Citizen John Paul II

I’m slowly getting back into the groove after a long, feng shui sort of holiday weekend. One of the items I cleaned up was an article that I’d clipped to my bulletin board but had never read. The article contained excerpts from a letter written by Pope John Paul II not long before his death, in which he outlined some thoughts that sound like an endorsement of citizen media.

I clipped the article from The Guild Reporter, the official paper of the Newspaper Guild (union), of which I am a member. This morning I read the entire papal commentary, in which John Paul II advanced a good news, bad news message about the power and reach of modern media.

“The world of communications . . . is capable of unifying humanity and transforming it into – as it is commonly referred to – a global village,” he wrote, adding: “The communications media have acquired such importance as to be the principal means of guidance and inspiration for many people in their personal, familial, and social behavior.”

But what if the media propagate values inimical to religious faith – or to faith of any sort? “In an age such as ours,” wrote the deceased pope, “there exists the conviction that the time of certainties is irretrievably past. Many people, in fact, believe that humanity must learn to live in a climate governed by an absence of meaning, by the provisional and by the fleeting.”

Given this likelihood that mass media will be, at best, indifferent to those who would preach faith, Pope John Paul II urged “individuals in the Church community particularly gifted with talent to work in the media.” Elsewhere he writes, “Do not be afraid of new technologies! . . . The Internet not only provides resources for more information, but habituates persons to interactive communication.”

In addition to urging people to make their own media, the papal letter calls “attention to the subject of media access . . . If the communications media are a good destined for all humanity, then ever-new means must be found – including recourse to opportune legislative measures – to make possible a true participation in their management by all.”

Interesting notions, and remarkably like other secular critiques of media.

Of course this was not a secular critique but an unabashed exhortation to Catholics to use media to spread their faith. Pope John Paul II issued his letter on January, 24, 2005, on the feast of Saint Francis de Sales who, I learned, used the newly-minted printing press to issue pamphlets in defense of church beliefs in the 16th century, thus earning the designation of the patron saint of journalists.

Tom Abate MiniMediaGuy Cause if you ain’t Mass Media, you’re Mini Media


Intermodal Media

Yesterday I noted that the 2002 Economic Census categorizes the Information industry as a manufacturing endeavor, and argued that we should view media in the same light. I ended by tossing off the remark that media should also be thought of as multimodal. By that I mean that a publishers, especially Mini Media types, will no longer produce in print or broadcast or web formats. Instead, they’ll dispense content in different forms – web pages, podcasts, video clips, print vehicles – whatever is convenient for their customers and makes them a buck.

It is obvious that the old silos for selling information are breaking down. Newspapers, radio and television stations have web sites. They’re experimenting with new delivery systems to repurpose their info-wares and attract new audiences.

It follows that new media firms, created from the ground up, should start with the assumption that their audience is their business – their business is not the publishing modalities they use to reach that audience.

The way I see it, a blog or a website is a low cost customer attraction platform. It’s relatively cheap place to paste information, and if you attract hits, well, there are also web-advertising systems that can offer some revenues based on the traffic they draw. But for most sites it isn’t much. By some accounts, most bloggers are making $50 a month from ad traffic, and only the biggest sites reach $5,000 a month in ad revenues.

Niche publishers, therefore, should not expect to support themselves from online ads, even though they will probably have a free, online presence. Instead they may find it makes sense to create special low-run print magazines that contain more detailed information than that available on their web sites, or merely gather a month’s worth of postings into a convenient form of reference. (As I argued in a previous posting, not only does technology makes it possible to produce low-run magazines of high quality; I also think there we can sell advertisers on combined print-web ad campaigns.)

Likewise, other media forms such as podcasting may be used to cement the bonds of loyalty between the audience and the site, or attract new viewers. (I came across an essay by marketing maven Shelly Palmer that made exactly this point but there’s no easy link to it.) Or maybe emails or RSS feeds or PDF files are the better ways to get out whatever words or images your business sells.

The point is to think about new media businesses in a systematic way: as a target audience, which presumably wants certain forms of information, entertainment or data, delivered in a variety of ways, each supported by some revenue stream – or else consciously served up for free in a bid to gather traffic for some compensable product or service.

When I thought about the term “multimodal media” I actually had in mind the transportation industry. Nowadays most cargo travels in containers that can be easily moved from ships, to trains to trucks, as appropriate. It turns out that transportation gurus use the term “intermodal” to describe this expectation that cargo will have to move through different conveyances to reach its destination. Substitute media for cargo and I think the same expectation applies in this new era of publishing.

Tom Abate MiniMediaGuy Cause if you ain’t Mass Media, you’re Mini Media


Media is Manufacturing

Every five years the U.S. Census Bureau collects data from businesses in much the same way as it counts noses every 10 years. Data from the most recent Economic Census of 2002 are now available. In the sector titled Information, government statisticians detail the number, size and sales of all variety of media establishments. Their definition of “information” firms is instructive, because it reminds us that making media is an exercise in manufacturing.

“The information sector (sector 51) comprises establishments engaged in the following processes: (a) producing and distributing information and cultural products; (b) producing the means to transmit or distribute these products as well as data or communications, and (c) processing data.”

Under this heading the Census lumps every form of enterprise from newspapers to broadcast stations to Internet publishers. I'll look at some of these individual segments later but for now, if you accept that media is manufacturing, the question arises: What is different about making media now?

First there is the issue of scale. The size of the enterprise required to make media, and the size of the batches of “information and cultural products” have both shrunk. People can now do on desktops what it took large organizations to previously accomplish. Mass audiences have also fragmented into niches. I call this phenomenon Mini Media. Call it what you like, I think scale is the primary difference between media manufacturing today and in the past.

