Friday, December 16, 2011

Aggregators Gone Wild

I wasn't completely surprised to learn the content discovery engine Thoora had closed down after two years in beta. Frankly, with so many aggregators coming to town and Flipboard, Zite and Float rising to the top, I hadn't spent too much time thinking about Thoora. The offering, such as it was, was not entirely remarkable, provided selected topic aggregated from across the web. Techcrunch notes that 'The design was dry and unintuitive, and the content surfaced was often too old or not relevant enough."
Thoora is on record saying the delay to launch was due to the explosion of social media and the need to integrate that function. Compare this to Flipboard's CEO Mike McCue who said in a recent LA Times interview their new mission was "to crawl the social networks." This task has been made easier by Flipboard's acquisition of Ellerdale, a company that has already indexed 6 billion messages from the Twitter firehose.

Joseph Constantine of Techcrunch points to Thoora's "failure to get a working smartphone app out the door" as allowing Flipboard and others to solve the information overload problem. He added: "The shuttering should serve as a lession to entreprenuers; you can't spend forever perfecting your product."

In a way this might be the most useful takeaway from the shuttering. It was not so long ago--say 2009--that publishers were faced with a dearth of digital platforms. The web was not delivering in the business sense. The Kindle was interesting as were others entrants such as Plastic Logic. Behind this fine frenzy of product introductions was a calculus that companies had ample time to perfect their products. I brought at least a dozen companies into the magazine association during the period and the mantra was pretty much the same: we have time to improve the UI and bring an acceptable color screen to market. I recall a spokeman for Skiff, a product of Hearst Interactive, saying that the market would be comfortable in a black-and-white world for the near term. A few months later Skiff was killed and the rest is history.

If two-plus years ago publisher faced a dearth of digital platforms, today they face an embarrassment of riches--and the launch rate shows no signs of slowing down. At the 2011 CES show I examined dozens of devices--smartphones, e-readers and tablets--and most were dependent on robust content for a successful launch. No wonder so many of these devices never made it. That Samsung just appointed David Eun, late of Google and AOL, as EVP of Digital Content, suggests they understand the importance of acquiring content at birth.

Content aggregators have entered this space with a vengeance. I keep an eye on about a dozen and suggest PaidContent as an up-to-date source. Flipboard seem to top most lists due to its $60 million in funding, strong management, aggressive social strategy and top-shelf content partners. It won Apple's iPad app of the year in 2010. Their new iPhone app is getting a lot of attention and raising interesting questions about "flip engagement" on mobile devices.

I have looked at Zite, Pulse, Float, Yahoo's Livestand and AOL Editions. It will be interesting to see what CNN does with Zite. Editions has received praise because it offers a highly personalized content experience, not dependent on AOL per se. The Livestand app utilizes HTML5 with some UI benefits. Float reports 250 content partners and has close to $30 million in funding. From parent company Scribd, this is a serious effort.

The most recent entrant is Google Currents for both iOS and Anroid. Google has said that its initial focus will be on the UI and will pay more attention to advertising and formats later. The company is in a good position to aggregate its trending data and use Google+ as well as Twitter and Facebook. Consumers can link to their Google Analytics account.

The blogs have had a go at Google Currents calling it not ready for prime time and a Flipboard knockoff. I haven't found that to be the case. Google certainly doesn't lack content partners, claiming more than 150 partners from Dwell to TMZ to Al Jazeera English.

The mantra we have been hearing from publishers for the last 4-5 years is that they want to be platform and channel agnostic. The task has been made easier with the introduction of the Nook and Kindle Fire. While business models for aggregators are no so clear, publishers have responded to the challenge with alacrity.

And we are seeing some interesting developments with apps for mobile phones. My6Sense, a mobile app startup, employs what it calls "digital intuition" that requires little of the consumer other than using the app itself. In short the technology lets the user find content in a way that suits the device employing a proprietary form of artificial intelligence.

I haven't played with this app yet but it sounds promising. Given the understandable focus on tablets, the mobile space, for content and enterprise, has not seen requisite attention. Now that we are seeing that consumer flip engagement with apps on mobile phones can be quite impressive, this is sure to change.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Agent in the Amazon Jungle

A book agent friend lamented about how much his business is being disrupted by Amazon. He has a penchant for understatement. A better description can be found in Richard Russo's NYT article today, titled "Amazon's Jungle Logic." He is referring to Amazon encouraging customers to go into physical stores and use their price-check app to see if they can get a better deal online. Russo sees this as capitalism gone wild and Amazon as an example of this year's bully.

He has a point. Amazon indeed sells everything. I have family members with two year-olds who buy literally everything on Amazon, including diapers by the truck load. Given the free shipping and the time saved, this seems like a very good deal for young professionals with toddlers. I suspect allegiance to the brand with remain even when the children are potty trained.

Obviously, Russo is not really talking about diapers or the generator I purchased from Amazon before the recent Hurricane Irene. He is more concerned with the independent bookstore and the long term effect on literature. I share those concerns.

This is where I say I have a PhD in Literature, have published extensively with small presses and journals, and from time-to-time provide financial support. It's heartbreaking to see what has happened to the Sewanee Review and The Partisan Review where I published my first work.

Over the last twenty years I have published books with Warner, Dell, Rodale and the Lightning Tree Press, a small publisher that went out of business. The game began to change about fifteen years ago. For my first book I went on a national tour and had some muscular marketing support.  For subsequent books I was largely responsible for marketing and promotion. Since that time more of the burden has shifted to the author.

At the same time it has become increasingly difficult to find a home for mid-list books that sell 25-30,000. Publishers are less likely to use the revenue from blockbuster books to help fund other titles.

For these and other reasons I decided to test Amazon's CreateSpace, its self-publishing platform. To date I have published two novels, Limey Down and the Sirens of Vulture Creek, as well as a volume of poetry, Set Pieces of the Feminine. I am in the process of submitting another poetry book, In the Shadow of the DMZ, about my war experiences and 9/11. I'm on the Kindle for the first three books and also getting exposure in France, Italy and Spain. I plan to take advantage of the option to  be a part of Kindle's Owners Lending Library.

Amazon makes money on these ventures by providing editorial, marketing and promotional services. The CreateSpace UI leaves a lot to be desired and, as I have mentioned to my associates there, I should not have to be a tenured production director to follow their prompts. But this is just the beginning. Titles will languish without a social media campaign.

Amazon just announced that two titles in the 10 top best-selling books of 2011 (The Mill River Recluse and The Abbey) ranked #4 and #6 solely on Kindle sales and were independently published using Kindle Direct Publishiing.

Amazon also announced KDP Select, a $6 million dollar fund for the Kindle Direct Publishing authors and publishers. A week ago Amazon said it plans to acquire Marshall Cavendish US children's book titles. Earlier the company announced a video licensing deal with Disney-ABC television, a UK movie partnership with Warner brothers, and the fifth annual breakthrough novel partnership with Penguin (US).

No wonder Amazon can sell the Kindle and Kindle Fire at a small loss. Content is king but only if you have tons of it.  

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Tablets & the Lake Wobegon Effect

There is good news this holiday season. No more screaming children on planes or in airports! My research indicates that the No Child Left Behind law, a national increase in the Parental Responsibility Index, and the Lake Wobegon Effect--"all the children are above average," have contributed to the rising level of youthful civility. But the primary reason for this change in behavior is the increased use of tablets, especially the iPad, among this demographic group.

I traveled recently through Newark, Denver, and San Francisco airports and heard no sounds of infants mewing and puking in their nurses arms. I boarded various planes and the sweet silence continued. For a moment I thought I was traveling in China where noise pollution, including loud cell phone conversations, is outlawed by the Beijing Criminal Code Z4891.

In San Francisco I stayed with a family with a three-year old. I found it very interesting to watch him spend hours wading through his armada of cars, from a Tonka truck to high-end Porsches, sometimes bent on demolition, then settle in with his iPad to watch Toy Story.  Though he might keep one hand on his garbage truck, he was deeply engaged with the device, suggesting multi-tasking is innate and one less thing his parents have to teach him. But this lean-back experience was a treat to be earned and not a form of baby sitting.

The Econonic Times of India reports that the youth market for the tablet is growing fast. We learned from Forrester than 29% of adults share their tablet devices with their children.  Nielsen has found that the iPad is the most desired gift among 6-12 year olds.  Disney and a handful of startups are developing games and interactive books for this market. As less expensive but quite adequate tablets such as the Kindle Fire become available, there is little reason to think that this demographic will not become an important subset of the overall category with gift written all over it.

Obviously, there is concern about using the tablet as a digital pacifier, much as television has been used since the 1950s.  Parents I have spoken to seem to agree that for children under three it is best to keep their tablet experience to appropriate books.

As is often the case, art is ahead of science. Goodnight iPad, a parody of the popular children's book, Goodnight Moon, is worth viewing on YouTube.  Fittingly this a satire of the devices, the screens, the icons, the pop stars, and the social media shorthand and hipsterism that have penetrated our psyches. Rated R.


Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Magazines & Sausages

Perhaps I wasn't paying attention but I haven't heard much about the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Fortunately Studio 360 with Kurt Andersen opened that window a little, examining how Ronnie Dunn, described as a country music megastar, assembled a secret stash of Soviet art.

