Curation vs Content Creation

Representatives for Facebook told Mashable, “Facebook isn’t a content creator, so it’s not accurate to call us a media company.” As always, Facebook points to its members, the people who use Facebook to post their own photos and stories as its real content creators.

What Facebook Paper is doing is aggregation. I find it inconceivable that at some point, Facebook would not toy with the idea of “exclusive” or “original” content, even if it is from a third party.

Back in 2011, the ShortFormBlog squirted out an interesting post that highlighted the great disparity between some of the covers of Time Magazine’s US and global editions. While the Asia, South Pacific and Europe editions asked questions about what the Egypt uprisings meant for the Middle East, the US edition pondered whether anxiety might actually be good for us.

Not to mention this.

It was a smart observation by ShortForm of a series of awkward juxtapositions  by Time. Some of the conclusions that followed elsewhere, however, weren’t so smart and relied a little too heavily on stereotype: that Americans are insular and generally very ignorant about what lies beyond those shining seas. Well, I’m neither going to shoot down those cliches nor defend Time’s choice of covers for its US edition.

While older folks remember when Time had authority, 30-something readers like myself look to other platforms for global commentary these days, increasingly the financial and tech press whose insights into the state of the world are as relevant as those of more politically-focused publications (Time Magazine – who reads that?)  What did get me thinking is this belief implicit in the criticism that a magazine like Time ought to have positioned its international content as its main attraction. Why should it? The US news market is not bereft of commentary and coverage of these events. And it’s not as if Americans are ambivalent about what happens in the Middle East as the first decade of this century has clearly shown.  What’s more, Time is reinventing itself, perhaps in much the same way as every other traditional news platform is, following in the footsteps of the mighty Hearst empire that still has assets but doesn’t really move the news needle these days. So why not move onto something else to write about instead of coming third or fourth place in a race to produce coverage that generally ends up being no different to anything else out there?

That might sound defeatist but if your parent company is struggling to support the investment required to keep you at the front of the pack in world news, then why not look at other ways you can win? Like writing about more nebulous sociological observations, technological trends or deep character profiles. Yes, to an extent it’s decline management but therein also lies a kind of creative that pairs the wisdom of old heads with new opportunities.

Looking beyond Time, which is a US publication with an international brand, why is there an expectation that outlets need to invest in global news coverage to remain relevant, (even if it is just an AP feed)? My worry is not that traditional media takes it cross hairs off of global events, it’s that more local reporting loses all its key players (it was good to see this commentary about Wall Street Journal’s Greater New York supplement).

What big media can bring to the local scene is global, regional or national context. I’ve written about this before: there are great news stories outside of the alpha and beta global cities that are of global relevance. There’s no reason why big media can’t bridge the gulf between the macro and the micro to make for stronger local content that travels into a wider catchment. But as I’ve also said before, I suspect that the ones that will achieve this are not the traditional media outlets but the emerging kings of data.

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Big news for one Singapore startup today: Viki is very well-known among Singapore’s startup community and is very familiar to K-drama and J-drama tragics. But it’s probably not particularly well-known in the general Anglosphere.

The nuts-and-bolts are as such: Japanese online retail site Rakuten reportedly buys Viki for US$200 million.

Viki’s concept is simple in theory but tricky in execution: a community of translators provide subtitles for “foreign-language” television content. That foreign-language could be in pretty well any language – so could the translated subtitles. So, you could have a Korean soap with Croatian subtitles. I wrote about these guys on a couple of occasions, one of those times when they were nominated for the Wall Street Journal’s Asian Innovation Awards.

Razmig Hovaghimian is Viki’s highly-focused and super-positive CEO. He understands the market economics of global television, having worked with NBC Universal. He understands the economics of language translation, speaking about five or so of them himself. He understands cross-cultural flows (he is a U.S.-educated Armenian-Egyptian married to a Japanese woman, living in Singapore with a couple of kids.) Most importantly, he understands the principle of “content arbitrage”: unlocking the latent value of one market’s content for consumption in much bigger markets elsewhere. While Viki doesn’t create any new television, by slapping subtitles onto the content it is able to acquire, it can access large new markets. Why would someone in the Philippines want to watch a Venezuelan novella? You’d have to ask the thousands of Filipinos doing just this. From a data point of view, the inflows and outflows of content between different language markets make for very  thought-provoking reading. It could also seriously disrupt the primacy of English-language content in the global entertainment market.

I’ll be honest,  I haven’t exactly spent lots of time immersed in Korean, Taiwanese or Egyptian soaps on Viki. I think this is a brilliant concept but it takes a lot of sweat to get it right and keep the volumes fresh.

The concept of “content arbitrage” goes back to what I wrote in my last post about why entrepreneurs and tycoons see value in local (as opposed to global or national) news outlets: they’re producing something nobody else on the planet is and this product might just be of deep value to someone, somewhere else in the world if only the technology exists to transport it.

