Thursday, January 29, 2009

Of Babies and Bathwater: Congressional Quarterly is the Healthy Bait for Rescuing the Ailing St. Pete Times

I enjoyed this year's SIIA Information Industry Summit and Previews events very much; there were great presentations and great discussions throughout the two-plus days in New York. However, I was a bit disturbed by some of the gossip I heard percolating in the background about the successes of Congressional Quarterly that were highlighted by CQ's president and editor-in-chief Robert Merry in his panel presentation. Under Merry CQ went from being one of many challenged niche Washington print publications into a highly successful for-profit online subscription service with a healthy array of complementary of online and print publications. The undercurrent at the conference was along the lines of "Well, that's easy for him to say, he works for a non-profit." Sorry, folks, while the non-profit Poynter Institute owns CQ as well as The St. Petersburg Times via parent umbrella Times Publishing Co., Merry has had to work towards a profit component as much as any other publication.

Such critiques are especially ironic given the announcement that TPC is now looking to sell CQ in order to raise cash that will allow its beleaguered St. Pete Times to stay afloat. Politico has a particularly meaty take on the proposed sale, with lots of insider quotes. The bottom line of this deal is fairly simple: CQ is a valuable asset, will sell as soon as there's money available to buy it and is the baby being thrown out to rescue the soiled bathwater that is today's consumer newspapers. It is akin to The New York Times' recent decision to lease out real estate from its new building to raise operating cash for its newspaper, but unlike the NYT, TPC has decided that it's better to hang on to a dying publication and to let go a publication that's done its homework on how to survive in a very tough market niche.

At least TPC is making an honest attempt to try to figure out a working business model for newspapers in a post-print era. By contrast, The New York Times went to print with an op-ed piece by David Swensen and Michael Schmidt which claims that today's news organizations should be subsidized as non-profit organizations. The op-ed piece lays out the facts of the news industry's woes objectively enough, but then it adds this nugget:
By endowing our most valued sources of news we would free them from the strictures of an obsolete business model and offer them a permanent place in society, like that of America’s colleges and universities. Endowments would transform newspapers into unshakable fixtures of American life, with greater stability and enhanced independence that would allow them to serve the public good more effectively.
Perhaps with bailout fever in the air news organizations are feeling that they should join the Washington gravy train and try to get a permanent government subsidy. If so, this would be both extremely ironic and highly unlikely, given Washington's relentless cutbacks on public radio and television outlets, which have lost the lion's share of their government subsidization and which do not have the extensive international correspondent networks that Swensen and Schmidt claim are in need of subsidization. From crowing about "cash cow" profits to going hat in hand to governmental organizations seems to be an unlikely transition for most major media companies, especially given their recent tendency to play high stakes M&A games on highly leveraged dealmaking at the expense of staff and product development.

In one sense the concept of endowing consumer news journalism is a sound one; we should be making it easier for good news to be collected in a way that puts less profit pressure on news organizations. The truth of the matter, though, is that this is happening anyway. In addition to some news organizations teaching people in local markets how to help them in collecting news, the marketplace is encouaging startups that are filling the gaps left behind from the media industry's dilution of news coverage. Emma Heald notes at Editorsweblog.org the progress of VoiceofSanDiego.org, an investigative journalism startup funded by contributions from the greater San Diego, California community and from the Knight Foundation. VoSD.org has the flexibility to produce investigative journalism without the pressure of advertising, but that's not the only solution to filling in the revenue gap required to produce important news. More partisan outlets such as The Raw Story have periodic fund drives to help close the gap between modest online ad revenues and what it takes to field journalists who are willing to pursue commercially unpalatable news.

So although it is romantic to think that news organizations that have tried to be blue-chip stock plays can become well-disciplined investigative news organizations at the wave of an endowment wand, the reality is that there is a new generation of investigative news being produced both by professionals and citizen-journalists independent of those media companies. News will survive and thrive in the online world, to borrow from the title of Content Nation, but not necessarily in the hands of organizations that are the product of the era of mass production. Much of it will be produced for free or for the purposes of people who choose to support it either through endowments for through their good will in producing it. But news will continue to be produced for a profit - if its producers can understand that the content industry is entering the post-industrial era. Mass production still has value, but the most value in the publishing marketplace is in the mass-production of highly contextual information and experiences. The key to the survival of publishing is to focus on monetizing the contexts, not the "things."

In some ways the consumer news industry understands this in their improved focus on search engine optimization, contextual ads, better content engagement and better integration of content generated by its communities. But at the heart of the gap between yesterday's more robust revenues and today's more meager online revenues is a failure to monetize contexts efficiently. Some of that gap can be closed by a standardized approach to micropayments, but in large part the proliferation of news on many topics from online sources and independent aggregators of news links means that there will always be fewer contexts that traditional news organizations can monetize. So yes, get those endowments if you can find them, but don't expect that you'll support the same kind of news organization with them.

