Category Archives: branding

So…What IS It!? The Answer on the Niemanlab

The good folk at Niemanlab have been kind enough to offer a much wider platform for my musings…starting way back when I sometimes felt like all I had was musings. Now that we’re set to rollout what we’ve got and what we’ll be, it made all kinds of sense for all kinds of reasons to begin the rollout last week ovah ther at haavaad yaad…

here it is.

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Latest Nieman Lab post…Launch approaching!?

We are getting close to launch….And can’t wait to start describing just exactly what our site will be/do. Until then, this hopefully gives a flavor of what it’s like to try to make everything happen…AT ONCE!? Niemanlab

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One Hack’s Response to ‘ProtoBlogger’ Dave Winer: The War is Over…And You Won (but we’re still here)

One of the things I love about Twitter is that it has finally connected me with some of the best blog posts out there…different topics, voices, lengths, frequencies. The atomized output of these one-man, one-woman information/expression machines are dropped into the stream alongside links to MSM articles, news flashes, op-ed pieces, and other, er, branded stuff…and of course the breakfast updates and bad jokes.

Within the confines of the magic 140 characters and hierarchylessness of the platform, there’s often no way of knowing which type of content source we will be routed to by that hyperlink. For various reasons, this is a good thing. But to start with, Twitter’s flat stream is simply an accurate expression of the times, that the passing flash of information is ever more its own marquee. Before I quickly get too far ahead of myself: let’s just say this is both the central point of this post…and an introduction to its subject.

Dave Winer is one of those digital names-in-light I’ve discovered via Twitter. He has a way of explaining our coming world of connectivity that is true to his visionary hacker origins…and written in the kind of stripped-away fashion that allows even us old world luddites to absorb (if not always full comprehend) it all. Indeed he may be most useful for those who get paid to communicate because of the form itself of his communication. He is both prolific and concise. He shares what is on his mind now with rounded thoughts that manage to seem both off-the-cuff and thoroughly reasoned. Typically circa 500 words, they are like prose screen grabs of whatever happens to be sizzling in his brain at the moment. For all that, and because he’s been doing it since 1997, the NYT tagged Winer the “protoblogger.”

As I already feel myself failing at the blogger’s need for both spontaneity and brevity (and the reporter’s vow to cozy up to no one)…let me just say Winer’s musings last week on why he doesn’t give interviews to reporters pissed me off in a major way. And that is the subject of this post.

Of course Winer has no obligation to speak to anyone, or give any professional category a free pass. He is free to share and even shout his opinions about what is broken in the ways the news has traditionally been gathered and spread. There’s plenty to say on these fronts. But this piece wasn’t really about that, was it? It was instead your basic roundhouse slap at those (and the numbers are indeed dwindling) who make a living reporting and writing traditional news stories.

From his experience, reporters are “almost always” misquoting, manipulating, unprepared wannabe Woodward-and-Bernsteins, as self-important as we are perpetually misinformed. This time that state-of-mind screen grab of his looked both filled with animus and rather intellectually lazy, with the air of score settling from some distant past. This is rebooting the  news in the sense of another Timberland to the groin. But this post is not about protecting/defending myself and my colleagues, and the work we’ve done in the past, but rather it’s about the future.

Of course when he writes of how having a blog liberated him from the need to spread his ideas/products through interviews, he is reminding us of a very basic shift in how access to the means of production of information is being forever transformed by the internet. But we already knew that. There has been a basic shift over the past few years even inside the deepest caverns of the MSM that, taken as a whole, this revolution will wind up a net win for the cause of democracy, economic development and creativity. And most of all, ain’t nothin’ gonna stop it…

So when Winer lumps “almost all” reporters into the same shit pile he is simply resuscitating what even a newbie to the digital space like me had considered a moot point, dusting off a dichotomy between bloggers and reporters –between blogging and journalism — that is yesterday’s news indeed.

Sure, large media companies — and even a few of my colleagues still holding on to their jobs — will do everything they can to sit on as much of playground kickball as they can. But all of us know that the game has changed forever. Or put another way: the real message to our esteemed Protoblogger is “Please come out from behind your screen: the war is over…and you won!” The sniping that continues — bloggers calling journos lazy shill=masters, journos taking cracks at bloggers’ for their pajamas and lack of gumshoe reporting — is usually just the by now rusty artillery to fight the same old personal feuds and battles that opinionated people have been and will always be fighting.

