Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Inside the Google moat

Published in the Post Register Oct. 4, 2009.

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. – There was a gathering last week of a bunch of old-media troglodytes within the moats of the new media’s top kingdom – Google.

We filled an auditorium-style conference room in Building No. 40 of the “Googleplex”, a campus one speaker called “shiny.” We listened to folks from, yes, Google, but mostly elsewhere, including Microsoft, Salon, CNN, Yahoo and various academic circles.

Here’s one of the takeaways from the meetings: The sheer volume of information coming at us will continue to grow astronomically, but there are two fundamental challenges that must be met soon:

First, information consumers need more help managing what they receive.

Second, providers of information need to find a sustainable business model.

It should come as no surprise, but these are the big topics inside places like Google and Microsoft and the University of California’s Graduate School of Journalism. The problem for news consumers isn’t access to information – it’s managing that information. Companies are feverishly working on building tools to help you do this.

The process of sifting through the information overload, vetting it for accuracy, putting it into perspective and disseminating it in a usable format already has a name, of course: journalism. What so many in the Silicon Valley and elsewhere are trying to do is create algorithms and computer code to replace the vital function already served, admittedly imperfectly, by human beings. But can we really expect to automate this process?

No, I think not.

As Los Angeles Times reporter James Rainey wrote in his coverage of the conference:
“ … one Google executive, Bradley Horowitz, also acknowledged that consumers might be drowning in media, e-mail and the 'social stream.'

“So maybe, even in the age of Google, consumers are looking for someone to help cut through all the clutter to get at the important facts.

“Sounds to me like they're looking for a journalist.”
One speaker at the summit was Tara Hunt, a young woman who wrote a book called “The Whuffie Factor” (don’t ask), which is about social networks like Facebook and Twitter. Her basic point was, and I quote from her slide show: “If you can succeed in making your readers feel smarter, more in control, sexier, excited and more interesting themselves, then you will win.”

I am trying to figure out how to work that into a new marketing slogan for the Post Register.

One speaker defined news as “what happened.” This is a frightfully simplistic view that ignores the who, when, where, why and how.

The best line of the conference came from Blair Westlake, a vice president at Microsoft: “People associate the Internet with free like they associate deep fried with fatty." And therein lies the rub.

Live blogging today from the Googleplex

To retain the sense of spontaneity, this post has not been edited -- it's essentially a stream-of-consciousness report as I wrote it from Building No. 40 at the Googleplex.

I'm spending the day in Building No. 40 at the Googleplex in Mountain View, California, attending the Media Technology Summit organized by UC-Berkeley. I'll be updating this blog through the day and provide a more coherent report in a few days.

Remember, Google didn't exist 11 years ago. It now owns a campus of 40+ buildings. We've already run into a bit of the Google paranoia. One of our attendees was snooping around the hall, opening and doors and such. Sure enough, security appeared from nowhere with, "May we help you?" If I don't come out of here (or if I have a far-away look in my eyes when I do), contact my wife and my attorney, not necessarily in that order.

For Twitterers out there, the hashtag for the conference is #mts, which will allow you to follow all the Tweets live during the conference -- looks like there may a dozen people tweeting using that hashtag.

The first speaker, John Temple, former editor and publisher of the now-defunct Rocky Mountain News, is telling the poignant story of the newspaper's death. So far, he's blaming on the newspaper's delay in embracing the Internet. Oddly, he's not talking about the fact that, as an eventual JOA market, Denver was clearly not going to support two major newspapers. The war with the Post resulted in slashed ad and circulation rates, which likely would have killed one of the papers even absent the Internet. It is clear to me, and several others with whom I spoke at lunch, that there were so many more factors than the emergence of the Internet that ultimately led to the Rocky's demise. It would be interesting to hear the perspective of Mark Contreras from E.W. Scripps, who is attending the conference.

It's an interesting, sad story, but Temple's conclusions strike me as all-too-familiar and easy -- the Rocky was to slow to adapt to the Internet, but there was precious little offered by way of real alternatives.

And now, we're off on gee-whiz technology that I'm not going to write about. If you're interested, go to Twitter and search the hashtag #mts.

It's mid-morning and we're hearing from Thomas Tague, vice president of Thomson-Reuters,talking about his project, Open Calais. It's essentially a way to automate the process of tagging stories (way, way over-simplified). What I find interesting is that he's operating under the assumption that, once a story is on the Internet, it's fair game to anyone to take it, post it, and tag it. Copyrights are so 20th century. That aside, this is a web-based product built by and for news organizations -- probably worth a look. Google the name and check out the web site.

