Archive for the 'Journalism' Category

Dec 06 2014

Note to a new journalist

Published by under Journalism

Hey Kid,

I introduced myself as the “Flak” when you sat down next to me for the media dinner with the executive I was guarding. There’s no use in glossing over the word “flak” with an excrementitious title like “Vice President of Brand Marketing.” I know what you think about 50-something ex-reporters like me who turn into corporate whores. I thought the same thing about them in my 20s. They were the middle-aged burn outs who couldn’t hack a mortgage and college tuition on the thin gruel of an editorial salary; Quislings who betray their knowledge of the secret rituals of a newsroom with them to the executive suite and whisper them into the ears of CEOs, divulging the the secrets of manipulating the press with Jedi mind tricks.

Flak. Mouthpiece. PR professional. What became of old reporters in the early 20th century before Edward Bernays adopted the psychological tricks of his father-in-law, Sigmund Freud, and persuaded the people of America that their weekly Saturday night bath wasn’t enough to prevent them from smelling and in the process sold a lot more soap for his clients at Listerine, the brand that made the word “Halitosis” a nightmare of every Babbitt and Dale Carnegie in the 1920s; thus inventing the art of Public Relations? Did those old hacks suddenly turn into Sidney Falco in The Sweet Smell of Success, going from the hustle of the newsroom and barking “Get me rewrite!” into pay phones, to whispering night club calumnies into the ears of whatever J.J. Hunsecker they doted and depended on?

I know you wonder if that’s the fate that awaits you on your reporter’s road. I wondered about it too. I knew then that people like me didn’t especially like me, or thought my insights were as brilliant as they pretended. I knew my twenty-something powers and influence were vested in the names of the newspapers and magazines I worked for and not my sparkling words or probing mind. A week after I hit the big time and started working for Forbes I reached the chairman of General Motors five minutes after calling the generic switchboard of the company’s Detroit headquarters. He took a call from Forbes. Not from Churbuck.

Your enthusiasm for your beat was like a tonic. “I’d have hired this kid,” I thought as your eyes lit up talking about hackers and botnets and the seamy underside of the Internet. I chased that beat once. It’s fun. It’s challenging. It can make a career. Ask Adam Penenberg.

I asked you about life in a modern Internet newsroom. About the Buzzfeed-ification of the press. Of Nick Denton’s focus on dashboards and traffic. Of your need to not only report the news, check the facts, write the words, but also distribute it — like a digital newsboy — tweeting and “plus-oneing” and cross-linking and  hoping you found the magic combination of keywords and techniques to make Google love your post.

Then you spoke about your influence and the challenge of getting someone at Google to talk to you. “It’s about my audience,” you said. The numbers. The bigger the numbers, the more the influence.”  I couldn’t tell if you were resentful of the old media cows and their 100-year brands, inferring I rather be talking to some old reporter from the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal than a bright guy from Techcrunch or GigaOm. So I probed with a question, begging forgiveness before asking it: “Would you rather be where you are, in the new world working with an awesome content management system, in a hot, hip newsroom. Or would you rather be working that beat for the New York Times?”

You were honest. You picked the Times. I didn’t feel vindicated, only sad that you would probably not have the experience of walking through an airport and seeing your story on the cover of Fortune or Forbes, sitting there for the world to see and read for a week or two. Wistful that your best efforts, doubtlessly as good as mine back when, would slip down the river of news into the memory of the Google. That you knew sticking a numeral in a headline made it perform better than one that didn’t. That no one would give you two months to develop a 10,000 word monster of a story that would make headlines of its own.

It must be grueling. We talked about fact-checking, holding back when there were doubts about the facts, about the shame Newsweek felt when it identified the wrong inventor of BitCoin….the fast twitch Adderal-fueled news cycle where any flak like me can claim to be a Forbes contributor thanks to a new model where any semi-literate can build their Klout score by submitting drek to their LinkedIn feed.

It was edifying for me and I wanted to tell you to take a second to appreciate your beat and to soak it all in. That you were doing what every new generation needs to do, inventing the new way, the new methods and models.

Yes, I’m a flak now. I walked away from the newsroom in 1995 when I filed my last print piece on the retirement of Bill Ziff for Forbes in the twilight of his brilliant career, a long, thoughtful and emotional piece (at least the first version was) where he said from the wisdom of his years, “Business saved me from a life of abstraction.”

I’m not sure what those words really meant — I think it was a comment on how the death of his father while he was a student studying abstract philosophy in Germany pulled him out of academia and into the hurly-burly world of New York publishing — but, like my other mentor, Jim Michaels, who pressed into my hands a VHS tape of George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara just to hear Undershaft the arms merchant’s defense of profit and progress,  they were passing on a torch and understood that the raw talent and energy of a twenty-five year old is a very short walk away from taking on the same solemn responsibility to do the same with the next generation.

The trick is not to be portentous about it, because nothing is worst than bad advice delivered under the veil of earned wisdom.

I wish I could offer encouraging words about the future of journalism, but it’s no less under-appreciated and challenging than it was in 1980 when I wrote my first piece (on a sewer bond hearing which my editor cut in half and said, “Don’t cry kid. This isn’t a short story about granny’s funeral you know.”). And I hope it is every bit as weird and fun as it was for me — there’s no better place I can think of than a newsroom on a good news day for, as General Gavin said to the nervous paratrooper approaching the drop-zone over Normandy  on D-Day: “Buck up son. Don’t be nervous. Don’t you like jumping out of airplanes?” And the soldier said, “No sir, I don’t. But I like hanging around guys who do.”

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I walked past the first offices of Forbes.com the next morning, the entrance to 85 Fifth Avenue where a couple dozen of us in 1995 made up a new medium through trial and error. We knew it was likely going to be the so-called best years of our lives and thankfully we had the energy of our youth to pull through late nights of hard work and even harder play. The names that passed through that drab open newsroom on the second floor on Fifth Ave. went on to do even more marvelous things. We were you once and now you are us. Good luck. You will walk by that Tribeca loft in thirty years, look up and remember when the tidal wave crested and carried you onwards. And don’t worry about being a flak, it’s actually a ton of fun. Trust me.

 

 

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Nov 16 2014

The Map Thief: in the stacks of Sterling

The time came in college where I had to foot the bill and as part of my tuition plan I needed to work a campus job. The usual scholarship gig was washing dishes in the dining hall — one of those hair-netted jobs that seemed embarrassing because you cleaned up after your friends, but when I went to the campus employment agency to fill out a form I happened to be there as a courtly looking professor kind of man was posting a job in the Sterling Memorial Library’s print shop for a printer’s devil.

I interrupted his conversation with the clerk and introduced myself. He was Professor Dale Roylance, the curator of the library’s typography collection and its Arts of the Book department, a room on the ground floor that displayed the art and science of typography from Gutenberg through the modern era. He questioned my qualifications, he was looking for an experienced printer’s devil with some time in one of the many letterpresses around the residential colleges; and realizing there was no bullshitting the man I was honest and admitted to having no experience or even interest in bibliography and letterpresses. I was a writer and wanted to experience the mechanics of book making first hand and appreciated the craft from having run my high school newspaper and the agony of producing that every week. He was skeptical, but agreed to give me a chance. He warned me the work was tedious and messy — largely consisting of cleaning up after him, wiping up ink, cleaning platens, and putting type back in its proper cases.  He’d teach me anything I wanted to learn, but only after I took care of the boxes of scrambled or “pi’d” type and various chores such as cutting mats for  exhibits, and being his errand boy around the other presses on campus.

Every afternoon from one to three, I’d walk to the library, step behind the main library call desk, walk down stairs to the vast basement and unlock the door to the Yale Bibliographic Press. On the main bench would be a list of things Professor Roylance wanted done.  Go crosstown to the plate maker and pick up some copper engravings. Un-ink and then unlock two chases — the iron rectangles where the type was set, spaced and locked down with quoins — and return the type to the right job box. Set and print six copies of the new library hours and mount in the wrought iron frames at the entrances. Run over to the Beinecke Rare Book Library and get a few rare botanical woodcuts for some forthcoming exhibit. Pop up to the fifth floor map collection and ask the curator for a list of maps for a forthcoming exhibition on Colonial cartography.

I’d turn on the campus FM radio station and play jazz in the subterranean  press room while I put on an apron, folded a sheet of the New Haven Register into a pressman’s cap, and pushed around a pushbroom for a while. The press had to be kept clean. Dust ruined print runs and Roylance was a little OCD — which I came to learn was a requisite character trait in a good printer. The worst part of the job was breaking down the chases he’d left behind — he was nearly never there when I was there, preferring long lunches at the Faculty Club to managing me — full pages of type for some special project he was working on. Type setting (and un-setting) is done using a wooden tray criss-crossed with dividers known as a California job box. This is like a QWERTY keyboard of sorts — every letter had its own special compartment, and each box comprised the totality of that type face in one specific point size. The Bibliographic had full sets of Times New Roman, Goudy, Baskerville and Garamond in every size from 6 to 96 point in bold as well as italic versions. There were other fonts as well, but just the main four typefaces occupied a huge storage space, each job box weighing over 25 pounds.

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The brilliance of the job box was the size of each letter’s compartment was proportional to the frequency of each letter’s use in the English language. Hence “E” had the biggest compartment and “Q” one of the smallest. One learns to “touch-type” and work a case without looking at it, and with practice the task of returning type to the box gets fairly automated. Setting type, the act of composing a line of text, was far more fun and challenging. A tool called a “composing stick” is used, set to the appropriate width of the text and held in one hand while the other hunts through the job box for the next letter or spacer.

Composing backwards and upside down takes some getting used to, and I was slow and sloppy with my leading, hyphenation and never had the patience to do justified margins.

There were three presses in the Bibliographic Press, but the prize was the 1830-era Albion drop press. I loved that press. It was one of the old Benjamin Franklin style presses, with a big lever one would grab with both hands and swing to drop the platen and make the impression. This is the Albion from the Bibliongraphic Press. It’s since been pulled out of the basement and put on display. I worshiped this thing.

albionpressWhile placards and exhibit note cards were the stuff I was mainly asked to print, occasionally Professor Roylance would pop in and teach me some new aspect of the craft. One month he taught me how to make marbled end papers, a cool process like a Grateful Dead light show at the Fillmore where a solution is prepared, inks are “floated” and swirled into amazing patterns, and a sheet of paper is pulled up  to lift the inks from the carrying solution. I remember the recipe called for carrageenan, a gelatin derived from a particular kind of Irish seaweed. Roylance also taught me binding, leather work, embossing, the fine points of spacing and of course the amazing glossary of specialized terms known to printers as part of the craft.

