Should NYT Fear Flipboard? Publishers and The Diversity of Containers

26 04 2011

Let’s start with everyone’s favorite pastime in our current age of agile developed, game changing, paradigm shifts: remembering how things used to be.

In this case let’s remember those days of when most people consumed news via one medium: Newspapers. Newspapers, which have existed to serve various objectives (news reporting, editorializing, political agitation), all had three, seemingly inextricable attributes: the content (the news or opinion you created), the medium (content printed on paper and distributed to readers) and the container (or format, such as pamphlets, newsletters, tabloids or broadsheets). For any given publication, these three attributes were all of a piece. One couldn’t imagine extricating the news from the method of delivering it. Why produce news if you don’t have a way to get that news to people? And attempting to separate your content into multiple, simultaneous containers was unheard of.

But as broadcasting emerged as a new medium naturally suited to news distribution, people began looking to multiple mediums to suit their news consumption needs. And while some would only select one preferred medium for news consumption, most would leverage both mediums for various aspects of their day (e.g., reading the paper in the morning, hearing radio news in the car or during their workday, watching the evening TV news. Still, most producers of news content would specialize in just one medium and container (apart from an occasional marketing partnership, or vestigial business, e.g. CBS radio news) and only really competed with other content producers within their medium.

Fast-forwarding to today, a new medium has emerged (Internet) and become dominant, multiple consumption containers now exist, ranging from devices (PCs, smartphones, tablets) to programs within those devices (browsers, content-specific apps) to services within those programs within those devices (news Web sites, Twitter, social networks, aggregators). And as traditional content producers from print and broadcast mediums rush to find sustainable plays in the Internet medium, the traditional competitive landscape has exploded: The New York Timesnow competes with The Huffington Post who competes with Fox News Channel who competes with the Associated Press.

And in my opinion, this is a great development. In one sense, medium and container are fundamentally artificial. One should create great content that serves a need and provides value, and then offer it via whatever medium suits your target consumers best. But at the same time, this also implies how much the container does matter. Various containers help us consume the content we care about when we want it (on your smartphone during some down-time), where we want it (in our social network, where we may spend a substantial amount of our online time) and how we want it (through innovative readers like Flipboard, which allow you to consume your real-time news and social media feeds on a tablet in a magazine-like format). And just as importantly, these use-cases are usually not mutually exclusive.

And that’s what makes the latest discussion about the threat Flipboard represents to publishers so interesting. Although this analysis by Frederic Filloux is a good one, I think its problem is that it makes the same fundamental assumption that everyone seems to be making: that controlling the containers, as well as the content, is an attainable goal for a content brand.

Today, there are simply too many platforms, technologies, formats and use cases to expect anyone—much less a firm who’s specialty is content creation—to be able to own and control every outlet. To seriously expect to do so is naiveté at best, ignorance and hubris at worst. And worst of all, it seriously limits your ability to effectively execute on the thing you actually do best: create content that lots of people want and are willing to let you monetize in some way (monetization is actually the 4th fundamental attribute here that I haven’t yet mentioned, but as oceans of ink have already been spilled on the changing nature of content monetization, I’m going to steer around it while acknowledging that it’s a fundamentally related issue).

This doesn’t mean that content brands won’t be really effective at owning or creating certain containers. A content producer’s Web site is by definition their own space, and they’ll offer different ways to offer and monetize their content in that space (free, ad-supported, subscription, metering). And some will come up with a kick-ass smartphone or tablet app here and there. And for some users, just that one content site or app may be the only news source they use in their daily life. But for most of us (and here’s the point of that history lesson …) we’ll continue to want a variety of content sources, mediums and containers to fill different use cases within our lives.  As content sources that were once separated by differing mediums now compete with each other across mediums, they often seem to forget that they were always part of a content ecosystem in our lives.

Implying that content or news sources should have invented Flipboard misses the point because they not only would have been highly unlikely to do so (i.e., the Innovator’s Dilemma), but even if so, would have more likely to have been a costly distraction or outright failure to in the end. The NYT isn’t going to want to be pumped into Huff Po’s consumption tool, and WSJ won’t have any interest in ceding that space to MSNBC. Instead, Flipboard succeeds BECAUSE it’s not a content creator. It’s only about giving consumers a great consumption experience. And conversely, technology companies (are you hearing me @Google?) fall flat when they try to own content creation (anyone remember Microsoft’s attempts to become an original content creator in the late-90s?).

