Monthly Archives: November 2014

How Medium is using the mullet strategy to attract new users


I don’t think I invented the phrase — I likely read it somewhere and then absorbed it through osmosis — but for several years now I’ve been referring to something called the “mullet strategy” when trying to explain how some platforms and social networks have attempted to attract new users. A Google search reveals that Jonah Peretti, a founder of both BuzzFeed and Huffington Post, used the neologism as early as 2007. As described by Grant McCracken in 2008, with the mullet strategy, “the front page of the website is ‘kept sharp’ by professional editors while the back of the site is given over to the unedited, unsubstantiated ‘venting’ of unpaid visitors.” Or, put another way: “Business in the front. Party in the back.”

The approach was used early on with both Daily Kos and the Huffington Post. In the case of Daily Kos, Markos Moulitsas, the site’s founder, employed professional bloggers to write for the front page of the liberal, grassroots blog, and then anyone who commented on their blog posts had to sign up for an account that also gave them their own blogging platform. Their published blog posts, however, were not automatically promoted on the front page; they were relegated to a subdomain, with their headlines highlighted on a small sidebar on the Daily Kos front page. Whenever a user-generated blog post was particularly well written, however, one of the paid front-page bloggers could pluck it from the ether and promote it on the main blog. This strategy worked so well because it attracted readers with the professional-grade material and then converted them into more engaged users who gladly generated content for Daily Kos for absolutely no pay. Occasionally, when one of these unpaid users consistently produced professional-quality content, Moulitsas would hire him or her to write for the front page.

Huffington Post employed a slightly more selective approach. Though it used thousands of unpaid bloggers, you couldn’t publish to HuffPo unless you happened to know someone who worked there. This way, getting your own HuffPo byline felt like you were being invited into some exclusive club, making it easier to overlook the fact that you were creating content without pay. Arianna Huffington famously would hand out accounts to people she met on her speaking tours. This higher bar of selectivity ensured a better batting average when it came to the quality of content.

The mullet strategy has continued to be adopted and improved upon over the last several years. One of its most interesting iterations was rolled out at Forbes, where chief product officer Lewis DVorkin has recruited over a thousand writers, some salaried staffers, others paid based on traffic generated, and the rest completely unpaid. The strategy paid off, reviving Forbes from a state in which it was barely able to make rent to a profitable entity.

The beauty of the mullet strategy is that it effectively tackles the user acquisition problem. Every new platform that relies on user generated content depends on influential users who make the platform indispensable, thereby attracting larger numbers of users to try it out.  But it’s a Catch 22; the platform needs the influencers to make it indispensable, but these users won’t become addicted unless it’s already indispensable. Facebook solved this problem by attracting early adopters from prestigious schools, so that by the time it trickled down to other universities the social network was already populated by their contacts. Twitter similarly had an early adopter advantage, having attracted influential tech enthusiasts very early on. But not every new platform can reach this critical mass, so that’s where the mullet strategy comes in: you’re essentially paying those early influencers to populate your network with content with the hope that the masses will come clamoring to join the club.

Medium has employed what is, in my mind, the most scalable mullet strategy yet. All the other examples I listed, while brilliantly executed, were confined in scope. Daily Kos, while allowing anyone to sign up, only really appeals to those interested in politics, and of those, only people who consider themselves liberal. Forbes and Huffington Post, with their more selective approach, can only manage so many bloggers before quality control becomes impossible. And let’s face it: none of these outlets are technology companies, and so their users aren’t creating content on their platforms because their content management systems are amazing.


Medium, on the other hand, is a technology company, and it has built a gorgeous, easy-to-use CMS. It also isn’t limited by subject matter. It is therefore just as scalable as any other social network, from Facebook to Twitter to LinkedIn. And it’s solved its user acquisition problem in two brilliant ways.

The first is that it allows you to sign up for Medium using your Twitter account, so that from the very moment your account is live you’re already following people you’re interested in and you also have followers of your own (these are drawn from your twitter followers who have also signed up for the platform). You’re not landing in a ghost town and scrambling to find people to follow.

The second is that very early on Medium hired editors from glossy magazines that specialize in premium, longform content, and gave them substantial editorial budgets to begin recruiting freelance writers. Suddenly, people were landing on Medium before they even knew what it was and before it was even open to new users. This of course attracted the curiosity of journalists, who began penning articles trying to suss out whether Medium was a magazine or a platform. Eventually, our curiosity would get the better of us and we’d set up an account and try it out. Medium has essentially solved the “cool kid” and social graph factors at the same time — first direct users to the site with high quality content, and once they’re there, encourage them to sign up. And then once they have an account, there’s all their friends and followers waiting to consume their content.

It’s a strategy that all future platform creators should pay attention to. In a world where every day a new mobile app or social network promises to crowdsource the solution to some life problem, there are only so many influencers with so much time to invest in a new tool. So when you receive your millions of dollars in investment from venture capitalists, set aside some of that money to pay your early adopters. Because without them, you’re just a night club with no line out the door, in which case you might as well send your DJ home early.


