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December 15 2011

A war story, a Kindle Single, and hope for long-form journalism

Across the board, news organizations and publishers are struggling to find business models that let them stay afloat through the digital transformation. Journalists are a common casualty, with those who work in specialized areas encountering a market that's particularly inhospitable.

Marc Herman (@Marc_Herman_), a freelance journalist (notably for The Atlantic), is testing out a new solution: cut out the intermediary and sell the story directly to the readers. He recently took his long-form story, "The Shores of Tripoli," and turned it into a $1.99 Kindle Single. In the following interview, Herman talks about the Kindle Single experience and how he sees the future of journalism playing out.

What is it like to write a Kindle Single?

Marc Herman: Writing "The Shores of Tripoli" was harder than writing a traditional magazine feature. It's a demanding form. It's like a small book, and you have to write it really, really fast. Dave Blum at Amazon told me a reporter who did a Single on Occupy Wall Street wrote it in two days. That's freakishly fast, Usain Bolt-type stuff. To give you an idea, the average story you read in a magazine like National Geographic is 3,000 to 6,000 words long. The "Shores of Tripoli" was 12,000 (the first draft was 18,000). And it has to be written well — the reporting has to be of a very high professional standard, or it's just hackery.

In terms of production, the Single was more like a magazine story than a book. The news cycle mattered more than it does for a book. I had to respond to Qaddafi's death, for example, in real time. After returning from Libya, I happened to be in New York, and I looked up at that famous news ticker and it said, "Qaddafi killed." That's how I learned about the war ending. I have to confess, I had a very narcissistic response to Qaddafi's death: To me, the headline read, "Qaddafi killed; and in other news, Marc's deadline moved up two weeks."

Why did you price "The Shores of Tripoli" at $1.99?

Marc Herman: Most Singles are priced between $0.99 and $2.99. The guy who runs Singles said $2.99 only seems to work with brand-name authors. You're buying the Single because you'll buy anything by Stephen King or Amy Tan, not because that particular theme or story caught your eye. I went for $1.99 and not $0.99 because it seemed to me anything you'll spend a buck for you'll also spend two bucks for. Three bucks starts feeling like the price of lunch to me.

Did the royalty factor in your decision?

Marc Herman: The royalty isn't something I thought about too much, but it turns out to be a further wrinkle. Amazon pays a 35% commission for everything priced under $2.99. It offers a much better royalty — 70% — above $2.99. But only a handful of very well-known authors have found success at $2.99. So what to do? Fortunately, I was able to get a deal in which I get the 70% cut at the lower $1.99 price. That's a special deal for being part of Amazon's curated program, for which I was fortunate to have the story selected. My agent set that up.

It's a big question for the future, I think. Lots of people want the $1.99 price because it seems to be proving to be the sweet spot. But at 35%, I have to sell twice as many copies to make the same money. The royalty doesn't change as sales increase, like they did under deals with legacy publishers.

For journalism, the royalty issue will probably encourage me to do one of two things. You can't expect the sweet deal from Amazon more than once or twice because it's not in their interest, unless you're Stephen King. So, for non-fiction, you'd want to write shorter, faster, punchier stuff, even more closely timed to the news cycle — more like magazine stories — then price them at $0.99. If you produce good stuff at a pace that's roughly the same as that of a monthly magazine — three or four big stories a year — you'd have a shot at making up the lower royalty on each item by producing more titles, and ideally having fans who bought them all. Four would cost the same as a single copy of, say, the New Yorker, right?

The other way it might change is as the market evolves, viable rivals to Amazon may emerge and target that two-tier royalty scheme as a weak spot. In this space, an entity such as Barnes & Noble could compete for the best work just by offering 70% at any price point, no questions asked. We'll see.

What has the response been thus far?

Marc Herman: The most gratifying thing so far is that people seem to be reading the story with interest. I've received some really generous feedback from readers.

In a business sense, I'm cautiously optimistic. We're hanging around the top 500 of the million or so ebooks in the Kindle Store. Rankings measure movement, not volume, so I try not to pay attention to it. But hanging around the top 1,000 or 2,000 or so — the top few percent of sales — is clearly a good sign.

How would you compare the response to your experience with traditional publishing?