The library became a home – a monastery away from classes, my social life, my daily rowing practices. It was one of three jobs I held down. The first was delivering the New York Times every morning to 300 campus subscribers — a dark o’clock job that involved running up  lots of dorm stairs on the eastern side of the campus and which got me warmed up for the morning crew practice at the Payne-Whitney gymnasium where running a dozen flights of stairs a dozen times every day was the worst part of the off-season training regimen. In the evening, after the crew team returned from Derby and the Housatonic Rover, I’d put in two hours at the Chapel Street Wine Shop, delivering kegs of beer around campus in the store’s incredibly abused delivery van (more running of stairs, only this time with full kegs of Heineken or Michelob). But the library was the best.  It smelled … like a grandfather.  It was an amazing stack of precious knowledge made even more cool by the glowing alabaster walls of the Beinecke Rare Book library, a cube rumored to have a Halon fire extinguisher system that could suck all the oxygen out, kill the patrons and staff, but save the rarest books on the planet. Walking past a Gutenberg bible, getting to hold the original palimpsest of Lord Jim with Conrad’s corrections and notes, checking out Captain John Smith of Virginia’s map of the New England coast — the same map he gave to Prince Charles to do the honors of naming the places on it (hence the future King named the Charles River after himself). Beinecke was the library to end all libraries, but Sterling was my favorite.

The library was, for me, the best part of the last Indiana Jones movie. Sterling is the setting of the end of the motorcycle chase through the Yale campus at the 2:44 mark.

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Cartography was, and still is, a happy thing for me, especially staring at antique nautical charts. One of the best classes I took in college was taught in the Sterling Memorial Library’s map collection by the map collection curator, Alexander Vietor. The only assignment I remember was to use the university’s computer lab to develop a computer generated map using quantitative inputs. The whole thing was done on punch cards which were submitted for a batch processing run and then output onto a big graphics plotter. I did a map of New England ports with each proportionally sized according to the numbers of barrels of whale oil landed in each in 1824. Between that class and my daily duties in the press, I got to handle some amazing maps, stuff that has come back to the public consciousness thanks to E. Forbes Smiley — the map thief chronicled in an excellent book published last spring by a Boston author, Michael Blanding: The Map Thief: The Gripping Story of an Esteemed Rare-Map Dealer Who Made Millions Stealing Priceless Maps.

E. Forbes Smiley III was a well known dealer in rare maps who served a select set of private collectors (one of whom, Norman B. Leventhal, owns some homes here in Cotuit and donated his collection to the Boston Public Library). Smiley, an over-extended, suave self-taught expert in colonial American maps, resorted to theft from a half-dozen university libraries, stealing hundreds of one-of-a-kind maps over the years by simply ripping them out of atlases. His undoing was when he dropped an X-Acto knife on the rug at the Beinecke in 2004 and was arrested and investigated by the FBI. His impact on Yale, Harvard, the New York and Boston Public Libraries is incalculable. I read the book with keen interest, realizing I had personally handled some of the materials Smiley stole. There were a lot of scholars and collectors who passed through the Sterling and Beinecke stacks in the late 70s when I was a student at Yale and Smiley was still a student at Hampshire College. Some wealthy student bibliophiles were renowned for their dorm room collections.  One, the scion of a Manhattan real estate empire, was operating a thriving business on campus as an undergrad, and another went on to be Smiley’s more vocal critic, W. Graham Arader III, who was dealing rare maps from a Yale dorm room during my time in New Haven. The New York Times said of Arader at the time of Smiley’s arrest: “At Yale, he [Arader] said, he focused on “blondes and squash,” but became interested in maps after he met Alexander Orr Vietor, the curator of Yale’s map collection. Before long, Mr. Arader was selling maps from his dormitory room. “I love maps, and when you get hooked, you get hooked,” he said.

I was hooked but more on the book making side of things and less on collecting stuff. After all I was paying my through school and my earnings from the library went right to the bursar to off-set my tuition. My masterpiece was the printing of a full chapter of Moby Dick — Chapter 23, “The Lee Shore” — made famous in the great baseball novel, The Art of Fielding. After graduation, when I applied for a internship at the Boston publishing house of David Godine (publisher of Andre Dubus among others), Godine himself, a bit of a prickly man, was ready to blow me off as just another Yale grad dishwasher looking for a publishing job when I pulled my manuscript out and handed it over for his inspection. He pulled out a loupe and started examining my kerning and inking very carefully, criticizing the descenders on my “P’s” and generally ripping apart my work before looking up, smiling and saying, “I started out with a letterpress in my barn. It gets in your blood. The ink I mean. Doesn’t it?” I landed  the internship (unpaid of course) but the best memory of my eleemosonary employment at Godine was when he handed back the Melville manuscript and told me it was “nice work.”

It’s sad what Smiley did to some irreplaceable maps but he also changed the way libraries operate and from the book’s account, ruined forever a sense of trust they had in the scholars who depend on them.  Extensive security, new rules, and a general climate of mistrust has crept in behind the damage Smiley’s done. Whatever undergrad is lucky enough be the Sterling Memorial Library’s printer devil probably doesn’t get the keys to the kingdom like I felt I had.

I offer this because I started musing about my career in “content management” and my place as the last of the “typewriter generation” — those 50-somethings who didn’t have computers in college but did their work on Olivettis, Smith Coronas and IBM Selectrics. As I finished my first novel the final semester of my senior year (unpublished but proudly sitting on a shelf in the Scholar of the House collection inside the Sterling), the college’s Scholar of the House program arranged for me to hire a professional typist to produce the final manuscript. Due to the deadline I would drive to her home in Orange, Connecticut and spend hours transcribing onto her new Wang word processor, the first of it’s kind with big floppy discs the size of album covers. Those green letters on the black screen. The ability to move paragraphs, to cut and paste …. it marked the beginning of three decades working with words on computers. That summer, as a cub reporter at the Cape Cod Times, I worked on a typewriter, glued my pages together with a pot of rubber cement, and moved stuff around by cutting it out with scissors and pasting it back manually. By the end of the summer the Times was going computerized, and at my next newspaper job at the Lawrence Eagle Tribune I worked at a Hastech terminal, and was given a Tandy T100 with rubber suction cup modem for filing from the State House press room on Beacon Hill at 300bps. I haven’t seen a typewriter, let alone an Albion drop press and California job box since. Now I’m all about cloud-hosted Drupal and “content.” Somehow I don’t imagine anyone who has ever set a page of type by hand has ever called the result a piece of “content.”

 

 

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Mar 20 2014

Remembering Pat McGovern

“Boston, MA – March 20, 2014 – International Data Group IDG announced today with great sadness that its Founder and Chairman, Patrick J. McGovern, died March 19, 2014, at Stanford Hospital in Palo Alto, California.”

via Remembering Pat McGovern | IDG.com.

I worked for Pat McGovern for eight months in 2005 when I was running online at CXO — the branch of IDG publishing that published CIO, CSO, CMO Magazines. I competed against his publications in the early 80s when I worked for PC Week, the arch-rival of IDG’s InfoWorld.

There are going to be a ton of Pat McGovern stories told over the next few days. Here’s mine.

While Pat was a lion in technology publishing he was also one of the first and most influential western businessmen to operate in the People’s Republic of China.  His presence in China, his reputation there to this very day, is legendary and made him the most well known and respected Westerner sin the Chinese tech sector. His VC investments in the likes of Baidu were early and massive successes. The man even spoke Mandarin.

During the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics I was surprised to find myself riding in the back of a bus with Pat on our way to a private dinner with Lenovo’s senior executives and some heavy hitting senior execs from Qualcomm, Google, Microsoft, Intel, AMD, etc.. I saw him sitting alone in the back of the bus, so I sat down beside him and started chatting him up, thanking him for the opportunity to briefly work for him before quitting to join Lenovo. He was legendary for his photographic memory and immediately made the connection and started peppering me with questions.

As the bus crawled through traffic it was apparent that most everybody sitting within six rows of us was eaves-dropping on the conversation, most of them unaware of who Pat was. He was a big man but a soft spoken one; not at all brash or loud.  So I introduced him around  to the people in the adjacent seats as the first Westerner to do business in Communist China, well before Deng’s market reforms that led to “capitalism with Chinese characteristics” and unlocked the Chinese growth we marvel at today. I urged Pat to tell the bus the story of how he infiltrated China in the 1970s. The story went roughly like this: Pat was on a flight from Japan to Russia and figured out he could make a “connection” in Beijing. This is back in the era of Nixon-Mao and PingPong diplomacy. Let’s just say there were no princelings drag racing Ferrari’s around the third ring road back then. Anyway, the plane lands, Pat looks out the window, amazed he’s this close to the mysterious closed country. So he gets off the plane. The plane leaves without him. The Red Guard are confronted with this American standing in their airport essentially saying “Take me to your leader.”

Pat humbly regaled the bus for 30 minutes with the story of how he invaded China, set up the first Chinese tech publications, and earned the trust and respect of the Chinese government. When we arrived at the restaurant it was my Chinese colleagues who really lit up at the sight of him, hustling him away to a place of honor next to the chairman and CEO of Lenovo as befitted the father of Chinese computer journalism.

He was a genuinely great man. Here’s his story of how he entered China as captured in the official IDG oral history:

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Jan 19 2014

Local community networks – Nextdoor trial for Cotuit

The “local” internet has been a tough nut to crack for publishers, community groups, towns, bloggers, etc.. Lots of local groups and institutions have created their own online presence, discussion forums, email mailing lists, but no great solution has emerged to allow neighbors to connect with neighbors (that assumes neighbors even want to talk to their neighbors in this era of “bowling alone”).

Civic groups have long provided an online meeting place or hub for themselves and their agenda. My Cape Cod village of Cotuit is served by:

  • the website of the Town of Barnstable (Cotuit is one of seven villages in the town)
  • a Barnstable sponsored issue forum provided by a third-party vendor, called iForum
  • the website of the Cotuit-Santuit Civic Association; a community organization
  • the website of the Cotuit Fire District, the official governing body of the village’s fire and water departments as well as its prudential committee which oversees budgets and infrastructure like the village meeting house — Freedom Hall — and other essentials like street lights.
  • and a ton of other group pages for the Cotuit Library, the Cotuit Center for the Arts, the Historical Society, the Cotuit Athletic Association (sponsors of the Cotuit Kettleers baseball team), the Cahoon Museum, the Cotuit Mosquito Yacht Club .,… and on and on.

There’s no umbrella site like a “Cotuit.com” — no digital hub — there may be a Cotuit Facebook page (I don’t use Facebook). I know there is a Wikipedia page.  Something may be missing. The online equivalent of the bulletin boards inside of the library and the post office and outside of the the Kettle Ho and the Coop — a place where there’s a master calendar of events, contact information, a place for neighbors to offer stuff for free or for sale, discuss crime issues in the neighborhood, etc. etc.

The Cape Cod Times doesn’t really have a Cotuit specific area, and they have a subscription model. The weekly paper, the Barnstable Patriot, occasionally covers Cotuit. There is a Patch.com site for Barnstable-Hyannis.

I don’t know, the digital needs of Cotuit may be very well served. But in my new job as editor in chief of an internet yellow pages company started in the UK called hibu, I’m looking very closely at the digital tools and services for local merchants and consumers.

