Archive for the ‘Publishing/media business’ Category
Last week’s sale of two major American newspapers to billionaires outside of the traditional media industry was the death rattle of Industrial Age journalism. It has been sick for so long, it’s about time someone put it out of its misery. For years, the Internet has ravaged the dead-tree news industry – an industry based on old production and distribution methods that hadn’t a chance in the Digital Age (see “Journalism is dead; long live journalists” ), but most publishers were either in denial or at a loss about what they could do about it. The sales of The Washington Post and The Boston Globe are shocking only because they are a striking admission by traditional publishers that they just don’t know what to do. They have finally given up.
Fresh thinking by smart people experienced with Internet-based business models and unburdened by vested interests in the old ways are just what the newspaper industry – and journalism in general – needs. And it bodes well for freelancers. These new owners understand more than traditional publishers how to create valuable digital products that consumers are willing to pay for. And at least one of the new owners – Jeff Bezos – has a proven track record of forging new business models that directly compensate the individuals who create that value.
Bezos, CEO of Amazon.com and new owner of the Post, based his company on the disintermediation of distributing goods, including the media of books and movies. John Henry, the owner of the Boston Red Sox and now of the Globe as well, brings less digital cred. But it’s worth noting that MLB.com, a property of MLB owners, is the most successful digital venture of all sports. And Henry is a patient, long-term investor like Bezos. “We think the management styles of these investors symbolize the kind of long-term view that the business badly needs,” writes Paul Gillin on his Newspaper Deathwatch site. Gillin, a veteran technology journalist and consultant, a New England native and a Red Sox fan, points out that Henry has patiently invested in the Red Sox for years, helping it break the 86-year Curse of the Bambino by winning the World Series in 2004. Henry also saved and renovated Fenway Park, rather than tearing it down as the previous owners had threatened to do.
Bezos understands that the Internet is a direct connection between reader and journalist. His book publishing operation lets writers publish themselves and keep more of the royalties. And he created Kindle Singles, which allows journalists to sell long-but-not-book-length articles directly to readers. This direct-publishing model could prove to be a great business model for enterprising freelancers. Similarly, Amazon is backing independent film and TV producers, giving them a way to go around the traditional Hollywood power structure to reach audiences. “Bezos isn’t trying to kill the media business,” says a recent Businessweek article. “He’s trying to reinvent it, racing against the likes of Apple and Google to build the most comprehensive array of devices and innovative online news and entertainment services.”
Both Bezos and Henry appreciate the value of data analysis. Henry was an early adopter of the “Moneyball” approach to baseball pioneered by Oakland A’s Manager Billy Beane, and even tried to hire him. Bezos’ Amazon is undisputedly among the most savvy innovators of data analytics. A large part of his business is based on crunching numbers on customer likes, dislikes and who knows what else. In his letter to the Post staff, Bezos alluded to the potential: “Our touchstone will be readers, understanding what they care about – government, local leaders, restaurant openings, scout troops, businesses, charities, governors, sports – and working backwards from there.”
Nobody knows what lies ahead for the newspaper business. I’ve been excited for years about the way the digital revolution is opening up new doors for freelancers. It’s one of the reasons I decided to pursue a freelance career. Now, I’m even more excited about the prospect that smart, tech-savvy publishers will build new business models that help the news industry, and the people who work in it, not only survive but prosper.
A report from one of the country’s preemminent journalism schools has concluded that the news business as we know it is dead.
That may not be a big surprise to many reporters, including the younger generation who did not grow up in the “all the news that’s fit to print” era and the older generation that has been kicked out the door and can’t find a job. But it’s a striking admission from a traditional J-school, the Columbia Journalism School, albeit from its New Age arm, the Tow Center for Digital Journalism.
“Post-Industrial Journalism: Adapting to the Present,” published last fall, is a long (126 pages) but fascinating read. Rather than bemoaning the past, the report faces reality and then looks at how we journalists can deal with it. “We have concluded that, no matter what model of subsidy the American journalism industry adopts, it will be unable to replicate the money generated by the mass-advertising subsidy of previous decades,” wrote Emily Bell, one of the report’s authors, in announcing its publication in the Columbia Journalism Review. In fact, the report admits in its introduction, “there is no such thing as the news industry anymore.” Rather than trying to figure out a new business model, as other reports on the state of the news business, not to mention every news organization in the world, are doing, the report focuses on how the craft of journalism is being revolutionized and what that means to practicing journalists.
The report’s analysis of the collapse of the news business is dead-on. It describes how the journalism of the 20th Century had become essentially an industrial manufacturing business – it took people who typed words on paper and a printing press to build the product and a distribution system to sell it to consumers. In post-industrial journalism, digital technologies and the Internet have blown much of that model away.
