Archive for the 'Umair Haque' Category

The Wall Street Journal Isn’t Starbucks

I am at pains here not to seem like a big, gruesome troll. I am therefore going to avoid anything that could be even reasonably construed as an argument anything close to “information wants to be free.” That would give lazy opponents a too easy strawman, which is too bad, because what I’m really giving up, it seems, is arguments stemming from vanishingly small marginal costs. Oh well, such seems to be the price of admission to conversations about the future of news in which curmudgeons may lurk, which is certainly to say nothing at all about whether Mr. Murray is curmudgeonly. (It’s far too early in this post to poison that particular well.)

And so but my question is, “At a human level, why would @alansmurray push us into a paywall when he could avoid it?”

And Mr. Murray’s answer is, “I feel the same way about the folks at Starbucks.”

So let’s take a look at whether it’s an appropriate argument by analogy. Let’s see where it holds up and where it’s weak.

First, the folks at Starbucks rarely know their customers. No denigration to them at all—I’ve put in my time working the Dairy Queen in the mall’s food court—but they have a rote job. Starbucks the corporation may wish it hired pleasant workers, but in truth it doesn’t want to pay for them. Call me cynical or call me a member of Gen M, but low-level food-service workers are not in anything near even quasi-social relationships with buyers of coffee. It’s not their fault; they’re not really paid for their social graces or interpersonal talents. It’s a structural problem.

But Mr. Murray is in an altogether different space. He’s in a space quite literally defined by its human connections. There is little reason to be on twitter at all if it’s not to be social at some level.

And, I can say from my not-so-remote experience in food service that when folks like the folks at Starbucks do find themselves in a social context with customers, they’re deeply tempted to give away product. When I was a kid, working the blizzard machine at the tender age of fourteen, I gave away way more product than I’d like to admit. There was too much soft-serve on my cones. There was too much candy or cookies whipped into my blizzards. And I also just gave it away. Maybe it was part of a swap with the pizza guys or the sandwich guys or the taco guys. Or maybe I just handed out blizzards to all my pals, when the boss wasn’t looking. This corporate-profit-be-damned attitude was rampant across my food court on the west side of Madison, Wisconsin, in the second half of the 1990s. It’s called a principal-agent problem, and although it’s not unreasonable for Mr. Murray, an agent, to side with his principal, his analogy hides the difference, pretending it doesn’t exist. (NB. I haven’t a clue whether Mr. Murray is an equity holder of News Corp.)

Also, it’s illegal to give away someone else’s coffee. As best I can tell, however, it’s perfectly within the bounds of the law to encode a long google link within the bit.ly URLs Mr. Murray uses. It’s not against the law for Mr. Murray to route us around inconvenience rather than push us into a paywall. In fact, the route-around is perfectly normal and appropriate. Again, there’s nothing wrong or shady or sketchy about routing around the Wall Street Journal’s paywall. You don’t have to be hacker; you only have to be frugal and spend a few extra seconds and clicks.

But maybe it’s against the rules. Maybe Mr. Murray’s boss has decreed that WSJ employees shall not distribute link that route around the paywall. That doesn’t answer the question, however; it just passes the buck. For why would Mr. Murray’s boss—who is probably Robert Thomson, though I’m not certain—authorize or oblige Mr. Murray’s twittering of paywalled links if he hadn’t deemed it appropriate? Does Robert Thomson believe it makes business sense to twitter paywalled links?

Maybe it is. Maybe Mr. Thomson believes that, if Mr. Murray twittered route-around links to normally abridged articles, then fewer people would pay for subscriptions. And maybe fewer people would. It’s not impossible. Note well, however, that I’m not saying Mr. Murray should hurt his company’s finances by twittering route-around links to normally abridged articles. I’m saying that Mr. Murray might consider twittering only links to normally unabridged WSJ articles and other content around the web. But that would be odd, wouldn’t it? That would be awkward, silly even.

The Wall Street Journal leaves the side-door wide open, hidden only by slight obscurity, but charges at the front door. The Wall Street Journal is wide open. The fact that google indexes its content fully is dispositive—it’s all the proof we need. Let’s try a good old counterfactual conditional: Were the route-around not legitimate, then google would ding the WSJ’s pagerank. But google clearly hasn’t, so the route-around is legitimate.

