Monthly Archives: February 2010

Building an Online Audience (Nearly) from Scratch. Can An Old Media Veteran Bring His Readers With Him?

My world news website is literally still just a project on paper — or more precisely, Powerpoint. From what I’ve learned about all this technology stuff, websites on paper, uh, don’t work so good. The live prototype is still a week or two away, and the beta version wont’ be ready for a bunch of months. At least.  None of this, however, prevents me from starting…that is, trying to build an audience. Or at least a pre-audience.

It’s all part of that evil-but-necessary bit of New Media verbiage: personal branding. The frontiers of the world of journalism are now equal parts barrier-free and mind-spinningly fragmented, where everything is possible and nothing is a sure thing. In the face of this, how YOU get it done becomes ever more important. On some basic level, this has always been the case in journalism, and any profession, really. Do good work, and get recognized for it. What’s different now is that the promoting yourself and producing something for public consumption become one in the same. And so the pro forma act of attaching my byline to my copy transforms into attaching my name to everything I do professionally (and for others, well beyond the professional.)

And so the seeds of the audience is born, even if you’re not sure what your product is, or have not yet figured out how to produce it. Facebook friends, Twitter followers, email lists, etc are the first step. The good news for those of us coming from the world of full-time, branded media is that you are actually not starting from pure scratch. Anytime I tweet something, link something, and generally show up in some digital room with my nametag on, whatever I’m writing or shilling or, like here, thinking aloud, is traceable back to that old fashioned byline and where it’s been residing over the years.

There is no denying that it is a head start if you are looking to create something new. Beyond the actual experience I have acquired from it, the MSM brand is that first small step toward building your personal brand: doors and emails get opened, introductions get made, and maybe even rambling blog posts get read.

Still, this edge has a tiny shelf life. No one – I repeat, not a friggin’ soul – is going to become a customer of the content that I hope to produce/edit on my website because of my work with Time or the AP or whomever. (Likewise, a potential investor who might agree to meet with me, will not be reaching for his checkbook because of what I’ve done in the past) The project quite simply must stand on its own. In fact, for some, the new enterprise must actually overcome the old-school origins of its founder.

In the end, those of us veterans/victims of the crumbling state of MSM have two distinct choices: either see our past as a building block and calling card for the future. Or see the future as simply the thing that is killing some idealized notion of the past. After some real resistance, I have wholeheartedly embraced the former approach. Even with all the uncertainty, that very change in mentality feels like real progress. And some serious fun.

But back to the practical challenge of finding an audience. I wrote last week about my mini project-inside-the-bigger-project, While U Slept, a bundled aggregation of the Big 5 latest headlines/links that I put together here in the European time zone, aimed at early morning readers/bloggers wanting to know what news has actually broken since they logged off and unplugged the night before. I have been vigilant about getting it posted by 1 p.m (7 a.m EST). every day, six days a week. I’m establishing a method for scanning the news sources, making it the most relevant and timely mix it can be. And several colleagues have sent real encouragement. But let me assure you fine readers: it has most definitely NOT caught on like wildfire. My 3!? email subscribers get it first. My 160 Twitter followers get it 60 seconds later, followed by my 307 Facebook friends. And how many click through? What is my most trafficked day? A grand total of 56!? The daily average is at a whopping 23 hits…

I wasn’t so naïve to expect anything different. And I do have a plan..to aim high (future post about this concept). Perhaps it could make a good fit in a smart, heavily trafficked home on the web. Andrew Sullivan? Talking Points Memo? Slate? Or some other New Media outlet that still sees the MSM – and The News itself — as relevant, and a good starting point for the day. All suggestions are most welcome! For now, I am continuing to refine the process and story selection and timing. But when the moment comes to try to find the right home — to try to multiply my audience — you can bet that I will present myself with Old Media credentials in hand, and all the oxygen of the New Media in my blood.

