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Apr. 16 2010 — 2:20 pm | 59 views | 0 recommendations | 0 comments

Web 2.0 and the Heartbreak of Algorithmia

The following is a column I wrote for the April issue of FOLIO, the magazine about the magazine business.

On the one hand, information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable…On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other. [Emphasis added]

So said Stewart Brand at the first Hackers’ Conference, in 1984. In its entirety, the statement was true and far-sighted, but most of it has been forgotten. That famous italicized fragment, taken out of context, became the call-to-arms of an ideology loosely known as Web 2.0, embracing a broad challenge to principles of copyright, the concept of intellectual property and the usefulness and viability of “old media.” The fight that Brand predicted now verges on cultural war.

Despite my long background at Time Inc., I have sometimes sided with those who blithely blame “old media” for their own distress, faulting them for blindness, arrogance and failure to adapt. As someone who has moved into digital publishing myself, I have a stake in the success of the new models that threaten their existence.

Online Arrogance

Nevertheless, I have to confess some discomfort with the digital revolution as it has unfolded to date, and with those who take delight in all its works.  At some of the forums on interactive media at the recent South by Southwest Conference, the air was thick with self-congratulation, and the phrase “careless plunder” kept coming to mind.

There is obviously a great deal to celebrate about the Internet and the promise of digital broadband, especially a vast increase in access to knowledge, global communications and opportunity. But there is much that should give us pause as well, including the absence so far of a healthy business model for content creators and publishers. “How long is too long to wait?” Jaron Lanier asks on behalf of Internet-starved musicians in his new book, You Are Not a Gadget. “Isn’t 15 years long enough to wait before we switch from hope to empiricism?”

The most promising new business models for journalism are not promising at all. Consider “content farms” like Demand Media, a factory of drive-by, slave-wage piecework on such enervating nano-topics as the best way to unbend knitting needles or scour a soiled hubcap. Why such subjects? There is an algorithm for that: Simply mine billions of search results, match keyword results to ad-adjacency rates, then cross-ruff the likeliest terms with their search rankings and assign the result to reporters ($15 per piece), videographers ($20), a copy editor ($2.50) and a fact-checker ($1). Demand Media publishes 4,000 articles and video clips every day. Their goal for next year is a million a month.

Demand Media started out doing its work the usual way, but its editors lost their jobs when it was discovered that the algorithm could do all the assigning while delivering almost five times the revenue and 20 times the profit. Presto: “You can take something that is thought of as a creative process,” the algorithm’s inventor told Wired, “and turn it into a manufacturing process.”

A New Social Disease

What we have here may be the early symptoms of a new social disease—call it algorithmia—in which the magic of literally unthinkable, computer-enabled mathematics can mesmerize the culture, just as it dazzled the best minds of Wall Street and nearly took down the U.S. economy.

The Internet’s principle effect on commerce has been disintermediation, a fittingly clinical term for cutting out the middle of the supply chain between producer and consumer.  But the holy algorithms of Web 2.0 enable an even more fateful and ugly disruption: the disintermediation of content and meaning.

We can comfort ourselves with the thought that more people are reading more “news” than ever before, but in fact most real news is still being reported by our increasingly enfeebled newspapers, and our common wealth of information is declining as their staffs do. What has really increased is dissemination and opinion, a lot of reheated rephrasings meant to thicken the aggregatorial stew.

It is difficult to see the way from here to a more humane digital world, but it is not hard to see some aspects of the business model that will get us there: It will place the power of granting significance back into human hands, reward the pursuit of truth and beauty and put digits to the work of hearts and minds.

Mar. 8 2010 — 6:31 pm | 132 views | 0 recommendations | 0 comments

CMSWire Interview: How StoryRiver Media Aims to Reinvent Web Publishing

Below is a preview of an interview I gave to CMSWire about how my new digital publishing business – StoryRiver Media – is attempting to reinvent the process of Web and digital publishing and what consumers and the media industry think of as digital content. For the rest of the interview, click HERE

A New Model Aims to Reinvent Web Publishing

When we last spoke with Jim Gaines, we talked about the future of digital publishing. Recently we had the opportunity to catch up with Gaines again. This time, he had a story to tell.

Traveling Down StoryRiver

Gaines has left FLYP Media, where he was the editor-in-chief, to take on a new adventure. He is the driving force behind StoryRiver Media, a company with a transformational web publishing model that aims to combine all possible media — including video, audio, information graphics, motion graphics, animation and text — into a single, seamless experience.

// //

By creating device- and platform-agnostic multimedia content across all publishing genres, StoryRiver, which is slated to launch in April, hopes to advance the art of digital storytelling. Integrating media to create a dynamic and collaborative web-based masterpiece can benefit all types of organizations as they look to make their stories come alive online.

