Noodle VIII: Tablets Won't Save Mainstream Media But ProAm Might

noodleTablets Won’t Save Mainstream Media But ProAm Might reveals how mainstream news organizations can jujitsu their way to new vibrancy—embracing substitutes.

Thanks to @guykawasaki, I happened across a robust discussion about whether new hardware formats like the iPad can “save” mainstream media. The article covered some comments from Google economist and Valley stalwart Hal Varian, and it precipitated a great discussion. Here are some back-of-the-envelope thoughts and strategies I would strongly consider were I to be leading or advising a “publishing” organization through twenty-first century waters.

I doubt that the hardware interface—such as Apple’s imminent iPad, broadly a “tablet” computer—will make any measurable difference in newspapers’ viability. I think that @timothywmurray and @jordanbecket get to the heart of the matter. Murray points out that news organizations use too many “anonymous” sources and are steadily losing cred while Becket reminds us that most news organizations only produce 20% of the content they publish: they pull the rest from wire services. Talk about a twenty-first century #fail!

Let’s abstract away from organization and society a moment. What is the marginal value of a college grad working for an editor who decides “what is news”? Frighteningly little, which our eyeballs are disclosing every day. “Newspapers” (and soon, radio and television) that thrive will do two things: they will shift a large part of their “content” to a ProAm model (ohmynews*), and reporters will act like bloggers. Before you grab your shotgun, let’s look at this a second:

ProAms combine the core competencies of all of us amateurs (source and give raw information) with professionals (editors). In effect, the organization crowdsources a large portion of the sourcing and raw production of news. Professionals will refine and analyze the “news” that we collect. The crowd and the “news org” can vet individuals’ stories, and individuals’ stature will emerge from that. Let’s not also forget, individual people have individual followings with whom they will share their articles.

Many traditionalist thinkers deplore the idea that people with iPhones can create next and photos and upload them instantly from anywhere. Soon to come: rich media.

Everyone will have video (and audio) in their pockets. This is a done deal, so news organizations need to build a large part of their go-to-market on it; it’s the new infrastructure.

Ask yourself: how can we (media) make this work for us? Create online courses to help people create better quality that you can use (no cost to you, except create a space in which they want to share). Give them guidelines. No one is saying that “quality” is the same, but people are voting with their eyeballs: the marginal value of the “professional-only” article is frighteningly thin in many contexts. By the way, an increasing portion of people get their news as links from friends, so what happened to music has happened to news (out, professionally curated playlists called “albums”—in, friend-curated playlists). News needs to focus on curating and adding analytical value.

Bloggers are individually accountable for what they write. As @jordanbecket points out, “news” sources are veiled, and reporters too often held back. Many reactionary people hate “bloggers” because the latter are too free-wheeling. They overlook that accountability = readability, cred. You may hate what someone says, but you usually know where the person’s coming from. Newspapers will become more like groups of bloggers with certain rules around them. Yes, based on ratings (news orgs’ own and the crowd’s), they can give writers different levels of visibility and reach, and make that completely transparent.

The main problem for “news” orgs is they haven’t understood that information is free now: however, analysis, synthesis and organization are not.

They need to focus on a viable value proposition. People are tired of stilted “All the news that’s fit to print” arrogance. How preposterous today! However, that tagline rocked in the 19th and (most of) 20th centuries when information was relatively scarce and means of production were centralized.

Were I to advise management of legacy media, I would ask them to consider this, from L. Gordon Crovitz, whom I had the pleasure of meeting a couple years ago:

The WSJ succeeded in charging for content because its content was traditionally part of their readers’ workstreams. When your livelihood depends on something, you pay. Most “news” and media entertains, it has little financial impact. Therefore, focus on niche stakeholders who will pay for content and mix with a ProAm model to diminish costs and extend the brand.

Over the next few years, “media” titles who don’t get these seismic changes will disappear, but there is a rich playground for others to tinker and synthesize these models.

