Archive | July, 2010

Dumbed-Down Content Will Hobble Paywall Strategies

30 Jul

Before the New York Times had a website, if you wanted to learn about what a critic thought of a new movie, the gossip from the runway at a Paris fashion show, or what a pundit said about the latest scandal from Washington, you had to thumb your way into the nether pages of the newspaper to find the stories. Now they are all front-and-center on the Times web home page.

For some, this is progress. The Times online is much less stuffy than it is in print. There are fewer gatekeepers to information because more of it, in greater variety is staring you in the face on, in effect, Page One. All you need do is click.

There’s another view about the Times and other mainstream media populating their online home pages with, shall we say, fluffier content than their print venue. They are dumbing down content to get more eyeballs.

Slate recently shut down its Big Money website because at 400,000 unique visitors a month, it wasn’t enough to attract advertisers. Marketers appear to be looking for sites that can deliver one million+ unique visitors each month as the floor for what we used to call a publication’s circulation.

To get a million or more visitors means kowtowing to the lowest common denominator of online user. And on the Internet low can be pretty common, indeed.

My former employer, Computerworld, had an editorial mission to inform, educate, edify, and, to a certain extent, entertain enterprise-level executives like CIOs, CTOs, and other bigwigs managing information technology. Always perceived as a bit stodgy by some, the trade newspaper did not publish an editorial about Linux until I wrote one in 1999, and it was still considered a bit radical and not very “serious”  an IT subject by some working there at the time.

Fast-forward to today and you’ll find that both Computerworld’s print and online properties are awash in copy about Linux and, heaven forbid, Mr. CIO, Macintosh-related information. Precious little of it (sorry, guys) is of great value to CIOs and what they do in their real jobs. But the content’s virtue is that it attracts unique visitors in droves to Computerworld’s website. And the strategy works brilliantly as a business because Apple and Linux fanboys continue to get validation when “stodgy” ol’ Computerworld gives their favorite technology a platform. Although the information has little or nothing to do with publication’s “mission” to serve IT executives, who are much more wrapped up in the strategic tech issues that once dominated the print edition’s pages, it does bring clicks.

I’m not saying the Linux or Mac content on Computerworld or the fashion and movie analysis on the New York Times sites are dumb. Far from it. It’s all insightful, some of the best you’ll read online. However, to compete for the number of eyeballs needed to succeed online, there’s been a tsumani of these dumbed-down stories compared with the editorial standards that once guided the publications.

If media paywalls are ever going to work, they need to raise the level of content. Sensational stories are everywhere. If publications hide behind paywalls their take on the latest about Lindsey Lohan or the iPhone, they will fail miserably. That information is free and worth every penny. For paywalls to succeed, publications need to put their “mission” content, whatever it is, behind them.

In a reverse from days gone by, Page One will be where all of the commodity content appears, while behind the wall, deeper into the publication, that’s where the serious stories will run.

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Ego and the Power of Print

29 Jul

During the recent years of print publishing’s decline, I’ve heard many reasons why print remains relevant. You know them, too.

* Print is more portable

* Print has higher resolution

* Print is a better medium for photojournalism and designers

* Print is perceived to have a greater value than the same content in digital form

As time passes most of the arguments in print’s favor begin to lose their impact. As the headline says, “Even Print People Know Print Is Dead.”

Except it’s not. Our egos will keep print alive for a long, long time.

People prefer to see their names in print rather than online. Content online feels ephemeral, while print reeks of permanence. In fact, seeing your name in print is a much more motivating force to most writers than money. We’re told, for example, that citizen journalists get involved in reporting on their communities in hopes of getting their names in print.

Digital content doesn’t sustain the ego like print does. In an era when everyone and their dog has a blog, there’s nothing special about writing one. (BlogPulse currently counts 144 million of them.) Sure, writing a blog can give your ego a taste of fame, but getting your name in print is like sitting your ego down to a four-course meal of immortality.

In the hundreds of stories I’ve written for various publications, when they’ve involved working with public relations professionals I’m always asked if the piece will run in print as well as online. If yes, I often get access to more senior officials because the PR person knows that the high-and-mighty aren’t impressed with seeing their names online. But if they can see them in print, the PR pro gets happy slaps on the back. (Unless, of course, the story is not very flattering.)

It’s time we started to include the most powerful argument in print’s defense: our fragile egos. I think print can ride on them for many years to come.

