The space shuttle, the future of media and a Twitter town hall

Inspired by my friend @om — who has collected some of his recent posts on his Om.is.me blog — I thought I would do the same and put together a list of some of the things I wrote during the past week, in case anyone missed something they might be interested in. So this week, among other things, I wrote about:

And yes, it seems that I like headlines with question marks in them 🙂

You Can’t Play a New Media Game By Old Media Rules

If there’s one aspect of the media business that has been disrupted more completely than any other, it’s the whole idea of “breaking news.” Just as television devalued the old front-page newspaper scoop, the web has turned breaking news into something that lasts a matter of minutes — or even seconds — rather than hours. If your business is to break news, your job is becoming harder and harder every day, as legendary Deadline Hollywood blogger Nikki Finke is only the latest to discover. Finke’s company has accused a competing news site of stealing news stories, and seems to be trying to use the “hot news” doctrine of 1918 to bolster its case. But relying on laws from the turn of the century isn’t going to help make the web-based content business any easier, regardless of the merits of Finke’s complaint.

According to the cease-and-desist letter that Finke’s MMC Corp. sent to TheWrap — a blog run by former Washington Post staffer Sharon Waxman — that site has been “engaged in a continuous pattern of misappropriating content from Deadline.com, publishing that information on TheWrap.com, passing off that information as its own.” So far, the only response from TheWrap has been to post the entire letter, and to describe the criticism as “strangely worded,” since it notes that the allegations from Finke’s site don’t actually refer to any specific stories that have been copied or misappropriated. And while Finke criticizes sites that simply call a source to verify Deadline’s stories and then rewrite them, if this is illegal then virtually the entire traditional media industry is in danger of being sued at some point.

To add an extra layer of irony to the whole affair, Waxman herself complained last year about her site’s content being appropriated by Newser.com, the news aggregator run by Michael Wolff — and she sent a cease-and-desist letter making almost identical arguments to the ones that Deadline Hollywood is now making against TheWrap.

Please read the rest of this post at GigaOM

Come On Nick, You Can Do Better Than That

Choire Sicha, former editor of Gawker and now co-founder of The Awl, points out that the Gawker offices have a large screen mounted on the wall that shows the top most-read stories on the site in terms of unique visitors, allegedly to motivate writers at the blog network (although it’s interesting to note that this screen is described as being in the reception area rather than where the writers can see it). Gawker also posts its top-read stories in terms of both pageviews and unique visitors, which is an interesting page to watch.

That said, however, pageviews and even unique visitors are only a couple of the factors that media entities need to be concerned about — as I tried to argue in this post (check the bottom for recent updates), based on the Twitter debate between Reuters writer Felix Salmon and Business Insider founder Henry Blodget — and neither one of them is arguably the most important. Yes, they are the metrics with the largest numbers, and so they impress some advertisers and possibly some competitors. But they are also subject to inflation by girls kissing and slideshows, as Felix noted in the tweet that started his battle with Blodget.

Denton says he agrees that pageviews and uniques aren’t the best measures, and asks for others that are better. Okay, Nick — what about time spent with a story? Why not put that up on a big-screen TV on the wall? What about the number of repeat visitors that a writer gets over a month? Or what about the number of comments on a story, multiplied by the number of times a writer actually responds? Gawker is one of the most forward-thinking sites on the Web when it comes to comments and how they are managed, and from what I have seen their writers — particularly Denton himself — are good about responding. That’s a far better metric of value in my books.

Soon, advertisers will realize that chasing after raw pageviews and
big unique visitor numbers is a mug’s game, and one that Demand Media
and Associated Content and similar content factories will win every
time
— and arguably many advertisers are already realizing this,
which is why CPMs generally suck. So what starts to matter more?
Engagement. Admittedly, it’s difficult to measure (let alone define),
but that doesn’t make it any less valuable.

Update: In a tweet to me, Nick says that comments are “a horribly misleading measure, e.g. commenter delight at a blog squabble is inversely related to wider appeal.”

Mahendra Palsule also has a thoughtful post about the move from number-based metrics such as pageviews and CPMs to relevance-based measurement and tools.

Twitter Fight a Symptom of Old vs. New Media

Update 2: Felix now has his own response to Blodget’s tirade, in which he makes many of the same points that I tried to make, including:

Blodget should remind himself on a daily basis that publishers make money by selling readers, not adspace, and that if he’s going to make money, he’s going to have to do so by getting high-value readers that companies want to reach. At the moment, both Blodget and his advertisers are stuck in an increasingly out-of-date paradigm wherein pageviews serve as a proxy for readers, but today, unless you’re Demand Media or the like, that paradigm is doomed.

Update: Elizabeth Spiers, founding editor of Gawker, has come out in favour of Henry Blodget on this one. As she puts it in her Tumblr post:

I don’t agree with everything Henry Blodget has been saying, but between Blodget and Felix Salmon, Blodget sounds like someone who runs/has run a new media business before and Felix sounds like someone who’s never been anywhere near the business side.

She also said that while Felix was a “smart and agile writer,” she thought he was “very naive about the granular economics of an online biz.” In case anyone is keeping score, that makes one Gawker founder and one former Gawker editor on Blodget’s side.

