Archive for June, 2008

Bye, Bye Bill

By , 27 June, 2008, No Comment


It’s the end of an era. Bill Gates is leaving Microsoft to be a full-time dogooder. Over at TechCrunch, there’s an interesting discussion about who might replace him as the individual who “controls” the tech world. For almost two decades, Gates and Microsoft have had enough of a hold on computing that whatever you built or designed at least had to work WITH Windows. Even Apple caved.

But according to TechCrunch, nobody “controls” today’s platform–the Web. So no one can ever do what Gates did again.

Puhl-eese. It’s true that neither Facebook nor Google nor Yahoo can become the one-and-only platform for everything (they’re all trying to do that, but I think Web 2.0 consumers like having multiple foci for their internet lives, so the titans will have to coexist).

But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t an entrepreneur out there who gets to be the chief change driver. The thing is, with today’s set of tech leaders that sell consumer experiences as much or more than they sell technological gadgetry, the leader need not devise a platform or a set of code that everyone has to use and work with. Rather the next Bill Gates will be the person who devises a culture, a way of connecting to consumers, that everyone has to use, no matter what they sell.

TechCrunch’s poll is still valuable, and I encourage you to read it. But by asking who’s making the most/best STUFF for the web, I’m not sure they’re thinking about the question the right way.

Convergence at Euro2008

By , 25 June, 2008, No Comment

So Germany eked out Turkey in today’s semi-finals. For me, that’s a good day. It was a high-pressure game, where no team had the lead for more than 10 minutes. But the main tension for me was that the TV feed kept dying at crucial moments, and I had to find alternative sources of play-by-play information.

I turned to ESPN’s live commentary, but since the commentators are in a newsroom watching the game on TV too, they were in the same boat at first. Then one of the commentators decided to go in search of a radio, to find a station with live broadcast from Basel. Most of us don’t have radios in our office cubicles, but the ESPN team started transcribing the radio commentary onto their website. A minute or two behind the game, yes, but play-by-play nonetheless.

Turns out the Internet’s not gonna eliminate other technologies, because sometimes it needs old-school partners to help it out.

The Future in Tow

By , 24 June, 2008, 1 Comment

Bad pun, I know, but I couldn’t resist.

See, philanthropist and old-time media man Leonard Tow just shelled out $8 million to help the newspaper industry figure out what to do about this pesky web thing. One grant’s going to Columbia, Tow’s alma mater, to fund courses in digital media. The other’s going to City University of New York, to fund research into new business models for newspapers in the digital age. Among the stars of CUNY’s venture is blogger-extraordinaire Jeff Jarvis. It’s unclear who’s gonna teach the new Columbia courses, but apparently Bill Grueskin of WSJ is interested.

It’s early to bet on the relative merits of these two programs, but I’d say CUNY’s is a better strategy. See, most people coming into J-school in the next few years, and certainly in the years after that will already know how to work digital media. It’s figuring out how to make business out of digital news that needs attention.

Ask Hu?

By , 23 June, 2008, No Comment

Last month, I blogged about Gordon Brown’s attempt to connect with young, hip voters through an interactive video Q&A; on YouTube. Apparently, this is a new trend, because China’s Premier Hu Jintao is taking a similar tack on people.com this week. Wonder when I’ll get to ask George Bush my questions…I have a pretty long list, you know.

How the Other Half Thinks

By , 22 June, 2008, 1 Comment

I’ve been blogging a lot lately about the effects of digital news outlets on the print world, trying to identify the best and worst practices for confronting change. This weekend, at a conference of South Asian journalists, I attended a fascinating panel about blogs run by print organizations and written by beat reporters to “augment” their day job.

The speakers, Sewell Chan and Jennifer Lee from the New York Times, and Mark Seibel from McClatchy’s, each began with some general remarks on what makes a good blog and how blog posts might be different in content and style from a news story. Some of it was old news to those of us in the room who were bloggers already, but I’d certainly never seen such a methodical breakdown of what it is blogs do.