But the authors insist that “there are many opportunities for doing good work in new ways.” What it takes, however, is an understanding of and appreciation for what journalists can do with these new technologies, unbound by the old, serial process of writing, editing, printing and shipping a final product. On the Internet, after all, stories live forever, and indeed can evolve and grow as time goes by. This new life of content is key and something that many news organizations haven’t figured out. “Content is endlessly reusable and should be designed for perpetual levels of iteration,” says the report. “News products will have to be made as reusable as possible: on other platforms, on other devices, in new news stories, even by other news organizations.” But some news organizations still frown on linking to other stories from other sources or providing additional resources, out of ingrained, Industrial Age habits that no longer hold.
The report tries to predict what the news environment will be like in seven years, 2020, at least the broad trends. It will be highly variable and dynamic, rather than the standard packages we still see today. “We’re not shifting from big news organizations to small ones, or from slow reporting to fast. The dynamic range of journalism is increasing along several axes at once.” We’ll see the newsrooms of large media companies shrink (further), a plethora of niche publications focused on narrow audiences, non-profit subsidies supporting journalism, public-supported reporting like National Public Radio, crowd-sourced news using Twitter, and citizen reporting. While everyone can be a reporter, there will still be plenty of room for the professional journalist because there will be so much demand for good, verified information as well as insightful analysis and interpretation of the news. “The Internet has unleashed demand for more narrative and more data-driven news, for a wider range of real-time sources and wider distribution of long-form pieces.”
All this is good news for freelancers as well as all journalists who are eager to explore this new world and experiment to see what’s possible. A good mantra for individual journalists, the authors say, is “Proceed until apprehended.” As the old structures topple, journalists are being freed from the chains of institutional journalism. Journalism is important, and the work of individual journalists is becoming even more important. In today’s world, individual journalists can not only be more important than their publisher, they can become their own publisher. “Far too much of the conversation of the past decade has assumed that the survival of existing institutions is more important than the ability of anyone to take on the sacred task [of journalism], however it’s done.”
“The fate of journalism in the United States is now far more squarely in the hands of individual journalists than it is of the institutions that support them.” That’s tough for journalism institutions to hear, but it’s music to the ears of freelancers everywhere.
Last week brought news that another trade publisher was dropping print. Penton Technology Media Group announced that all of its magazines would go digital-only as of May 2012. . A quick Google search lists at least two other trade publishers – Ziff Davis Enterprise and Linux Journal – that have stopped printing magazines in the last six months.
By dropping their old distribution method, these magazines will cut their operating costs significantly. But I’m not sure that the raison d’être for trade magazines – to deliver hard-to-find, specialized information to a qualified readership – still exists.
I find myself relying less and less on traditional publishers to collect and package articles that meet my needs and preferences. This function – the buzzword for it is curation – is helpful, even essential. It’s just that I don’t need trade publishers to do it anymore.
If I’m looking for details of a specific news event or a feature article on a specific topic, I can usually find it quickly by using Google search. For more in-depth information, curated by an expert on a topic, I might search Apple’s app store. For example, in researching information for a trip to Costa Rica for later this year, I’ve become overwhelmed by information from Google searches. I needed a better filter, so I downloaded an iPad app based on a tour guide written by a respectable, though not necessarily widely known, travel writer. The reviews sounded good and, for four bucks, what did I have to lose? The app was very helpful.
For information that I’m not searching for but that would interest me, I rely on my social circles. Online, that means my social media – primarily Twitter and Facebook. After all, by their very nature of being my followers, followees and friends, these people share at least some of my interests. These folks, not some impersonal publisher, are my curators. And the more I plug into to them via social media, the better information I find. This realization crystalized for me last week when John Bethune, a journalist and new-media editorial consultant I follow on Twitter, tweeted about his “New-Media Survival Guide: For Journalists and Other Print-Era Refugees.” The self-published book is available from several sources, including Amazon.com, both as a paperback and an e-book.
I’m a print-era refugee (although I prefer the term bilingual – I speak both analog and digital), and I’m always scanning for information that’ll help me keep up with the latest in social media and digital publishing trends. But it takes a lot of time to wade through the information stream to find the most valuable golden nuggets. Bethune’s guide has done a lot of the panning for me already. It may not deliver all the gold, but it gives me a map that shows where some of the richest veins are.
