Saturday, February 14, 2009

WSJ Editor Claims Google Devalues Everything | Techdirt

@ Techdirt:
thanks to Jim Lyons for putting the link on his blog.

"WSJ Editor Claims Google Devalues Everything
from the no-wonder-no-one-uses-it dept

This has been clueless newspaper guy month around here, and it's kept up with the appearance of Walter Isaacson (yet again), Mort Zuckerman (owner/publisher of both the NY Daily News and US News & World Reports) and Robert Thomson (managing editor of The Wall Street Journal) on the Charlie Rose program, where they spend plenty of time whining about the way things used to be and why people have to start paying -- but never touch on any reason why people should want to pay. Still... that's a dead horse at this point. Instead, I wanted to focus on the rather stunning claim from Thomson concerning Google:

But one of the -- Google -- I mean, the harsh way of just defining it, Google devalues everything it touches. Google is great for Google, but it's terrible for content providers, because it divides that content quantitatively rather than qualitatively. And if you are going to get people to pay for content, you have to encourage them to make qualitative decisions about that content.

This is wrong on so many levels it's hard to know where to begin. . . .
People, people, we have to stop whining and worrying and get real. People don't buy newspapers for the golden thoughts or unique information available. They buy newspapers because Print is a toy, a tool, or a token.

A Toy = crosswords and anagrams.
A Tool = who, close by is running a sale
A Token= "people like us, buy a paper like that"

People always have and will continue to willingly buy toys, tools and tokens. Information? Nobody needs more information to make life even more complicated than it already is.

Unless of course if it's gossip or the weather report.

Kindles? Newspapers? Textbooks? . . . "I’m a writer. I work at Harvard"

People get very excited when arguing about the Kindle.

On February 11, Joshua Benton posted Why Kindles Will Fail at The Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard. I assume Joshua choose his words in the service of stimulating an active response. It worked. Three days later there were 58 comments. This will give you a flavor of the post that started it.

The Kindle is going to fail.

It is not “the iPod of books.” It will never be.

To support this hunch, I offer two data points:

— I’m a nerdy guy. And I’m a writer. I work at Harvard, which is filled with nerdy people who are writers. I write about the intersection of writing and technology for a living. I’m a classic “early adopter” for tech. I buy a lot of books; my girlfriend is editorial director at a book publisher; I have lots of friends who’ve written books; and I’ve got a variety of fiction and non-fiction book projects of my own, in varying states of completion and disarray.

I say all this to illustrate that I am the exact target audience for the Kindle — precisely the mix of book reader and tech lover who should want one. And yet, 15 months after the Kindle, I have not seen one single Kindle in the flesh.

Not one.

Some selected comments:
Cmt 1:
Um, Amazon sold something like 500,000 units of the Kindle 1. These have gone somewhere other than into the ethers, right? Could the remote possibility exist that people outside of your smug, elite little thinktank *are* buying, downloading and enjoying books on this platform? Zheesh, what a pretentious attitude…
Cmt 10:
Whatever, I published 30 books on kindle and I’m doing fairly well. I love residual income streams, I make money while I’m sleeping - I sleep better! Maybe kindle will fail. It’s not failing now.
Cmt 18:
Now, give me something about the size of that Day-Timer that is PDA, cell phone, AND wireless computer - with a fold-up or roll-up keyboard for serious typing - AND that also serves as my e-book reader… and you got a sale. Until then, the only real market I see for dedicated e-book readers is if someone can take over the college textbook market - and slash the cost of textbooks.
Cmt 24:
I suspect that’s actually *part* of why they were missing at the conference - after all, I definitely didn’t see many analog books around that weren’t promotional materials for conference attendees. My Kindle stays in my bag at conferences. It comes out when there’s no wifi around - on the subway, on the plane. I curl up with it at night. Where there’s lots of networking and e-mail checking happening, I would not expect Kindles to emerge.
Cmt 34:
Good grief. “I’m a writer. I work at Harvard…” It’s reporting by folks like you that gives journalism a bad name. Try reaching outside your circle and you just may meet someone like… me. I’m a writer. I buy dozens of books a year. I also just bought my second Kindle. It’s a hugely flawed, but magnificent and life-changing device.
Cmt 52:
. . While it would be great to replace college textbooks with an e-reader, courses often require multiple books. Q: How do you compare passages and quotes in books when you only have one reader? 3. On college e-textbooks: Who didn’t write in their books in college? I don’t think that the kindle note-taking features are robust enough for a Uni student. 4. The size of a kindle is too small to digest content when speed-reading.
Since reinventing textbooks is one of my pet projects, I really like comment 52. The trick is that Kindle 2.0, 3.0 and 4.0 with, and only with, digital print output is the secret sauce. But Amazon is already doing books on demand, so it should be pretty soon.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Context Is King. Long Live the King! Part 2