Blogs are good places for reporters to
–dump nuggets that didn’t make the final print cut
–keep up with a news story that is moving faster than the daily news cycle
–air opinions/debate contraversies that would be “unjournalistic” in print
–go deep into “color” items like community anecdotes, historical factoids or reader polls that wouldn’t be “news” items on their own
–do “spinach” stories, the social justice-type pieces that aren’t always sexy, but need attention to advance a cause

As at most conferences, the real show was the Q&A session, where I got an inside look into the business side of the print-blog equation. Pressed by the audience, Chan, Lee and Seibel spoke as editors and managers about the effect of blogs on a macro-scale, beyond the content of individual stories.

All the speakers reiterated the old clich√© that Web 2.0 explodes the linear structure of print news (front to back) so that every website has infinite entry points. You might reach a story from a newspaper’s homepage, but you might also link directly to the story from a blog, a Wikipedia entry or an email from a friend. Seibel took this a step further–if readers (87% in fact) don’t come to McClatchy’s blog posts through McClatchy’s, then something has to happen on the blog page to connect them to the brand. McClatchy’s has therefore redesigned not only every blog, but every story page, to include more links back to the home page. Smart call. Also smart is the way McClatchy’s blogs are all centralized on the company’s website, allowing them to build some sort of national/international news brand that complements the local nature of their many print newspapers.

The other major flashpoint was the question of copyright, especially given the recent tension between the AP and the Drudge Retort. Recognizing that most readers come to their blogs and stories through links from other websites, all three speakers were surprisingly lax about copyright regulations. Chan said the NYTimes does not police the internet too aggressively in search of those who copy and reuse its content. Seibel quipped that his company has only gone so far as to trademark its own name. Today’s readers, he added, are less loyal to one news organization brand. rather we might Google-search a subject and link to stories on that, sometimes arriving at an NYTimes or a McClatchy’s on the six or seventh click. Given that indirect path, no one journalist claims complete credit for giving a reader the 600 word article at the end of such a chain–copyright starts to unravel.

Some of the blog coverage of the AP fiasco tends to paint a picture of forward looking new media assaulting an old media establishment that is resentful of and hostile to change. I’ve always questioned that picture, but this panel confirmed that at the top of the print food chain, where the power’s at, blogs are viewed with excitement and admiration. As Seibel said, “I now find blogs more interesting than stories because [bloggers] tell what they know, without feeling compelled to balance all view points and get so many expert opinions that they end up not saying anything definitive.”

Indeed, there’s a lot more bitterness and resentment coming from some bloggers these days than I heard yesterday.

Apocalypse 4: Newspapers fight back

By , 16 June, 2008, No Comment

Grieving has five stages: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. If the printed word and recorded discs are dying, old media is at strange three in coping with the loss.

First, they practiced denial and promised us that intelligent readers would never forsake them for the blogosphere. In the early 2000s, they fought back angrily with lawsuits against Napster and their college consumers.

Now, they are migrating into bargain mode–looking for ways to make Internet users and producers pay for old media resources. The music industry went down this road a while back with iTunes, and some newspapers have been charging for access to their websites for a while. But the real bargain attack came this week, when the Associated Press decided to bar bloggers from quoting its articles, reserving access to those who contribute to the AP database (ie the reporters of established media).

It’s a desperate attempt to bargain for a role in the emerging news economy, and it’s likely to fail. Techcrunch has issued a ban on AP references for its site, and if others follow suit, AP will have to move on to stage four.

Of course, the five steps of grief don’t make room for reincarnation. While the current model of newspapers, TV and radio might be lame ducks, I’m not so sure they’re doomed for extinction just as yet.