I was working in Moscow at that time, visiting farms, printers and state publishers. At every location I saw examples of muscular Soviet Realism, usually in the form of rosey-cheeked farmers, almost beaming productivity. This Communist propaganda, pretty much unchanged since Stalin, was the official product of the Soviet Artists Union. If you wanted to sell art or even get paint, you had to conform to this style. As Studio 360 notes, when the Soviet Union collapsed, the art that has been created secretly and hidden under beds caught the attention of collectors like Ronnie Dunn and the rest is history.

I first visited Russia in 1989 and what seemed immediately clear was the map (offical US government view) did not fit the territory (the flesh-and-blood Moscow).  The bread lines, the alcohol consumption and the utter dependence of the citizenry on the government took some of the sting out of the Russian bear. As my boss famously said at that time, "There are no hardware stores in Russia." This accurately defined the Russian soul.

It was remarkable how quickly Russians walked away from the official Communist Party line, in art, science and public expression. This was a bizarre world at a bizarre time. Communist Party officials simply "walked" across the street and became free market democrats. We didn't seem to care. We were the disciples of transformation and regeneration.

Robert Rodale, the late chairman of Rodale, asked me to help him launch Novii Fermer, loosely based on Organic Gardening and the New Farm, in Russia. We knew the collective farms were not able to feed that nation and the use of commericial fertilizers was killing the soil. There was a strong dose of American optimism and hubris in the notion that we could encourage a sea change in a country governed by collective thinking for almost a century.

At the time Russia had no legal system to speak of and very little understanding of joint ventures. Nonetheless, we pushed ahead and developed a joint venture with a state publishing company. That was the easy part. Since there were no suitable presses in Moscow, we would have to print Novii Fermer in Finland and truck to Moscow. This wasn't that unusual and caused no more of a headache that paying the hefty tolls and bribes along the route.

Unfortunately our joint venture partners were less interested in magazines than in building a sausage factory on a farm outside of Moscow. So the deal went something like this. We would buy the equipment for the sausage factory as our contribution to the joint venture. The plan was to sell high-quality sausages to the ex-pat community in Moscow who would pay in hard currency (US) that would cover the printing in Finland. What was left would help cover operating costs.

Why the sausage factory? To the best of my knowledge this was government edict.  Russia was so short of modern machinery that they tried in the years after the collapse to add similar requirements to joint ventures where possible. I think we were the first to come down the pike. Though we had a top-notch Washington DC law firm protecting our interests, the combination of our naivete and the chairman's desire to do the deal took away some of our bargaining chips.

Tragically, Rodale and three of our Russian partners were killed in a horrific car accident within hours of signing the joint venture agreement, September 1990.

We pushed ahead and produced a glossy Novii Fermer a year later which was largely subsidized. The sausage factory didn't work out and the equipment was subsequently sold.

George Green, the long-time president of Hearst International often said that what American magazines export was a can-do, DIY point-of-view. I recall my long sessions with Russian editors describing the notion that we have the power to change our lives.

That was Bob Rodale's message at home and abroad. His work is still remembered in Russia and entrepreneurs there have told me that small farms, cottage industries and local produce are on the rise, changing the face of the nation.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Small is Beautiful

We learn a lot about business models these days when informed by IHS Suppli following a component teardown that the Amazon Fire, which sells for $199 costs $201.70 to make. Equally interesting is the Kobo ad supported e-reader that sells for $99. And far from the telcom's radar is the partially-subsidized Indian Aakas tablet that will sell for $50, a response to the challenge of providing services to the "last mile" In India the last mile is represented by the poorest of the poor who live on less that $2 a day.

Recently I was researching the international ramifications of the Occupy Wall Street movement.  A Danish blog, Mythological Quarter, mentions a NYC-based group that has created bicycle generators in an apparent failed attempt to get around Mayor Bloomberg's ban on kerosene heaters. The blog suggests the OWS movements worldwide consult Pedal Power in Work, Leisure, and Transportation, a book I edited thirty years ago.

I published this title when  E.F. Schumacher's book, Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, was widely read and became something of a bible for the back-to-the land movement. But Schumacher was a respected economist and not a one-issue prophet. He suggested more than a generation ago that the modern economy is unsustainable. He argued that fossil fuels should be treated as capital and not as expendible income. If he had a rallying cry, it was about "appropriate technology."

The Pedal Power book was a product of an insight  by the late Bob Rodale, who while watching bicycle racers on the Lehigh County Veldrome envisioned practical applications for this pedal power. He established an incubator to develop prototypes that would power well pumps, plows, and grain mills. He quickly realized this technology would have applications for developing countries. The responsible UN agency did not think so, though the book has been translated into about eighteen languages and widely pirated.

It is mildly amusing to think of the OWS protestors around the world pedaling their stationary bikes at a brisk 120 RPMs to power their iPhones and iPads. This is one way to stay warm. I'm not sure what Schumacher might have recommended.  He was fond of talking about a "philosophy of enoughness"
and "Buddhist economics." We have heard similar sentiments from OWS. 

Small is Beautiful is worthy of a new generation.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

A Dangerous Method

Recently I attended an advance screening of A Dangerous Method, a film by David Cronenberg, set in Europe on the eve of World War 1, examining the friendships and conflict between Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. The film opens in New York and LA on November 23, 2011.

This film is based on a play that was based on a book. So not surprisingly, some of the stage and theatrical elements have survived and A Dangerous Method at times seems like a splendid 90-minute costume drama that serves as a platform for the bristling and occasionally tedious dialectic between Jung and Freud. And the nexus for the brilliant but troubled young woman who comes between them.

A Dangerous Method opens with the young woman, Sabina Spielrein, being literally deposited at an asylum outside of Zurich where Jung was a doctor. Her jaw-jutting, frenetic writhings stands in sharp contrast to the doctor's understated, behind-the-patient remarks about the talking cure. This is acting underdone and overdone. She will get better. The doctor, played by Michael Fassbender, seems to stay in his "brown study."

It is very difficult for a film, depicting events more than a hundred years ago, to capture the heady, early years of the 20th century, the profound experimentations in psychology, theater, and fiction and the itch to deconstruct an old 19th century reality.  These forces were in the air in the film and frame many of the discussions between the character Freud, the father, and character Jung, the son. The former argued, accurately from an historical perspective, that psychology had to rely on science and not the mysterious and esoteric, such as mythology, that would become central to Jung's understanding of the personal and collective unconscious. But in a film that represents a condensed period before WWI, the issue for Freud was more about "parental" authority. Thus he wouldn't share a dream with Jung.

Freud, played by Viggo Mortenson, seemed to steal the interpersonal show with his wit, charm, and understatement. One of the most telling scenes was when Jung visited Freud in Vienna. We see him at the Freud family table with a dozen people, helping himself to most of the family portion while he talks endlessly about sex and psychology.  We already know that Jung is rich through marriage and seems in this film to be made somewhat unconscious by this advantage. Gluttony appears in many guises.

The emotional center of the movie is Sabina Spielrein, Jung's patient and then lover after he is prodded by a marvelous walk-on character who reminded him of his shadow side. The two scenes in which Jung spanks Spielrein, thus getting to the seat of her trauma, will represent audience takeaways. It is more than mildly ironic that while Jung is engaging Freud in deep conversations about the future of psychotherapy, he is having sex with his patient. For 90-minutes, at least, Jung's actions seems to legitimize Freud's point-of-view.

If you are interested in the birth of psychoanalysis, this film is worth seeing. And it's cheaper than analysis.


Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Magazines as Archetypes

My local library, not far from Shakespeare's Bardonia (NY), is a wonderful place, boasting meters of magazine display space that most news agents would die for.  I guess the top 300 ABC magazines, more or less, are available in full frontal display with ample space in-between. And, just in case you miss the logo, the magazine names are printed undeneath. While I had to bend a little to review some of the exhibited magazines, most are at eye-level.

Although I spend my waking hours chasing digital in all its cross-platform splendor, I'm happy to take a break and spend a couple of hours browsing the racks. The magazine are listed in alphabetical order, left to right, so it's rather simple for me in my first stroll to focus on the magazines where I have served as editor, publisher or had some business involvement.

I start with my favorite magazine Bicycling, where I cut my teeth, and remind myself to congratulate Rodale friends on the new design. Everything inside, though familiar, is brighter and more open than I remember. The broader themes are still there, including the lament for Campagnola, the northern Italian component manufacturer, about the challenge of maintaining the soul of their design in a commodity market. I remember having a similar conversation with Mr. Campagnola almost twenty years ago. This is a narrative worth telling and retelling and helps elevate a magazine above a nominal how-to disposition. Magazines represent culture as well as advice.

This survey is mainly fun. I notice, without cringing, that the November
2011 issues of Car & Driver and Road & Track sport the same BMW M5 on the cover, though from different perspectives. While this might be a major blunder within the editorial ranks, from a consumer perspective it doesn't really matter so much. Likewise, if Woman's Day and Better Homes & Gardens have almost interchangeable Thanksgiving covers, no one should lose her job.