From higher education to government agencies to corporations, stories are at the root of their client communications, whether they know it or not. By being able to provide a cinematic look and feel, or a soundtrack designed to add perspective, Gaines is confident that he can help businesses seduce users through a digital narrative.

Mar. 1 2010 — 5:12 pm | 126 views | 0 recommendations | 4 comments

Starting a New Publishing Business—A Transformative Time in Life

The following post appeared as a guest editorial in the March 2010 issue of FOLIO: magazine.

A new biography of Henry Luce recounts how hard it was for him to raise funding for what, in 1922, was still called Fact, “the weekly newspaper.” “It’s an awful strain on the nerves,” he wrote, “because one has to believe and believe and believe.”

This is a test that mere proprietors never have to face. When I took over as managing editor of TIME in 1992, the founder’s belief was no longer necessary, having 70 years’ confirmation behind it. The TIME staff executed Luce’s vision without the slightest thought that it was once only a theory and an ambition rather than a magazine, and without the slightest fear that it could fail.

Having recently started StoryRiver Media, a multimedia publishing company, I know now just how stark the difference is between steward and entrepreneur. On a good day, it seems like the difference between warm and cold. On a bad day, it’s the difference between being a vampire and being the victim of one.

New Models Emerging

Entrepreneurial journalism” is the hot new phrase, but let’s be clear: It is a term mothered by dire necessity. The businesses that sustained journalists for so long are foundering, and new models must be devised for the world that engulfed them, which is to say the world of the Internet. That such models are needed is easy to postulate. It is another thing entirely to bet your time, life and fortune on one of them.

Which is why you have to admire Luce, who had barely placed his bet on TIME before he started Life and Fortune (not in that order). He started Fortune, the gorgeous, oversized business magazine, in 1930, as big a publishing gamble as ever was made. And maybe the second biggest gamble came a few years later with Life, a gorgeous, oversized general-interest magazine that was so successful that Luce nearly lost the company its shirt (he insisted on charging only a dime for it and locked in ad rates the first year at an enormous loss).

I am no Henry Luce, and my tiny startup is no Time Inc., but in a small way now I know his pain. Working over due-diligence spreadsheets that stretch from the heady but chimerical “Year One” into the almost wholly fabulous “Out Years” is about the bravest exercise I can imagine undertaking without a weapon. Quite apart from the matter of your own success and security is the responsibility for those you ask to come along as investors and employees. Then there is the matter of the work itself—will it be as good as your imagination tells you it can be? Can it really be as transformative as you think?

Yes and yes, always yes. No other answer is useful. When others occur, as from time to time they will, spouses can sometimes be a source of inspiration.

“You know, Karen,” I said to my wife while writing this column, “they say startups are always 10 times harder than you expect. I don’t know if I can work 10 times harder than this.”

“Who are you kidding,” she snarled.

In my previous life, I did not need that kind of . . . support. When you go to a job you know how to do—a job that was created decades before, one that lots of people have done before you and for which you have spent years preparing—you do so without the sense that there is a future-shaped hole in your gut and soul. Every leadership role requires self-confidence, but starting your own business demands something more like religious faith—not a belief in God as some kind of Gorilla-Backer in the Sky, but a deep sort of trust in the acuity of your vision.

Mine tells me that we are at a tipping point for media, one as fundamental as the migration from manuscript to print. The broadband Internet is not a new distribution channel for print but a new medium, one as distinct in its capabilities as radio, television, film or ink-on-paper.

Journalism will be changed in this new medium, but story-telling has lost none of its power in any of the media transitions since humans began painting on the walls of caves. The story is still as compelling and as riveting as fire, and the digital tools available to story-tellers today are more potent than ever before.

That at least is my story, and I’m sticking to it. You just have to believe, and believe, and believe.

Feb. 8 2010 — 10:53 am | 54 views | 0 recommendations | 0 comments

FOLIO: Editorial: Staying Clear with Your Publishing Mission in a Transformative Digital Age

The following post appeared as a guest editorial in the February  2010 issue of FOLIO: magazine.

For all the shiny new toys on display at last month’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas—from apps for everything, to TV everywhere, to e-readers that make breakfast—the scene was stolen by the one that wasn’t there: Apple’s breathlessly anticipated whatchamacallit. By the time you read this, it should have a name, the anticlimax will have passed and we will be on with life, which is a good thing. There is a lot of work to do.

All that speculation was actually never really about the device: It was a symptom of general media upheaval, which has been especially acute in publishing. All the new devices provide hard evidence that was once just a vague possibility and has now become manifest destiny for publishers: the obsolescence of an old model—requiring an elaborately manufactured product to be carried by truckers to newsstands and postal workers to mailboxes—in favor of a more elegant and environmentally-friendlier form of composed communication that is more robust in every way than the one Gutenberg built.