All of this brings us back to Bob Merry's great historical insights on the news industry. He noted at the SIIA Information Industry Summit that prior to the rise of today's "objective" news gathering organizations in the industrial 19th century there was a robust array of smaller and more partisan news organizations from which people could pick and choose insights on the topics of the day. In this fray, few news rooms would claim to have the "objective" view of the truth: people would have to assemble that on their own through studying the sources and discussing them with others. In Merry's view the industrialization of news to produce a standardized consumer commodity was a relatively brief phenomenon in its long-term history. In other words, perhaps what we are seeing in the news industry is not its undoing but rather its re-doing into its more native form.

CQ can expect to find an eager buyer soon enough, and the consumer news industry as a whole will turn into whatever free markets want it to be soon enough as well. I do believe that it would be a mistake to subsidize today's news organizations as they have existed in recent decades. This would be as large a mistake as countries that have subsidized other inefficient industries in the past. Instead, we need to continue to ask the question of major consumer news publishers, "Which part of the word 'change' is it that do you not understand?" Let's endow new business models for consumer news such as new approaches to micropayments and community-supported news generation methods that serve people as they want to be served. The rest will take care of itself soon enough. In the meantime, the successes of CQ underscores the point that a good publication in a good niche will always have a fighting chance. And in any business it really is all about the fight, after all - isn't it?

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

SIIA Information Industry Summit 2009 - Focusing on a Very Present Future

After a challenging drive in to Manhattan with boxes of "Content Nation" in the back seat, Marjorie Scardino, Chief Executive of Pearson, was starting her keynote as I was plugging in to blog. What I heard was a good presentation of the typical promises and challenges facing the publishing industry as the rapid change fomenting through new generations and new technologies. What was nice about Scardino's perspective was that she spoke as both a CEO and an adult facing her children as well as the market research. In a sense, our empirical experience of the rapid pace of change due to publishing's impact on society is catching up and surpassing many of the fundamental presumptions of the publishing industry faster than they can reposition their assets to engage these changes.

That said, it is a hopeful sign that the SIIA Information Industry Summit this years has robust attendance and a great lineup of executives and experts who are wrestling with the changes impacting the information industry. These professionals are engaging many of the key "sink or swim" issues aggressively: resting on past assurances is a thing of the past. I will be blogging throughout the two-day conference (when I am not signing books) and trying to capture the essence of the conference. I will post links to individual "live-blog" posts here as they are up and available. Stay tuned!

Sink or Swim: How can you Grow an Information Company Now?
Interview with Glenn Goldberg of McGraw Hill
Mark Walsh with Lessons from Politics
Licensing Digital Information: Satisfying Customers While Protecting Assets
Frictionless Information - Adding Value in the Age of Google
What's the Value of Value Add in Enterprises?
Thriving on Chaos: Profiting from the New New Era of Political, Economic and Technology Change
Henry Blodgett, CEO, Business Insider
Profiting From Video: NYT, Beet.tv, CNN, AllBusiness.com
CTO to the Stars! The Shifting Role of CTOs
End Keynote: Stephanie George, EVP, Time, Inc.

Monday, January 26, 2009

SIIA Previews 2009: Making Growth Work in a Tough Economy

The 2009 edition of the SIIA Previews is playing to a gloomy investment environment this year, as highlighted in data presented in the beginning of the afternoon's session by hosts PriceWaterhouseCoopers. Kate Bluvol, Audit Partner for PWC, noted that 4Q08 saw a 26 percent drop in venture capital deals over the same '07 period, though apparently total '08 investment was up a tad. IPOs were near-nil for 08 at 6 for the year, compared to more than 80 in '07. A hopeful sign is that investment in first-round companies was actually up as a portion of overall investment for the year, at 24 percent as compared to less than 17 percent in '07. So, hopefully, the growth companies for the recovery period over the horizon are still in place. Nevertheless, it's clear that it's going to be tough sledding for most entrepreneurs, especially those ventures which cannot generate clear cash flow at a disciplined rate. Another interesting note from PWC stats is that west coast investments are only about a third of last year's gravy train: the horns have been pulled in for now on pie-in-the-sky Valley plays, but there are a broad array of other investment sectors such as energy where money is still flowing. A person in the audience claimed angel money is down 50 to 70 percent, and the panelists seemed to concur.

This is all good news for companies like Dow Jones, which benefited from the acquisition of content harvesting service Generate last year, typical of the deals that major publishers are going to be executing during this value-picking season. Types of revenues streams are also a factor: Panelists Tom Aley, SVP and Managing Director, Dow Jones BRI and Ed Reitler, Parter, Reitler Brown & Rosenblatt LLC, emphasize that in a down market for ads revenues from viral marketing schemes and other social media-inspired plays are important streams to bolster cyclical factors. Whatever the play, though, the funds and rounds are smaller and fewer in between to get these returns flowing. "There's a lot of money right now," noted Joel Dreyfuss, and Tom Aley noted that there are funds out there still generating funds for new ideas, are eager to listen to good pitches. He noted B2B subscription services as a key point of interest.

Will U.S corporate compliance regulations such as Sarbanes-Oxley be loosened to lower the costs of corporate reporting for early-stage companies? It's speculative at this point, but with the need to encourage new energy technologies it's possible that the mood in Washington will balance the need for investment regulation with investment growth. Here's hoping that young companies get the funding and the media attention that they need to keep the transformation of the content industry continuing. As noted by Larry Schwartz, President of Newstex and Chair of the Previews event, several of the companies highlighted in earlier Previews sessions have gone on to very positive exits and/or successful ongoing business models. Following are relatively live impressions of the presentations by SIIA Previews companies.