I can't remember how many cover meetings I have sat in on where the primary concern about a cover subject is differentiation from the competition. This is a worthy conversation to have, of course, as it keep us sharp and in the game. But as we have come to understand, magazines are also brands or from a Jungian perspective--I'm a student--archetypes that embody universal ideas. And this gives magazines staying power. It will be interesting to see whether this archetypal power of the brand migrates fully into the digital space. That archetypes also resonate in our personal and collective unconscious suggest brands will remain intact. Psychology doesn't say much about CPMs.

I look at Maxim magazine and remember the concern we had at Men's Health International when we learned of the Dennis launch. Angst aside, I never had much doubt that a magazine that focuses on health and sexuality would live to tell the tale. Maxim still has a beauty bathing herself under a garden hose but Men's Health wins the prize.  

I am conducting my library research on and after Veteran's Day and being a veteran myself, bring a certain bias to the effort. Out of curiosity I looked for titles in the appropriate categories that might contain articles about our various wars, the military in general, or the effect of serving on the psyche. My review wasn't scientific but I  didn't find any obvious coverage. Except for the November issue of Men's Health.

At first "The Signature Wound" by Bob Drury bothered me because I thought this might be another way for MH to get the penis into the conversation. It was not. Vietnam maimed a lot of men but nothing like what improvised explosive devices (IEDs) do to a soldier's "junk." According to Drury, if you lose a nose or an eye in combat you will be compensated $50,000 for each. If you lose your penis, nothing. Apparently the Department of Defense does not recognize that the loss of genitalia is worth compensation. Also, no price tag for a shattered psyche.

One percent of Americans serve in the military or have family connections to someone who does. The other 99% should read this article.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Google Plus

Some of my best friends work at Google. So I want the company to be profitable enough to keep the sixteen or so free company restaurants open so I can stuff myself on the occasional visit. Think Android is confusing? Try deciding on whether you want Tibetan fries or Finnish goose as an appetizer or main course. That is after you find the right place in the Restaurant Row known internally as the Google Crave with themed, color dots and markers leading one to the right place. It doesn't help to be color blind or late.

I am very grateful for the various Google initiatives I have been able to sample such as Google Wave, Buzz, Voice and Google+. Unfortunately by the time I figure them out, Google tends to throw them under the bus. That happened with the Wave. Actually I read the Apache Software Foundation accepted the Wave into its incubator for new product development. Now I feel better.

My gmail recently told me that Buzz will be going away and I might want to save my posts. Fortunately I only had one post, about CBS newsman Bob Schieffer being my favorite TV news person. It hurts that he probably never got the message though I do note that his Sunday morning ratings are up. I take no credit for this incremental improvement that could also be due to the color of his tie.

I'm just getting into the ever-widening, dizzying circles of Google+ but am fearful that the same fate may await it. I think the project would have a greater chance of reaching its first birthday if Google executives used it as regularly as they do Facebook. This initiative I want to survive.

I give Google high marks for integrity, even though I have never been comfortable with the "Do No Evil" slogan. Recently an employee distributed to the world a memo intended for internal purposes, addressing the failure of the Google+ platform, no less.  This has been called the greatest Reply-All screwup in tech history.  If you include the withering criticism of Jeff Bezos in this memo, then I'd have to agree.

As far as I can tell nothing happened to the employee. I've worked at a dozen media companies and one association and I would have been handed my head in all but one. In the military I would have been shot.

Google not only doesn't shoot employees if they wander off that very large reservation; they continue to provide to supplicants like myself an array of free services as if they were the government. But better.

My son signed me up for Google Voice some time ago and I have been delinquent in using that service.  So the Google Voice Team sends me a pleasant email saying phone numbers are a limited commodity and if I wanted to keep my precious 415 prefix, I should get a whole lot more chatty. They also provide customer service if I want to port my existing number to Voice so the one number will ring all phones. The service also includes free text messages and voice mail transcription. 

Even when I'm not parked in a Google restaurant, I still seem to be getting a free lunch.

It's just that sometimes I have to eat fast.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Steve Jobs & the Third Eye

Anyone who questions the value of long form magazine journalism should read Frank Rich's article in the October New York magazine. Rich, who knows as much as anyone about Theatrics, Politics, and the Big Lie, has put his finger on the historical and psychological implications of the so-called class warfare championed by the Occupy Wall Street movement.

He touched on the apparent paradox of OWS participants constructing  memorials for Steve Jobs and even offering a moment of silence. After all, wasn't Jobs one of the 1% monied crowd who hadn't even joined Gates and Buffett in giving something back to the country that made him wealthy.

Understandably, our 24/7 news cycle necessitates more attention to the shadow side of the man within days if not hours of the biography's publication. The narrative goes something like this: sure the man was a genius but aren't Apple products produced in factories in Southern China where health and labor violations are well-known. And don't most of the Apple jobs remain in China? 

Having visited more electronics factories in Southern China than I care to remember, I understand this narrative. But the storyline loses some power when we acknowledge that a lot components for tablets, ereaders and smartphones are manufactured in the same region of China. This doesn't take away the brown cloud of manufacturing gloom that hangs over this region of China. It just deflates the issue, at least for the time being. Digital still has footprints.

Biographer Walter Isaacson suggested on Good Morning America this week that Jobs' life struggle was between the poet and the geek, and this dialectic colored all his decisions whether imagining the iPad or looking for alternatives to treating pancreatic cancer. Technology has come a long way from William Blake's "mind forged manacles," at least outside the factory zone.  

This narrative is not necessarily a linear extension of struggles we find in Tracy Kidder's marvelous book, The Soul of the New Machine, in which Data General attempts to bring microcomputers to market in record time. The battle cry is: "There's so much Goddamn money to be made" although the skunkworks drama foreshadows later Silicon Valley triumphs.  Still, the Dinosaurs seem to be alive and well in any age. The poet, no-so-much.

Now back to the Jobs' paradox. Why did the OWS protestors differentiate between Steve Jobs and the objects of their wrath. Rich refers to Regis McKeena, a Silicon Valley marketing executive, to explain Jobs genius which was "to strip away the excess layers of business, design, and innovation until only the simple elegant reality remains".

Conversely, Wall Street did exactly the opposite piling on layer after layer of business innovation until reality is distorted and obscured. In other words the derivatives market that was the primary reason for the financial collapse.

William Blake spoke of a Three-Fold Vision and seeing with the Third Eye.

Jobs had one.

Friday, October 21, 2011

China & the Culture of Censorship

A Chinese friend who was educated in the states and now teaches American literature and culture in Shanghai, has an interesting take on the current Republican Presidential primary campaign. To paraphase from his email: "It's as if the candidates have created the political equivalent of William Faulker's fictional Yoknapatawpha County where anti-intellectualism and mendacity rule. In China the government tries to build a firewall around our speech. Your candidates seem to use religion and nativism to limit conversation."

I laughed and thanked him for not finding a political equivalent of Faulker's Snopes families in his political observations, though some of the candidates don't seem too far away from dragging their knuckles over a scorched earth of their own making. I reminded my friend that with all our political primitivism we still have the NYT, Gooogle and a Twitter that is free enough to follow aging dictators down rats holes or into sewer pipes.

It is something of a 21st century paradox that China, a country in which censorship is deep, structural, and aided by advanced technology, largely from the West, can continue to outperform America economically and even in some tech areas, including green technology. Countries need a compelling narrative and if we are to believe the Republican candidates, the story line they propose is a muscular, frontier narrative in which citizens should pick themselves up by their bootstraps and excel. In psychological terms this narrative is called an archetype, reflecting a set of values that might be commonly shared. It can be equally true that an archetype, if used as an actual legislative course or a hammer, rather than as an informing principle, might describe the mess in Washington DC or some other apocraphal end game.

China has been very adept at developing its narrative and this deftness was in display during the Beijing Olympics in 2008. I was in China at the time and was impressed the way the government harnessed accoutrements of an earlier dynasty to provide a theme and the remarkable graphics of the opening ceremony. This was public relations at its finest with China reminding its citizens and the world that the country indeed had a history and the horrors of 1948 or so were a mere blip. Even though the Communist Party had done everything in its power to eliminate all vestiges of the past, at times theatrics are in order. But the Central Committee knew this dance and flourish represented a remaking of a culture for political purposes. And it worked.

When the PRC came into being more than sixty years ago the central government gave to each of the thirty-four provinces a newspaper, magazine and radio station with Beijing getting the cream of the crop. While China media has undergone profound changes since that time especially with the impact of a modified capitalism in the media space, the basic tenets of this sixty year old decision are still in place, updated for a nation of 500 million Internet users who just like the rest of the world want their dating sites, their games and their porn.

I have said and my business friends have said at least for the last twenty years that it is culturally, psychologically and economically impossible for China to become a world power if it continues a policy of universal censorship. We were wrong. And if our more recent fantasy was that the Internet and microblogging sites such as the very popular Sina Weibo would be too complex and fast-moving for the authorities to keep up, we are wrong again.

