The next miracle (v11.1): Owen Youngman

Knight Professor of Digital Media Strategy, Medill / Northwestern

Owen YoungmanOwen YoungmanOwen Youngman

The world – – well, the Web – – #throughglass

The Glass Chronicles, I: Land of Stares and Data

Owen Youngman at Google New York to pick up Google Glass

Glass, meet Owen. Owen, meet Glass.

Wednesday, June 19 — my grades turned in, and commencement yet to come — I headed to Google’s Chelsea Market space in New York City, across the street from the massive New York headquarters building the company bought for $1.9 billion in 2010 (check out Andrew Blum’s book “Tubes” to learn an interesting reason the location is important).  I had a 2 p.m. appointment, you see, with a product I had just purchased:

Google Glass.

I don’t actually know if the implied drama of that two-word paragraph is justified, but then again I didn’t want to bury the lede in this first consideration of a highly anticipated, yet highly controversial, piece of consumer technology.

Mark Skala of Northwestern, who is directing the videos of my lectures for my upcoming Coursera MOOC, had come along, too, looking for some images and some B-roll. And so it was, after refueling at the Starbucks in the main Google building, that we made our way to the world of Glass.

The first question my longtime colleague, digital-advertising visionary Kurt Fliegel, asked when he saw what I was up to on Facebook was straightforward enough:

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Life at the confluence

The prototypical confluence

The prototypical confluence

It was a regular, and solemn, invocation for Monday Night Football in the years when the Pittsburgh Steelers turned up there as often as ABC and the NFL could manage it: Howard Cosell, in his fullest declamatory splendor, telling America that he and we would spend the next several hours “at the confluence of the Al-le-ghe-ny and Mo-non-ga-he-la Rivers” – the origin of the Ohio River, and therefore the very eponym of Three Rivers Stadium.

There are a couple of football games this weekend that don’t include the Steelers, but we are spending the end of January at a confluence nonetheless.  Two mighty rivers of ink are flowing together, inexorably, even as we speak: that which has been spilled in anticipation of the Apple tablet, and that which has been spilled in anticipation of the emergence of a coherent strategy for paid news content on the World Wide Web. For a handy list o’ links that should satisfy your need to drown in either river, visit the Nieman Journalism Lab for Mark Coddington’s week in review.

Perhaps it was when Bill Keller, editor of the NYT, talked about an “impending Apple tablet” to his staff in October that the stories became inevitably linked.  But, once the Times sketchily sketched out the state of its sketchy plans on Wednesday morning, we had to wait less than 24 hours for the heartwarming Wall St. Journal headline, “Apple Sees New Money in Old Media.”

In between – actually, just a few minutes after the Times announcement on Wednesday – I was in front of a class of first-quarter Medill graduate students, introducing them to some of the ideas that I flesh out further in my current class, “How 21st Century Media Work.” The Q&A centered not on the Times, but on the larger question of finding the money to support the journalism they feel called to do.

As a matter of fact, my answers dipped a toe into each of the merging rivers.

  • I do expect to see models for paid content emerging, and this year; some will be for-profit (GlobalPost), some low-profit (Chicago News Cooperative), some nonprofit and intentionally so (Texas Tribune).  They will have in common a focus on what their users find valuable, not their managers.
  • I do expect that many new devices will carry with them ways to extract revenue in exchange for the convenience or other value they bring; the media’s battle for desktop revenue will be miserable, but the chance for different models to flourish in the palm of your hand seem high.

Meanwhile, it’s back to waiting – till 2011 for the debut of the Times pay wall; till next Wednesday for whatever it is that Apple wants to tell us. Hey, Vladimir!  Hey, Estragon! Can I wait alongside you?

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Looking for business models? Mind the gaps

I suppose that every day is a good day to talk about how and whether the journalistic enterprise will remain commercially viable as the world turns in these days of our lives, or indeed whether all my children can recover from their financial ailments, be released from the General Hospital, and find a guiding light to lead them to the promised land of free cash flow. Progress on “new business models,” however, seems to move along at about the same pace as a soap opera plot – even though hardly a day passes without an announcement that someone is going to try something new, or someone else is going to essay something old in a new way.