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While U Slept. The Big 5 Overnight Stories. Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2010

Pakistan Says It Nabs Another Top Taliban Leader Mullah Kabir, who was leading push against US forces in eastern Afghanistan, reportedly taken into custody. Follows other high-profile strikes at Taliban hierarchy. (NYTimes)

Iran Announces Capture of Militant It Says Tied to U.S. Iranian security forces say ethnic leader Abdulmalak Rigi was at an American base in Afghanistan a day earlier, carrying passport issued by U.S. (LATimes)

Cheney Stable in DC Hospital After Chest Pains Former VP has long history of heart problems. Former Republican Senate leader Robert Dole also reenters hospital following bout with pneumonia. (AP)

Surprise Drop in German Business Confidence First fall in 11 months follows drop off in production and retail sales. (Bloomberg)

Elvis Presley Passport Bypasses Airport Security A pair of “ethical hackers” have shown how a false biometric passport can get through security at top airports. (CNN Video)

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Who’s Your Guru? My Startup, a 3-Hour Skype & the True Life Making of a Myth

The connection flickers, and the black Skype screen finally splits open to reveal a hulking figure standing over his computer in a non-descript kitchen. “Welcome to Speakertext headquarters…” Matt Mireles’ voice has the same light, aw-shucks timbre from his web startup demo, which makes an odd contrast with both the (virtual) physical presence in front of me and his profanity-sprinkled tweets and blog entries. He is walking around the kitchen, trying to get some coffee going, and indeed cursing and dude-ing his merry way. I can see that he’s decked out in a stretched-out t-shirt and what look like pajama bottoms, and is sporting…is it?..yes, that’s right: an old-fashioned John Riggins/Travis Bickle Mohawk. Daaang

Still, as well as I can determine from 4,000 miles away, Mireles is decidedly not a homicidal cabbie. But don’t let his nice-guy voice fool you either. You could even say he’s got the right mix of amiability, the old Redskin fullback’s determination and just enough of that taxi driver madness. He’s also got a plan. And he does his homework. Dude.

Mireles had stumbled upon a previous entry from this blog and sent me a slap-down comment, which got me reading his blog…and the rest, as they say, is biztory. He was not the first perfect stranger with more success/experience than me to be generous with his time, though the THREE-hour skype is up there with the most generous. The specific advice he gave me on my project was also bold and potentially game-changing. But he’s getting special attention here for another reason…and in some way, it starts with that particular hairstyle he chose. Or that chose him…

I actually only got a brief look because we cut the skype video after losing our connection twice. Still, throughout the morning (his NYC time zone) call, I imagined him there, still on his feet, at or near his laptop, pacing, jabbing the air, running his hands through that Augusta-fairway band of locks as he unfurled his unlikely bio and parried my attempts to stick to my guns on point X or Y of my core product and business model.

From the get-go, he apologized for his thoughts wandering a bit, which he blamed on a minor hangover: “Last night was poker night.” This is how hard-living workaholic entrepreneurs work off their Friday night booze: telling their stories, loading up strangers full of advice and inspiration and “this is what happened to me” tales. In another world/century, it would be the 41-year-old veteran journalist giving the once and future aspiring 29-year-old reporter counsel. But things, as Bob says, have changed. Born from his own aborted journalism ambitions, Speakertext is truly one of those “Of Course. That!” ideas. It’s so big and simple – and timely – that it’s just a question of working out the bugs, and watching where the crowd will take it. But even getting the beta version up has been a life-changing experience for him. As ever, it’s about the execution…and some 12 months ahead of me, he was eager to share….

But listening to Mireles, he stands out as much for the How as the What he is saying. It’s the way he barks out ideas, trusts his gut, makes you laugh that, with a splash of nuts-and-bolts success, could make him the next New Media Guru. And why not him? Or her? That, of course, is the driving ethos of the internet itself.

But Mireles is still not there, and he knows it – constantly blurting out: What the fuck do I know; and manically citing his gurus and firing off relevant links via skype chat. Ultimately, though, that ‘ stop him. He has something to say that goes beyond any single idea or project that is some kind of elementary equation of ability to absorb information plus charisma plus a nose for how people behave. And, oh yeah, balls.