Marc Herman: I feel like I'll reach more readers this way than I have in the past. The trend is encouraging. I've sold more copies of "The Shores of Tripoli" in these first two weeks than I have in four years since my old publisher, Random House, brought out a $10 digital version of my first book, "Searching for El Dorado." I'm very certain I'll sell more copies of the Single in the next few months than I sold of that earlier book, despite similarly generous reviews, publicity, etc., for both.

The scheme of doing some on-scene journalism for a known title, in my case The Atlantic, as a loss-leader, and then using that work as the basis for a direct-published, long-form item, seems to be working out. I've only tried this once, and we're not even a month into this experiment. But already, I feel like I've reached a community of readers that compares favorably to my more traditional work — and the work is able to pay for itself. I'm on track to break even on the investment I made to travel to Libya and report the story. Once that happens, the next question is whether people will continue to download the story in large enough numbers for it to become a viable funding mechanism for the next story I decide to do. Right now it's looking promising.

If things keep going how they are going, I think in a few months I'll be able to say I have the beginnings of a viable business model as well as a viable way to bring long-form reporting about international events to the public. I'm still cautious in saying that, however, because it's a very new form, and we just don't know what's influencing people's decisions — it's Christmas season, the Kindle Fire is selling well, Libya is still an important topic. It's really hard to say what's driving this.

Why did you decide to experiment?

Marc Herman: I had nothing to lose. I'd published some of the reporting that became "The Shores of Tripoli" in The Atlantic, and it got a strong response. I had much more material, so I decided to expand it into a long-form story. The question I asked myself was whether the more comprehensive story had better odds of reaching readers in a broad market like Amazon's or a more narrow one — that being the small club of traditional editors, mostly in New York, whom one has to convince to buy work. I've had some success with them in the past, but I decided to bet on the broader market this time.

Traditional magazines have always been a tight, tough market in which to compete, particularly for international reporting. But post-crisis, sadly, it's just not a viable business. You're talking maybe 15 editors in the U.S. with the interest and the means to commission this kind of work. Digital news operations have greater interest but few salaried correspondents — and freelance budgets that boil down to between zero and $0.50 a word, which are not living wages.

How do you see Kindle Singles and their ilk benefiting and shaping the future of journalism?

Marc Herman: The Kindle Single feels to me like an opportunity to prove, in a clear way, a continuing public interest in news, particularly literary journalism. That could use some proving right now. I get the feeling that traditional publishers either feel offended that they have to put effort into articulating their relevance, or are scared they can't. I think we need to make the case because we've lost the public.

Look at something like "Lost in Kandahar." Lots of reporters I know want to cover Afghanistan. They can't get enough work, so, as a professional community, we're having huge trouble keeping Afghanistan on the pubic radar. And then Alex Berenson comes along, spends three days at a base in Kandahar and writes a barn-burner of a story about the experience, and it becomes a best seller for the Kindle. I'd argue he got the same kind of penetration that something like a big story in a big magazine would garner. Great for him, but also great for the journalist who is thinking of going to Afghanistan and can build on the case Berenson's made.

We're just out of the gate with "The Shores of Tripoli." My hope is for it to become an example like Berenson's, but for the Arab Spring. There will inevitably come a point where the editors and producers at legacy titles start saying, "Okay, this story is finished." I'd hope this is an example that can say, "No, this is a richer story than that, and we know so because we can point to a place where a lot of people are still reading and commenting and talking about it, and even paying $2 for the opportunity."

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How do Kindle Singles compare to something like

Marc Herman: is great, but it's slightly different: Funding journalism is different than linking that funding to the distribution — selling it.

Those of us working in non-fiction have lagged behind the fiction writers in experimenting with direct publishing. That makes sense because a novelist's biggest problem is finding readers while a journalist's biggest problem is finding money. Journalism has higher initial costs than do works of imagination — plane tickets, cameras, etc. So naturally, when you decide to do a story, your attention goes first to solutions for paying expenses, like

Distribution has always been something we expected the publishers or the hardware to solve. I think it's been clear for a while that tablets and ereaders were going to play a large role in a reporter's future prospects, but details were lacking. This year, the tablet boom implied the hardware was catching up to the problems the web had posed for journalism, and which traditional publishing still finds vexing. That finally moved the discussion from just funding to include distribution, in my opinion. Some of us in journalism started looking at what the fiction writers are doing because they're clearly the ones moving the needle on distribution models.

Do you see the Kindle Single as a viable funding model?

