Monday, December 15, 2008

Net Neutrality Spin: WSJ's Take on Google's Caching Plans Draws Fire

Talk about a bad hair day for WSJ tech journalists.

When The Wall Street Journal ran an article today on a Google plan to add "edge caching" servers at key internet service provider facilities, this fairly common practice to accelerate content delivery to audiences via the Web was mangled into a political imbrollio. To wit, their lede:

The celebrated openness of the Internet -- network providers are not supposed to give preferential treatment to any traffic -- is quietly losing powerful defenders.

Google Inc. has approached major cable and phone companies that carry Internet traffic with a proposal to create a fast lane for its own content, according to documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. Google has traditionally been one of the loudest advocates of equal network access for all content providers.

Google was quick to correct the WSJ's outlook, as noted on their public policy blog and in a subsequent AFP story. Their point:

Despite the hyperbolic tone and confused claims in Monday's Journal story, I want to be perfectly clear about one thing: Google remains strongly committed to the principle of net neutrality, and we will continue to work with policymakers in the years ahead to keep the Internet free and open.

Intellectual property guru and Net Neutrality proponent Lawrence Lessig noted that his take on Google and the political ramifications of this move were a bit off-key in the WSJ article as well:

The article is an indirect effort to gin up a drama about a drama about an alleged shift in Obama's policies about network neutrality. What's the evidence for the shift? That Google allegedly is negotiating for faster service on some network pipes. And that "prominent Internet scholars, some of whom have advised President-elect Barack Obama on technology issues, have softened their views on the subject."

Who are these "Internet scholars"? Me. ...I've not seen anything during the Obama campaign or from the transition to indicate it has shifted its view about network neutrality at all.

With more moving pieces than a Swiss watch in Washington right now, the current political environment surrounding Net Neutrality and other Web access issues during a transition in Washington's power brokers is bound to be subject to as much jockeying and bullying as possible. Today the U.S. Federal Communications Commission canceled a vote on making radio frequencies available that would provide free Internet access as a public utility, bowing to pressures from both industry advocates and politicians. There's a big push for open Web access, but plenty of pressure from all points of view keeping things comfortably in neutral for now.

Net Neutrality and related issues such as public Web wireless frequencies seem to boil down to one basic concept: Don't make audiences pay for artificial scarcity. Carriers are still free to sell "bigger pipes" and better overall service levels, but artificial cartels based on reserving audience-facing Internet bandwidth for private use will only create more challenges for publishers in the long run. If you want to have proof that this is so, just take a look at the balkanized state of mobile service carriers that lassoed content providers for many years into deals for distribution on their private networks. What publishers now confront are scattered and overpriced deals for growing but underperforming mobile markets, even as the carriers now reach for ad revenue shares to sweeten their take.

Proprietary mobile breakthroughs such as the iPhone and the Amazon's Kindle are great for publishers in many ways, but they represent a relatively small share of the potential marketplace for mobile content and ultimately just continue the myth that artificial network scarcity can benefit the publishing industry as a whole. All these devices do is lock publishers in to proprietary networks that are bound to make it harder to reach their audiences cost-effectively.

The truth is that the fastest-evolving, most cost-effective technology changes are best for publishers, making it imperative to enable an environment in which mobile and Web technology providers are not resting on proprietary laurels that hinder the development of Web and mobile markets for publishers. Without these breakthroughs, the audience reach that content producers need to make mobile networks a highly profitable distribution medium is not likely to materialize. Let's keep the future of publishing out of the hands of companies that still can't tell us whether to dial "1", an area code or nothing extra to make a phone call to the next town.
Net Neutrality will ensure that there is a cost-effective, rapidly evolving electronic distribution infrastructure that serves publishers best.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Times Widgets Beta: Embedding News Content in Context

Widget distribution networks are becoming a popular vehicle for major content distributors to get their content in context in weblogs, personal Web pages, portals and other content outlets. The New York Times joins the list of self-service widget distributors today with the beta launch of its Times Widgets feature. Using a simple point-and-click online form anyone can select NYT headlines from any of their more than 10,000 topical RSS feeds and get code that you can insert into your favorite publishing software or enjoy a one-click insert into iGoogle, Blogger, Vox or Netvibes. The net result is a display of recent headlines from one or more feeds, each with its own tabbed display. The popular Gigya widget distribution service provides the widget plumbing for Times Widgets, which promises that more platforms can be added as instant-add options soon enough.

It's a great positioning for the NYT's RSS feed content, which is popular enough with RSS enthusiasts but not necessarily getting the referral links out to the pages of news enthusiasts as quickly as news organizations would like. The problem is a familiar one: even with a very simple feed like RSS, only a small percentage of people are willing to do the minor heavy lifting to put an RSS feed into a useful place. Feeds are great, but the technologies to get them into useful places easily have been lagging. Widgets make it easy to manage feeds as part of a published page, ensuring not just the exposure of content but the ability to do more things with a widget payload over time.

