Breakfast With Roger: “Me, Mine, Us, Them”

For me, this is a first. Blogging an event at which I not only moderated, but in which my company, Teeming Media, partnered (with the irrepressible Bill Sobel of NY:MIEG). But enough about me, and Bill. Our guest, the speaker, was the equally irrepressible Roger Black, who has managed to not only design some of the preeminent magazines, newspapers and other media properties of the 20th century, but also bring his knowledge and expertise further into the digital realm and relaunch himself as an eminence in the 21st. He’s redone, the popular Houston Chronicle website, and a bunch of other properties.

This morning, he revealed another venture which will be a U.S. version of the popular Mexican digital magazine Indigo. There are prototypes here, though Roger says it’s not done, and it will be named something other than “Indigo” for its north of the border version. He talked a bit about why this is Flash, and not a digital magazine technology like NextBook or Zinio, and I'd boil it down to greater functionality for a wider audience than those proprietary and more closed systems.

In a wide ranging discussion with a wonderfully combative audience trying to take Roger (and me) to task for the idea that there even needs to be such a thing as a “magazine” on the Web (even though we didn't really say that) or anything approaching traditional literacy (even though I'm not sure we really said that), Roger talked of the editor Ramon Alberto Garza whom he quoted, when asked what should be the sections of a general interest newspaper or magazine site as answering: “Me, Mine, Us, Them.” And that, said Roger, is the pinnacle of what the Web is about -- concentric circles moving outward from the individual. That phrase in a way sums up the essense of Facebook, or MySpace, or DIGG, PageFlakes, or maybe even YouTube. And those sections are more appealing, as Roger pointed out, than the constructs we're used to in the more designed media such as U.S., World, Business, Technology, Health and so on.

Later, at the AlwaysOn conference, which I ran to after the Roger Black breakfast, Jeff Jarvis blogged about “lazy advertisers who don’t want to converse with us.” Conversation -- not content, according to Jeff -- is what the Web is about, about “connections and relationships” which would, if I think about it for a sec, be me and mine connecting with us, and then them. An my friend and mentor Ed Fields, a finance consultant and expert lecturer, pointed out another reason the Web works for him that's related: “When I read a newspaper I’m letting somebody I never met decide what’s important for me. That’s not true on the Internet.” He was adding to a comment by Fred Seibert, also at the breakfast, who pointed out that his daily front page didn’t rely on any one writer, or any universe created by a magazine editor or any other editor, for that matter. It was, rather, created by him, aggregating and hunting and assembling what he wanted to read from the sources he wanted, and, he said, was every bit as immersive for him as a glossy mag is for any fan of that genre.

Off the Media: Pay Your Sources

NPR’s On the Media in its show before the most recent episode brought up the issue of paying sources and brought back some poignant thoughts about whether and why sources should or shouldn’t be paid. Sure, there are all the usual arguments about polluting the system, encouraging untruths, and starting a slippery slope of checkbook journalism. But, “I've always just questioned that taboo on talking about money,” says guest Robert Boynton, an NYU journalism professor.

I’ve been asked more than once, “Why should I help you?” Some folks I’ve interviewed have even pointed out that I’m being paid to report, that the organization I’m working for (whether a newspaper or TV show) is money-making, even for profit, and so why should we reporters feel sanguine about asking or requiring that the grist for our work be provided for free? It’s a hard question to answer, when you can’t say “for publicity that will help your business,” or if someone isn’t buying the argument that getting the word out may help others in other situations or that simply getting it off their chest will be liberating.

In Japan, it’s common to pay sources, especially when they’re experts -- and, yes, they also get the advantage of publicity. There is, in giving over a token amount of cash, a display of gratitude, and acknowledgement that value has been given. I had one uncomfortable interview in Tokyo while working for Newsweek, when an expert in the construction and maintenance of the Bullet Train gave me some inside information about troubles the line had had in its earlier days. I wondered why he was telling me such info so frankly. At the end, he expected -- as he had come to expect from journalists -- a gratuity, and it was left to a Japanese co-worker to explain to him, with both in considerable discomfort, that American organizations didn’t do that. I was uncomfortable, too.