The real news that the Dave Weigel affair reminds us of is that smart young reporters who claw for access to the influential and ache for a wide audience, see blogs as the obvious fastest path to, eh, journalistic success.

The fight over terrain and resources is friendly fire, folks. We all seem to agree that being more informed, more accurate, faster, freer is the best formula for both better solo bloggers and newspaper staffers. The differences in the approaches and objectives of the different forms can only help to improve the work on one, and the other platform–and indeed, they are often the same person.

In general, we might say that the blogger benefits/suffers from the lack of a built-in structure looking over her, the journo benefits/suffers from having it. How can knowing that help them both? Instead, the real problem is that the brass upstairs is convinced by a wrongheaded conventional wisdom that calls for meat cleaver costs cuts…and more meat cleaver cost cuts…as the only short or long term solution for economic viability of whatever information is being produced. (And who can really blame them…until an alternative emerges?)

It’s telling that all the hemming and hawing from the fallout of Rolling Stone’s McChrystal article misses the fact that the article itself was the result of a major investment of time and money by the publication, and some damn good reporting by the reporter. And yes Mr. Winer, for all the breakdowns from McChrystal and his entourage, and debates about whether beat reporters shield their sources, producing that revealing an article required that Hastings ask lots of questions. (I don’t think McChrystal was sharing his thoughts on a blog…even if he had one, eh?) Is it the exception that proves the rule? Maybe. But how about some reflection on the exception to help improve the coverage by all.

Ok..if you are still with me, it is clear that I suck at this platform: too long, long-winded, meandering in my thoughts. And not quite opinionated enough. I needed to write it the minute after I read Winer’s original post last Tuesday. I was pissed off then, thinking about the good faith, if necessarily flawed, attempts I’d made over the years trying to figure something out on the fly by asking smarter, better informed people about it. Press interviews can take any number of forms, but they are also one of the fundamental tools out there to keep information flowing in a democracy. Even the face time (as we saw in McChrystal story) is often necessary, not Kabuki theater, as David Carr, a great reporter (who relies on sources all the time) chimed in on Twitter. Did he read the post?

But I waited, and my initial anger faded…even more so after I heard Winer talking about his post with Jay Rosen on Rebooting the News. On radio, Winer was less absolutist, less bitter, and I remembered as I listened that the written blog platform….and maybe my beloved Twitter too…have inherited from the news business a tendency toward sensationalism. “Some journalists” become “Almost all journalists…” Or maybe, he just needs an editor? Or maybe the point is the provocation? It is the right time, place, and platform to shake things up.

And indeed, the final revealing tidbit in all this is how, in the end, I wound up writing this post. I saw this Jay Rosen tweet last night, saying it was time to put a fork in the journos v bloggers debate, as referenced to a Joe Klein-Glenn Greenwald spat. (actually they are both both…). I responded with a dig at his “buddy” Winer. Two tweets later the protoblogger was encouraging this distracted hack to blog about it. That was last night. Maybe I ought to call him now….to ask out about the programming parameters necessary to keep my thoughts below 500 words/24 hours…or at least to drop this far-too-heavy hyperlink in his Twitter stream.

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Hungry Hacks & Eager Entrepreneurs: The Art of Knocking on Doors and Other Mild Forms of Harrassment

Being a reporter is life training, if by ‘life’ we mean testing the extremes of clinical Attention Deficit Disorder (versatility!?… horizontal knowledge??), learning the art of the linguistic bluff  (write it with authority, son!), and harassing perfect strangers (that’s called: source building).

While I was born with more than enough of those first two traits, I’ve had to work over the years at acquiring the third. I gaze with envy at my hack colleagues who find real joy in the around-the-clock hounding of those with power and knowledge and potential skeletons-in-closets.

No, I am not the steamroller, take-no-prisoners, just pick-up-the-damn-phone type. Still, I figured out early that the fruit of that perennial chase is the basic currency in which the news business trades. And if I wanted to participate/succeed in any meaningful way, I would have to take up the hunt.

Just how to go about it is more art than science, and depends on the nature of the hunter. I’ve always looked at it as the search for the sweet spot between insistence and politeness, patience and impatience, creative thinking and single-minded stubbornness. Oh, and luck too. When it works, it can net some timely scoops, and exclusives that make up for all the humiliating phone calls and ignored emails;  and yet there are just as many occasions when the best intentions and foresight are useless if the stars line up against you.

