…but I can sure make a tame woman wild”. After an evening in the splendid bars of Nashville’s HonkyTonk district, odd things float to the surface of a disorientated brain. I do not, for example, know if Ms Amanda Hocking can be categorized as a wild woman, but book publishers have made her mad and she is well on the way to getting even. More of that later. This note is intended as a three part meditation on Format, and those who live- and die- by it.

Lets start with Mr Murdoch’s shiny new The Daily, published for iPad. I caught up with it this week and whatever its qualities – and it has some – it is an attempt to create a newspaper in a format not intended for newspapers. “New Times calls for New Journalism” it stridently proclaims, so I invite you to glance at these extracts from Sunday’s editorial:

“…Here you will read reviews of books that matter. Pieces that explore religious faith. And history stories that illuminate where we come from.”
“You will also find The Daily’s own point of view. We will crusade for reforming America’s broken schools so that we can remain the world’s pre-eminent economic and technological power. We will fight for sensible immigration reform and smart environmental laws. We will push for policies that give Americans the maximum possible freedom in their personal lives. And we don’t believe that expanding government is the solution to most problems.”
“…We believe America is exceptional, and that it must retain its unique role as global leader.”

This sounds to me just like an old-fashioned newspaper claiming an audience in the old-fashioned way. Far from the global opportunity to allow readers to create what they want to hear, in threads that agglomerate into stories, Mr Murdoch’s people have taken what has failed already and reconstructed it digitally. Did they think that the fall in advertising was somehow unconnected to the formatted functionality of the newspaper? What if advertisers left because newspapers  no longer worked? They no longer influenced people or enlarged brands. What a pity no one at News seems to have studied social media at all (despite owning MySpace and running it into the ground). Because in social media you find people who do influence others, and guess what, they are people just like us.

So lets go over to www.Klout.com. This site measures that interest in influence which Mr Murdoch missed. It enables people to run campaigns by influencing key influencers – people whose following in tweets and social sites and blogs adds up to influence that affects opinions, and buying decisions. So maybe the newspaper of the future will be built not around “new journalism” but what opinion formers think is important. Only it won’t be called a newspaper. Here is what Klout (and it could equally well be its rival, PeerIndex) say to companies  about using this influence:

“Your business needs influencers. They’re already talking about your industry and maybe even your products. Find and engage these influencers and they can become evangelists for your brand. Klout allows you to find influencers based on topic or hashtag. Do you know the value of your customers? Historically lifetime value has been measured based on purchases, but with Klout you can understand their network value. People trust recommendation more than advertisements; Klout allows business to tap into that power.

Your Business should:

You can also connect directly with influencers through Klout Perks.”

So, in other words, you pay the influencers to favour you. Was this where your advertising went, Mr Murdoch? And then your publishing house. Harper Collins (and all its rivals, to be fair) rejected Ms Hocking and forced her to self-publish. Here USA Today takes up the story (http://www.usatoday.com/life/books/news/2011-02-09-ebooks09_ST_N.htm?utm_source=twitterfeed&utm_medium=twitter):

“Fed up with attempts to find a traditional publisher for her young-adult paranormal novels, Hocking self-published last March and began selling her novels on online bookstores like Amazon and Barnesandnoble.com.

By May she was selling hundreds; by June, thousands. She sold 164,000 books in 2010. Most were low-priced (99 cents to $2.99) digital downloads.

More astounding: This January she sold more than 450,000 copies of her nine titles. More than 99% were e-books.

“I can’t really say that I would have been more successful if I’d gone with a traditional publisher,” says Hocking, 26, who lives in Austin, Minn. “But I know this is working really well for me.”

In fact, Hocking is selling so well that on Thursday, the three titles in her Trylle Trilogy (Switched, Torn and Ascend, the latest) will make their debuts in the top 50 of USA TODAY’s Best-Selling Books list.

A recent survey shows 20 million people read e-books last year, and more self-published authors are taking advantage of the trend.

(Self-publishing is done without the involvement or vetting of an established publisher and uses a publishing system such as Lulu, Smashwords, Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing or Barnes & Noble’s PubIt! Many traditional media outlets do not review self-published books.)”

Ms Hocking got even rather than getting angry. But what she did should not happen in the regular media world. She should need big name publishers  to get her name about. Only Harper Collins could get her the shelf space, the book plugging session on a Fox TV show or the exposure to create national demand. But they didn’t and she didn’t need them. She used the influencing power of early readers to create a brand presence, and I bet that her readers don’t think they are reading a book as much as a thin strip of ever-changing exciting narrative. “Its an eBook – oh, you mean that used to be a book?”

