Archive for ‘Technology’

Apocalypse 32: Keeping News Alive?

By , 17 December, 2009, No Comment

I’ve been exploring the Google-NYTimes–WaPo venture Living Stories, a site that aggregates coverage of particular events in real-time. As one reader put it, this seems like something news organizations should have done long ago.
As a consumer of news, I consider this a potential tool, but it needs to have a much wider array of news sources to be truly useful: my challenge as a reader today isn’t keeping up with the New York Times’ coverage of Pakistan; it’s keeping up simultaneously with the Times and the Post and the Journal and the BBC and the Guardian and about as many local outfits.

There are already ways to aggregate news from all those places, and to sort news from each organization by subject, and even to sort news by topic once aggregated. All we need is a way for news organizations to monetize this process. A better idea might be for the news industry to adopt a uniform standard for tagging their stories that would be compatible with all RSS readers and reading devices. If they simultaneously adopted my suggestion on embeddable ads, they’d be able to own monetization of their content wherever it went, without reference to third-parties like Google.

Because even though ad revenue from Living Stories is to go to the news organizations, Google is still powering the site and organizing the ads—they still have access to all the user data involved and that benefits them elsewhere. The more that all news organizations’ content merges on sites like these, the more centralized and more powerful Google’s data cache can become.

Moreover, Living Stories, or indeed any subject-based aggregation strategy, doesn’t solve the critical problem facing journalism today: if given a choice to consume content by subject, it’s likely that readers will choose to keep up with regular developments in national politics, hyperlocal affairs, sports and culture. Foreign affairs, state-level politics, and economics are less likely to receive sustained attention—everyone is interested when there’s a major intelligence breakthrough, a corrupt governor or a case of corporate fraud, but no one wants to the read the months of daily stories that lead to big scoops in these areas. And there’s no way to know, in advance, which companies or which states or which countries will produce that scoop—you have to pay, blindly, for daily reporting on all of it. Who is going to do that now?

I don’t think Living Stories does much to help us there. Like many Google products—Gmail, Reader—I like this one, but it’s unclear to me if its good or bad for the news organizations involved.

Couldn’t have said it better myself

By , 20 November, 2009, No Comment

Great chat between Cato’s Julian Sanchez and American Scene’s Conor Friedersdorf about the future of media, what constitutes journalism and how politicians try to work the media narrative. The chat covers two subjects I’ve touched on before: the federal shield law and Google’s impact on media production. It’s solid stuff, the whole way through. Worth taking an hour this weekend for.

Washington’s Cognitive Dissonance

By , 5 October, 2009, No Comment

I wrote a news item for Fortune today on the FTC’s new guidelines for advertising and consumer endorsements on the web. Basically, the guidelines require disclosure of any material connections–money changing hands–between companies and bloggers.


“The issue here,” says Cleland, “is whether, if the consumer knew of the relationship between the advertisers and the blogger, would it affect the credibility of the blogger’s statements?” If so, the new guidelines would permit the FTC to demand that the blogger disclose the connection, with failure to comply resulting in fines as high as $11,000.

The problem, critics contend, is the lack of clarity in the FTC Guides on what will constitute a violation. Beyond direct payments from companies to reviewers in exchange for specific coverage, the guidelines seem to extend to consumer and personal websites where advertising content and editorial content overlap.

Read the rest here.

One thing that came up in my reporting that I didn’t get a chance to address in the piece is the question of whether blogs are a publishing medium where conflicts of interest are a form of commercial corruption, or just equivalent to individual speech, in which case the government can’t regulate them at all. In this case, the FTC is treating blogs as a publishing medium, at the expense of the many individuals who use the platform simply to carry on personal conversations.

Meanwhile, the FCC seems to be approaching the internet as a form of speech and therefore pushing net neutrality on the grounds that all speech must be treated equal. That approach takes away all the specific protections that commercial content is premised upon (like intellectual property rights), even as that publishing is about to move online.

Meanwhile, Congress, which oversees both agencies, is trying to draw a line in the middle of the blogosphere between those who use blogs as a publishing form–and get special rights but also stricter rules as a result–and those who are just speaking. The Congressional shield bill may be doomed now that it’s lost White House support, but I think in principle, some way of distinguishing commercial from non-commercial content online is going to be necessary.

What frustrates me most, however, is how easy it is for the two agencies to put into law two conflicting definitions of the same space–the net–without anyone raising questions about the inherent contradictions between their approaches. It’s a clear case where some regulatory consolidation is needed.

