Jeff Jarvis has an interesting post (amplifying this Daily News feature by David Hinckley) talking about the future of Howard Stern once his Sirius contract expires. Talking with Hinckley, folks in the radio trades bounce around the idea (among others) that Stern could start his own radio station on the Internet, giving him total freedom and the chance to keep a lot of the money he’d otherwise give away to whomever distributes him. It’s a possibility that Jarvis further explores through some back-of-the-envelope calculations: Extrapolating from measurements of his impact on satellite radio, Jarvis suggests that if Stern charged just $1 a month, he could bring in at least $42 million a month, with no need for a distribution network or marketing, minus the costs of staff and bandwidth. So why not?
The opportunities afforded by digital distribution are absolutely real, of course, as a planet full of bloggers and an industry full of very worried newspaper owners can tell you. And there are reasons to think Stern might actually try this — Jarvis notes that he’s a control freak, and the people Hinckley talk to note that he’s become more interested in freedom than whatever relevance he might lose.
But there are reasons to think he won’t, too.
The idea of some artist going digital and doing away with the traditional middlemen and their distribution networks is an enticing one, a development that’s imagined as a singular event that would encourage innumerable other content creators’ efforts to bypass publishers and record labels and radio networks and go it alone, too. But we’ve been waiting for years for a superstar to do this, and by now I’m not sure that singular event will ever occur — or that it will matter when it finally does.
One reason it hasn’t happened begins with the fact that the artists who are big enough to provide that singular event are the ones who need it least — they’re already big names being served pretty well, all things considered, by the traditional ways of doing things. And because of that, such artists have enormous bargaining power: It’s in the interests of the middlemen who would be eliminated to pay them handsomely to stay the course.
Stephen King could go it alone — and in fact he experimented with that back in 2000, releasing his novel “The Plant” in pieces on his own Web site. But King hasn’t gone it alone — he’s exceptionally well-paid by Simon & Schuster. (And “The Plant” remains unfinished.)
After the end of their contract with EMI, Radiohead released “In Rainbows” as a digital download through the band’s own Web site in late 2007. Talking to Time magazine about the move, lead singer Thom Yorke said that “I like the people at our record company, but the time is at hand when you have to ask why anyone needs one. And, yes, it probably would give us some perverse pleasure to say ‘F— you’ to this decaying business model.” That prompted a soon-to-be-famous quote from an A&R guy at a European label: “If the best band in the world doesn’t want a part of us, I’m not sure what’s left for this business.” But Radiohead didn’t make a clean break with that decaying business model: The CD of “In Rainbows” was released through a number of traditional record labels.
I’m sure Radiohead did very well in those deals, just as I’m sure I’d like to get Stephen King’s advances. Could J.K. Rowling distribute her own e-books and print-on-demand novels? Undoubtedly — just as, say, Bruce Springsteen could go it alone with digital downloads. But some established middleman will pay Rowling or Springsteen enormously well not to do that — just as I’m sure some terrestrial radio station will soon offer to write Stern a very large check.
And there’s another factor here: King, Rowling and Springsteen would probably rather spend their time writing books and music than managing a whole bunch of people and worrying (directly or indirectly) about servers and e-commerce. Granted, artists at that level are already semi-corporations, employing a number of people. But going it alone would make their staffs that much bigger and their management headaches that much larger.
Stern’s desire for control and freedom may make him an exception. But what’s more likely to happen, I think, is that artists further down the food chain will be the ones to go it alone. Back in 2005, I wrote about an experiment by the band Harvey Danger (which had one big hit, 1998’s “Flagpole Sitta”) that was very much like Radiohead’s. Harvey Danger had no label and didn’t particularly want one — they saw themselves as big enough to be able to connect with fans on their own and make a decent living touring and selling CDs. But note that their ambitions were comparatively small — and while they were no Radiohead, they still had the kind of name recognition most bands would kill for.