I imagine with interest how my favourite book publisher will tackle this. After a great deal of flim-flam about quality control (did you ever hear a publisher say “this is badly written rubbish and though I know it will sell in millions I decline to publish”?) he will point to the price. We could never do anything at 99 cents, he will say. Funny, that. Mr Murdoch’s The Daily costs 99 cents – per week. Its a new business. Lets get used to it.

I am still rolling across America, in a journey last week from San Diego to New York (again) for the DeSilva+Phillips Media  Dealmakers Summit at the Pierre, and now on to Nashville, Tennessee. More below on the conference, but first back to a theme started in my blog “News not fit to Print”.  I am becoming obsessed with the science around automated story development, and now see it everywhere I look. And everywhere I look I see a Western culture obsessed with fact-based journalism. As in Europe, much of the core material in reportage is statistical. Today is SuperBowl Sunday and the stats are coming down like dandruff, but I already wrote about Statsheets in the previous article so lets not go there. Instead, I have a copy of the Tennessean for 6 February in front of me. Lets try that.

First off, this is a good newspaper and nothing I say is intended to denigrate it. But the urge to “factualize” is all over it. Front page headline reads “Teaching immigrants is a growing challenge”. Apparently 22% of Metro Nashville public school students now need to learn English as a second language, compared to 15% in 2005. The city has, in an annual student enrolment of 78,000, 10.692 whose first language is Spanish, 1749 Arabic, 999 Kurdish, and more more and more breakdowns until we reach the Burmese and Karens at 169 and Amharic speakers at 154. Think this is a naturally statistical story? Lets go to the local news section whose arresting headline is “Execution Drug Options Limited”. Here we learn that Tennessee has 86 inmates on death row but only enough drugs to execute 8 of them. The pre-fatal injection anesthetic sodium thiopental is not now made in the US, so State governments are having to use veterinary anesthetics or buy the drug covertly in Europe – a dealer based in a British driving school offices in London is intriguingly mentioned in this connection…

But I am getting carried away. The point is that the core “Facts” of the narrative in these stories is based on the figures, and that is where Narrative Science (http://www.narrativescience.com/) comes in. As I was writing my first story this company announced a $6 million funding round led by Battery Ventures. The company was founded by a group whose experience includes Google, Doubleclick, and computing and journalism at Northeastern at Evanston, Ill. Their idea is to take all those fact-based stories and turn the facts into computer-based narrative, create templates around their recurrence and generate a new story with each update. Employment statistics, oil production, share price movements, population change etc etc. We are constantly comparing this quarter to last, or to the same last year, or to the best or worst in the last 5, 10 or 50 years. Where these are recurrent interests a computer can write them very effectively – and, a cynic would say, is more likely to report them accurately.

And the implications of this are immense, and were brought home to me by a casual conversation last week with the digital director of a leading B2B player. He is a Narrative Science triallist and his service is due to be launched during February. He noted both the very rapid need for updates in terms of market stats in his sector, as well as the fact that standard conventions around comparisons meant that these stories were ideal for computerized updates. These too were stories that needed to be squirted quickly onto mobile platforms – comment could follow later once everyone had the core narrative. He then alluded to the cost savings and the annual cost of journalists.  I walked away with the idea in mind that the critical path to saving B2B as advertising fails to return will be a massive change in the cost base of the industry. Ironically, efforts to create a new computerized journalism at Northeastern may well end in the employment of less journalists, though those who are needed will be needed at a much higher level of intellectual input.

Finally, a footnote on the conference. My panel of B2B players were all stars (Mason Slaine, Clare Hart and Scott Schulman) but outside of them I was very taken with David Liu, CEO of the Knot and the two founders of Gilt Groupe: B2C is certainly coming into its own. But the session that made me most thoughtful was an Interview with David Levin, the CEO of UBM. His intellectually rigorous approach to a careful acquisition and disposal programme was very admirable. But is the old niche-based B2B model still available? I see Thomson Reuters creating an increasingly cross-sectoral approach as they build bridges between legal, tax and regulatory on the one hand and financial services on the other. Instead of unrelated niches are we going back to cross-selling related sectors to get growth leverage? And if we are is the Informa/UBM/EMAP model beginning to creak as these players have too little in any one niche to effectively cross-sell? Depends how you define sector and niche, of course, but we could be in line for another age of Happy Families card game swaps, aka vertical sector consolidation.

« go back