One solution I am looking at is called Nextdoor, an online tool that allows neighbors — not politicians or officials — to define their neighborhood, invite in members, and create a shared space for documents, events, classifieds, etc. The various groups in a neighborhood can have their own Nextdoor group, and one neighbor can invite another via email into the perimeters of the neighborhood. I don’t see this as a replacement for say the Historical Society’s website, but a common place that the members of the society could promote their calendar of events, and drive traffic to their own online destination.

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I started the Cotuit neighborhood on Nextdoor last week and  spammed about 50 people in my Gmail address book with invites to join, 2o+ have accepted. The library has already posted a Valentine’s Day event, so there are already early signs of life.

We’ll see how it goes. I DO NOT want to be the administrator of the thing, and was pleased to see as members I invite accept, they in turn can invite others.

So far I see no advertising and so I don’t understand Nextdoor’s business model. They are a venture capital darling, have a lot of investment and high growth numbers.

If you want an invite, send me a mail to david AT churbuck DOT com. You need to have an address inside of Cotuit  village (not Santuit, I left that alone for some Santuit resident to create a second neighborhood — Nextdoor seems to allow adjacent neighborhoods to cross over).

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Jan 17 2014

The real unsung heros of Forbes.com

Published by under General,Journalism

Adam “Shattered Glass” Penenberg, one of the original writers at Forbes.com in the mid-90s, yesterday said I was the “unsung hero” who had the vision that eventually became the business news behemoth Forbes is today.

Whatever. It was more of a case of being in the right place at the right time and being the first to raise my hand. I’m flattered and I share Adam’s opinion that we didn’t know what we were doing, we ran the Digital Tool as pirate ship, and had a one-in-a-lifetime experience experimenting with online journalism. He was also too modest to say he put us, and digital journalism on the map as a force to reckon with when he and Kambiz Faroohar uncovered Stephen Glass’ record of deception at the New Republic (hence the movie “Shattered Glass” that featured a very idealized concept of our rodent infested newsroom). He wrote:

“Being an online journalist 17 years ago was a bit like being stationed in Siberia. We’d publish story after story but had no idea if anyone actually read them. There was little glory in it, and print reporters looked down their noses at us, viewing us as a marauding band of upstarts who couldn’t possibly have their skills and ability. Nevertheless, we persisted, experimenting with form and structure, largely because there were no best practices at the time. Should we mimic print’s inverted pyramid or adopt a more conversational and informal approach? Should we write short? Medium? Long? Should we concentrate on offering “tools” like financial calculators and de-emphasize original journalism, or go all in on providing news and analysis? Over time we evolved, but in the beginning we treated the site as one grand experiment.”

Not to blush with false modesty, and not to second-guess what Forbes.com has grown into under Jim Spanfeller and Lewis D’Vorkin, but I want to say that two people are the true unsung heros behind Forbes’ high valuation as it is about to be sold by the Forbes family and Elevation partners (most likely to a foreign buyer).

CEO Tim Forbes embraced the digital future with no reservations, immersed himself in it, and knew — as clearly as Adam and Om Malik and me and everyone else involved — that one day the online version of the brand would be bigger and more valuable than the printed one. He drove us, he made it happen. He wrote the checks, put up with our shenanigans and he told the nay-sayers to shut up and get on board.

The second unsung hero was Jim Michaels, the legendary editor of the magazine, my mentor, a crabby, colorful and keen editorial genius who had our back and encouraged us to take the risks and make the mistakes that led to our success. He knew we were killing off the world he had lived in for forty years, and I hope in the years ahead I can be half as curious and accepting of the future and wrenching revolutions of new technology as he was.

As the Forbes family let’s go of their namesake,   there is a merry band of original Forbes.com alumni who should take a bow: DeWayne Martin, Om Malik, Charles Dubow, Dustin Shephard, Stacy Lu, Vicki Contavespi, our copyeditor Eve, John Moschetto, Greg Zorthian, Miguel Forbes, Michael Noer, Sabina Forbes, Stephen Johnson, David Minkin, Paul Caparotts, Nathan Washburn, Kambiz, and of course Adam. Apologies to all the others I’ve forgotten who were there at the beginning.

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Jan 09 2014

A blast from my Forbes past

I couldn’t resist feeling nostalgic for the golden era at Forbes in the late 80s when  Jim Michael and Bill Baldwin and Laury Minard were at their peak and the plague of of the Internet hadn’t yet trashed the grand old magazines of the past.

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This was my first home run, my second cover story for Forbes, one born from an offhand discussion with Sam Whitmore, my old PC Week boss, who returned from a demo of the first color copier at SIGGRAPH with a hysterical story about trying to persuade the Canon rep to scan a $20 bill.

I’ve told the back story of how the article was written, but after some searching, found a copy of the original and scanned it. Forbes never put its archive online and I figured screw it — I asked their reprint department for permission to post this and they wanted a gazillion dollars. So, in the spirit of information wants to be free, here is how I forged my paycheck on a Mac. PDF below.

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Sep 03 2013

What I’m reading, Labor Day weekend

My fellow Kettleer fan and baseball wiseman Jim D. loaned me “The Summer of Beer and Whiskey” by Edward Achorn. Faithful readers know my guilty pleasure is reading baseball books and this has been one of the best, introducing me to the history of the game in its earliest years after the Civil War, focusing on the 1883 pennant race between the St. Louis Browns and the Philadelphia Athletics. The title is appropriate. Some players were drunks, syphilitics, cheats, brawlers, racists and stars. All were colorful and all were hard men — playing barehanded, pitching until their arms could pitch no more, crashing through fences, and fighting for room to play in outfields mobbed with spectators.

The game was coming out of a low period of gambling and cheating., but showmen such as St. Louis owner Chris von der Ahe knew how to repackage the game for the working man by playing on their only day off (Sunday) and serving beer (he owned a bar and brewery). The result was the birth of the national pastime.

Second up, Alec Wilkinson writes about Cape Cod’s Great White Sharks in the September 9 issue of The New Yorker.  Shark porn is an industry unto itself, fueling the annual Shark Week, weirdness like Sharknado, and other oddities that play to whatever deep horror we have about the evils of the deep. I have a family member who has some sort of amazing Bloomberg terminal alert set to shark attacks, and not a day goes by without some forwarded link to a horror story about a decapitated abalone fisherman. Bottom line: “Don’t get out of the boat.”

Wilkinson tells the story about how Great Whites have always been around the Cape, killing a teenager in the 30s in Mattapoisett, freaking out Henry David Thoreau during his walk down the peninsula, and now coming back in droves to a diner stocked with a ton of grey seals who are booming thanks to the Marine Mammal Protection Act that made it highly illegal for commercial fishermen to keep their population down with an onboard .30-.30.

The piece focuses on the Ocearch expedition that just wrapped up its second summer off of Monomoy Island catching and tagging Great Whites aboard a specially equipped former Bering Sea crabber.  I printed out a copy from the New Yorker’s horrible digital edition and my son and I spent a happy half hour reading it together, me handing over each page to him as I finished them.

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Aug 29 2013

Cargo Cult Analytics (best thinking on big data I’ve read in a long time)

Published by under Journalism,Metrics

Former IDG colleague Matt McAllister tweeted a link to a wonderful post by Stijn Debrouwere, a Knight-Mozilla OpenNews fellow who is “loosely affiliated with the Guardian’s data science team in London.”

Debrouwere tackles the futility of newsroom analytics and measurement, something I lived at Forbes.com and IDG and then Lenovo when I ran web analytics, mainly Omniture (now Adobe) and Google Analytics. As Debrouwere sarcastically notes, putting dashboards on big flat panel screens and making them really big makes them really important. He compares media executives who cling to their dashboards to New Guinea primitives waving at the sky and waiting for the cargo to come to them the way it used to come during WW II when the US Army was fighting the war.

Some zingers from his post:

  • “If you’re like most people, you don’t stray very far from the dashboard you get when you log in. You stare and squint and hope insight will magically manifest itself.”
  • “There’s nothing like a dashboard full of data and graphs and trend lines to make us feel like grown ups. Like people who know what they’re doing. So even though we’re not getting any real use out of it, it’s addictive and we can’t stop doing it.”
  • “There’s enough social media analytics tools to merit listicles that helpfully introduce you to the top 8.”
  • “You’re supposed to put these dashboards up on a wall, on a huge plasma screen. Because of course numbers are twice as persuasive if you make them twice as big.”
  • “Metrics are for doing, not staring.”
  • “I honestly can’t recall the last time I’ve looked at our pageviews. I know it wouldn’t get me anywhere.”

http://stdout.be/2013/08/26/cargo-cult-analytics/

This Big Data thing has a lot of people confused, myself included. And for good reason. We think of this big database in the cloud, doing something so big and difficult that it requires lots and lots of processing power and a thing called “Hadoop,” watching individuals interacting like so many ants with companies and stuff in real-time like some scary NSA spooky datacenter in Utah listening to all our phone calls  (but respectful of our privacy of course), figuring out patterns and trends and opportunities and MAGICAL INSIGHTS in REAL-TIME.  So let’s get ourselves some of that there Big Data and save the company, be like Google, A/B test the shit out  of stuff, and get rid of the Highest Paid Person’s opinion, blah, blah blah…..

First, a lot of people, including me, suck at math and statistics and so we overcompensate by regarding any numbers and the word “quantitative” as mystical.  If it has a number attached to it (not an adjective) it must be important.

Second, the legends around Big Data and the magical insights they deliver to retailers are kind of cool to consider and become mythical. Target can tell when a woman is pregnant based on her shopping history. Wal-Mart figured out 80% of its store visitors turn right when they enter the store. The promise of finding one of those awesome insights is just too compelling to miss. The problem is staring at a dashboard doesn’t equate to discovering an insight. Hence a lot of us are like the Cargo Cultists.

Third, modern management is obsessed with measurement — former colleague Lew McCreary called it the Tyranny of Metrics — and the Pokemon Model of Got To Get ‘Em All applies to equating Big Data with Big Data Collection, which yields the ugly phenomenon coined by Google metrics guru Avinash Kaushik: “Data Puking.” The admonition that, “You can’t manage what you don’t measure,” has built a corporate culture more concerned with looking buttoned-up, on the ball, and obsessively accurate than being intuitive, empathetic and innovative.

I was the guy who built these dashboards, peered at them for magical insights, puked them at my bosses, and over time I started to get really cynical and put  tired old quotes pissing on measurement   into my PowerPoint presentations:

Einstein: “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

Warren Buffett:”They studied what was measurable, rather than what was meaningful” – 

I know Debrouwere’s post appealed to me because he was specifically addressing metrics in the newsroom — a place I spent most of my career. But it also struck a current chord with me because of  my work for clients, all of whom cite Big Data incessantly as a force for disruption and transformation, yet haven’t the faintest clue of how to harness it or whom the Oracle will be in their organization who will study the digital tea leaves and come up with the single “AHA!” that will make them Measurement Legends.

