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48 posts from August 2006

The Bivings Report on Ways to Improve Newspaper Websites

Anyone involved with the newspaper industry needs to read this great summary of suggested website improvements from Todd Zeigler. Some of these are no-brainers (e.g., using tags, providing full RSS feeds, etc.) while others are going to require editors and other executives to abandon their not-invented-here mentality (e.g., work with external social websites, partner with local bloggers, etc.).


The Toronto Star Gets It!

Earlier this month I mentioned an idea for a free, customizable, downloadable, mini-issue of The Wall Street Journal (or any newspaper) in PDF format. Thanks to Wiley colleague Lucas Wilk for pointing me to this announcement today from The Toronto Star. Their new “Star P.M.” service is all that and more -- it launches on September 5th.

I don’t live in Canada and I’ve never read The Toronto Star, but I just subscribed to this program – I can’t wait to see how it works. I hope it’s a huge success for them and that other papers will follow their lead.


Blurb’s Blog-to-Book Service

I mentioned Blurb back in this July post. According to this Wired News article, Blurb is apparently going to invite 600 bloggers for a free trial of their blog-to-book conversion service. The blog-to-book service might wind up becoming the ultimate in vanity publishing, but I wonder if there’s another related service they should consider offering: blog-to-PDF.

Despite my best efforts with RSS feeds and other approaches, I have to admit that there are times when I’d like to catch up on a blog or discover a new one but I just don’t have the time. By “time” I mean time in front of a computer with an Internet connection. However, there are plenty of times when I’d welcome a nicely formatted hard copy of a blog that I could read on a plane, for example. Maybe I’ve just been doing too much flying lately... Then again, I often print out news items from the web so I can read them later at home – after working in front of a monitor or two all day I often welcome the chance to read a few printouts instead.

What if Blurb created a little plug-in that could be featured on any blog, you click on it and you’re asked what date range you want a PDF created for (e.g., posts and comments from July 1 through today) and it pulls it all together in a well-formatted file? The first question of course is “how would Blurb make any money off this?” Answer: They could place advertising throughout the PDF. Then it’s like reading a blog that’s formatted like a magazine.

I don’t see myself paying $30-$80 for the hardcover, dust-jacketed blog-book they’re offering, but I’d definitely use the PDF service described above.


SpiralFrog: iTunes Competitor or Illegal Download Killer?

Tired of paying 99 cents for a song? Don’t want to risk getting hit with a nasty RIAA lawsuit for illegal download activities? If you answered “yes” to either one of these, SpiralFrog has a deal for you. Starting in December, they’re going to start offering free music downloads from the archives of Universal Music Group. How can they do this? By forcing you to watch ads on their site. Hmmm…advertising supported music…wait a minute…don’t they call that “the radio?”

I got all excited when I bought my 40-Gig Creative Labs MP3 player and read about the Yahoo Music Unlimited service. I was excited until I learned that Yahoo’s DRM wasn’t supported on my player, that is. Nevertheless, I was ready to pay $5 or $10 per month to load that up with “rental” songs, but I’m not so sure I’m willing to do the same for this service. It’s unclear exactly how much time you’ll have to spend watching one ad after another on the SpiralFrog site. What is clear is that you’ll be forced to watch more ads every month to authenticate all your earlier downloads. Time is money and I’m not sure I’d be willing to spend more than 5 minutes per month taking in the ads for this service.

So what’s the answer to my question in the title? Will this take business away from iTunes or simply be a great way to discourage illegal file sharing? First of all, it looks like this won’t affect iTunes at all. According to this cnet report, SpiralFrog has no plans to support the iPod platform. Is that brilliant or incredibly stupid? After all, doesn’t the iPod represent something like 80% or so of the portable music player market?

Unfortunately, I also don’t see this program having any effect on illegal download activities. Let’s face it: Anyone who is still stealing music today, despite the risk of a nasty lawsuit, isn’t going to change their ways for this program.


Content Overkill

Is it possible to cram too much content onto a web page? Absolutely. Just hop over to si.com or espn.com for a couple of great examples. Sports sites aren’t the only ones guilty of this, of course, but they’re a great example of content gone wild.

I was reading a recent post by Steve Klein on the E-Media Tidbits blog before I realized I’m not the only sports fan totally turned off by this content cramming approach. Honestly, take a look at either of those pages and tell me where your eyes go first. You could probably flash the same page in front of me 10 different times and I’m likely to initially look at a different item every time.