RSuite CMS - Barry Bealer, Really Strategies, Inc.

CMS for publishers, run the whole show or just certain functions, make more efficient production environments, easier to repackage content and create new content products. Highly scalable, open and extensible. Easily integrated with other packages, ROI in months, not years. Audible.com used RSuite CMS, applied over a hundred of metadata fields to licensed content, increased production throughput 100 percent. BloodHorse mag and Web site, took in raw data and transformed it into useful pubications rapidly. Sage Publications takes offshored content, packages it through RSuite CMS and fans it out to specific publications and parters automatically. Really Strategies started as a consultant, then launched RSuite, now does both. Major publisher will be able to decommission six legacy systems with RSuite.
COMMENTS: I am a partisan of sorts with Barry, I do believe that they've done an excellent job of creating a production environment that makes it easy for publishers to either fully automate content formatting and generation and/or to get editorial teams to intervene and add value easily to well-structured content. Metadata capabilities are first rate.

Arity Corporation - Peter Gabel, President

People drowning in information, Arity organizes research. EXPRESSway helps researchers to focus on research content. Natural language processing, example, hearing loss, broad and narrow categorization and information on treatments, plus information about why a choice makes it through the sieve. Content from proprietary and subscription sources, helps people to gather and share information, organize information into notecards, can do on-the-fly mashups and analysis. Plays to casual researchers as well as research professionals. Tried at Kodak, WK, Pfizer, Elsevier, Turner, Monster, FedEx.
COMMENTS: I am fairly skeptical of these kinds of tools, not because Arity is a bad implementation but more because it's a crowded space at this time and there are only so many ways to slice taxonomies and ontologies. But the business model is good, working both directly and through enterprise publishing partnerships to solve business problems in a diverse array of sectors. Still in beta with publishing partners. Like RSuite this is solutions software that's getting productized. Not as sexy as Generate on the surface, but like Generate it's pretty well-targeted at solving specific problems in enterprise information. My guess: an acquisition target at a low multiple if the betas pan out. Not the strongest presentation of a pretty strong product.

InsideView - Umberto Milletti, CEO and Cofounder

Aggregates social media information and traditional business information and integrates it into key salesforce automation platforms with key analytics that can drive productivity. Strong leadership and investment team, customers are early adopters of productivity tools, 200+ customers, 6,000 end users, 96% renewal rate, lots of young companies but quite a few established companies. Smart Records from Jigsaw, Reuters, ZoomInfo and Hoovers blended into consolidated records. Injected into CRM applications for leads, opportunities, most recent and relevant information is at their fingertips. Well-integrated into workflows, not just mashups. Every person can see a different view of information, relevant to their work role and focus. Revenues from freemium model, subet of info on free side for CRM integration, pro model pays per month/seat. Integrates Google Apps, but unlike a Hoovers, this is more complete, fresher presentation. Can't mine cust DB, integrated in CRM. Social media aggregation key, calls it "socialprise," brings people up to date with key social networks without wasting time on social media products.
COMMENTS: This is a great play, neutral business information aggregation on key SaaS/enterprise/cloud platforms that includes analysis of both traditional and social media sources. This is good business information middleware, if you will, with a lot of high short-term integration value and an apparently good architecture for expansion. Strong presentation.

MixedInk - Vanessa Scanfeld, Founder and co-CEO

Collaborative writing tool developed by Cornell students/grads. Hard to get a single voice from individuals and communities. Community blends and rates content as it's contributed, top-rated version can be published by community. Example, past inaugural addresses from U.S. Presidents mixed. Can browse, rate and write. Currently top-rated version available. Rating on the criteria of "represents my view." If you like an addition in a wiki-like format can be added to another person's draft. List of versions is published, can be rated against others. Freemium and white-label custom integration model. Slate was an early customer.
COMMENTS: Interesting tool, I like the fact that it's easy to understand who contributed what to a piece via the pasting function. Needs help on business side to develop some core content, as Wikipedia was a lever for Wikimedia to get its software entrenched. Early stages, hopefully develops, use in government and politics could be a strong plus.

Prolifiq - Jeff Gaus

Helps customers sell image/formatted content more effectively, Getty Archives, Corbis, photos able to be released by sales teams easily. Cisco gets collateral out more efficiently. Able to activiate distribution via mobile devices such as Blackberries. Reuters using Prolifiq for their "Bluehouse" initiative. Profitable, cash-flow positive for two years. Helps stage content/collateral for helping sales to close. SaaS subscription model, revs/seat plus professional services.
COMMENTS: Question was "product or feature?" Good question, but I agree that it's a product. It helps people generate revenue, apparently with some success.

