.

Design matters, and if it's not up to the standard you think your content is up to, then you are doing a disservice to the reader, and readers are not as ready to forgive uninspired design as they used to be.

Finally, Andreessen really starts looking to the future.

What's holding the industry back? For Andreessen, it's fixed capital. Fancy headquarters, expensive machines, unions and their restrictive contracts. Oh, that and objectivity.
"But the objective approach is only one way to tell stories and get at truth. Many stories don’t have “two sides.” Indeed, presenting an event or an issue with a point of view can have even more impact, and reach an audience otherwise left out of the conversation."
To be successful, Andreessen thinks, news organizations should be more narrowly focused ("The U.S. alone has 15 full-scale national news organizations, plus more from international markets and all the online news organizations cropping up, That’s too many general news outfits."), leaders should be more courageous, and an organization's culture should include eight specific qualities:

  1. Vision (not hallucination)
  2. Scrappiness (not complacency)
  3. Experimentation (try things and listen to your audience)
  4. Adaptability (not inertia)
  5. Focus (a small number of clear goals)
  6. Deferral of gratification (it takes time for quality content to build a quality audience)
  7. Entrepreneurial mindset (rules are still being written, so anyone can write them)
Here, I suppose, is the most important part of Andreessen's inspired post: These are all human characteristics, and it will be people who change the news business, not the huge companies that used to control things. 

Ken Lerer observes the state of media, in 8 Tweets

As an avid consumer of journalism, I am always on the lookout for news about the business of journalism. New ventures are starting all over the place, led by big names or big ideas, and there is money in journalism again.

One of the people behind some of that money is Ken Lerer, known primarily for his role in the controversial origins of the Huffington Post but with a track record of supporting innovative success stories like BuzzFeed, MakerBot and Warby Parker that prove he has an eye for products people want to consume.

Lerer took to Twitter last week, inspired by investor buddy Marc Andreessen of Andreessen Horowitz, to share what are (so far) 8 observations about the state of the news business and its future. Let's pick them apart a little.
The first in the series comes after a Tweet pointing to an inspired post by Andreessen on why he is bullish on the news business. Among some choice quotes:
"Maybe we are entering into a new golden age of journalism, and we just haven’t recognized it yet.  We can have the best of all worlds, with both accuracy rising, and stories that hew closer to truth." 

Lerer starts by comparing the digital news business today to the early stages of cable television. The pipes are laid, the bandwidth is there, now we need content - quality content - to fill it. For Lerer, the future is in social media, the direct line to your audience's pocket, and one of the best ways a news organization can listen to its audience.

It used to be about what people were reading (NY Daily News vs. NY Post). Then it was about what they were clicking on (Huffington Post summary of the New York Times article), and now it's about what people are sharing, what they are talking about. And that conversation is happening on social media.

Now the audience just needs content worth talking about.
Favorite this tweet now because you don't want to forget this one: "Content without tech is a waste of time and money."

Implicit in this idea is the increasing sophistication of the information consumer today: they expect quality content and they expect a seamless user experience no matter what device they are using. The right publishing platform must be quick, responsive and integrated with the rest of the Internet, because the reader is.
He then turns to how to finance this quality tech and quality content:
Intelligent ads, yep. Sounds great and I can't wait to see them. I'm assuming this is something beyond just targeted ads.
Here we have a plug for Thrillist, an e-newsletter and men's interest site that combines clean design, good photography, and editorial content that you can buy. Oh and this company that is way ahead of the curve and the only ones "doing commerce and content the right way"? It's owned by his son. Does it matter? I haven't spent enough time with Thrillist to say, but it bears mentioning for transparency's sake, right?
Lerer brings it back to journalism (what Andreessen calls "Capital-J Journalism") to reiterate that a sophisticated audience demands sophisticated content. Not whatever trending crack like BuzzFeed quizzes happens to be ricocheting around the social Web this week, but quality content.

I could not agree more, and wish more organizations had the courage to invest time into projects that need many iterations to get right. Any organization that does is and will be rewarded.

For my final words, I'll turn to Andreessen's original post that launched Lerer's 8-point burst of inspiration, in which he describes the future of news in what sounds like a bubble but just means a new economic reality that will see many failures for every successful new organization to get in the game.
"The big opportunity for the news industry in the next five to 10 years is to increase its market size 100x AND drop prices 10X. Become larger and much more important in the process."

