Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Government run media? Canadians should be outraged

The Toronto Star has obtained documents that outline the Harper government's plan to axe the National Press Theatre (where Parliamentary Press Gallery Association moderates government news conferences) and replace it with a government-run briefing centre based in a mall in Ottawa.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the Privy Council Office and the PMO are pencilling in $2 million to create the government's own media centre.

No. Hell no. This is odious, antidemocratic and authoritarian in too many ways to count. You need look no further than China to see how government involvement in media muzzles news reporting to the detriment of a country's population.

Dangerous path to embark upon. Canadians should be outraged.

Monday, April 18, 2011

C-Span spawns a star: Anthony Weiner

Never thought I'd see the day when I became a C-SPAN fan - most days the U.S. House of Representatives is a snore. But after Penelope Trunk's blog turned me on to Anthony Weiner performances in the House today, I'm hooked. Spent an hour watching him on YouTube. This guy can talk a blue streak, and, as Penelope points out, makes encylopedic knowledge of parliamentary procedure entertaining. Seriously. Check him out.

A quick Wikipedia search also revealed that he's:

1) friends with Jon Stewart and
2) played hockey in college.

How cool is that? He's practically an honorary Canadian.

PS: Penelope's blog post talked about how it's dumb to break rules before you understand them. She's right. It's hard to break them *right* unless you do.

Labels: , , ,

Does Google Search Change Spell Death for Demand Media?

It's a little early for producers of thoughtful content to crow about how eHow traffic fell 50 percent after Google changed its search algorithm last week. eHow producer Demand Media, of course, said that the effect of the algorithm change was "significantly" less than the 50 percent reported. The fact Demand Media didn't say how much less does mean that it must have hurt. As did an almost $7 drop in their share price during trading on Monday.

But that's not enough to break Demand Media's business model. Demand Media pays pennies per word or video byte compared to other content producers such as news organizations or magazine publishers, and it's lamentable that content created in response to searches gets traffic that should go to content created with greater standards in order to provide more value to readers. Changes in how search engines display results is certainly Demand Media's Achilles heel. But playing search engines is Demand Media's game so adapting to such changes is also part of their business plan. I wouldn't hold your breath unless Google gets aggressive about changing code frequenlty to avoid its engine being played.

Labels: , , ,

Monday, February 07, 2011

AOL marriage with HuffPost brings an Internet pioneer full circle

Interesting how discussions with friends and colleagues on Twitter and Facebook sometimes turn into the inspiration for posts on my other blogs, be it Moto-Mojo, my blog as a "motorcycling mobile journo" or here at Media Gleaner.

After I tweeted the first announcement I saw this morning about AOL acquiring Huffington Post, it wasn't long before a former colleague commented that he thought it bode ill for HuffPost, since founders so often don't stay when their companies are bought.

Yet I don't think Arianna Huffington is going anywhere. She came to the table willingly and has just been handed the reins of AOL's content candy store to remake in the HuffPost image. Given her stated intention to grow HuffPost exponentially, I think we should take her at her word that this is a marriage made in heaven.

Opinion Divided

Opinion on today's announcement has been sharply divided. Jeff Jarvis, author of What Would Google Do? and associate professor and director of the interactive journalism program and the new business models for news project at the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism, hailed it as a smart move on AOL's part, and wondered why newspapers hadn't done what HuffPost did -- and didn't try to duplicate its success once it had.

Howard Fineman, senior political editor of the Huffington Post, wrote that this is yet another sign that old-style journalism must learn to take advantage of and work with citizen journalism in order to meet the demands of a global, 24-hour news day.

Salon called it "AOL/Time Warner all over again," and a "flashback to 2000 and the colossally ill-fated AOL/Time-Warner deal."

Business Insider did a nice, tidy list of what's in it for AOL and what's in it for HuffPost. In brief, Arianna just made a whack of cash for her shareholders while AOL just took a shortcut to prime time relevance after almost a decade of wandering the desert. So, there's no need to rehash that here.

