Monthly Archives: September 2012

Things We Like Today

— Four tips for building a YouTube audience, from YouTube’s head of content strategy, Jamie Byrne. The first one on her list can’t be emphasized enough to anyone creating branded: BE AUTHENTIC! If you’re posting videos you don’t feel passionate about, or that aren’t true and credible, the audience will see through it and ignore you.

— Print media’s historic equation between publisher, advertiser and audience no longer adds up. This story in the Columbia Journalism Review explains the history of that triangle and why it’s falling apart. “The enormity of the change in the relationship of publisher, reader, and advertiser means that we’d better pray for—and work for—the restructuring of journalism’s existing institutions.” Unfortunately, that’s where the article ends. How about some suggestions for that restructuring!

— Want to absorb a history of marketing and how it moved from shouting unsubstantiated claims to mass audiences to targeted marketing to social marketing to whatever comes next? Here’s an entertaining infographic for a quick overview…and here’s Ad Age’s year-by-year historical site.


— And here’s one we like because it’s so outrageously dumb. It’s a U.K. project called Interactive Newsprint, and it’s mission is pretty much what the title suggests: develop a way to print “buttons” that let the printed newspaper play audio recordings, for instance, or connect to the network and post a Facebook “like.” This strikes us as being about as sensible as a 1920s project called Motorized Horses.

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Contently: New Way for Journalists and Brands to Find Each Other

One of the most interesting things about the new web service Contently, which launched today, is the introductory statement on the site: “Contently powers content creation for cutting-edge brands and forward-thinking media companies.”

Just a year ago, no site like this would’ve included the words “cutting-edge brands” as part of the equation.

Contently is a site where freelance journalists can, essentially, hawk their wares. They can create a profile and aggregate their work, and even use the site to take payments through PayPal. Presumably, if the site draws in enough journalists, entities in need of good writing will come to the site to find a good writer.

In the past, the gigs freelance journalists were looking for involved newspapers, magazines, news web sites, and the occasional gray-area publication like an airline magazine. And when corporate brands went looking for writers, they generally didn’t look for journalists — because the brands weren’t creating content that was journalistic. Brands pumped out marketing — a kind of writing that acts like kryptonite on most journalists.

All that’s changing. Journalists and brands are meeting in the middle, to benefit both. Brands are finding that journalistic content works — as has been described in a number of posts on this blog. And journalists are finding that they can cut deals with brands to do credible, authentic work that’s not anything like marketing messaging.

As Contently founder Shane Snow told Columbia Journalism Review: “We thought if we could connect good professionals who are now out of work with publishers who care about professional quality work, not SEO, content-farm stuff, then we could create a business out of that.”

If Contently can create that marketplace, it could give a lift to branded journalism.

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USA Today Got It Wrong: Print Is the New Web

Over the past couple of decades, management at news giant Gannett has displayed an amazing talent for discovering media trends that are about to be left behind.

This at least goes back to that big CD-ROM project as the Internet was breaking.

The just-unveiled USA Today redesign looks like another such moment.

The print publication is being re-made to look more like a web site. Yet we’ve arrived at a juncture when web sites are going to look more like print publications.

News web sites evolved in an age of PC and laptop screens, which sat on desks a foot or so away and were navigated by keyboards and mice (mouses?). That set-up seemed to discourage people from reading anything that ran long. Web front pages turned into menus and tiny photos, all begging you to click and keep going (in part because the ad model was based on CPMs).

But that’s a bastardization of how people read. If someone picks up a magazine, they don’t turn first to the table of contents, find a story they like, turn to that story, then go back to the table of contents to find another story, and so on. They sit down and flip through.

Kindles and iPads and other tablets allow just that kind of experience, and the learning from tablets is seeping into web sites.

Print publications like Vogue are discovering that the old way they did things in the magazine is actually the best new way to do things in digital. Flipboard founder Mike McCue — who has always been a step ahead of big trends — said at a conference a year ago that digital media would go back to the future.

“The soul of the website is the content, but we have narrowed it down to this little box, and someday that is destined to change,” he told the audience. “Interestingly enough, the solution has been right under our noses for decades – it’s print: magazines, newspapers.”

So USA Today seems to be moving backwards by making the newspaper look like the web. The right move now would’ve been to rediscover what made the newspaper so successful in the 1990s, and bring that forward to digital.

It’s a good lesson for any content producing entity. Print is the new web.

