News needs to go Netflix

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The way we buy news is a ridiculous bundling mess. The news needs to go Netflix.

I don’t buy weekday newspapers now, that change happened years ago, because no one newspaper is going to have all the news I want to read. Simple fact. Buying one paper means a lot of redundancy. Take Thursday. There was an article by David Aaronovitch in yesterday’s Times which I wanted to read. Tweets suggested that it eviscerated Ed Miliband over his Syria reaction, and it sounded like it was a surgical piece of assassination prose. (Being honest, you could piece it together from all the online analysis within hours of publication.)

I wanted to read Aaronovitch’s column, but not enough to go and buy a copy of the newspaper – largely because I didn’t want to read the rest of the paper. Buying a paper is a waste of time and money if you’re only seeking out one article. It’s a really inefficient bundling of goods for the reader. If you went to a supermarket for one item, but were forced to pay for a bundle of 20 assorted random items to get it – would you? Of course not.

As Ben says, though, newspapers have struggle with pricing models. The bundle is king, he says. I’m not so sure. I think matching your content to your customers’ behaviours is more important (I’ve written about it here and here).

Let’s look at Netflix. It hosts hundreds of shows and films, which would effectively be competing inefficiently for attention, were they shown across numerous disaggregated channels in fixed time slots on traditional TV. Hugely inefficient for the provider, who are taking an educated guess at when best to hit the audience, and do it in one shot. It’s worse for the audience, who have to bind themselves to time-slots if they want to see their favourite content as it gets released.

Netflix lets the provider empower viewers to fill their available time in a way that suits them. Got five hours’ to spare? Binge away on one series, episode after episode (no week-long gaps). Want to watch your content in 15-minute snippets? That’s fine too, it’ll re-start where you left off. (Be honest, have you ever snuk a sneaky five minutes of Breaking Bad while on the loo?) Want to mix original movies with ShowTime series with AMC with some classics? Go for it. Kevin Spacey gets it. Allow the user take control.

Take a cohort of 40 shows on standard cable. Let’s say that three of the 40 interest me, and they happen to overlap, time-wise, or be on three different channels, one of which would require a subscription I don’t currently pay for. Unless the rest of that channel matches what I’m interested in, it’s unlikely I’ll shell out for it on the basis of one show.

The same goes for news articles. If you think of the David Aaronovitch article as a TV show, and The Times as that channel I don’t subscribe to – I’m not going to buy the entire channel for the single show. I lose out on access, the newspaper loses out on revenue.

But if there was a Netflix approach, where newspapers pooled content and I could pay a all-in fee, without having to commit to one single outlet, I’d pay for that. (Kind of like Oyster is trying to do for books)

Maybe, in an inarticulate fashion, it’s the kind of bundle that Jeff Bezos was talking about at the WaPo, and which he could use his infrastructure to bring about. It’s not a direct translation of the model, however, because news organisations compete with each other in a different way than TV shows. TV shows are not competing on the basis of first-past-the-post with the facts, they’re not racing each other to explain a topic. They’re vying for a slice of the audience’s valuable time, but not with barely-differentiated content, as news orgs do.

Pooling news content (or a differentiating portion thereof) in a Netflix/Spotify-style system, with subscribers paying monthly for unlimited access, would require a critical mass of providers joining up, and would mean figuring out new criteria for selecting the portion of content for ringfencing. Perhaps, once an article starts to trend, administrators flick a switch to push it behind the Netflix-style paywall, thus motivating the reader to sign up for that nominal monthly fee.

Until that comes to pass, until the media orgs make it easy for me to pay in a way that gives me convenient access to the content I want, when I want it, I’ll continue to do what I do now. I won’t buy any newspapers during the week when my time is precious. I’ll buy perhaps two or three papers at the weekend when I have time to browse through a bundle. And I’ll continue mainlining the available content as it suits me, with no-one getting any revenue benefit from that media-hungry behaviour.

Edit: Sept 10, 08.30am – adding a few of the online responses here…



Why journalists need to think like fighter pilots

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Journalism and America’s airborne military might have more in common than you might think, but not in the sinister, stealthy, death-from-above way. It’s a state of mind thing.

The shift that’s happening in how newsrooms have to think is redolent of changes that revolutionised air combat in the 1960s. A virtuoso fighter pilot called John Boyd walked away from the war in Korea and set about redefining air combat, starting with pilots’ thought processes. He knew that if could enable fighter pilots to streamline their decision-making processes in the air, and make quicker decisions on how to manoeuvre, they would less likely to be beaten in a dogfight. His theories, the OODA loop concept in particular, shaped the design of the F-16, and redefined how aerial combat was viewed. His thinking about thinking also trickled into the world of business, forming the basis for the ‘lean startup’ movement, in which the loop is not about a tactical combat manoeuvre, rather about product iteration, and rapid reorientation/iteration of product. (Read this great piece on John Boyd’s tactical thought for more).

Boyd’s thinking boils down to this: Agility, the ability to think and change direction fast, is prized above all else. Speed in a straight line is only good in a drag race, to win in an ever-changing environment, you must be able to parse all the information from your surroundings in an instant, and be free enough to act on them.