 

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Aug 18 2013

Blaming the blockers: What’s the future of online advertising? — Tech News and Analysis

GigaOm has published an opinion piece I wrote at the suggestion of Om Malik about the poor prospects for the present digital advertising model. I went off on a screed in my first draft against the protests of the Internet Advertising Bureau who have been attacking people like me who turn on ad-blocking software and turn off third-party tracking cookies.

http://gigaom.com/2013/08/18/blaming-the-blockers-whats-the-future-of-online-advertising/

I’ll let the column speak for itself.

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Apr 24 2013

3 Ways to Write an Annoying “ListLine”™

The recently departed Al Neuharth — the man who gave the world McJournalism when he created USA Today in 1982 — was famous in my mind for two things (no, make that three, because this is a post in part about the magic powers of “three”):

  1. Always publish the tits above the fold
  2. Bulleted lists are better than paragraphs
  3. Infographics that twist statistics and invoke the Royal We into cartoons are engaging

People love lists. Decades ago there was a bestseller entitled “The Book of Lists,” a classic toilet-side tome in many a household. There are  management books about the power of to-do lists.  I must have at least three or four list apps on my phones and tablets and PC. Most horrible is the tendency of the lower life forms in online journalism and especially digital marketing/SEO/Content marketing bloggers to use lists as linkbait. There are so many headlines about “Three Ways to Increase ROI” and “Four Ways Content Marketing Can Engage and Delight Your Customers” that I have to wonder what’s driving this obsession with numerical sequence.  I know that if I click through to actually read the stuff I’m going to read some airhead social media/digital marketing “guru’s” rehashed airheaded jargon twisted bloviations.

Working off off my feeds this morning  I found this actual set of … oh hell, let’s just call them “ListLines™“, e.g. headlines promoting lists:

  • 13 Smart Podcasts That Will Feed Your Hunger for Knowledge and Ideas
  • The 45 Best Restaurants in America (BusinessInsider is a huge fan of  ListLines™, generally cutting up the content into slideshows to pump up the pageviews). They have a daily list which is semi-useful called …..
  • Ten Things You Need To Know
  • 10 Habits of Remarkably Charismatic People
  • We Try 4 New Electric Hot Water Kettles for Coffee and Tea

The king of the numbered ListLine has to be the Content Marketing Institute, which on its home page has the following headlines, and all save one has a numeral in it:

  • 4 Truths About Content Marketing Clients
  • 6 Tips to Start Creating Content on Tumblr
  • 3 Tips for More Effective Content Marketing Visuals
  • 9 Questions to Help You Prioritize Content Creation
  • 12 Roles Essential to the Future of Content Marketing
  • Thought Leadership Strategy: 3 Ways to Leverage Live Event Content
  • 3 Tips for Keeping Your Buyer Personas Fresh and Alive
  • How Enterprises Handle B2B Content: 6 Key Insights From Our Research

McKinsey, the organization that lives on PowerPoint, had an unofficial Rule of Threes during my short stint– as in no slide should have more than three bullet points on it because that was all the typical audience member could hold in their head during the time it took the expensive consultant to present the slide. McKinsey was into numerology in general and the place should have had the Pareto Principle inscribed over the door as its motto (the “80/20″ rule). I admit I stick to the Rule of Threes to this day.

My theory about the abuse of the numbered list in online headlines is the corruption of editorial good sense by the scuzzy underworld of Search Engine Optimization and the Tyranny of Metrics. Let’s turn to the experts at the Content Marketing Institute, enter in the search term “lists” and what do you know? In a post entitled “Content Strategy: 9 Secrets for Awesome Blog Post Titles“, Tracy Gold writes in item number 5:

“We all groan about numbered lists in blog posts. But the truth is, they work. In our research, titles that began with a number performed 45 percent better than the average.

“Another approach is to start with a keyword and include a number later in the title. Take “Content Marketing Checklist: 22 To-dos for SlideShare Success,” for example. We tested both title types, and when the headline started with a keyword, it actually performed slightly better.

“While one approach to this method is to work more numbered lists into your blog content strategy up front, you can also use a numbered list in a post after it’s written. Is the post split up into sections? Can those sections be numbered? Boom. But again, don’t mislead your readers — make sure a numbered list format actually fits the content of your post.”

Now we know the secrets of the masters. My theory is by announcing ahead of time how many pieces of b.s. the reader will have to digest, they figure they aren’t in for a reading of Procopius History of the Early Church and can snack on the info before their Adderall buzzing brain clicks them away.

Before closing, let me digress back to USA Today and my indoctrination into the art of the list.

I worked at a newspaper — The Lawrence Eagle-Tribune — that rented its color presses to print the New England edition USA Today at night, receiving the pages via satellite and then churning out the colorful McPaper so familiar to residents of the Marriott Courtyard Suites. This close relationship unfortunately colored the judgment of Eagle-Tribune editor-in-chief Dan Warner, who decided that Al Neuharth was a visionary genius and that the Tribune’s staff  would learn to write lists instead of stories and develop “infographics” about Why We Love Ice Cream,” complete with a cartoon of a melting ice cream cone, a gushing thermometer and some made up statistic about what flavors “We” preferred.

This was strictly enforced to the point that every story opened with a classic lead (my favorite lead of all time, courtesy of Edna Buchanan, the legendary police reporter of the Miami Herald is cited below*), a standard second paragraph, and then an inevitable list of bulleted items before the jump to an inside page.  I would pile into the newsroom after a scintillating evening covering the Salem, New Hampshire board of selectmen and pound out some lifeless copy (“This ain’t a short story about your dead grandma bub, so get over it” my editor, Al White, told me after taking a machete to my first story about a sewer bond hearing) that always had a bullet list up high where Dan Warner would be sure to see it. Hence:

“In other actions, the board voted to:

  • Ban pit bulls from playgrounds
  • Postpone a hearing on bingo licenses
  • Authorize door-to-door cigarette sales by Brownie Troop 5
  • Commend Police Chief Nickerson for Sunday’s arrest of undercover Massachusetts State Policemen harassing Bay State liquor and fireworks customers

At first the mandate to use bullet lists offended my delicate Strunk & White sensibilities about prose composition.  One of the joys of great writing is a well-written list, contained in a single flowing sentence, ordered just so to delight the ear and paint a picture in the mind’s eye, but alas the world has become addicted to the staccato stack of one-liners preceded by the bold typographical dot and so I have given up all hope of resistance.

But I know in my heart of hearts that William Faulkner never wrote a bullet list in his life or worried about SEO.

 

*: Calvin Trillin, profiling Buchanan in the New Yorker: “In the newsroom of the Miami Herald, there is some disagreement about which of Edna Buchanan’s first paragraphs stands as the classic Edna lead. I line up with the fried-chicken faction. The fried-chicken story was about a rowdy ex-con named Gary Robinson, who late one Sunday night lurched drunkenly into a Church’s outlet, shoved his way to the front of the line, and ordered a three-piece box of fried chicken. Persuaded to wait his turn, he reached the counter again five or ten minutes later, only to be told that Church’s had run out of fried chicken. The young woman at the counter suggested that he might like chicken nuggets instead. Robinson responded to the suggestion by slugging her in the head. That set off a chain of events that ended with Robinson’s being shot dead by a security guard. Edna Buchanan covered the murder for the Herald—there are policemen in Miami who say that it wouldn’t be a murder without her—and her story began with what the fried-chicken faction still regards as the classic Edna lead: “Gary Robinson died hungry.”

 

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Apr 23 2013

If I owned the Cape Cod Times ….

The Cape Cod Times and its sister weekly, The Barnstable Patriot, are for sale. News Corp has put them on the block, after picking them up as part of the deal that saw the company acquire the Wall Street Journal from the Bancroft Family and Dow Jones.

I started my journalism career at the Cape Cod Times as a “special writer” the summer after graduating from college in 1980, a sad summer spent sorting out my father’s affairs after he died the March before in a car accident. The Times was a refuge for me, an incredibly rich world of facts and deadlines and mordant wit that proved to be just the antidote for a grieving 22-year old. I will always be indebted to Bill Briesky, Milton Moore, Peggy Eastman and Don Brichta for their patience and good humor in teaching me the rudiments of reporting.

A few weeks ago, while speaking to the Cape Cod Technology Council, someone asked me about the Times now that it was for sale. That was news to me. I hadn’t heard, but yes, it is true and ever since I heard the news I’ve occasionally thought what I would do if I owned a local paper in this parlous time of upheaval and transformation in the media world, one I suppose started the summer I worked at the Times when it was only a few months away from moving off of typewriters, scissors and rubber cement to one of the first computerized editorial systems. I take huge pride in having seen the very end of the analog era, of having literally performed “cut-and-paste”, and then hung on as the momentum began building towards the place where papers stand today, devoid of advertisers and readers, their staffs fleeing for shelter.

I believe a strong civil society needs a newspaper in some form: paper or digital or whatever.  I am an idealist who clings to those Jeffersonian ideals of an independent fourth estate that informs the electorate, comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. I don’t believe in journalism schools and I don’t regard journalism as a profession but see it more as a craft.  I applaud a world where anyone with the ambition can try to become a citizen journalist. I pay for good news. I can’t imagine living in a community without a definitive source of news. Without one the world will quickly become a darker, more ignorant place.

If I owned the Cape Cod Times I would do the following things:

  1. Stop printing it. I’d  have the presses in Independence Park  dismantled, placed on barges, and towed away and give them to a third-world country that needs a big honking press. Rip off the bandaid.
  2. Sell the trucks and fire the drivers. No press, no paper, no trucks, no drivers, no gas.
  3. Double down on local news. Put a reporter in every town on the Cape and Islands. Let them work from home, but get them as local as possible. It’s all about local and local is the only thing unique to the franchise. Not the AP wire. Not the Red Sox scores. But the local sports, the local planning board, the church socials and the bake sales. It’s local local local. The thing that has been weakest about the CCT in recent years is its local coverage at a time when it was the only defensible turf the paper stood on.
  4. Pay the staff a decent base salary with the usual performance modifiers based on traffic and comment engagement.
  5. Have reporters moderate their readers’ comments and engage with the mob directly.
  6. Provide a citizen’s blogging platform and use it as a farm system for full time talent to join the masthead. Extend the platform to any group, advertiser, or gadfly who wants it under a liberal acceptable use policy
  7. Launch a digital news radio station and go on the offensive
  8. Push harder on video. Eric Williams and CapeCast is the diamond in the rough I think.

And how would I pay for it all? Well, if wishes were fishes and all that ….