Second, I would add interactivity. The potential for instant feedback is a characteristic of web-based publishing enterprises, and one that offers them a competitive advantage over pre-existing mass media. Interactivity creates new ways to make media. You may be familiar with the self-defined concept of user-generated content. In the old days, this meant letters to the editor. Nowadays people are creating and sharing videos and other media. Clever firms can leverage this viewer-added-value to create what I think of as a Tom Sawyer business model. You remember how Tom suckered his neighborhood pals into whitewashing a fence by making it seem like fun. Generally speaking, manufacturing may be regarded as dull but making media has sex appeal that can be used to advantage.

Scale and interactivity, taken together, create a third novelty of the new media-making environment – customization. Technology allows us to create personalized media products. My Yahoo is an obvious example in Web publishing. But technology also makes it possible to produce small and even single copies of physical media artifacts such as books or magazines. Music lovers think nothing about creating personal play lists on portable listening devices. Small and large publishers alike must embrace customization and personalization in order to succeed.

When I think of scale, interactivity and customization as a group, they suggests a fourth characteristic that distinguishes today’s media-manufacturing environment. I call this multi-modal publishing. Fleshing out that concept will take a few words, and I’ve reached my self-imposed time and length limit today. (This is, after all, a hobby blog.) I’ll complete the thought tomorrow.

Tom Abate MiniMediaGuy Cause if you ain’t Mass Media, you’re Mini Media


Not More on Blogs!

If you want a primer on blogging, with a guide to the top online commentators, download a free copy of the Trust “MEdia” white paper published by Edelman, a global public relations firm and Intelliseek, a market research firm with a specialty in blog analysis.

In truth, the report is not entirely free. A brief email registration process is required, offering by example a clue as to why it has become common to give away content – and that is to gain attention, either to sell advertising or to recruit potential clients for a service.

I just downloaded the white paper myself and am not prepared to summarize it other than to say that it is aimed at decision-makers who know that blogs are a big deal, but aren’t sure whether to regard them as a threat or an opportunity.

The press release accompanying the report carries an endorsement from David Weinberger (his bio is a hoot), a co-author of The Cluetrain Manifesto. (The manifesto boils down to this: two-way communication via the Internet is creating real give-and-take “conversations” that are replacing the old-world model of broadcasting messages from a single point.)

Anyhow, Weinberger, speaking in perfect press release-ese says: “The Edelman/Intelliseek white paper does an especially good job explaining blogging as not just another opportunity to spout one's 'message' but as a way of entering into genuine conversation with and among one's customers.” (Does that sounds a little clue-less, or is it just my ear?)

Meanwhile, The Pew Internet Project released a report in early May that further emphasized how blogs have the potential to influence public opinion. After conducting two surveys of Internet users (emphasis added), Pew found that “9% of internet users now say they have created blogs and 25% of internet users say they read blogs. Another way to render these numbers is to note that 6% of the entire U.S. adult population (internet users and non-users alike) have created blogs. That’s one out of every 20 people. And 16% of all U.S. adults (or one in six people) are blog readers . . . The number of adult readers of blogs is about 40% of the size of the talk radio audience.”

Tom Abate MiniMediaGuy Cause if you ain’t Mass Media, you’re Mini Media


Cities of the Mind

The May issue of UC Berkeley’s alumni magazine is a paean to editor Clay Felker, whose exploits in the magazine trade are praised by writers Tom Wolfe, Ken Auletta and Gloria Steinem, among others. Is Felker’s experience in the 1960s through the 1980s relevant to wannabe media entrepreneurs today?

I read my issue of California Monthly on the train home last night, but if you’re not a card-carrying Cal alum, you may have to wait a while before the current issue is posted. Meanwhile, even if you are not familiar with Felker – who made his reputation by founding New York magazine in the 1960s – what his famous protégés say about his editorial style is revealing.

“Before each of us went out on a story,” Auletta writes in Cal Monthly, “he instructed us to be sure to answer two questions: Why are things the way they are? How do things work? He knew if we answered those two questions the piece would succeed.”

Steinem, among the first names in feminism, says Felker helped bring forth Ms. magazine “by giving birth to its preview issue in the pages of New York.” She paints Felker as a demanding editor and recalls how he skewered her first draft of a story on the then-new contraceptive pill by telling her: “You’ve performed the incredible feat of making sex dull.”

Wolfe was vice-president of New York in 1968 when Felker re-launched the magazine as a standalone pub (it had previously been a Sunday supplement in the defunct New York Herald Tribune). He write how Felker risked everything at the outset of his independent publishing career by running a story that risked the loss of “90 percent of the magazine’s advertising.”

The following excerpt from the Duke University magazine (which, also, at one point profiled Felker, an alumus) tells more about that article:

“In a story called "La Dolce Viva," writer Barbara Goldsmith profiled a model who was part of Warhol's "Factory" crowd--which she portrayed as an environment obsessed with drugs and sex--and who starred in Warhol's soft-porn movies. The profile ran in the fourth issue of the magazine. It included a full-page Diane Arbus photo of a naked, anorexic-looking Viva sprawled on a shabby velvet couch. In her quotes, Viva came across as frighteningly servile to Warhol's whims; she even compared him to Satan in the eternal hold he exerted on his followers. "I'm nude because Andy says seeing me nude sells tickets," she told New York. "It's hard to believe. I think I look like a parody, a satire on a nude, a plucked chicken."

Writing in Cal Monthly, Wolfe explains how Felker narrowly contained a rebellion by the magazine’s financial backers – and reveals that it was Goldsmith, the author of the provocative piece – who had loaned Felker the $6,500 he needed to acquire the New York name after the demise of the Trib!

What does this praise for Felker – who is lionized by UC Berkeley because he helped establish a magazine writing program on campus – have to do with today’s publishing environment? Wolfe sums it up when he talks about the Felker’s “vision of New York as the city of ambition . . . and his insistence on in-depth, reporting—saturation reporting.”