I've always had a soft spot for AOL. From the early days when it struck a deal to put news from the San Jose Mercury News online, those of us working in newspapers who saw our future on the Internet hoped we could convince our newspapers to do the same. Then the Time Warner debacle hit and almost sank the ship. "See?" newspaper editors everywhere crowed. "The Internet is a flash in the pan."

They were wrong, but were unable to see past what came next -- the bursting of the overpriced, overhyped Internet bubble -- to realize it.

Old Media vs. New Media

My former colleague, Glen Farrelly, with whom I worked with at Quicken.ca (aka Moneysense.ca after it merged with MoneySense magazine) at the time of the AOL Time Warner merger, told me on Facebook today that he never understood why the merger hadn't worked. At the time, it looked like a perfect marriage of old and new media. But what Time Warner shared with old media such as newspapers was its resistance to new media, and a belief (as I once heard an editor at The Gazette in Montreal say) that the Internet was a "passing fad."

Now "old media" is finally cluing in to Web 1.0 and having trouble *understanding* Web. 2.0 let alone transitioning to it. And AOL is investing heavily in one of the best known Web 2.0 creations.

In the interest of full disclosure, you should know I worked as the product manager for AOL Canada's finance channel between 2003 (two years after the merger) and 2005. And am now a blogger for WalletPop Canada, its current finance channel. And one of the first things I did after getting hired at AOL in 2003 was try to get a grasp of exactly why those expected synergies never happened. There are two great books on the subject, There Must Be a Pony in Here Somewhere: The AOL Time Warner Debacle and the Quest for the Digital Future by Kara Swisher, the journalist who broke the story, intuiting what was going on based on a pattern of AIM messages and log-ins and log-outs by AOL execs. Brilliant journalist, brilliant and engaging book. You could almost hear Kara cheering today when she wrote about the merger, calling it a "bold and definitive move" that is good for both parties.

The second, Stealing Time: Steve Case, Jerry Levin, and the Collapse of AOL Time Warner by Alec Klein (if memory serves, it's been seven years since I read either of them), does a more thorough analysis of the business failures of the merger.

Why the Time Warner Merger Failed

But what both books agreed on was that the deal was upside down: it was the equivalent of a boa constrictor trying to swallow an elephant. Time Warner was bought with AOL shares whose price was hugely inflated thanks, in part, to some creative accounting of advertising sales. Following the acquisition, the pensions of Time Warner employees dived in value, which would have deep-sixed the kind of cooperation required to merge two such different entities even had Time Warner employees seen AOL and the Internet in general as an easy ride into the digital age. But they didn't. They saw AOL as an upstart kid trying to tell adults how their business should be run.

Almost all efforts to merge operations were resisted, mightily, within Time Warner ranks. Major passive aggressive behaviour.

10 Years Later

It's somewhat fitting that the acquisition of HuffPost comes almost exactly 10 years since the AOL Time Warner merger was announced. It's AOL's second chance to create the "synergies" so ballyhooed during the Time Warner merger.

As the pioneer who started the content game on the Web, it would be fitting if AOL, now that it has found an eager bride in HuffPost, will finally make that happen.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Open File, Demand Media, and how news can take advantage of SEO technology

A former colleague from my days as a reporter at the Montreal Gazette asked me this morning what I thought of Open File, which invites story ideas from the community, gets feedback from the community on whether folks want to hear more about it, and then assigns stories to a reporter.

It seems to be a reasonably good way of vetting ideas for stories that will engage a community. It's not nearly agile enough to compete with the Demand Media business model, though, which uses search algorithms to try to get ahead of the content or "news" curve (defining "news" very loosely to include celeb shenanigans, among other things). Portals such as Yahoo, AOL and Sympatico use real-time stats to find out how well any one story is clicking. That impacts how long it will remain on their home page and whether they accept pitches on that topic again from channel editors for home page use (the equivalent of section editors pitching to A1) any time soon. But that's still following the news and sought-after-information curve rather than trying to get ahead of it.

My sources inside several Canadian news organizations say that they're not even taking advantage of real-time data to give what they're showing on their home pages a leg up, though, and if they want to become destinations (rather than followers in the SEO game) I firmly believe they need to refine the Demand Media model to get ahead of the curve.