SBTV.com - Susan Solovic, CEO and co-Founder
"Just like turning on your television set." Top stories of the day or goal-directed stories. Small business resource - more than video, largest events calendar, "vast" video catalog, thousands of evergreen videos, podcasts, Internet radio, mobile content. Trusted voices, "don't have to weed through the dancing cat videos." 13,000 uniques at native sites, partnership with Hoover's, NFIB, Manta, Moli, Dell, Microsoft Office Live small business, others. White labels such as Tech Tactics, which Dell sponsors, they maintain editorial. Big advertisers. Profitable since '06, 15 mil ad views per month, 450K-850K unique visitors. Hoping to build via SEO and SEM strategy. Numbers starting to climb from it. Videos both from editorial staff and user-gen from SMBs, same search tools but non-editorial labeled to disavow editorial responsibility.
COMMENTS: Solid media play, good barriers to entry through editorial inventory, good potential but it will be a foot race in this economy to grow quickly enough. Seeking expansion capital.

Adgregate Markets - Henry Wong, CEO

Some creative and ad banner serving but the key ingredient is that it provides ecommerce experience in ad space. Verisign plus own encryption algorithm. 3X increase in actual product purchases, much higher CPMs, depending on contextual relevance. Advertisers can put it out many different ad networks or their own ad network. Marketplace of 130 bil for online ads, lots of upside. Customer Service - they handle first-line issues. Payouts are similar to other affliate ad network partners.
COMMENTS: Hot idea - transaction in context, I've been talking about this for a long time. Early days, but pretty good barriers to entry with security solution, good workhorse ecommerce solution that plays well with many.

Associated Content - Luke Beatty, CEO

Open content network, solves problem of consumers relying on search to find information. 200K content contributors, connecting their work with portal audience, pay cash for quality content. Help brand publishers, share ad revenue with content generators. Buyer Zone, Zappos gets white label content such as reviews that helps them to build out their portals with unique
content. 10 percent of content is video, more partners using it.
COMMENTS: Probably economically successful, low-cost content generation model, a step up from Helium or Pay-Per-Click, partnering strategy is smart, kind of a generic content engine. I am not personally fond of this kind of content, but it's evolving into a smart play.

Management CV, Inc. - Renny Ponvert, Founder and CEO

Statistical evaluation of company management teams with textual commentary. Predictive nature seems to be backed up with statistics, claims consistent picks of winning managment teams in Russell 3000, less utilities and finance. Rule-based text format similar to Value Line in concept, statistical regressions on past history, e.g., ex-GE execs haven't performed well statistically. Trying to measure management skill objectively. Focused on direct sales to money managers, profiles updated as new events such as new CEO trigger evaluation. Annually compensation plans are released, helps trigger textual commentary, largely annual-plus cycle.
COMMENTS: Really creative approach, this looks to be very promising, especially in a market that is looking for more meaningful predictive performance benchmarks.

Cell Journalist - Parker Polidor, Founder

Local media is the core value of news, turnkey platform to integrate user-generated news content into media sites, integrated into Web site, instant posting of comment is key to gaining audience share - has to be timely. Integrated revenue generation tools. CNN, other bigs got about 750 user-gen pieces online during Hurricane Ike, local outlets using Cell Journalist far more. Setup/maintenance model plus available ad revenues. Sell in and through media model. Working with Scrpps papers, other major deals brewing. iPhone app, allows easily branded window that captures tagging, geo data and descriptions right off of the mobile device. Highly scalable.
COMMENTS: Solid, solid, solid and very well placed with the end of community publishing that's likely to keep growing in a challenging economy. Cross-platform, good mix of revenue streams.

Good class of companies this year, pretty solid across the board. Great to see good things happening in the face of a challenging economy.

Keynote - Roger Ehrenberg, Managing Partner, IA Capital Partners, LLC

Monitor 110 - why did we fail? What undoes a startup?

No buck stops here leader, too internally focused, too much PR too early, too much money, lack of a real single vision - had a face that looked unified to others, but the dissent was there. "Two-headed monster is going to be less effective at being quick." Had top investors, but nobody challenged their structure. Team wasn't interacting with customers, wasn't in the company's DNA once the companies arrived. Over-engineered, proprietary and costly architecture. Unrealistic expectations for technology engendered a hiding culture instead of getting more exposure and feedback from potential clients. Too much money meant that you felt you had to do something big, but few revenues for four years. 2005 version had lots of problems, but if it had been exposed to customers it would have gotten good feedback. "Not a scrappy revenue-generating outlook."

"How does one fail successfully?" Humility - need to acknowledge and learn from failure, insight and persistence. And you have to work all the time. "Failure sucks. Being a first-time entrepreneur is very hard." Timing of a startup may be as important as the quality of the idea, says Harvard Business School. Persistence is one of the most important attributes for entrepreneurs, as is focusing on execution and not just ideas.

Lessons learned applied to Stocktwits. Single leader - Soren Macbeth, Separation between development and product staff, built the product for 50K, PR only after the product was functional in the market, then booted up 850K from users and strategic investors. Focused on building core IP, lots of open source for infrastructure, put effort in their own IP. Ruthless focus on customers, first premium products end Q1. Stocktwits stream is so clean that Bloomberg carries it in alternative news stream. Focused funding on people building models, up and running at low costs. Get revenues as soon as possible to build discipline into business DNA. Have to get to breakeven ASAP. "Failure plus learning plus persistence equals success." Great, honest presentation.

