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Watching the Magazine Industry Commit Suicide

In editorial, publishing on Tuesday, 6 October 2009 at 0:04

On the off chance that some of you still have Brijit in your RSS readers:

Two pieces of news have come across over the past few days that have me convinced that the magazine industry is hellbent on its own destruction. On Friday, All Thing D reported that Time Inc.’s planned “Hulu for magazines” joint venture was moving forward. Then this morning, Conde Nast announced it was shuttering Gourmet. Taken together, it’s difficult to come away feeling anything but sad, because it appears that the best minds in the magazine industry haven’t the first clue about what makes magazines special.

Let’s start with “Hulu for magazines,” which has “doomed to fail” written all over it. What the magazine publishers (and most of the reporters that cover them) fail to understand is that the very nature of glossy magazine content is ill-suited for a digital world — and the glossier the magazine, the worse the fit for digital distribution.

I may prefer to watch my movies on the big screen, but throw one on an iPod Touch that I hold close to my face and listen to with a good set of headphones, and the experience is good, or at least good enough. Ditto for tv shows, video clips, etc. Video works just fine on a laptop screen, or the wished-for tablet, or whatever else comes along. Video lends itself to the latest electronic hardware and distribution because it’s ALWAYS lent itself to the latest electronic hardware and distribution. That’s the nature of video — digital distribution is just the latest iteration. So of course YouTube and Hulu work.

News and other short-form text are a perfect fit for digital, too, which is why we all consume our news online now. The only time I read a print newspaper now is when I’m on vacation (and then only on Sunday). And I’ve bcome more comfortable than I ever thought possible getting my news on a 2-inch Blackberry screen. Why? Because the essential nature of the information is unchanged: print or iPod, it’s the same news. The transition proved a little harder for books: it took a dedicated e-reader like the Kindle to move the needle on digital distribution, but this ship has sailed, too, and there’s no turning back.

What all of these forms of content and consumption have in common is that they are all effectively one-dimensional at their core. You watch video to see it and listen to it — movie screen or 50″ plasma or iPhone, the experience is basically the same. You read news for the words on the page — tablet, laptop, paper, it really doesn’t make much difference. You read books for the story — it’s linear, whether you’re turning the page or scrolling on your Kindle.

Put another way: most content survives and thrives independent of whatever particular container it might be shipped in.

But magazines, especially glossies, are rooted to their form factor in a way that none of this other content is. The magazine form is embedded in its DNA. A fundamental part of what makes Vogue Vogue is the thud of the September issue, the page after page of beautiful women wearing impossible clothes. The New York Times Magazine is not just about the words or the pictures — it’s about the feel of the crossword on your lap, your coffee and bagel on the side-table next to you. Even The New Yorker, which is so text-heavy that it actually translates quite well online despite the length of a typical feature, loses something significant without the interspersed cartoons and the artful cover. Unlike all these other forms of content, magazines are as much about the container as about what goes in them. Magazines are the classic example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. That’s what makes them so great, so unique, and so endangered.

Conde Nast announced today that it’s killing Gourmet after a 68-year run, most of them good. Now, I don’t clip the recipes — I long ago made the move to epicurious. And I don’t really read the articles either — only time to skim, I’m afraid. But throw in the cover art and the pictures and the ads, and editor Ruth Reichl’s uncanny ability to pull it all together, and there’s something about Gourmet magazine that is, well, beautiful. It will be missed.

I understand the need to rationalize costs. I’m sure the Conde Nast folks, and their friends at McKinsey, had plenty of good reasons to kill Modern Bride, Elegant Bride, and Cookie, just as they killed Men’s Vogue and Portfolio before them. I’m not arguing against making hard decisions. But having Gourmet live on via tv and a book imprint? I wish they’d call it something else, because it surely won’t be Gourmet.

Nearly 70 years as an icon of the food world, at a time when more people are paying more attention to food than ever before, and the world’s premier magazine company can’t figure out how to make Gourmet work? Recession or no recession, that just shouldn’t be.

As it happens, just last week I renewed my subscription to Gourmet: two years for 18 bucks. Now they’ll probably stick me with Bon Appetit. Si Newhouse should be ashamed of himself.

Digg for the Rest of Us

In brijit, editorial, publishing, social media on Wednesday, 16 April 2008 at 11:17

As a user, I find Digg worthless. Whew. It feels so good to say it out loud!

Of course, as the CEO of a small-but-growing online media company, I’d give my left pinky toe for Digg’s traffic. But I don’t find the site helpful, and I’d be reluctant to put my name on its virtual masthead, because so much of what floats to the top of Digg is, well, crap like this.