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Planet Money T-shirt: Making the news (very) personal

As an avid listener of NPR's Planet Money podcast, I was fascinated from the first mention of its ambitious T-shirt project, which would ask listeners to pre-order a new T-shirt, with the show tracking the process from seed to shirt. Having not purchased a cotton T-shirt of any sort in years (is that weird?), I figured it was time to update my weekend wardrobe.

The result? Wow. Besides the amazing storytelling and personal connection I now have to an item in my closet, who knew that a radio show could do visual journalism so well?

The well-designed website gives a simple, curated experience that takes you through the story in logical steps with clear connections and transitions among them. This was a priority for the design and development team at Planet Money, and they hit the nail on the head. There is just enough video, just enough text and just enough content to keep you engaged for every moment.


Every chapter begins with a full-width video player, and content with stunning visuals and engaging characters. The Machines video (chapter two) that shows the raw cotton turned into fabric, is particularly well-done, with an audio track that reminds you, in a good way, that this is coming from a radio program.

The heart of the project is the People chapter, with a video that tells the story of two garment workers, one in Bangladesh and one in Colombia. The choice of characters is excellent, both good-natured young women who live parallel lives in many ways. One of them, Jasmine, just happens to be living it in Bangladesh, one of the poorest countries in the world. There is some arresting footage from the Rana Plaza garment factory collapse in Bangladesh, which killed 1,000 people while this project was going on.

But there is lightness and honesty in their stories too, and we see them both smile more than once. The Columbian woman, Doris, laughingly notes how the shirts they make are "immense" so she imagines a bunch of obese gringos wearing them.

One of the first lessons I learned about video storytelling was that audio matters, and the narration in the videos showcases the radio origins of this project, in the best way. The thoughtful, conversational (I caught a "pain in the ass" in the Boxes chapter) and easy voiceover is more successful than you usually see in video journalism.

And while there isn't that much of it, the photography is beautiful. See the close-ups of yarn samples in the Machines chapter (left).


The writing in this project is pure Planet Money: Conversational, and with a concerted effort to simplify the concepts at work in the narratives. At times it gets close to dumbed down, but implicit in that critique is praise for the accessibility of this material. You don't need to have ever heard of Planet Money or economic concepts to get sucked into this project.

"The newest John Deere picker needs just one guy to do what it took five guys to do a couple years ago."

"(Yarn, by the way, is what ordinary people call thread. In the garment business, it’s called yarn.)"

In a way, they are writing for radio, and I can see that because my journalist radar pays attention to things like that. But it may also be my coming into this project knowing it would be a rare piece of visual journalism produced by a radio show rather than someone who just came upon it from seeing a link ( somewhere.

So how does it end? Well, I have a pretty sharp grey t-shirt with a squirrel drinking a martini on it and a website that will tell its story, with no advertising whatsoever, forever.

On the radio, the story ended with a wonderful episode about the afterlife of an American T-shirt, tracking it from a clothing donation to markets in Kenya. [More text at this link] That still counts as one of my favorite Planet Money episodes ever, if not just for this project.

"You", the fifth and final chapter in the full multimedia project, is where the listener/viewer/audience gets to participate in the story, with an Instagram collage page featuring people's Planet Money T-shirt selfies. It's nice to see all of those fans/audience members on the site, smiling back out. It speaks to the personal connection that people have to the show and the shirt, one that I feel every time I see the thing in my closet. I've never had such a personal connection to a piece of journalism, and it is more meaningful than I expected.

And my Instagram selfie? I haven't added it yet. My living room seems an unworthy backdrop for something with such a back story.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