That will result in their stories landing on the top of search results, which gives an opportunity to use the traffic sent their way to let people know about the stuff they aren't yet looking for -- because they don't yet know they need to know about it. And that positions the news organization as a knowledgeable source, so it becomes a reliable destination in the user's mind.

That kind of judgment is what news organizations are good at and it's the the Achilles heel of the Demand Media business model - no one considers sites that use Demand Media content as "destinations" for repeat visits. Demand Media content is poorly written, poorly researched and doesn't engage an audience sufficiently for them to remember where they read the content. News organizations can do a much better job, engage the reader and give 'me a reason to stick around and read more. But many news organizations are not doing a good job at SEO so readers can find them and become engaged.

This is a hard sell to news organizations who don't trust SEO and look at Google as a thief. Google may very well be a thief but it's a well-heeled thief and we're not gonna win the copyright battle; that horse has left the barn. We can, however, win the SEO battle if we get smarter about it.

Friday, September 10, 2010

What would 30% more engagement do for your business?

According to an experiment by IBM, that's what hiring an editor can do for your bottom line. This isn't a revolutionary idea and shouldn't be a surprise. Editors are in the business of engaging readers, and it's our job to get readers to respond to a call to action, even if that action is clicking on a headline or buying a magazine or newspaper. But, to my knowledge, it's the first time anyone has been able to prove it empirically.

IBM served pages of unedited versions of content to a random sample of users and edited versions to the rest, and measured the clicks of the edited versions vs. the unedited ones for a month. Voila: 30 percent more clicks.

Reports the editor, somewhat smugly.

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Small biz is better at social media than big companies

A new Regus survey says that small businesses are doing a better job of leveraging social media than big companies. When it comes to acquiring new customers through social media:

  • 44 percent of small companies have done so, compared with
  • 36 percent of medium sized companies and
  • 28 percent of large businesses.

Well, duh. A push of the tiller can turn a sailboat must faster than a tanker. The list of stakeholders who have to approve any and all parts of a new initiative can pile up pretty quickly at a portal, for instance. That explains the popularity of the "do it and apologize for it later" approach. At the last portal I worked for, we started tweeting the newest and best stuff that could drive traffic to our channels long before management approved a social media policy and sanctioned the use of Twitter as part of its marketing plan.

There are many benefits of the skunk-work approach, especially inside big companies. If it doesn't work, it was a single employee's initiative, little effort was wasted and the failure was limited. If it does work, you have easy justification for building it into the business plan, management can take the credit for being forward-thinking, and you're the new golden child.

Predictably, financial institutions have had the hardest time getting traction in social media - they're heavily legislated and have to deal with compliance rules regarding how they contact the public and whether that contact constituted advice or a service.

But 58 percent of respondents to the Regus survey said they'd used social media for keeping in touch with business contacts. Sites like Facebook and LinkedIn are now being used more than job boards to recruit talent, touch base with folks who have skill sets and advice you can tap, and tie into communities who can help grow your business.

It really isn't rocket science, but I've seen so many examples of people doing it wrong that I wrote a list of Facebook No-Nos for Small Business and How to Use LinkedIn to Grow Your Network - or Destroy Your Career for AOL Canada's WalletPop blog.

You spam your friends' friends or connections of your connections at your own risk, yeah? It's a little crazy that people need to be told that.

Monday, July 19, 2010

iPad app declares war on newspapers. Hunh?

What am I missing here? Just read this post on TechCrunch about how former Google and Bing engineers have started a company called Hawthorne Labs, which has created an iPad app called APOLLO that's supposed to crawl the Web and deliver personalized news to build a genuine Newspaper of the Future™, and thus “deliver the final blow to the newspaper industry”.

If they deliver the final blow to the newspaper industry, I suppose they'll be able to crawl only broadcast sites? Rumour and inuendo from bloggers who comment on news published by ... who? Who do they think produces news? I guess they could gather links to magazine and wire service sites. They haven't declared they want to nail shut their coffins.

I repeat: What am I missing here?