This isn’t me being an elitist, mind you. I love Digg in theory (communism works in theory, right?); the idea of a community of individuals working independently to promote great content is actually near and dear to my heart. But in practice, Digg as it’s currently constituted is no meaningful filter – it’s little more than a sieve. Sure, you’ll find an occasional gold nugget – but you’ll spend hours in hip waders with your hands in the muck trying to find it. And the irony is that the bigger Digg gets, the less valuable it becomes, because more and more muck is being poured into the system.

This reality means Digg is part of the information overload problem, not part of the solution. The signal-to-noise ratio has deteriorated to the point that the filter needs a filter. And doesn’t that defeat the purpose? I mean, who’s got the time?

As it turns out, we do. At noon Eastern today, Brijit will begin covering Digg. Digg, you ask? Alongside the New Yorker and This American Life and The Daily Show and Pitchfork? You bet. There’s great content there, and in the context of Brijit, we think Digg can be a valuable resource for the rest of us, busy people without the time or the inclination to go story-fishing in an ocean of crap.

Brijit takes Digg’s most popular, pulls out the most interesting and substantial items, and sets our community of smart readers, writers, and editors to work boiling them down to 100 words or fewer. And while we’ll credit that we found it in Digg, every abstract links back to the original source, to save you time.

We’re also adding coverage of YouTube and Techmeme today, for different reasons. YouTube has a high clutter factor, too, but it’s search-driven in a way that Digg isn’t, which makes for a better experience for the casual user – you dive in, find what you’re looking for, and hop out. Here the Brijit abstract serves more of a serendipity and discovery function for people with neither the time nor the inclination to visit YouTube every day. As for Techmeme, it’s a pretty terrific algorithmic filter, valuable in almost every way, and we think that a wider audience of non-tech folks would appreciate some of what bubbles up there each day, in a shorter format.

So there you have it. Brijit is covering Digg, YouTube, and Techmeme, so busy people don’t have to work so hard. We hope you’ll let us know what you think.

Respect Your Librarian. But Feel Free To Google.

In brijit, publishing, social media on Wednesday, 2 April 2008 at 14:51

I spoke at a gathering of librarians last week. Thanks to Jill O’Neill at the National Federation of Advanced Information Services (NFAIS) for including me. The 50-year-old organization “for groups that aggregate, organize and facilitate access to information” was hosting a one-day forum on The Future of Bibliographic Control, and wanted Brijit there to talk about user-generated content. I’m always happy to introduce Brijit to a new audience, and with Philadelphia only a quick Amtrak ride away, I was glad to do it.

The other speaker on user-generated content was Susan Chun, the founder of Steve, the art museum social tagging project. Susan has set out to make museum collections more accessible by creating a tool that allows professionals, enthusiasts, and laypeople alike to tag items in more mainstream, less technical ways. Kind of a for museums. Love it.

She pegged her talk around an email she’d seen while working at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. After hearing the story, it’s hard to imagine anyone questioning the value of collaborative, consumer-focused tagging, especially to institutions with large collections.

The author of the email in question was trying to locate a specific painting. He could describe what it looked like in some detail: a “renaissance” painting with an “hourglass” on a “table” in front of a “man.” But the author knew neither the artist’s name nor the title of the painting. And despite the fact that the Met had a terrific academic record of the painting, replete with provenance going back more than a century, Susan was only able to locate it by asking around among the experts she knew in the museum. Tag it with terms people use, and finding this painting is a cinch. Tag it exclusively with traditional bibliographic information, and it remains hidden.

Project Steve and Brijit are attacking different problems in different ways, but the overarching philosophy is the same. Give people the ability to collaborate and be creative within a structured environment, stand back, and watch the magic happen. My presentation on the hybrid editorial model (slides here soon) highlighted this point.

As I told the NFAIS audience, I know practically nothing about what they were discussing most of the day. I’m no expert on the library-publisher supply chain. I’m unfamiliar with the alphabet soup of industry organizations and projects, from NISO and UKSG‘s KBART working group to the OCLC or the EEBO. And I’m not at all interested in whether a particular document is considered a monograph or a serial. And neither is (almost) anybody else.

We’re lucky to have librarians and systems that have put us on a firm curatorial footing for generations. But they have to negotiate legacy systems in a way that we Web-native organizations don’t. I don’t envy the task of trying to shoehorn modern content creation and distribution into standards of a bygone era.

One of the other presenters talked of her frustration with a colleague who lamented the fact that people check Google before the library’s own catalog system. I didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry.

The metadata of ISSN X, volume this, page that, is not meaningful to the vast majority of people. Metadata at Brijit means the basics of how most people want their content in an increasingly online, mobile world: title, author, source, date, and TAGS. On an article by article basis. And everything with a link back to the underlying material (where available), so that you can go right to it. We’ve built Brijit to dovetail with consumer behavior, not fight it. It’s a search-driven, link-based, short-form world, and we’re just living (and working) in it.