Oh, and as full disclosure, I worked at USA Today from 1985 to 2007. I saw it at its best, and I watched it fumble the changing post-Internet landscape. I still have a lot of friends there, so while I’m not convinced the redesign is the right medicine, I certainly hope it is — for the sake of some great people who work there.

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New Journalism School Courses for a New Journalism Reality

As the college school year gets going, journalism programs are asking a very pertinent question in the age of upended media models: What should journalism schools teach?

The answer from where I sit: Something different from what they’re teaching now.

In a piece this week, Geneva Overholser, director of USC’s j-school and long a critical thinker about journalism, lists some goals for her school. That led me to peruse the course selections at a few journalism schools, including the program at my alma mater, Rutgers.

Here’s the chief problem: all of the schools seem to treat journalism as a profession dominated by viable, stable institutions where someone gets a “job” as a reporter or editor, and does that job all day for years on end.

Which these days is like believing thunder comes from Zeus flinging bolts from the sky.

Yes, the schools offer worthwhile courses in basic writing and editing skills and the role of journalism in society. But I’m more concerned about what’s missing for journalism students looking to make their way in the new media world.

So here are some courses j-schools really should be offering:

Build Your Own Brand

In the good old days, the media outlet was the brand and the journalist melded into it. You, the reporter, didn’t have to be credible and recognizable — you borrowed that from The Detroit News or Fortune or ABC News or whoever you worked for. Which worked fine if you were moving from one full-time job to another over the years.

Well, fewer and fewer journalists are moving from one full-time job to another anymore. Journalism is increasingly about working for multiple entities on a contract or project basis, and being a journalism entrepreneur. The people who are best at this build a brand of their own. They become known for something.

Dan Pink has built a brand as a terrific writer about the changing nature of work and human behavior. Ben Clymer made a name for himself in the niche world of writing about fancy watches. Your brand can even just be that of a solid, careful writer who gets projects done on time with minimum fuss. The point is, you have to be something — you can’t rely on being part of something else. Students need to be taught how to do that.

Spiraling (Pre-requisite: Build Your Own Brand)

My friend David Duncan, who has built a brand as a writer about medicine and technology, is a master at this. He continually has multiple projects going on multiple platforms. He has done books, magazine pieces, blog posts, online columns, speeches, white papers, consulting, radio shows, TV gigs and teaching — and I’m probably missing a few.

They all connect or feed off of each other in some way, and he operates with the understanding that the spiral will often allow him to make a lot of money doing something he doesn’t particularly love — and that will help fund the writing of a book, which he’d care about passionately but which would earn him (if he were masochistic enough to look at it this way) about $2 an hour.

But here’s the brilliance of a good spiral: The book that makes him little money gives him the credibility and brand to get hired to, say, speak to a corporation or write a paper for a private group, which brings in a lot of dough.

A journalist just starting out needs to start creating a spiral, and know how to keep feeding it.

Twenty-first Century Transparency vs. Twentieth Century Ethics

I grew up on good journalism ethics. I believed in them, understood their importance, and followed them. Some continue to apply to any project for any entity — especially principles of fairness, accuracy, and trustworthiness.

But some aspects of journalism ethics, such as strictly avoiding conflicts of interest, made more sense for a full-time journalism job. A reporter for The Wall Street Journal could never even let a corporate PR person buy her a cup of coffee. Meanwhile, a journalist working a spiral might find herself giving a talk sponsored by a technology company one day, and doing a story for magazine about a technology trend the next.

The key to making that work — and keeping your brand clean — is transparency. Actually, it’s transparency PLUS the tested ethics of fairness, accuracy and trustworthiness. But these are new rules that are still being explored. Journalism schools and their students could do a lot to create a new understanding of ethics for the new media world.


Just a brief thought here: Many journalism programs seem to emphasize “reporting” — i.e., putting the facts together in a news report. And that’s useful in a lot of contexts.

But messages are much more powerful when they come wrapped in narrative stories. Malcolm Gladwell has made a mint on this concept. He tells stories to help us understand big ideas. Too few people do this well, and it’s incredibly valuable.

J-schools ought to invite a professor of fiction writing to cross the hall and teach narrative non-fiction.

Public Service Journalism

The news business is still suffering through an era of creative destruction. Many newspapers, especially, are getting destroyed, and some new version of civic journalism has to arise from this.

It looks to me like we are going to wind up with two types of journalists. One will be the professional, private-sector journalists. They will build their brands and their spirals, write about business and sports and globalization and Hollywood celebrities, and quite frankly make better money at it.

