Top 10 Media Trends of the Year

  1. Recycle Journalism – This was the year that recycle journalism came to the fore. It’s been a trend for a long time, already when I was writing for the magazine Space in the 90’s, I was experimenting with it, and Sweden’s Nojesguiden had a fun tradition of creating interviews using questions from other magazines’ interviews, but this year, it was everywhere. New media outlets such as Buzzfeed, Business Insider and Gawker are in large parts based on recycling and reshuffling material, but this year even more traditional magazines such as Bloomberg Businessweek had pieces which were made up of lists of articles from other outlets, such as their year-end jealousy list. Slate capped the year by doing a list of (social) media outrages for each day of the year. This trend is perhaps inevitable given the vast and increasing amount of content creation, which means that not all of it can be original content (as with this article itself!). Perhaps it can even be useful given the impossibility of keeping up with everything (unless you’re Jason Hirschhorn of Media Redef who seems to have 25 hours in his day!)
  2. Snowdenification – One of the outcomes from the NSA leaks has been the rise of apps that promise anonymity or not storing data. Two of the most talked about apps of the year were Secret and Whisper, which lets users share sentiments anonymously. Snapchat, with its self-destructing photos, continued to gain in popularity, and recently, we saw the launch of Confide, which lets users send self-destructing text messages.
  3. Long tail in analog – The creation of digital content was supposed to enable the long tail, i.e. with a distribution cost of zero, we could all enjoy whatever niche content we wanted. That ended up not being the case, with mainstream music/films/videos still dominating digital. Instead, it’s in the analog space that we are seeing extremely niche products, with the success of magazines like Brot (a German magazine dedicated only to bread!) and Modern Farmer (which I can only imagine is, as its name suggests, for modern farmers). Likewise, we saw Serial blow up and reach mass audiences that podcasts earlier could only dream of.
  4. Fights for digital distribution and pricing rights – Taylor Swift picked a fight with Spotify, and Hachette picked a fight with Amazon, and all over, music labels, artists and film studios were worrying about how to price their products for digital distribution and how to maintain control.
  5. Algorithms beats curation – Another highly visible fight this year took place between Spotify, the reigning master in the algorithm corner, and Beats Music, the newcomer in the curation corner. We’ll have to see how much focus is given to curation when Beats is relaunched by Apple next year, but for now Spotify has the lead, with steadily improving algorithms.
  6. Corporate Content – Benetton has long had its own magazine, Colors, which received praise this year for its World Cup issue, but this year, corporate content has become one of the main trends. One aspect of this is native advertising, which has become the buzzword du jour in digital advertising. Other advertisers took it even further and launched their own magazines with quite limited branding, such as GE.
  7. Data journalism – Big data is making its mark on all industries, and the news industry is no exception. The launch of Nate Silver’s 538 heralded an onslaught of data journalism, and there were suddenly infographics wherever you looked. The belief in data as the ultimate objective source was quickly questioned, however, and it turned out that data journalism has biases just like regular journalism, it just has more graphs to back it up with. That’s not to say that some of it wasn’t great, though, NYT’s The Upshot did great work around the US midterm elections.
  8. Explanatory journalism. The other surprising trend this year was explanatory journalism. Alain de Botton published his book News: A Manual, where he called for news to be kinder to the reader and function more like an oracle helping the reader navigate life. Whether or not as a response to Alain, Ezra Klein this year left Washington Post and launched Vox, which became the torch-bearer for explanatory journalism. Again, it was a worthwhile aim, and some of the pieces served to provide much-needed background, but in order to maintain the 24/7 flow of a digital news site, some explanations proved a bit silly, and “Vox explains” could seemingly be attached to anything from ISIS to Easter Eggs.
  9. Drone journalism – The rise of affordable drones and cameras provided journalists, and especially photographers, with a fantastic new tool to investigate and report. There are still many question marks, not least around FAA regulations, but this is clearly something that will only grow. A related phenomenon is the launch of mini-satellites which can be used to provide high-definition images in close to real-time.
  10. Google’s Right to be Forgotten – A scary trend in Europe was for Google to remove links to websites under the court ruling dubbed “Right to be forgotten”. This could potentially be admissible for individual websites that are defamatory, or simply out-of-date, but it was applied to stories on many news sites, such as BBC stories about specific CEOs, etc, where it has no right at all. That is called editing history, and has no place in a modern society.