In short, he defined a community in geography and spirit. Today place may be less important, though not necessarily so. Or perhaps there are simply more places to define, communities built only of shared interest and perspective, communities waiting to be defined by editorial vision and served by a range of media formats beyond those available to the editors of Felker’s day.

Tom Abate MiniMediaGuy Cause if you ain’t Mass Media, you’re Mini Media


Citizen Media in Flames

Technology has given ordinary people the ability to make media, and many of us would like to help other citizens realize that potential. In light of that dream consider the sad fact that one newspaper had to shut down an open comment forum after it was swamped with hateful remarks.

A Media Center post pointed me to the Ventura County Star’s announcement that, four months after giving readers the ability to post live, unmoderated comments to stories published on its website, the paper was turning off that spigot. The problem, said the paper’s editors, was that “very quickly, race became the common theme on many of the topic threads. Whether it was a school award or a crime, it seemed that the comments quickly devolved into a discussion of race and immigration . . . The viciousness of the comments began to escalate.” The Star first tried to moderate the comments and tone down excessive or defamatory remarks, but “with comments posted on dozens of stories, it ate up much of our day,” and so it pulled the plug.

I haven’t thought about the nasty factor in a while but that doesn’t mean it has gone away. Many years ago I moderated a chat forum during an early incarnation of SFGate.com. My forum dealt with technology and the Internet. The Gate forums were shut down, years ago, in one of the site’s reorganizations, partly I’m sure to save money (forum moderators received a small monthly stipend) but also because the experiment was, I regret to say, largely a failure. The posters turned out to be a relatively small group of people. No general conversation among the broad base of readers ever occurred. On rare occasion I had to moderate some shrill exchanges. But these were all on tech topics – Mac-versus-PC fans. Tame stuff compared to the general passions that might be ignited if topics of general community interest were thrown open for comment.

Such arguments used to be called flame wars. A cursory search on the topic turned up a brief and insightful analysis of why people flame. “I would like to think that most of us actually do seek after truth,” author Timothy Campbell writes, adding, “It is for this reason that I think it is helpful to learn to spot how other people get into silly arguments ... and then learn to spot this tendency in ourselves.”

While we try to exercise self-control, it is incumbent on anyone who hopes to create a public forum to recognize that, whatever the topic or niche, heat is hiding just below the surface. And it will be our responsibility to channel and control those given to passion outbursts so they do not inhibit speakers who favor more temperate remarks.

Tom Abate MiniMediaGuy Cause if you ain’t Mass Media, you’re Mini Media


Being Where?

If you want to find Americans, look for the flicker of their television screens. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American watches 2.57 hours of television a day, making it the third most popular activity du jour after sleeping (8.57 hours per day) and working (3.69 hours daily). The last figure contains what the BLS calls “work-related activities," presumably griping.

The report, the America Time Use Summary, came out last September. Judging from the press release (which uses the word “new”), it appears to be the first such government-sponsored look at how we manage our time.

Am I the only one who missed the study when it was released during last fall’s presidential election? I only recently learned of the study’s existence after noticing a blurb online that referenced the TV factoid. This morning I decided to track down the report. BLS published a chart from which I extracted the figures used above. It seems that we, like the character portrayed by Peter Sellers in Being There, have become a nation of people who like to watch.

In order to maintain the proper ratio between watching and working, and generally preserve the statistical balance, I suppose I should blog a few words on the business item that had been my designated topic before I digressed – how to generate subscriptions, a topic discussed at length in Paid Content’s coverage of a conference devoted to that subject.

I rooted around the conference coverage without finding any lightning bolts. Among the items that caught my attention, Dorian Benkoil reported on a seminar that offered a few don’ts (don’t offer free trials without asking for a credit card, and don’t publish author’s pictures with offers, because it will hurtsales as often as it will help).

Online marketing maven Anne Holland (aka MarketingSherpa) provided a fact-filled summary of the conference which is worth reading. I also signed up for a couple of her free newsletters (and, as expected, got pitched to buy content which I didn’t today but may eventually – which is, of course, the whole point of offering freebies).

Okay, so let's take stock of today's blog. I’ve watched (or talked about watching), worked (or at least pretended to). What does that leave? Griping, I suppose. But I remembered to take my meds this morning and feel soooo much better as a result. Besides, it’s Friday!

Tom Abate MiniMediaGuy Cause if you ain’t Mass Media, you’re Mini Media



A retired venture capitalist and a newspaper columnist in his 80s are the standard-bearers for the non-profit media startup VoiceofSanDiego.org. A kindly profile in Online Journalism Review asks whether the new webzine is “a well-funded anomaly or one of the early pioneers in a nonprofit news revolution?”

Paid Content’s Staci Kramer pointed me to OJR, which gave this low-down on the startup. It began last spring when San Diego Union-Tribune columnist Neil Morgan got a pink slip on his 80th birthday - after 50 years on staff. Retired venture capitalist Buzz Woolley contacted Morgan to suggest they launch a new news outlet, says OJR. I infer that Woolley (whose current interests include K-12 philanthropy) recruited former L.A. Times and Sacramento Bee reporter Barbara Bry to serve as editor-in-chief, and earlier this spring VoiceofSanDiego.org was heard.

OJR details the website’s journalistic aspirations, which I will not reiterate here. I noticed few details about business plans, however. The Voice mission statement says it will “rely on a combination of individual donations, corporate sponsorships, foundation grants and advertising.” It’s not as if the team is run by business-averse newsies. Prior to joining Voice, Bry was involved in two Internet startups; one went public, the other was acquired. So I am perplexed by the lack of an ad sales push. Whatever Bry’s business plans, they are not obvious to me.