  • Drop the paywall. I hate paywalls. The New York Times can get away with them, but the Cape Cod Times needs as many readers as it can get and charging the loyal readership is like penalizing an act of goodness.
  • Local advertisers are already in bad shape thanks to eCommerce hammering local retailers. There are too many alternatives where they can spend their small ad budgets, so rates need to be slashed on display which are largely programmed buys via ad networks anyway. I’d kill display advertising to tell the truth. The banner is dead or dying.
  • Bundle a SMB digital marketing service and re-sell it to the advertisers: Lexity for ad buys, Hubspot for digital marketing, etc.. Offer digital marketing services as a value-add to the advertisers and wean them from local radio (there’s is very little local TV on the Cape to worry about). SMBs are starving for help with digital.
  • Restructure the rate card around sponsorships and give the advertisers ownership of a topic or section. Get away from run of site and give them some “adjacency” to the editorial
  • Provide lead generation support to advertisers emphasizing one-time unique coupon redemption for attribution and ROI justification

That’s it. Who knows if it would succeed, but I am convinced an emphasis on local news/sports, digital radio and video, and a big commitment to SMB digital marketing services could carry the Times forward until the next big unforeseen disruption. What do I think will happen? Some private equity-backed community newspaper roll-up will probably buy the Times for a song and gut it on the altar of efficiency and centralized management.

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Apr 22 2013

Broken news: the lesson from Boston’s journalism school

Published by under General,Journalism

When the President of the United States tells the press in a nationally televised address that it needs to get its act together, you know the Fourth Estate is in very, very bad shape.

“In this age of instant reporting and tweets and blogs, there’s a temptation to latch on to any bit of information, sometimes to jump to conclusions. But when a tragedy like this happens, with public safety at risk and the stakes so high, it’s important that we do this right. That’s why we have investigations. That’s why we relentlessly gather the facts.”

David Carr, my favorite media critic and the most perceptive reporter covering the transformation of the news business, moved from his customary home on the lefthand column of the New York Times’ Monday business page to a position of unmistakable prominence in the center of the page, leaving no doubt in my mind that today’s column is one of the more important ones he’ll ever write.

“The pressure to produce is ratcheted up accordingly. Editors and producers begin leaning on their reporters, and they, in turn, end up in the business of wish fulfillment, working hard to satisfy their audience, and meeting the expectations of their bosses. It creates a system in which bad reporting can thrive and dominoes can quickly fall the wrong way.”

Throughout last week’s blur of news and news about the news, was a constant theme of how social media had transformed the news for ever, how citizen journalists with their shaky cell phone video, crowd-sourced forensic vigilantes on Reddit and 4Chan, and a torrent of tweets from law enforcement, reporters, and excited observers were killing the news beast and replacing it with something new and raw and immediate.

Then everything broke and I’m not talking about breaking news.

Alexis Madrigal, one of the smartest voices writing about technology as senior editor of The Atlantic, wrote a scathing indictment of the fools who pinned the crime on a missing Brown student, tormenting his already panicked family with a self-fulfilling series of tweets that spilled from one misinformed source to more credible ones. The New York Post put, on their front page, the pictures of two innocent men circled by the crowd at 4Chan as likely suspects, leading one to turn himself into the authorities to plead his innocence.

As Carr writes in the Times, the biggest blunder, the most inexcusable, was committed by CNN on Wednesday, when John King erroneously reported a suspect was in custody. As Carr painfully reminds us, CNN is the source we’re supposed to turn to during times of crisis, the journalistic institution that defined the new 24-hour, constant news cycle. Instead, it was painful to watch, to watch and hear talking heads trying to fill the tyranny of dead air with babble, conjecture, recap and opinion. One look at Al Sharpton and I was done with MSNBC. Fox never came on once. I avoided the television and stuck to a stream of WBUR the national public radio affiliate in Boston and of course, Twitter.

On Friday evening, as the Governor declared an all-clear and let the people of Watertown out of their lockdown to stretch their legs, my wife and I switched on CNN to laugh at the network’s cluelessness and discomfort. I jeered the rugged looking reporter standing on a sidewalk behind the Arsenal Mall, laughed at how he kept trying to tame his wind-blown haircut, and told my wife, “These guys have just been making it up all week and they’re getting pounded for it.”

Then the reporter stopped talking, removed his ear piece and cocked his head like a dog hearing another dog bark in the distance.

“Do you hear that?” he asked. I laughed. CNN was delivering the drama as expected.

“I think I heard gun fire.”

The irony is that he had heard gunfire, the shots as the police converged on the shrink-wrapped boat in a nearby backyard. He performed the single act of pure reportage I saw all week from the media, he heard something first-hand and he reported it.

In the end, it wasn’t the Globe or the Herald or CNN that gave the world the news that it was all over. That was a tweet courtesy of the Boston Police Department.

My point — as an ex-reporter who worked in a city newsroom well before the Internet, back when newspapers were still healthy and secure; as a former hack who ducked under yellow police tape and stood around asking questions of cops and bystanders with a camera around his neck and a spiral reporter’s notebook in his hands — is the old journalistic craft of knocking on doors and asking questions, of checking facts and verifying sources, of biding one’s time until one had the story nailed. of risking the loss of a scoop in the interest of accuracy was underscored last week by those reporters and editors who sat on rumors despite the pressure of the moment, who took the time to confirm before speaking.

The moment of the blasts was first reported on Twitter, and the news-dinosaur haters crowed that it meant a new era in news because the Times and the Associated Press and the “mainstream” media took another 15 to 30 minutes to get the news out. Well, the reason is simple. When they did report it they had confirmation, not speculation to go on.

There have been some big, unforgettable moments in post-Internet journalism, mostly catastrophes that grabbed everyone’s attention,and held it for hours if not days. The last pre-Internet news moment, I argue, was the first Gulf War, when CNN came into its own. The first Internet news moment was the explosion of TWA Flight 800 south of Long Island, the first time the audience could get news on demand and not wait for the trucks to deliver it. 9/11 …. a whole other story. During all of those events the press rose to the occasion and used the new medium to good effect. But Boston was a study in failure all the way around.

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Apr 08 2013

Not your father’s advertorial

Every trend, fad and meme has its day and “branded content” is having its moment now that the New York Time’s Monday business section has discovered the phenomenon of publishers further blurring the lines between journalism and marketing in its piece on 4.8.13 by Tanzina Vega: “Sponsors Now Pay for Online Articles, Not Just Ads.” The usual publications are cited: Forbes.com and it’s “BrandVoice” (“Connecting marketers to the Forbes audience”), the Atlantic Monthly, Business Insider, Mashable just to name a few. I think a bigger trend is being ignored:  and that’s marketers going direct to readers and building their own audiences, cutting publishers out entirely except to rent their traffic and push clicks to their own media.
Forbes has taken its share of criticism for being one of the first old-school publishers to open up its digital pages to advertorial, but Chief Product Office Lewis D’Vorkin isn’t apologetic. His e-book on the Forbes.com editorial/advertising model is a convincing argument against the old church/state Chinese wall model of advertising-supported but segregated-independent-objctive journalism. In his treatise, D’Vorkin goes right after the old-school editorial purists and essentially wishes them good luck as they slowly starve to death while the old interruption model of advertising further withers under the impact of AdBlocker and Tivo-ad skipper technologies.

The Times article cites one dissenter, Andrew Sullivan, the former editor of the New Republic: “I am aghast at this…Your average reader isn’t interested in that. They don’t realize they are being fed corporate propaganda.”
Average reader? At least they’re reading and not rotting their brains with a diet of Bravo staged-reality shows about Real Wives and Hoarders. Getting into the sanctimonious mosh pit of editorial objectivity and journalism ethics is to enter into a surreal religious war on a pointless par with the dyophysite controversies of the fifth century: no one cared except the patriarchs and metropolitans but nevertheless wars were waged and people died.
The Internet Advertising Bureau and the Magazine Publishers Association have long been setting down the rules for making it clear to readers what is pure and impure. Putting tinted boxes around marketing content, sticking the word “Advertisement” atop the headline …. I ran into this issue as early as 1996 when Forbes.com sold daily content sponsorships and gave the advertisers a tall vertical unit we invented called the “Skyscraper.” The smarter sponsors used the space to run a story as opposed to an animated Punch-The-Monkey ad, and before long we had to revise our terms and conditions to ghettoize the more egregious offenders with the scarlet letter of “Advertising.”  Digital advertising models have long looked for the online equivalent of the little word “Advertorial” that magazines used to segregate special sections bought by the Economic Development Commission of Mississippi (“A State To Grow In!”) away from the serious, independent stuff. Now even Google News is trying to keep the sponsored stuff out of its pages.
I think the Times missed the bigger trend: marketers going direct to their prospective buyers by becoming their own publishers, producing their own media and using professional editorial placements only to rent names, just as marketers have been renting circulation lists for decades to drive their direct mail campaigns. Here’s some early manifestations and enablers of the Marketer-As-Publisher trend:
Corporate-in-house produced newsrooms: Ever since corporate websites became de rigeur in the 90s, corporate communications has always carved out a loney section of the brand’s main website to post press releases, executive bios, and the usual investor relations information. Now some are going right into the business of publishing stories – not the usual releases for the press, but content for the customers – under the rubric of corporate newsrooms. Best example I can think of is what Intel has been doing for years with its newsroom at newsroom.intel.com. Cisco also has a newsroom. These are being used as white paper libraries, curated collections of relevant industry news links, and original daily news and commentary, all backed up by some form of community/social participation function.
Branded partner produced content: these are sites produced in partnership with a media company. Intel is in a partnership with Vice.com called The Creators Project. Red Bull is also into it this sort of advertainment.
Online “magazines”: these are the digital evolution of the type of print product that companies such as IBM or the Four Seasons Hotel chain would hire Forbes Custom Publishing to produce and distribute to their customers. Now the digital version  of “vanity” magazines live under their own domain identity (vs. being an extension of the core brand’s domain like the Intel newsroom) Now they produce them with their own editorial staff. A great example is Adobe/Omniture’s CMO.com:
Enablers
Talent: A lot of inexpensive and talented business and B2B editorial talent displaced by the digital disruption in the their former newsrooms is available with some prominent tech talent crossing over to corporate gigs – and not in the usual PR/flak capacity but as corporate staff writers and editors. From the highest end of the mastheads with people like Fortune’s Rik Kirkland going to McKinsey a few years ago to edit the McKinsey Quarterly and oversee the firm’s editorial strategy to Steve Hamm, formerly of Businessweek, going to IBM to become a communications strategist, or Dan Lyons leaving Read, Write Web, Forbes, and the Daily Beast to join Cambridge digital marketing startup HubSpot…. the talent is out there looking for some relief from the churn and chaos of the traditional press and the sweatshop conditions of the blog networks.
Cheap tools: web development used to involve a lot of enterprise software licenses for content management, analytics, etc. Say goodbye to Vignette and Interwoven and hello to WordPress and Drupal. If the tools are good enough for AllThingsD and The Economist, then they are good enough to a corporate content marketing site. And they have the added appeal of being cloud/SAAS based so the more daring marketers can side-step the corporate web mafia and the CIO’s office with their brown-suited procurement standards and office of project management  and start publishing immediately.
Drivers: in closing, what’s driving chief marketing officers, heads of corporate communications, and digital marketers to launch their own editorial efforts?

First – developing an audience of loyal readers is no different that developing and attracting the attention of prospective customers and building loyalty among existing ones. Corporate content is about going direct to the right audience and cutting out the editorial middle-man.