Are We Really Still Talking About the Merits of Linking in 2008?

In brijit, editorial, publishing on Monday, 31 March 2008 at 14:05

It was all I could do not to write a headline laced with profanity, such is the depth of my frustration. (My colleagues talked me down.)

Brijit has enjoyed a great run of mainstream media visibility over the past couple of months, by pretty much any standard. We were on the cover of the Life section of USA Today, the lead example in a piece titled Services cater to our speeded-up lives.” We got a nice mention on MSNBC in a story called “How to dig out from the information avalanche.” And last week we appeared in the April issue of Wired, which identified Brijit as a prime example of The Human Touch,” one of “nine trends driving business in 2008.” Great stuff for any company, especially a startup like ours. Just one problem: none of these actually linked to!

Now, I don’t want to seem ungrateful, but these particular masters of mainstream media are killing me. According to Comscore, MSNBC had 28 million unique visitors in January. USA Today’s sites had more than 8 million, and Wired 2 million. These are big brands with big audiences, the kind of audiences that entrepreneurs like me would ordinarily salivate over. If some small fraction of these audiences finds its way to one of these articles, and some small fraction of that fraction clicks through to visit Brijit, and some small fraction of that fraction likes what they see, sticks around, and shares Brijit with their friends, well, that’s a big deal for a site like ours. Which is why it’s so enraging to be written about but NOT linked to.

When we launched late last year, it was a piece by Frank Ahrens in the The Washington Post that brought us to the world’s attention. More than four months later, we continue to see a trickle of referrals from this story. Why? Because on first reference, there’s a link to Brijit. Now, The Washington Post is about as mainstream as mainstream media gets, but they get it. This isn’t complex neuroscience. This is common courtesy. Hell, this is the Golden Rule we’re talking about: do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

If you’re a publisher, you want other publishers linking to you. If you’re a reader, you want easy access to whatever it is you want to read, listen to, or watch. It’s pretty simple. So what, exactly, is wrong with USA Today, MSNBC, Wired, and the host of other outlets that still haven’t instituted link-friendly standards? Are they so desperate to keep people on their sites that they’re willing to treat their readers with such disrespect? Do they think not linking is the key to consumer satisfaction? Really?

I know this is well-worn ground. It’s pretty common knowledge at this point that the link is the coin of the realm online. The blog as a medium is built on a foundation that linking is good. So is Google. So is Yahoo!. And so is Brijit. And when Tom Rosenstiel, who supervised The State of the News Media 2008 report for the Project for Excellence in Journalism, goes on Bob Garfield’s On the Media and declares that “your website should be a way-station, a place that can help me get to where I want to go. If it were a dead-end street, a cul-de-sac, it would be less useful to me,” you’d think that everyone was on board.

They’re not.

At What Point Does News Break Too Fast?

In publishing, social media on Monday, 17 March 2008 at 22:27

Scott Karp has an interesting and thoughtful post up on the coverage of the Bear Stearns collapse. He uses the fast-moving story (breaking on a Sunday, no less!) to highlight the advantages of the Web versus print for breaking news. But while I agree with most of what Scott has to say in his post, he loses me here:

“The problem with following the Bear Stearns story on the web is that traditional news brand sites are too conflicted between serving print readers and serving web readers…”

Really? The New York Times homepage was updated throughout the day on Sunday and into Monday. And the paper, well, the paper published the most up to date stories it could given the realities deadlines of the daily miracle that is the big-city newspaper. What’s the problem exactly? Those of us who get our news on the Web got a constantly updated story, well reported and well told. And the folks for whom the paper remains a primary resource got EXACTLY what they expect to get.

According to Karp: “News … has a narrative, a story arc that it is often very instructive to follow. The New York Times has a wealth of reporting that covers a story as it unfolds — but the homepage is useless for looking at the story arc.”

Not to put too fine a point on it, but (and I mean this literally) who cares?

We’re all familiar by now with the advantages of the Web versus print on a fast-moving story like this. Karp seems to be arguing that the traditional press — nastier folks than Scott would sneer derisively at the mainstream media — can’t get us there. But for the vast majority of people, the old-school media brands most certainly can, and do, get us there. To be clear, I’m certainly not suggesting that there isn’t a place for bloggers and crowdsourcing and all of the other terrific resources we have at our disposal for the gathering and disseminating information. Of course there is. But I believe that for most people, on the day, the volume, presentation, and speed of coverage of a story like Bear Stearns provided by the Times or the Wall Street Journal is ample. Anything more seems like drinking from a fire hose.