The other type will be public service journalists. And they, equally as frankly, will answer to a higher calling. They might work for city news organizations or political web sites or public radio or other outlets that are necessary for civic life but operate on shoe-string budgets. And they will make less money. Choosing to go this route is like choosing to be a teacher or soldier or social worker.

We need students to understand this kind of career so they can build it — or build institutions down the road that can support public service journalism. Journalism schools could do a lot to explore this idea.

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Fashion’s Night Out and Anna Wintour’s Jiu Jitsu Move

New York tonight will be taken over by Fashion’s Night Out, and this is a tip of the hat to Anna Wintour for one of the best acts of branded content jiu jitsu you could find.

Go back to early 2009. The 2008 financial crisis basically flushed down the toilet retail sales of all kinds — and certainly of higher-end fashion. Wintour is editor of Vogue, the bible of high-end fashion. As revenue for the fashion business shriveled, ads dried up in Vogue, threatening the magazine’s health.

To help her magazine, Wintour had to help the companies that buy ads in her magazine.

She dreamed up Fashion’s Night Out. The idea was to get retailers to fund and create a citywide event — not necessarily a marketing campaign, but more of a celebration. She got Mayor Michael Bloomberg to sign on. The stores invited celebrities. Gwen Stefani played at Bloomingdale’s. Boutique shops offered wine as DJs spun tunes.

It was an event, and events are certainly a type of content. People wanted to go, even if they weren’t in the mood to buy. But it got butts in stores, and the retailers felt it helped push their businesses in the right direction. At least they felt it helped enough to schedule a Fashion’s Night Out every year since then — and every year, it grows into a bigger and bigger Thing.


Wintour played this perfectly. Vogue didn’t create the event content — the stores did. She convinced other people — the city, the retailers — to create branded content by arguing that it would help their bottom lines. Which it did. But downstream, it also helped Vogue‘s bottom line.

In 2009, Vogue‘s September issue looked like a deflated version of its usual self — thin and lacking in ads. The 2012 September issue got its mojo back. Once again, it’s as fat as a phonebook and lands on the doorstep with a confident thunk.

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Can Music Be Branded Content?

Last week, at the Republican convention in Tampa, country singer Lane Turner got up on stage and performed a song he wrote — apparently at the behest of the RNC — called “I Built It.” Of course it was a direct shot at President Obama for his flubbed “You didn’t build that” line, which then became a Republican theme.

The song starts out as a tale about a guy who buys a “fillin’ station” and makes a business of it. The kicker line: “I built it — no help from Uncle Sam.”

This is a form of branded content: commission a song to further an idea and rally the troops. It’s a form of branded content that you don’t see very often.

Turner’s song isn’t likely by itself to spur demand for more commissioned songs. From what I can tell, the song died an almost instant death. The one full-length video of the song that I could find on YouTube — recorded from the TV broadcast — had about 1,000 views the last I looked.


Not much in the way of brand-sponsored music has, in fact, made a big impact. Brands of course fund jingles that sometimes become part of the landscape (“Oscar Mayer has a way with b-o-l-o-g-n-a…”), but putting that in the same league with a Green Day album is like comparing TV commercials to a Hollywood movie. And brands adopt existing songs to great effect (“Like a rock!”), but that’s after-the-fact.

What we’re talking about here is commissioning an artist up front to create serious music — stuff people will buy on iTunes — that in some subtle way furthers the cause of the brand.

I say “subtle” because if it’s not, the song will be a jingle. But, like, what if Schwinn had sponsored Queen to come up with a cycling song, and they wrote Bicycle Race. Or if the New York City tourism agency commissioned Jay-Z and he came up with Empire State of Mind.

Stuff like this has been tried now and then. Back in 1937, IBM commissioned famed composer Vittorio Giannini to write the IBM Symphony. The band OK Go, which has always been super-innovative about music business models, is trying to figure out the sponsorship thing with Land Rover.

Just because this hasn’t worked very often doesn’t mean it’s not an interesting idea. The music industry is in tumult, and artists are trying to figure out how to make money and art at the same time. Brands could jump into this gap and be effective — if they can manage to maintain the right attitude and avoid shoving blatant marketing messages into the mix.

Really, I think there’s a pioneering path to be forged here. The RNC whiffed. But some brand is going to do this right.

(Oh, and if Jay-Z won’t return your calls…I’m available. Been waiting for Google to get in touch.)

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