A popular fiction, often encouraged by government officials, is that censorship is in the hands of a senior group of bureaucrats in Beijing who more often than not wait for citizens to report media infractions. Actually, there is some truth to this but the government's first line of defense is self-censorship, an art that is alive and superbly practiced by both domestic and international publishers. This is not to say that Chinese media, especally newspapers have been completely tamed. The government routinely looks the other way when newspapers and magazines, like the first-class Caijing, go after corrupt businessmen and shoddy business practices, though Communist Party malfeasance is out-of-bounds. And the government is becoming adept at using the Internet to its governing advantage. In keeping with the schizophrenic system journalists often go into the adjoining provinces to find misdeeds, a way to avoid upsetting neighbors and benefactors. The central government provides a large enough sandbox for enterprising journalists to play in.

But the real censorship is hidden behind the Great Internet Firewall of China, which is presented in sophisticated layers. According to the Open Net Initiative the first layer of Internet censorship is at the router level that is designed to screen out offensive URLs and keywords. This effort is reinforced by filtering software deployed at the backbone to filter political content. The Human Rights Watch has suggested China goes farther than most repressive countries in that it prevents ISPs, many privately-held and some with foreign investments, from hosting what they consider politically objectionable content. Furthermore, Internet Content Providers, that provide platforms, chat rooms and the like for text and video sharing must get a license to operate and are held liable for web site material. As Google found out, this is very serious business in China.

China has about 100,000 Internet "cafes" that provide its growing community of Netizens an access point. I've heard there are more than 70,000 Internet police that keep an eye on the local proceedings. This is the order of the day rather than an exception. Austin Ramzy blogging at's 'Wired Up" earlier this year writes that that Sina Weibo, the microblogging site, "employs up to 700 censors," as well as software that monitors sensitive words.

As Ramzy notes, Sina Weibo still represents an advance in China as social media is by definition dynamic and happening in real time. Furthermore this site seems more technologically advanced than Twitter and the very compactness of the Chinese language allows one to say more than in 140 characters in English. But don't search for Gadhafi or the Arab Spring anytime soon.

Conventional wisdom about censorship in China is that it is a long-term dance with technology pushing forward and the central government pushing back. This is a confortable model and a dialectic that has historical antecedents. So it might well be true. But I wonder.

The West tends to take greater umbrage at censorship than the hundreds of Chinese I have spoken to over the years. Some of this is generational. I've read research that indicates that Chinese high school and college students tend to have little interest in or knowledge of the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989. Of course, if a subject is not part of the curriculumn, it will likely be forgotten by a generation that is tasting the sweets of very impressive economic success. It might be great fun for a foreign journalist to conduct a web search for Falun Gong, Tibetan independence or Noble Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, but from my experience this is not top of mind in China.

As my friend in Shanghai has asked me, "You have open access to the Internet so why do so many Americans refuse to believe in evolution, global warming, and the fact that the first human can be traced to China and not Africa."

When I was with Scientific American  magazine I argued the last point at the Chinese Minstry of Science in Beijing where the Chinese evolution narrative was well-formed. 

But no Chinese Eden. Yet.


Thursday, October 20, 2011

Demand Media

I own no Demand Media stock but was nonetheless disappointed, though not surprised, when Business Insider wrote today that the "company's stock has completely collapsed, closing yesterday at $5.60 a share". This slide has been widely attributed to changes in Google's Panda algorithm and internal problems at their eHow site. Presumably the former, rather than the latter, had more to do with this slide.

My publishing background includes about a dozen years editing special-interest magazines at Rodale, including Bicycling, Mountain Bike, Scuba Diving, Organic Gardening and others. I came to believe that special-interest magazines in particular had a powerful bond with readers and a utility and this compact could not be easily replicated. I admit there was some arrogance on my part that often flew in the face of market research and what proved to be excellent advice from the direct marketing and single copy sales folks. And editing a special-interest magazine is not exactly rocket science. It took me too long to realize that a tomato could be an Organic Gardening cover subject month after month without the business collapsing or me losing my bonus.

I have written positively about Demand Media at this blog and at, for both strategic and business reasons. I saw the company as a disruptor while acknowleding that it could still be a race to the bottom. I recall presenting Demand executives at a magazine industry event more than a year ago and fondly recall some of the venim displayed. Later I spent an afternoon at their LA offices and received a lesson in how a data and research-driven content company could work. Much as it might make us uneasy, magazines can probably learn from an intense data-rich approach that is almost pathologically reader-centric. This was SEO on steroids.

Of course, every company has a shadow side and contains the seeds of its own destruction. After all, how many useful 500-word articles can one write about screwing in a lightbulb, an exercise that becomes an joke before the word limit is met. I saw logs of some writers who has written more than 5,000 articles for Demand. Somehow that seems more like a lifetime of work and probably feels like it too. We are all in trouble when a point-of-view is lost and we are reduced largely to nouns, verbs and meta-data.  

But I have been struck at how good some of the writing has been and Demand's ability to bring in a crop of impressive freelancers, a task certainly aided by the current business cycle.  Editors of special-interest magazines have long known that their deeply engaged readers can know as much about a subject than the inside editorial team. I think International Data Group computer titles have exploited this reality for a powerful business advantage, monetizing the writings of the experts among them. And this advantage helped IDG move from a print-centric company to a more robust digital media company. In my opinion they have done this as well as anyone.

Demand has been trying to move up the content food chain so they won't be as vulnerable to changes in the Google algorithm and suffer the requisite scorn from the producers of serious content.  I suggested some time ago they move into the health, fitness and medical fields, in particular, as these sectors seem evergreen and attract consumers who tend to pay for content. But whether they can move "uptown" and bring their low-cost content model with them remains to be seen.

I have been reading an interview by Eric Enge with Peter Norvig, Director of Research at Google ( I think everyone at Demand Media might want to read this as it's a fascinating look at how search is evolving and the technology approaches that are driving it. Enge notes that "Google tests tens of thousands of algorithm changes per year, and make one to two changes every day. Test is layered, starting with a panels of users comparing current and proposed results, perhaps a spin through the usability lab at Google, and finally with a live test with a small subset of actual users." 

Business Insider notes that Demand Media "has begun to focus on creating less and higher-quality content and on trying to develop social and direct distribution to reduce it's dependence on search." In the above interview Director Novig says,"the Google you're using this year is improved quite a bit from the Google of last year, and the Google you're using now is radically different from anything you used ten years ago."   

If there is time, Demand Media is probably smart building a business that is less reliant on the vicissitudes of search.


Friday, October 14, 2011

The Expanding Device/Content Eco-System

It's quite remarkable how much the device landscape has change in the last two years and how important premium content is to the eco-system. Perhaps the Kindle Fire's slogan says it all: "All the content, Ultra-fast web browsing." As John Gruber notes in his daringfireball blog, "It's all about the content." And this is something Motorola, Samsung, and RIM seem to have missed. "They seem to be chasing the iPad on specs, building the best tablet they can manage at the same starting price of around $500. But they have no clear message telling people what you can do with them". (

I recall introducing to publishing groups in mid-2009 examples of the new devices coming to market. Magazine publishers were already looking over the Kindle's shoulder for color display technology that would be appropriate for their rich media. Plastic Logic (Que) got some attention because it was thin, lightweight, attractive and about the same size of a standard magazine. But publisher did not like to hear that color for this device would be two years out. But this device seemed like progress, nonetheless.

I also brought in Mary Lou Jepsen, CEO of Pixel Qi and formerly CTO of One Laptop Per Child, an organization that focused on getting computers in the hands of student in developing countries.  Dr. Jepsen is all about utility and building on existing technologies.  She spoke of combining existing LCD displays with her transreflective technology that provides the benefit of low-power consumption and sunlight readability; combining an e-paper look with rich color and video. The sample screen she showed the group interested them but didn't have the eye-popping saturated color to win them over. And in less than a year the iPad came to town and profoundly disrupted the device and content space.

The Pixel Qi blog reports that to date three million screens have been shipped with tablet and netbooks for a variety of uses, for soldiers jumping out of planes to educational uses in the developing world. Recently it has been widely reported that Pixel Qi has received investment from 3M and formed partnerships with Shanghai's Shizhu Technology to develop a number of multi-media devices and with the Southern Media Group for content for the China market.

This is a movement upward into premium markets and demographics.

As Apple and Amazon have shown us, it is not enough to have great technology and a ton of content; it's also essential to have a narrative that consumers can identify with.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Definite Article

The Amazon tablet Fire might indeed be the definite article, as so many of my tech friends have written, but that is not the subject of this blog. My focus is on the definite article, as in "the" and all the other indefinite stuff out there.

I read Senator S.I. Hayakawa's Language in Thought & Action in my freshman English class. His basic sematic message--the word is not the thing--seemed very sensible to me after four years in the military where verbal primitivism prevails. The author, of Japanese descent, knew something about labels. As chance had it my first shipboard navigator was named Lt. Iwatsu who received his share of anti-Japanese venim when he unwittingly steered our ammunition ship into a monster typhoon. The slurs were not driven by his navigation skills.

While studying literature at Lehigh University my professor devoted a semester to a textual analysis of  Capote's In Cold Blood. Or more precisely, the textual differences between the serialized New Yorker edition and the final book version. There was a lot of attention to the definite article and sentences that started with "it." The doctoral students were the textual slaves. I think the professor shared his results with the author who told him he was nuts. I think my professor was a firm believer in Freud's dictum: even the slip of the scribe is significant and the man made a career out of such nostrums.