Top 10 Unexpected Friendships of the Year

  1. Putin + Erdogan – cosying up to each other with the recent gas deal, but also just copying each other – president and PM switch, leveraging state religion, consolidating power…
  2. Uber + Spotify – an announcement that got lost in the recent Uber PR fiasco, but fun idea none the less – listen to your playlists in your Uber car! Although completely superfluous and frivolous.
  3. Evernote + WSJ – Evernote, still the most useful app ever created, is testing out new things – one of them is to get context info from Factiva. Theoretically useful, but not sure in practice
  4. Tim Cook + Dr Dre – Apple makes a vert anti-Jobs move, with its biggest purchase ever.
  5. Ello + Threadless – the anti-Facebook announces its plans to make revenue, and it involves selling T-shirts!
  6. Amazon + Twitch – Amazon buys little known video playing broadcasting network
  7. Burning Man + Grover Norquist – Grover Norquist goes to Burning Man, in a further sign that, in fact, everyone goes to Burning Man.
  8. GoPro + Drones – Everyone puts their GoPro on a drone, and GoPro eventually announces that they will just make their own drones.
  9. Putin + Depardieu – Depardieu, in a foie gras stupor, decides he has had it with French taxes, and gets a Russian passport
  10. Doritos + Taco Bell – Taco Bell launches the height of consumer innovation – a taco with a Doritos-flavored shell. The Internet loses it.

Event economics in the digital age

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Yesterday, I read Simon Kuper’s piece in the FT, on “Author Economics”, where he laments how little authors earn these days on the books they sell. He draws the conclusion that you need to have rich parents or a rich spouse these days in order to survive as an author.

However, he also touches in passing on the one area where writers can still make money – speaking engagements. This is the same that we’re seeing in the music industry. With Spotify having taken over the torch from iTunes, the amount of revenue musicians earn from the sale of music is now decreasing rapidly. However, they earn more and more on live events, and related sales, such as merchandise. As mentioned in this article, it’s not just the Rolling Stones, even newer artists such as Justin Timberlake, get away with charging ticket prices up to $1,500, for special packages and VIP arrangements.

Very few authors are testing out new ways to make money, although there are many interesting opportunities. Live events is one, another is podcasting. Authors such as Bret Easton Ellis, Stephen Dubner and Tim Ferriss are all creating very interesting podcasts, which generate some advertising revenue, or at least points listeners to merchandise.

The book industry should give up its fruitless fight against Amazon in trying to keep the ebook price at $10.99 instead of $8.99, which won’t create a living wage for authors any time soon, and instead embrace these kinds of new revenue models.

Can Republicans own innovation?

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Never thought I would say this, but I actually like this piece from Grover Norquist on Reuters. His idea is that Republicans should use the sharing economy to take back the urban demographic from the Democrats. It’s worth reading.

It is not on the strength of the argument that I would advocate looking at the piece – his basic argument is that the sharing economy is created by democrats in the Bay Area, a classic Democratic area, and it will clash with unions, another strongly Democratic group. This sounds like it could be a clash, but it probably won’t happen, since neither the Democrats in California nor the young liberals using Uber and Airbnb would turn against the Democrats in the short term even if Lyft doesn’t get a license in all cities.

The aspects which I find more interesting with the piece is that of the politics of tech. Tech and Silicon Valley were apolitical for a long time, churning out new products and not getting involved in the politics of the Hill. This started to change a few years ago, with armies of Google and Facebook lobbyists descending on DC to lobby for skilled immigration and driverless cars regulation.

Tech and innovation present a new way for Republicans to create a new interesting narrative for themselves. Republicans have for the last few years moved away from their historical role of being the party of intellectual leadership and become the anti-intellectual party instead. The role of defender of innovation on philosophical grounds could be a fruitful path to connect with young voters on a deeper level.

Innovation is tightly linked to free markets, and the lack of unnecessary regulation. We all want to the future where we read a book while being driven to work by our driverless car and get our sandwiches delivered by Amazon Prime Air drones. And with the Democrats being tied down to a lot of status quo-keeping regulation, that future is probably more of a Republican future.

2014 – the year of gaming?

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So here we all thought that 2014 would be the year of wearables, and maybe it turns out it will be the year of gaming instead?

First there were reports that Apple is bringing games to the Apple TV, and now Amazon has purchased gaming company Double Helix.