Marc Herman: I'm not expecting to be Amanda Hocking, but I do wonder if a few of us working with formats like the Single couldn't do as well as a respectable magazine. Look at Harper's. I trained there in my early 20s. I believe it has a circulation of 300,000 or so, it publishes two or three long features a month, and it sells for a few bucks a copy. That seems like an entity against which a small group of clever reporters could compete — or even better, collaborate — via the Kindle Single model or something similar. At a buck or two a story, you could run a little reporting project off that.

The key is quality. The journalism has to be as compelling and as politically or socially relevant as the stuff the traditional titles are producing. But if I'm already putting my work up for consideration by that caliber of publication, then I should be comfortable putting it in competition against them, too.

This ongoing struggle with digital affects all aspects of the industry — how do you see it shaking out?

Marc Herman: It's a mundane thing to say, but I think it's going to shake out by rewarding the publishers who get their organizational charts in order. I had a meeting at a big, big magazine recently, and I asked them exactly the same question. They've been smart, and their digital operation is profitable — except for the small detail that they are barely paying their writers. I think the bar's too low if we're willing to laud a business model that only works because it gets its raw materials for free — namely, me, reporting from Libya or wherever. The interesting question is that if they're doing so well now, why do they need other parts of the company, or whole other industries — such as contributors who are professors or who work at think tanks — to subsidize the writers who work for them?

Remarkably, at least to me, the editors said the problem was accounting. Many publications pay different rates for print and digital, and run two largely discrete business under the same roof. It's complicated organizationally to start mixing the separate budgets. I realize that is a bit technical, but at bottom, it affects the quality of their journalism, and that affects their ability to hold an audience. They can't hire some potentially fantastic contributors overseas because they can't figure out how to pay them. They pay so little, it doesn't reach the minimum for wire transfers, and paper checks written in dollars can't be funded in, say, Pakistan.

I also imagine that part of the future for Amazon and journalism will be a Video Single or Multimedia Single. The Kindle Fire seems to be headed in that direction. I have zero inside information, but I have to imagine that very soon I'm going to be able to embed video and audio and so forth, and at a reasonable download cost to the consumer. In fact, I'm already working with another reporter and a videographer on models for this, with the expectation that those stories are just around the corner.

How do you envision the future of long-form journalism?

Marc Herman: We'll be fine. The right business models and the appropriate technologies are all enormously important, but in the end, it comes down to the quality of the stories. If you tell a credible story in a captivating way, people won't want it to ever end.

We've been failing people, I think. Publishing is the only industry I can think of in which, when people stopped buying our product, we decided it was because they were too stupid — editors really say that to me. First, they blamed everything on the web or on Craigslist killing classified advertising, which generated a ton of money. Rather than think creatively, the publishers have moved on to blaming the schools for not raising good readers. Or on reality TV for lowering the bar. Or on video games and YouTube for killing attention spans. Readers on the whole are really, really smart. If they are not paying attention, it doesn't mean they don't want the story or can't handle the story. It means the way we're telling it isn't very interesting or useful or fulfilling.

There came a point after coming back from Libya where I got tired of hearing "no" — of discussing how the office politics of some midtown magazine would prevent this story from existing, where virtually every interaction with a publisher involved them somehow complicating the effort to be a non-fiction writer, which is already a considerable commitment. So, at this point I'll go with whomever is expressing a desire to find solutions and with whomever will be most successful at helping me do work like "The Shores of Tripoli." At the moment, that's Amazon. In six months, it might not be. Journalists doing this kind of work are a species of pragmatic idealists — we just want to stay in the game. I don't think we're much concerned with whose team we're on.

This interview was edited and condensed.


July 28 2011

Books as a service: How and why it works

Justo Hildago (@justohidalgo), co-founder of 24Symbols — a kind of Netflix for ebooks — says books as a service not only benefits readers, but publishers as well. Hildago outlines his company's business model and explains the benefits it offers in the following interview.

Hidalgo will also expand on these ideas at TOC Frankfurt 2011 in October.

How does 24Symbols' business model work?

Justo HidalgoJusto Hidalgo: 24symbols is a subscription service that lets users read in the cloud, and it includes social capabilities. This means that the user does not need to download the ebook. The book goes wherever you go — read it on your laptop, iPad, smartphone, and so forth.

We have a freemium business model. Users can subscribe for free in order to read ad-supported books online. Or they can pay a monthly, quarterly or yearly fee to access a bigger catalog with no ads, and with additional capabilities, such as reading offline — on the plane, on the subway, or in any place where Internet connectivity is not available.