That’s a good way to sum up both the daily news cycle, and the broader changes journalism is going through right now. As journalists (and as media consumers, in many cases) we’re all exposed to greater torrents of fast-moving information than ever before – it’s as if our plane has sped up dramatically. Journalists need to rapidly identify the important and accurate signals from that torrent. If you’re in the business of making, reacting to or explaining the news, you need to organise the incoming information in a way you can sift effectively, be agile enough to shift your direction, and free enough to readjust at the same pace as the news. And, of course, all the old standards still apply too. Accuracy, legal obligations, grammar, tone – these remain crucial. On the slower scale, newsrooms need to be looking around to re-orient and innovate as new platforms emerge, as new routes to the reader gain traction.

What’s responsible for the change in pace? Speed of publishing, largely. Better tech. News consumption behaviours. And, of course, social media. There is no going back, either, so journalists need to do what John Boyd did, and

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rethink how their teams think. Newsrooms need processes with foster that fighter-pilot agility of thought, which make room for innovation, and they need people for whom coping with fast news is a matter of muscle memory. When the AP Twitter account was compromised in April, the teams who had people with that internal muscle memory avoided a very public news facepalm. The ones who got it (the selection pictured) are the kind of people newsrooms need to be hiring more of. They combine speedy social media nous with old-school news skills: a mix of skepticism, curiosity, a willingness to pick at something persistently, and the experience to to know when to slow the news process down at times.

That’s right – sometimes they might have to SLOW THE NEWS PROCESS DOWN. Boyd’s thinking, remember, developed the F-16. Not the fastest fighter in the sky, by a long shot, but the most nimble. In Top Gun fighter pilot terms, slowing the news down is like when Maverick tactically hits the brakes and watches the Ruskis fly right past into a position of weakness. It’s so crazy, it actually works.

How you hire these people, and where you put them, can prove tricky. Why would you label someone a social media editor any more? (Will Bloomberg & Reuters reinstate social media editors after being left without?). It could be argued that ‘social media editor’ is an anachronistic title already. Social is simply an integral part of what you do now as a journalist. If you’re hiring someone with special responsibility for social, they should be rolling it out to the entire team and then rejoining the newsgathering and news innovation at the core of the team. Social is now how you source, how you define the news agenda of the day. Your social graph is now your little black book – it’s what lets me ping that guy who can verify a pic from Tripoli airport in Libya, or how I can find out that the Taliban have been issuing statements about pink balloons. Social is also what makes news interactive and will be an integral part of any innovation in news delivery. If you’re not prioritising it, you’re not operating at full capacity. You’re that person who rang in the year 2000, still refusing to use email and demanding people fax you.

Stop being an luddite. Start being a fighter pilot.

Should the C-suite learn to tweet?

CEOs of big, successful corporations largely don’t tweet. Fact. And that’s probably not going to change. Anyone who tells you that they should be active and public on social media probably has a vested interest in them doing so.

Does that mean that CEOs and senior execs shouldn’t understand the medium and what it offers? Hell no – McKinsey’s report on the social economy brings big-buck, bottom-line evidence to the table, showing that companies can unlock billions of dollars in value & productivity from effective use of social media, both internally and externally. But actively using social platforms, responding to it, scanning it constantly – that’s something a CEO or senior executive could probably do without.

Advocates of social media have taken a crowbar to the boardroom door of late to see if they can smuggle social media into the C-suite, armed with reports and opinion pieces all bent out of shape to show the world’s most successful businesspeople why they should use social media personally. An article by Ryan Holmes (headlined ‘The $1.3trillion price of not tweeting at work‘ – headline may not be his) bemoans the fact that of the Fortune 500 CEOs, only 20 (sic. – it’s 19) are on Twitter. Of those, nine are ‘active’ – i.e. have tweeted in the last 100 days. The article leans heavily on (but skims only a few tidbits from) that deep, analytical report from McKinsey which outlines untapped billions of value that could flow from the ‘social economy’.

Holmes says that the boardroom doesn’t want to know about social media:

As social media spreads around the globe, one enclave has proven stubbornly resistant: the boardroom. Within the C-suite, perceptions remain that social media is at best a soft PR tool and at worst a time sink for already distracted employees.

Maybe. Do they need to? Also maybe. The McKinsey report figures suggest that 53% of senior executives, at the level of vice-president or above, are using web 2.0 tech. In another McKinsey survey of executives at 4,200 companies around the world, 70% said that they were using social technology in some ways and 90% of those said they were seeing some degree of business benefits.

The management team is on board, and the benefits are likely to be rolled out through their teams and entire companies, so why are we still cribbing that the very tippy top of companies aren’t tweeting madly? Is it just that high-performing top-tier execs don’t use social tech in the platform-promoting way that the social tech world would like them to use it?

Granted, personal Facebook & Twitter use is low among Fortune 500 CEOs. Just 3.8% of them are on Twitter, a tiny sliver when compared to the 34% of Americans who use the platform. But then, that 34% of Americans aren’t running the world’s most successful businesses. Another ‘social CEO’ survey in said ‘CEOs lagged far behind the general population in terms of social media participation’. But then, the general population lag far behind CEOs in terms of career progression, don’t they? So why worry?