It does make sense for both companies to do this, as all major tech companies are trying to get deeper into content creation.

Amazon unveils drone delivery plans

With Amazon unveiling its plans for drone delivery, they’re upping the stakes in their fight with Google, both in terms of autonomous vehicles (Drone delivery versus autonomous cars), as well as in the ongoing fight over which company fulfills the most of our geeky, utopian fantasies. Bezos continues to fight the good fight, soon to dominate print innovation through Washington Post and retail innovation through Prime Air.

Although, we mustn’t forget all the regulatory hurdles this has to pass.

The video Bezos unveiled can be found here. I talked about delivery by drones in China in an earlier post. Another earlier post talked about Google being the most utopian of the current big tech companies, which I might have to revisit. This post discussed other new delivery mechanisms.

I just hope this will be included free of charge in my existing Prime subscription! Amazon doesn’t care about profits, right?

The first shopping smart phone and the Internet of products

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The rumors regarding Amazon’s smart phones are coming more and more frequently. Perhaps their launch is finally not that far away anymore?

The latest set of rumors are getting really interesting. The prevailing theory has been that Amazon would release a smart phone that follows the same strategy as the Kindle, i.e. the phone is cheap, or even free, and Amazon makes their money selling the content to it. It’d be pretty much a dumb pipe, even as a smart phone.

The latest rumors suggest something more interesting, that the phone is following another Amazon strategy, of helping the user do price comparisons and buy their products at Amazon instead of somewhere else. There is an Amazon app that lets users scan products and immediately get the Amazon price to compare with. And the rumored phone would take that to a new level by having “four front-facing cameras that can track a user’s head and then use it to position 3D effects within the interface“, according to Verge. This would let you identify any object and match it to the relevant product on Amazon. An Internet of Things purely for shopping. Stacey Higginbotham would love it.

It reminds me of the initial pitch of the shopping site The Fancy, which was initially about being a social network of things. It later realized that the money was in becoming a luxury brand and getting Kanye to pitch for them. Nothing wrong with that, their email newsletters are full of subversive products everyday. But the original pitch of giving every object out there an identifier and a node in the network was very interesting. Hopefully to be realized in the future, through Amazon or a new player.

How technology changes our reading habits

Cover of "Kindle Wireless Reading Device,...

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Technology has always shaped the way we read books, from Gutenberg to Kindles, but it feels like the pace of changes is speeding up in recent times, and in some very positive ways.

 

One of the big enablers has been the application of big data and better analytics to books, book reviews and data on reading. Amazon‘s recommendations are getting better and better. Now Goodreads, picked up by Amazon earlier this year, is proving to be a really useful platform. It is not always spot on in terms of recommendations, and they keep sending me emails about books from the Young Adult section, but having a social network based on reading is quite nice. It does yield a lot of good ideas for new books to read, as well as new appreciation the hidden literate depths of one’s more peripheral Facebook friends!

 

BookVibe is a new fun book discovery tool, which picks books to recommend based on what books are discussed in my Twitter and Facebook feeds. My current list of recommendations include everyone from the expected (Carl Sagan, Freakonomics, Sherry Turkle), to more unexpected books about Dungeons and Dragons or something called “The Harbinger”.

 

There’s also Booklamp.org, which aims to be the Pandora of books, by defining and matching the “genome” of books. For fiction, the results are not that convincing (I get better recommendations from Amazon). It works better for non-fiction, but it seems the DNA of a book is still fairly elusive.

 

The other big change we’ve witnessed recently is the time-shifting of reading. After watching TV content was  inexorably changed by Tivo, and later Netflix, timeshifting has moved to reading, with all the wonderful tools we now have at our disposal. I can no longer live without Instapaper and Pocket. I also love the Longform app’s curated take on articles. Om Malik discusses how he uses Pocket here.

 

Even if it’s an age of TL;DR, in which we have ever less time to read, it seems these innovations are at least helping us make the most of what we read.

 

All the things Bezos can do with WashPo

Bezos buying The Washington Post seems to have been the kind of divisive, watershed event that surprised everyone enough and enticed or infuriated everyone enough to weigh in on its pros and cons.

I’m not sure Bezos knows exactly what he wants to do with the Post yet, but if he needs inspiration, he doesn’t have to feel like he’s lacking ideas, given all the reasons that the media have offered for why he made the purchase.

