nextMedia: Old models and new ideas

I moderated an interesting new-media panel today at the nextMedia conference in Toronto, with Leonard Brody, CEO of Vancouver-based “citizen journalism” outfit; Jon Dube, who heads up digital media operations for CBC News (and runs, and Mark Lukasiewicz, vice-president of digital media for NBC News and a former Canadian print and TV journalist.

The topic of the panel was “Adapting to Digital Threats and Opportunities,” and I started by asking all three panelists whether they thought it was one of the most exciting times to be in media or one of the most terrifying times — which, as Jon quickly noted, was a bit of softball. All three said that it was exciting because of the limitless possibilities of new media, although Jon admitted that while it was exciting for him, it might not be so exciting for people who fear that their jobs are threatened.

I also asked whether the panelists felt that Canadian media entities were behind their U.S. counterparts when it came to embracing new media opportunities, and if so why. Jon said that he thought Canada might have had a harder time getting started with some new ventures, if only because the population is smaller and there isn’t the advertising base to support a lot of new ventures. Leonard said that he thought Canadian media giants were much more hesitant, and that at least U.S. broadcasters and other media entities were trying new things.

On the topic of “citizen journalism,” both Mark and Jon said opening up their organizations to more interaction with viewers was something they were very interested in — and Mark said that was the primary motivation behind MSNBC buying Leonard said that existing media outlets were still struggling with the idea that to a large extent breaking news and the function of adding analysis or context to that news have become separated, and in many cases the breaking news is occurring through outlets such as NowPublic and Facebook.

Leonard also made the point that journalism is a skill and a craft, and that much of what we call “user-generated content” is not very high quality, and that while the distribution models might be changing, there is still a need for journalists to package news and analysis and make sense of it for people, and to pick out the best of the UGC. Mark and Jon both said that while TV and other media might be changing, and the distribution models were being disrupted, that the need for people with skills to tell compelling stories or make sense of things was still there.

The panel closed with a question about what each of the panelists would tell journalism students. Mark said he would tell them to learn how to write, Jon said he would tell them that and also tell them to learn to think critically, and to think outside the box and be flexible enough to adapt to these new media models, and Leonard said he would advise them not just to learn how to write but to learn how to market themselves and their skills — in other words, he said, get a blog.

Some more video tips for marketers

Kevin Nalts is a marketer who currently works for a Fortune 100 company as a consumer-product director, and moonlights as a YouTube comedian, one whose channel is in the top 10 in the comedy section, with more than 24,000 subscribers and over 1.2 million channel views. He also writes a blog called Will Video For Food.

Nalts wrote a column recently for Advertising Age in which he gave marketers some tips on using video and YouTube — a nice counterpoint to the recent piece by a “viral” marketer who wrote a post over at TechCrunch about how to manipulate your way to the front page of YouTube.

Mashable’s Open Web Awards begin

Steve Spalding over at How To Split An Atom reminded me of something I’d been meaning to mention: Mashable’s new Open Web Awards have begun. It’s kind of like a crowdsourced award program, in which people get to nominate and then vote on the entrants in different categories such as Social Bookmarking or Photo Sharing. More than 20 blogs are taking part in hosting the awards and taking nominations, including Steve’s blog and some others you might have heard of such as Techdirt, MG Siegler’s fine blog ParisLemon and WatchMojo from Ashkan Karbasfrooshan.

Universal CEO: I’m not bad, just stupid

Being the CEO of a giant record company has to be a pretty uncomfortable place to be — and not just because the whole industry is going to hell after so many years of being a cash cow, a complaint Universal CEO Doug Morris makes in this Wired piece by Seth Mnookin (although it takes him many more words to make the point).

What really makes it obvious the kind of spot Morris is in, however, is that rather than come out and admit that the industry deliberately stonewalled new technology and/or tried to sue/lobby/legislate it out of existence, he chooses to paint himself and his fellow labels as idiots.

That’s quite a choice, isn’t it? That must be (on some level at least) what Morris decided, since he can’t honestly expect anyone to believe that the industry really wanted to get on board the whole mp3 train, but couldn’t find anyone to do it for them — or couldn’t determine who was snowing them and who really had the answers.