So what? They’re getting loads of traffic because of their brand names and the temptation is probably to continue one-upping each other, jamming the next item into the main page until almost nothing is readable.

Then again, at least SI has come to their senses. I dropped my ESPN Magazine subscription long ago but I continue to subscribe to SI. As Steve pointed out, and I saw on the cover wrap for a recent issue, SI is about to launch MySI. Just like another favorite of mine, MyYahoo, I plan to customize MySI to help make sense of the clutter.

Sure, I’ll spend 10-15 minutes checking boxes and moving items around to help make my si.com experience a better one. I just wish they’d come to their senses and clean it up on their own. Apparently si.com and espn.com have never read anything on usability and they certainly haven’t paid any attention to Google’s “keep it simple and clean” approach.


This Is Digital Cable 2.0?!

Insight Communications is the local cable monopoly, er, company. We use them for our cable TV and broadband services. I came home and found a letter in my mailbox from them touting their new “InsightDigital 2.0” service. I was excited…until I read the details. Here’s what they wasted their time, paper and postage to tell me:

They’re going to organize all my channels into theme-based categories.

Big deal. I don’t have a problem finding what I want to watch using their “InsightDigital 1.0” services, so this is less than impressive and certainly not much of an opening statement.

They’re going to add over 1,700 new movies and shows to their On Demand TV service and more than 1,000 of these will be free.

Lovely. I wonder how many of those freebies are shows nobody ever watched the first time around and will remain unwatched the second time around.

Finally, they’re adding 3 more HD channels, including ESPN2.

Well, this might mean something to me if I had an HDTV, but I don’t. Meanwhile, I’m still bitter over Insight’s decision several years ago to move ESPN Classic and ESPN News to separate, “premium” subscriptions. I refuse to pay more for them, so I miss out…but boy, it’s great to see they’re offering me 3 more HD channels!

Let’s hope “Web 2.0” doesn’t turn out to be such a non-event…

If enough companies start using the “2.0” phrase like this it’s sure to lose its meaning!


Soon Everything Will Be Bought on eBay via Ads from Google…

…or at least that’s the scenario both companies would like to see play out, according to this alliance announcement. It’s interesting that eBay selected Yahoo for their U.S.-based text advertising needs (back in May) and now Google is preferred overseas. If I’m Yahoo, I’m quickly checking the terms of my eBay agreement and anxiously waiting for Google to knock me out of the U.S. deal as well. A multi-vendor approach sounds smart, but how much does eBay give up in the U.S. by sticking with the #2 player?

The whole “click-to-call” element is also a fascinating direction to consider. I realize there is some significant segment of the buying public that’s uncomfortable closing a transaction without ever speaking with a human. Maybe that’s the segment click-to-call will finally drag into the modern world. If so, great, but I feel that nothing is faster and smoother than buying on Amazon or any of a number of other e-commerce sites, all without human intervention. Plus, it’s got to be significantly less expensive for an advertiser to close a deal online vs. introducing a human representative to the equation.

Speaking of costs, the search engine charge of $2-$10 per call will obviously appeal to Google and their shareholders. Maybe it will also help kill off the click-fraud problem currently plaguing the industry. Then again, the same click-fraud experts will probably just start having their “employees” click-to-call instead…


The Long Tail, by Chris Anderson

I was skeptical when I picked up The Long Tail a few weeks ago. I figured I already read Chris Anderson’s original Wired article, I get it, I buy into it, and so what’s the point of reading an entire book about it? Well, to begin with, there’s a lot more important information in the book than he covered in his article. The 220+ pages of the book simply enable Anderson to drill down much deeper and cover more product segments than a magazine article could ever allow.

Regardless of what business you’re in though, you need to read this one. This is one of the few books I’ve read in years that really made me stop and think about how things apply to my job, business, etc. Yes, it’s a great (and easy) read, but you’ll get much more out of it than just a simple explanation of what the long tail is and what it means to business today.

I already mentioned one of the most important concepts covered in this book: Anderson’s reference to “Pro-Am collaborations”, where professional journalists need to work together with amateur bloggers, for example, to provide the best coverage of a story. Newspapers, magazines, etc., that don’t embrace this concept are really limiting their potential.

Here’s a great quote from page 199 where Anderson is talking about the TV/video industry: “I suspect that the thirty-minute show is the newspaper of television – a format born of distribution scarcity that is now past its prime.” Right. Newspapers are starting to feel like a relic, built around the need to physically distribute the news. YouTube and other sites are starting to make the thirty-minute TV slot seem like yesterday’s format as well. I admit that I’ve even started using my DVR less, going to YouTube to see something I might have missed.