Bloggers Should be Seen and Heard

By , 22 September, 2009, No Comment

So believes video website, which I’ve plugged and linked to on this page many-a-time before. Basically, the site pairs journalists, policy folk and and academics on video chats and then plays back the conversations in a split screen. The result: long-ish wonky chats that show us what broadcast TV would look like if they didn’t edit every interview down to its 10 second soundbyte.

Anyway, they’re now letting fans video-blog on the site, albeit with some weird masking that is supposed to anonymize lay folk, but really just makes everyone look weird. Ironically enough, the debut ‘amateur’ ‘vloggers were professional journos–Portland-based Ethan Epstein, and myself (!)–discussing (what else?) the future of media.
Watch the video below, and let us know what you think, either here or on BHTV’s comments forum.

You Win Some, You Lose Some

By , 16 September, 2009, No Comment

Mixed results today of my recent bets on the future of media.

1. BusinessWeek’s potential buyers have turned in their bids, and BW’s own media writer Jon Fine is on the story. It looks like vanity buyers (aka Wasserstein) have pulled out, and real media companies (aka Bloomberg) are back in the lead, but the LBO firms are hanging on. When I blogged about this earlier in the summer, I said I was rooting for Bloomberg over the LBO folks, so, so far, I’m winning.

BW staffers appear to be grieving for Wasserstein because they believe a vanity buyer would be a more patient investor than even a media firm; I disagree–the example of Sam Zell suggests that vanity buyers behave more like LBO firms in trying to squeeze fast profits, not because they need the money, but because the vanity buyer psychology works something like “Oooh I want a shiny media gem to wear in my crown. If I buy a rusted media gem I must make it shiny.” Wasserstein figured out BW wouldn’t be shiny (ie a gold mine) anytime soon, and walked away.

BW staffers also appear weary of Bloomberg in particular because they think he will be unfriendly to BW’s newer ventures into social media, basically creating networks for managers to discuss their industry and trends. While I think this a cool feature, I think the best thing BW has to offer isn’t that; it’s their investigative unit and wide angle coverage; Bloomberg is a luxury outfit that has shown willingness to spend a lot of money on reporting. That can only be to BW’s benefit. Moreover, BW’s focus on news managers can use will serve as a complement, not a competitor, to Bloomberg’s focus on use investors can use.

Fingers crossed that this works out.

2. Mark Zuckerberg blogs that Facebook now has positive free cash flow. That means it’s taking in more cash than it’s paying out, but it doesn’t mean the company is profitable yet, since there are lots of non-cash expenses like debt that FCF won’t reflect. That doesn’t quite erase my suspicions about their Ponzi-ness (Ponzi schemes, by definition, have lots of positive FCF when they are growing), but it does give me pause about writing off their potential to develop a real business. I’ll think this one over again and be back.

3. Google announces FastFlip, a platform that basically lets you read media pages in their designed form. That makes it easier for publications to give you the user experience of reading an old fashioned glossy mag, and yes, the feature looks pretty damn cool, but it also means that Google can sell ads not only against content on its pages, or on the pages of its partners, but over, above and outside whole websites that may have their own ads. It’s meta-advertising, and supports my long-standing conviction that Google’s macromarket strategy precludes any publishers’ attempts to figure out an ad strategy for content sites.

Google-opoly: A New Twist

By , 8 September, 2009, No Comment

I spent the weekend engaged in an interesting snark-fest with Jeff Jarvis in the comments section of his blog. Jarvis was complaining about the many requests he gets from journalists working on ‘anti-Google’ stories looking for a quote. It’s not surprising that he gets the requests, since he’s written a book advocating Google’s business model as a blueprint for all companies. Indeed, I reached out to Jarvis for my own Google story a few weeks ago, but he was understandably busy.

Jarvis’ accusation was that journos are fabricating news stories out of scant fact in order to exorcise our own curmudgeonly demons when it comes to living in a digital world. I’d admit that bias plays a role in the tone of coverage of Google, but since most of the queries he referenced are about ANTITRUST stories, I’m not sure bias actually drives the decision TO cover Google in the first place or that the facts behind those stories are as thin as Jarvis suggests. Those stories only arise AFTER the government somewhere decides to investigate Google; then we report on the investigation. And as far as I know, no journalist has reported on a non-existent lawsuit yet. So I’m really not sure what Jarvis was ‘kvetching about, despite trying to get some clarity from him multiple times.

To the contrary, I’m even more convinced that the regulators have a real case to make against Google than I was when I first got into my tussle with Jarvis a few days ago.