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How much is a photo truly worth? Less than you think


Much has been written about how YouTube has influenced the face of online video and the entertainment industry at large, but little ink is devoted to one simple tool that has since become universal across all online video: the embed button. Though I doubt YouTube invented it, the company’s ubiquity ensured the standardization of the embed button so that virtually no media property today, whether it’s Hulu or Comedy Central, posts video to the open web without the ability to embed it on an outside website.

Think of how much better the web is because of this. It could have just as easily become the norm that in order to view a video, you had to visit the website on which it’s hosted. And if you dared to place it on your own website then you’d get hit with onerous copyright lawsuits and takedown notices. The embed button has removed unwanted friction from the internet, and artists have quickly realized that it’s better to have their content spread across a multitude of aggregators and WordPress blogs, even if it means not having 100 percent control of how your videos are presented or introduced — or collecting payment from every single website that embeds the video. More virality presents more opportunities for brand building and marketing.

So if we learned and accepted this concept about rich video content so early in the web’s development, why do we still refrain from applying it to static images? While it’s accepted dogma that the embedding of a video on your website is perfectly permissible as long as proper credit is given, taking and reprinting an image, even if you give the image’s creator credit and a link back to his website, is still considered theft.

Well, not all content creators consider it theft  — the problem is you’ll never know which ones do until you’re slapped with a lawsuit. All across the country, different media companies have adopted different policies for how to approach images. More traditional legacy publications, on the advice of their lawyers, adopt an extremely conservative approach, not only refraining from posting photos they don’t have the rights to, but barring their social media editors from uploading AP and other wire images — images they’ve paid for — to the news outlets’ official social media platforms (basically, because they don’t technically own their social media profiles, they consider it a breach of contract if they post an AP photo to Facebook or Twitter).

Other news outlets, typically the more nimble, digital-only ones, have more permissive approaches. Buzzfeed, for instance, has long maintained a policy that a single image contained within a longer post full of other images constitutes fair use, and therefore a link credit is sufficient payment. But with dozens of such posts created a day, it only takes a small handful of image creators to ruin the parade. In 2013, a photographer named Kai Eiselein sued Buzzfeed, claiming $3.6 million in damages, for reprinting a rather mundane soccer photo without his permission. In his complaint, he listed not only Buzzfeed’s alleged misuse of the photo, but all the other websites that later published that same photo as a result of Buzzfeed’s original post.

Now I would warrant that the photo not only wasn’t worth $3.6 million, its reprint value wasn’t even worth $50. In a world where the effort to shoot and publish a photo has been made minuscule by the ubiquity of smartphones, the value of a single image, all by its lonesome, is worth nothing more than a link credit, and photographers who spend their time getting angry and slapping websites with DMCA takedown requests should instead be emailing those websites and asking for links.

There are plenty of photographers out there who have learned the harness this more permissive approach to copyright. One of my favorite examples is Gage Skidmore. During the 2012 presidential election, when he was a 19-year-old college student, Skidmore traveled to political events and shot professional-quality photography of GOP primary candidates like Ron Paul and Mitt Romney. But rather than trying to license the content to news agencies, he uploaded it to Flickr with a creative commons license. Journalists and bloggers discovered the photos, and as of September 2012, his photo credit, using his name and often a link back to one of his web properties, appeared over 1 million times.


This free marketing has led to many business opportunities for Skidmore. In some case, news orgs voluntarily paid him for the reprints, and he was able to license some of the images for physical print products, including a book. It has also helped market his skills as a professional photographer so that he can generate clients for his portrait photography business.  Professional photographers fear that if they allow reprint without payment, it will devalue their work, but there will always be a market need for original photography, whether it’s the hiring of a wedding photographer or a photo shoot for a news publication. Sure, thousands of publications reprinted Kim Kardashian’s glossy ass photo, many without paying money to Paper magazine, but the interest generated from those reprints drove gargantuan levels of attention and traffic to Paper’s website. The photographer who shot that photo certainly earned his keep.

There are dozens of ways a photographer can utilize the marketing value of free reprints of her work to generate significant revenue. Cory Doctorow, a longtime Creative Commons advocate, lists several of them in his most recent book, including everything from selling swag to auctioning off original versions of your art.

The main problem is that, unlike the case with online video, where such practices have been widely adopted, there’s been no such standardization for static images. Sure, more platforms are allowing the easy embedding of photography, including Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, but it may be that these tools were introduced too late in the web’s development, and so their use is limited. For now, publishers will have to play it by ear, establishing their own policies for how to post and properly attribute images. And if you’re a photographer who comes across one of your images on a blog or website, instead of Googling “how to send a DMCA takedown request,” consider simply sending an email asking for credit and a link. You’d be surprised how happy the website’s owner will be to oblige.