As OTM co-host Bob Garfield and guest Robert Boynton point out in the radio piece, even when no money is exchanged there is a currency of those who give their time and information in exchange for exposure, perhaps the chance to flog their point of view. Some journalists talk of disinterest in how money is made by the organization they work for, which I find a little odd. Is there another such for-profit industry, where the folks steeped in producing the product are willfully ignorant of how it's sold and makes money? There is certainly a coin of the realm, and one in which journalists spin and get spun, journalists and sources use each other in various ways. Boynton says it would be OK to pay, if it were disclosed that someone had done so. That would be an open and honest way of doing it. Let the consumer make his or her own decisions. And it would be more open than the hidden agendas the public sometimes can’t see.

The Power of Convenience

Bob Pittman to VideoNuze on how much ease of use matters:

"My experience from the Internet is that just one more click means a lot less response. You think, well it's just one more click. But for example, when I was at Time Warner, we had 2 options for ordering PPV - one to click a button and one to call an 800 number. The response rate for the former was three times the latter - that's the power of ease of use and convenience."

Comcast Must Kill (Its Ads)

We’re already well aware of the hatred for Comcast embodied in Bob Garfield’s “Comcast Must Die” campaign. Now, we’ve got a call from Gene Keenan of the ad agency Isobar that Comcast Must KILL ads it runs on the bottom of its screens that viewers are forced to click through on the directory of shows, to view information about shows they’re interested in. In other words: Want to see information on what show you're going to watch on your (PAID) cable service. Click through this ad to see it.

It may sound crazy, he said, “but I called Comcast just about every day for awhile to complain about having to click through these ads. ... The tech people told me they get a lot of complaints about the ads.” Keenan pointed out to me that he especially resented the ads because he’s already paying for the service. “It becomes a question of, ‘who owns the screen?’ ” Keenan said. He said the ads, which rotated, could be for anything -- a consumer product, service, whatever.

I can imagine how the ad deal might have gotten done: Someone in biz dev or ad sales tells the other execs around a conference room table that if they could guarantee a certain number of impressions, especially in a choice group (he'd call it a "demographic"), they could get a big ad rate, and bring in some amount of millions more dollars at no real cost. From that business perspective, it's a slam dunk, and conceptually is kind of a replication of the cable model (which I’ve sometimes resented) of making viewers watch ads on cable channels we’ve already paid for. On the other hand Nickelodeon’s chief a long time ago said to me that it was those ads, more than the cable fees, that allowed the channel to produce the original programming -- everything from Sponge Bob to Jamie Lynn Spears’ “Zoey 101."

I understand the business argument. But how much is that ad revenue worth to Comcast vs. whatever ill will the campaign creates among the paying subscribers, who are apparently PO'd enough to phone in about it (and you can be sure, reading Garfield's blog, that it takes awhile to get through to tech support)? And as the options for getting the content through means other than cable providers increase, how long until there's enough people dropping the service that the business model must change? An ad exec at another agency told me they're already seeing a trend of people in the recently graduated from college demographic dropping cable TV service altogether, instead getting their favorite shows via the Internet, DVD, iTunes and so on.

WSJ NOT Free. Surprise. Surprise?

I hedged quite a bit in writing about whether the Wall Street Journal could, should and would go free, rather than paid, noting a lot of IFs... They may be able to do it IF they're willing to forego more than $60 million a year in revenue for a few years. IF they can get enough synergies from other properties. IF they can keep their CPMs high enough even as they open the floodgates.

Now, it seems, those IFs are too substantial and the WSJ will remain paid for the most part. (And I guess I'll be re-upping for my $99/year.) There had been rumors of people holding off on renewals amid talk of the Journal going free, and speculation that going free would cut into not just the online revenues, but also a not-insignificant amount of print subs. (Another, probably more minor, complication would have been unwinding all kinds of others deals, from archives and current articles and headliens in paid data services like Factiva to the new subscription service on the Amazon Kindle and so on.)

Yahoo Accepting Open ID is Big

Joseph Weisenthal, with whom I'm friendly, of PaidContent, for which I've worked, writes that the list of sites accepting Open ID is "spare." True. But that Yahoo, which claims close to half a billion registrants, has signed on and bumped up Open ID's potential base an order of magnitude or so, is big news. If people can use one logon, or ID, and log on to myriad sites, such as Six Apart blogs and the contact storing software Plaxo, it bring a utility to the Web that's not there today, allowing one logon and more seamless execution across registered platforms.