Indeed it was thus on Thursday, a day when I opened the New York Times to read about the plans by the folks behind Politico to compete online with the Washington Post on local news. And I was actually in a good spot to keep thinking about their admission that they didn’t know how the Web economics might work; since the dean of Medill, John Lavine, had another commitment, I was at Harvard, sitting in at an “executive session” on, ahem, news business models.

Entitled “How to Make Money in News: New Business Models for the 21st Century,” the event gathered an intentionally small group at the Charles Hotel in Cambridge: about 20 panelists for the day’s three discussions, and about 30 additional participants on hand both to listen and to take part. Alex Jones, director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy, and author most recently of Losing the News: The Future of the News that Feeds Democracy, was the convener.

As it turned out, the three panels were so packed with speakers with something to say  that many of us other participants – who sat in chairs ringing a central square of tables where the panelists faced one other – got in our licks à la mode du 21ème siècle: 140 characters at a time.

Now, granted, this may not have been optimal.  In her prepared remarks, MIT’s legendary Sherry Turkle – generously not calling attention to anyone seated behind her or on the flanks – pointed to the substantial body of research that shows “your ability for any single task goes down when you multitask. No matter how much we want to jump on the bandwagon, multitasking degrades performance.”

I therefore must cop to the fact that none of my listening, note-taking, or tweeting were as good as they might have been. On the other hand, I must also say that those of us who were intermittently posting and reading got a window in what an additional 10 people were thinking, were piecing together, or were valuing as interesting (or, in some cases, not thinking, not piecing, not valuing). If you’re interested, you can recreate the moment by searching Twitter for the hashtags #Shorenstein and #newsmoney, with far more at the former; I certainly won’t get to all the sound bites here. My own tweetstream is at twitter.com/YoungOwen.

Multitasking, Harvard Square style: in-mirror televison

Multitasking, Harvard Square style: in-mirror televison

(Oh, while we’re on the subject of multitasking, staying at the Charles Hotel provided me with a new model.  I guess they’ve been around since 2006 or so, but the Charles’ bathrooms feature “in-mirror TV’s” from a company called Séura, whose web site explains, “Enhanced color correcting technology allows the LCD picture to appear when on, while flawlessly concealing the screen behind a bright reflection when off.” Turkle, I am sure, would rightly caution us that there is a risk of degrading the quality of one’s ablutions in the process.)

Turkle’s actual multitasking point, by the way, was centered on how journalists should choose their methods and channels of communicating. “Newspaper reading creates a ‘reading space’ that journalism occupies,” she said. “The teenagers I study leave us with a profound question: Will we be able to have journalism when we don’t have newspapers to appear in? Reading on the Web, if it is all you do, does not favor complex lines of thought. So the implication for news is to stay with narratives that need to be read with all one’s attention.”

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Who will pay?

It was a piquant question . . . well, piquant if you took it the right way . . . and then-Chicago Tribune publisher Scott Smith seemed to ask it at all the right times.

“Who will pay?”

There was never any shortage of product ideas, and in fact never a shortage of good product ideas, at the Tribune during Scott’s era, roughly 1997 to 2008. For nearly all of these ideas, it was a simple matter to quantify and project the costs. For nearly as many, it was pretty straightforward to estimate the size of the audience and its members’ potential enthusiasm.

“But who will pay?”

Were there advertisers out there – real ones, not notional ones – ready to support this idea with actual dollars (and would those dollars be new, or just shifted from somewhere else?)? Were there potential partners willing to help bear the costs due to mutual self-interest? Or might there be actual consumers ready to fork out a quarter, or a couple of bucks?

Once in a while, we could answer Scott’s “pleasantly stimulating” question, and before long we’d have a RedEye or a Chicago Home & Garden or a Triblocal.com. But probably more often, we had to confess that we just had no idea.

I flashed back to this question today when I read of the demise, or transition, of the Chi-Town Daily News, ex-Tribune reporter Geoff Dougherty’s effort at nonprofit community journalism. (For a dandy compendium of links to reports and analysis, from harsh to hushed, head over to Eric Zorn’s Change of Subject at chicagotribune.com.)

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