Not content to respond to Felix just once, meanwhile, Henry has responded a second time in this post. Among other things, he says that Salmon’s criticism is unfair because “We’re publishing a huge amount of content that is exactly what this particular critic thinks we should be producing — long, text-heavy analysis, original reporting, and commentary.” And he says he loves slideshows.

Interestingly enough — once again reinforcing his argument about the economics of online publishing — Blodget’s post doesn’t have a URL packed with keywords, but it does have another money-making feature (one I personally loathe): double-underlined pseudo-hyperlinks under certain words that trigger popup advertising windows from a company called Kontera (this kind of gimmick isn’t specific to new media entities, incidentally; the paper I used to work for uses them all the time as well, although I did my best to eradicate them from the website).

Original post: There’s a certain sense of the Roman Coliseum to a good Twitter fight, which typically features two combatants (although others can throw in comments from the sidelines) and an invisible mass of spectators, taking in every uppercut or knife gash and cheering the participants on. Plenty of people crowded around on Friday when a Twitter fight started brewing between Henry Blodget, founder/editor of The Business Insider network of blogs, and Reuters media writer Felix Salmon, and the resulting skirmish was written up by Vanity Fair magazine and The Atlantic, who called it an “epic Twitter tussle” (although Choire Sicha dismissed it as a “snippy little girl-spat”). But beneath the sniping and 140-character witticisms was a real question: What does a successful online media business model look like?

Salmon appears to have started it with a tweet mentioning @hblodget’s business model thus: “Take a story about M&A fees associated with AIG. Illustrate with 2 hot babes kissing. http://bit.ly/dexECw.” (Salmon also took a shot at Blodget and his business model after Blodget fired former Clusterstock editor John Carney). For the full back-and-forth, you can check out the post that Blodget later wrote summarizing his view of the debate (just to rub it in, he turned the back-and-forth tweetstream into a slideshow). During the skirmish, Gawker Media head honcho Nick Denton even waded in with a tweet, saying: “Of course @felixsalmon has such animus to commercial web media: the online audience is so measurable and his so small.”

Blodget’s response itself is like a microcosm of his argument: a careful reader will notice that he stuffed as many potential keywords as he could into the URL of the piece, which uses his name, the word “furious,” the word “attack,” the name of the blog and the term “twitter” (check out this TMZ link on Corey Haim for another example). Both of those features — the slideshow and the URL stuffing — are designed to build traffic, either by boosting pageviews (slideshow) or by improving the likelihood that someone might find the post by searching, or that it would turn up in an aggregator such as Techmeme (in other words, search-engine optimization). So even with his summary of the debate, Blodget was making a point: as far as Business Insider is concerned, pageviews rule.

Salmon also wrote about the Twitter debate, but he stuck to the business issues behind what he was arguing about: namely, whether the model defended by Blodget makes any sense or not. That defence came in a stream of tweets following Blodget’s debate with Salmon, in which he tried to explain how online media works. In a nutshell, he said, such businesses live or die based on CPMs (cost per thousand, the price paid by advertisers per thousand pageviews). If a writer is paid $60,000, Blodget argues, then they have to generate 1.8M pageviews just to pay their salary at a $10 CPM. Hence, presumably, the slideshows and girls kissing.

Salmon argues that this model would work if the site charged the full rate for its ads, but says Business Insider (like many sites) discounts its rates in order to fill all of its pages — for which he blames the ad-sales staff. But is that fair? Not really. For one thing, lots of sites discount from their published “rate card.” But the reality is also that there is so much inventory on the Web that it’s virtually impossible to sell it all, and there is more being produced every day, thanks to places like Demand Media and Associated Content (the latter produces several thousand new pieces of content every *day*). That’s just one reason why relying solely on a bog-standard pageview/CPM-based model is an inherently flawed model.

Later, however, Felix nails it when he says that there are other monetization strategies that can apply apart from just advertising, including “syndication, conferences, stock indices, e-commerce, brand franchising opportunities, wine clubs… you name it.” Of course, there’s also the monetization strategy of selling dedicated terminals with financial data to traders, brokers and bankers, which — as Blodget notes in a tweet — is part of what pays Salmon’s salary. That’s about as old media as a business model can get, and Reuters (like Bloomberg and virtually every other traditional media entity) is also having to confront the disruption of its business model by the Web.

So what are smart online media outlets doing? Two things: One is focusing on building businesses such as conferences and events, as well as subscription-based, proprietary content (something Business Insider is also experimenting with). The other — and this is what I think Salmon was driving at — is thinking about traffic and pageviews in a different way. Not all pageviews are the same, and as a result not all CPMs are the same. Does forcing readers to click through multiple pages to view a slideshow add any real value? No. This is the digital equivalent of newspapers throwing extra copies into a ravine (or dumping them at a taxi stand) to boost circulation.

At some point, online publishers have to decide whether they are pursuing a lowest common denominator strategy of raw pageviews at some bargain-basement, remnant-priced CPM, or a higher-value strategy that focuses on building relationships with readers around content and enhancing that relationship in as many ways as possible. Felix (in Blodget’s view at least) may have the luxury of the Reuters infrastructure and terminal business behind him, but that doesn’t make what he’s saying any less accurate. And I think one of the reasons Henry reacted the way he did is that he knows Salmon is right.