None of this is to say that content companies have to cede all control of their destinies. They have every right to try and set the terms of use around their content so as to maximize alignment with their own monetization(e.g. requiring links that drive traffic back to ad supported pages, or pay-walled/metered news sites), and to block access to their content to those containers they feel are at odds with their strategy. But to fume because *gasp* Flipboard or others may claim some ad dollars around links back to their content feels pretty short-sighted.

Interrelators’ like FirstRain also play an important role in this ecosystem. We’re creating real added value for thousands of business users around the globe by connecting them with original business content that, too often, they would not otherwise find—and then driving those users back to those content producers for monetization. And we’re doing it through multiple containers as well (Web, mobile apps, intranet widgets).

Overall, it’s an incredible playground in which we’re all now playing, and our content lives are much richer for it, as long as we can remember that it’s been the emerging diversity of containers—not the attempt by any one content creator to fully control their own distribution—that has made it all possible.


Unique Value and Business Fundamentals: How Euromoney’s Getting It Right and Most Others Won’t

11 11 2010

Rory Brown (@rorybrown) had an excellent post this morning on today’s very positive earnings news from Euromoney and what that signifies as a media company struggling with all the same forces as everyone else in the digital news business. How is Euromoney able to turn record profits while rapidly transitioning their readership to online? By focusing on fundamentals: strategy, implementation and driving profits.

You can read Rory’s post for additional insight, but I did want to add one additional point. I also think it’s critical that Euromoney is a media company providing content of very high value to their consumers. They put out quality content around a focused area of expertise and specialized reporting. This, then, becomes the kind of high-value content their readers find is worth paying for.

One News Corp property, WSJ, has been quite successful as a paid content venture because it too provides content its readers believe they can’t get anywhere else. Another, the Times, is a general news publication, and so their unique value proposition is much less clear to potential buyers.

Clay Shirky was a bit dismissive of the ‘digital media needs to add real value to support paywalls‘ argument in his otherwise great post on the Times and the economics of news paywalls. I get his point, saying that print publishers simply need to provide value in their digital editions and then customers will pay does, as Shirky observes, merely push the problem down the road. I think the point, however, is that media organizations who want to charge for digital content need to provide UNIQUE value. Something they can’t get everywhere else for free or at very low cost. That could be specialized reporting, content useful to a specific job or user workflow, unique functional capabilities with value to the user (like an iPad app), ancillary services, or a brand that’s so compelling users are drawn to be a part of it.

To be clear: I think this means most providers of general news from the pre-digital world will not survive in anything like their original form. Most will probably either fold outright after a long losing battle, merge with one of the emerging hyper-local networks developing around the country, or become a much, much slimmer online only and purely ad-supported production, and one that probably outsources the creation of their news from a small handful of surviving national or global players.

This probably means, then, that a time will come when the few remaining providers of general news will be able to command a premium for their content, but by that time, the landscape will look entirely different, and they’ll probably make a lion’s share of their revenues through syndication to local networks.

Focusing on both their unique value and business fundamentals is what Euromoney seems to be doing right. How many more will be able to successfully follow them?

Why the iPad Really is Poised to Transform Print Media

10 11 2010

A good article in MediaWeek yesterday on the rise of the iPad as a platform for digital publishing–and one that has the media world very excited. As post-article commentor Steve Davies observes, this may be because the media world is currently “up sh*t creek without a paddle”, it’s certainly a factor that print pubs are desperately looking for a way to maintain revenue and viability in the age of socio-digital media, but I also think it has a lot to do with a couple of key factors unique to the iPad itself:

  1. Form factor: The iPad is large enough to provide a credible simulation of reading a print magazine or newspaper–therefore scratching many people’s itch for a comfortingly familiar experience–while still allowing a much richer overall experience than print can provide (linking articles, allowing social feedback, embedding video and rich graphics, etc.). This is where I think many of the recent or upcoming iPad rivals like the Samsung Galaxy Tab and RIM’s Playbook get it wrong. Somehow, the 7″ size of both these units doesn’t seem a whole lot larger than some of the high-end smartphones out there, while the iPad’s 9.8″ feels a lot more roomy in comparison. I suspect that folks wanting a compact unit will get a smartphone, but those wanting to read, watch and interact in a more meaningful way will appreciate the extra size of the iPad.
  2. Simplicity of distribution: This applies to both publishers and consumers. Apple’s iTunes provides a centralized marketplace, and as Ken Doctor (@kendoctor) observes in a great piece in Newsonomics, one that is extremely well-poised to succeed. Will publsihers want to give up 30% of their revenues to Apple? No, but Apple distribution also allows them to take significant hard-copy printing and distribution costs out of the equation, and can greatly simplify customer acquisition for them. To me, Apple is bringing something pretty useful, then, to the value chain other than just hardware. Correspondingly, Apple also then provides users a simple way of finding and receiving this content, and for iTunes subscribed content, a centralized way of paying for it. This also has a lot of appeal to consumers, and is why I don’t think iTunes should be underestimated yet as a potential player in the e-commerce of digital journalism.
  3. Simplicity of use: I think this is the iPad’s biggest strength. It’s the unit I would recommend to my Mother-in-law instead of a new laptop, because it’s simple simple simple. Press a button, and it’s on. Acquiring apps is simple, downloading news is simple, doing email, watching videos, even syncing w/ iTunes is simple. In the big consumer play, simplicity with a threshold level of funcationality wins the game, and Apple is very good at designing that kind of machine.