Second – digital marketing is all about the content that a marketer pushes through the distribution channels available. YouTube for corporate video. Tweets, Facebook pages … this stuff demands a steady supply of fresh content and getting that content from an agency or third-party is like trying to perform surgery in a haz mat suit with robotic arms. Why depend on a third party when you can own the capability internally.

Third – agility. Corporate publishing is about reacting, not just to opportunities like tweeting about random blackouts during the Superbowl, but to crisis communications when every second counts. When your offshore oil platform catches on fire, the world isn’t going to the New York Times for your mea culpa and updates, it’s hammering on BP.com. (I’ll get into “dark site” production in a future post.)

So what? I think the immediate impact of corporate content isn’t journalistic ethics but the challenge it places on the professional service firms that  feed clients with editorial services. Namely the PR firms writing releases, CEO speeches, white papers, etc. and the digital agencies that build custom microsites and other digital initiatives for marketers unstaffed to handle the challenge of staying technically adept. And finally– the traditional and not-so-traditional “objective” press. They will either produce the content as a service to the corporate advertiser or see their former editors and reporters get hired away to do it under the more stable umbrella of a big organization with deep pockets. That the press is now selling the opportunity to publish corporate content next to their own reporting is a foregone conclusion. Hand wringing and saying one is ethically “aghast” is the personification of the cliché, “pride goeth before the fall.”

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Apr 05 2013

The Flipboard 2.0 Vanity Press

I’ve been digging into the market for custom publishing services for digital marketers, and hence have been focused on content management systems, distribution models, and other production tools to rapidly build and nuture a custom “magazine.”

The Monthly MeconiumIntroducing my testbed for Flipboard’s new publishing tool: The Monthly Meconium (the name is a long story involving my penchant for weird words, one of which was turned back on me in 1981 when I was a bartender and given the nickname of “Mec” after sharing the definition of “meconium” with the day shift), a fitting title for a first effort at something that is destined to be flushed away.

The tool is a clipping service. One drags a “Flip It” applet into the Chrome toolbar and when you’re on some content worth sharing, you hit the little “+ flip it” button, add a little commentary, and it’s added to your personal FlipBoard magazine.

Flipboard, if you’ve been sleeping under a rock, is the amazing graphical, touch-friendly feed aggregator that takes all of your social feeds — Twitter, Facebook, Google +, YouTube, and Flipboard specific titles from publishers like GigaOm and AllThingsD — and brings them together in what has quickly become my favorite browsing app on my smartphone and my tablet.

There’s a bit of a Tumblr/Pinterest feeling to the whole experience. This isn’t a content creation tool as much as a curation took. Sort of a cooler updated version of a paper.li custom newspaper for a swiping, touch enabled experience.

I have no idea how to subscribe to The Monthly Meconium. I’ve been messing around with Flipboard trying to find my freshly launched effort, but nothing brings it up. I’m assuming it needs to be crawled, indexed, reviewed, and then listed by the Flipboard crew.

This should be standard fare for any reporter trying to build traffic to their stuff or for any digital marketing trying to build an audience to their brand’s content.

When I actually figure out how to subscribe I’ll up this post. In the meantime I’ll try to get more adept at the techniques and actually use it to share stuff of interest.

Update: Flipboard 2.0 is only available for Apple’s iOS – an Android version is coming, so I can’t even read my own creation. Nice to see Paid Content agrees with my opinion that this should cause a severe case of incontinence for publishers.

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Mar 06 2013

Corporate Journalism Revisited

Bob Page emailed me a link to this Harvard Business Review blog post about how advertisers need to act more like newsrooms.

Written by Newsweek/Daily Beast CEO Baba Shetty and Wharton Professor Jerry Wind, the post cites some marketing trends where companies are:

  • Advertising in real time by tweeting or pushing out content in response to events or public feedback. Examples would include Old Spice’s successful YouTube “Smell Like a Man, Man” project where 200 short videos were shot in response to social media interaction; and brand’s tweeting opportunistic messages during the Super Bowl blackout
  • Creating advertorial media and content factories on their own or  in partnership with media brands: they cite Intel and Vice’s Creator’s Project and the Redbull Media House
  • Becoming more agile. Instead of planning advertising campaigns around 30-second television and meticulously planned media buys, the modern marketer is more reactive and opportunistic.

Nice sentiments, but in my experience, the reality of putting such sentiments into action is a lot more frustrating. Getting big organizations to be faster and more open is always going to be an exercise in frustration and patience. Bob wrote: “This “marketers as newsrooms” stuff from Intel, Red Bull, Liberty Mutual looks an awful lot like the kind of team you got started at Lenovo.”

I’ll take the compliment for trying to push the company to be more agile on its communications and media, but the frustrations occurred when two traditional conservative corporate communications edicts were invoked: risk and quality.

Risk is what a corporate communications department is designed to minimize. They plan the message, craft it, practice it, push it across the organization and limit the points where the media can engage. Rank and file employees can’t, and shouldn’t, talk to the press or randomly respond to social media. Even the CEO is given a speech written for him, carefully crafted down to every ad hoc joke and quip. External PR agencies and internal staff work together across product introductions, corporate messaging and investor relations, focused on cutting down the risk of leaks, illegal financial disclosure and embarrassing moments.

Risk aversion in corporate communications means slowing things down, stone walling, taking time to consider responses and reactions before blurting out something that isn’t signed off. This doesn’t work when a lynch party is forming over Christmas shipping delays and the CEO’s home phone number is being shared along with form letters for submission to the Better Business Bureau. The realities of modern crisis communications is that minutes, not hours, are crucial, and when a customer service team needs to wait 24 hours for corporate communications to reply with a sanitized, bland statement opportunities are lost and tempers inflamed.

Quality is what gets invoked when a digital marketing team tries to get a video onto the company’s YouTube channel.  Suddenly the brand team and the advertising creative people turn into critics, and cry foul when a cell-phone video of an engineer explaining how he revved up boot times for a new PC is put out there on the same day of a product announcement claiming the new laptops are faster to start up than the competitions. The official announcement may make the claim, but the customers want to know how and why, so pointing a video camera at the engineer and putting up a 60 second answer suddenly makes the purists invoke HD quality standards.

Here’s a video I challenged the team to shoot and post in a single day when I felt a product announcement lacked any substance or answers. This bummed some people out because of its low quality, but 80,000 views later, I’d declare it a success. It simply Kevin Beck interview Howard Locker on what he did to rev up boot times.

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I maintain that if you’re in a complex business and have opened the doors to questions through corporate blogs, customer service forums, Facebook pages, etc.. you better be prepared to get something up in a matter of hours, not days.

 

One thing will never change and that is that corporate content is ultimately advertorial and as such, inferior to independently/  objectively produced journalism.

I’m going to take credit for coining the term “corporate journalism” back in 2000 when I was at McKinsey working on the  firm’s knowledge management system. My friend and colleague Rob O’Regan and I realized our purpose in life was to leverage our experience as business and technology reporters in prying out of taciturn consultants conditioned to maintain client confidentiality some meaningful insights that could be developed into “content” for the benefit of other consultants and their clients.

The act of interviewing — not media training where a PR person coaches a senior executive on how to spin a story — but actually probing an expert in the reporter’s equivalent of the Socratic method, produced some strong results: it forced the experts to clarify their jargon, realize when their points were obtuse, and understand what they considered interesting or important wasn’t necessarily so. But the public result of this process — a story in the McKinsey Quarterly, or a video series for client development — is still content with an inherent proprietary bias.

Yes, brands need to be more agile, corporate communications needs to be faster and more authentic, and old strictures of spinning messages and planning ad campaigns deserve to die.  But beware of flaks bearing the next new thing, it usually turns out to be unbearably bogus and contrived and designed to serve the best interests of the organization and its shareholders, not the public and its customers.

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Dec 06 2012

The Mysterious Mister Coggins: The Cape Cod Times

Published by under Cape Cod,Journalism

The Cape Cod Times — where I started my career in journalism in 1980 covering the waterfront and county politics — issued a public apology yesterday after discovering one of its longtime reporters had faked names in three dozen stories over the years.

One of those fictional characters was an imaginary 88-year old Cotuit resident named Johnson Coggins, fabricated in a 2011 story about the Cotuit Fourth of July Parade and introduced as the “patriarch of the family” and a “longtime Cotuit summer resident.” I note this because I remember reading the story and wondering who the f%^k this mysterious codger was and did he live in the pines somewhere in an alternative Cotuit universe I had never heard of. I also remember thinking, “damn, Cotuit is really changing and getting invaded with new faces when I don’t recognize the names of “longtime summer residents.”

Now I feel a little irked at the deception. Irked, not angry, just mentally tweaked at the memory of trying to put a face to a name and feeling mystified because, well, I was supposed to feel mystified. As a reporter I know the temptation of phoning something in, of fudging an age, a middle initial, but then it clicks that if I don’t the middle initial or the person’s age, if I didn’t take the time to get the little things right, well, the whole credibility began to crumble. It’s one thing to make an error and issue a correction. It’s another thing to deceive and have to deliver an apology.

The writer, Karen Jeffrey, used her imagination when populating the usual human interest stories about weather, parades, etc., inventing bystanders, observers, and participants. She got caught last month when she made up the names of some tourists surprised by a Veteran’s Day ceremony and the Times went deep into the morgue to discover that indeed, such chimeras as the fabled Mister Coggins didn’t exist.

Such a shame when a reporter goes down in flames.   The news business has enough problems as it is, and trust shouldn’t be one of them.

I have fond memories of the Times. I was there the last year they used typewriters, and learned the reporter’s craft from some good reporters and editors like Don Brichta, Bill Briesky, Peggy Eastman, and Milton Moore. I learned how to properly use a reporter’s notebook, take a snapshot of a ribbon cutting and check passing ceremony, where to sit during a public meeting, and the true physical meaning of the term “cut-and-paste.”  They have since become a Murdoch paper, their local news seems to shrink a bit every year (I rely on their sister weekly, the Barnstable Patriot for more hyperlocal coverage of town affairs), and they seem to be content with the usual light blend of car accidents, arrests, weather and features with no deep dives into Cape civic life. They took a pasting during the Wind Farm debates when a pair of critics wrote a book tarring their ethics for opposing the windmills are ardently as they did — but editorial pages are for taking a stand and they did.

If I were to make any request it would be to throw a little money at the local side — online can handle the page counts so the ad-edit ratio shouldn’t be an issue.  The Cape needs the coverage which is now piece-meal between the one and only daily and a handful of weeklies. I know local news is expensive, but someone has to step up to the challenge and Patch is not it.

 

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Mar 19 2012

Lit’ry Life: March 19

Some good stuff passed before my eyes in the last few days but there is never enough time to read it all.

Sanctuary

Starting with an obscure journal only available to members of the Massachusetts Audubon Society — Sanctuary – is the spring edition devoted in its entirety to the 50th anniversary of the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, the book credited with kicking off the eco-movement, banning DDT, and leading to the restoration of avian species such as the Osprey (which, come to think of it, must be ready to return to Cotuit Bay any day now).