I’m sure there was a logical arc to our three hours on skype, but hell if I can remember. What I’m left with is the specific advice he gave me on my project that I’m researching now…and a series of kernels, curse words, links, World War II metaphors that are not project-specific.

Here’s just a portion, not necessarily in chronological order…and he will be the first to admit that he is just aggregating from the wisdom of others. But, always like Bob, he makes it his own.

…make it a wiki…then you become another time suck – and that’s what you want to be!

…what you need is a tech co-founder.  If you make this a tech play, you’ll have an easier time finding talent and raising capital.

…don’t produce content.  be a platform.

…who’s your earliest early adopter?

…have you read Crossing the Chasm

…think like you think in war: military insurgencies are just violent political entrepreneurs.

…at  a certain point switch from prep and prep to having to put something on the line.

….…check out Joe Liemandt

…i dont know if you can do this from France.

…Whats the lightest weight, most easily scalable.

…Build the platform, foster the community.

…you know 500 hats? check it out.

….being an entrepreneur is pivoting, iterating.

…you’re in WW II, You see the map. You got your forces …how do we get there? What’s the beach head?

…you really think you’re gonna stay in France?

–who’s your early adopter? who’s gonna have a hard on for your product? who’s gonna spam their friends?

…you gotta fucking read, Crossing the Chasm.

… read everything Fred Wilson writes

…you know Chris Dixon? Follow him. Paul Graham? Him too.

…be light

…be scalable

…be like water going down a hill…

One fundamental difference we acknowledged is a question of geography and family…that is, mobility. He’s 29, single and totally committed to his project. I’m 41, married with two kids, and totally committed to my project. That is not the same thing. And the execution may in fact be very different. I explained that my wife’s good job here in Paris is actually making it possible for me to throw myself into this ever more every day. I couldnt make him understand that putting my family’s well-being on the line (ie, moving us to Silicon Valley or NYC without a fixed income) is a non-starter for me. He thinks that’s somehow a kind of existential deal breaker. I told him to read Malcolm Gladwell article about how some of the most legendarily bold entrepreneurs are actually calculated risk takers.  “Dude, you gotta get your ass to the States,” he shot back. “You gotta land at friggin’ Normandy.” Later, he put it this way: “As much as anything, doing this is about  getting amped about a myth…” That, I can’t argue with. And so, make room for the next great new media legend of Matt Mireles to catch flight.  And fuck it dude: why not mine too…

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While U Slept. The Big 5 Overnight Stories. Monday, Feb. 22, 2010

Report: Nato Airstrike Kills 33 Civilians near Kandahar Afghan Cabinet condemns strike of convoy as “unjustifiable.” Comes as US-led surge against Taliban had been gaining momentum. (AP)

Iran Says Building of Two New Uranium Facilities Slated to Begin Head of national nuclear program touts plans to  break ground in coming months on two uranium enrichment facilities, with others to follow. (NYTimes)

US Investigators Say They Know Who Hacked Google Financial Times report says it was a 30-something freelance security consultant wrote the code that found a breach in Internet Explorer web browser to allow access to Google data. Details could help prove Chinese government role in security breach. (FT)

Space Shuttle Endeavour Returns in Rare Nighttime Landing Bittersweet end to final major construction mission of the International Space Station, a two-week, 5.7 million mile trip, as Shuttle program begins phasing out. (AP Video)

US Seals Historic Defeat of Canada in Olympic Hockey Thirty years later: another “Miracle on Ice” for Team USA, which defeats Canadian team for the first time in a half-century. (SI) Continue reading

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While U Slept. The Big 5 Overnight Stories. Saturday, Feb. 20, 2010

UK Government Watchdog Calls for Torture Probe Pressure mounts to investigate British Intel agencies accused in torture of more than 20 terror suspects. (The Times)