With a genuflection to another friend, Daniel Gross, I say this is one of those little things that could prove to be of big import. Whether Open ID or another scheme, open, cross-platform utility is only going to progress geometrically, when it's fast and easy. Now, let me try the thing once it launches and see if it actually works (!).

From Policing to Business Opportunity

Sites and content purveyors are removing DRM, the digital rights management software that restricts use of their material. There are various reasons, including the hassle to legitimate customers -- keeping them from making legitimate use of something they buy on multiple machines, for example -- while not really stopping people who want to make illicit copies. Burning, ripping and copying software is freely available and relatively easy to use.

Then there’s the issue of pilfered content like photos or text or video taken from TV shows, which also is hard to control or stop.

In come the tracking companies, like Teletrax and Attributor, both of which (full disclosure) my company has worked with and I've covered. I notice that these companies, that may be seen as helping police the Web, are now positioning themselves as business partners: We’ll not just help you find out where your content’s going so you can slap others’ wrists (or sue their pants off, if need be), not only be digital police, but ALSO be business partners. We’ll help you gently request that whoever’s using your stuff, and, say, putting ads on it, cut you in on that ad revenue.

It’s an appealing model for someone who wants to see win-win solutions, and make at least incremental revenue relatively hassle-free, instead of the lose-lose solution of lawsuits and wrangling and all that. But can it really work in our legalistic, lawyer-heavy sytem? Ultimately the sites that cooperate will do so if they see the threat of punishment for not. We’re talking everyone from fly-by-night link farms to the Google/YouTubes of the world.

iPhone, Limited, Locked, but Desired

A woman with an accent, European it seemed, came into the Apple Store near the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan today and asked a salesperson if she could buy some iPhones for her friend who was returning home. The clerk told her limit was five, she could not use cash, and they were locked to AT&T in the US (but he also said they couldn't say what she did with them after they brought them home). Tacitly, a recognition that folks will buy the phones, hack them and do what they want. And, silly, that Apple limits purchases in this way. A sign of non-internationalization ... who wants a phone locked to one country's network?

DTV Switch-a-thon Gets Going in Earnest

As all the coverage of CES shouts really loudly over in Vegas, an equally important technological drumbeat has begun in earnest, with explainers and even a government coupon program to help people (like me) who still have broadcast TVs (in my case along with digital cable), and want to be able to keep using them after the switch over to digital broadcast signals next year.

The coupon program, according to the AP, offers $40 coupons for the first 22 million homes that request them -- we'll see if that's enough, and what kind of crunch there is next Feb when TVs start going blank. AP says the converter boxes will cost $50 - $70. (Which means even with teh coupon everyone's going to have to spend the price of, say, a DVD player to get each TV switched over). I've registered. I'm the kind of guy who will use both modern tech -- running my various Apples and Windows machines through a wireless network, Slingbox, etc -- and also jury-rig an old coax-only TV with rabbit ears to see if I can milk some more life out of it in a spare bedroom.


Aside from the pathos of reading the final 3,000-word post of an intelligent and thoughtful military man, I also found use of the word "disemvoweled" -- removing unwanted comments -- clever. (via Rocky Mountain News and

An Internet Generation is About Three Years

Forget about Gen Y, Gen X, and other typical ways of defining a generational gap, says Blake Comargere, co-founder of Mogad (kind of a DIGG for friends). The typical Internet generation is about three-four years, he said at a Venture Summit panel (video from Always On). “The usage patterns and behaviors and comfort levels of certain things on the Internet are radically different from people that are just three years younger than you. ... IM is something that grandpas use,” he said. “They leave Facebook messages on my wall saying things like ‘Let’s have lunch.”

Keen Observations

Andrew Keen’s book, “The Cult of the Amateur,” got a bit more life New Year’s Day when a rebroadcast of a 2007 interview, along with Xeni Jardin of Boing Boing, NYU’s Clay Shirky, and Larry Sanger, co-founder of Wikipedia. The broadcast got me to go back and look at a lot of what was said. Lessig in a parody calls him a self-parodist. Many note he made a lot of mistakes in his own book, so became his own debunker in asserting books are more accurate than the Internet. Boing Boing goes on at length. And Jarvis debunks Keen perfectly by pointing out how the crowd hauled Jarvis himself in, pointing him to the crowd-sourced Wikipedia, so he could update and correct a mistake in a post he’d written about Keen’s book. Jarvis refused to debate Keen live but I can agree with Jardin for doing so. What’s wrong with the live, broadcast version of debunking akin to the blog commenting conversation? More people are hit with the message that way, and more may be swayed.