Open Calais is free and seems to have some great potential in archiving, investigative journalism and indexing, at the very least. Best presentation of the morning session. Time for a break.

The late morning session features executives from Google, Microsoft and Piper Jaffray, blue-skying about the future of consumer-driven online technology. The upshot of this session is that the availability of content will continue to expand apace, but the challenge to the consumer is to manage it and the challenge to providers is the business model. Blair Westlake of Microsoft is particularly certain that journalism will survive and thrive and that people will be willing to pay for it in due time. He also came up with the best line of the morning: "People associate the Internet with free like they associate deep fried with fatty." Personally, I've always associated deep-fried with delicious.

Lunch was in the lovely Google courtyard, where we joined the employees under blue skies in 75-degree temperatures. I am disappointed to report, however, that there was no live music.

We're now learning about "The Whuffie Factor," and I suggest that if you really want to know what that means, try, um, Google. Our speaker, Tara Hunt, vaguely reminds me of Meghan McCain. Once again, we are being talked down to by a young person who finds journalism uncool and who assumes that we haven't a clue about that thing with the all the tubes, the "Internets". My favorite quote of hers, taken directly from her PPT: “If you can succeed in making your readers feel smarter, more in control, sexier, excited and more interesting themselves, then you will win.” As I've written elsewhere, I'm trying to figure out how to work that into a slogan for my newspaper.

And now we turn to Mikolaj Piskorski, a Harvard professor, who speaks remarkably quickly and well for a man who speaks English as a second language. He has a whole bunch of data about social networks and is very entertaining, but I'm not sure, at least yet, what to do with the data.

OK, here's something: Integrate your advertising with the content. Well, duh, but he makes the point in a way even I can understand. In other words, if your content is likely to attract women, don't try to sell a power saw on the page. Paired with the companion presentation by Bill Heil, it was really, really interesting but not necessarily helpful to a newspaper publisher in Idaho. If you want all of the research, Google Piskorski and Heil at Harvard Business School -- it'll be coming out next month.

In the Q&A the question is how to use social networking in our context, as journalists. The answer is, I think, that's not what these things were built for. Also, someone asks why Twitter can be valued at $1 billion. Harvard Prof. Piskorski simply says that it'll be hard for Twitter to "capture that value."

Next we have Krishna Bharat, principal scientist and founder of Google News. The summary of his short presentation: We want to distribute the news you generate and share with you a portion of the revenue we generate by doing so. Thank you. Thankyouverymuch.

I don't mean to sound snarky, but here's more snark: Lila King, a senior producer at CNN responsible for CNN's iReport, believes that the truth can be found by stitching together small pieces of a story from citizen journalists. You decide.

Daniel X. O'Neil, co-founder of EveryBlock.com. He seems a little angry and arrogant, in a charming kind of way. He has an interesting web site (just go look at it), but some simplistic ideas about what news is. "News," he says," is what happened." Who, what, when, where, why, and how is so yesterday.

Up next is Richard Gingras, CEO of Salon Media. He's very smart and straightforward, but, honestly, doesn't have a lot for me. It would be wrong to summarize his comments like this: Aw, don't worry about making money -- I gotta sugar-daddy.

Finally, the last speaker of the day before cocktails, dinner and a "conversation with Peter Chernin, former COO of News Corp." -- John Thornton, chairman of a new venture, The Texas Tribune. His basic premise: Capital "J" journalism -- the "iron core" -- has never been profitable, a fact that has been exposed by the "unbundling" of news by the Internet. He's entertaining and convincing but doesn't really have much data to back him up.

I suppose the issue for me is that the difference between a non-profit and a for-profit operation, aside from paying some taxes, isn't all that much money.

Late-night update: At dinner, in an off-the record "conversation" and brief Q&A, former News Corp. COO Peter Chernin evaded questions but left the indelible impression that he's very smart. He also talks very fast, but I think English is his primary language.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Thanks, but no thanks, Sen. Kerry

Published May 7, 2009 in the Post Register.

A grim-faced Sen. John Kerry, as a prelude to hearings this week on the future of newspapers, suggested that newspapers are "an endangered species" and worried aloud that "the emerging news media" might be "more fragmented by interests and political partisanship."