Livin’ for Obits

27 Jul

I learned about the competitive nature of business from the dead.

My stepfather was a mortician, an undertaker, or, as he preferred, a funeral director. Every morning he’d take a long look at the obituaries in my copy of the San Francisco Chronicle from my morning paper route. His business was in the Santa Clara Valley, so his newspapers of choice were the morning San Jose Mercury and the afternoon News. But he also reviewed the death notices in the Chronicle, which had a much bigger circulation in those days, to see if one of his competitors had managed to snag the funeral of a notable dead person further up the San Francisco peninsula.

“Oh, hell,” he’d say at the breakfast table if he sensed he had lost business.

Although I never swore at the breakfast table, I, too, would fret with my stepfather if I saw that his competitors were enjoying more of the Grim Reaper’s harvest than him. During my mom’s five-year marriage to my stepfather I had joined him in keeping track of how many funerals he directed. I quickly learned that if there were long droughts without his business being mentioned in the newspapers’ obits, my mom would cook more casseroles and fewer steaks, lunch meat would be replaced by peanut butter and jelly for school lunches, and other domestic belt-tightening would occur. When my stepdad’s funeral home was mentioned often meals would improve, gifts would appear, and we were more likely to go on trips.

In the undertaker game the newspaper obituary page is like the box scores in a sports section, revealing who’s winning and who’s not. Needless to say, we all end up as losers in an obit eventually, but for those in the mortuary business, counting how many of the dearly departed pass through your funeral parlor or your competitors’ is the main way to keep score.

Not only did it become clear to me during those years that none of us get out of here alive, but that while we live we had better be prepared to compete for what we will get while we’re here. It was a harsh lesson for a young boy. Still, pondering the business of the dead in my youth, I believe, helped me become a smarter worker and a better boss as an adult.

For one thing, it taught me that even when emotions are running at their highest it’s vital to remain calm, respectful, and observant like my stepfather was for every grieving family and friend. It wasn’t just good manners; it was good business. After all, each and every one of them was a potential customer.

Culling Strategies in Twitter

23 Jul

In Twitter’s highly dynamic social network, it’s important to have a culling strategy as a way to connect to only the best, most interesting people. Here’s mine.

I start when someone wants to follow me. First, I don’t automatically follow people back as many do. In fact, I don’t automatically let them follow me. I review their bio, if they have one, and read a dozen or so tweets. If they are hardcore SEO “experts” I block them. If they are pornbots, I block them. If they are kids tweeting about their inane lives, I block them. If all their tweets are in a language I can’t read, I block them. If they don’t tweet, I block them.

So, yes, my culling strategy starts by cutting down the number of people I permit to follow me. A few people protect their tweets initially, forcing users to ask

permission to follow. I believe that limits the number of potential interesting people in your network. I say, let strangers, even the downright strange seek me out, then let the block function do its magic if need be.

Next, like most folks on Twitter, I follow those whose content I appreciate. But, as they say in investment circles, past performance is no indicator of how those I follow will act in the future. So, I regularly review those I follow. Occasionally, my initial impulse to follow someone was misguided and I discover that I no longer appreciate their content, so I unfollow. But my main reason for dropping people is that they have ceased tweeting. I allow for a hiatus of a month or so, but if their quietude goes beyond that I figure they have quit, got bored, maybe even died. Who knows? Doesn’t matter. They’re gone.

Finally, once in a while, I return to my followers list and review folks against the criteria I apply when I learn someone new is following me. Occasionally I will discover someone who has sneaked through my filters or has changed their spots and become a tweeter I do not appreciate, so I block them.

Having a good Twitter culling strategy for both those you follow and those who you let follow you requires a bit more effort, but it makes for a much more enjoyable social network.

The Defeat of Personal Communications

22 Jul

In the past decade first-class mail delivery by the United States Post Office declined by 29%, down to around 276 billion pieces of mail a year. During that same decade my letter writing dropped by about 90% to just a handful of letters each year. The reason for these related declines is, of course, e-mail.

I got my first e-mail account in 1982. I think it was mhall@sytek.com. Since then I’ve had addresses ending in @well.com, @compuserve.com, @aol.com, @sun.com, @macweek.com, @me.com, @computerworld.com and many others. But back in 1982 few of my friends or family had e-mail, so I wrote letters and postcards to keep in touch.