Here is a round-up of some of my favorite explanations:

  • He bought the Post for its distribution network. People get their newspaper in the morning, and he is going to start distributing Amazon products with the paper. Likelihood: This seems farfetched. WashPo has scaled back their distribution network over the years, and besides, Amazon is already doing same-day delivery in the locations where it can do so. Monocle’s The Stack discusses some of this. Even if he will not use it per se, it could be a model to learn from.
  • He bought it as a lobbying-on-steroids effort, to get more clout with politicians and lawmakers in Washington (as mentioned in Time). Verdict: Even if tech companies have stepped up their lobbying efforts over the last years, and Amazon has been obsessed with sales tax legislation, this seems a round-about way of doing it. And the WashPo brand would deteriorate if Bezos applied Murdoch-style influencing over it and it ceased to be neutral.
  • It was a content play, like Netflix doing original programming. He needed more content for the Kindle, and the Post came up as a potential cheap acquisition (and the Post delivered digitally could be a nice freebie for Prime customers).
  • Since Amazon doesn’t have any news content on its own website, if they would start getting information on what news stories users like to read, Amazon could make more targeted purchase recommendations.
  • He sincerely believes in the brand, and thinks it can grow with the right investment. Even if he has earlier said that the newspaper industry will be dead in 20 years, maybe he realizes that the Post has the kind of brand that could be monetized much better in the digital space and globally.
  • He believes he can disrupt the newspaper industry, like he has done with the retail and publishing industries. By implementing some Amazon tactics such as delivering high value for very low cost to get customers hooked (BusinessWeek suggests the paywall will definitely go), new kinds of subscription models, or global replication, or any other kind of successful experimentation, he could upset the industry. HuffPo talks about Bezos’ focus on the customer and MediaWeek what that personalization could mean for an old media property such as a news organization.
  • Or if for no other reason, perhaps he did it for purely philanthropic reasons. According to BusinessWeek, he is a lover of the written word, so it might just be a case of having enough money and wanting to own a newspaper. Fast Company talks about him thinking about his legacy. But that seems slightly out of character for him, given that his other investments (Long Now clock, space exploration, etc), all have been very different in their nature. Not to mention potentially more significant for his legacy. It’s not the same as Chris Hughes buying and running the New Republic, since Bezos kind of has a day job already.

Whatever the reasons, I think we should see it as a very positive testament to the value and business opportunities in a strong news media brand. Let’s look forward to see what a newspaper with a strong brand and good financial backing can do, it’s sure been a while.

Giving something a price – on doughnuts and Internet revenue models

Just listened to an awesome Planet Money podcast on reference pricing, and more specifically, the dangers of initially giving things away for free if you’ll later need to charge for them.

Their main example in the podcast is a sad, but funny story of how veterans are still upset that the Red Cross started charging for doughnuts in 1942 (!) It might say more about the strangeness of war than psychological effects of pricing. But the problem is more relevant than ever, since most Internet businesses we use and love all started out free, and of course at some point run out of angel funding and need to start generating some money.

One example is Amazon, who I love and use all the time, but fear will only become more monopolistic. Now that they have their quasi-monopoly established, they seem to feel more secure in raising some prices. Not in new areas, like tablets, where they haven’t suffocated the competition yet, but in the original areas of e.g. books and non-perishables. It was very interesting to see how Amazon suddenly realized they were on the side of adding a sales tax, and it was the smaller guys who now were against it. For all we know, they might just buy Barnes and Noble and just use it as a storefront.

The other classic example is paywalls for newspapers. This is an interesting one, since consumers paid for their newspapers for a century, then had 10 years of getting them for free online, and then suddenly had to pay for them again. Which one will win out? The deeply-rooted belief that newspapers is a payable product, or the Internet’s mantra that information wants to be free? It will be interesting to see how it plays out. The only thing for sure is that print no longer is worth anything. Just see the prices for Boston Globe and Newsweek, just the past week. And dear old International Herald Tribune. A most wonderful brand, that evokes wonderful collective memories of Paris in the 60’s and Jean Seberg in Godard’s Breathless, now thrown away for the undeniably plebeian New York Times Global.

The only thing the media companies can do is continuously experiment with developing new types of content, developing new ways for the consumers to more easily pay for content and, perhaps the easiest one, structuring content in new ways that the consumers aren’t used to getting for free. See this post for some interesting new examples.

For more information and thoughts on this topic, follow me on Twitter @malcmur.