I Told Ya So

By , 31 August, 2009, No Comment

Virginia Heffernan’s column in the New York Times Magazine is one of the highlights of my weekend. It might be because she writes so wittily; it might be because I read the magazine on the treadmill and her column, which appears within the first ten pages, is often the last thing I read before I become too sweaty and tired to think straight.

But I digress.

Her column this week is about the Facebook Exodus, the impending backlash of users fleeing the site because they are frustrated with its increased busy-ness and diminished privacy. On the one hand, I think she nailed the trend. On the other hand, I’m a wee bit bitter since I’ve been saying as much on this blog and elsewhere for awhile, and I’m not alone.

What do you think? Can the Facebook bubble burst?

Apocalypse 30: Bellyaching in Britain

By , 30 August, 2009, 1 Comment

This past week saw the International Television Conference in Edinburgh, where various stars of British screen life pontificated on, what else, the future of media. The show stopper was a keynote lecture by James Murdoch where he railed against the BBC, Ofcom and government’s role in media more generally. His language was inflammatory and his politics insufferable, but I found myself agreeing with him about the economics of the emerging media model.

Here’s the core of his argument: we live in a world where there is no longer radio journalism and TV journalism and print journalism and web journalism, but simply journalism. Stories–whether told in words, pictures or sound–are all going to be transmitted the same way, as a combinations of 1s and 0s to be read on laptops and mobile phones. Murdoch calls this the “all-media market,” and the people who provide it “branded mediators.” Clumsy phrases, but they do the job.

Conspiracy Theory Monday

By , 24 August, 2009, No Comment

While others were beaching it up, I spent my weekend poring over the responses from Apple, Google and AT&T; to the FCC over the iPhone-GoogleVoice snafu. AT&T; essentially repeated its earlier statement, with more umph—it takes no responsibility for what happened and says Apple was acting alone.

Apple tried to hedge it, first claiming that the GoogleVoice application hasn’t been rejected but is ‘still under review’ then listing reasons why it might deserve to be rejected. A host of tech commenters, led by Michael Arrington, called the first claim a bald-faced lie, and I’m inclined to agree. The FCC wouldn’t be investigating this if the application-rejection hadn’t provided the smoking gun. The FCC would not launch an investigation if Google’s complaint was simply that the process was just taking too long.

On the second point, however, I’m inclined to think Apple has a point. Not a legal case, to be sure (on legal grounds, I fully support them getting an FCC walloping), but a business one.

Notes from the Googleplex

By , 21 August, 2009, No Comment

I’ll admit, I feel a wee bit smug today. After musing about Google for many many months on this blog, I’ve managed to report out some of my ideas about data-as-a-commodity in a cover story for the UK’s New Statesman. If you’re going to read it, I suggest you also read WIRED’s take on the subject. I was less than floored by the WIRED piece, but I am curious as to how you think they compare.

Beyond the satisfaction of getting this analysis out there, I found this project fascinating, not least because I learned that Google’s PR officer reads this blog and follows tech reporters on Twitter. That’s PR101, of course, but it’s notable that Google, for all its exceptionalist rhetoric, works just like any other firm of its size.

Finally, because my colleagues were in London, I was in New York and Google was in California, this piece was reported, written and edited at odd hours of day and night, with snippets of text sent between us over a veritable menagerie of technologies. We each took raw notes in Word, then posted them to a shared Google Document (for the uninitiated, this is a service that allows you to host a document on the web so multiple authors can see it). We outlined and drafted the piece on Adobe’s BuzzWord (a similar service that also allows to share comments on the document), and sometimes used GChat (Google’s instant messaging service) to tweak individual sentences or paragraphs before updating the central file. Then we fine tuned it with our editors in old fashioned Word attachments.

In the process, I learned what each of these software programs is best for: GoogleDocs is great for sharing big chunks of raw text, but useless for organization. Adobe is the best for comments and in that sense, the best collaborative tool, but it’s Flash-based and unsuited to older computers.  Word is the easiest place to get a holistic picture of whatever you’re working on without getting sucked into the minute-by-minute changes.

None of these programs offers you everything you need. For most of the last ten days, I had Word, Google Mail/Chat, Google Docs, and BuzzWord open at once. Usually, I was on the phone too. The frenzy was a reminder that there are limits on the world-flattening capacity of computers. In the end, the best writing happened when we were on the phone with one another, writing each sentence together instead of dividing the work, and with one of us taking centralized control for typing. In other words, we wrote best when we slowed down instead of using technology to speed us up. A sobering thought for tech-evangelists.

Updated: Memes travel fast. The BBC ‘s Maggie Shiels makes similar points about BookSearch.