All that said, I don’t think this means only Apple can or will succeed. The iPad has enough drawbacks to be annoying in its own right (e.g., lack of Flash support, the requirement to sync with another computer, inability to accept USB or SD storage, etc), and so I think there’s room for more than one tablet. But Apple gets enough of the right things right on, that I believe media firms are right to be excited about this as a platform that will help transform print publishing as we’ve known it.

How the Myth of Objectivity Protects Journalism

9 11 2010

Recent stories from both On the Media & Politico highlighted Michael Kinsley’s (@michaelkinsley) recent observations that “The notion that journalists ought to be sort of political, ideological eunuchs is hopeless”. In Kinsley’s view, it would be better if journalists’ political opinions were clearly stated, publishing, for example, a record of how they plan to vote in upcoming elections.

I think Kinsley is right in that we can’t expect our journalists to somehow exist free of political, social or moral opinions. What we can do is simply ask that those practicing the profession endeavor to be fair. This was the guidance we received when I was in Journalism school: that the standard to which we should aspire is not objectivity–which is impossible–but fairness. Covering all sides when they exist, leaving out your own opinions, relying on strong editing as a backstop to any inadvertant slip-ups. Sure, fairness is hard to both guage and achieve, and one that frequently falls down, but it’s a worthy standard that has gotten it mostly right in most media most of the time during the modern age of print and broadcast journalism.

And that’s where I think Kinsley and others like Jeff Jarvis (@jeffjarvis) get it wrong. It sounds great to say that journalists should just lay their cards out on the table so that people don’t have to guess their personal political views, but in reality this would would add even more fuel to the fire of our already fractious political-media environment. When a journalist reporting about the Jon Stewart or the Glenn Beck rallies makes it known that his tendency is to vote Democrat or Republican, he and his news outlet immediately receive a check against them from those readers on either the left or right, and who will then begin scrutinizing the work for hidden codes signalling the writer’s political agenda. Will editors then have to send two or more reporters to cover every politically charged Washington event, just to placate readers of every possible political bent? Or, will certain publications whose editorial voice already aligns with the either the left or the right stop hiring journalists from the other side because of the headache is causes them for their most partisan readership? I worked for Dow Jones for years, and knew a number of fine and respected WSJ editors and reporters who were political Liberals. An evironment in which these reporters had to somehow disclose that fact seems pretty chilling.

And none of this is to speak of the impracticality of such a system, as it does no justice to the nuance of many of our personal political beliefs. There are many of us who vote regularly across party lines, or who hold beliefs that are complex, somehow managing to believe at once in, say, lower taxes, government health care reform, a strong national defense and a woman’s right to choose. And given that these beliefs may change over time, or as new candidates emerge, political disclosure by journalists would either be very difficult to accurately assess, or would force us into artificial poles of political description.

And so the irony is that although actual objectivity by journalists is a myth, the appearance of objectivity is something that most news organizations must work very hard to maintain, or they risk losing something even more important: credibility. NPR was widely criticized for not allowing their employees to attend the Jon Stewart rally, but they were merely applying the same journalistic standards that most large news organizations do (and that we were all warned to expect back in J-school): that while we certainly can privately exercise our rights as citizens by voting, publicly aligning with a political cause hurts our credibility in that the appearance of fairness is compromised.

Criticisms over recent issues with political commentators like Juan Williams and Keith Olbermann should be understood to be a different issue, and I think some of the criticism NPR and MSNBC have taken over these cases is justified. Since these individuals are already paid to publicly express often controversial political opinions, taking them to task for expressing that opinion via other forums (like Fox News) or methods (campaign contributions) seems both pedantic and obtuse.

The standard that still can be applied, to both pundits and reporters alike, is the earnest attempt at fairness by journalists and their editors. Once we’ve ejected the cloak of political anonymity from our newsrooms, I suspect even a facade of fairness will be the next thing to inevitably go out the door.