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29 posts from November 2006

USAToday on Newspaper Solutions

Kevin Maney's column in today's USAToday should be required reading for anyone in the newspaper business.  He polls several tech experts for their recommendations on how to fix the newspaper industry.  My favorite excerpts and thoughts:

No one, for instance, proposed that newspaper websites, which generally look more crowded than a Mumbai flea market, pare down to a single, clean Google-esque local search box.

I tend to agree that most newspaper sites are way too busy, but I think going to the Google extreme would be taking things too far in the other direction.  That said, I do think newspaper sites need to get into the customization game, which leads me to...

Make it personal -- you can see that now with The New York Times...the Times and some other newspaper sites have a feature that lets people rearrange the website to their liking.

Amen!  I can customize Yahoo to become MyYahoo.  Why can't I do the same and create "MyIndyStar", which I might add, doesn't exist?!  We're talking about customization options that have been available for many years now.  What's it going to take to get all the newspapers to buy into it as a basic feature?  OK, I know some people won't want to go to the trouble of setting up a custom view.  Fine.  Let them live in the overcrowded site as it currently exists.  Then again, why not offer up some pre-made custom views for them to consider?  Or, why not let readers share their views with others in the community?

Local newspapers would want to assimilate and link to local bloggers and get readers to network with each other through topic areas.

I don't see much of this happening today.  It seems like the newspapers still view the blogging community as the enemy and refuse to embrace it.  What a shame.

Local papers should buy up local online entities (e.g., local blogs).

Hey, let's not get too carried away here, OK?  There are far too many here-today-and-gone-tomorrow blogs.  Plus, like the old expression goes, why buy the cow when the milk is free?  Just incorporate and offer links to local blogs.  That's free and would be a huge step in the right direction.

Although I don't think buying a bunch of local blogs is a good solution, I do think newspapers ought to consider offering free blogging services to the community.  Think of TypePad or Blogger, but hosted by your local paper.  No charge to users...totally free.  It wouldn't cost the papers much to run/support this and they'd get not only more local, community-driven content but also add to the inventory of content pages they could offer advertisers.  Would I switch from TypePad to a free service, with all the same features, but hosted by the Indianapolis Star?  You bet!  Then again, I'm always looking for a good reason to abandon TypePad, so maybe I'm not the best test case.


YouTube: Friend or Foe?

"YouTube Won't Cannibalize TV?"  Ha!  Funny one.  Actually, that's the title of a ZDNet blog post by Donna Bogatin.  She sounds as skeptical as I am about this.  Btw, be sure to read this YouTube article in the latest issue of Wired -- the Ball State sportscaster video cited in the article is highly entertaining.

The latest YouTube debate seems to be whether they can really introduce a more lucrative advertising model to their platform without alienating all their current users.  Although you see banner ads on the site, pre- and post-roll ads are thought to be the only way to truly monetize the traffic.  I disagree.  Why not simply reserve the top 20% or so of the video area itself for some sort of embedded banner advertising?  It would either overlay the video itself or push the screen down a bit.  YouTube could create an algorithm that splices in relevant ads on the fly, just like they do with AdSense today.  Besides the obvious benefit of not forcing people to wait for the "main attraction", it also presents the advertising message along with the content itself, likely leading to a much stronger impression.  It's just like all those crawlers you see on CNN and other cable networks -- we're so used to them that we don't really mind them anymore, but they represent an excellent piece of real estate for online video advertising.

Bogatin's blog post goes on to talk about how YouTube really lends itself to "short bursts of content" rather than full-length shows.  That's true today but I seriously doubt it will be a long-term limitation.  Why couldn't YouTube host 20-, 30-minute (or longer) videos?  My attention span while I'm online does seem to be shorter than when I'm watching TV, but not by much.  We'll definitely see longer videos on YouTube in the future, especially once they get that advertising model in place.

I also expect to see an explosion of custom channels on YouTube.  You'll have channels for every niche imaginable.  That will also lead to more video links being embedded in blogs and other websites.  For example, if there was a good publishing/media channel on YouTube I'd be interested in including a widget-like link to it from my blog.  Again, the advertising model comes into play.  Think of Google's AdSense, but for video.  If you insert a custom channel on your blog, everyone who clicks and watches a video contributes to your income.  I tend to think the click-through rate for that sort of object on the screen would be much, much higher than the click-through rate for the typical AdSense block.