Now, a word about some oddly guilty feelings I have about writing about this now, a half year after its first wave of information and commenting. I have the journalist thing in me where I need an excuse to write something now because if I’m commenting on something from months ago, it can no longer be valid. It’s been out, people have had their say, it’s done. But while it’s important to be aware of the conversation, generally, there are so many concurrent conversations it’s impossible to keep up on all of them at the same time, and sometimes you have something to say a long time later that still may be relevant, especially in looking over some old material. That, in a way, is what academics do, to great effect. They study past data and narrative and so on, picking out the most truly relevant information, analyzing and digesting it, and bringing new intelligence to it. I’m not that -- at least not formally -- but I can try to use their techniques.

Gain and Loss of Social Self

Who owns you? This is part of the battle brewing over social networks, and networking applications like Facebook. Robert Scoble, the Scobelizer, complains that when he tried to run a “script” on his profile on Facebook, Facebook detected it and kicked him off. He’s appealing the decision. He won’t say what the script is -- says he’s under a non-disclosure agreement with the company that wrote the bit of code that will somehow do something to Scoble’s Facebook profile -- but it seems to be something that would somehow take the info on Facebook, and run some other application on it.

A clue comes from a comment Scoble writes in response to someone who says that in a “walled garden,” the point is that it is walled. “We fundementally (sic) DON’T want someone wholeheartedly using our graphs. Especially not a friend, who we trust to not do that,” writes the commenter. Scoble replies: “What about info you’ve made public? Like, your name? And other stuff that’s on your public profile on Facebook? Are you saying that no one has the right to use that? How about this? Can I write down your email address and put it in my address book? Or, how about your birthday?

“So, why am I allowed to write down your phone number or email address, but my computer can’t take it out of Facebook and put it into Outlook for me? Or another program or service I’m using?

“How about something that actually ads value, like something that’d see that you’re on both Facebook and Twitter and Flickr and could mash those three together?”

So, Scoble is implying that what he wants to do is use publicly available information for private uses that he’d have permission to regardless of technology. This, I would guess, would be legal -- putting aside the Terms of Service issue -- in the same way that making copies of material for purely personal use are also legal.

He also alludes to a holy grail of social networking I think we’ll see more of this year: the social network mashup, applications that allow use of networking and profiles across platforms. Google’s Open Social is a step in this direction, though one that’s more push out than inbound in the way Scoble describes. Media companies and publishers are signing on with Google’s scheme so they can, say, write a widget once and have it spread across myriad platforms, rather than having to write or tweak new code for each. (And then they’re still having to write for Facebook, if they want to reach its millions of users. MySpace is a whole ‘nother issue.) I would expect to see a bunch of such apps come out this year, many with funding, and a few to catch on.

We’ll see, too, continued battle over closed vs. open that’s been part of the conversation since the earliest days of AOL and Prodigy vs. Netscape and Mozilla (and Internet Explorer, which provides the enticement of openness AND the control of digital rights management).

In a way, Scoble is arguing both sides of the coin. He owns the right to scrape his own profile, his own information -- though in joining Facebook, he signed terms of service that said he couldn’t run such applications on the closed network. Facebook, too, is trying to have it both ways. When they were exclusive to the academic community, they had a closed system that, while potentially very large, was limited to people with some similarity in mindset and orientation, at least in the broadest sense, and, probably, less likely to use the system for certain kinds of commercial behavior. By now allowing anyone from any background to register and use Facebook, and open up the API to all developers, the company is trying to reap the benefits of openness, but still with a closed system.

Facebook now has many millions of users. But how long will those millions remain when they are a) hit with an increasing number of unwanted marketing messages, un-needed invitations from non-”friends,” ever more mass messages, fewer directly relevant personal messages, b) finding it increasing difficulty to manage it all, and c) Open Social is on the way? We’ll see shakeouts this year among social networking applications, and an increasing number of profiles lay fallow. Facebook won’t die, and they’re smart enough that they may come up with a graceful solution that leads to more openness and integration with other platforms. The apology they gave due to the controversy that broke out over their Beacon system proves they are a company that’s able to hear complaints and try to adjust. But they will having a tough time overcoming the tension between walled garden and open access.