Carson took on the chemical industry and government regulators with a bleak ringing of the alarm that pesticides and rampant pollution were trashing the environment. A resident of Duxbury on Massachusetts’ South Shore, her insights were local ones and led to massive reforms, and a lot of personal attacks.

 

Mass Audubon is a quintessential Massachusetts non-profit, founded in the early 20th century to stop the devastation of the tern population by the fashion industry which keyed in on the particularly stupid notion that sticking a bird’s wing in a ladie’s hat was a good thing. Sanctuary is not available online and is one of those member only things. I have been a long time member because Mass Audubon owns Sampson’s Island/Dead Neck in Cotuit, manages it as an Arctic Tern rookery, and have rangers who come around checking for membership cards if they find you lounging on the sand.

The Atlantic

The April issue is a strong mix of sweet and sour. On the sweet side is a piece by Blackhawk Down author Mark Bowden on the man who broke the banks of several Atlantic City casinos without resorting to card counting or other tricks. Don Johnson is a veteran gambling industry manager who took advantage of the economy’s effect on the Casino’s policy to discount a gambler’s losses from 10 percent to 20%. I was unaware that the heavy hitting gamblers, aka “whales” can negotiate a break on their losses or a stack of free chips to get them to the high roller tables. Johnson knew the casinos were greedy, wasn’t known as a particularly successful gambler and therefore wasn’t regarded as dangerous to the bottom line, and then just swooped in and played smart blackjack and took them down on the order of $10 million.

On the sour side: a lengthy cover profile of Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke with the provocative teaser “Ben Bernanke saved the global economy. So why does everyone hate him?” Big macro economic policy pieces are rough going for me. I don’t have an appetite for the dismal science, but Roger Lowenstein is the master of making financial matters palatable and even exciting. The former WSJ writer’s biography of Warren Buffett remains one of my favorite business books. Anyway, if you want to get smart on the state of economy, Bernanke, and how he pisses off both sides of the aisle with the Fed monetary policy, this story is for you.

Finally, a look at Rahm Emanuel’s first year as Mayor of Chicago. I thought he brought a lot of intelligent f-bomb dropping testosterone to the Obama White House during the dark days of 2009 and this piece presents a hyper, hands on, technocrat in action in  the City That Works.

The New Yorker

I’ve only found the time to read John Seabrook’s story [behind the paywall, sorry] in the March 26 issue about hit making song writers and producers and how they churn out number one “smashes” with great precision for big name artists like Rihanna.  The process is fascinating, involves a Blackberry and a “box” running ProTools, and a strange process of mumbling out phrases to hooks and rhythms. Somehow, at the end of the conveyor belt, a song emerges.

End note: ever wonder why magazine dates are so far in the future? The dates aren’t for the readers as much as they are the day newsstand vendors are supposed to take their copies off the rack and replace them with the next edition. Hence I am reading a March 26 New Yorker on March 19. On March 26 the news vendors pull this issue and replace it. Now you know.

New York Times:

I like David Carr’s column this Monday morning on how reporting by people with an agenda used to be called propaganda. He tackles the Foxconn/Apple manufacturing abuse one-man-show fiasco at NPR perpetrated by monologist Mike Daisey who prevaricated and committed many calumnies in his quest for entertainment. Hey, the issue isn’t whether or not Chinese electronics factory workers are abused or work too much for too little so we can dote on our shiny Apple toys: it’s about Daisey fibbing and blowing it at the expense of good journalists like the Time’s Charles Duhigg who actually reported and sourced the same story, albeit without the drama that makes for good theater and podcasts. Carr deftly co-indicts the poor guy who made the Kony 2012  “documentary” and then folded under the attention and scrutiny to the point where he had to take off his clothes and dance naked in a sidewalk while committing felonious mopery.

 

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Mar 15 2012

Much ado about Goldman

Published by under Journalism

I’m a little stunned by the coverage in the New York Times this morning (3.15) over the very public resignation by a Goldman Sach’s employee  in the Times’ Op-Ed section on Wednesday.

On Wednesday morning I read Greg Smith’s eloquent public condemnation of the investment bank from beginning to end, raised my eyebrows at the severity of his anguished indictment of the culture of greed and burned clients that we all knew and suspected was the true agenda of the “too big to fail” world of Wall Steet, and marveled that a 33-year old over-achiever within one of the top white-shoe institutions would take to the public soapbox to share his resignation. I suppose the new tradition of Wikileaked internal memos and insta-meme driven news (see the Olive Garden Restaurant Review lady from the same day) means we’ll see more and more of these flash-in-the-pan news events, but it’s the day-after ouruboros reaction of the Times to its own Op-Ed that stuns me and which needs to be seen in print to understand the importance the Times’ editors thinks this Dear John letter deserves.

The main story leads the front page. Bigger than anything else. Top priority. That’s pretty indicative right there of the impact that Greg Smith’s screed had on the news cycle yesterday. Is it really that big of a deal? I guess if you’re a New Yorker riding the PATH or MetroNorth train into the city this morning to your job at some financial institution in the financial capital of the world, then yes, this is a big deal. If you’re in Omaha it is a scathing confirmation that the weasels of Wall Street indeed got away with murder, and have yet to be brought to account, and continue to slash and burn in the interest of their annual eight figure bonuses.

The Times pulled out the stops yesterday to own this real-life Jerry Maguire.

Along with the front page mainbar the jump inside also has a sidebar on pejorative nicknames that various industries have for their customers. Smith revealed Goldman calls its clients “muppets”. The Times teaches us that flight attendants call passengers “Clampets” or “Platinum Trash”, etc..  And there is a sidebar on the parodies that popped up yesterday, my favorite being Darth Vader’s resignation letter and great proof that meme-driven news is no longer working on a “nine-day wonder” cycle as it did forty years ago, but is now on a nine-hour wonder cycle. All in all I’d guess the Times devoted a couple thousand words to their own news event.

Yes, I’m second guessing the placement decision of the Times’ editorial board to elevate this mid-level investment banker’s “I Quit” letter above all other news. It’s great drama, it keeps the financial crisis in the spotlight, and it shows the Times isn’t about to relinquish ownership of what is arguably the most interesting and discussed news event of this week. Heck, I’m writing about it along with countless other blog bloviators, right?

What is particularly interesting by contrast is how the Wall Street Journal treated the Smith resignation. Yes, it is on the front page of today’s paper, but buried in the “What’s New” digest, jumping inside to lead the C section.

 

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Mar 09 2012

Shopping the Story: When eCommerce meets Editorial

There’s a scene in Fight Club when Edward Norton mocks his meaningless materialistic existence defined by his addiction to Ikea.  His apartment transforms into a movie version of a  catalogue — with every napkin, bookcase and rug identified, tagged, and described as he moves amongst it all. The scene expresses a lot of the stupidity expressed in the early 1990s when the “Interactive Television” geeks bubbled on about how you’d be able to click on Jennifer Aniston’s sweater during an episode of Friends and receive a package from the Gap a couple days later with that exact same color sweater inside(in your size of course) . Didn’t happen. None of it happened: pick your own alternative ending, find a different camera angle … couch potatoes are inert by nature and only move their hands to pop another Cheesy-poof into their mouths. If they want to shop through the TV they switch the channel to QVC and pick up the cordless phone to order some zirconium.

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Shopping interactively against a television show, movie, even video game is far-fetched and a long walk off of the proverbial short pier.

Shopping off of a story is a different subject altogether. Let’s start with an early example of “story commerce” most are familiar with, the J. Peterman catalogue, perfectly mocked by Seinfeld.  J. Peterman was a brilliant mail order operation that delivered a tall non-glossy catalogue entitled “Owner’s Manual” with breezy sketches of Peterman’s travels around the world sourcing classic pieces of clothing and accessories from Australian dusters to a long-billed swordfishing cap just like “Papa” Hemingway wore.  There are no photos, no customer reviews, just artsy sketches and short little “English-Patient-Meets-Mark-Helprin” purple paragraphs written by a copywriting genius. To wit:

“He probably bought his in a gas station on  the road to Ketchum, next to the cash register, among the beef jerky wrapped in cellophane. Or maybe in a tackle shop in Key West. 

I had to go to some trouble to have this one made for you and me but it had to be done. The long bill, longer than I, at least, ever saw before, makes sense. The visor: leather; soft and glareless and unaffected by repeated rain squalls. The color: same as strong scalding espresso, lemon peel on the side, somewhere in the mountains in the north of Italy. Cotton blend canvas. 6 brass grommets for ventilation. Elastic at back to keep this treasure from blowing off your head and into the trees.

(He probably got change from a five when he bought the original.)”

I bought one. I admit it. I looked like a total assclown with a foot-long leather duck bill sticking out my forehead. I immediately went back to Red Sox caps to provide me with glare protection while fishing in the sun and that was that. But I bought it, because I was buying the story. Not the hat.

The late publishing genius Bill Ziff told me during a Forbes interview in the early 1990s, that Ziff-Davis move into speciality magazines was driven by the insight that everyone has their own personal “porn.” In his case it was sports “porn” (the man read baseball statistics), Civil War “porn” (he knew his Civil War history like Shelby Foote knew Civil War history) and gardening “porn” (he had amazing taste in gardens). As he put it, pornography is derived from the Greek words porni: prostitute and graphein: to write, hence the original porn was writing about the oldest profession in the world. Ziff applied that insight to speciality magazines like Skiing, Stereo Review, Modern Bride, with the realization that a magazine focused on a hyper-passion — a reader’s personal taste in “porn” — made the relationship between the advertising and the editorial very different than the interruption-based relationship found in a TV ad or a general interest magazine. If you were really into expensive high fidelity stereo equipment in the 1960s, you would probably be very interested in the content of the ads by the equipment manufacturers as you were in the objective reviews by the editorial staff. You trusted the reviews to be objective and untainted, but the ads, with their specifications and gorgeous beauty shots of glowing dials and vacuum tubes, well; that was stereo porn and there was a reader service “bingo” card at the back of the magazine where you could check off a page number and receive even more stereo porn directly from the advertiser.

Ziff extended the insight to computer magazines and found amazing success with the formula of combining advertising and editorial together in a “porn model” where he was broker between the advertiser/prostitutes, the writers, and the readers.

Now all his magazines are pretty much gone as he called the top of the market in the early 90s and unloaded his print assets with the foresight that the Internets were going to thoroughly change the broker relationship of publishers controlling audience access to advertisers.

There have been some magazine launches — in the 1990s — of print publications about …. shopping. Lucky comes to mind, a Conde Nast launch that touts itself as “The Magazine of Shopping and Style.” But put the magazines down and look at what’s happened to eCommerce, the money side of the digital revolution.

eCommerce was available right out of the gate following the commercialization of the Internet by the National Science Foundation back in 1994. Both Amazon and eBay are, in Internet-terms, ancient brands. Once security issues (SSL, HTTPS) and online credit card processing got worked through, it was off to the races for the first round of online stores.  eCommerce was difficult to implement in the early years, certainly a much bigger challenge than launching an online publication, but platforms started to be standardized, operational processes defined, and the entire order management/supply chain thing came together in fits and starts.