If you're in the TV/video business and you're not working on a strategy to either work with or compete with the Google/YouTube juggernaut, you're kidding yourself.  They're coming and they have all the weapons to be very successful, at your expense.


Crowdsourcing 101

First off, kudos to Chevrolet for even trying.  As this Wired article explains, the GM brand was innovative enough to try crowdsourcing as a way of renewing interest in Tahoe SUV.  I realize SUV's tend to be some of the more high-margin vehicles out there, but was this really the best test of the crowdsourcing model?

Despite the state of denial some car manufacturers seem to be in, it's fairly clear that SUV's aren't exactly the most exciting, innovative products out there.  Sure, the price of gas isn't approaching $3 a gallon right now, but it's still not cheap.  Further, according to this FT.com article, and it seems to be a consistent message in other reports, "the SUV market in the U.S. now appears to be in long-term decline."

It seems to me that the best product to feature a crowdsourcing initiative around would be one with the following characteristics: new, sexy, innovative, not widely known about, etc.  I don't think any of these apply to an SUV.  Why wouldn't Chevrolet try this with something more edgy?   Oops.  I forgot.  We're talking about GM.  What hot new vehicles have they produced in the last 10 years?  Anyone?  Anyone?

Bottom line: I think this sort of ad creation technique will become very popular.  It's an inexpensive way for advertisers to encourage and let their customers speak for them.  It's a blow to the ego of any ad executive, but the smart ones will figure out how to make it part of their portfolios.


The Hyper-Local Newspaper Solution

Want to see how a newspaper can successfully leverage the web?  Read this article about Rob Curley and The Naples Daily News in Fast Company.  Newspapers don't need to partner with Yahoo or sell out to other new media giants.  All it takes is three types of coverage to generate buzz and interest: local, local and local.

Check out this list of microsites that Curley developed and see for yourself why they're not only wildly popular but also huge advertising opportunities.  I wish my local paper would learn a thing or two from Curley and The Naples Daily News.


Sponsorships, Subsidies and “Free” Content

Although this article on FT.com is from earlier in the year, it’s as relevant today as it was then.  I missed it when it was originally published so I’m grateful to the folks on the O’Reilly Radar blog for pointing to it again this week.

I totally agree that the subsidy model described in this article will become even more common in the years ahead.  I also think it has a lot of relevance in the book publishing world.  Outside of reference material, very little online book reading is taking place today.  As I’ve said before, one of the key reasons why we haven’t seen e-books take off is because there’s no killer device available…yet.

Once that device arrives it will change the fundamentals of this business.  I’m not talking about some simple gadget that lets you read print books on a screen; the killer device will be a much more powerful tool that offers wireless connectivity to news, subscriptions, etc., anywhere, anytime.  Just like the cell phone model, that sort of a product could be free to consumers who are willing to sign up for a minimum content subscription/purchase plan.  The hardware vendor therefore makes their money through a cut of the content fees; it might also feature advertisements, creating yet another income stream.

In today’s world you Google your phrase and sift through the results for free.  Many of the resulting links are either irrelevant or not a direct answer to the question you have in mind.  In tomorrow’s world you’ll subscribe to one or more search/content services and get highly relevant answers.  Those services will feature some of the most well-known branded content around.  Your subscription might cost you money or it might be subsidized by a corporate advertiser.

There could be two (or more) options to the service plan.  Think of a generic e-content device.  It probably has the look and feel of the Sony Reader, but with full color and wireless capabilities.  Now split the display into two regions.  The region at the top is an inch or so high, all the way across the screen.  That’s the advertising area.  The rest of the screen below the ad space is for content.  Under the “free” plan, you receive the device at no charge and agree to a minimum content subscription/service plan.  You might have to commit to buying 10 e-books per year, 5 magazines, etc.  That plan also includes relevant banner ads across the top, for the full term of the agreement.  If you’d rather avoid the ads, you pay the vendor a flat fee up front for the device and it’s no longer free.

Like many consumers, I’d probably opt for the free plan with ads, especially if it’s the difference between free and a couple of hundred dollars.  This opens up a whole new channel for advertisers.  You typically don’t see ads in books today but this model could feature them in a reasonably unobtrusive way.

Who is well-positioned to implement something like this?  The usual suspects: Amazon and Google, for example.  You need someone who can aggregate all the publishers and other content providers because consumers will want variety.