It will also make it easier for the NYT to get come data as to which people using widgets are worth approaching to be advertising partners as well: there's nothing to say that money-making content cannnot be in those widget payloads, after all. Moves like the Times Widgets beta are examples of how publishers can use widget distribution technologies to open doors both to referral links and to advertising partners that can add value to their brands in a far more cost-effective way than traditional business development efforts. Not a bad deal for just a little bit of development effort. Kudos, folks, the building may have to go but with efforts like this there are good reasons to hope that mainstream news content can find its most valuable contexts more efficiently than ever.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Newspaper Apocalypse: What's the Next Right Step?

Good news about the newspaper industry has been an oxymoron at best in a sinking global economy, and today is no exception. TheStreet.com confirms the buzz that The New York Times is taking out a USD 225 million loan against its new office building off of Times Square while the Wall Street Journal notes that Sam Zell's Tribune Co. is sniffing out options for a Chapter 11 bankruptcy restructuring. Quite a change of pace from last year's triumphal posturing of new media headquarters and highly unrealistic revenue goals for private acquisitions would eventually lead to new glories. 'T'ain't working, apparently, as print ad revenues continue to crater except for feature article sections that vie with magazines for more targeted interest groups. As was noted in a study from earlier this year 37 percent of Americans go online for their news, while only 27 percent were picking up a newspaper on any given day. Newspapers in the U.S. are now officially a legacy product, though they still represent the majority of ad revenues for most news organizations. The only large markets where newspapers are growing significantly are in nations such as India, where the penetration of the Web still lags behind the thirst for news.

While some well-diversified media companies are prepared for the long run of news' transition into a more electronic future, 2009 is shaping up to be the year in which the newspaper industry begins to face either massive restructuring or widespread collapse. Yet there is hope for traditional providers of news - if they can put their best efforts behind the most profitable opportunities. Here are a few thoughts as to where traditionally print-oriented news organizations must be headed in 2009 to build a more profitable future:
  • Get better than bloggers and search engines at aggregating news. Mainstream journalists are still equipped oftentimes with the personal networks that enable them to deliver breaking news effectively, but nobody trusts any single news organization as their source for news. Instead, many online news users are turning to bloggers, search engines and messaging services such as Twitter to aggregate breaking news on the topics that matter most to them. In other words, while referral links are highly valuable for people who bother to engage full-length news stories, the sites that provide them are the "go-to" stops for a rapidly growing number of news hounds. Getting breaking news to appear more automatically in these other venues - and to have revenue-producing ads and partnership "hooks" in that remote content - is a key factor for making the most of these aggregators. However, it also points to the lingering question: why aren't more mainstream news organizations aggregating more links from other sources in their own core news coverage? I would agree that automated aggregation services like Sphere are of limited value in this regard, but the source-agnostic form of editorial content aggregation favored by bloggers and outlets such as the Huffington Post and Newser appear to be enabling far more engagement for online audiences than "not invented here" news organizations that still insist that their own teams must create most every drop of news that they monetize.

  • Love print as a service, not as your brand. In the nineteenth century newspapers grew up in buildings that housed their editorial staffs, printing presses and loading docks - self-contained factories very much in the model of that era's mass manufacturing. In the twentieth century printing presses in many markets moved away to remote locations but most still produced newsprint products only for one source of editorial content and ads. In an era in which news can be aggregated effectively by anyone, that model is no longer a cost-effective approach to print production. Print will continue to thrive as a reading format for some time, but it's far less likely that printing presses are going to be running news and ads from only one source. It's far more likely that new types of newspapers are going to be with us very shortly, ones which license news from today's newspaper staffs and other news sources and share revenues and links to online materials via Data Matrix codes and other print-to-online linking technologies. Individual news organizations are not likely to invest enough in these new kinds of source-agnostic aggregation technologies fast enough to make a difference to their bottom lines, so suffering news organizations would be smart to band together to make such technologies happen sooner rather than later. Alternatively, the time for a "Google Newspapers" printing plant in major markets that aggregates content from many sources agnostically may have come at long last.

  • Enable community-generated news more effectively. Small-market newspapers and television cable news outlets have become fairly aggressive in embracing their audiences as sources of news and entertainment. Yet major newspaper chains in many markets are still struggling to get their hands around what it means to empower everyday people as news producers. Social media provides some of the most engaging content online today, yet many publishers still shy away from empowering local news gatherers that do not conform to traditional models of journalism. But many sources of community-generated content - sports scores, traffic reports, eyewitness news - are highly engaging sources of content that can be monetized easily. In an era of real-time broadcast news alerts from anyone on services such as Twitter newspapers need to rethink what's the best way to engage a community that already knows how to publish to one another.
There's no doubt that many news organizations are hitting the right buttons in making decisions on the future of making money from news, but the pace at which those decisions are being made has left a gaping chasm between the cost of sustaining their greatest revenue-generator - print publishing - and the cost of investing more heavily in online publishing methods that will carry them forward to long-term profitability. As much as online is the answer, though, I think that it's time for publishers to take a far more radical approach to print as soon as possible. Print will survive and thrive - the only question is, in whose hands? The time to release the medium from the brand is at hand, and it can come none too soon for most news organizations' bottom lines.