Now, 20 years later, trying to get my news startup off the ground, I am benefited by the acquired skills at knocking on all the right doors with all the right techniques. Who is THE person I must talk to? How do I get to him or her? And since plan A often fizzles, how do you maintain the momentum of the pursuit over the course of the day or week…or even months…when no one seems to be taking your calls?

Now, rather than sources or some prized VIP interview, the targets of my attention are colleagues, media executives, all-around smart people, possible funders and potential business partners. Whereas agreeing to talk to a reporter working on a story has a rather obvious up side or down side, often the people I have tried to track down over the past year face both less risk and less payoff  in taking time out of their busy schedule to hear me out.

It’s very clear, in other words, that it’s me who needs them more than they need me. Hopefully the moment will arrive that both investors and partners — and employees — will see how I can help them too!?

But at the start of the startup, after 10 months of knocking on doors (and 20 years as a reporter), here’s a quick list of what I will politely call my hounding techniques…

1. Try to get an introduction, or at least a name you can cite as a reference.

2. Try to find out (or guess, if you have to)  if the best first contact should be by email or phone. These days it’s almost always email. (Note: Facebook/Twitter/Skype Chat/Etc are not good alternatives.)

3. If it’s email, your first follow-up should be email. If it’s phone, your first follow-up should also be email.

4. Edit down. Be brief in all correspondences.

5. If you haven’t heard back in a while, and you are just dying to follow-up, it’s probably worth it to wait two more days. But no more than that.

6. Be friendly with assistants, secretaries, spouses to increase likelihood that your messages are put on top of the pile.

7. Once they do respond, be utterly flexible about when and where to meet or call.

8. Follow up with a brief thank-you email that finishes with the ball continuing to move forward — though not a new favor to ask or appointment to fix.

9. Don’t be afraid to show you have just a touch of humor/irony (if you do. do you…???). Nevermind. Keep it straight.

10. Know when it’s time to quit/Never Quit. If someone is simply not responding after four or five inquiries (even if they initially seemed interested) let it go. For now. And never sign off with nastiness or burn bridges… for they may yet come around.

Remember that any help you get is gravy. Be grateful for everything. And then some day, it’ll be your turn to do the helping. In life…In news…In business…. Karma counts.

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Pardon the Disruption: What My News Startup Does NOT Aim To Disrupt

The go-for-the-jugular ambition of the good folk at Publish2 is inspiring. It is also a bit scary to see a 10-person startup try to take on/take DOWN the Associated Press… for what it says about how broken the news business is, how hard it will be to fix it and…what happens in the meantime. As a former AP correspondent in Rome, who stills follows the Vatican beat, I have watched my wire service colleagues’ outstanding work on the current Catholic priest sex abuse saga, breaking stories (here, here, here) in the past couple of months that bloggers or freelancers simply don’t have the resources or wherewithal to pull off in the kind of ongoing way as a crucial, far-flung story like this requires.

But none of that means that the AP is not vulnerable to assault. And if it vanishes, no one knows if/how Publish2 or anyone else will be able to substitute the work it does, and cover the ground it covers. For the second time in this space I refer to Clay Shirky’s ominous dictum about the prevalence of failure on both sides of the disruption divide in remaking the world of information/communication in our digital age.

But if the prospect of potential (or even likely) failure were ever to clip our ambitions, there would be no success worth achieving. So upward/onward for us all: hungry beat reporters and upstart news entrepreneurs alike. No one at Publish2 should scale back their goals, or somehow soften their direct, name-your-prey approach. Aiming high, and aiming straight is good for rallying the troops, making some waves, and of course, er…WORLD DOMINATION!

My question is about the fixation with the conception of disruption that often drives the New Media discussion. Though my sights are set pretty damn high as well…what I hope to create does not aim to actually disrupt any fundamental component of the news business. Indeed, it is conceived of as a boost to those currently hanging for dear life on around the world. This doesn’t mean that it’s not new, or innovative, or might even change the way people think about and consume foreign news. Moreover, if it works, some people might lose their jobs, and others might find new ones. It’s also worth confirming that both in my old and new lives, I have run into resistance from established forces of the news business, and so I know that there is indeed much that needs disruption…and in some cases, outright destruction.