He then chaired hearings featuring geniuses such as Arianna Huffington (whose online Huffington Post survives thanks to her personal financial largesse) to executives from Google, who profess that they only want to help.

The last thing the newspaper business needs is help from the government. Not only would government intervention eventually make things worse, but it would inevitably come with unacceptable strings attached. Newspapers are supposed to be the watchdogs of government, not a line item in its budget.

One of the things that has always bothered me about the BBC, which is considered the beacon of journalism in some circles, is that it is able to afford all those international bureaus and one of the world's most complete and sophisticated news Web sites because everyone in the United Kingdom must pay an annual fee of more than $200 per television set, all of which goes to fund "the Beeb." That generates about $7.5 billion a year (that's with a "b").

Just imagine if such a thing were attempted in the U.S. Idahoans are ostensibly outraged at the thought of increasing the gas tax by 2 cents a gallon. How would they feel about a $200 annual fee just to own a TV set?

To be fair, no one's proposing such a thing, but just the holding of hearings on the "future of newspapers" is enough to make my skin crawl.

First, as I've written on this page before, newspapers don't need a bailout or even a helping hand. The vast majority of community newspapers (those of fewer than 100,000 circulation) in the U.S. are comfortably profitable, even in this deepest of recessions.

Second, the last time the government stepped into our business was in 1970 with the Newspaper Preservation Act, which allowed competing newspapers in cities such as Seattle, Denver, Detroit, Salt Lake City, San Francisco and elsewhere to combine business operations while operating ostensibly competing newsrooms. In many of those cities, that move simply prolonged the inevitable closure of the weaker newspapers such as we've seen lately in Denver and Seattle.

Sen. Kerry, thanks, but no thanks. Newspapers are vital to the free flow of information, but we're not "too big to fail." We're figuring out how to adapt our business model in changing times, and we don't need the government's help to do it. The best things you can do for us is protect press freedoms and leave us alone.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Newspaper troglodytes

For some inexplicable (to me) reason, the Pacific Northwest Newspaper Association invited J.D. Lasica to address us at this year's conference.

Lasica is clearly a bright man who spends a good share of his time typing away at his laptop and smartphone. I know this because after his session he sat 10 feet away from me, tapping away. He knows a lot about social networking and hashtags. He clearly subscribes to the theory that "if you can, you should."

I came away from his presentation feeling patronized, a sense that was compounded when I read some of his Twitter posts from the conference. He noted that he was the only one in the room using a laptop, clearly implying that anyone who didn't have his or her head buried in a notebook computer during a conference presentation is a troglodyte.

Of course, the real truth is that most of the people in the room were thumbing away on more discrete iPhones and BlackBerries, because laptops are distracting and, well, rude. It wasn't because, as he seemed to imply, that newspaper ad directors and publishers didn't receive word that laptops had been invented and actually could connect to the Internet via wireless network. We actually know that.

Lasica asked a series of questions about whether we'd heard about this web site or that one, and few hands went up. At least in my case, I didn't raise my hand because I felt that Lasica was being patronizing and wasn't interested in feedback, not because BugMeNot was new to me. BugMeNot is yesterday's news -- I've used it in old articles as an argument against site registration.

No, the truth is, from my perspective, that many of us found Lasica's presentation to be condescending and, in some ways, dangerous. For example, he made light of those old "journalism conventions," apparently like vetting the accuracy of information, using multiple sources, doing research and attempting to take an objective approach to covering the news. He clearly thinks it's ancient thinking to not encourage reporters to develop blogs and Twitter accounts to talk one-on-one to readers.

How old-fashioned it must sound to Lasica for journalists to hold to the idea that we don't want reporters discussing their personal biases and perspectives, one of those "journalism conventions" he so easily dismisses.

No, Mr. Lasica, the lack of raised hands and laptops at your presentation had nothing to do with your being in a room full of dummies. We just didn't want to play along with the game in which you've already declared winners and losers, and we don't need to be chained to our laptops to be aware of evolving technology.

Social networking, citizen involvement in news-gathering, facilitating the community dialog, pulling back the curtain on how the newspaper is created -- these are all good things in appropriate doses and as part of a strategy that respects and supports valid "journalism conventions" instead of supplanting them.

And, yes, newspaper publishers follow the trends in technology, but we try to understand how best to apply them sensibly and, sorry -- profitably -- in a sustainable business model. Folks like Lasica appear not to be concerned about such trivia.