I did note that the Voice site seems to be organized around a set of software tools offered by Kintera, a publicly-traded San Diego firm that specializes in helping non-profits do fundraising. The Kintera tools include a payment processing module. Is Voice gearing up for a subscription campaign? That’s just a guess. In any event VoiceofSanDiego bears watching. (Or is that listening?)

Tom Abate MiniMediaGuy Cause if you ain’t Mass Media, you’re Mini Media

Free (Unlimited Time) Offer

A Chicago Tribune article earlier this month offered a lighthearted look at life as a series of subscriptions – to movie services, health clubs, music downloads, etcetera. It was an entertaining read that made me wonder: why then does conventional wisdom hold that there’s no way to charge for emerging media content such as blogs, podcasts and whatever else people are dreaming up?

Thanks to Rafat Ali’s Paid Content for pointing me to the Tribune article (quick and painless e-mail registration required for access).

To encapsulate that piece, people subscribe for services or goods they like because it makes consumption easy and eliminates the stress of having to make a purchase. The Trib quotes University of Toronto marketing professor Dilip Soman: "Once you've made that commitment, it's now a part of your monthly payment stream. It's not a lot of money, and it's often charged directly to your credit card. So the pleasure of the experience seems, psychologically, free."

Okay, so back to why-can’t-Mini-Media-types charge for content? I see three possibilities.

First, they produce the electronic equivalent of your least-favorite in-law’s political rants, or your neighbor’s vacation slide show.

Second, they’re willing to give it away (Have you signed up for MiniMediaGuy’s FREE, all-you-can-read, May special? Of course, I ran the same special in April and will probably extend the offer into June, so there’s no need to rush.).

Third, small producers don’t have access to the systems or technologies that would make it easy for viewers to subscribe – even if they had content worth buying. (Previously, I suggested that Mini Media producers would have to give away an electronic taste of their goodies, and sell physical artifacts that add value or create an identity for which people are more conditioned to pay.)

Payment issues get into a technical morass. I’ve blogged on those topics once or twice before, so I won’t gnaw on that old bone again today.

But I do believe that easy payment systems will be deployed -- and before the blogosphere starve for lack of cash or attention – and that smart, small producers will learn how to package content in ways that induce payment.

More importantly, people a whole lot smarter than me agree. (If you haven’t already seen it, check out the Googlezon bit). The central argument is this – the world is flooded with information, but much of it lost in the noise. In that environment, clarity should command a premium.

Tom Abate MiniMediaGuy Cause if you ain’t Mass Media, you’re Mini Media


Farewell, Editor!

Behavioral targeting should allow web publishers to deliver customized content and advertising by inferring what you might want to read or buy based on what you’ve already done. Some online firms are racing to deliver on this promise. Others say go slow. Is behavior the promise or the pitfall?

I won’t settle the issue in this post any more than I did in a previous posting that touched on the same topic, but two recent developments highlight the differing views.

Claria Corporation, a behavioral marketing firm, recently announced a product called PersonalWeb, saying it “will enable website publishers and content aggregators . . . to dynamically provide their audiences with personalized Web content, based on a broad spectrum of users' browsing behavior.”

At roughly the same time, the online newsletter MediaPost reported that Matt Freeman, chief executive of the interactive agency Tribal DDB advised caution in how behavioral targeting is employed, lest consumers lump this tool into the same category as spyware.

There is no indication from MediaPost’s report that Freeman was speaking about, nor was even aware of, Claria’s news. But his message highlighted the sensitivity of using browsing behavior in marketing or publishing. "How we do it will make all the difference," Freeman is quoted as saying.

Claria says it is already “serving tens of millions of consumers and more than 1000 Advertisers to date” with two behavioral offerings, the GAIN Network and BehaviorLink. PersonalWeb appears to offer the promise of allowing publishers to pour content into web pages, customized on the fly, by some analysis of recent browsing activity. The press release offers this example:

“If a user recently was researching retirement plans, spent time reading about mp3 players, was looking into travel to France, and viewing skiing sites, a Web site publisher could use PersonalWeb data to dynamically build a unique page for this individual user. Instead of showing generic common-interest content, the publisher could present reviews and offers from financial institutions, mp3 player reviews and discounts, and an article on skiing in the French Alps with links to tour companies.”

A separate MediaPost article alerted me to the Claria development. That article noted how PersonalWeb might change the very notion of “editing” insofar as it pertains to the selection and display of online content. Here is a snippet from MediaPost:

“The feature raises the question of how much control news publishers are willing to cede about the articles that are displayed on the landing page,’’ the article said, going on to quote a New York Times spokeswoman on the possible downside of personalization: "One benefit of the current format is that readers like to see the editorial judgment of our editors and reporters," said the spokeswoman.

What a shock it would be to editors and writers (like me) if browsers preferred to see only what they wanted – assuming that a set of computer algorithms could sleuth out their preferences.

Tom Abate MiniMediaGuy Cause if you ain’t Mass Media, you’re Mini Media


Suddenly Great?

About three dozen people gathered this weekend at the scenic Presidio, a former Army outpost at the foot of the Golden Gate bridge, to figure out how to popularize the notion and the practice that people should create and share, not merely consume, media.

Citizen media is the broad name for this movement. JD Lasica, cofounder of Ourmedia and an organizer of the conference, has listed the attendees and written a summary of the discussion. I have excerpted a couple of items of interest to me, and added links to other efforts or resources in this realm, so unless otherwise noted, the following is simply my condensation of JD’s post.

Chris Tolles with the San Jose startup Topix said: “If you create something of interest and collect an audience, you'll make money. The question has been raised: Why would someone participate in a citizen’s media effort? What's the motivation?”

Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive among other things said: “We haven't cracked through the consciousness of much of the creative community yet. Ourmedia is really bottom up, but we're still missing the activists, the documentary folks, they're not putting their stuff online, why? It's a puzzle.”