I wrote to a lot of people and I wrote often. Although I never counted, I probably cranked out 200 or so letters each year and maybe an equal number of postcards. My morning routine would be to initiate or respond to correspondence with my first cup of joe. I could usually scrawl one or two each morning before heading to work. Cathie, my wife, was also an excellent letter-writer, and because we were such a diligent correspondents, we received plenty of real mail.

Alas, today all of my friends and family, save my sister, have e-mail. Correspondence, with the exception of vacation postcards, has devolved into the digital variety. My life is the lesser for it.

Yes, I communicate more frequently with many friends because it’s so easy. We type brief missives to one another, attaching files, links, videos, and whatnot. We send each other stuff we wouldn’t have taken the time to do in the past because it’s a breeze to do. And while I appreciate getting each and every message, there’s no excitement or tactile pleasure when I see something new in my e-mail queue.

Whereas, whenever a letter arrives, there’s always a heartfelt enjoyment at sorting through the mail, choosing the letter, opening it, easing out the contents, and reading the pages, sometimes working with Cathie to decipher someone’s penmanship. Different people use different paper and ink. They insert clippings, photos, and whatever else can fit into an envelope. Each letter was unique, reflecting something personal about its author.

Now everything appears black-on-white in Optima 14 typeface. Talk about boring.

Although I collect postcards sent my way as a kind of lazy man’s hobby, I also hang on to many of the letters we’ve gotten over the years. Stuffed away in boxes are not only the hundreds upon hundreds of my friends’ epistles, there are even a few notes from people regarded as famous, whom I’ve had the good fortune to encounter. I’ve also received e-mail from notables over the years. Let me tell you: it’s not the same thing.

The triumph of e-mail is considered a victory of modern communications for all the obvious reasons. But it’s also a sad defeat of personal communication for reasons that are special to each and every letter writer and recipient.

10,000 Tweets: A Goal That Is Also a Limit

18 Jul

In Outliers, the most recent book published by Malcolm Gladwell, he wrote that expertise, genius even, is skill multiplied by 10,000. That is, a person gets very good at something–software programming, hitting baseballs, writing music, whatever–after simply doing it 10,000 times or, say, for 10,000 hours. For some unknowable reason, Gladwell’s research reveals that 10,000 is the magic number that a person needs to achieve before mastering the task as an expert.

With that in mind, I’ve decided to achieve expertise in Twitter. I have set a goal to tweet 10,000 times.

Then I will quit.

Currently, after more than a year and half using the social networking service, I have sent out 5,842 tweets. Like many Twitter newbies, I did not hit my tweet stride for many months. It took nine months to barely reach 1,000 tweets. Now, according to TweetStats, I’m in the 400 tweets-per-month range, so I should reach my goal of 10,000 sometime next year.

I realize that 10,000 is not such a big number when compared against true Twitter experts like @RayBeckerman (130,000 tweets), @paul_steele (75,000), @mlomb (111,000), @TLW3 (71,000), @SgBz (16,000), @mparent77772 (87,000), and @shefaly (20,000), just a few among the 628 people I currently follow who are well past 10,000 tweets.

But by putting a hard, fast cap on the number of my tweets I am changing my relationship to Twitter. Before this decision, each tweet held the equivalent value of zero to me. I’d post anything and everything that tickled my fancy. I retweeted marginal items because I was in the mood or simply because it was from a new person on Twitter. Now each tweet has value because the supply is no longer inexhaustible.

This does not mean I will eschew back-and-forth banter with @ggSpirit (10,000), @JosephLane (21,000), @VariantVal (56,000), and others. That’s some of the best fun there is to have on Twitter. And I will still retweet, though with a bit more discretion, such as not passing along the popular @badbanana (12,000) tweets, funny as they can be. But I still intend to post new items as they strike my fancy, at least until my finite pile of unused tweets are gone.

I’ve always been a goal-oriented person. It helps me focus. But sometimes the best goals in life are also limits.

Dick the Undead

17 Jul

The fact that former Vice President Dick Cheney no longer has a pulse raises a touchy political question: Is he among the undead?

You might think that would be a drawback in today’s political climate. However, zombies are as popular as vampires these days. The crafty Cheney may be using his zombie appeal to attract the young fans of George Romero. There’s also a certain uncanny and unnerving symmetry that a leading standard bearer of the party adhering to voodoo economics might also adhere to other voodoo practices.

GOP presidential wannabes take note: You already need to lose your soul to be a party leader, maybe true believers like Dick give their bodies as well.