But perhaps part of the what the news business needs now are ideas, mechanisms, products that help what has long existed better do its work and spread its product….and repair the bottom line. I am well aware that I say this, because this it what my product would do. But I also believe it is true– even a full year after having sipped the New Media Kool-aid. (DISCLAIMER/APOLOGY: I am still a couple of months from taking the details of my project public, and my decision to hold off on saying just what it is has slowed down this blog a bit, as a result. Despite the urgings of my astronaut soon-to-be brother-in-law “Go live, man. Go live!” I’m still holding off, lining up those ducks.  Soon…I promise!)

As we move toward what is coming, there will be some essential disruptions. There will also be stalling the inevitable, crutches and life support pulled out, sucking up resources. But there is also room for bridges, new networks for old players. This may be a failure of imagination on my part to grasp how much will change, but I am convinced that filters, brands, organizations…and yes, reporters and editors…are as important as ever in helping consumers of news get what they need.

I have a friend who is a successful airline industry consultant whose business booms when his clients are struggling. Indeed he once told me that a true, sustainable business model for air travel may not really exist. But that doesn’t stand in the way of lots of people and companies all along the food chain getting paid. In the meantime, the people get transported in a more or less sufficient manner.

Might we carry that analogy over to the news business? At least for the next 20-50 years!? Be just disruptive enough to make a decent living by continuing to do what we love doing. Spend as little time/energy navigating those burdened by salvaging what ought to be abandoned. And maybe have a small seat at the big table where the world of information is changing forever. This is my ambition.

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TIME Casualties, Newsweek Funerals & New Startup Biz Models. Revenue Before Branding

The dire straits of Newsweek is a grim, though hardly surprising, development. Neither as a longtime Time magazine guy nor current New Media wannabe dude does the prospect that this historic brand might vanish offer me any satisfaction whatsoever. Those dancing on graves reveal more about themselves than they do about either the deceased or the reasons for the demise. That a chunk of the old stuff is bound to fail/disappear is by now a given, and all the victory shouts and schadenfreude is just the shit talking of middle school playgrounds. Indeed as Clay Shirky has pointed out, failure is one basic fact that unites the MSM with the would-be new stuff.

So what do the current predicaments of Time and Newsweek tell me — downsized Time foreign staffer, current Time (and Time.com) contributor — about getting my startup up and started? It is clear that both these weekly print/digital brands and potential real-time vessels still carry weight with the general public. It is also clear that the management no longer sees the value in staffing the world like they once did. On good days, you can see that the Brand + the DNA of the institution + the network of collaborators can still turn out some pretty great and sellable stuff ….on bad days, they’re running on fumes.

There is a fine line where a quick dot.com piece  can start to look like a mediocre blog post, where a decent dot.com piece is “repackaged” for print, and doesn’t quite cut it. And then, with a mix of insight, pavement-pounding and a nose for the zeitgeist, a colleague can tell us who we are as a society — and it both sparkles as the print cover and finds weeks-long legs on the web.

But we are still left wondering what the future will ultimately be of a “respected global news brand” that is not committed to investing in the production of first-hand, on-the-ground reporting. These are innately national/international publications that don’t have the option like the LA Times or Chicago Tribune to retrench geographically and focus on local news for its local reader base.

Still, as always, we’re talkin’ about a revolution, and I have (by choice/necessity) thrown myself into it, unburdening my brain matter with trying to hold on to the past. It helps to imagine old brands in new ways. And in turn, imagine my own project in new ways, with new models, almost every day. Both Time and Newsweek could potentially evolve into content-distribution vessels, portals, brands that acquire their content from others. And I’m not talking just single freelancers, but companies in the business of offering a consistent, tailored stream of content to those who have the brand/audience that can sustain it.

Maybe there’s terrain to be exploited on the continuum between the Ny Times and Yahoo news? And without staffs, but WITH coming paywalls/iPads, etc, there will be a need for quality content. And that’s where lately I’ve begun to see the business model for the launch of my own project. That may be what globalpost may be pivoting toward, with a series of partnerships at least as impressive as its unique viewers growth.

The urgency to discover business models in itself will help drive the evolution of the way news is produced. That of course goes for Demand News consciously downgraded quantity-over-quality, but should also be the case for those of us who want to offer something better to readers. Frédéric Filloux, as always, boils it down nicely in his most recent Monday Note. A believer in new technology, an incisive (and entertaining) critic of the serial mistakes of legacy news, the former editor of the French daily Liberation still believes that “professionalism” matters…and has value.