Rant on the Run: Life with a New Texting Toy

I have looked sometimes with a certain amount of envy at friends who thumb around on their Blackberries, iPhones and other high-power PDAs, but given that Shore uses Google Apps as its core technology for our distributed teamwork it never seemed to make sense to power up on something that could be done from my mobile broadband card on my PC often enough, or, in a pinch, my Motorola RAZR phone. On my recent trip to Bangalore, though, the RAZR went AWOL at a security checkpoint in Delhi (so that's what that PA announcement was about...) which made Skype a pressing necessity until I got home Saturday. On the way home in the car service I poked through my carrier's options for phones and finally settled on the Samsung Rant as the probable replacement.

I had really wanted an Andriod phone, but it's a few months away from making its debut on my carrier's network in official form. Some available hacks of Andriod's open source code to make it work on HTC models was a tempting bleeding-edge option, but I decided that this could wait a few months for the next version of Andriod to make its way into sanctioned models, at which point my son can inherit the Rant when I switch him over from another carrier. Why not an iPhone? Sorry, while I do believe that the App Store sets up a great model for content providers to exploit in mobile markets, I don't believe in forced deals with carriers and the content model for iPhone leaves publishing too much in the old world. l didn't that feel that getting an iPhone would be "walking the talk"about where the content industry needs to go. Android will be here soon enough, and not a moment too soon for publishers who need more affordable and capable mobile platforms to reach broader markets.

In the meantime, the Rant is a pretty capable little content buddy and has the one key feature for which I have been pining in a mobile device: a sizable and well-designed keyboard. Just looking at a Blackberry's miniscule keyboard is enough to send me to the eye doctor for a new prescription; it seems to take way too much focus to make it work. The Rant has a super-comfortable and wide keyboard that lights up nicely, so I can text or email in comfort and actually get out a few coherent sentences if need be without too much bother. It also has a "carousel" of pre-loaded applications which includes Google Maps, Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Notebook and other apps that line up nicely with our needs and work very well on the Rant. It has good multimedia features, including the obligatory talking GPS navigator, EV-DO video playback and a 2 megapixel camera for video and snaps. The browser is weak at best, but as I tend to browse on my PC broadband mostly it's fine enough for in-a-pinch poking about. Not bad for about sixty bucks.

While being able to email and do calendaring more efficiently was certainly a key priority, being able to text efficiently has become a priority for me as well. Now I can Twitter with ease and respond to text messages more efficiently. Trying to do that on the run had been a challenge at best on the RAZR. My one regret is that my carrier continues to make it a total hassle to get contacts on and off my PC and into the calling directory of the phone: artificial scarcity strkes again as a key content ploy. But while awaiting Andriod I can use my Contacts section of Gmail to work around this easily enough - and have less worry about stuff that's not easily extracted from proprietary schemes. In the meantime I get to use a machine that fits in with this year's Outlook 2009 theme: Less is More. My philosophy is that you should never have a machine that you aren't perfectly comfortable losing. So far, mission accomplished.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Bangalore Journal: Infovision 2009 Focuses on the Intent of the New India's Content

My trip to this year's excellent Infovision 2009 conference brought me to Bangalore, a still-booming city that enjoys great weather this time of year. Like most places in India Bangalore is a study in contrasts between the ancient and the modern, but perhaps more accentuated in Bangalore than in Mumbai, which has not benefited as much from global investment as Bangalore has. As I arrived in the wee hours of the morning I found myself in an ultra-modern airport on the outskirts of Bangalore, a healthy cab ride away from Bangalore itself - akin to getting into central London from Heathrow - and rather an island in a more traditional landscape. Similar islands dotted central Bangalore, powerful modern architecture for commercial interests alongside a culture largely in parallel with these globally inspired investments.

These contrasts were in some ways echoed in the content of the Infovision 2009 programme, which highlighted some of the major strides that India is making with both its core national information infrastructure and innovations that are driving that infrastructure towards addressing India's key challenges and opportunities. The theme of the conference was "Content to Intent: Understanding user intent in multimodal, multilingual mobile and enterprise." There were a wide range of presentations from both academicians and executives with deep industry experience who highlighted how India's content and knowledge mangement specialists are moving beyond traditional information management to look at how content services deliver higher levels of value through understanding more deeply human intents and needs.

Like India itself, much of the challenge for content in India revolves around both issues of fundamental infrastrucutre and the fundamental structure of its society. On the infrastructure side, Infovision highlighted advances in India's grid computing intiatives that are enabling universities and associated enterprises to compete more effectively in key global research and product development sectors such as life sciences. But the focus at Infovision kept on returning to domestic initiatives that highlighted the importance of moving India's information management capabilities past the boundaries of major institutions and into the fabric of everyday life.