Dan Gillmor, author of We The Media, part-manifesto, part-guide to citizen media, announced the soft launch of a new citizen media enterprise, Bayosphere, a site that will apparently center on the San Francisco Bay Area and its technology industries.

In a similar vein the conference was attended by Mark Potts and Susan DeFife of Backfence, a new community media site that has debuted in the Virginia suburbs of metropolitan Washington, D.C.

One of the upshots of the weekend event was to plan for a larger gathering, perhaps under the auspices of a university. (In searching around this morning I noticed that the University of Maryland’s J-Lab is planning a “Citizens Media Summit” for October 24.)

Some other resources to better understand or create citizen media include a good overview in Online Journalism Review, and the Citizen Media Monitor and an accompanying list of initiatives.

Much work and disappointment lies ahead, and probably more than a little conflict, envy and bitterness. Creating something new isn’t easy. Creating something new that requires the participation of large numbers of people is tougher yet. But ultimately re-inventing media is one of the most important things in which any of us could participate. By coincidence, this morning I pulled a little saying out of a tin of uplifting quotes that my wife got me as a Christmas gift. Think of them as one-a-day-vitamins for the spirit. Today’s quote was from the Stoic philosopher, Epictetus: “No great thing is created suddenly.”

Tom Abate MiniMediaGuy Cause if you ain’t Mass Media, you’re Mini Media


Professional Blogging?

I began this week with a tongue-in-cheek oxymoron (Intelligent Television?), so why not end on a similar note by mentioning the BlogNashville conference organized under the auspices of the Media Bloggers Association. A CNN report said the two-day event, which drew more than 300 bloggers, “was heavy on teaching techniques used by journalists. . . (such as) . . .how to access and analyze government statistics.”

Attendees include political blogger Glenn (Instapundit) Reynolds, citizen journalism activist JD (Ourmedia) Lasica and tech guru Dave (Scripting News) Winer, who apparently provoked a debate on the panel at which he spoke (shocking all who know of Dave – not).

My reference to the oxymoronic overtones of “professional blogging” was not intended as a slap at the blogosphere – which would certainly be foolish given that it might offend an estimated 31.6 million bloggers. Instead I want to think about the various meanings of "professional."

Sometimes we use the word to describe a standard of excellence, and the Nashville conference was intended to counter the condescension, prevalent in mainstream media, that bloggers are just opinionated blowhards with no respect for facts. (Though, honestly, with more than 30 million folks pounding keyboards as a hobby, you’re bound to find plenty of evidence of that.)

But amidst that noise some blogs stand out by virtue of their very clarity, such as one I tripped over this morning, in which Elise Bauer writes: “What is a blog, anyway? It's just a website. A website that is extremely easy to update with fresh content. A website that has built in capabilities - the ability to comment for example - for interacting with its readers. A website that has a personal voice.” As far as I’m concerned that’s a perfectly “professional” explanation. (FYI, you will find beaucoup information about the weblog tools market in one of her recent posts, and it was this entry, which popped up in a search, that allowed me to find her.)

So in my mind, the difference between the professional and non-professional writer is not necessarily that one is better than the other, but that one gets paid and the other has a hobby. Both types are surely welcome in the blogosphere. This is, as we like to say, a free country.

But so long as this is remains a hobby medium, where posters rely on day jobs (as do I, and as does Nashville conference organizer Bill Hobbs), then the blogosphere will represent what we might call the Blanche Dubois business model. You remember her parting line from Streetcar Named Desire: “I have always relied on the kindness of strangers.”

Tom Abate MiniMediaGuy Cause if you ain’t Mass Media, you’re Mini Media


Knockout Media

Yahoo continues to evolve into the very model of the modern major media, the latest evidence being its deal to air a special webcast-only version of The Contender, the reality TV show where tough guys beat each other to evoke winces and howls from couch potatoes.

So what if this is a bit low brow for your tastes. This is brand extension and cross-platform marketing as it will be widely practiced because, in an age of audience fragmentation, when media find a niche they will fill its every crevice. (Thanks to Gavin O’Malley of Media Post for reporting on this and also mentioning that Yahoo and Mark Burnett (originator of both Contender and Survivor) will renew their current TV-web link around The Apprentice.)

Anyhow, I usually try to restrain myself from gushing over mass media doings, but this impressed me. Besides, I did find a related Yahoo development that is useful to all of us – a reminder that online publishers should not (if they can possibly help it) write advertising contracts that pay only for click-throughs or for transactions that are completed online.

“While consumers are using search engines to research financial services, many of those who convert to bank customers do so offline, according to a new report by Yahoo.” That’s how Media Post reporter Wendy Davis starts a story that will provide all the details on how many people were surveyed and what percentage opened what type of account online and how many performed the transaction over the counter (“38 percent of those who opened savings accounts did so in person”).

Online publishers will have to convince advertisers to give them some credit for page views, or perhaps come up with creative ways to induce consumers to mention whatever online advertisement prompted their action.

Finally, since you may be wondering: what do I think of Contender? Well, not much. It pains me to think that there is an audience for such fare, and that clever media people will dream up new ways to cater to such appetites. But the conundrum of a free society is that we often do not approve of how others choose to express their freedom. Oh, well.

Besides, I heard an uplifting thought at a conference for home-schooling parents that my wife dragged me to a few years ago. The speaker, whose name I can’t recall, mentioned that when Shakespeare was producing his plays, he had to compete with less savory entertainments. This morning I found a credible reference that said the theatre in which Shakespeare staged many of his famous productions “was in the 'sporting district' of Greater London, an area full of establishments accommodating pastimes condemned by the authorities, including the theatre, cock-fighting, bear-baiting and drinking in taverns.”