What we're offering is quite different compared to what the big players are doing. We're offering an alternative approach — a new channel where publishers can provide additional value to the readers, and where readers can take advantage of what the Internet is offering.

How does your model benefit publishers?

Justo Hidalgo: There are three main benefits for publishers:

  • Piracy — Though not as high yet as in music or movies, piracy in books is clearly increasing. Publishers can either wait until the numbers get so high that nothing can be done, or they can act accordingly. The examples of Netflix and Spotify show that if you give users a compelling way to consume paid content, they will pay for it.
  • Cannibalization — We don't believe books are dead, but rather that they will co-exist with their digital counterparts. 24symbols helps in that coexistence as a way to easily re-direct traffic to retailers — if you love a book on 24symbols, give it as a gift; if you read for a while but still prefer the printed version, buy it.
  • Books as a service — The trend toward consuming content from the cloud is clear and inevitable. Publishers must start positioning themselves in an area that is already profitable in many businesses and clearly will be soon in the book industry. The benefits it brings to publishers — statistics and data gathering, close revenue control, and the ability to experiment — override the current concerns.

Additionally, we share revenue with publishers. The way to do this is by having a common revenue pool where we include all book-related ad revenue and the paid subscriptions. For a specific time range, such as a month, this revenue plus the number of pages that have been accessed throughout that period gives us the "price per page." Then we just count the number of pages per publisher and pay each publisher accordingly.

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How are publishers responding?

Justo Hidalgo: We're finding lots of interest from publishers. Most of them understand how our model can help them and since we're quite flexible regarding how to start, it's easy for them to begin by publishing some content in order to experiment. We're adding new books to our catalog every week, and we're finishing some deals with big publishers that will provide a "seal of quality" to our project.

Is piracy a concern for you?

Justo Hidalgo: The project itself was born with piracy in mind. As I mentioned before, piracy is increasing in the ebook market. This doesn't help the industry, as it didn't help other cultural and entertainment industries, but it clearly shows a shift in how content is accessed and consumed. We offer a solution that's based on a proven premise: if you provide readers with a convenient, unified and affordable way to access content, people will use it. Once that's achieved, piracy doesn't matter that much.

This interview was edited and condensed.

For more on how 24Symbols works, check out the video below:


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  • For publishing, sales info is the tip of the data iceberg
  • Book piracy: Less DRM, more data
  • Ebooks and the threat from "internal constituencies"

  • Sponsored post

    June 30 2011

    How one newspaper rebooted its workflow with Google Docs and WordPress

    Bangor Daily News Google DocsDigital media not only forces newsrooms to face economic challenges, but also workflow issues. In a recent post, Todd Benoit, director of news and new media at the Bangor Daily News addressed the root of the workflow problem in his newsroom:

    Like many newsrooms, until very recently we were production heavy because we had to be. Moving stories to the web was a copy-and-paste affair, but that's not where the trouble started. If you begin with a print-directed front-end system, as we did, how does that system accommodate a story being updated from the field? Or how would the full possibility of story assets land online, to be chosen among for print? Even simpler: When do reporters add links? The answers, as countless journalists know, are: It can't; they won't; they don't. From there, it's all production, not creation.

    The Bangor Daily News attacked the problem head on, incorporating Google Docs and WordPress into a new front-end system that handles the flow of news in the digital era. As Benoit describes the solution:

    ... the guiding ideas we have put into practice are to match the tool to the job we need done (rather than the reverse), reduce the number of steps required and anticipate how our audience will want the information next. And the cost should be next to nothing.

    To find out more about how the project came about and how it works in practice, I reached out to William Davis (@williampd), the online editor at the Bangor Daily News and the architect of the new system.

    Our interview follows.

    How did you end up gravitating toward a Google Docs / WordPress / InDesign system?

    William-P-Davis.pngWilliam Davis: My boss [Todd Benoit] has a great post on our dev blog on the topic, and I talk about it a bit on one of my blog posts as well.

    We picked Google Docs purely for its ease of use and its collaboration tools. We wanted a place where reporters could work on their articles easily from wherever they are — we have quite a few bureaus, and our reporters often file from events. The collaboration tools are terrific and have really proved useful, for example, when we're editing articles on tight deadlines or when reporters are working on stories together. On Election Day we had three reporters at different campaign headquarters all working in one doc, and it went very smoothly.