Skip a lot of well-known milestones like PayPal, and it is 2012. eCommerce is no longer a big boy game focused on behemoths like Target, JC Penny, Dell, and Amazon. From Etsy to Shopify to the WordPress of commerce — Magento —  there is essentially nothing standing between a very small business and an online storefront. The days of needing a $100 million in revenue to justify a big Sapient ATG or IBM Websphere deployment are long gone. Anyone with the gumption can build their own online store without sacrificing their brand to Amazon, eBay or Yahoo.

I believe the leading edge in online commerce is not the technology — but the content and strategic approach. J. Peterman meets Lucky meets Magento meets Blogs and the result is pretty compelling.

The first place I really discovered story-based ecommerce was in the fashion sector. My favorite example, hands down, is Mr. Porter, part of the NYC fashion etailer, Net-a-Porter.

 

The design gestalt is a hybrid between a catalogue and an online magazine. The navigation header even points to an editorial area, “The Journal.” Even the home page hero about belts, is identified as coming from a standard editorial element, “The Edit.” Every call to action — the copy on the purchase buttons — doesn’t say “Buy Now!” — but “Read & Shop Now”

I suggest if you want to experience the bullseye point of this blog post, then go to Mr. Porter, hit The Journal “This Week’s Issue” and click through the eight-slide history of khaki. The formula is brilliant. Illustrate the piece with vintage black and white photos of legendary style icons. Steve McQueen is the cliche in this model, but the khaki piece has photos of Alain Delon, James Mason, James Dean, etc.. Under the slideshow, a bylined “story” that leads off like any fashion magazine with the usual fashionesque prose:

“Endlessly versatile, casual yet elegant, hardwearing and laid-back – it’s easy to make the case for chinos. That’s why, this spring, we’re looking forward to reaching for them again. Their great appeal has always been that they can be, and are, worn with everything from T-shirts to tweed jackets, which is how we justify updating them on an annual basis. Click through the gallery above to see how to wear them this season – easy and relaxed are the watchwords here – and to read about the history that’s taken them from colonial military uniform to preppy classic via Hollywood and 1950s-era hipsters.”

It all comes down to "Shop the Story"

Throw in some historical nuggets (khaki is the Pakistani word for “dust”; British Red Coats were easy targets so they switched to khaki to better blend in with the dusty walls of the Khyber Pass, etc.), and make sure every page has a product that the reader can buy.

The call to action (what graphics people used to call “CHA” or “Click Here Asshole”) is brilliant: Shop the Story.

Shop the story and live the dream. Buy those $495 Loro Piano khakis and you are one step closer to becoming James Dean. It’s the next evolution in a long tradition of catalogue copywriting that began at Sears, was taken over the top by J. Peterman, and is now infesting the flash sale fashion sites with the new Catazine movement.

The transformation from the ugly catalogue pages of most online stores to a fully integrated editorial/catalogue model is, I think, going to revolutionize commerce operations in the near future. The challenge of the old eCommerce 1.0 model was order management and integrating one’s act with the Borg’s ERP and MWS and CRM and ….. No more care went into the presentation of the product than the upload of an err0r-prone spreadsheet containing SKU numbers, price, and specs.

This drove me crazy at Lenovo, where the complex configure-to-order world of selling laptops yielded product pages as interesting as the ingredients list on a bottle of shampoo. “We sell black rectangles,” I would bitch as I pointed to web pages filled with the same half-opened clamshell forms of black ThinkPads.  Other than price, prominent messaging around free shipping, the meat of the experience is either in the specifications — “speeds and feeds” — or catalogue-copy: “This slim, lightweight stunner, delivers the graphics impact you need to supercharge your gaming experience …” etc. No aspersions meant to my former colleagues — but the catalogue experience at 95% of most online stores is driven by a spreadsheet and a template with little to any editorial either trying to build some drool factor for the shopper, or a valuable experience worth revisiting. Commerce needs to move from demand generation, sloppy affiliate commission programs, attribution and optimization, and closer to an experience worth experiencing. Don’t do it and you might as well just publish the spreadsheet and hope your SEO efforts and the price comparison engines treat you well.

Shop the Story or Shop the Grid

The latest revolution for the old guard in ecommerce is toappend user generated content — reviews — to their product pages. Hanging a five star rating system with a paragraph of semi-literate user rave or rant (that I always suspect has been astroturfed and sock puppeted by the vendor)  to every SKU using a service such as the recently IPOd Bazaarvoice is by and large a semi-smart move doubtlessly justified by some analyst on the basis of cart conversions and attachment rates and other ecommerce drivers. I like customers reviews as much as the next guy. Amazon has transformed them into a literary genre of their own, the most famous being the first satirical review of the legendary “Three Wolves T-Shirt” :

“This item has wolves on it which makes it intrinsically sweet and worth 5 stars by itself, but once I tried it on, that’s when the magic happened. After checking to ensure that the shirt would properly cover my girth, I walked from my trailer to Wal-mart with the shirt on and was immediately approached by women. The women knew from the wolves on my shirt that I, like a wolf, am a mysterious loner who knows how to ‘howl at the moon’ from time to time (if you catch my drift!). The women that approached me wanted to know if I would be their boyfriend and/or give them money for something they called mehth. I told them no, because they didn’t have enough teeth, and frankly a man with a wolf-shirt shouldn’t settle for the first thing that comes to him.”

 

Can a publisher jump on the bandwagon and start to offer an integrated shopping function versus the current model of divorcing the sale from their carefully crafted “objective” words by segregating the “prostitution” into an adjacent banner ad or paid search link?  Hey, they tried to muck up their content by using the particularly horrible Vibrant in-text ad gimmick. You’ve been annoyed by it — the double-underlined word links that pops-up an unrelated come-on for some advertiser. Can I imagine Forbes selling mutual funds in its annual dreary Mutual Fund review? “Click here to invest in your future with Fidelity’s Magellan Fund” ….and then receive a bounty on the sale? No. The incumbent press seems boxed out of selling-the-story.  No way the New York Times is going to stick buy-it-now links in David Pogue’s latest review of a portable receipt scanner.

I sense the reason the editorial world isn’t getting into commerce comes down to confusion and ethics. The underlying transaction processing engine isn’t an issue. Getting a merchant payment account is pretty easy. Hiring some catalogue managers and fulfillment people to tend to the SKUs and answer the customer service calls is very doable. Where all ecommerce gets hard is integrating the fulfillment piece of actually holding inventory, pulling it off a shelf or out of a bin, boxing it and handing it off to DHL or UPS. Very few people do that well and there’s a reason Amazon is building depots that are so immense they can be seen from space.

I don’t see why a magazine couldn’t morph into a direct commerce operation. They better because the stores are turning into magazines and they aren’t using Facebook or Twitter to find their way forward. Get off the social commerce bandwagon (Fan pages for macaroni just confuse me) and hire an editor with an attitude  if you want to increase your conversions.

Some other “Shop The Story” sites I like:

  • Dealuxe — women’s fashion, Canada
  • The tale of Clive Nutting’s POW Stalag III Rolex: Antiquorum (fascinating slice of history about Rolex selling watches to Allied POWs in German prison camps with a pay-after-the-war offer)
  • Lotuff Leather’s American Craftsman blog: I lust for one of these briefcases.

If you have any favorite examples, please send them along.

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Feb 29 2012

Good reads from the last week of February ’12

Dorade: Max Kaleoff is a fellow blogger and New York digital marketing guy (Clickable) I’ve known for over six years. We’ve struck up a friendship over our shared love of wooden sailboats. He even grew up on one, a Sparkman & Stephens yawl. I’ll let him tell the tale:

“I lived on a 52-foot sparkman-stephens yawl named Magic Venture until I was eight years old. Didn’t have running water or electricity or non-coal heat — ever. Had the boat until I was 22. Rebuilt it along the way at Gannon & Benjamin shipyard in Martha’s Vineyard along the way.”

Max recommended a book review from the Wall Street Journal about one of S&S’s most famous boats, the Dorade. Published by the Boston publisher, David R. Godine  (I interned there in 1980), Dorade is going into my bookshelf very soon. This boat is as much an icon of American yachting as Finisterre or any Herreshoff  design.

From the review:

“Boats, like people, have yarns to spin, some better than others. Dorade, the low-slung wooden yawl that revolutionized ocean racing nearly a century ago and launched the career of America’s greatest modern yacht designer, has a rich tale to tell. Indeed, it’s still unfolding.

At 82, the graceful dowager still slices through whitecaps on the West Coast, where she is in the hands of her 15th owner—or caretaker, as he might more aptly be described. “She was, and is, unique,” writes Douglas D. Adkins in “Dorade: The History of an Ocean Racing Yacht. “On one hand, lovely and dainty, and on the other purposeful and determined. She is still an icon of a certain beauty in yacht design.”

Lewis Dvorkin on the Long Form movement

Lew Dvorkin runs Forbes.com these days. We were colleagues in the 90s when I ran the place and he was on the magazine side editing cover stories under Jim Michaels. Lew went on to run AOL’s homepage — making him arguably one of the most powerful traffic generators on the planet at the time (a link from AOL to Forbes.com in September 1999 on the occasion of the annual list of the richest 400 Americans, generated so much traffic that Forbes.com crashed went dark for three days under the traffic load, my first and lasting lesson on flash traffic capacity planning) — he’s recrafted Forbes.com into an interesting exercise in “open journalism”, opening the platform and tools to not only the paid staff of Forbes, but select outside contributors. The net result is a little like Huffington Post, but to draw too close a parallel would be a disservice.

Lew has written two excellent columns about the new strategy and how it fits into his view that online journalism can foster and support long-form reporting/writing over multiple screens as opposed to his earlier view that USA Today-style “news nuggets” and bullet-form journalism was best suited to the attention-deficit medium known as the web. I agree with his observation that “Store-and-read-later” apps such as Instapaper,  digests such as Longform.org, and the ability to push long form content onto e-readers is helping to drive the renaissance.

Anyway, two good reads for anyone interested in the future of journalism, online writing, and the state of Forbes.com

How Long-Form Journalism Is Finding Its Digital Audience: Part I

Long-Form Journalism, Part II: The Challenge for Reporters, and What Forbes Is Doing About It

 

More Sailing Fun:

Bloomberg Pursuits has a piece by Aaron Kuriloff on the state of the art in ocean racing, and the tale of one ill-fated hedge funded super yacht, the Rambler 100 that capsized during last summer Fastnet. A very fast boat this boat was, especially for a monohull:

“In one 24-hour period during that passage, she logged 582 nautical miles, just 14 shy of the record for a monohull (catamarans and trimarans go faster). That’s an average speed of 24.25 nautical miles per hour, or knots, equal to about 28 miles per hour. ”

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