So if you aspire to produce content that appeals to the better angels of our nature, keep your chin up. Or is better to tuck it into your shoulder? I’m not sure. Tune in to The Contender for pointers on how to avoid taking one on the chin in the contest of ideas.

Tom Abate MiniMediaGuy Cause if you ain’t Mass Media, you’re Mini Media


Pajama Party

For argument’s sake, let’s say that bloggers as pontificators who work in their pajamas, and assume that they'd like to earn enough from their writings to buy some street clothes. If so, then the new-launched and aptly-named advertising service Pajamas Media may be the answer to their pecuniary and sartorial dreams.

Thanks to Darren Rowse, writing in WebProNews, for pointing me to the open letter which reveals that Pajamas Media will be “working in two areas - aggregating blogs to increase corporate advertising and creating our own professional news service.”

The letter is written by New York author Roger L. Simon, whose works include “The Big Fix,” the offbeat detective yarn made into the movie starring Richard Dreyfuss. His collaborators in Pajamas Media include Mark Danziger, who contributes to the group-blog Winds of Change, and Charles Johnson, of the eclectic Little Green Footballs (apropos of my comment in yesterday’s blog, Johnson sells t-shits at $20 a pop to help support his site.)

I was not familiar with these bloggers before I peeked behind their pajamas, so to speak, but my cursory examination suggests they represent the spectrum of political commentators and probably want to build a network with an even greater diversity of views.

Danziger’s comments about Pajamas Media resonated with my own focus on business models. While he said much of the planning for this new network had to be carried on in private, he offered these insights which I will excerpt below in an abbreviated form:

“As someone who writes business models the way other folks do grocery lists,” says Danzinger, “(I believe) in the power of the Internet to disintermediate . . . middlemen in the economy (who) really do three things - they help you find things, they buffer supply, and they catalog information.”

He goes on to say: “Two of those three things are done better by information services, and one of them is done better by the manufacturer . . . And the questions will be how to build useful interfaces between that world and the highly structured world of advertisers, media consumers, and blog novices while respecting the dynamic nature of the blogs themselves.”

Interesting. I wish he and his collaborators well. Here’s one other useful bit from his post: “If you're a blogger and interested in signing up to Phase I, which will be - in simple terms - an ad network, send an email to join-(at)-pajamasmedia.com and you'll hear back about some next steps.”

One snarky note in closing. In his open letter, Simon writes: "With respect to advertising, we do not wish to go into competition with Henry Copeland's BlogAds (the political ad service that boomed during the 2004 election). That seems like a bit of poetic license, not a credible business plan. But, hell, what would I know. I'm just some guy sitting here in my pajamas.

Tom Abate MiniMediaGuy Cause if you ain’t Mass Media, you’re Mini Media


Post-Network Media

Yesterday’s post about Intelligent Television, reminds me of a recent white paper entitled Television networks in the 21st Century. It discusses audience fragmentation and suggests ways for mass media to respond. I think those same lessons apply to small producers, or mini media, to use my parlance.

The paper was written by the media group at Deloitte, the accounting and consulting firm. It came to my attention via Paid Content.

The authors note that mass audiences are dissolving into niches, creating what they call “the aggravation of fragmentation.” At the same time “demand for content in all forms of media is way up,’’ citing cable subscriptions and DVD revenues as two examples of increased spending on video. They postulate that the emergence of the Internet Protocol for Television will create new broadcast revenue streams by enabling the delivery of content-on-demand via cable or DSL networks. (I’ll come back to this in a future post but meanwhile this trade newsletter offers a starting point for research.)

The paper’s intriguing suggestion is that networks broaden, deepen and lengthen their relationship with viewers: broaden by using new channels (i.e. portable devices), deepen (by offering services), and lengthen (by offering physical products to complement shows). I suppose this means “I Survived Survivor” t-shirts” and “So you wanna be an Apprentice” job fairs.

So I say if mass media is going to employ these techniques, then why not mini media as well? A small producer who creates a show that builds a following might sell t-shirts to harvest revenues from viewers. They’re easy to produce in small lots and people like to wear them. The same is true for bumper stickers, buttons and posters. We may be living in a niche world, but we’re not living in it alone. People wear to wear the insignias of the groups to which they belong. Use that to your advantage.

Likewise, once you create a media identity and draw an audience, it may lend itself to a conference or a gathering. If you can identify a sponsor who wants to reach your affinity group, you may have a business model.

I’m not suggesting any of this is easy. I’m sure it’s a relentless cycle of hard work and disappointment. But media seem to be headed toward free content. That’s what media baron Rupert Murdoch suggested in a recent speech. When I blogged about it, I suggested that content was flypaper designed to catch eyeballs. I was referring to advertising. Perhaps I need to enlarge my horizons. How about five bucks for a bumper sticker that says: “I’m Big on Mini Media?”

Tom Abate MiniMediaGuy Cause if you ain’t Mass Media, you’re Mini Media


Intelligent Television?

Intelligent Television is not an oxymoron. Rather, it is a production company funded by foundations or hired by libraries to make non-fiction documentaries. Founder Peter Kaufman recently delivered a speech that was something of a tease. He extolled open content and hinted that at business models to be built around it – beyond “get a grant” -- without actually revealing any. So while not immediately useful to Mini Media types working in video, his speech made some interesting observations about non-fiction publishing and pointed to several initiatives of interest to those who live in the reality-based world.

Thanks to Paid Content for steering me to the speech, which Kaufman delivered at the launch of the Creative Archives – another story all in itself, a project that aims to make certain audio-visual material produced in the United Kingdom freely available, in digital form, to residents of that nation.

In any event, preaching to this choir, Kaufman said: “in publishing, music, television, film, art, software, and technology, there are business cases—simple business cases, and sophisticated business cases—that support the economic wisdom of providing certain sectors of society, and sometimes the public as a whole, with materials, intellectual property, knowledge, and know-how for free.”