Chapter 14, Long Tail Rules, is worth the price of the book all by itself. It’s there that Anderson lays out the nine rules followed by successful long tail aggregators. He opens the chapter with two very simple but important statements: First, make everything available and second help me find it. Sounds simple, right? But think about how people like Amazon, NetFlix, eBay and others have come up with innovative ways to implement these items.

In hindsight, arrogance along with Napster and other peer-to-peer (illegal) sites helped trip up and reinvent the music industry. That same arrogance and a variety of upstarts are doing the same to the newspaper business. As Anderson points out, the television industry could learn from these other industries, but they have their own, somewhat unique challenge as well: Rights issues could be the key stumbling block for TV/cable networks, preventing them from unleashing their extensive archives and propping the door open for the likes of YouTube and anyone with a digital video recorder.

Read this book. You won’t regret it.


Stephen Wildstrom: What’s Your Point?

Stephen, I just read your latest BusinessWeek article, In Praise of a Closed Market. I don’t get it. Honestly, I can’t think of a single monopoly situation that’s better for me than an open market. The cable company comes to mind. Don’t get me started there…these guys have been ripping me off for years. I won’t drop it and move to DSL because, well, that’s just swapping one monopoly out for another!

You also complain about the competition in the PC hardware market and how that’s not a good thing. Huh? Who’s bothered that desktops and laptops have become commodity items? I for one am pretty darned happy to only have to pay a few hundred bucks for a laptop. You don’t like the fact that it means the options and built-in components are limited because of the lower prices? Spend a few bucks more and get whatever upgrade you want! Better yet, go to Dell.com and have them build one just for you, at rock bottom prices. To paraphrase Rod Stewart, “if loving this is wrong, I don’t wanna be right!”

Speaking of Dell, you note that they’re on the low end of the customer service reputation scale while Apple is on the other, higher end. Talk about ironic, shortly after your article hit newsstands both of these companies got scorched (no pun intended) by Sony and are in the midst of massive laptop battery recalls. I wonder whether customers for either company would give them high satisfaction ratings at this point…


The Economist on the Newspaper Industry

Here’s an excellent article from Economist.com that talks about some of the things newspapers need to do to turn things around. Rupert Murdoch is quoted as saying that the industry has been “remarkably, unaccountably complacent.” Yeah, I’d say that sums it up. Then again, they had no incentive to change as “their owners have for decades enjoyed near monopolies,” according to the article.

Here’s an idea from the article that seems so obvious and yet remains untapped: Have your newspaper reporters cover stories not just with words but with video and audio too. Let’s say I just read an article in the paper about a local incident. Why not mention there’s video to accompany the story on the newspaper’s website? Now that would be a nice change…using the print product to attract more eyeballs to your site. Yes, newspaper reporters probably aren’t the best at creating professional video. So what?! The fact that it comes across as somewhat amateur probably makes it feel less formal, like you’re right there with the reporter as the story developed.

The article goes on with the obligatory reference to The Wall Street Journal as one of the few (only?!) papers to successfully venture into the realm of paid content. Further, other newspapers are likely to follow suit as the advertising market continues to shrink. That’s extremely weak logic. I pay for a subscription to The Wall Street Journal’s online edition because I want to read what Walt Mossberg has to say, for example.  I can’t think of a single Indy Star columnist I’d pay to read. If the Star shifts to a paid subscription model they’ll lose all sorts of traffic – there are just too many free alternatives. A better approach would be to provide free access to print subscribers and charge others. I’m not sure that would sell any more print subscriptions, but it might dramatically slow down the number of cancellations.

There’s also a comment in the article about how newspapers are saving “money by sacking reporters.” Cost cutting is the unfortunate and not always necessary knee-jerk reaction to a tough market. One thing I learned long ago though is that when times are tough and all your competitors are cutting back, that’s the time to get aggressive with new initiatives so that you can come out of the downturn with more momentum than everyone else. A wise man once told me you can’t save your way to prosperity when running a business.

This also got me thinking again about my earlier post that mentioned the idea of creating a mini-issue to go, based on individual reader preferences. I still think that’s a great opportunity, but why not also offer it in audio format? You want to tap into the younger generation, the ones that didn’t grow up reading the paper and aren’t about to start now? How about giving them audio downloads of all the news stories that match their preferences? Make it as easy as a podcast download, feel free to add in 10- or 20-second ads throughout, and see if they’ll listen to it on the work commute, at the gym, etc. What do you have to lose?