Most Likely To Succeed

We don’t know much yet about what digital broadband publications will look like, or even what functions they will serve. The one certainty about early prototypes from Time Inc. and Conde Nast is that they will be quickly dated. Major publishers will very likely be the last to exploit the full potential of broadband multimedia “publications,” focused as they must be on their core businesses. Large property holders do not make good revolutionaries.

More likely to succeed as pioneers in this new frontier are future journalism and multimedia stars now in high school or j-school. The next Henry Luce is probably in his bedroom playing World of Warcraft right now.

Second most likely are publishers whose brands are at the brink of extinction already, victims more of recession than systemic change. Nothing focuses the mind quite like the threat of dispossession.

Of these, the titles most likely to succeed at the print-to-digital migration are those with clear editorial missions. In this respect, Gourmet, Vibe and Southern Accents come to mind as last year’s most unworthy deaths—and as object lessons for brands on the brink.

All three of these magazines had clear market positioning, loyal readers and remnant, if not robust, ad franchises. Take away the cost of paper, ink and distribution, add the vibrancy of video, audio, information graphics, animation and reader collaboration, and think about the changes that were possible: Southern Accents interiors come to life with virtual tours, Gourmet’s recipes are prepared before your eyes, Vibe goes live with the music itself (click to buy), readers enter into a back-and-forth with their ever-more-favorite “magazines” in real time, and advertising in their “pages” is transformed from passive still-life into an engagement with sight, sound and motion. The brand delivers more to readers and to advertisers: What’s not to like?

Don’t Swap Service for Bells and Whistles

This virtuous cycle only works, however, when the mission for the existing brand does not change, and when multimedia technologies and broadband delivery serve that mission clearly and directly. Before attempting the print-to-digital migration, nothing is more important than understanding precisely what that mission is, at its most basic level, to the publication’s most avid customers.

Publications whose mission is less than entirely clear are likely to confuse their readers and themselves as they attempt such a transition. General-interest titles in particular are going to have a tough time pulling it off, and if “cool” or “hip” have any place in the mission, watch out: Nothing says the opposite like geolocational and augmented-reality hijinx undertaken just to be edgy, as we have already seen.

It’s a curious irony of this new world that it may just make those publishers lucky enough to have special-interest publications more likely to “stick to their knitting,” as one of my favorite bosses used to say. As transformative as publishing technology may become, the new forms of communication it makes possible must still be yoked to the real needs and practical desires of customers. Those who will succeed in deploying that new technology will be those who listen to those needs and desires, not to bells and whistles.

Jan. 11 2010 — 1:34 pm | 52 views | 0 recommendations | 0 comments

CMSWire Interview: Importance of Experimentation in Digital Publishing

Below is a preview of an interview I gave to CMSWire about experimentation in digital publishing and the future of digital media–one of my truly great passions. For the rest of the interview, click HERE

Interview: Jim Gaines on Experimentation in Digital Publishing

FLYP is more than a magazine. Its dynamic, interactive insights about American and world culture engage users through a variety of text, video, audio and animation and have proven to be a journalistic endeavor that turns news and information into a multimedia experience.

FLYP has been described as Life Magazine for the Web 2.0 era so it’s only fitting that Jim Gaines, former managing editor of People, Time and Life magazines is editor-in-chief. A veteran news journalist, Gaines is committed to multimedia initiatives and advocates for experimentation and change within the digital publishing landscape.

We had the opportunity to talk with Mr. Gaines about the future of digital publishing. He shared many insights about how the web publishing industry can best position themselves in the New Year and what he considers to be important in the years ahead.

To read the rest of this article, click HERE.

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    About Me

    I'm a refugee from MSM (former editor of Time, Life and People magazines) and founder of StoryRiver Media Inc., where I'm working on the print-to-digital migration--meaning not "repurposing" content for a new distribution channel but the fundamental transformation and reimagination of story-telling and publishing, incorporating video, audio, animation, full-motion infographics, and all the other media, hardware and software platforms, and design techniques that the Internet can support.

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    Contributor Since: September 2009
    Location:Washington, D.C.

    What I'm Up To

    In a word…

    I’m the editor-in-chief and founder of StoryRiver Media, a digital and multimedia publishing company that creates device- and platform-agnostic multimedia content for a variety of public and private companies across all publishing genres. StoryRiver Media develops vibrant and dynamic multimedia content for companies that helps expand their brand and reputation at the leading edge of the crafts and arts of digital story-telling. The company also creates products that achieve new educational and persuasive power through the deployment of all possible media, in whatever combination is best suited to the scope and purpose of the material at hand.

    Prior to founding StoryRiver Media, I was the editor-in-chief at FLYP, an online multimedia publication. This position came after a 30-year career in print, during which I was the managing editor of  TimeLife, and People magazines. At each of them, I established several new online and multimedia ventures, including a television show and books program at People; network specials and custom publishing at Life; and at Time a classroom edition and Time.com, the first newsmagazine online.