Through his blog and social media activity, Bethune is building his own qualified circulation. A trade-publishing colleague of mine recently gave me an example of how social media can enable this. “With LinkedIn Groups, you have a self-qualifying, self-assembling and self-maintaining list of people with a common interest,” he said. “It’s the equivalent of a magazine’s mailing list, and you don’t pay a thing for it.”
Indeed. When individual writers can establish their own brands, build their own readership and publish their own apps and articles, what’s left for traditional publishers? Tell me, if you know.
Postscript: Interesting comments by Warren Bimblick, senior vp of strategy and business development at Penton Media, at a recent roundtable on “The New Influencers of Content Creation,” hosted by Folio Magazine:
“In fact the b-to-b controlled circulation model is all about a social community. What it really is about is finding 47,262 people who all qualify and about whom you know tons of information and you give them content in the way they want it, which means asking them. And for some reason yet again the industry is going out to Facebook and LinkedIn, when in fact we own these communities.
My soapbox right now is to keep the communities to ourselves, because we are the qualified people to run them. That said, if I were 30 years younger and an editor, I would be checking every day to see who is following me. It is fascinating what you can use social media for. Not just for pushing content out but for product research, and so on.”
With the explosion of online publishing, many people are now posting words on the web and calling themselves journalists. But a good proportion of them are more like plagiarists.
I recently got a first-hand lesson in this. While preparing to pitch a story idea to an editor, I googled “mainframes and private cloud computing.” Not the most interesting topic in the world, and not one that’s been widely covered. So I wasn’t surprised when a story that I’d done earlier in the year popped up several times on the first page of the search results. (My publisher owns lots of magazines and buys the rights to run my stories in all of them.)
But I was looking for fresh information, so I went to the second and third page of the search results. I clicked on a link at a website purporting to cover all-things-cloud. As I read the article I found there, I had a strong feeling of déjà vu. Here was an executive at IBM being quoted saying the exact same things about mainframe computers that he had told me. I know these guys are often coached on their “messaging,” but these were specific comments to specific questions that I’d asked during our interview. It was clear that the writer had lifted them from my article. There was no mention of my article nor the publication in which it appeared. It sounded as if the author had interviewed the IBM executive himself.
I notified my editor of the plagiarism and she kicked it to her higher ups to see what to do. The answer: not much.
“At any given time hundreds (possibly thousands) of Web sites are republishing entire stories [from our publications] without our permission,” says the response that my editor e-mailed to me. “About 50% of the time, we wind up doing nothing.” The publisher will take action under several circumstances, including when it’s a professional publisher’s site, when the site is running ads alongside the content, or when the site is plagiarizing entire stories repeatedly. But most of the people who do this “are lay publishers who’ve never heard of the Fair Use law and have no understanding of search engine optimization. They often think they’re doing us a favor, in fact.”
In other words, many of these so-called publishers think plagiarism is OK. How depressing.
Nevertheless, my publisher suggests that editors contact the offending site and nicely ask them to remove the story or at least acknowledge and link to the original source.
In my case, there was no contact information on the website for the writer, nor the editor. In fact, there was no information on who was publishing or funding the website. Clicking the “about” tab told me only that the site was launched in 2009, is done with “a team of content creators from around the globe” and “is one of the fastest growing cloud computing media sites on the Web.” I clicked on “contact,” and got only a form to fill out. There was no address, phone number or e-mail. This is not uncommon. Even when a publisher wants to take legal action against plagiarism, the lawyers sometimes can’t find anyone to which they can address a cease and desist order.
My editor and I tracked down the writer through LinkedIn – he happens to be an MBA student at a major U.S. university – and sent him an e-mail about the offense. Within an hour, we received a response from his publisher:
“After reviewing the article and discussing with [the writer], we have no problems citing your article regarding the quote. [The writer] had mentioned that he did not realize that this was an exclusive. Eitherway [sic], we’ll make the change to the article citing [your publication] as a source of the quote. We’ve also indicated to [the writer] to clearly define the source of any future quotes.”
It was not signed by an actual person, but rather with the name of the website itself, so we still do not know who runs the operation. Likewise, the return e-mail was the generic firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lay publisher, indeed. The fact that this publisher thinks that it’s OK to use any content that is not marked as “exclusive” shows his lack of publishing experience, not to say his disrespect of copyright law.
This whole thing piqued my curiosity, so I used an online plagiarism detector, called Duplichecker, to search for other sites that might be lifting the same article. I put in the quote from the IBM guy, and found that the entire story had been lifted, verbatim, unattributed to me or the original publication, in a Middle East computer news site as well. Just as I was working up a slow burn, however, I realized that it was affiliated with a sister publication of the original publication. Of course, my original publisher has the right to republish my story all over the world in its own related publications.