“That’s a misconception writers make all the time, that the record industry missed this. They didn’t. They just didn’t know what to do.”

“We didn’t know who to hire,” he says, becoming more agitated. “I wouldn’t be able to recognize a good technology person — anyone with a good bullshit story would have gotten past me.”

As more than one person has pointed out on a media-industry mailing list I belong to, this is complete and total bollocks. Record companies had people who knew the train was coming, and who had plenty of ideas of what to do — one of them left a major label and went to work for Apple, eventually helping to create the lunch-eating machine that would hand the record industry its own innards on a platter: iTunes.

Nice try, Doug.

Could open be a competitive advantage?

As the Wall Street Journal reported today (in a story that remains behind the soon-to-be-demolished pay wall), Verizon has announced that it will open its mobile network to any device that meets a certain minimum standard — although it says it will continue to offer “locked” devices through its retail network. Like Cynthia Brumfield at IPDemocracy, I think this could be a pretty huge development.

It’s unclear whether this means that Verizon will be joining up with Google and its Open Handset Alliance/Android platform proposal, although Adam Ostrow at Mashable says the carrier was rumoured to be joining even before this latest announcement. In any case, Verizon’s move seems to suggest that being open is becoming a competitive advantage for companies in relatively mature markets such as mobile. That said, Om Malik seems somewhat skeptical of Verizon’s motives, and says open access could prove to be expensive.

As Adam notes, Verizon has clearly decided to forego short-term revenue gains in return for what it sees as longer-term benefits. An interesting choice. And when could we expect someone like Rogers or Telus or Bell Mobility to do the same kind of thing in Canada? Approximately never.

More rumours about Google’s GDrive

As far as I can tell, the Wall Street Journal is peddling pretty much the same old rumours about the imminent arrival of Google’s storage tool or GDrive, as Duncan notes over at TechCrunch. The service “could let” users access documents from different computers, and “could be” released as early as a few months from now, according to sources. In other words, not much more than MG Siegler of ParisLemon had back in September.

That Google is coming out with something that offers storage is pretty much a fait accompli at this point (that’s French for “where the hell is it already”). The company already sells storage for GMail and Google Docs users who want more, and as I mentioned in a recent post here, Google has been letting Zoho get out in front on the offline document-editing front, using Google’s own Gears tool. It’s just a matter of time.

The first sightings of the GDrive in the wild came over a year ago from Corsin Carmichael, who spotted code referring to an internal storage system code-named Platypus (although according to the WSJ, inside Google they refer to it by the creative name “My Stuff”). And as this Microsoft blog notes, the software giant has had something similar — Windows Live SkyDrive — on the market since the summer, although it offers a measly one gigabyte of storage, which is pretty lame.

Of course there are other services such as Amazon’s S3, and Mozy, all of which I have experimented with and liked. The actual technology isn’t that complicated — unless of course you want to do live, multiple-user backups of open databases such as Outlook mail files, which the CEO of Mozy once described to me in an interview as a “non-trivial” task (that’s computer engineer talk for “really hard”).

So will Google just play catch-up, or is it planning to offer something extra? Will it be a game-changer for Microsoft, as Henry Blodget thinks it will? Geeks everywhere are waiting with bated breath.

Too much UGC can be a bad thing

Steve Outing, a long-time journalist and staffer with the Poynter Institute, has written a column about his venture into social news or “crowdsourced” local content — through a company called Enthusiast Group — and how it has since shut down. Steve makes some worthwhile points about why he thinks his attempt to blend professional content and “user-generated” content failed, and in a nutshell it appears to boil down to this: too much of the UGC just wasn’t good enough.

“In hindsight, I think we tried to rely too heavily on user submitted content. Even though a lot of it was really great, the overall experience was weak when compared to, say, reading a climbing or a mountain biking magazine filled with quality professional content throughout.”

And Steve says that he just didn’t have enough staff to generate the professional-level content that would make the site worthwhile, or sort through the user-generated stuff to get at the good stuff (“curating,” people like to call it now).