Too Much of a Good Thing

By , 14 June, 2008, No Comment

Whenever there’s a newfangled trend on the scene, the soothsayers are quick to decide it’s going to get out of hand and take over the world. Women’s suffrage had men worrying about domestic anarchy. Same-sex marriage has crazy cultural conservatives predicting the legalization of bestiality. TV had George Orwell all worried about Big Brother surveillance. And the first computers had a lot of sci-fi writers predicting the age of robots.

That’s not really how change works, of course. When Thomas Edison invented electricity, and offered to help Congress tally votes faster with an electric ballot box, they said no. Counting by hand gives them more time to schmooze, and schmoozing is essential to politics. TV didn’t kill radio, because for some things (like driving long distances) radio is still useful. And just because we CAN use computers and the Internet all the time, doesn’t mean we want to. Sometimes, the old-fashioned way is best.

Two stories today suggest I’m right about this. First, companies are finally starting to see that constant web access, first hailed as a productivity aid, is a problem if it means we’re all IM-ing our friends from work, or doing things piecemeal in little emails instead of actually having meetings. Second, university profs have figured out that Microsoft Word is great for notetaking, but students using laptops to play Minesweeper in class is not so useful. So the companies and the profs are experimenting with ways to regulate technology and channel it in exclusively positive directions.

Which means the soothsayers should calm down: Pens, paper and conference halls are not going anywhere as yet.

Apocalypse, the spinoff

By , 9 June, 2008, No Comment

In two previous posts, I’ve blogged about the news media in the digital age. Based on parallel movements at CondeNast and at the Washington Post, I predicted that in the future, major “old” brands will aggregate the expertise of various niche bloggers to produce a product that is mostly digital, with occasional print specials. But Sam Zell’s approach to the Tribune Company’s papers suggests a different response to the threat from Google news et. al: a smaller, slimmer, all-print, all-local product that capitalizes on the fact that internet news sources have an edge in fast breaking headlines, but don’t have the time for local color coverage.

In all frankness, I think the future holds a combination of those two models, but if I were trading in media futures (do those exist?) I’d guess that the Washington Post/CondeNast approach is likely to be more lucrative. There are way more places to monetize on that food chain (the daily website, the affiliated blogs, the print specials, advertising in each of the above) than there are in single local dailies. Then again, Sam Zell has done okay for himself so far, so maybe he knows something I don’t?

It Ain’t Easy Being Green

By , 8 June, 2008, No Comment

You know, I always had a thing for Kermit and I was thinking of his famous quip today when I saw this story about UPS. Apparently, the dudes in brown are going “green,” by telling all their drivers to take delivery routes with only right turns. That way, they won’t waste any gas waiting to turn left.

Get real, UPS. Going green, for real, isn’t about making little tweaks like that, though they help. It will require rethinking the big picture of how we live–it means deciding to call a local store near your grandmother’s house to have them deliver her a gift (by bike), INSTEAD of buying a present and shipping it via UPS.

Not to mention that UPS has had this program for two years, but managed to make it a new story this weekend as part of the global warming media hype.

Then again, I’m sometimes afraid to beat up on companies for greenwashing for fear they’ll stop trying altogether.

Vote for Ahsan at FP.com

By , 3 June, 2008, No Comment

Foreign Policy magazine is having a contest for the top 100 public intellectuals, and a personal hero of mine is on their list of candidates. Aitzaz Ahsan, a lawyer and political activist in Pakistan, is responsible for bringing down Musharraf’s party in February and restoring the Chief Justice that Mush tried to sack last year. Now he’s crusading to get all the judges restored and give the judiciary back its full rights. Over the course of his career, he’s suffered house arrest and all forms of physical and mental abuse and the least I can do to express my admiration and my gratitude to him as a fighter for democracy is this little bit of virtual electioneering.

For a truly awesome profile of Ashan, read James Traub’s piece in this weekend’s NYTimes magazine.

For some inspirational political poetry, see Ahsan’s video on YouTube!
To vote for him in the contest, visit ForeignPolicy.com.