Rakuten could have a bit of fun with Viki, though I’d be lying if I said I had any real ideas as to how. As is usually the case with these sorts of acquisitions, trying to imagine the synergies and how possible new products from both sides of the marriage could look is like trying to guess what your children will look like before they’re born. Probably what gets scribbled on the whiteboard now will look nothing like the reality. I’d say the same for Jeff Bezos’s acquisition of The Washington Post. Importantly, Rakuten now has a video piece in Viki and an e-books piece in the Kobo e-reader technology it acquired in 2012. The broad point remains the same: outfits with fresh content are now finding suitors from a much wider range of industries, not just traditional media players.

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I wrote a blog post back in June asking if old media houses might one day sell themselves to Silicon Valley giants. Anyway, two months later I get an answer – sort of.

Jeff Bezos buying the Washington Post seems to make perfect sense to me although I don’t know very much about this transaction beyond the surface reporting we’ve seen so far.

There’s possibly a lot more that can be done on this front, many more old media companies that can join a more cashed up operation like Facebook or Google (platform neutrality be damned). This of course will change the nature of journalism. A more secure revenue base will lift the standard of reporting above the base stenographic and press release-driven “churnalism” of the past 15-years while integration with a technological platform like Amazon will connect journalists with the rich data ecosystems many of these new platforms boast. Data in and of itself, as anyone at Bloomberg will tell you, is news.

A while back, I also wondered what the future of smaller newspapers (those with a metropolitan or regional focus rather than a national or global one) was. Warren Buffett’s acquisition of a series of small town newspapers, again, makes a lot of sense to me.

What I find interesting is that almost a decade after I left my first newspaper job in Temora, Australia, (a sheep-and-wheat town of about 7,000 five hours west of Sydney) the bi-weekly Temora Independent still has no website of which to speak. This might not sound particularly surprising if anyone knows what sleepy Temora is like, but what it tells me is that these tiny news outlets are still providing news and information that no one else is, so much so they haven’t needed to invest in innovation to remain relevant. This means something and it means something to more than just the people of Temora, which is presumably why Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway sees value in local American newspapers (in some cases very local).

Why do I say this? I don’t have any strong economic argument or market research to back this up, but my gut tells me local reporting will soon become highly prized well beyond the small markets they’ve traditionally served.  These are towns that are usually too small to matter to major media outlets but they are rich in narratives. While I always aspired to work for a global news outlet for professional reasons, to be honest, the most interesting stories I ever came across came out of Temora. That might not say much for me as a journalist but for what it’s worth, there was David Schlunke, an artist who built a three-storey house in the middle of the thicket out of bottles, mud and an assortment of junk. There was Rosie Blachut who showed me her single-engine bi-plane which she too built herself. There was Gil Venz, the local Baptist pastor, who was staying with Christian missionary Graham Staines and his two young sons in India the night the three were burnt to death by an angry mob. David Lowy, the son of Westfield shopping mall mogul Frank Lowy, had set up an aviation museum in Temora full of working vintage fighter planes. Anecdotally, there are things I’ve done and things I’ve seen in these small towns that I don’t think I’ll ever do or see again in my life.

There is a depth of storytelling that the local news players have at their finger tips and as is the case with most of my examples above, you’d be hard-pressed to find much on the internet about any of these stories.

Somewhere in the bundles of yarn small town reporters gather lie bits of string that fit into much larger stories. An entrepreneur that can break down silos and integrate the resources of disparate and locally invested small-town papers could be onto something big. The key to unlocking this synergy is technological investment. I think both Buffett and Bezos are the start of a new wave of old media transformations.

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There are a few niggling issues on the Apple approval side, which I hope to have sorted for a July release. I’d have liked to have seen it out now, but getting it right is important.

I’ll keep you posted…

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No, it isn’t. Just wanted to get your attention.

News is a mug’s game…always has been. As a product itself, it makes no money and despite the shit salary, good journalism is expensive, dangerous and highly speculative. If you’re a journalist, it’s a physically-demanding pursuit that requires some sociopathic tendencies to succeed at either the coal-face or managerial levels. All traditional outlets face the same problem: a failure to offset the cost-center demands of good journalism with any kind of revenue.

In the olden days, if you had the medium, be it a big-ass printing press or broadcast license, you commoditized it by adding a news service and game shows, because that’s what an audience wanted.

So I’ve been wondering this for a while now: why haven’t the new gatekeepers –Facebook, Google, Amazon etc.–established their own news gathering capabilities? Maybe I’m missing some very important piece of this puzzle so I’m really just thinking aloud. I’m aware the news product is evolving and it will continue to do so. But the principles of supply and demand are more time-honored. Here are some assumptions underlying (but not answering) my question:

They have the platform…

This is pretty straightforward. They saw the opening, they developed the technology and they made it grow. Now they reach such large chunks of the earth’s population that the traditional new outlets have become totally dependent on them for distribution.