As I start 2012, I’m making a New Year’s resolution to launch my own little battle against online plagiarism. I plan to regularly use Duplichecker or something similar (googling “online plagiarism detector” brings up several free ones) to see where pieces of my stories are popping up. I may not be able to stop it, but I can at least try to educate the offenders, one plagiarist at a time.
It’s scary enough that technology, specifically the Internet, makes it easy for publishers to replace U.S. journalists with low-cost writers from developing countries. Reuters, for example, uses staff in India to write financial news reports. Now comes the next wave: software that might just replace journalists entirely.
A couple of weeks ago, The New York Times ran a story on Narrative Science, a Chicago startup that has written software that takes data like sports stats or earnings numbers and churns out articles. Then last week, Slate.com, ran a series by Farhad Manjoo titled “Will Robots Steal Your Job?” The series describes how artificial intelligence is starting to do the work of highly-skilled professionals, including pharmacists, doctors and journalists. To top it all off, the New America Foundation here in D.C. just hosted a panel discussion, led by Manjoo, on the same topic.
At least two companies are developing such technology: Narrative Science and
Automated Insights in Durham, N.C. Both companies seem to be targeting the market for local sports reporting, such as high school football games. Publishers can use the software to turn game stats into news reports, effectively covering hundreds of local games that they never had the time or staff to cover before. It’s like a “robotic sports writer,” said Robbie Allen, Automated Insights CEO and founder, at the New America Foundation event.
The software could be a useful tool. I’ve done my share of stories on economic data, earnings numbers and market statistics. The work of sifting through all the numbers trying to identify the important trends is time-consuming, mind-numbing and depends on a certain amount of luck and intuition. Why not use this software to do in a split second what teams of journalists working for years could never do – analyze terabytes worth of numbers and identify trends and nuggets that are worth noting and digging into?
There’s plenty of data that publishers could feed into such software. In some cases, the publishers would get stories that would not otherwise get written. In other cases, they’d identify interesting trends that real journalists can use to develop in-depth articles.
In an example of the former, trade publisher Hanley Wood is using Narrative Science to provide monthly reports on hundreds of local housing markets on its website, something that it did not have the manpower to do before, according to the Times article.
As for generating story ideas, no one seems to be using the software for that, yet. In fact, these companies sometimes sound like they intend to put journalists out of business.
“In five years, a computer program will win a Pulitzer Prize — and I’ll be damned if it’s not our technology,” Kris Hammond, a founder of Narrative Science, told the Times. The comment is particularly disheartening because Hammond is a professor of journalism as well as computer science.
I doubt his claim. These products lack the creativity and imagination that professional journalists add to the equation. And I don’t think they’ll ever have that, because they are not human. People’s eyes glaze over when a story just reports numbers, even if those numbers are analyzed. Try reading an economic report from the federal government sometime.
This software may replace some reporters, and legitimately so, because some reporters don’t add any value. Writers, for example, who simply gather information, get a few comments from people and then regurgitate it onto the page, should probably start looking for another profession. As James W. Michaels, former editor of Forbes, was known to bellow: That is “not reporting, it’s stenography!”
These programs can even do sophisticated analysis that can match, or far surpass, our brain power when it comes to crunching numbers. “We can analyze and access more data than any one writer could ever do,” according to Allen.
What they cannot do, however, is include the human element. As every good journalist knows, a great story is just that – a story. About real people. Not about numbers. It includes the shades of gray that people must deal with in life. It illustrates their weakness and the pain of failure, the thrill and glory of achievement, the fear and depths of depression and disappointment.
The best business stories are not about how much profit a company made, but about the smart people that made the company so successful. The best sports writing is not about who won or lost the game, but how they did so and how the players and their fans reacted. Take a look at this piece from the Boston Globe, for example. Could a software program write this?
Can software conduct an effective interview? Good journalists ask probing questions and observe peoples’ reactions. They notice whether an interview subject is defensive, they sense when he may be lying or hiding something. They can get swept up by the excitement of an athlete describing how he pushed himself across the finish line, or feel the pain as a mother talks about how disease ravaged the health of her child. This affects not only what journalists write, but how they write it, in many subtle ways.
Maybe technology will ultimately be able to describe our complicated human condition as well as it crunches numbers. But for now, I think the journalism profession is relatively safe. Let’s welcome this software as another great tool in our toolbox, and use the extra time to concentrate on what we do best: telling great stories.