To be clear, my passion is not newspapers. My mission, as I take on my new role in life as a Cranky Geezer, is to fix high school education. Since context and focus are the missing links in high school education, both fascinate me.

The purpose of a newspaper from the business point of view is to make money. An interesting ish problem. The purpose of journalism from civil society's point of view is to "inform, educate, and entertain." That's a very interesting problem because if you rephrase it " to educate and make it fun for the reader," that's exactly what has to be fixed in high school education.

This morning still one more interesting discussion started over at One theme of the discussion over there focuses on "contextualizing" the news. I said, (slightly edited here)
Consider Law and Order:

The first quarter is the event and introducing all the players.

The 2nd quarter is about getting a plausible theory to connect events and players.

The third quarter is about transforming the theory into a provable story.

The fourth quarter is where two contradictory stories go head to head and Truth is determined by the jury or the deal.

Truth is so satisfying. It's why people love baseball.

The point I'm trying to make is that to put ongoing events in context, a working theory has to exist first. We don't have the time of the historians. We have to contextualize what happened yesterday and often today. Here's how I think it can be done.

Start with a working theory. In fact a working theory and a common sense story always exists. The 2 common stories for "growth" is "bad rich people are screwing good poor people". or "rich smart people are selfishly worried about quality of life and ignoring poorer people's need for jobs." It's not very hard to fit the events of any place at almost any time into that story. It's an easy story to tell and guaranteed to get agreement, especially from the most active of your readers.

If it were me, the place I would start , not for publishing but for the journo, is the theory about growth and development in general. The theory comes from some really smart people who have looked at the problem for long time. IMHO, The smartest theory about growth and development is by Jane Jacobs, especially "Cities and the Wealth of Nations".

So, I would get everyone on the team to read the book. Have a couple of discussions to get her theory of the "crime" clear. Get a consensus on the working theory. It'sort of like the detectives in the first quarter of L&W; the white board, the sargeant sending them out to interview X.

Whoever has the job title or the most articulated vision acts as general editor/chief detective. Not to say that everyone has to agree. But everyone has to have an articulated view of how development works, in general. Then editorial meetings can be really neat arguments about does this event support or negate the working theory of the event.

Then use the wiki, not for community involvement, but as a place to collect evidence, discuss the evidence with the team, then publish a story when it's ready. Meanwhile, keep covering events until you have something useful to say.

When you have a story worth telling or when an event needs whatever your working theory produces at that moment, publish it in Print and on Web. When you're covering events, forget about context. Just the facts. Use those to fill the news hole, either on the web or if there is a regular print pub, use that to fill the news hole as necessary.

To be clear, you don't publish the theory. You only publish those parts of the story that is supported by evidence.

Anyway, the real context of the story is created by the interaction of your readers with your words and pictures. That's the really hard part, IMHO.

Just another question to get on someone's radar.
If the purpose of journalism is similar to what's missing in High School education, would it make sense to focus on fixing high school education, instead of merely reporting on it? I hear there are tons of money floating around for whoever can fix education. Plus textbooks are very expensive and everyone agrees they are broken.Consider focused newsprint product that supply context. That might help fix the business problem and the civil society problem with same investment.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Content was King. Context is King. Long live the King!

The best solutions have always come from the best people using the best tools to solve the most interesting problems.

About 5 years ago, I had a brief conversation with a smart person. He said in "Web 2.0, Context is king." It sounded really smart at the time and kept rumbling around my head.

Recently there has been lots of buzz about newspapers getting people to pay for content. Even in the face of overwhelming evidence that the market for paid content is a very small niche, it keeps coming up again and again. The latest buzz was occasioned by Walter Issacson with his article at Time Magazine.