This isn’t to argue against digital distribution’s ability to level playing fields and offer alternatives. There are plenty of artists that could follow Harvey Danger’s lead — as there will be artists that bootstrap themselves from unknowns to next big things with a go-it-alone, digital-only strategy. (Bands like Fall Out Boy and writers like Christopher Paolini have already done that, in fact.) Eventually, I’m sure, one such artist will reject the big deal offered by a label or a publisher, and keep riding DIY distribution to superstardom. But it won’t be an established superstar. And because of that, we won’t ever have that singular event. Which, ultimately, won’t matter — the world will change anyway.
I’ll be on vacation until Tuesday, Sept. 8, so apologies if posts are sparse.
No, says Josh Tyrangiel, Time.com’s managing editor, telling Beet.tv in this short video interview that “long-form journalism online, much as I wish it were thriving, is not.”
Yes, says Gerald Marzorati, editor of the New York Times Magazine, telling Times readers that “contrary to conventional wisdom, it’s our longest pieces that attract the most online traffic.”
The two very different answers were noted by Jim Romenesko yesterday. So which is it?
I’m sure both men are correct. But then they’re serving very different audiences.
Tyrangiel says Time.com’s goal “is to make people smarter by saving them time,” and his portrait of a Web reader is someone at work between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., looking for the news with lunch on the desk, the boss at the door and the voice-mail light blinking on the phone.
Tyrangiel is obviously zeroed in on serving that reader, as he should be, which makes his statements sound a touch absolutist. For that kind of reader, of course longer-form stories like the ones in the print version of Time aren’t going to do well. But this isn’t the only kind of reader, and the same reader may act differently in the middle of the workday than he or she does at other times. Marzorati’s readers are more likely to be reading on Friday night or the weekend, and unlike Time.com, the Times magazine isn’t radically different online than it is in print. Marzorati’s readers are more likely to know what they’re getting, and to want and even expect stories they can engage with over a longer period of time.
So — as is so often the case on the Web — the answer is that different parts of the audience want different things, and a publisher may well wind up having to serve everybody.
This is a pretty brief post so far; were I to heed Tyrangiel’s warning, I’d quit right here. But having a weakness for goat-chokers myself, I’ll add a couple of caveats.
First off, I suspect the real question about long-form journalism isn’t whether it works online or not, but to ask how often it works at all. This isn’t to dismiss the form, but to note simply (if a bit cynically) that many more people will read a lousy 4oo-word story than a lousy 4,000-word one.
The best long-form journalism kills in any medium — witness this Tommy Craggs takedown of Luddite baseball announcer Joe Morgan, this Michael Lewis look back at the financial meltdown, or this Nick Kristof and Sarah WuDunn cri de coeur about women’s rights, from last week’s Times magazine. (I read it online, by the way.) But the best long-form journalism is very hard to do, and correspondingly rare.
On the other hand, it’s also very valuable. Good long-form journalism offers online publications a crucial competitive advantage: It’s very hard or impossible to copy. In a world awash in commoditized news, this is a big selling point, which is one reason I have faith that long-form journalism will be more important to Web publishers a couple of years from now than it is today.
But long-form journalism isn’t easy, and it will always be risky. Tyrangiel is absolutely right to observe that “online, you can be anywhere, anytime” — let the reader’s attention wander and they’re off somewhere else, never to return. And the reader has to know what he or she is getting into.
Therein lies a cautionary tale. Years ago (as the story was told to me), a reporter was sitting in the airport and realized a man sitting nearby had started reading the reporter’s very ambitious, in-depth front-page story. The reporter leaned in unobserved, and watched in fascination as the man took in each paragraph on the front page. The reader was enthralled, he realized — he sat bolt upright and even began saying things like “wow” under his breath. Turn to the jump, the reporter thought. Don’t read the rest of the front page. Turn to the jump.
To the reporter’s delight, the man did just that — only to be confronted by the rest of the story, which took up a full double-truck. He looked paralyzed for a moment, exclaimed “Oh, shit!” — and closed the paper. Want to see the same effect online? Watch what happens when an unwary reader scrolls to the bottom of a first screen and sees 2 3 4 5 6 7 all hyperlinked.