There is at least one professional journal devoted to these oddities. Notes and Queries was established in London in 1849 and apparently still has an audience of historians and English professors who publish arcane articles, usually right before they are up for tenure, that few people read. A recent issue of N&Q included articles on: "Old English Brost at Line 2176B of Beowulf; "Princess Carolina's List of Monthly Expenses, January-February 1727/8; and 'The Brewing Process in Dryden, Pope and Hogarth." One assumes search technology now aids these sleuths. If these journals adopt deep meta-tagging our academics will enjoy restful sleep.

We know words kill and words offend, protected as they may be. But not all words are life -threatening. Some just seem to be a bother. One of my first publishing bosses sent around memos outlawing the use of "it" to begin a sentence, citing all the appropriate rules from the 8th grade grammar book and the New Yorker style sheet. It failed but to his credit the man loved words. A case in point: he loved the word "regeneration" and thought it spoke to his personal development and the trajectory he imagined for his company. He asked our corporate attorney to see whether he could patent the word. My boss wasn't happy that about this time The New Yorker published an article using his precious word countless times. Thereafter, the staff used regeneration in as much verbal and written communication as good taste would allow.

Today's has an interesting piece on the Delpian Prep school in rural Oregon that seems to take it's pedagogy from the principles of Scientology.  One principle suggests that all educational problems arise from misunderstanding words, as basic as "it" and "the." According to Gawker the school teaches that abstract ideas must be shown in pictures or clay to be fully grasped. 

Apparently parents are paying $42,000 in annual tuition to be schooled in this language literalism that Hayakawa preached against: the word is not the thing, not matter how much it costs.

My freshman English professor asked us what was S.I.  Hayakawa's first name. I had been stationed in Japan and suggested every Japanese name I could think of. Other students, including those of Japanese lineage, provided others.

We were all wrong.

His name was Sam.


Friday, September 2, 2011

How Not to Parody the New Yorker

It must be the end of summer, the silly season, and a time when even the bare knuckles-first Church of Scientology gets a sense of humor. The NYT reported that people were distributing outside the magazine offices copies of a parody title looking faintly like the original: "The New Yorker: What a Load of Balderdash." This was a response to an exhaustive February 2011 article that according to the Times painted the Church "as corrupt and cultish." That it did but with 26-pages to play with, TNY actually offered a lengthy, balanced, and nuanced view of the organization, often using its own language, teachings, and apostates to tell the story. It has the tension, tone, and narrative progression one expects from the magazine. This after all is about the struggle for mind and soul.

Actually I read the article after I had read the parody and accompanying videos at The parody itself is quite funny and the mock New Yorker cover works. The video version has symbolic flies or gnats buzzing around the cover image, suggesting that the Church is the gnat that will peck at the media giant. In the various videos that take TNY fact checkers to task, there are background scenes from Western bar fight movies, overwrought dramas, and probably the Three Stooges.  TNY is described as no better than a supermarket tabloid. A fake cover shouts: "Remnick Denies Alien Baby Claims." TNY editor David Remnick will not lose much sleep over this.

The Church should have stopped while it was ahead. The endless lamentations about the magazine fact-checkers, the ad hominen pokes, the scorched earth policy when dealing with apostates, hands a trunkload of weapons to those who reside on the other side of the Amen altar.


Friday, August 19, 2011

Magazines & Depth Psychology

Yes, I realize the above title might be considered an oxymoron given the content of many lifestyle magazines. To be sure, there is much popular psychology in men's and women's magazines these days and that is probably just about right in a world driven by bumps, grinds, and tweets. It was not always the case.

I came across a few pages from "The New Eve: A Magazine of Feminine Charm" from December 1926 and 'Mademoiselle: The Magazine for Smart Young Women" dated September 1943.  Eve focused on society, fashions, sports and theatres.  Mademoiselle seemed to pay most attention to brides and fall fashions, in this instance.

1943 is wartime and the cover shows a sailor with his hat off sitting at the desk of a towering executive woman, perhaps asking for a job or recruiting her, which seems unlikely. Chesterfied supports the war and the cigarette advertisement that has a banner stating America Needs Nurses---Enlist Now, also shows three nurses smoking. And promotes "So Proudly We Hail" a war movie epic about nurses featuring Claudette Colbert, Paulette Goddard, and Veronica Lake.

In tone and spirit these titles contain the elements of contemporary women's magazines. Eve actually contains "An Editorial for Advertisers" that sketches the demographic shifts from the flapper to the new woman, in the kind of breezy language that would please advertisers. But this does not sound like "church vs. state" stuff. It seems more like an early 20th century magazine trying to find its way.

What most struck me about these magazines were the analytical psychology articles written by M. Esther Harding, MD, an influential Jungian psychologist. a student and friend of Carl Jung, and an analyst profoundly important to the adoption of Jungian psychology in the US.  An article "Till You Meet Again" describes war time romances and the dangers of projection, building up illusions, and not establishing psychological boundaries to protect oneself.

In an article in Eve Dr. Harding psychoanalyzes a play 'The Captive."  The editor in her note sets up the analysis by suggesting that the "performance is something akin to an agony of tense silence" and the audience leaves subdued, chastened and wondering. So there must be something more to the play than its objective plot.

Harding explores the archetypal implications of a Mother fixation and a male tendency to want a lover idealized and "harmonious" like the mother but at the same time hungers for the other woman representing the vulgar, of a lower class than his own.

These observations have spawned an industry.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Now the Unsexy ARPU

Online metrics used to be easy, until they didn't mean anything and became little more than competitive hammers in the marketplace.

Metrics are becoming hot again mainly because so many IPOs are coming to market.  In his column for the Nieman Journalism Lab Ken Doctor takes a knife (and fork) to this fantasy world of online metrics (  He mentions Groupon's foggy metrics and balance sheet nonsense: "adjusted consolidated segment operating income." He also cites the Huffington Post claims to have surpassed the New York Times in online traffic.

Doctor suggests that publishers add another metric to the mix: Average Revenue Per User (ARPU), as the telcos and cable TV have done for years, to change the focus from customers or visitors to how much money we are making.  By his back-of-the envelope analysis each unique NYT customer in 2010 was worth about $3.54; the Huffington Post about $.96.

In this tale of the tape "unique visitors are a great dumb count." In the future he sees a mobile ARPU,a smartphone ARPU, and so on.

In the last year I have been working closely with network operators.

I think they can teach publishers a few things about digital business models and metrics.

Tablets & the Value Proposition

There are hockey sticks and then there is tablet growth. According to ABI Research more than 17 million tablets shipped in 2010. The firm expects 46 million tablets to be shipped in 2011 and an estimated 126 million media tablets to be shipped worldwide in 2016.

Only three media tablet vendors can claim shipments of more than 2% in 2010. Apple led the pack with 85% of all shipments with Samsung at 8% and Archos at 2%. Or 95% of all products. Apple's market share might have dropped below 75% so far in 2011, but no one is likely to match Apple's appeal.

So what happened to the 80-plus media tablets we saw at CES in 2011? Not surprisingly, many of these tablets were from first-time vendors who were trying to differentiate product mainly by price. According to ABI this strategy could lead to a "netbook" effect, meaning end-users expectations are set higher than what products deliver. "Should this occur with media tablets, market demand will cool and hinder the transition from early adopters to the early majority."

ABI suggests fragmentation within the OS software will hinder growth of this device category. As we know application develops must choose an initial software platform. If the market upside is not significant, application development might be delayed. "The benefits of open software platform development have yet to be realized for media tablets."

While some of my publisher friends have privately stated that the tablet game is over with the Apple anointing and Samsung declared a worthy #2, the pesky eco-systems rules that the ODMs and OEMs live and die by suggest that the tablet value proposition remains unclear.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Time Magazine--Digital Genius

L2, a think tank for digital innovation, has provided publishers with a huge service in rating the web efforts of the top titles.

In his introduction to the "Digital IQ Index" Scott Galloway, Founder L2 and Clinical Professor of Marketing, NYU Stern, reminds us that "There is no shortage of smarts or innovation in the magazine business. However, even with the total advertising down more than 20% from its pre-financial crisis peak, no company or individual has been able to paint a cogent picture of what the industry's next interation will look, smell or feel like."

Galloway notes that online CPMs dropped 30% in the 12-month period ending March 2011. He adds that the iPad has not lived up to its hype and "as of December 2010 all magazines reporting data experienced declining digital edition sales."

On the bright side: "In 2011 the amount of paid content traveling through the ether surpassed free content and several pay walls appear to be gaining traction." The researcher cites PwC analysts who have suggested that by 2015 annual digital circulation revenues associated with magazines could grow to $611 million by 2015."

The L2 study attempts to quantity and rank the digital competence of 87 top magazine brands. The study also explores the relationship between digital savvy and ad revenue per page. The end game here is to provide publishers with tools to help better quantify return on incremental digital investment. This has been a decade-long lament; pouring significant investments into online efforts but not always having a clear sense of return.

I'll dig deeper into how this range of magazine online brands rate in my next post. The point I'd like to make here is that most digital innovation and business advances are coming from the larger companies with the resources to take strategic bets. It is not surprising Time magazine rates at the Genius end of the spectrum and is rated #1 in this study and is in four of the top ten positions.