The point requires an underline lest we succumb to a kind of anchoring cognitive bias. The paywall is not normative. You are not stealing content by refusing to be treated differently from google. In fact, the use of terms like “front door” and “side door” subtly, but completely inappropriately, encodes moral judgments into the discussion. In fact, there are—rather obviously, come to think of it—no “doors” at all. There are, in technical reality, only equal and alternative ways of reading the news. One’s convenient, and one’s not. One’s free, save the attention extracted by on-site advertising, and the other’s not. Maybe one cushions News Corp.’s bottom line, and maybe the other doesn’t. Maybe one supports civically important journalism, and maybe one doesn’t.

At bottom, though, there’s this. Mr. Murray is a human interacting socially with other humans on twitter, saying, “Hey, read this! Trust me: it’s good!” He gestures enthusiastically toward a bolted door, his back disguising an open gateway. “Please, ignore the actually convenient way to take my suggestion that you read this really interesting piece.” Mr. Murray would rather you remain ignorant of a loophole his paper exploits in order to maintain its googlejuice but keep its legacy subscribers. (Note that I’ve pointed out the loophole to several fellow mortgage traders, asking whether they would consider dropping their subscriptions. They all declined, saying they prefer to pay rather than take the time to make the additional clicks.)

I’m not saying it doesn’t make business sense. Businesses are free to capture whatever “thin value” they can, Umair Haque’s warnings notwithstanding. I am saying it doesn’t make human sense. I am saying that particular business practice looks silly, awkward, and disingenuous on twitter. And, ultimately, that’s Umair’s point. In a world of exploding media (PDF), we’re inevitably going to come to rely more on human connections, based on real trust, in order to make choices about how we allocate our attention. Mr. Murray’s cold business logic may work, but I suspect it won’t.

Whoops! CJR lost (ignored?) my comment on “Music Lessons”

So I’ll post it here, pointing to the piece by Alissa Quart, who asks, “Could one ailing media industry—music—teach another ailing media industry—journalism—a thing or two about survival?” Check it out.

My comment?

Readers now care deeply about the biographies of the people who produce their news, writing or talking or what-have-you. But why? And how to convice journalists who want so badly to get it?

I think the answer lies in trust. I think trust is the general concept and can explain why the “Unbiased Media ideal” worked in the departing era and why the “premodern storytelling mode” will work the arriving one.

It is largely the story of Too Much Information, which is itself a chapter of the digital democratization of the printing press and a chapter of essentially free access to the internet. It is now orders of magnitude easier to produce and to consume the news, in other words. Interaction is cheap, even nearly free, between perfect strangers continents apart, and fast. More and more, trust just happens differently.

This explanation is nothing new. Prominent writers have been talking about these inside-out, upside-down profound shifts in media since many students at the j-school were in the fifth grade.

So what does “cheap interaction” promise? Instead of rewriting what others have already said (because links are free and clicks are convenient), let me point the way to Umair Haque on the erosion of brands.

Extra credit to the brave journalist who groks the flipping of attention from relatively abundant to relatively scarce (see the ppt).

This isn’t a tweak to the old system. This doesn’t call for a Friday meeting to develop a new strategy. This isn’t a call for a pretty new website or flashy widget. This simply a new business, a new industry, a new world; this is a return to first principles of old.

So what is the news? It’s producers, who write or share the news, and consumers, who read the news. They are be largely the same people; they must trust one another. The news requires sources. The news is stories about people and organizations, about topics or beats, and about events. The news is opinion, and the news is fact. The news is new—sometimes so new nowadays that it can happen in real- or near-real time and can thus morph into a conversation.

So, yes, write about journalists ripping a page from musicians’ script, if you like. But mightn’t it be more worthwhile to write our own, pieced together from basic facts and laws like these?

I bet it would be fun.

The information architecture must fit

I believe that the news business’s central financial struggle right now lies in its search for a new information architecture on top of which it can monetize its alchemy of products, like raw data, and services, like human and trust. This question of economics will determine, if only roughly, all of the answers to the questions about how we’re going to get our news from the news business, which I construe broadly.

Pinning that information architecture down is hard—for a lot of reasons. The biggest reason: it’s like a fish asking, “Morning boys, how’s the water?” (We’ll miss you, DFW.) The second-biggest reason: moving parts abound.

Let’s go through some of those moving parts—some tried-and-true and some previously latent and maybe unfamiliar—at as low a level as possible. Let’s not pretend to be exhaustive.

(1) Everything Is Miscellaneous. The Long Tail. Infinite variety. Radical unbundling. Micromedia. It’s called personalization, filtering, aggregating, and so forth.