Over at Poynter, Matt Thompson has some interesting thoughts (slightly changed from an earlier appearance at Newsless.org) about the traditional news story and how it fails readers. Thompson argues, using the current health-care furor as his example, that a news story has four key parts: what just happened; the longstanding facts; how journalists know what they know; and the things we don’t know. Unfortunately, most stories appearing in the paper leave out the last three key parts, or stuff the longstanding facts into a single paragraph low in the story. All we get is the wildly spinning weather vane of what just happened.
It’s an approach that touches a lot of issues bubbling beneath the surface. From the perspective Thompson explores, for instance, you can easily see why speechifying and trial balloons and endless spin are so effective: With the underlying story rarely explored, different sides of an issue only have to win the day’s news cycle and keep the weather vane spinning.
So what are Thompson’s proposed solutions? For the question of how we know what we know, he offers up this excellent Atul Gawande story about health care from the New Yorker. Gawande, he notes, structures his story as a quest narrative: He begins the story looking for answers, and lets us follow along with him as he tries to find those answers from Texas doctors and health-care experts. It’s indeed a winning form, for a number of reasons. For one thing it’s transparent. Gawande doesn’t begin claiming to be an expert but gradually reveals his expertise and experiences — he’s a medical doctor himself, and he shares a frightening anecdote about an injury to his infant son that’s not entirely to his credit. The quest narrative also makes us root for him — we want to find out the answers too, so when Gawande runs across a plain-talking cardiac surgeon who helps make things clearer, we share his satisfaction. (On the subject of tackling what we don’t know, Thompson passes along a very fine explainer from Politifact, which neatly lays out what’s yet to be decided in the health-care debate.)
It’s an interesting discussion; my question is how newspapers can put some of the potential answers into practice. Background explainers, topic pages and the like are becoming increasingly common in newspapers, and when they’re done well — which is to say, written and curated by an actual human being — they can be quite effective. The New York Times is particularly good at this — here’s the Times’s topic page on health-care reform. I rarely run across good, clear-eyed explainers about what isn’t known, like the Politifact article, and agree they’d be terrific additions to news coverage. (Martin Langeveld has explored similar territory in calling for a “content cascade” of news.)
But how do we integrate these things with the ephemeral news of the day? In my early days at WSJ.com, I specialized in rewrites of breaking news to add context drawn from the Journal archives — an attempt to address the problem Thompson explores. (Or at least part of it.) But I’m not sure how successful my lovingly detailed rewrites were — they tended to turn every story into a wannabe goat-choker. The Times’s topic page is quite good, but just try and reach it from this health-care story. (Go on. I double-dog dare you.) Topic pages, explainers, wikis and content cascades are excellent tools that could put ephemeral news stories into a larger context, but they won’t work if they’re afterthoughts in the presentation of a story, only reached by the lucky few who find the correct link in a sea of blue type. For me, the key point here is the need to experiment with new ways to use basic news stories to drive readers to the larger narratives that give them more-useful information.
And, of course, not every news story can be a quest narrative: Gawande’s Texas adventures are compelling, but your City Council reporter doesn’t have the time or space for a quest narrative, and readers would probably want to kill him if he tried it. I think the lesson here is to let reporters and writers be real people. Let readers see them through video and hear them through podcasts. Have them interact with readers through discussions and social media. Get them to offer further expertise and background through beatblogging. Be transparent and real, and perhaps their larger beats can become quest narratives, with the reader along for the ride.
At Poynter, Patrick Thornton’s advice on making comments better while showing trolls, racists and other ne’er-do-wells the virtual door should be required reading for digital journalists. For the most part, it’s simple, practical advice: Engage with commenters, elevate good comments in roundup posts, and hit the unredeemable with the ban hammer. And the one bit of advice that would require some back-end work — verifying users — is well worth considering.