Also see: Tombstones and Milestones


*BTW, although Ohmynews didn’t succeed long-term as a business, that doesn’t mean the model was wrong, and that you couldn’t do it right.

2 comments to Noodle VIII: Tablets Won’t Save Mainstream Media But ProAm Might

  • The hardware commitments made by Apple, Amazon, Samsung, HP, MSFT, Sony, B&N, and others has erased in my mind any doubt that eBooks are to print media what mobile devices have been to the landline. How swiftly and enthusiastically publishers and, perhaps more crucially, readers react to these still emerging opportunities will determine more than just the rate of development of the hardware and software surrounding these devices and platforms. It will heavily influence a diverse array of communities: from the literary to the artistic; from advertisers to consumer product marketing agencies; from students and teachers to parents and pundits.

    Presently, the cost of an e-book device is still too high for the average citizen, until you calculate the ROI. Consumers were willing to pay $600 for the iPhone, when it was released. The current iteration – considerably improved from the iPhone model of 2 years ago – is only $99. Meanwhile, over 3 BILLION iPhone apps have been downloaded, and the device has revolutionized the mobile device industry, as well as consumer behavior habits. Apple has recouped its investment handsomely, and the smartphone (in its many incarnations) is now almost a necessity to a whole generation of users across the world (indeed, in the developing nations it has transformed lives).

    Currently e-book devices cost far less than the early iPhone, and there is no doubt that the price will drop further. Add to this the dramatically lower cost to publish digitally, as well as the positive Green considerations (no ink, no paper, no hard distribution costs, etc), and the value proposition to the purveyor (technology hardware provider, service provider, publisher, writer, et al) is clear. Meanwhile, assuming (perhaps somewhat naively?) that book and magazine publishers will (as Random House is itching to do) lower the price for eBooks and eMags – despite their current bout of RIAAitis – in order to make them more digestible to mass market consumers, the value to the reader will be explosive.

    As readership grows, so new demographics evolve. As eyeballs become identified, qualified, and quantified, so advertisers begin to salivate. From a commercial perspective, the bonus of e-readership is that metrics are more controllable, and thus businesses are able to connect with and – more importantly – STAY CONNECTED TO the interested consumer. This is where the fun starts:

    Today’s magazine advertiser has no way of accurately qualifying the value of their placement, and magazines have to publish thick volumes (see Vanity Fair) just to stay afloat. These tomes are 70% advertising, and 30% editorial, at best. Readers have become inured to this dynamic, and breeze past the mag ads in much the same way as they zip past TV commercials, thanks to the DVR. Now, imagine if – thanks to the eMag – an ad was clickable, promising instant conversion. Imagine if, thanks to the eMag, a product offering could be placed strategically in relation to an article, enhancing the value of that product offering in the mind of the reader, by association (a new type of product placement). The discreet advertising opportunities are vast, and promise untold opportunities to magazine publishers and product manufacturers, and the agencies that creatively connect the two worlds. Then again, if the reader prefers an ad-free experience, why not grant it to them, at a premium? Those publications with higher ad-free readerships can offer lower ad rates, and vice versa. All very measurable, and to everyone’s satisfaction.

    In the e-Lit universe (the environment wherein electronic literature is ubiquitous), publishers can release a new book and have it in the hands of pre-identified “interested” readers within seconds. The temporal investment required, from a marketing perspective, is greatly reduced; freeing publishers to take more creative risks which will inevitably produce surprisingly powerful “accidents” of literary genius. The greatest works of historical fiction were rarely foreseen as commercially viable products. This emerging dynamic will allow a lot of literature to become a user-driven proposition, virally marketed by the readers themselves. It won’t exclude traditionally vetted works of literature, which can continue to receive the type of robust “upfront” marketing support that publishing houses often manifest. Nor will it erode the support for “hidden gems” of challenging yet worthy literature, which might otherwise not be deemed viable by the publishers, nor initially digestible by the public. Statistics are showing that the field of literary criticism is already evolving to function less as a pre-release prognosticator, but as a post-release adjudicator, still very capable of identifying and championing tomorrow’s Ezra Pound or Thomas Pynchon. e-Literature widens the field of offerings. It does not pretend to, nor can it, expand the readership, in and of itself. It does, however, create a new landscape onto which a wider and more diverse readership now has the opportunity to travel. To those who claim this might dilute the quality of literature, I counter that dilution is only experienced and identified upon imbibing. Consider the following scenario:

    10 bottles of wine are put on a table. 2 bottles are of the highest quality ($10 per glass), 2 are of strong but slightly lesser quality ($6), 2 are of middling quality but eminently drinkable ($5), 2 are of poor quality ($2), and 2 are of varied quality but watered down ($3).

    A group of wine aficionados is invited in to the room, and each given a $10 bill. They are given a quick taste of each wine, and then asked to “spend the money”. How they choose to “invest” their funds, and subsequently advance their experience of wine, is – in my opinion – a worthwhile allegory for the opportunity facing the reading public. The e-Lit universe will expand the selection of available content, and the quality spectrum will widen and deepen, by extension. The more extensive and more diversified availability of phraseological grapes promises a richer and more rewarding vendange.

    I could write a book on the multifarious revenue generation opportunities available via e-publication, but I’m trying to remain within the 1,000 word realm. I just got my Kindle DX (delayed due to demand, apparently), fully accepting the likelihood that upon delivery I am effectively in possession of an already usurped iteration. But if I were to think that way, how sorrowful would be my lot. Imagine living in the latter 16th century and, purely based upon your suspicion that “better plays may come out soon”, you turned down tickets to Titus Adronicus (which, by all accounts, received “mixed reviews” back in the early 1590s). Sure, you might be around when Winter’s Tale came out, and you might get tickets, and from the selective logic point of view, you will have arguably made a better investment. However, what if the tickets you were first offered were to Thomas Kyd’s first play, “The Spanish Tragedy”, and you declined on the same principle. What was then seen, and is argued by many today, as “arguably the most popular play of the “Age of Shakespeare” and set new standards in effective plot construction and character development”*, was Kyd’s greatest work. It was all downhill from there.

    I have already begun to enjoy my Kindle, and upon it I shall read with pleasure many plays, books, articles, magazines, newspapers, and more. When something indubitably superior comes out (and when I have a salary that will permit me the indulgence!), I will replace my lovingly used Kindle with whatever relatively new-fangled gewgaw convinces me of its unquestionable worth.

    I agree that it won’t be the Tablet that saves mainstream print media. It will be the reader of said Tablet, and that reader is no longer a passenger in this race, but firmly in the driver seat (even if they are occasionally unaware of the fact!).

    • csrollyson

      Nicholas, thanks 1,000,000 for expanding the discussion here! You have me thinking about the “content” itself. An unwritten assumption here is that content has always been bundled as a function of its packaging. If I understood your premise, the e-mag will remove paper magazines from the equation as tablets will make everything a web browser. As such it will be interactive and customized; even though individualized ads are rudimentary now, the trajectory is clear.

      But you have me thinking about the fate of the book. Of course, trying to resolve deep questions requires more length, so I don’t think books will go away; I do think many “books” will dissipate, and the chapter will arise; the same way the album went away and the playlist took its place. Increasingly, I read chapters of books, and I would do this even more if there were good metainformation about each chapter.

      But there is also the factor of participation. Major films now are beginning to allow people to watch different endings of films. Each chapter of a book could have discussions. Of course you would only want that in certain cases, but maybe it’s only discussions of certain people or people with certain characteristics (I’m sure that within 5 years the “Amazon” model of everyone’s comments will cede to something with metainformation around it, so we don’t see them all in sequence unless we want to). As more people participate, this will be necessary to make it useful, so we’ll have the Long Tail of comments, too.

      I think the main problem with MSM is they are not adding enough value. 80% of what is published is from wire services. Will no longer wash. They need to completely revisit how they create value. They need to reinvent themselves.

      Thanks again for your thoughts!

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