This focus on content making a difference in everyday lives highlighted at Infovision could be best summed up in the concept of the "sensor ether," an ability to collect information from people and equipment that can help people to understand and to communicate real-world conditions in India. Like many initiatives in India, having points of information in a vast and complex nation means being able to make the most of data-gathering resources in cost-effective ways. One initiative being explored is the ability to monitor traffic at intersections in cities like Bangalore using microphones that pick up traffic noises which can be analyzed for sounds that indicate particular kinds of traffic congestion. With sophisticated analysis of simpler inputs, India begins to learn what India really is on a moment-by-moment basis.

A key initiative that underscores this need to learn about India today is the Biodiversity India portal, a wiki-based platform with sophisticated information structuring tools designed to capture many different layers of knowledge relating to India's natural resources. While scientists are one source of data for this resource, citizens are also being enlisted to provide key data points around the nation. For example, a family with a particular kind of tree in their yard can report on its condition throughout the year. As one data point this may not be so important but with a nation filled with such inputs a rich map of climate and environmental conditions can begin to build up. What India may gain through such initiatives is a far more exact knowledge of what India really is today; the state of many of its resources have yet to be revealed in full detail.

Infovision 2009 also highlighted many cutting-edge efforts focused on advanced technologies such as speech and gesture recognition in videos and language translation. Language translation is of particular importance to India's citizens, who use more than 100 languages and dialects to communicate with one another; it's estimated that only five to eight percent of people in India use English to communicate with one another. Rohini Sahari, CEO of Janya, a U.S.-based firm specializing in language translation technologies, highlighted some of the challenges of improving the automated translation of languages and the statistical, lexical and grammatical methods Janya's Semantex product blends to move this technology forward. With the U.S. government's keen interest in funding these capabilities for its security and intelligence operations, there is hope for strong progress in enabling languages and their cultures in India to bridge important communications gaps.

With improving communications infrastrucure India has the potential to unlock much of its emerging potential over the next decade. However, this does not mean that its rich and multi-layered culture is likely to be eradicated by Internet-based communications. Even as India engages in efforts to modernize its infrastructure it is evident from the manner in which it is modernizing that its centuries of traditions are likely to survive and even to be enhanced by the Web's ability to help people express themselves on a personal level. No surprise, then, that my presentation on my new book "Content Nation" was received with some notable enthusiasm. While the potential of social media technologies are being realized already in many ways in India, it is clear that there is a young and enthusiastic generation of Web-aware citizens in India eager to bring their nation to a new level of productivity and self-awareness through social media. To those of you who live and breathe media markets, social media's impact may seem to be old hat at times:. To the world at large, though, we have barely begun to see and to understand how much the world is about to change under its sway.

My thanks out again to Prof. Shalini R. Urs of the University of Mysore, the Executive Director of the International School of Information Management (ISiM), who invited me to speak again at Infovision. It was a memorable event and I was privileged to be a part of it. My thanks go out also to the sponsors of the event, who provided a top-notch venue with great accommodations and fantastic food. If you can manage to fit Infovision into your events itinerary next year, I think that you will find it to be well worth the effort to get there.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Expanding the Beachhead: Thomson Reuters Expands Calais to Link Metadata to Rich Content

The very mention of the word "metadata" is enough to make some weary eyes in the content industry gloss over, perhaps triggering memories of conference speakers who droned on endlessly about precision, recall and taxonomies. Metadata is extremely important stuff, though, the "under the bonnet" information that powers the semantic organization of content into useful forms and helping to maximize search engine exposure and valuable categorization tools.

Thomson Reuters takes metadata very seriously, though, and has been working via its Calais initiative to promote the use of its semantic processing capabilities to create more valuable content through metadata generation and source linking. The latest output from Calais is improved handling of its processing of documents that enables a publisher's partners to access the rich metadata and source linking available via Calais by using a simple document code generated by the Calais document parser. Instead of having to settle for just a hyperlink to an online document, these codes allow linking into specific data and information sources related to the metadata in a document. So, for example, Calais can return links to articles in Wikipedia on topics that surfaced from the metadata. That's a free example, but obviously premium content sources can be swapped into the picture for those wanting to develop more sophisticated content products and services.

Calais now includes a preview tool that can take any document and parse it out, providing a human-friendly display of the results or an XML-formatted RDF document that provides the original text with the Calais metadata and link tags inserted into the appropriate spots in the document. While the tool is not a demonstration of a production-ready process, it's easy enough to get the picture of how one could apply the Calais document processor in a production environment.

I fed a recent weblog entry into the preview tool to get a flavor of its capabilities. In general semantic processors don't do a great job finding relevance in short documents - just not enough content to "chew" and weigh - and Calais shows typical limits in some of its concept extraction. Nevertheless, it did an impressive job at pulling out a long list of concept keywords relating to the media topics covered in the post as well as entity extraction for the people and publishers mentioned as well as their parent companies that weren't mentioned directly in the blog post. In other words, from a simple text document Calais can take you to a fully metatagged document with "hooks" in it that can pull in financial and company background information, biographies and other valuable content in a flash.

Calais is stretching its wings not only with media-oriented content but as well with enterprise-oriented content sources. The release summary mentions enhancement for product identification, competitive intelligence and judicial events and automated document level categorization for recreation, environment, weather and legal content, which should give you a hint as to the types of organizations that are starting to put Calais through its paces.