Recently, I sat through a 90-minute presentation on “Who Needs Newspapers?” at the National Press Club. The presenters, both retired journalists, never really answered that question. Rather, they spent the time telling the audience how they had toured the country, interviewing editors and publishers to find out how newspapers were changing. They showed videos of some of the interviews, presumably those they considered among the best. Predictably, the editors said newspapers aren’t dead, of course newspapers will survive, but none of them could say how.
I was amazed. The National Press Club is an insular place, but when I saw the provocative title of the presentation, I thought I might hear some interesting ideas. Instead, I heard last-century journalists preaching to the choir about how their industry was not dying. And how did they know this? They asked newspaper editors.
When the Q&A started, no one challenged the idea that you could get an accurate diagnosis from the patient. No one pointed out that the journalists in this case had not even attempted to get a balanced story. It’s obvious that those with a vested interest in the status quo are going to defend it. In fact, the president of the American Press Institute was the first to raise his hand, stand and defend the health of the industry. He proclaimed that the newspaper business is a $35-billion industry, while in the same breath admitting that only four years ago it was a $70-billion industry. No one batted an eye.
In fact, the latest figures I could find (by doing a quick Google search) reported that more than 15,000 newspaper jobs were cut in 2009 alone. That’s undoubtedly accelerated. A 2009 report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics put publishing and printing among the job categories with the biggest declines. Newspapers, periodicals and books are projected to lose 120,000 jobs between 2008 and 2018. The printing business is projected to lose 95,000 jobs.
The people at the Press Club meeting insisted that newspapers would survive, but I doubt that. The news will survive, but how the public consumes news has already changed radically. Certain news organizations may survive, if they can adapt to the new technologies and find new business models. Some will; some won’t. But news organizations have to get beyond the old assumptions that went along with the “print tradition.”
I asked one question during the Q&A session, pointing out how young people do not read newspapers (at least in paper form) and asking whether/how that threatens what’s left of the future of newspapers. Their answer meandered around the issue but didn’t address it. Frankly, I was reluctant to be more aggressive. No one else was asking any challenging questions, including the college journalism students sitting behind me. (After the meeting they told me they do read newspapers, but almost exclusively online.)
The experience reminded me of an essay in The Economist last month titled “Think again: Your competition is not who you think they are.” The author, tech entrepreneur Naveen Jain, points out that executives are often so busy fretting about what’s going on in their own industries that they are blindsided by larger forces at work in the world. “We live in transformative times, and we can thank exponentially powerful technology for this development,” he says.
That’s true in spades for the newspaper business. Unless newspaper executives broaden their perspective, they “may not see the stealth innovators who are quietly harnessing technology advances to displace your business,” writes Jain. While publishers fret about the future of newspapers, companies like Google and Apple are figuring out profitable business models for distributing information. In fact, during the Press Club meeting someone mentioned how Craigslist has decimated classified advertising. There was no discussion of how or why.
To overcome this insularity, news organizations and journalists should follow three suggestions by Jain. (I’ve taken the liberty of adding my own interpretation for the newspaper industry.)
• “Expand the circle of events you attend, or experts you consult, far outside of your market space. When you listen to the buzz only within your industry, you tend to hear about the same businesses and innovations over and over again.” Translation: pay more attention to how technology is changing the world. While you fret about how long real paper will be used to distribute the news, the smartphone and iPad are eating your lunch.
• “Go to visionary events that look at innovation from many different angles, and don’t restrict the discussion to a specific industry.” Translation: Stop focusing on how changes are hurting your business. Rather, look for new ideas and fresh minds that will broaden your perspective.
• “When you expose yourself to new concepts, think hard about how you can make them work for you.” Translation: New technology can be your friend. The biggest threat from technology comes from dismissing it or ignoring it.
Granted, the print business model is still producing revenue, in most cases more revenue than online advertising. But that’s ultimately irrelevant when the entire business model is dying. If news organizations want to survive, they need to reinvent themselves. The Knight Foundation is one place to look for examples in innovation. At Knightgarage, you can hear about the projects of the 2011 John S. Knight Fellows. In particular, I recommend the talk by Jeremy Adam Smith, who explains how individual journalists (many of whom were laid off after years with newspapers) are becoming publishing entrepreneurs.
How ironic that journalists who’ve been booted out of the newspaper industry are at the forefront of the New Age of Journalism. And they are doing it without the paper.
Google changed its algorithm in late February, and I am proud to announce that I saw no drop in traffic to my website. The change was designed to weed out content farms and other low-quality websites that were gaming the search engine’s system by packing their sites with SEO (search engine optimization) keywords rather than good information. (To read more on content farms, see “Content farms offer empty calories.”)