    We chose WordPress because we wanted a content management system (CMS) that allowed us to develop components quickly and easily. WordPress has a great API and it's very extendable — we've been able to easily change pretty much any part of the CMS without hacking the core, which allows us to maintain the integrity of the system.

    Both systems are quickly evolving and pushing boundaries in their fields, without any prodding from us. WordPress has frequent updates that push the platform to a new level, and Google Docs' collaboration tools, for example, are second to none.

    Finally, we chose InDesign because it is the industry leader in page design software.

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    What was involved in developing the system?

    William Davis: We started development in August [2010] or so, and it's still ongoing. We launched things on a rolling basis by department, and started with sports, which turned out to be the hardest because it's the most complex. We then rolled out politics in time for the elections. We got the entire newsroom using Google Docs early this year.

    The display desk transitioned to InDesign in April, and then earlier this month we finished the website transition and turned off our old systems. As we developed the components needed for each department, we would move them over, test and tweak things, and then move on to the next department.

    What are some of the major challenges you've encountered?

    William Davis: We've had a few instances where Google has changed the way they structure their content in Google Docs or changed the way a part of the API works and we've had to adapt. We've also faced the usual technical problems that come with hosting any large website, but we haven't really encountered any challenges that we weren't able to solve fairly quickly.

    Some components we've rebuilt a few different ways and will probably rebuild again. The wire feeds are an example. Those were originally running directly into WordPress. We decided we didn't want to put the strain of tens of thousands daily stories and photos on our website and so we tried running the wires directly into Google Docs. We encountered problems there, as well. I`n the third iteration, which we're using now, we have a separate script that ingests the wires and provides a way to browse them, then sends the stories we want into Google Docs. That's worked pretty well, though that's not to say we won't rebuild that component or others in the future as needed.

    The great thing about building our own system is that we can tailor it to our needs. Because we're doing it all in-house, we can change quickly, rather than waiting for a corporation to adapt with us.

    Was it difficult for people to adapt to the new system?

    William Davis: With a transition to any new system, there are of course going to be problems, but I think the ones we've encountered have been pretty minimal. Reporters seem to have had a pretty easy time adapting to writing in Google Docs — many of them, especially bureau reporters, were already using the system to write their articles. They understand why it's important to move content quickly through the system so their articles have the best chance to succeed online.

    Can you give us a walk-through of the publishing steps involved — from story idea to final web and print versions?

    William Davis: Reporters start their stories in Google Docs, and when they're finished, they drop them in a folder for their section — Metro, State, Business, etc. Editors read the story and move it on to a copy editing queue, where a digital desk editor reads it before sending it to WordPress.

    In WordPress, the digital desk editors will categorize it, attach media such as photos and video, and then they will publish the story. This is done throughout the day — we have digital desk staff on from 5 a.m. until midnight. When the display desk comes in to lay out the paper, all they have to do is find the story in the InDesign plugin we built and bring it onto the page.

    Everything comes onto the page fully formatted, though the digital desk is responsible for writing their own headlines for print. They can do this either on the page or in a module I built for WordPress that provides a WYSIWYG headline-writing interface.

    Davis offers a tour of the new system in this screencast:

    How many people actually touch the copy before it's published?

    William Davis: As is the case in any newsroom, that varies by article. The digital desk editors, in addition to being copy editors, sometimes act as backfield editors, such as on the weekend. Other articles are seen by four or five editors before they're published. In general, though, articles go from reporter to assignment editor to at least one digital desk editor before being published.

    How much manual labor is involved?

    William Davis: We've managed to do away with pretty much all manual labor. Previously, all stories were written in our print CMS, and the web staff was responsible for copying and pasting the story into our web CMS, finding and adding links, writing a web headline and, quite often, doing that multiple times for the same story after it was updated. The copy editing was all print-centric, so at the end of the night, most of the stories would need to be updated. Now there's no copying and pasting — everything flows from one step to the next.


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  • February 16 2011

    Want to succeed in online content? Get small, be open, go free

    The web is dying, online advertising is already dead, and the entire publishing model has been undermined by an army of algorithmic-minded content drones. Or so we've been led to believe.

    Sam Jones, CEO of Formation Media, is ignoring the death notices. While other publishers turn their weary eyes toward tablets, or construct walls around content no one wants to buy, Jones believes a complete embrace of the web's strengths is the key to reinvigorating media brands (or, as he puts it, "I buy dead magazines").