While Calais remains a relatively low-profile project at Thomson Reuters, it's clear that they are working on unfolding a sophisticated scheme for profiting from the virtual aggregation of content linked primarily through metadata tools such as Calais. In other words, why own the data when you can own the data relationships that add the most value to a content source? It's a compelling concept, one that has a lot of potential value for enterprise and media content markets and that is likely to grow in importance over time. I recommend stopping by the Calais site to poke around a bit and to get your own ideas as to how applying both metadata and linking capabilities to your own content sources can help to extend their value rapidly. One recalls that the city of Calais on the coast of France was the decoy landing site for the Allies' D-Day invasion of Normandy in 1944; perhaps the Calais initiative may not look like a real product in and of itself but it may serve as a beachhead for a broader product vision before long.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Dead Business Models Walking: Will Major Media Companies Survive the Bust?

For years major media companies have tried to finesse their transition into online markets. They've made investments in portals and ad-serving systems. They've built up online communities and search engine optimization schemes to maximize revenues from engaged audiences. In fact, publishers have done a lot of good things to make a stronger transition to online revenues. Yet in spite of these efforts, one thing that they haven't done is to prepare for the day when they'd have to rely on online media to carry their bottom lines.

It appears that this day has come. And most publishers aren't ready. By a long shot.

Where do we start? The highly leveraged newspaper deals of the past few years that were based on fantasy projections of "cash cow" revenues? As formerly solid mid-market papers such as the Seattle Post-Intelligencer are prepared for sale (and possibly going online only), as major papers such as the Chicago Tribune abandon broadsheet sales on newsstands in favor of a truncated tabloid edition, as television producers wrestle with online portals that threaten to take the steam out of broadcast and cable deals, as music companies stumble into another year of falling CD sales and wrestling matches with social media playlist aggregators, as...well, you get the picture, I assume. Nobody has a real clue as to how they are going to get robust revenues from online distribution and many old channels of distribution are drying up quickly in a slow economy. In trying to keep old cash cows alive, the potential growth markets for online content have been stunted from a lack of truly inventive approaches to revenue generation.

Online display ads? Spare inventory is running at half the rates of last year. Online subscription? It works for The Wall Street Journal and plenty of enterprise services, but few others have been willing to risk the lack of exposure to search engines and social media. In the meantime, media organizations eager to trim staffs after consolidation deals are left with less and less editorial staff to generate attention-getting content. The presumption that online revenues for traditional media properties would ramp up at a pace that would offset declines in revenues from traditional outlets is essentially false. Media companies have under-invested in online revenue generatiion and are now faced with the uncomfortable duty of trying to think their way out of both an ad recession and an idea recession.

This is not to say that there aren't bright exceptions to this rule - many great brands continue to thrive, albeit on a slimmer slice of revenues and market attention than before - but there is a fundamental revenue gap that is not going to close any time soon for many publishers. David Carr highlighted this in his recent New York Times article, mentioning with only part of his tongue in his cheek that publishers should take advantage of oversized iPods expected this fall to facilitate pay-as-you-go downloads of content. Carr is on to one essential point: ads on their own properties can't pull the full freight for most publishers in their traditional media, and neither should they pull the full freight in online media. The main problem, though, is that media producers seem to be searching continually for some magic-bullet device portal that will solve their problems and recreate, at one level or another, the "walled gardens" that they had relied upon for revenue generation in the past. These artificial scarcity plays, though, generally strike audiences as, well, artificial, and rarely float on their own without exceptional features and content from a broad spectrum of sources. Even then, the next great portal or platform comes along and the game is off.

Will the revenue gap ever close to the satisfaction of today's publishers and media producers? Probably not. Smart publishers know now much technology has passed their brands by and how much technology has enabled other brands to sweep into their audience's mindshare, but it's an uphill battle. They are up against billions of dollars invested in new publishing technologies that have not benefited their own products before benefiting the content produced by Content Nation and by any number of professionally-oriented startups that have their own take on content aggregation and production. Latest example: The Printed Blog, a startup that is launching a twice-daily free newspaper in Chicago based on content aggregated from popular local blogs. Even print itself is not a barrier for technology that can aggregate attractive content sourced from anywhere.