OK, so maybe I’m not much of a data point. After all, my audience of 100 or so family, friends and colleagues would probably still read my blog even if it made no sense and was stuffed with keywords like “Viagra.” In fact, I’m pretty sure a couple of them might even read it more.
The point is that Google has succeeded, at least temporarily, in kicking the content farms down a few notches in search results. That’s a good thing for anyone who cares about good editorial. Demand Media admits that Google’s new algorithm hurt its search rankings. In a conference call to discuss the company’s quarterly results in May, CEO Richard Rosenblatt said search engine referrals for eHow were down 20 percent. The company is also still losing money, reporting a first-quarter loss of $5.6 million. As of May 18, Demand Media’s share price was down to less than $15, from a high of just over $24.
In explaining the changes to its algorithm, Google is trying to encourage higher quality. While it won’t reveal details on the new algorithm, since that would defeat the whole point of confounding the content farms, Google did explain the company’s thinking on its Webmaster Central Blog. It presented a list of questions, most of which any good editor would use to judge the quality of her website, magazine or newspaper. Among them:
• Would you trust the information presented in this article?
• Is this article written by an expert or enthusiast who knows the topic well, or is it shallow in nature?
• Does the site have duplicate, overlapping or redundant articles on the same or similar topics with slightly different keyword variations?
• Does this article have spelling, stylistic or factual errors?
• Are the topics driven by genuine interests of readers of the site, or does the site generate content by attempting to guess what might rank well in search engines?
• Does the article provide original content or information, original reporting, original research, or original analysis?
• Does the page provide substantial value when compared to other pages in search results?
• How much quality control is done on content?
• Does the article describe both sides of a story?
• Was the article edited well, or does it appear sloppy or hastily produced?
• Does this article provide a complete or comprehensive description of the topic?
• Does this article contain insightful analysis or interesting information that is beyond obvious?
• Is this the sort of page you’d want to bookmark, share with a friend or recommend?
• Are the pages produced with great care and attention to detail vs. less attention to detail?
“We hope the questions above give some insight into how we try to write algorithms that distinguish higher-quality sites from lower-quality sites,” wrote Amit Singhal, Google Fellow.
In apparent reaction, Demand Media announced that it will hire “feature writers” to write 850-word-plus articles based on actual reporting.
“The feature writer role is designed to bring highly experienced writers into our studio to develop lifestyle features around topical ideas, with compelling story lines and original quotes from known industry experts,” said Jeremy Reed, senior vice president of editorial at Demand Media.
What a novel idea. Almost sounds like journalism.
And what will they pay these writers, who are required to have 5 to 10 years of experience writing or reporting for a major daily newspaper or equivalent experience as a regular contributor to a major magazine? Up to $350 per article. Yes sir, three hundred and fifty big ones.
And how many of those 850-plus words are going to have to be certain keywords? Somehow, I don’t think this move will do much for Demand Media’s search engine ranking. Quality is something that just doesn’t fit into its business model.
I’ve often wondered whether it would be more equitable, and more profitable, to be paid based on the number of people who read, “like” or “recommend” my stories. Among those clients who share these numbers with me, my articles rank consistently high.
Meanwhile, after having watched the explosion of digital publishing over the last year, I’ve increasingly wondered whether I might be able to publish and sell my articles to readers directly.
After attending the Maryland Writers Association (MWA) annual meeting in early April, I’m convinced that at least some journalists could do this and make more money than the typical freelance fee for any given article. The MWA is primarily for fiction writers, and the panel discussions focused on book publishing, but what I heard there only reinforced my belief that an exciting new publishing and distribution model is opening up for writers of all kinds, including journalists.
More and more authors are publishing e-books through companies like Amazon and Smashwords, and making good money doing it. The poster girl for this is the young writer Amanda Hocking, who has made more than a million dollars publishing her short novels on the Kindle. After slowly creeping up on them for years, disintermediation has finally hit the “legacy publishers” (as the participants of one panel at the MWA meeting insisted on calling them) hard.
This entertaining (but very long) discussion of e-book publishing between authors Barry Eisler and Joe Konrath lays out the reasons behind the self-publishing stampede. You don’t have to read the entire 13,000 words on the business reasons, including an explanation of the revenue math, to be convinced that self-publishing is at least worth a try. These quotes reverberate in my head:
On distribution of stories: “Print is just a delivery system. It gets a story from the writer to the reader. For centuries, publishers controlled this system, because they did the printing, and they were plugged into distribution. But with retailers like Amazon, B&N [Barnes & Noble], and Smashwords, the story can get to the reader in a faster, cheaper way.”