Dutch Government Coalition Collapses over Afghan War Policy Labor party pulls out of ruling majority over request to extend stay of some of 2,000 Dutch troops in Afghanistan. Early elections expected. (FT)

Ukrainian Prime Minister Renounces Legal Challenge to Election Defeat In surprise move, Reformist Yulia Tymoshenko withdraws her complaint about irregularities in her rival’s presidential election victory. (AFP)

Pakistani Jets Kill 30 Militants along Afghan Border Major US-led push against Taliban ups casualties on all sides, as both ground and air campaigns press on. (Reuters)

In Search of Revenue, California and Other States Look to Tax Amazon, Online Sales Lawmakers in cash-strapped California say $150 million in annual sales from digital retail giant should go to state coffers. (LATimes)

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While U Slept. Big 5 Overnight Stories. Friday, Feb. 19, 2010

Military Coup in Niger Other African leaders condemn junta takeover, suspension of constitution.  (BBC)

Report: China Cyber  Attacks on Google Traced to Schools Probe finds online attacks came from university and vocational school, and began as early as April. (NYTimes)

A Top Taliban Figure Killed in Pakistan Late night U.S. missile strike hits brother of senior Afghan Taliban commander, latest in a series of successful targeted strikes of top rebel leaders. (AP)

Asia and Europe Stocks Down, Dollar Up After Fed Raises RateMarkets down after four-day streak following rise in discount rate. Pound at nine-month low against dollar. (Bloomberg)

Carrefour Cracks India Market French retail giant will open operations later in 2010 after seven years of trying to enter the world’s second most populous country. (Reuters)

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The Birth of a (petit) Project Within the Bigger One

I’m still finding my voice on Twitter. The only thing I’m sure of is that I won’t be tweeting my breakfast menu or misadventures on public transportation. So far I have also shied away from the Confucian pearls of wisdom and random thoughts about the state of the world or my failures at fatherhood. My tweets are mostly linked to news that’s breaking, both in the rest of the world and this much smaller universe of the Transformation of the Business of Information.

Based in Europe, and with the majority of my followed-and-followers in the US, I have found that my geography and language skills may help me to get some breaking news into the Twitter river ahead of the crowd. And so there I was the other morning, about to re-Tweet some bit of France news (don’t remember what?), when another interesting story popped up…and I thought: Hmmm? Let me try to squeeze these two together into one tweet. But with 140 characters to work with…good luck!? So I put the two links aside into a Word document…and then it HIT! me: Why not expand the 2 links into, say, 5…and bundle it into a TOP HEADLINES FROM JEFF post. I could put it up on this site, and link to it once a day. At the very least it would be a good workout at world news story selection, which will be key to the website I am trying to launch. But then it HIT! me…again! If timing is everything, that’s doubly true on the real-time web, which is creating new niches in the ways and whens of how we consume information. I should exploit my Time Zone advantage and News Biz Experience, I told myself, and deliver a story list at around 7 a.m. Eastern time composed solely of news that has broken since 11 p.m. It will necessarily be different than wire service roundups and website Top Stories, which tend to always include plenty of reports of what was already known before the plugged-in news junkies logged off and went to bed. Instead, I would focus on stories that broke after Americans went to bed….which has become While U Slept.

This daily a.m. story list, which I have begun to post here and also at whileUslept.wordpress.com, is geared exclusively toward a hyper-plugged-in U.S. readership and will be composed of aggregated links. (My website project will be different/more) In the first few days so far, it has included a mix of news happening in the first part of the day in Asia and Europe, and late at night in North America, as well as a few exclusive scoops coming out in US publications.

So well before I’ve launched the actual project I have in mind, I already have a related product of sorts. Again, it is a no-lose situation, allowing me to jump straight into story selection, headline writing and the like. (I am happy to report that it comes rather naturally after 18 years as a reporter…and is damned fun!) But my next trick – to be addressed in an upcoming post — is to see if I can actually begin to build an audience…before I’ve even built my website!?

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