My Media Diet: Aggregators vs. News orgs

I have catalogued my media diet a handful of times in the past few years (here's the last one from Feb 2013), and I must say it surprises me every time. Tastes change, available sources of news evolve, and I have seen my consumption habits evolve right along with them.
Here is where I get my news, new for 2014.
My primary source of news these days is Twitter. It has always been a big one for me, but the frequency with which I check my Twitter feeds and the frequency with which I click on the links I find there has made it by far my most reliable place for news.
Specifically I find myself drawn to social content shared by the Huffington Post, @AP, occasional Buzzfeed links and Politico.
More generally, I have spent a lot of time curating my Twitter experience, an important step in separating signal from noise on the increasingly noisy social network. I have lists for breaking news, buzzworthy/social news and science news that I keep organized on Tweetdeck and Hootsuite, and find myself checking all of them multiple times a day.
Facebook is another place where I find news - it does a great job of surfacing content that I will like, vetted by the people in my network, and Facebook learns the organizations whose links I click on. But I am simply not on Facebook as much as I am on Twitter, so I rely on it a bit less. For whatever reason Facebook takes me to a lot of Gawker, Daily Mail, Gizmodo and Deadspin articles.
Because social media - Twitter in particular - tends to have a short attention span (with the number of people I follow, my Twitter feeds only show me posts going back 5-10 minutes), I subscribe to a couple of email newsletters to check the top headlines, curated by the organizations sending them.
Every day, I read Mike Allen’s Playbook newsletter, from Politico, and use the New York Times’s daily newsletter as well as The Slatest from Slate to make sure I’ve read any big headlines that interest me. Mediabistro puts out a great daily newsletter about goings on in the media business, which I read every day, and Muckrack’s daily newsletter is a great place to make sure I didn’t miss anything buzzing on social networks the previous 24 hours.
Finally, I rely on mobile apps from trusted sources to check their top stories, several times a day. The New York Times and BBC apps are the ones I check most, but I use Flipboard and the BlinkFeed on my HTC One phone to scan a number of sources aggregated there.
An honorable mention goes to Circa, which I am not yet a power user of, but which I enjoy more and more every time I use it. Circa aggregates bite-size updates about big stories, and allows you to follow any you are specifically interested in, with Circa sending you a notice every time the story gets an update.
Overall, my media diet is pretty straightforward. In terms of platforms, I get 50% of my news on my phone (social media as well as news apps) and 50% on my computer (email newsletters and social media). Another way to break it down is 50% individual Twitter feeds, 25% email newsletters, 15% straight to a news organization’s app or website and 10% other aggregators.
But perhaps the most interesting metric I look at in my media diet is how much news I am getting directly from the organization that produced the content and how much I am getting filtered through my social network or news aggregators.
Because my Twitter feeds center on journalists and aggregators, with only a handful of original sources, the overall breakdown is around half and half. Email newsletters and official social accounts give me half of my news, straight from the organizations, and aggregators and news apps give me half of my news, curated by others.
What’s changed most for me since the last time I evaluated my media diet is my drastically reduced radio and podcast consumption. I used to listen to a lot of NPR and podcasts, and besides the occasional Brian Lehrer show, I now use my car stereo and my headphones to listen to music and audiobooks.
I must mention that, because I work in the news business, professional demands skew the picture if I include them. I watch a lot of CNN and News12 while I am in the office on Long Island, and check the Newsday site and app many times every hour, so at the end of the day those are technically my heaviest news sources.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Review: Distant Witness by Andy Carvin

"Distant Witness" by Andy Carvin (2013)
[cover image courtesy of CUNY Journalism Press]

Distant Witness: A book about Twitter, revolutions, and the Twitter revolution

I never thought reading tweets, retweets and hashtags could be so compelling.

Andy Carvin has done a wonderful job looking at Twitter as a new platform of information and interaction, and told that story using both his own narrative and the voice of the medium itself.

The result is a document both of an amazingly important time in international geopolitics (the Arab Spring that saw citizen-led rebellions in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain) and a tool that allows the voices of the people involved to resonate around the world.

During the time of the uprisings, Carvin was a masterful curator, filtering the noise and bringing credible first-hand voices into the conversation around the news.

He has proven equally skilled at looking back and recognizing the unprecedented nature of a revolution lived by those on the ground but witnessed by the rest of the world in a way that had never been done before.

"Distant Witness" chronicles news - the Egyptian uprising in Tahrir Square, the Libyan rebellion through to the eventual capture and killing of Moammar Ghadafi, and also the unique ways that news lived and evolved on Twitter. The extended sections about the "Gay Girl in Damascus" hoax, the effort to identify supposed Israeli weapons in Libya and the story of the high schooler who advised rebels with field manuals collected and translated into Arabic.

You won't find these stories anywhere else.

I am sure Andy Carvin would admit that his book is just the beginning of a larger conversation, but it's an amazingly useful one with lessons that journalists should be aware of as non-traditional voices continue to find new ways to be heard in documenting history. "Distant Witness" is most of all about those voices, and Carvin does a great job at letting them speak.

Read this book. It will make you a better journalist and a better citizen of the world.