On the worth of writers, aka content producers: “We provide the content that is printed and distributed. For hundreds of years, writers couldn’t reach readers without publishers. We needed them. Now, suddenly, we don’t. But publishers don’t seem to be taking this Very Important Fact into account.”
I heard variations of these themes all over the MWA conference. One panelist predicted that within five years, more than 50 percent of all books will be e-books. How much journalism is already consumed digitally today? Probably well over half. And with the iPad and other tablets starting to breathe visual life into digital newspaper and magazine stories, it should increase astronomically.
Why not package and sell single articles? I’m aware of at least one experiment in selling digital long-form journalism singles: the Atavist. The articles are by well-known journalists, of course, to appeal to the general public and attract as many buyers as possible.
Would this work in trade journalism? One of the literary agents at the MWA meeting, Jessica Sinsheimer of the Sarah Jane Freymann Literary Agency, encouraged authors to aim for niches rather than the mass market. The more narrowly defined the market, she said, the easier it is to sell the story. That’s the whole idea behind trade publishing: niche audiences – CEOs of technology companies, for example – want articles that deal with the issues and events that are most important to them.
Would they pay for that? What if a journalist wrote an article of 5,000 words that brought them new, useful information that could make a real difference in their life, career or company? Going the traditional route, that journalist might expect to make $5,000 to $7,500 for that story. What if she published her own e-story and charged $10 a pop? Based on Konrath’s figures that an author can keep 70 percent of the revenue when publishing on Kindle, she’d have to sell at least 1,000 copies to reach that $7,500. Just as important, however, is the fact that she would retain the rights to that article. Maybe she could later sell it to a couple of “legacy publishers,” or publish it as part of a longer book.
Effective social networking could be the key. If a writer is to have any hope of selling her own stories, she has to have developed a personal readership – people who know her and want to read her stuff. Another publishing agent on the panel, Jason Allen Ashlock of Movable Type Literary Group, stressed how important it is for writers to build and grow their reputation and relationship with readers. Not only does it help promote the writer, but it also feeds the writer good ideas for future stories. By communicating with readers, a writer can learn what her audience wants. And if her stories deliver what her audience wants, she should be able to sell more of them. It becomes a virtuous cycle. When readers are being overwhelmed by the vast universe of digital information, hitting a reader’s sweet spot becomes very valuable. “Where there’s an abundance of content, then quality content becomes your marketing strategy,” said Ashlock. “Business models can be built around good content.”
The next few years will tell whether and to what extent individual journalists will be able to profit more directly from their work. Regardless of what happens, the “freelance” in freelance journalism is starting to take on a whole new meaning.
Ever since I started covering technology, in the mid-1980s, there’s been a perennial career story in the engineering and IT industry about age bias. Techies who reach a certain age, the story goes, often get laid off and replaced by one of the following, cheaper, alternatives: a) a recent college graduate, b) an immigrant with an H1B visa (often from India) or c) an engineer located offshore (often in India).
Middle-aged U.S. engineers have been howling, and suing, about this for decades. Employers argue that some older engineers just don’t keep up their technology skills. Workers argue that the employer just wants younger employees, who cost less. Just last year, a 54-year-old engineer brought an age-discrimination lawsuit against Google. At the trial, the engineer alleged that, despite good performance reviews, he was told that his opinions were obsolete and out of date. He was called slow, fuzzy, sluggish and an “old fuddy-duddy” by younger colleagues, he alleged. He was replaced with managers 15 to 20 years younger, transferred to a position of less responsibility and ultimately fired.
This is a tough problem, for both the employee and the employer. It’s not fair to be pushed aside when you reach 50, even though you’ve been a loyal employee and done a consistently good job. On the other hand, technology moves fast and the skills needed for particular jobs are changing. In today’s competitive environment, an employer needs to have the sharpest employees with the latest hot skills. And getting them for the least amount of money . . . well – that’s capitalism.
I’ve been on both sides of this problem. In the mid-1990s, when I was in my 30s, I supervised a writer who was in his 50s. We were revamping a magazine, taking it in a new editorial direction, and this employee just couldn’t get it. He seemed unable to produce the kind of work we needed. We worked with him for about a year, but to no avail. So, we fired him.
Today, I’m 51. I’m not as savvy as younger journalists in terms of the latest technology. My skills in using social media, producing multimedia stories or even texting are not as sharp as a 30-year-old’s. Sometimes, I just don’t “get it.”
So, my experience in tech journalism isn’t so different from those engineers. In fact, as technology pervades various types of jobs throughout our economy, the same age-related employment problems about which engineers have long complained will pop up in all sorts of careers. It’s been happening in journalism for a while. Reuters has been outsourcing at least some low-level journalism jobs to India for years. I don’t see many H1B visa-holders replacing U.S. journalists, but I do see plenty of senior editorial staff losing their jobs, although it’s more often because their publication has died than because they are being replaced. And the staff and management of new media companies and online publications? I bet most are in their 20s and early 30s.