(2) Feeds. Rivers of news. Because browsing and search are less efficient. News is what’s happening, not what happened.

(3) People care about other people. They trust businesses and algorithms, but they trust humans more. We love our friends, our celebrities. We gossip about people with people.

(4) Distribution is cheap. Content is therefore abundant and largely commodified. Attention costs dominate production costs. Fame beats fortune.

These four guide posts, however, can get us far down the right path, but that’s for later.

Blue-skying Brands; Plus, Summize Delivers Sensical UGC to Twitter

Traditionally advertisers’ job has been to talk about a promise of expected utility about their, or their clients’, goods and services. To do that, they’ve paid producers of content to attract readers, listeners, and viewers and get them to engage with advertising.

But now—for a whole mess of really interesting economic and social reasons, like cheap interaction and expensive attention—people think that listening is becoming more important that projecting. Advertisers, or their clients, are supposed to listen to their consumers, who in markets, networks, and communities , are collectively generating UGC, or “user generated context”—”the result of the complex, multilevel network effects that hapen when millions of consumers connect.”

Can content producers “seed” the conversational context to which advertisers are supposed to listen?

Consider a restaurant that once would have stuck slick ads in fancy magazines. Now the restaurant might pay a blogger to review the magazine and attract a lively customer-driven conversation comprising replies to the post and comments on it.

But wait! Doesn’t that represent a hopeless conflict of interest? Isn’t that just payola? Well, not if the restaurant is actually interested in listening—because they want to form their strategy around their customers’ beliefs. If they were engaging in payola, on the contrary, they would be trying to form their customers’ beliefs around their strategy. That’s projecting, or talking.

The idea is that restaurant welcomes a bitter review for the opportunity to draw out customer agreement (in which case it can learn what to change or improve) or, hopefully, provoke customer rebuke (in which case it can focus on new improvements).

Note that the money still flows from an advertiser (or its client, like a restaurant) to a producer of content. Content still flows from producers to consumers. This hasn’t changed.

But the thing that contains the “beliefs” about the brand used to flow from the advertiser to the consumer (via an ad); flowing in the opposite direction was engagement from consumer to advertiser. Now the thing that contains the beliefs about the brans flows from the consumer to the advertiser (via UGC); flowing in the opposite direction is now engagement from advertiser to consumer. This has reversed.

PS. This is more or less how you monetize twitter+summize.

Is the Future of Investigative Journalism Partisan?

I think Steve Boriss is basically correct when he’s skeptical about the future of investigative journalism written according the View from Nowhere.

He writes, “It is becoming clear that while journalists might love investigative journalism, there is not much of a consumer market for it.” In the end, though, Boriss isn’t cynical: “America will be well served and will get valuable information from investigative journalists and their benefactors at partisan sites fulfilling their passion to make their opponents look bad.”

Boriss may have more of an explicitly political bone to pick with the “center-left establishment stance” that he sees pervading mainstream American journalism, but non-political arguments, like the one offered in Jay Rosen’s View from Nowhere, can get us to a place of sufficient agreement. We agree, more or less, that neutrality doesn’t work nearly as well as its practitioners claim—and that competitive partisanship may be better.

I do think there’s more to be said about just how partisan investigative journalism will come to thrive. This is a straightforward case of edge economics.

Stories start at the partisan edge, where the reporters or “reporters” receive ideological compensation, as it were, and therefore need less financial compensation. (In other words, political hacks are cheap.)

Then the network takes over, first weeding out the majority of stories that are actually spurious.

Legit cases of investigative journalism start at the partisan edge, and legit stories will tend to migrate to the center—as if guided by an invisible hand. Increasingly mainstream publishers and readers, to the extent those two capacities can be distinguished, will pull the story toward a public sphere’s political-cultural center as they deem the investigations’ conclusions legit at each step.

Each incremental publisher will exploit the political-cultural trust it has with its audience and conversants to advance the story, build a brand, and make a buck. Each incremental social reader-curator will do the same, judging the story for its legitimacy and, it if passes, sending it on to his followers, testing their open-mindedness. The social reader’s reasons may involve dispensing civic duty or earning his peers’ esteem.

The homophily that characterizes social networks will mean that mere transparency, of the kind DigiDave discusses in his comment on Boriss’s post, will be insufficient for even a legit story to jump across groups with heterogeneous ideologies. (In other words, you won’t find too many readers of the Huffington Post check out Power Line.) The process of moving incrementally from the partisan edge to the political-cultural center is one of diffusion across groups with similar ideologies. (In other words, you will find Huffington Post readers checking out Talking Points Memo, and you’ll find TPM readers checking out Andrew Sullivan, and you’ll find Andrew Sullivan readers checking out Instapundit, and, finally, you’ll find Instapundit readers checking out Power Line.)