What those business cases might be, Kaufman did not reveal. But he did say that “Intelligent Television is launching this May a year-long study on the economics of open content,” funded by the Hewlett Foundation. Added Kaufman: “I will be able to say more in a few months.”

(A recent conference, also funded by the Hewlett folks, is a repository of information on open content. In his remarks, Kaufman also mentioned the National Audio Visual Conservation Center, a project led by the Library of Congress that already houses some three million recorded sound items and one million moving image items and is expected to open in 2007.)

Judged by his own remarks, Kaufman directed his speech at librarians, archivists, foundation officers and media people. “Almost all of us here are all in the business of nonfiction,” he said.

That is the takeaway for the Mini Media community. Most information products are produced to explain what we need to know. While entertainment may get all the glamour, media’s bread is buttered by training, self-improvement, education, history, news and all the other sorts of information that we look for when, for instance, we’re shopping for a new car. Making ourselves useful may be the best way to make money. I’ll look for more on this score when Kaufman releases the results of the study he mentioned in his speech.

Tom Abate MiniMediaGuy Cause if you ain’t Mass Media, you’re Mini Media


Go-Go Media

Given the ferment in mobile media, I want to pull together some technical, licensing and legal developments, beginning with Nokia’s plans to introduce a mobile phone with a hard drive.

MocoNews lays out the details in a recent post: the device will have a hard drive capable of holding 3,000 songs and “supports a range of music formats including MP3, M4A, AAC and WMA.” In advance of that announcement debate had already begun over whether music-enabled cell phones would kill Apple’s iPod, a notion which Paid Content threw out there on the same day on which it pointed to a report that number-two cell phone maker Motorola was planning to release a phone capable of playing iTunes.

I’m not going to waste a word worrying about the fate of hardware vendors. The more the merrier so far as content creators are concerned. Instead, I stand, slack-jawed, in the face of these and other developments in the mobile realm – notably the emergence of powerful, hand-held gaming devices such as the PSP (Surely you saw that Sony has contracted with AtomFilms to offer “free downloadable video content” for its walkabout media player?).

So, to borrow a phrase, it’s mobility, stupid.

I direct that remark to myself, the print dinosaur who only joined the online party in 2005. I am apparently one of 10 million new bloggers to have logged on since the start of the year! That estimate comes from a recent survey which places the total number of blogs just above 30 million. (On a parochial note, the report’s authors say blog fever began became contagious after Northern California tech guru Dave Winer got Harvard University to back the Bloggercon 2000 conference.)

Now, five years later, the restless frontiers of media and technology seem to have leapt off the desktop and onto the handhelds, leaving us late arrivals word-smiths eating dust. Oh, well.

Meanwhile, back at the cutting edge, the law (in the form of self-regulation) is racing to add a semblance of civilization to the mobile content gold rush. Thanks to Paid Content for pointing out that cellular companies are working on mobile content ratings to help parents ensure that the kiddies don’t download the naughty stuff. “Our job is to provide choice and provide control,” Cingular vice president Jim Ryan is quoted as saying.

Tom Abate MiniMediaGuy Cause if you ain’t Mass Media, you’re Mini Media


Upstart Media

There’s a lot of talk these days about citizen media – individuals or small groups taking the news into their own hands. There’s a lot of action as well. Against this backdrop, ten local groups were each awarded $12,000 grants in April to launch or continue citizen media sites.

The grants were awarded through the New Voices program of the Institute for Interactive Journalism. The grant program runs through 2006, so I guess there will be a new round of seed money offered next spring. I blogged about the current competition in February but was not among this year’s 243 applicants.

The winners are an eclectic in every way but I note that at least four of the 10 plans had a strong audio component. KRFP News, for instance, is a low-power FM station in Moscow, Idaho. The Hartsville Messenger is an effort in South Carolina that will include training citizen journalists to produce audio. A site called kaPow aims to create a hip-hop portal in Philadelphia. Loisaida Speaks will start training young women on the Lower East Side of New York in podcasting.

The other grantees may plan similar audio efforts, but those examples were enough to corroborate my own notion that listening, rather than reading or watching, is the growth area when it comes to absorbing media. Video certainly won’t go away but I think shows will get shorter or go away and turn into bits. And writing will remain the foundation of knowledge. It may be a failure of imagination on my part but I cannot imagine anything that replaces the clarity of linear thought as expressed through the written word.

But when I think as a businessman in search of an expanding market, and as a communicator who wants to make the info-product easy to absorb, it occurs to me that fastest way into a person’s brain is to whisper into their ears.

Tom Abate MiniMediaGuy Cause if you ain’t Mass Media, you’re Mini Media


Money (and Belated Thanks)

Advertising is the chief source of revenues for most Web publishers, and though I think that will change, I want to discuss an article about the response rate that online retailers are getting from net ads. Their experience provides benchmark numbers for small publishers trying to project realistic cash flows (as well as helping small e-retailers comprehend pay-per-click ad pricing).

I’m relying on a recent piece in Internet Retailer. It reports on a survey of 250 online retailers. The survey found that four out of ten retailers are now getting a better response to their ads now than they were a year ago. Another 23 percent said response rates were about the same. That suggests – though it was not stated explicitly – that more than a third of the respondents saw a decrease in response rate.

The key concept to understand is conversion rate: how many of those who see an advertisement click on that ad. The article said 70 percent of respondents had conversion rates of two percent or better. Two percent is considered the norm. (Again I infer that 30 percent had response rates below the norm.) Nearly half of the retailers surveyed had conversion rates above three percent. A third of the respondents reported click-through rates of four percent or better.