OK, enough of the doom and gloom, where's the good news? The good news is that there are business and payment model options for publishers to explore to make better use of their key publishing assets:
  • Micropayments. Micropayments are not regarded highly in many circles, but they're a logical extension of existing business models such as newsstands (a quarter for the New York Post at the train station? Essentially a micropayment.) and can be implemented more effectively using technologies such as Attributor that track use but don't necessarily limit distribution. A widespread embeddable micropayment system would enable publishers to expose limited content through viral distribution and still enable direct revenues on a transparent "I'll try anything once" impulse buying system that monitors access passively. It may turn out to be only a few cents per view - something along the line of messaging units on mobile phones - but it could create a fundamental offset in revenues that could begin to build a bottom floor for revenues that keep the doors open.
  • Agnostic aggregation. The most successful plays in online publishing are far more willing to treat anyone's content as potentially interesting content for their audiences. This may frustrate traditional journalists at times, but since there are fewer of them making a decent living these days to be aghast at the idea of their content being beside an independent blogger, perhaps it's not such an unthinkable thing in the long run (yes, there are probably guild/union issues, but realistically it will happen). Having spent years trying to define technology that would enable aggregation to be controlled along the lines of traditional media business development, perhaps media companies can invest a little more heavily in aggregation plays that do not require top-heavy approaches to aggregation.
  • Focus on talent support. With all of the talented journalists and media producers out there, you would think that someone would decide to recognize that the trend is towards "the talent" powering publications as independents and focus more on getting their content in the best channels possible. If it's important for a journalist to be able to follow a particular story independent of daily publishing pressures, then why not make it easier for journalists to do so with high-visibility distribution on a wider variety of channels? Exclusive access to specific editorial teams no longer seems to pay the bills, anyway. I think that we're likely to see a content bidding system emerge not unlike that used for online ads which will allow independent journalists to sell off the rights to their work to key media outlets on an on-demand basis. If making money in publishing is about getting the right content in front of the audience at the right time, why not make it easier for both the content producers and the content distributors to optimize the content side as efficiently as they do the ad side?
Whatever way you look at it, today's publishing environment has put the spotlight on The New Aggregation that I presaged several years ago and has forced publishers to think about specific assets that they have and to use them more effectively as individual components that can serve markets in a variety of ways - not just through their traditional branded outlets in traditional ways. Be it news, databases, entertainment or any other form of media, the winners will be those that can meter out the value of their content production to facilitate on-demand aggregation far more efficiently than they have to date. The brand isn't the bundle - the brand is the ability to bundle what's most important today.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Upgrades to ContentBlogger: Welcome Twitter Headlines - And More!

Well, along with launching a book, tweaking our Web site and keeping a business a going concern, why not redesign the blog? Hey, it's a living. ContentBlogger has had a couple of minor redesigns through the years, and more is slated for the future, but it seemed time to correct some key best practices no-nos and to add in the headlines that I've been broadcasting on Twitter.

Twitter was an especially key concern, as I had given up finally on doing headlines the hard way: looking at dozens of Web site bookmarks, compiling and categorizing the best of them in an HTML editor and then cutting and pasting them into a ContentBlogger post. Yuk. How did I do that for four years? Finally last year I started to pop out headlines with links and a touch of commentary in Twitter every now and then. It seemed to be promising and I got strong feedback from folks that they were really useful. The Twitter convention is to insert keywords preceded by a pound/hash mark ("#") into the 140-character messages to help people provide categorization, so I started adding some of the key categories in the content industry that Shore tracks and analyzes, with a few extra Shore-specific categories for promotional purposes. Best of all, Twitter's real-time orientation meant that I could pound out a few headlines, go back to other tasks, and then come back and do a few more. It made for a more newsworthy approach to content news.

OK, great, but how to integrate this into ContentBlogger? Pumping them into a consolidated blog post was one option, and I may yet do that at some point, but that would take away their timeliness. I also found that the headlines were a bit of a distraction to people visiting the blog: they concealed the meaty entries that were the real "bait" for visitors. So embedding a feed of headlines seemed to be the best solution. But how? Hash marks and little personal comments had to go to make the service more readable and professional, filtering of some sort was a must - and I knew already from experience that it's hard to beat Yahoo! Pipes for reliable and quickly developed feed filtering and processing. It took just a few minutes in Yahoo! Pipes to hack together a filter that translated the hash/tags in Twitter to meaningful phrases and to filter out messages that wouldn't fit on ContentBlogger. Fortunately, having built our newsletter filter using Pipes made this a cinch. Then the question was which service to use to embed the feed. I've looked at all sorts of services that do this, and most of them are kind of half-baked. Yahoo! Pipes' badged feed widget wasn't too much better than most, but it integrated nicely with our existing formatting styles so it seemed a small price to pay for unsolicited advertising. Sorry for the badge, I try to avoid them like the plague so that you can have an impartial service, but sometimes compromises are necessary. If there's something better for embedding feeds simply, let me know.

Finally, some style nits that have been bugging me for a long time. At long last I took a deep breath and switched the main text column to the left and the secondary column to the right. It's really the way to go for readability, and I regret having ever set it up the other way. Sometimes old code is just not fun to look at, especially when you have much better things to do. I added iGoogle and Google Reader to the feed bookmark list and replaced the old "XML" feed icon to the newer and more standard orange feed logo. The AddThis bookmarking graphic I changed to the "share" label from "bookmark," as this fits better all of the options availble on AddThis. Finally, a little sidebar promo for the Content Nation book was in order, and easily done.

I hope that you enjoy having headlines back on ContentBlogger, you'll get them in a more timely fashion if you subscribe directly to Twitter or the Yahoo! Pipes feed, but if you're not that type of person you can at least know that you can view the most recent headlines easily on the scrollable sidebar. In the meantime my Twitter friends can get the hottest commentary as quickly as possible while ContentBlogger afficionados still get the best of it. Next is getting them sorted into a weekly summary for ShoreLines. Doable, but still thinking about the value of this. Let me know your thoughts on these changes, not revolutionary, to be sure, but I think that it makes for a better reading experience.