    In the following interview, Jones discusses his recipe for online content success: It has to be free, it has to be widely available, and publishers must operate at a web-appropriate scale.

    Why did you found Formation Media?

    Sam JonesSam Jones: I was working at Demand Media in corporate development and I noticed there was some major disruption happening in the media space, specifically in the magazine space. A significant number of very powerful brands were dying off. These were brands with strong audiences, passionate users, and great content, but the incumbent models just couldn't support them. I saw a clear opportunity to really change the game and make some of these great brands thrive. Formation Media was born in 2008 to take advantage of that opportunity.

    From there, we looked over the 3,000 magazines that have died over the past 18 months to decide which we should go after. While we were building things out, we purchased Car Audio and Electronics Magazine. It's a smaller publication that has a passionate following, but in 2008 it was transitioned to online-only because it couldn't survive as a print magazine in a tumultuous market. We took the archival content and that powerful brand and added that to our model, which allows us to inexpensively create massive amounts of high-quality text, video and pictorial content.

    What are the components of your model?

    Sam Jones: We combine brand, editorial content, and social media to create engagement. Then we syndicate that content out and allow others to take it wherever they want it, for free. There's absolutely no way to subscribe. There's absolutely no way to pay for an "issue" or a PDF. We want people to consume the content when and how they want to consume it.

    Up to 80 percent of our traffic is from syndication partners and search, where brand, content quality, and the opinion of others you trust matter. Users come back to our site engaged and looking for richer content and community interactions.

    It's also clear that people like free. That's a bad word in the incumbent model because free works against the traditional value proposition. But on the digital side, if you have faith in the brand, the quality of the content, and the user experience, all sorts of wonderful magic happens for the business. Depending on the year, between 70 and 90 percent of our available inventory is from double-digit branded advertisers, and 95 percent of our costs are taken out. Monetization follows when you focus on doing the right things for your users.

    How many full-time staffers do you have on your editorial teams?

    Sam Jones: We want dedicated stewardship over a voice, we want to create engaged communities, and we want to deliver high-quality content. We're not trying to create a farm or an engine or any of that stuff. That's why I'm hiring the best possible editors to run the vertical markets that we go into, and each vertical will have their own dedicated editorial team.

    But staffing will be appropriate for the profitability that we need and expect. For Car Audio and Electronics Magazine, which had 85 people that ran that publication, we now have two. That's what works for that brand. If we were to buy into the shelter space, which has larger brands and different content needs, we would require more than two people to maintain a strong editorial voice. That said, it's still not like we'll have 20 full-time employees for a shelter publication.

    Has the media industry put too much emphasis on the potential of tablets, and the iPad in particular?

    Sam Jones: The fastest growing product in Apple's history is the iPad, and they've got 10 million installed units, which is huge. But what I'd rather do is instead of looking at that 10 million installed base, let's look at the 1.6 billion Internet-enabled devices.

    Frankly, the most important app on the iPad is Safari. It's on every iPad and iPhone and it has a consistent and proven user experience. When we make it easy for people to get what they want for free, engagement and brand can be monetized through advertising and e-commerce throughout the published and syndicated environment that we manage. The users win, our syndication partners split revenues, and we reach several times more people.

    Does that mean your mobile strategy is primarily web based?

    Sam Jones: We'll create apps, but our primary strategy is always going to be the native experience through the browser. If somebody wants our content, you can get it in any way that you can possibly ask for it. If you have two tin cans and a string with an Internet connection, our goal is to get it to you.

    Has online advertising failed?

    Sam Jones: There's three aspects to this. One, if you look at online advertising as a monolith, it's been really bad for a whole bunch of folks. But brands and deep engagement have done very well. As I noted earlier, 70 to 90 percent of our available inventory — depending on the time of year and other factors — is double-digit CPMs.

    Two, advertising to support a business entity has to be scaled. At one of the magazines we looked at, they had six people on their dining staff. That magazine failed. You have to be mindful of the context and the economics of your situation.

    Finally, we need to stop thinking in terms of standard ad units. The user experience should come first and that engagement should drive monetization. If you have a platform that allows for richer integrations, or actually provides value by weaving that monetization solution into the user experience, then you start to see significant margins.

    What's your take on paywalls?

    Sam Jones: Paywalls are like asking my two sons to work really hard so they can be Michael Jordan. Only a few people could come close to being MJ under perfect circumstances. Similarly, only a few companies and brands could make paywalls work.