One of the things I like best about the baseball blog I co-write is our roster of well-informed, thoughtful and witty commenters — often when I write a post I find myself wondering how Joe D. or CharlieH or KingmanFan or one of the many other Faith and Fear in Flushing readers will have to say. How did Greg Prince and I create that community? Mostly it created itself — we wrote stuff people liked day in and day out, and those people gave us a huge compliment by making our site part of their daily habits. But we also did some of the things Thornton advises: We joined the conversation and responded to comments on posts, and we had zero tolerance for trolling and commenters going after each other personally. (If we delete a comment, we explain why, in hopes that a commenter who’s new or had a bad day will understand and try again. We’ve never had to ban anybody.)
The result is a rich conversation and loyal readers. Readers appreciate a certain amount of protection: Everybody (even trolls) wants to see if their comment caused somebody to respond, but nobody (except trolls) likes to see a conversation go off the rails, with sniping and back-biting drowning out any attempt at an interesting discussion. Protect the conversation by kicking out the uncivil and you’ll eventually see something wonderful happen: Your commenters will defend your site against abusers and vandals as vigorously as you would, if not more so.
Still, I’m careful with the self-congratulations. Faith and Fear is a relatively small community, and scaling up personal moderation, promotion of comments and other good commenting habits is difficult. As Thornton notes, columnists should moderate their own work — it’s in their own best interests and should be a baseline part of the job — but I sympathize with reporters whose stories may hit a nerve and explode with comments.
That’s my one (mild) reservation about Thornton’s advice: It may not scale for big sites.
Big sites need not only best practices but also technological help, and figuring out the right mix is something I’ve been playing with for some time at EidosMedia. (Our editing-and-publishing systems include comment-moderation tools.) As is the case so often with the Web, I think the first answer is to give the tools to the commenters themselves:
- Let users give comments a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down. Sure, some people will vote up everyone who agrees with them and vote down everyone who doesn’t. But that will average out, with trolls and blowhards voted disproportionately down. Fade or hide comments below a certain threshold, giving a site de facto moderation without resource headaches.
- Let users “ignore” other users, so their comments are replaced (for that user only) by a simple **You are ignoring this user.** I use this regularly on troll-heavy discussion boards I frequent, and it’s really satisfying.
To that, add some tools and practices for moderators and site administrators, giving you a number of ways to keep undesirables in line:
- An excellent tip from Placeblogger CEO Lisa Williams: Moderate new users’ first 10 comments. Trolls and haters are mostly people with poor impulse control, and few will be able to summon up the patience to leave 10 reasonable comments and then let rip. I bet doing this would eliminate about 90% of most big sites’ comment troubles.
- “Disemvoweling” a comment lets trolls and tinfoil-hatters rage on, with only consonants displayed. I’ve heard the result described as like reading something said by someone who’s inhaled helium from a balloon — it emasculates hate speech, leaving the hater squeaking away in a vaguely comical fashion. You probably don’t need this if users are voting and new users are vetted using Williams’ rule, but it’s an effective option.
- “Bozo filters” let the user keep posting, but he or she is the only one who sees the comment. Again, this might not be needed if you’re using the above techniques, but it’s a good alternative to the ban hammer in that trolls and troublemakers may not know they’ve been banned and seek to creep in another way. Plus there’s something wonderfully satisfying about it, isn’t there?
To all this, one more thought. Yes, comments promote a two-way flow of information between writers and readers, and that’s great. But seen from a slight remove, the health of a comments section is another way of measuring reader engagement. An active commenter has made your site a habit, and that’s what we all want. Habitual readers are different from drive-by readers coming in to a single article via search or sharing. They’re the readers you can tailor ads to, upsell to premium products or convert to subscriptions.
Voting buttons for comments are a form of moderation, but they also give readers something to play with. The same goes for ignoring users, and a host of other things you can do related to comments. Let readers see their number of posts, and give them visual rankings they can aspire to. Let them follow other users, direct-message them and fill out mini-profiles — tools borrowed from social networking. To spur engagement, do everything you can to foster a sense of play alongside good conversation.