Of course, some people are really, really thirsty when it comes to news. I’d posit that there are basically two groups looking for more/better/faster: industry-types with some sort of direct vested interest in the outcome of the story, and information junkies. Now, are these groups worth catering to on news? You bet. Look no further than the mayor of New York City to know how lucrative it can be: Michael Bloomberg became a multi-billionaire on the back of providing breaking news on a specific topic (bond prices) to a specific audience (traders).

But for most of us, the minute-to-minute details of bond prices, or the Bear Stearns debacle for that matter, are more than we need. In the end, we want to know what’s happening, we want to trust the source, and we want to move on with our lives.

Whither the Wisdom of Crowds? Of course not.

In brijit, editorial, publishing, social media on Wednesday, 30 January 2008 at 14:53

I never thought I’d write these words: Thank you, Commander Taco.

CmdrTaco is the screen name of Rob Malda, the 31-year-old founder of Slashdot, for the uninitiated (i.e. most of us), is a pioneering technology news community, a self-styled “News for Nerds. Stuff that Matters.” site.

So why the shout out? Yesterday Brad Stone wrote in the New York Times’ Bits blog that Malda’s skeptical of the mainstream value of Digg and other wisdom-of-crowds aggregations sites. Malda’s rationale, is, well, rational:

“I try not to paint Digg as my arch-nemesis. The Digg method and Digg community are a wider audience than Slashdot,” he said. “But with sites like Digg, it’s the wisdom of the crowds or the tyranny of the mob. You never know what you’re going to get.”

Put aside the dig at Digg, and CmdrTaco is reminding us that no single form of aggregation holds all the answers. Hence the shout-out here.

There’s extraordinary power in user-generation. From Amazon recommendations to sharing a la Digg or, the wisdom of crowds can be an incredible tool.

Of course there’s value in the algorithm. Google uses straight-up algorithm to put relevant information at our fingertips, and its worked out pretty well for them, and generally, for us.

And traditional top-down editorial control is excellent, too. Check out the Sports Illustrated or the Wall Street Journal or The Daily Show, and the value of professional, editorial control becomes pretty clear.

So why, in a world where we have such terrific aggregation options, would anyone settle for just one kind?

Well, more and more, we’re not. A host of companies, including Brijit, are making some variation of a hybrid production model part of their core businesses. We think that’s good news for lovers of great content.

Small and Independent Publishers Rejoice! OpenID Will Set You Free. Maybe.

In brijit, publishing on Thursday, 17 January 2008 at 12:16

Michael Arrington over at TechCrunch has it that Yahoo! is joining OpenID:

“The rumor last week was that Google (as well as Verisign and IBM) were mulling over the idea of joining the OpenID 2.0 single sign-on framework. But the real news comes today, as Yahoo and its roughly 250 million user IDs officially jump on the bandwagon. Today, there are only approximately 120 million valid OpenID accounts. In one move, Yahoo more than triples that number.”

Marshall Kirkpatrick at ReadWriteWeb reasonably rains on the parade a bit:

“Yahoo! announced this morning that the company will authenticate the identities of its 248 million users if they chose to login to OpenID supporting sites with their Yahoo! ID.

Like the AOL announcement of roughly the same thing in February of last year, the key question is whether Yahoo! will do anything substantive with OpenID or whether, like the AOL announcement, this will just be window dressing to legitimize advocates of OpenID. AOL’s support for OpenID appears to have resulted in little more.

Though there’s every reason to hope that today’s Yahoo! announcement will lead to ongoing, meaningful advocacy of OpenID by the company and then a future wherein Yahoo! sites accept OpenID from other providers – there’s also plenty of reason to be concerned that neither will occur and that Yahoo! interests are really only served by spreading the use of Yahoo! ID further around the web.”

Let’s grab onto that “every reason to hope” part. Let’s say Yahoo! turns out to be a fervent advocate of OpenID and not a mere press-release pusher. In this case, this is awesome, awesome news for small and independent publishers and everyone who might enjoy their content.

One important impediment to audience enlargement is the registration wall. It’s effectively a big sign that says “go away,” unless you’re prepared to take the time and energy to sign up. For many, it’s just not worth the aggravation, and people move on. Rapid adoption of OpenID would go a long way toward eliminating this frustration.

In building Brijit, we’ve been relentlessly focused on how we can help people find and access the world’s best content. We’ve found that much of this content is produced by small and independent publishers. It follows, then, that any tool that emerges that makes it easy for big audiences to interact seamlessly across websites (while attending to sticky privacy issues) is a good thing.

Put another way: if all goes well, pretty soon more than 350 million people could be walking around with skeleton keys to “walled gardens” across the web. Now all the publishers have to do is figure out to attract users beyond their core communities without alienating those communities. And of course, we think Brijit can be helpful here.