In the language of the study:  Time magazine has a"strong presence across nearly every platform; inspiring."

This is good news for everyone.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Gang of Four

Google's Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt spoke recently about the new gang of four that includes Apple (devices), Facebook (social), Amazon (commerce) and Google (search.)  Though these businesses are migrating into companion spaces, they are all robust platforms in their own right.

What actually caught my attention was his remark that together these companies are valued at about half a trillion dollars, give or take. This is on the same day that Hearst is said to be closing its just-under-a-billion dollar purchase of Hachette. No wonder there is a growing chorus about another digital bubble.

I will agree that digital valuations are over-the-top (the no revenue Flipboard valued at $200 million?) but I don't see a digital bubble. This is not 1998 all over again. The fact remains that the tech companies mentioned above, and many others, are sitting on tons of cash and take huge risks with it. Publishers, not so much.

Russell Adams had an interesting piece yesterday in the WSJ, interviewing CEO Chuck Townsend on the new business model at Conde Nast. The interview was sober and illustrative of the challenges facing the magazine industry. When asked whether we should expect a big, splashy acquisition, Townsend responded, "Zero chance of that."  He also acknowledged that an acquisiton on the order of the $325 million Hearst paid for iCrossing, a digital advertising firm, was not likely. He did acknowledge some regret about not going after, an "obvious misfire." 

The "gang of four" mentioned above also happen to be partners to publishers. Ten years after the tech onslaught, content remains a huge differentiator. The current tech landscape has forced many publishers to focus on agnostic digital content channels that can scale, protect the brand, be monetized and provide data. This is absolutely the right business approach and will become more meaningful when the previous conditions are met. That remains the rub.

Publishers should be hard-nose about where they go with their content but in this climate, deeper relationsips with tech companies are both necessary and inevitable. Publishers can't go it alone. They can't build or buy their way into a digital future of consequence.

This will come through tech partnerships. 

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Fear and Grumbling (Again)

It was only a decade ago that a senior executive at Hachette asked me how to spell dot com. The same executive was not displeased when the Internet bubble arrived, as scheduled. Mr. X had learned enough that he could, after April 2001, deliver luncheon speeches about how he had predicted its demise. So good was he in this role that he found a place in my soon-to-be published novel.  In this iteration the character builds paper mache Internet monsters that look like a many-headed hydra so he could kill them with a very real sword in front of a foot-stomping crowd of magazine publishers chanting "print today, print tomorrow, print forever."

I thought I was safe in my fictional cul-de-sac. After all, magazine publishers, blindsided by the Internet have given in the last five years or so every indication they are getting it or at least struggling with the emerging platforms and channels and placing strategic bets. This new generation of digital executives are not contributing very much to my fictional needs.

Then along comes Jann Wenner, founder and publisher of Rolling Stone and other titles, who was quoted in Ad Age suggesting the rush to the iPad is "sheer insanity and insecurity and fear."  Like my fictional character Mr. Wenner seems not to be very knowledgeable about the Internet and magazine companies in that space, including Forbes. Appropriately Forbes reminded him that the magazine gets more revenue from digital than print.  And that if Rolling Stone had a decent web site the magazine could have gotten much more benefit from the infamous General McCrystal article.

If I had completed my training in psychology, I would suggest that Mr. Wenner doesn't really mean what he says; he's just addressing the shadow side of the business, where there is much concern about technology but, from what I can tell, little insanity. But to continue the metaphor: we come to grips with our shadow side--or technology--by embracing and understanding it. In this respect magazines have done a fairly good job.

I am heartened by digital hires from outside the magazine space and, if I can put it this way, the collective rise in digital intelligence.  But with all the good news I remain convinced that most tech developments in publishing will come from outside the ranks. Blogger Frederic Filloux addresses the need for tech and media companies to work together. In his view media companies have lost the dual battle for growth and economic performance. Tech companies have the audience and endless funding. (

I just returned from the SID (display) conference in Los Angeles and was reminded of how little I really knew about the software side of e-readers, smartphones and tablets. I was also reminded of the numerous conversations I have had with publishers who are overwhelmed with the number of devices, OS, and interfaces available. They seem to want a simpler, more predictable eco-system.

My response to this understandable desire is that the fragmentation will likely become more pronounced as the competition, especially in the tablet arena, heats up. My suggestion: move beyond the pure aesthetic of these devices and deeper into the raw technologies and in this way invite conversations with the ODMs, OEMs, and carriers, starting at the "chip level." 

Mr. X is waiting in the wings.


Thursday, April 28, 2011

Device Elitism

Is publishing's obession with the Kindle and the iPad elitist? That is the question posed by Publishing Perspectives :

Edward Nawotka writes that " Recently I have heard several digital publishers across Latin America and South East Asia argue that the ongoing obsession with Kindle and the iPad is shortsighted at best, elitist at worse. These publishers feel that the readers in their nations, be it Columbia, India or Indonesia are just as avid consumers of digital reading material as those in other nations, but the high cost of the Kindle and the iPad make them inaccessible to most consumers. This, as well as an outright lack of content, means coming up with an alternative distribution strategy. Typically, this means focusing on devices that the vast majority of people already own or are likely to continue owning in the future: the simple feature phone. The phone is cheap and nearly ubiquitous all over the globe. Could focusing on developing for feature phones--or at least channeling content through an appropriate API--offer a greater number of people, not all of them in rich nations, greater access to the world's intellectual wealth?"

In a tablet-giddy age this is a brave thing for Mr. Nawotka to say. Speaking from a magazine perspective, I don't think the focus on the tablet, for example, has anything to do with elitism. In my opinion it has much more to do with the prevailing magazine business model. Although the larger US magazine publishers in particular have vowed to generate more of their total revenue from content, most still get 70-80% of their revenues from advertising. Thus the need for a screen size, rich color display and functionality that would offer a high CPM universe for prospective advertisers and a sticky space for consumers. And to date consumers seem to be spending more time in a magazine app than in the print version. Advertising on the tablet shows enormous promise but one wonders what happens when device manufacturers provide the opportunity to measure user analytics in the softwear. Adobe/Omniture has hinted at this or more than one occasion.

I think it a little one-sided to downplay interest in the iPad outside the US and Europe. The tablet is becoming very popular in China, for example. Nonetheless, we cannot underestimate the importance of the feature phone, the smartphone and the "superphone"--these devices exist along a continuum as consumers increasingly demand more features and functionality. We need to address the content needs of the more than 1.5 billion mobile phone users worldwide.

It might be easier to develop premium content units or templates for a range of mobile devices in countries outside the US, at least in the beginning. In most regions, including Europe, publishers generate much more revenue from content than from advertising (There are some exceptions, including Italy). While the publishers in question are no less interested in brand integrity than their brethren in the states, they have a long history of repackaging and mashing up content, as does the long tail of mid-size and independent publisher in the US.

The German magazine Focus has reported some success in selling high-value, article-level content through Google's One Pass. Given the abundance of mobile devices there is no reason a similar article-level approach that includes personalization, location-based features and relevant context could not be developed for the increasingly sophisticated mobile device. Viyya Technologies, a New Jersey-based company, is developing such a business.

Such an approach to mobile content distribution would not only be good business; it would be consistent with current dynamics in the device and carrier eco-system. At the end of the day even the finest premium content is still, well, data and therefore a predictable, scaleable revenue stream.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Magazine Publishing Tool from Apple?

In 2009 when the Kindle and other ereaders were introduced, senior magazine executives made a determined effort to get out in front of this wave of new devices. They quickly learned that the quality of color available on or promised by these first-generation devices, including Kindle, Plastic Logic,and a bevy of second tier offerings, were not ready for prime time, whether  it was for Vogue, Time Magazine or House Beautiful. The rise and fall and sale of Skiff suggested this would not be a tidy and predictable marketplace.

By late 2009 and early 2010 rumors about the Apple tablet were repeated often enough to be true. In the meantime the larger publishers, including Meredith, Time Inc., Hearst, Conde Nast and News Corp., established Next Issue Media which was to create a digital storefront (and channel) for the sale of print, digital, and bundled subscriptions, among other services. The sub-text of this launch was that a focused and well funded organization would also present a united front in dealing with device manufacturers, carriers and digital storefronts, including iTunes. In other words: the eco-system that is bombarding them now. But the leit motif of this narrative was that NIM would serve as a counterweight to Apple, plain and simple. The imaginary conversation would have gone something like this. "We have in the aggregate an addressable universe of, say, 200 million homes. Let's make a deal."

The blessed iPad came quickly and perhaps a little too fast for magazine publishers who were not given much notice by Apple. But there is no doubt the iPad changed thr digital conversation in magazine circles, enfranchised editors and publishers, and offered a display and form factor that promised, deep, rich consumer engagement and prospects of an advertising CPM that might even exceed print. It was certainly a breakthrough when Wired magazine announced that its June 2010 issue enjoyed iPad downloads that exceeded the number of copies sold on newsstands--80,000+.

This was a breakthrough number and event and demonstrated that the tablet could be a channel of consequence. But for publishers the early, heady bloom is off the app rose. It's early, of course, and everyone is trying to figure out price, subscription offers, in-app navigation and ways to take some of the labor and design costs out of the app creation process. Then there's the increasing and worrisome device, form factor, and OS fragmentation. Most publishers are placing strategic bets but no one can afford to cover the table.