What We Talk about When We Talk About Neutrality

Jay Rosen says we’re really taking about trust, which we might very well be able to win through means other than neutrality.

For one, it’s far from clear that neutrality (or objectivity, insofar as the two are synonymous) ever really worked all that well for the business of journalism anyhow. (James Fallows writes a gripping story about how, starting with Mike Wallace insisting that he would endanger American troops in order to get a scoop. “No,” Wallace said flatly and immediately. “You don’t have a higher duty [to the troops]. No. No. You’re a reporter!”)

So then we have something called transparency. I don’t want to attempt the kind of unpacking of what trust really means necessary to justify the claim, but I think it’s pretty obvious that transparency is at least a good candidate for building trust.

With these two beliefs in hand, Jay’s makes a point that resounds if only for its understatement:

“Trust me because I mask my true feelings about the matter” is not an inherently better way to journalize or gain cred. “Trust me because I show you what my true feelings on the matter are…” can also work.

So here’s my point: Neutrality is expensive, but transparency is cheap.

It’s much more difficult for you to figure out what an unbiased party would think about something than it is for you to figure out what you think about it. Poststructuralist issues to one side, an imaginary dispassionate man-as-an-island ain’t easy for Peter Post to envision, and journalists qua humans may not be the best vessels to carry his sacred Truth. The adage that “honesty will set you free” applies doubly here (psychologically and economically). Your own thoughts are yours free for the taking.

So I can see at least one big reason modern journalism has maintained neutrality as its polestar. As a norm, neutrality will tend to price out upstart news outfits with smaller budgets. If you get your cred from neutrality, and neutrality is expensive, and you got precious few dollars in the bank, then you got no cred. If cred’s the norm, then you also got no trust, and if you don’t got trust, you don’t got a news business.

Ultimately, in a world where printing and distribution costs can help price out competition, piling on with artificial norms of doing business made sense. But in a world where the costs of printing are those imposed by wordpress (precisely zero), those artificial norms may become untenable as competition finds cheaper ways of building trust.

In a world of cheap interaction—or an edge economy—the ground on which old giants try to erect artificial barriers to entry won’t hold them fast. The ground will shift or sink, and the barriers will crater as unceremoniously as the revenues newspapers once earned from the classifieds. If trust is the true coin of the realm, and if trust is more easily earned through transparency than neutrality, expect transparency to come out on top.

Cheap and simple beats professional and sophisticated every time in a networked world.

But why did neutrality seem like such a good idea to being with? (Or, does neutrality approximate transparency for very large non-networked audiences?)

To contemplate an answer, let’s start by swapping out “unbiased party” above and slipping in “impartial spectator.” We’re conjuring Adam Smith here; we’re calling on his Theory of Moral Sentiments to help us imagine a kind of synthetic ethics of imagination in which we judge ourselves by putting ourselves in the shoes of those we observe. If there were an impartial spectator-journalist, the results of his pursuance of transparency would look like the results of a conventional modern journalist pursuing neutrality. That’s where the two concepts of neutrality and transparency overlap.

The problem is that there is no such thing as an impartial spectator-journalist.

I can’t say precisely why, but my gut tells me that the industrial press was able to tap our trust because we just didn’t see the distinction between different ways to earn it. Not thinking about it, we believed that trust existed within, and only within, the small place where neutrality and transparency coincide.

Since my not-too-distant days in Ithaca, I’ve always been interested in how philosophers cross the bridge between objectivity and normativity—in Smith’ case deriving morality from psychology. But the two often collide, as in Rawls’ reflective equlibrium. I don’t pretend to know the why or the how, but I suspect it’s a particularly 20th century accident of industrialization and concentration of power—of Haque’s massconomy, in short. There were few enough printing presses and expensive enough distribution channels that we told ourselves, inaudibly, that shoe-leather journalists were only being upstanding members of the fourth estate when they wrote from a privileged place of self-imposed impartiality.

Because a networked economy goes hand in hand with a relationship economy of the kind Doc Searls discusses, the end of the era in which neutrality can purchase trust is nigh. Neutrality just isn’t human. That’s why Jay reaches for the mask as metaphor. It’s hard to have a conversation with someone who’s wearing a mask.


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