Tuesday, July 17, 2007

All the News That’s Fit to Blog

I’ve anecdotally referenced The Long Tail, Chris Anderson’s provocative book, a few times over the past month, and I intend to share more in the coming weeks. (As I mentioned in my Summer Reading post, I love sharing books with friends … The Long Tail is being devoured by my friend Nora, and it took me a few weeks to Amazon a new copy.) Anderson identifies three forces that catalyze new opportunities in the emerging Long Tail marketplace: Democratize production, democratize distribution, and content supply and demand. More on these forces soon; for now, let’s hone in on blogs and their impact on big media (I’m biased since my undergrad degree was in journalism).

Bloggers are information entrepreneurs, exchanging a currency of ideas and opinions. As Anderson shares, Richard Posner, the eminent judge and legal scholar, thinks bloggers and their bogging is a once-in-a-lifetime game-changer. Opining in a New York Times book review, Posner observed that with virtually no costs, a blogger can target a segment of the reading public much narrower than a newspaper or a television news channel could possibly aim for. In effect, blogs pick off the mainstream media’s customers one by one by being niche where their old-media precursors are mass:

Bloggers can specialize in particular topics to an extent that few journalists employed by media companies can, since the more that journalists specialized, the more of them the company would have to hire in order to be able to cover all bases … What really sticks in the craw of conventional journalists is that although individual blogs have no warrant of accuracy, the blogosphere as a whole has a better error-correction machinery than the conventional media do. The rapidity with which vast masses of information are pooled and sifted leaves the conventional media in the dust. Not only are there millions of blogs, and thousands of bloggers who specialize, but, what is more, readers post comments that augment the blogs, and the information in those comments, as in the blogs themselves, zips around blogland at the speed of electronic transmission.

The blogosphere has more checks and balances than the conventional media; only they are different. The model is Friedrich Hayek’s classic analysis of how the economic market pools enormous quantities of information efficiently despite its decentralized character, its lack of a master coordinator or regulator, and the very limited knowledge possessed by each of its participants. In effect, the blogosphere is a collective enterprise – not 12 million separate enterprises, but one enterprise with 12 million reporters, feature writers and editorialists, yet with almost no costs. It’s as if the Associated Press or Reuters had millions of reporters, many of them experts, all working with no salary for free newspapers that carried no advertising.
Pretty heavy and logical stuff; if you’re in the newspaper business, run. Fast. Content consumers (their subscribers) crave niche information, and Google’s advertising model annihilates their staid, non-targeted display and classified alternative.

In Letters to a Young Contrarian, the fantastically eloquent Christopher Hitchens writes that he wakes up every morning and checks his vital signs by grabbing the front page of the New York Times:
‘All the News That’s Fit to Print,’ it says. It’s been saying that for decades, day in and day out. I imagine that most readers of the canonical sheet have long ceased to notice the bannered and flaunted symbol of its mental furniture. I myself check every day to make sure that it still irritates me. If I can still exclaim, under my breath, why do they insult me and what do they take me for and what the hell is it supposed to mean unless it’s as obviously complacent and conceited and censorious as it seems to be, then at least I know that I still have a pulse.

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Postscript (7/18/07): Just unearthed an Anderson post, Bear Stearns Takes a Second Look at the Long Tail, engaging the Long Tail effect in media. Interesting analysis generated for BS’s oh-shit mumbling media clients. The investment bank has three primary objections:
  1. How much demand is there for user-generated content (UGC)?
  2. Can UGC actually be monetized?
  3. Won’t “content always remain king”?
Anderson: “Bear Stearns believes (as do I; indeed a third of my book is focused on this) that in a world of infinite choice, content is only as valuable as your ability to find it. They call that "context and aggregation", and it's what both Google and your favorite blogger do when the filter the web according to a narrow lens, be it your expressed search term or their own sensibility.”

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Postscript (8/3/07): Richard Karlgaard authored a post in Forbes.com, The World's Worst Disease, dissecting the perils of zero sum thinking. Here's his take about blogs (love the entrepreneurial reference):
Meanwhile, the most energetic, original and positive writing has been migrating to the Web and to blogs. No surprise here. Anybody who creates a blog is: (a) an entrepreneur and thus probably NOT a zero-sum thinker; (b) a producer first and a consumer second. These two attributes alone guarantee that the blogger probably has a more accurate view of the world, and how it really works, than does the zero-sum thinker toiling away at his MSM position.
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Postscript (13 Feb 08): Unearthed a somewhat relevant, though a bit dated, post from Nick Denton, The long and illustrious history of bile. It's worth a read ... quick taste:

Each new medium -- from the yellow press at the turn of the century, to the movies, television, trash television, video games and talk radio -- has been the greatest threat to civilized discourse since, well, since the previous threat to civilized discourse.

So, it's something of a rite of passage that blogs in general -- and Gawker in particular -- are the subject of a critical cover story in this week's New York magazine, one of the last bastions of old-school journalism. The cover line: "Gawker.com and the culture of bile." ...

... And bilious bloggers are hardly the first disrespectful outsiders to bother the media incumbents. Every age has its own cultural panic, in which uncouth interlopers threaten all that is decent and good, and the media establishment, like a stuffy dowager, strikes them from polite society.

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