…but they don’t have the brand

These guys have perhaps serendipitously found a new role as a news platform but they haven’t been able to create a reputation for news gathering and reliability. Yes, traditional news outlets are flawed and have an awful reputation ethically – but most people would still prefer to have a third-party voice that is dedicated to reporting than have to rely on the sole voices of interested parties, those being governments and big corporations. There are a million and one aggregators out there…none of which would exist if it weren’t for traditional news outlets.

Could Facebook et al. draw on the talent and resources of our dying news institutions (or just buyout AP, Reuters or some struggling newswire) and let the synergy do the rest?

They already sit on a great steaming pile of data

Data is news. Scary, I know. Traditional news outlets can only dream of having the sorts of bird’s-eye-views of what is moving thematically and semantically that the new gatekeepers have. And that doesn’t even take into account the granular and intimate detail to which the new gatekeepers have access. If editors could make decisions about what to report based on a deep analysis on how the masses were behaving (and not just in terms of reader traffic), content would look quite different. Bloomberg already has something resembling this approach, albeit with financial market activity and controversially data on their own clients’ actions. Bloomberg, incidentally, is one of the few major outlets that is still adding headcount.

A mountain of data equals a mountain of ethical questions. I’m not saying a merger between new technology and news reporting is a good or bad thing. But it’s not a question of “do I trust Facebook with my data?” rather, “do I trust the reportage of an outlet with access to such quantities of data?”

It wouldn’t hurt…but they don’t have to

News reporting is not their core business, so why would they?

The new players have a captive market already. While traditional news outlets do have their own internet portals (websites and apps), they are dependent on a native and derivative presence within the new digital ecosystems whether it’s iOS, Twitter, Facebook or being curated by the likes of Google.

But if the old school news gatherers continue to thin out wouldn’t it create some competitive advantage for those with the upper hand digitally to start creating highly-prized news content, not just be a big fat agnostic platform?

On a relative scale, the outlay would not be tremendous. The incentive may not be for a new player to buy an old player, rather for an old player to sell itself to a new player: in other words, it would be up to traditional news to make the case for someone else to buy them.

Tech companies have tried the news game before : MSNBC, Yahoo! The former is resting in peace and the latter has struggled to make much of an impact as that platform’s brand has floundered (though Marissa Mayer’s renewed focus on content could change this.)

News organizations aren’t built overnight but with the old guard in a sunset phase, building from a standing start with the expertise of dying empires may be a bit easier than it once was. It may also be the only way for the traditional craft of journalism to survive.

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So…almost five months since I quit my job I have the first real evidence that I haven’t just been drinking coffee and playing my PS3 (which is flashing the Yellow Light of Death, sadly.)

Here it is: an illustrated/interactive version of The Great Gatsby for the iPad (should be in the store soon, pending usual Apple hoops.) And if you didn’t guess it, you can now see where the name of my company comes from.

I’m very proud of this product and especially the artwork, which is original and was done by Michigan-based artist Mike Schwartz (his stuff above and below.) He is a very talented and efficient artist who instinctively understands the text, its characters and the scenes depicted. I hope this app can really help drive his profile and look forward to seeing more of his stuff.

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So what’s this all about?

We know about Baz Luhrmann’s movie (I’m yet to actually see it.) You may have even read the novel at some point. On the surface, this product includes a bunch of value-adds through the illustrations, maps, my own research of this text and the other interactive features. Things that may have made sense when the book was first published in 1925 but are lost in the wash of historical context more than eight decades later are explained in convenient and unobtrusive pop-up notes. There are also maps of the story’s geography, which are designed to address a major gripe from e-book readers about how inaccessible in-story maps are on reading devices. With a little more work and investment, something like this is a good product for the education market. Sure enough that’s where I’m headed (wish me luck.)

But it’s more than that.

Here’s the bet: good narratives and storytelling are the new frontiers for the digital economy, the railroads upon which new cities and trading posts will spring. Content is everywhere, so are social networks. Good content–well-crafted and well-curated–is less ubiquitous. Storytelling, be it through narratives old or new, can take us to a lot of new places. I don’t believe digital technology or Silicon Valley has worked out the best possible way(s) to take us there just yet. I know for a fact that big, dirty digital utilities companies are looking very closely at how storycraft can create new digital on-ramps for them. I don’t pretend that my Gatsby adaptation comes close to this dream, but it’s a baby step.

If this sounds conceptual, wanky and meaningless, then I’ll let the future do the talking. In the meantime, watch for more products like this. I’ll be blogging shamelessly about them and what they mean for my livelihood.

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