People have spoken. They will not pay for content on the web. No matter how smart the person who created that content is, or thinks he/she is. The NY Times, among many others tried it with their columnists. To the chagrin of some of the columnists, their words were judged not worth it.

There is an interesting discussion about the semantic web, over at the Next Newsroom Project.
John Cass started it by saying, in part
. . . One idea for the newsroom of tomorrow will be to use some of the online media mining tools developed for corporations to determine the stories that are of most interest to a community. The press would use monitoring tools to determine both what is developing, and what becomes relevant and important to the community, through, references, links and comments . . . it continues at the click.
Later in the discussion, I said,
I just wanted to share a notion about semantic tech. I think that in Web 2.3 , I think we're past web 2.0, it is context, not content that is king. The way I understand semantic tech might be seen as a way to automate context of an event. While that may happen in web 4.0, I don't think it works for the same reason that Search is still a very clumsy tool.

The functions trying to be automated are a journalist with a story to tell and an editor to make that story communicate to particular readers.

The error, IMHO, is the notion that the story emerges from the events. I think what really happens is that the journo has a story to tell and then fits in the events to tell that story. For example, the prevailing story about government is that it is wasteful, slow and stupid filled with self interested people. Most journalists for the last 10 years or so are telling that same story day after day after day.

The recent reporting on the Stimulus Package fits into the pattern. The process of making a law in this country and Politics in general is all about compromise. Yet the events that are happening are reported as the Republicans want to cut taxes, the Democrats want to laden it with pork. Obama has gone through his "honeymoon." Each event fits.

The election was told in the Liberal v Conservative story. Meanwhile, if one listened to his words, it was clear from day one that he is not a Liberal in any commonly understood sense of the word.

The news enterprise has three components. The one most amenable to automation is find out what happened. That's web 2.0. The next is using those events to tell a pre-existing story.

For years we've been told that a pre-existing story compromises objectivity. In fact it is only a pre-existing story that supplies context. The best journalists have pre-existing stories that are working hypotheses. They are the best because they are able to change their story when new events occur. Most journalists as most people assume a story and change them for various reasons, but not quickly upon finding new information.

From my limited understanding, one promise of the semantic web is to automate the context creating function. Long term it might work. Just as long term AI will get better and better. My take is that unique value add of a human being is the ability to Blink, in the sense that Gladwell uses the word.

If the semantic web is seen as a tool that allows the human to blink better, that makes sense. But if it is seen as a computer algorithm replacing a human's ability to have a resilient, but consistent story line, it's a solution that will have unintended consequences that are much worse than the problem it was meant to solve.
On the home page of the Next Newsroom, it says
. . .there are six principles we believe all newsrooms should embrace:
1. Place community at the center
2. Make innovation a priority
3. Publish to all platforms
4. Collaborate with others
5. Promote transparency
6. Create a sustainable business model
I would add, find and train people who have an interesting story that they are passionate about telling. Make sure that they have a native ability to change that story line upon the discovery of new facts. And make sure they have a great editor to transform the events imbeded into the story in a string of words that communicates to readers.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

It's the Paper, Stupid!

read the Op-Ed by Michael Kinsley @ NY
It (NYT) might even have a viable business model if it could sell the paper with nothing written on it.

"Micropayments are systems that make it easy to pay small amounts of money. (Your subway card is an example.) You could pay a nickel to read an article, or a dime for a whole day’s newspaper.

Well, maybe. But it would be a first. Newspaper readers have never paid for the content (words and photos). What they have paid for is the paper that content is printed on. A week of The Washington Post weighs about eight pounds and costs $1.81 for new subscribers, home-delivered. With newsprint (that’s the paper, not the ink) costing around $750 a metric ton, or 34 cents a pound, Post subscribers are getting almost a dollar’s worth of paper free every week — not to mention the ink, the delivery, etc. The Times is more svelte and more expensive. It might even have a viable business model if it could sell the paper with nothing written on it.
Here's the really good part:
A more promising idea is the opposite: give away the content without the paper. In theory, a reader who stops paying for the physical paper but continues to read the content online is doing the publisher a favor.
1, Use the web to find fans.
2. Use the web to find tribes.
3. Sell stuff to the tribes who come to your website.

This is not rocket science.