The love affair with Appple came with a price. The 30% share that the company took did not sit well with publishers, nor did the lack of consumer data or the inabiility to sell full-term subscriptions. Apple's recent announcement that graciously gives publishers 100% of the revenue if the consumer came from their sites. But the other terms, including giving consumers the choice of where they want to purchase the app subscription and whether to share data, puts Apple right in the middle of the publishers' business model under the wonderful guise of transparency. This is the reason we are hearing the sound of one hand clapping.

Recently Anthony Morganti at Gadget Daily News surmised that Apple might be developing a magazine publishing tool for developers (, driven in part by reported user interface problems with many magazine apps: "The main problems users report are that magazine interfaces aren't consistent from one magazine to another and these interfaces generally aren't intuitive." The talk is that "Apple is developing a magazine template that will be in a future release of their developer environment and toolkit--Xcode."

"The publishing template will create a familiar consistent user interface. It will also facilitate in-app purchases for subscriptions and back issues. Another benefit Apple anticipates is that there will be a plethora of new magazines on the iPad. They believe that anyone will be able to create a magazine relatively easily and have it published by Apple and sold through iTunes."

Understandably, there are concerns, if this scenario is indeed accurate, about whether such magazine templates would stifle creativity. I spent some time with Apple's Human Interface Guidelines, particularly the design process for creating apps. I was surprised that the document was so readable. I was also surprised how much focus was placed on the needs of the consumer. The instruction to avoid feature cascade might get to the heart of some of the challenges facing publishers: "If you are developing a single application, it can be tempting to add features that aren't wholly relevant to the original intent of the program. The feature cascade can lead to a bloated interface that is slow and difficult to use because of its complexity."

The newspaper and magazine industries will soon have digital storefronts on every corner. Next Issue Media is expected to have a soft beta offering this spring. Google announced its One Pass program in January, an online interface for subscription sales. Journalism Online just found new life and a partner and owner in RR Donnelley. The Nook color Android store will be coming in April. Amazon just launched its application store for the Android mobile OS. The New York Times has announced its long-awaited--and somewhat byzantine--"paywall."

Magazine publisher say with straight faces that they will have llittle allegiance to digital storefronts that don't scale, don't share consumer data, and don't offer a fair revenue share. Unless they do. 

Then there's Apple.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Metaphor as Hyperlink

For reasons not altogether clear to me decades later, when I started my four-year Navy career, once aboard ship, I added a new word to a small notebook every day while at sea, usually from an instructional book or a novel. During long midnight watches in the South China Sea or Tonkin Gulf, I had plenty of time to think about etymologies.

I tried to use these words in my daily shipboard life but not enough to risk bodily harm. At this time Morse code was dying but had not yet been banished. This was a good playground as were signal (flashing) lights that were used when we were steaming "silent" and usually in tight formation. Most of this was in encrypted code but at times we could use the language of the day.

I had grown up in drab, post-World War II London (just before the Beatles saved us) and moved as a teenager to an equally drab Pittsburgh, PA where smoke from steel mills made the smog of my youth seem a mere nuisance. But within a few years I was eating fresh pineapples in Hawaii and swimming in the Mariana Trench off Guam. I realized later that leaving England, with its stuffy language and social mores, was a real blessing and an opportunity to learn the language of the seas, sky and monster typhoons.

What was most fascinating to me as a young man was the new geography served up by the coastlines of Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam. My teacher was a Japanese-born American, Navigator Lt. Iwatsu. Our navigation charts took us deep into the Japanese inland waters. We met adults, badly scarred, who had survived Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As we are seeing with the current tragedy in Japan, fear of radiation runs deep in the Japanese psyche. I wrote about this in my first book of poetry: That Kingdom Coming Business. ("The deep chill of Bungo Suido/coating the skin of our ship/in a cold Japanese dawn.")

I became an English teacher and eventually got a PhD because I felt literature offers precisely what makes us human and universal, allowing us to make deep connections across time, geography and consciousness. Of course, the metaphor is the workhorse carrier of this insight, allowing us to marry what otherwise might be impossible or unthinkable.

The other day I was watching a ProPublica and New School video on "Long-Form Storytelling in A Short- Attention-Span World" with The New Yorker's David Remnick, Frontline's Raney Aronson-Rath, This American Life's Ira Glass, and ProPublica's Stephen Engelberg. It's worth going to to view the entire video). Here I wanted to comment on one item discussed:  whether hyperlinking to the essence of a long-form piece might detract from the intent of the author and the richness that her language delivers. I think David Remnick had some concerns about this.

I don't know this answer to this but it is an interestng point as we decide what content looks like in our dynamic, multi-platform world. After all, words in the hands of a gifted writer ideally get to fundamental truth in a way that maintains complexity, holds a semantic tension, and leaves the reader more than half-fed. Larry Kramer has an interesting piece art today discussing why he won't pay for the Daily (but will for digital NYT).  His words: "But the Daily did little to advance the cause of journalism and less to take advantage of a dramatic new medium that will allow for fantastic new ways to tell stories. Instead, it took the newspaper publication cycle and redisplayed it, with a little video, not to particularly advance a story or make it more dramatic.  Several existing newspapers, especially the New York Post, do a better, more efficient job, of putting their newspapers content on the web,"

For better or worse the language of compression is already well underway--Twitter is five years old today and the world is well aware of the 140 character admonition. English teachers are now teaching to the text message. See Andy Selsberg article in the NYT. ( And Twitter is alive with poetry, a kind of post-industrial haiku. Hemingways's short and popular "A Clean Well-Lighted Place" is almost ready for Twitter.

I think it was Ira Glass who said on the video mentioned earlier that the 24-hour news cycle actually works to the advantage of storytellers because it generally lacks a narrative, character, point-of-view and tone. Six hundred thousand people who downloaded the weekly podcast seem to agree with him.

One of the panelists, when describing the value of slow-cooked stories, cited the difference between an art history class and a vigorous painting class.

Of course, we need both.



Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Subscription Food Chain

The world has probably learned more about the arcane business of magazine subscriptions in the last ten days than in the last ten years. And most of the news is coming from technology companies, underscoring where much of the marketplace power resides.

Subscriptions are a vital part of the U.S. magazine business with about 8 out of 10 customers coming in through the subscription door. In most developed countries the opposite is true; most people buy their magazines at the newsstand.  Subscriptions serve as a linch-pin for ongoing customer relations. Publishers know a lot about these subscribers and with that knowledge can sell them affinity products. Thus publishers refer to the lifetime value of the customer.

So no wonder the angst of publishers when Apple got in the middle of that relationship, denying publishers the opportunity to sell through iTunes full-term subscriptions and also retain data.  The recent subscription announcement by Apple has been met by publishers with the sound of one hand clapping.  Apple's scheme, while not publisher friendly, is clever. Apple has kept the basic 30/70 revenue share but allows publishers to keep 100% of revenue if a transaction involves existing customers. Apple lets the consumer decide whether to order from iTunes or go to the publishers site and what data to share. Apple requires that the price of a digital edition be the same across channels, a requirement that will not please publishers. Publishers cannot link an in-app subscription offer to their own web site. 

Before this digital ink had dried Google announced it's One Pass program that allows consumers to purchase magazines and newspapers with a simple sign-in using email and password. Publishers can offer full subscriptions, partial subscriptions and I assume bundled offers of one kind or another. Google Checkout processes payments. Publishers collect 90% of sales on every transaction. Publishers retain all the data.

I just read that the website for the German news magazine Focus is using Google's One Pass to test the selling of article-level content for 10 cents each.  We know by and large consumers won't pay for news or general sports information but they might pay for articles on ten facts about parental leave or what to do if you lose your driver's license.

 Both Google's One Pass and the Focus magazine experiment seem like very good ideas. Newspaper and magazine companies have tons of premium, evergreen content that can be monitized. Publishers have spent a fortune digitizing their archives.

Looks like Google is providing a painless way to get some of that money back.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Enriching The Waste Land

I have read TS Eliot's The Waste Land a dozen times, taught the poem in college and high school, and early on tried to imitate that famous prosody in my own works. I failed miserably at the latter.

I have long thought of poetry as best appreciated by being spoken and not read.  For fifty years the university literary establishment, influenced by the so-called New Criticism that was in turn influenced by the scientific method (and an attempt I think by English professors to show there was a science behind all that literary stuff), has focused on the printed poem, something to be studied and dissected. Other schools of criticism followed, including: Jungian, Freudian, Feminist, and other approaches that put the reader in the middle of the poem where she becomes the center of the creative process through a kind of muscular subjectivity. Having been away from that profession for some years I now think all of the above might have more to do with tenure and a kind of in-stable solipsism than with communicating the wonders of poetry.

I don't go to technology conferences for literary insights but often I'm surprised. At the recent Tools of Change conference in New York there was actually a session on making The Wasteland come alive through the use of five different voices, video and touch screen opportunities. This was a wonderful example of a multi-dimensional textual enrichment and using technology to enhance a venerable text that I suspect is not experienced these days as much as it deserves.