    If you extend this thinking to newspapers, there's only a few companies that have the brand, the audience, and the monetization hierarchy that would allow for a paywall to work. There's the Wall Street Journal. There's potentially Bloomberg, which is an interesting combination with BusinessWeek. And maybe if you stretch it, there's the New York Times. Beyond those unique brands, paywalls simply get in the way of the user experience.

    Paywalls are an example of companies holding on to the pillars of incumbency instead of seizing the disruptive opportunity. I believe in the face of unprecedented disruption, there's no place for incrementalism. There's just not. We have to be bold in our actions in order to not just survive, but to thrive.

    Note: Sam Jones discusses his "radical point of view" for magazines in the following presentation:

    This interview was edited and condensed.


    September 16 2010

    A bird app that adapts on the fly

    A screen from the BirdsEye iPhone appThe best apps tap into sensors and Internet connections to calibrate information based on location and need. But reference apps, for the most part, focus on porting information rather than integrating it.

    That's not a huge deal at the moment because many users are enamored with the novelty of mobile. Simply having access to all that information is enough. But that's temporary. As users see what their devices are really capable of, expectations will shift.

    BirdsEye is already reshaping those expectations. This iPhone-only birding application -- a co-creation of Pete Myers and Todd Koym -- blends crowdsourcing, database access, and location awareness. Unlike that book in your pocket or that static app on your phone, BirdsEye adapts on the fly.

    In the following interview, Myers and Koym discuss BirdsEye's functionality and they explain how customization and software can turn a passive hobby into an active experience.

    How is BirdsEye different from traditional bird guides?

    Todd Koym: When I first got into birding, I was frustrated because I had really nice guides and I had some knowledge of the local birds, but it wasn't great. What I wanted was something that could tell me which birds are around me. The field guide couldn't magically show me the birds near my location. And I shouldn't have to search through the book to find a local bird if that bird is never here.

    What the app does is answer some very simple questions and do some very simple tasks, like remove the birds that aren't around a user's location. I don't want people to waste time on birds they couldn't possibly see.

    Pete Myers: The app also changes. It shows you where you can go to find birds that have been seen recently in the area where you are. No field guide has ever been able to do that.

    It sounds like the app turns bird watching into an active experience. Is that right?

    Koym: It's a lot like the act of birding and then becoming a birder. When many people become interested in birds, they're just looking at birds at their feeder. At some point, when you put binoculars in your suitcase because you're going somewhere for vacation or business, you turn a corner and become an active birder. The application encourages that.

    We want to give people more good birding experiences. The more they get out, the more birding they do. If they go to the right places, they're going to have more success. It's going to create a positive feedback loop.

    BirdsEye is run in partnership with Cornell University's eBird database. If eBird didn't exist, could you have built the same app?

    Koym: No. The technology component is one thing. That's nuts and bolts and ones and zeroes, and it requires some work to do right. But the people running eBird are ornithologists. They've got 500 human reviewers. These are local, regional experts that validate the observations that have been submitted. There are somewhere between one and two million observations submitted each month. The data flow BirdsEye depends upon is quite extensive.

    Do you have other projects in development?

    Koym: We'll continue development of BirdsEye. We're working on new ways of digitizing the data and making it even easier to know where the birds are, especially the birds that you're most interested in. We also want to close the loop and help the crowdsourcing effort by allowing eBird submissions through the app.

    Myers: Both of us agree that there are two types of functionality that are absolutely essential that aren't in BirdsEye yet. One of those, as Todd said, is we want you to be able to submit observations to eBird using the app. The second involves building in social networking tools so that people can share with their friends information about what they're seeing and where they're seeing it. Information like that creates a community of users.

    Would you consider turning the app into a traditional reference guide?

    Koym: It doesn't really interest me. If we wound up with a resource that it made sense to spin off, maybe. But we've still got work to do to make the app do what it's supposed to do and to take it to other platforms.

    Will you port BirdsEye to Android or the iPad?

    Koym: Android is more interesting than the iPad, to be honest. I want people to be able to pull something out of their pocket and hit a button. Phones are more mobile than the iPad.

    It's funny. A lot of people like the birding apps because it means they don't have to bring their field guides with them. They're anchors. Yet, people are excited about the birding apps on the iPad. I guess it's a sexier anchor.

    This interview was condensed and edited.


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