Two conversations I have had in the past two weeks: one with another MSM dude breaking off and doing his own thing, the other with a European internet executive (hopefully I will have more to tell about her in coming weeks…) have convinced me that the business model must begin with what is generically called ‘B2B’, that is, selling our product directly to other businesses, in our case, other major brands or web portals. In France, they call it an agence, which is an all-encompassing term that includes the wires (AFP), but also smaller content providers. In the new digital world, it can mean many things.

If we do pursue this course, it would mean a shift of focus from mass branding to targeted selling. I have no preconception of what the business must look like: I just want it to work, survive, thrive…If content is King, selling it is the crown (the power), and brand is the castle. Nice to have all the elements, but maybe it is no longer necessary? And here in Europe, we know that some castles without kings are nice to look at, others simply disappear into history…

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The Prototype is Done. Now What? Newsman Must Become Salesman

For about six weeks late last year, I was wavering over a single question: Prototype or No Prototype?Several smart people told me there was no need: if you’ve got a business plan (I did), and can describe your offering in two sentences or less (I could), a prototype would be a waste of time and money. Investors and partners would join in on the merits of the idea and my own professional stock.

If your news venture is a one-man or one-woman blog, or other solo operation, you don’t have this dilemma. you just build the thing and get to work. But my thing, if done correctly, needs some personpower, and thus some funding. So another way of posing the same question was Pause for Prototype or Forge Ahead with Fundraising?

I chose the former, and was lucky enough to find Annie and Gianluca, a kick ass Danish-Italian designer/programmer team in Rome. Jumping into the prototype adventure meant having to resist calling up potential funders and partners who I stumbled on in the meantime, as I wanted to wait to show (off!) the prototype before they gave their thumbs up or down. But I can hardly call these past three-plus months a “delay.” First is the prototype itself, which not only will pitch the project better than my words or any powerpoint presentation could, but will also be the actual building block (in both design and functionality) from which the actual site can launch. My new biz-tech partner Jed (more to come on him soon!) just confirmed that.

But just as importantly, as I look back to January, I know that the DNA of the project has continued to evolve in the right direction, in part because of the sweat we have put into this mini project within the project. This is that fantastic new verb I first learned at LeWeb back in December: bootstrapping. Any American, would-be startup dude or otherwise, knows immediately what this means.

So what now? Well, er, umm…it’s showtime. I’ve been pitching the project in one form or another, to all sorts of folk for almost a year. But the pitch was always open-ended: What do you think? What’s your advice? Now it’s: Please join us…

Here are quick thoughts for three different categories of folk I hope to meet, which no doubt will change once we begin…

MEDIA PARTNERS: I am solving a problem for them. I understand their predicament. I know their needs and their audience. The fundamental challenge will be to get some form of commitment — even if I involves no real time or money right now — from an industry in total crisis.

FUNDERS: There will be two types of potential funders: those interested in the journalism for the journalism’s sake, and those who want to see real return on their investment. Our pitch may be tweaked to some degree depending on who we have in front of us, but ultimately we must show that our project is both a response to the crisis in the news business…and something more than just a purely journalistic endeavor. I guess we call it: New Media. There is also always going to be crossover: even the lets-save-journalism types don’t want to throw their money away, and the most bottom-line investor won’t be talking with us if he/she doesnt have at least some interest in where the news business is heading.

HOME RUN: Before I really knew anything about all of this….like 10 months ago…I had an idea for a website. (It’s the same idea I still have, which I hopefully can share in this space in the not-so-distant future). I also thought I knew how to get it launched–and more specifically who would fund it. It was one deep-pocketed European industrialist I knew from my past life. He sent me back to the drawing board, which of course was the best thing that could have happened to me. Who knows? Maybe we will get another shot at a single solution that could leap frog the months/years of seed money, scraping by, etc… The “Walk-off home run” is what Jed calls it. But I know that if that were to happen (which I am certainly NOT counting on) Mr. Deep Pockets will be investing not only in the idea, not only in my journalistic experience and Jed’s business acumen, but in the grit and agility and waste-free, open-minded approach of two hungry, New Media Bootstrappers. How’s that for a pitch…?

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