The commercial point, made in this session and in a number of others during the conference, was that no one will pay for simple textbook-type material anymore, whether print or digital. But people will pay for enrichment and interactivity. One might argue with the supposition but not with the results.

The next time I teach The Wasteland, this will be my approach.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Media by Demand

My first real magazine job was as an associate editor for Prevention magazine. One of my first assignments was to write an article about the health benefits of running (This was before Rodale acquired Runner's World).  I was an experienced runner and had run a couple of marathons. I knew how to wade through all the medical journals that the company subscribed to, teasing out the right support and quotes for my position. I was also a poet so the editor let me get away with an opening sentence like this: "Like a deer I told  myself so quick and nimble was my gait."

I know this writing would not be up to SEO snuff today in part because it lacks the requisite metadata. Actually, this would not have been much of a leap at Prevention, if the technology had been available. I had studied linguistics and generative grammar that focuses on key words and phrases that we build our language around. Language provides all sorts of hints and modifiers so we really know what someone means when she says: "The car turned into a driveway."  My thanks to Professor Ianni for that.

For the last year or so I have watched Demand Media that recently enjoyed a successful IPO. The company is often referred to as a content farm. The image this conjures up for many of the editors I've spoken to is not the idyllic organic farm in Amish country where words are nourished at their roots but a factory farm where chickens are stuffed into very small crates.  The mixed metaphors are intentional. 

When I brought a Demand Media executive in to speak at an MPA luncheon about a year ago, editors present seemed quite hostile. If I remember correctly, the trade press told the company to go to hell.  I fully understand this concern. The editor provides a particular angle on a market, is keeper of the brand, and an advocate for the readership, keeping pesky business interests at bay.  So I too had a lot of concerns about content farms that for many were a race to the bottom.

I have visited Demand Media's offices and was quite surprised how scrupulously the company married Art (live editors) and Science (algorithms) and how diligently they researched an article, outlined it, tested it, fact-checked it, and measured the value to the reader.  They offer a ton of very short and simple articles describing, for example, "How to Climb a Step Ladder." But there is also every indication Demand will be moving up the food chain tackling topics other than superficial how-to.  To be sure some of this seems like painting by the numbers. How else can a writer churn out in a couple of years more pieces that most of us can write in a lifetime.

I am not a Demand booster and own no stock.  Nonetheless, there is something instructive here for editors and publishers about how many consumers wish to receive and consume content. Frankly   
since the second digital wave hit I have thought that special-interest magazines would best weather the
threat from outside content producers and aggregators because of their very close relationship with the consumer and the special community they make possible.  After all, how can an outfit like Demand provide the very special, hyper-local content with the requisite tone, point-of-view and intimacy?

To  test this I asked someone from Demand to use their "farm" to write an article about growing, organic Big-Boy tomatoes for the suburbs outside of Atlanta on a shady lot.  I provided a lot of additional instructions.  This was meant to be a trick question because I had served as publishing director for Organic Gardening Magazine. But the joke was on me. They did a credible job.

With the Demand IPO, the purchase of the Huffington Post by AOL,  and AOL's plans to generate more than 600,000 articles a year, content produced outside traditional media companies willl take on greater significance. 

Or not.  Writing articles based on trending Google search may become less important over time. Some search engines, including Blekko, limit search engine results to a finite list.  Google is reportedly working on a variety of algorithms to address this issue.  What is one company's spam is another company's IPO.

And just when media companies are becoming very adept at SEO, they are being told the next big thing is Social Media Optimization.

What's an editor to do?

Right: get on board!   

Monday, February 7, 2011

Dreaming of Tablets

I have previously acknowledged that I counted every single tablet at CES last month. I don't have any particular allegiance to this category. I just wanted to be able to say that I touched every one of these fleeting pieces of technology because most won't be around for an encore in 2012.  We saw the same thing with e-readers in 2010.  Manufacturers have every right, as psychologist C.G. Jung noted, to "dream the dream onward" but that is probably not enough of a strategic plan.

I just finished a very productive series of meetings with publishers and, not surprisingly, tablets are very prominent in the collective psyche of media executives, obviously helped by Murdoch's gutsy launch of The Daily. How can I possibly top that? Well, I could dream about the primordial tablet. And I did.

The dreamscape was familiar. I was pulled into a publisher meeting, outdoors, in bright sunlight at a picnic bench.  Those at the table were "working" with stones that looked like tablets, some the shape of the iPad; other round or oval-shaped.  All were "virgin" in the sense that they held no writing or designs except occasional hieroglyphics. The charge from no one in particular was to "play" with the tablets, testing treatment, inks, and rough content.  The meeting was open and collegial marked by experimentation and play.

I've studied Jungian psychology for fifteen years and won't bore you with remarks about the unconscious and working and playing with primal matter.  Actually, I just did. But don't get me started on hieroglyphics.

I stand with a neurologist friend who says most dreams represent "neural dumping," though I wished he had used something with less of an excremental feel.  On the other hand, my mother told me that if you dream something on a Friday night, it will be "Saturday true."

OK Mum; you win. At least the dream took me away from CES and the militant, singular march towards tablet progress. Come to think of it, I heard a similar sentiment in many of my meeting from execs who are willing to risk and play and discover in the broad sunlight.

And that's no picnic, symbolically speaking.


Thursday, January 20, 2011

The New Magazine Experience

When I read on Techmeme that AOL was launching a Flipboard killer called "Editions," I thought it was a joke. When I watched the video teaser featuring Tech Director Ethan Nagel singing his argument for his tag line for the product--"The app for when you crap"--everything made perfect sense. Unfortunately his spirited musical argument was not enough. The marketing department thought "The Magazine that Reads You" was a much better tagline. He got a proper dressing down from the various layers of management for his first-hand bathroom research,  The teaser ends with the scatalogical chorus, everyone in. One blog post reminded us that this marketing department probably came up with earlier tag lines, including "Music that Listens to You, and "Internet that Logs onto you."

OK, "Editions" has a homepage so it must be real. Hats off to AOL for the cheek and ability to poke fun at iitself. Now we'll keep an eye out for the app.

That said, it wasn't the scatology that interested me; it was the name of the project as well as the tag line. When I was at MPA we had many, lengthy discussions about using the word magazine in the association's title and more generally in descriptive statements about the industry in general that was becoming more media-centric. Please go to for background on the issue.

When the content consortium Next Issue Media was formed, some people asked why "Issue" was included in the title because that suggested the frequency of a print magazine. AOL's "Editions", that seems to be an app like Flipboard that figures out what you like and personalizes that content, suggests a magazine-like experience. The tag line--"The Magazine that Reads You"--is unmistakeable. If "Editions" delivers on its early promise, it will offer a timely, curated, personalized magazine that is targeted exactly to your dynamic interests and information needs.  And perhaps with a leaner social network. All this and mobility.

Magazines publishers are still experimenting with the iPad, looking for the right UI and business model. We might learn something from "Edtions." 


Thursday, January 13, 2011

Changing Content Consumption Patterns

I cut my teeth in print and during my career have worked on dozens of magazines in the U.S. and around the world. Whatever the competitive climate, all magazine publishers tend to agree that a reader engages with a printed magazine in a very special and measurable way. MPA, the consumer magazine association, with help from Northwestern University and various research firms, has put more teeth into the engagement arguments (I worked there until recently). Whatever is going on outside or in the noisy digital space, a magazine is my personal time out, a quiet, intimate, and even reflective moment.

I heard about some research at CES that indicates e-reader marketers are using very similar engagement language, suggesting that settling back with my Kindle or Sony Reader represents my personal time out. In fact, unlike with magazines, I don't want to be distracted with ads and rich media on my screen. I want my reading and consumption to be a one-dimensional, lean back, uninterrupted experience.

But what happens when reading goes mobile in the fullest sense of the word? The website Read It Later (RIL) provides some research that suggests our digestion of mobile content not only changes the place where we consume content but also the time we consume. RIL uses as its starting point the 100 million articles that its registered users have saved.

Please consult site for details on the various graphs charting user consumption behavior.  Simply put people tend to save and cache content during the day and read them later.  RIL notes that newspapers and magazines are portable and large enough to make reading enjoyable. The iPad offers similar advantages. It's too early to posit much about reading habits on the iPad but RIL data shows that iPad owners are no longer doing the majority of their reading on computers. "They are saving it for their personal prime time, when they can relax comfortably, iPad in hands and burn through the content they found during the day." Does this constitute a higher level of engagement because I have carefully chosen my content from multiple sources and have also decided the time of the consumption?

So what does this say about the reading of content online? According to RIL, when a reader is given a choice about how to consume their content, a major shift in behavior occurs. They no longer consume the majority of their content during the day on their computer. Instead they shift that content to prime time and onto a device better suited for consumption.

"Initially, it appears that the devices users prefer for reading are mobile devices, most notably the iPad. It's the iPad leading the jailbreak from consuming content in our desk chairs.

"As better mobile experiences become more accessible to more readers, this movement will continue to grow. Readers want to consume content in a comfortable place, on their own time and mobile devices are making it possible for readers to take control once more."

I'm not sure what this means for newspapers and magazines, but it will certainly mean that during my down-time between 6PM--9PM  I will have many more media choices.