Content owners will also have to rethink their IP strategies to participate in this sort of model.  Selling complete e-books is fine, but that’s only part of the opportunity.  The smart move is to not only offer full e-books, but also access to your entire content library, one small piece at a time or through a subscription; that also means all the content must be stored and tagged in a manner that allows this sort of piecemeal retrieval.


Gary Varvel, Newspaper Hero

I attended the annual Shepherd Community banquet last week and got to see one of our local newspaper icons win an award.  Gary Varvel, editorial cartoonist with the Indianapolis Star, was given the H. Dean Evans Legacy Award for his ongoing community service efforts.  I’ve always enjoyed Gary’s cartoons in the local paper and I truly appreciate his perspective.

Gary is also a blogger and I encourage you to take a look at what he has to say.  You’ll find it’s a great resource for anyone interested in current events as well as aspiring illustrators.

Also, if you’re an Indianapolis resident and you’re looking for a great service organization to get involved with, I highly recommend you hook up with the folks at the Shepherd Community Center.  Take a look at the list of services they provide inner-city families.  There are plenty of ways you can help them accomplish their goals, whether it’s volunteering your time or sending them a donation.  I’ve been fortunate enough to work with some of their staff over the past couple of years and I’ve found it to be an awesome organization.


Yahoo’s “Peanut Butter” Mess

A Yahoo senior vice president's (Brad Garlinghouse) internal memo managed to find its way all around the Internet today.  He describes Yahoo's problem as the equivalent of spreading peanut butter too thin across a piece of bread.  Here's a link to the entire document on The Wall Street Journal's site.

As I read through this I kept asking myself, "what does the name 'Yahoo!' mean anymore?"  I used to consider them a leader (if not the leader) in the portal world.  Heck, I still dedicate one tab in Firefox to MyYahoo, although that feels more old-fashioned every day.  Yahoo seems to have drifted away from being a leader in one or two areas and now tries to participate in every online sector.  The result: brand dilution. One could argue Google is heading in the same direction, but they're far from that stage today; I'd be willing to bet that most people still think "search" when asked what the name "Google" means.

The most alarming piece of this memo is where Garlinghouse says "we have lost our passion to win."  Ouch.  I don't care what sort of reorganization they go through, what sort of new deals they cut, etc., if the passion is truly gone within that organization it's time for something much more dramatic.  New leadership, all the way to the top, would have to be considered to fix this problem.

Garlinghouse also suggests Yahoo reorient its focus and sell some non-core businesses.  He doesn't elaborate on which ones to consider, but I'll bet there are a few old media outfits that would just love to pick and choose from Yahoo's existing assets, especially if they feel it will help them become more relevant and increase their "hip factor."  This is a great example of where it might be necessary to get smaller before the organization and brand can get bigger.


iWoz, by Steve Wozniak and Gina Smith

I've never been one to drink the Apple Kool-Aid.  I use a Windows PC and I've never owned an iPod.  I almost headed down this path in 1984 though, when I was one of the first people to buy an original Macintosh.  The only reason I made the $2,500(!) investment (plus an additional $500 for an ImageWriter printer) was because I was writing a book about that revolutionary computer.

Despite my limited Apple history, I've always been interested in the two icons behind the company: Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak.  Jobs gets a lot more visibility and I think the typical person knows more about him than Woz, which is why I quickly snagged a copy of iWoz: From Computer Geek to Cult Icon when I saw it was available.

The book gets off to a rather painfully slow start.  In fact, I almost put it down after about 40 or 50 pages of reading.  Once he gets past his childhood and into college it starts to get more interesting.  Woz obviously loves playing practical jokes and his carefree attitude comes through in the writing.  The guy is also nothing short of a genius, and when you read about how he used to design computers with nothing more than paper and pencil you'll quickly agree.

The most interesting aspect of the story has to do with Woz's days as an engineer at HP, prior to the launch of Apple.  Here's a guy who had designed the Apple I in his free time and was pleading with HP management to let him get involved in their plans to make a personal computer.  They not only turned him down, they went so far as to reject his design, giving him the freedom to develop the Apple I on his own.  Oops!  The rest is history, of course, but this has to go down as one of the biggest corporate screw-ups in American history.

Once you get past the first 50 pages this is very much an engaging read.  It was also interesting to watch as the Apple II becomes a blockbuster, but the first corporately-designed model, the Apple III, becomes a classic case study of "too many cooks in the kitchen."