“We believed that having a core level of professional content –- from our site editors -– would be enough to attract a loyal following even if the user-submitted content wasn’t enough on its own. But I think we didn’t have nearly enough of that. If I had any money left to throw at the business, I’d hire more well-known athletes and adventurers, so that the core was a larger pool of professional content.”

Steve says he’s not giving up on UGC, but he thinks it’s bad to rely on it to carry too much of the freight for a content-related business.

“I’m not saying that user-submitted content isn’t worthwhile, let me be clear about that. I am saying that I think you can’t rely too much on it. And you need to filter out and highlight the best user content, while downplaying the visibility of the mediocre stuff.”

Steve’s venture isn’t the only UGC-based one to shut down, of course. Dan Gillmor’s Bayosphere was a valiant effort that failed (I wrote about it here) and was later merged with Backfence, which then also failed. Jeremy Wagstaff of Loose Wire says that Steve’s experience reinforces the fact that there will always be a place for professional journalists. I don’t know why, but that makes me feel all warm inside 🙂

Do Facebook users care about politics?

According to the New York Times, the ABC television network has signed a deal with a social-networking site you might have heard of — a little site called Facebook — that will allow users of Facebook to “follow” reporters through the U.S. election and talk about the issues, and also pose questions for political debates that will be jointly sponsored by ABC and Facebook. Not exactly a new idea, as many have pointed out.

Caroline McCarthy of CNET doesn’t think Facebook or ABC News are going to have much success with this idea because, well… Facebook users see “the site as a platform for social recreation, not information consumption.” In other words, they’re too busy goofing around with Super-Pokes and sharing photos of each other staggering drunk at frat parties. I’m extrapolating, but I think that’s more or less what Caroline means.

Is that true, though? I know that Facebook started out as just for university students, but the user base has broadened considerably, I would argue. There has been a tremendous response to issues such as the Burmese army attacks, not to mention Iraq and other U.S. issues. Admittedly, people still primarily use Facebook for social purposes, but I don’t think that necessarily precludes there being a political aspect to it as well.

On the other hand, maybe this announcement between Facebook and ABC is just a lot of blather and not much will come of it. Even All Facebook’s Nick O’Neill doesn’t seem to think it amounts to much.

Strike brings fame to Nikki Finke

Like my friend, the charming and multi-talented Rachel Sklar of Huffington Post’s Eat The Press, I think it’s great that blogger Nikki Finke of LA Weekly is getting her moment in the spotlight — courtesy of the U.S. Writers Guild strike, which Nikki has been covering like white on rice. Both the New York Times and Bloomberg have positive pieces about the blogger and her coverage of the strike.

Deadline Hollywood Daily didn’t just show up yesterday. It’s a daily online version of Ms. Finke’s LA Weekly column, and she’s been writing it since March of last year. It’s published by the Village Voice, which hosts the site and pays her to write it. It’s also interesting to note that the NYT story was written by Brian Stelter, whose TVNewser blog brought him fame and fortune while he was still a student, at which point the NYT hired him as one of their media reporters.

Zoho Writer: Where the hell is Google?

So Zoho — the online Office-style productivity suite company — has launched offline support for its Zoho Writer word-processing feature/service, which I quite like (I also use their presentation app, Zoho Show, which is excellent). Digital Inspiration originally broke the story, but Mike has some details at TechCrunch too.

As Eric Eldon at VentureBeat notes, Zoho has allowed users of Zoho Writer to read their documents offline for some time now, but not to edit them and then sync them later when they get online again. It has now added the latter feature, thanks to Google’s “Gears” technology, which allows online/offline syncing and which Google already uses in Google Reader.

My only question is this: Why on earth can’t we do the same thing with Google Docs? Google Gears has been out in the marketplace for months, and presumably was internally available for months before that. And we can already use it in Google Reader (although it isn’t much use with a dial-up connection, let me tell you).

So why can little Zoho somehow manage to integrate Google Gears and its document-editing features, but Google can’t? What the heck are all those PhDs doing over there at the Googleplex?