What the figures for CEO Twitter usage may also fail to take into account is that any CEO who guards his or her valuable time would arguably be best served by ‘lurking‘ on social media platforms rather than actively engaging. Could it be that @SlickLover45 is actually the CEO of ExxonMobil, the world’s second-largest company, just hanging out on Twitter, silently watching and absorbing during thin slivers of available time? When one’s time is so valuable, how that time is used becomes increasingly important, and the most effective CEOs are often the ones who manage their time best. To this end they have PAs, secretaries and team leads who redirect low-level distraction away from the chief. Focus is everything.

Adam Brault is not a Fortune 500 exec, but is the founder of a software company &yet, and he gave up Twitter for November 2012 to take time out and reappraise his relationship with the platform. The key takeaway from his time off? The value of uninterrupted thought.

I used to believe that time was the most important thing I have, but I’ve come to believe differently. The single most valuable resource I have is uninterrupted thought. That’s how everything I’ve ever felt was meaningful about my entire life came to be—either people I’ve come to know, things I’ve learned, or stuff I’ve created.

I’ve realized how Twitter has made me break up my thoughts into tiny, incomplete, pieces—lots of hanging ideas, lots of incomplete relationships, punctuated by all manner of hanging threads and half-forked paths … I’ve found that my greatest joy, deepest peace, and most valuable contributions come from intentionally choosing where to let my focus rest.

Don’t think that Brault is a good enough example, when we’re talking about bigshot executives? Fine, but it’s a mode of thought put forward by former Paypal CEO Peter Thiel, who advocated ‘extreme focus’ when he was the boss there:

Thiel developed an unorthodox, extreme philosophy on focus and prioritization. Instead of focusing on five things, or three things, the magic number is one. You only focus on one singular thing. As PayPal executive Keith Rabois recalls, Thiel “would refuse to discuss virtually anything else with you except what was currently assigned as your #1 initiative.”

Jack Dorsey, former Twitter boss and CEO at Square, breaks his week into focused days, with each day taking a particular theme.
Naturally, he and current Twitter CEO Dick Costolo are both on Twitter. Twitter, however, isn’t in the Fortune 500. Yet.

While they largely shun Twitter, CEOs are above-average users of LinkedIn, the global professional network, with 129 of the Fortune 500 bosses boasting active LinkedIn profiles – 25.9% of Fortune500 CEOs, compared to just 20.2% of the general population. Making and maintaining a walled garden of valuable personal connections is seemingly of greater benefit to them – which would lend you to believe that if a CEO wanted to use Twitter, Facebook or Google+ and wanted to mimic the utility they saw from LinkedIn, they would be best served by a private, locked account. High-level executives do not, as a rule, crave the intrusion that comes with public profile. In a lengthy interview with Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook, he said that he couldn’t even identify the CEO of Exxon Mobil, who has a negligible profile in comparison with that of Steve Jobs’ high-profile successor. Exxon Mobil is number two in the Fortune 500. Would you suggest that the lack of a social media presence is impeding Rex Tillerson from doing his job effectively? Hardly. For some CEOs in some sectors, being in the public eye will be beneficial. For others, it’s counter-productive. There are plenty of CEOs who choose to be online, and visibly so. Others will shun it, personally, and yet run companies which have an effective and useful social media presence, and whose business development teams roll it into their research and outreach programmes.

Holmes again:

Without a push from the top, many of the biggest companies have been slow to take the social media plunge.

McKinsey again suggests otherwise. Their report showed 62% of Fortune 500 companies as active on Twitter. In fact, the same report says that only 31% of the Fortune 500 had no social media presence in 2011. In contrast to the perception, it’s the world of small business that is lagging behind. Only 31% of America’s SMEs were on social media in 2011.

One thing that Holmes, and McKinsey agree on is the value of social media to large companies. Ditching email in favour of social internal comms networks like Yammer, mining social media for data, customer insights , sales routes and feedback can deliver directly to the bottom line. Nielsen know it’s valuable. Harvard know it’s a source of competitive intelligence. The McKinsey report is a chunky one (160 pages before you hit the bibliography), and it’s worth reading in full. It avoids the pom-pom hyperbole and superficiality of many pseudo-surveys which offer paltry insight and serve as attention-getting PR cannon-fodder.

Of course, if as a CEO you’ve frittered away the time you’d spend reading an insightful report updating your status on social media, you can just read the executive summary.

Before signing off, here’s a real-world example of how having the fop floor office fully connected to the outside world is a double-edged sword. Dan Cobley, MD of Google in the UK & Ireland, racked up 411 comments on one post on his Google+ profile over the botched delivery of Google’s Nexus4 phone. It’s an example of how customers were able to give direct (and vehement) feedback directly to the top tier of management, but also an insight into how distracting that direct connection could be.  Is it the MD’s job to be dealing with customer dispatch gripes? Answers on a tweet.