Publishers can use these numbers as follows: if you know how many page views you generate, multiply this number by the two percent response rate to estimate how many billable clicks you should expect. To arrive at revenues is more difficult because the pay-per-click rates are so varied. (I’m sorry but I don’t have a current average at hand.)

E-tailers can use these metrics to start learning the pay-per-click bidding game. Before you try, however, study this primer from ClickZ and follow the links for further research. Errors can be costly. A recent CNet article says “millions of U.S. merchants . . . lack the time or energy to master the game of Internet promotion.”

Let me shift gears.

I want to thank Dana Blankenhorn, author of the Moore’s Law blog, for his flattering note about my work as MiniMediaGuy. This blog started as a New Year’s resolution. I love the research and writing but am utterly baffled by the technical aspects of this craft, such laying trackbacks and creating blog rolls. I will learn these tricks eventually, but my time is limited by job and family responsibilities. Meanwhile, I remain all the more grateful that this seasoned writer and blogger has looked past my inadequacies at the thoughts and ideas I am trying to express here.

Tom Abate MiniMediaGuy Cause if you ain’t Mass Media, you’re Mini Media


Napsterized News

Two news industry executives from E.W. Scripps have proposed the creation of “a digital cooperative, a Napsterized news service” to compete with the Associated Press. Their article, published in Online Journalism Review, is more a trial balloon than a fully-fledged proposal but it’s certain to cause a stir.

Thanks to Andi Silver (of AndiLinks) who sent me the OJR piece after having read my three-intallment blog entry, Food for Thought, in which I called for the creation of media cooperative.

In contrast to my Joe Blogger dreams, however, Scripps executives Bob Benz and Mike Phillips are guys with the juice and the backing to make something happen. Scripps is also a chain that traces its history to the days when daily newspapers were the upstart medium. Nearly a century ago Scripps helped launch United Press International to compete with the AP. So there’s a deep back story to their OJR piece that will be known to their fellow news industry execs.

Of more importance to Mini Media types, however, is how Benz and Phillips see the world: “From blogs to open-source journalism to free newspapers, a wave of unpaid information is sweeping paid information off the media beach,’’ they write. “As content loses value, expert editing and customer-driven bundling are becoming the tools for building audience. And audience -- not content -- is the news industry’s value proposition.”

The last point is profound. In the media evolution occurring now, those who command attention will rule. Incumbent media may seem like dinosaurs today. In time, however, I think they will adjust their cost structure, reduce in-house staff and expense, and become conduits for user-generated content. I say this as one who works in media, likes what he does, and appreciates the salary and the benefits. Yet I begin to appreciate how buggy whip makers must’ve felt.

I scanned the OJR piece for clues as to how the Scripps guys would pay for all the groovy content that folks would bring to their media pot-luck. “Sharing,” they suggest, “would be governed by a karmic balance. The more you make available to the network, the more you can take out. An organization with a karmic deficit would have to true up by paying a surcharge.”

Okay. So when it comes time to pay my mortgage I just tell Citibank to debit my karmic balance?

Of course not! Because the Scripps plan wasn’t meant to address the needs of content creators like me. Instead it proposes a federation of feudal lords. That’s not meant to disparage the idea, because it might work and it might be an important step toward where ever media are migrating, just as the Magna Carta was a way station on the road to representative government.

But just as that agreement was a ways away from where we are today, the Scripps idea is a ways away from where media needs to go – and that is to a place where content, and its creators, have worth and value. Otherwise, the people who make media will hold out their bowls like so many Oliver Twists and say to the distributors with cracking voices, “Please, sir, I want some more.”

Tom Abate MiniMediaGuy Cause if you ain’t Mass Media, you’re Mini Media


Web Grammar (Occasional Thoughts)

Writing about Web comics two weeks ago, I used a phrase that went something like this: Internet publishing is about short, sharp, powerful bursts intended to convey a point, arouse an emotion, or elicit a reaction. Hardly a unique realization but one that touches one of the core attributes of the Internet – this medium makes it easy to share material with others of like mind. So when we package stuff in ways that are easy to share, we leverage the Web.

The best known example of this trend is the illicit sharing of music files. But the strength of the underlying technology is elegantly explained in a recent Reuters article: “Peer-to-peer, or P2P, software allows users to connect directly to each others' computers, bypassing the powerful servers that underpin much of the Internet. Web pages, spreadsheets, PowerPoint presentations and other material usually stored on servers can thus be made public directly from a user's hard drive.”

The article went on to spotlight P2P applications outside the music realm, including Shinkuro, which enables the creation of secure collaborative groups that include (and therefore exclude). “High-school teachers in Washingtonhave turned to Shinkuro to develop lesson plans,’’ the article noted, adding, “Two online standards-setting bodies, the Internet Engineering Task Force and the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, have developed agendas and other material with Shinkuro.’’

Wikis are another collaborative environment, but they operate, I think, more from an egalitarian presumption that all comers will be allowed to join and on an equal footing.

These and similar technologies enable people to tap each other on the shoulder, share information and complete tasks. So if the novelty is in the ease of sharing without regard to physical proximity, it follows that when we create material for the Web, one guiding rule should be to make that material easy to share.

With regard to writing, the form of communication with which I’m most familiar, this would make conciseness and usefulness prime virtues. In searching for the phrase “grammar of the Web,” I came across an interesting comment in this regard: “writing for the Web is not the same as writing for print. People read differently . . . jumping from one piece of content to the next. People are more action-oriented on the Web. They get online to get something done.”

Following that comment by Web designer Gerry McGovern led me a list of 10 rules for Internet writing – many of which seem equally appropriate to the creation of audiovisual content. Make the stuff easy to digest and, by extension, easy to pass around, because when material finds a friendly mind it doesn’t want to simply rest there. It wants to Move On.

Tom Abate MiniMediaGuy Cause if you ain’t Mass Media, you’re Mini Media