In our Internet-flattened world, this will happen to a lot of us boomers. Even lawyers. We have to figure out how to deal with it. My plan is to keep moving up the value chain, doing more sophisticated reporting and writing that requires experience, perspective and in-depth knowledge. At the same time, I try to keep up with the latest developments in the media business and try to incorporate new skills that will keep me relevant in this changing market. I’m lucky to be a freelancer who works primarily by phone and Internet. It means that my employers judge me by my work, not by my age, not by my appearance nor even by my ability to text (at least not yet). To rephrase that iconic New Yorker cartoon, on the Internet nobody knows you’re over 50. I hope I can keep it that way.
If you’re a freelancer and you’re not familiar with Demand Media, then you haven’t checked the listings on JournalismJobs.com and MediaBistro for years. If you’re not a freelancer, you’ve seen lots of Demand Media’s products, although you probably haven’t realized it. Do a Google search on just about anything, and you’ll find them. Go ahead and search on “best way to wash a dog,” right now. See the results that come up from eHow.com (two of the first four listings)? That’s just one of the sites owned by Demand Media.
Demand Media, along with other companies like Suite 101, Associated Content and About.com, is a content farm, a new type of media company that bases its business model on search engine optimization (SEO). Most freelancers don’t like these companies and their business models. First of all, they pay a pittance, usually $15 to $20 per article. Many of the people who write for these sites are novice writers, not journalists, willing to take such low wages just to get published. Second, these companies don’t value good writing nor do they offer good service to the reader. The content farm’s chief aim is to mass-produce chunks of text designed to rank highly on Google. The higher an article ranks on Google, the more readers it drives to Demand Media sites, thus generating large numbers of page views, which means more advertising dollars. It doesn’t matter whether the information is accurate or useful, whether the article is written well, or even if it makes any sense whatsoever. What matters is that the article is stuffed with key words and that the writer uses other tricks that will get the article ranked highly in Google search results.
This is known as search engine optimization (SEO). It’s a trend that prickles the skin of good journalists everywhere who are under pressure from the bean counters to “optimize” their articles. “Building Web traffic through ‘search engine optimization’ has become a major part of a journalist’s job,” writes The Washington Post’s Rob Pegoraro in a recent column. It’s a symptom of the fact that most publications haven’t yet figured out how to make money by publishing quality editorial on the Web. It’s a desperate attempt to prop up their advertising revenues.
Many of my colleagues – both staff and freelance – are experiencing this to some degree. The good news, however, is that older, established publications – ones that existed before the Internet – are more discerning about it. They want high-quality editorial first, then they tweak it with SEO.
“My editors are very sensitive to anything that looks or feels like whoring out a story,” says one client. “Yet at the same time you want your work to be seen, so it’s yet another one of those fine lines. We aren’t putting EgyptKatyPerrySarahPalinViagra in the first line of every story (or in the keywords, which some even respectable publications do) but we did have a two-hour edit seminar from an outside firm on SEO tactics.”
On the other hand, a freelance colleague who experimented with Demand Media gave up after she tried to both write a good story AND adhere to the company’s editorial guidelines. “You’ve only got, like, 250 words, and here they are telling you what words to use,” and where, she says.
Demand Media’s recent initial public offering seemed to be a vote of confidence in the SEO-based business model. As of Feb. 7, the share price was $19, giving the company a market capitalization of around $1.6 billion. However, Demand Media has yet to turn a profit. For the first nine months of 2010, it lost $6.3 million, according to Folio.
Meanwhile, Google is taking aim at these companies. As content farms have emerged, they’ve flooded the Internet with crappy articles, which makes Google’s search service less useful. Consumers are not finding the information they want and need, and they are complaining. “We hear the feedback from the Web loud and clear: people are asking for even stronger action on content farms and sites that consist primarily of spammy or low-quality content,” blogged Matt Cutts, Google search engineer, in January. The company plans to adjust its algorithm to try to strip out some of this drivel.
Think about this for a minute. The content farms use a business model that generates articles that people don’t like, even though these companies are targeting topics that people are interested in. It’s an SEO shell game of keywords that leaves readers dissatisfied and frustrated. It’s not making money. And it’s in Google’s crosshairs. Does this sound like a recipe for success?
I hope the next couple of years brings the failure of these farms and proves that to grow good content, you need to start with good ingredients.