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Why I hope This succeeds where other social networks have failed


A few days after the launch of Ello, the new social network that the press seized on for some reason, a friend instant messaged me and said he had some invites to the invite-only social network and asked whether I wanted one. “Sure,” I said, and he promptly sent me one. It’s been sitting in my inbox unopened ever since.

Why? As a tech and media enthusiast you would think I’d seize upon the chance to be an early adopter on a hot new social network. But the entire premise of Ello never appealed to me, and I doubt that it will have any longterm appeal to users either. Any new presence on a social platform takes significant time investment if you hope to develop any kind of actual following on the network. There are plenty of platforms I’d love to be more engaged in — Tumblr, Pinterest — but I simply don’t have the time or inclination to put in the effort. Currently I actively maintain/monitor profiles on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+, Reddit, Instagram, Medium, and Foursquare. Each social network I join automatically subtracts time I’m spending on these other platforms, and eventually you become so diluted that you’re not providing a high-value experience on any of them. So any investment in a new platform requires justification, a feature that it offers that these other networks don’t.

And Ello’s justification, at least the one it publicly offers, is not one that actually solves a real problem. It simply bills itself as the anti-Facebook, and by that it says that you should join it because it doesn’t collect massive amounts of data based on your online interactions. Ello, in effect, is predicting that the plethora of articles about companies like Facebook and Google raising “privacy concerns” reflects a market demand for a company that eschews data collection. But the thing is, that demand isn’t there. Very few people, even though they won’t admit it, care that social networks and search engines collect their data. If they did, we would have already seen a mass exodus away from these tools.

Not only is there not a demand for this feature, but the feature will actually make the product worse. The reason Google is such an incredible search engine isn’t because it has a killer algorithm. It’s because it’s been collecting data on billions of user interactions with content and, with that data, has taught itself to be incredibly effective at finding the content you’re searching for. For all our gripes at how the Facebook newsfeed algorithm promotes some posts over others, there’s a reason why we’re more addicted to Facebook than any other platform. A tool that doesn’t collect data on its users’ behavior is a tool that isn’t teaching itself to get better. As Ben Thompson wrote in his column predicting Ello’s failure:

If you truly care about privacy then don’t use the Internet, credit cards, a mobile phone, the list goes on-and-on.

If, on the other hand, you care about making a successful social network that users will find useful over the long run, then actually build something that is as good as you can possibly make it and incentivize yourself to earn and keep as many users as possible.

So that’s why an Ello invite sits in my inbox unopened. But there’s another just-launched social network that not only I’ve found a justification for, but I personally emailed the founder so I could score an invite: This. Founded by Andrew Golis, who briefly headed The Atlantic’s now-shuttered The Wire, This has a simple-yet-elegant premise: Users can only share one piece of content a day on it.


What problem does it solve? Unlike data privacy, which is a non-issue for most people, information overload is a real concern, and we’ve seen this borne out with users. Though scientists can’t agree on whether it exists, technology companies have made significant investments into ameliorating it, likely after studying user behavior. The entire Facebook newsfeed is predicated on the idea that we’re trying to overcome the noise and just read the status updates that appeal to us most. Twitter is where you’ll experience it most acutely, especially if you’re not a sports fan and happen to tune in during some major sporting event, when every other tweet is about a subject for which you care nothing. You also see it when a major piece of news breaks and you’re inundated with 100+ tweets announcing the same news (a good time to experience this is 8:30 a.m. on the first Friday of the month when the jobs report is released. For some reason people are obsessed with being first at tweeting out the jobs number). Social media editors, realizing that their promotional tweets are seen by a small fraction of their followers before they get pushed down too far in the feed, resort to tweeting the same link several times a day, further exacerbating the problem. Twitter was finally forced to add a mute button so you can temporarily block out the tweets from that colleague who insists on live tweeting some work conference, no matter how mundane it is.

Visiting This, which I have done so repeatedly for the past week, has been a breath of fresh air. What Facebook tries to solve with its newsfeed algorithm, This has solved by forcing its users to be incredibly choosy in which one piece of information they share each day. If you follow Slate on This, it’s likely to share one of its more substantive pieces rather than one of the aggregated viral videos that seemingly every news outlet on the planet posts simultaneously (on Monday mornings I have to wake up to 50 posts embedding John Oliver’s latest rant). This purposefully slows the web down to the point where the signal-to-noise ratio is much better than what you’ll find on just about every other platform.

Of course the value extracted from the platform depends on whether you can find quality users to follow and if they keep contributing. Over the past week at least, it hasn’t been difficult to find and follow plenty of journalists whose tastes I admire as each of them has tried it out. The question now is whether they find it useful enough to stick around. For the sake of my media diet I hope they do.


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Why some bloggers transparently report their income

income report

In mid-November, an entrepreneur named Pat Flynn, who runs a popular website called Smart Passive Income, published a monthly update that has been a regular feature on his blog for several years: a report on the previous month’s income (or in this case, income for September. He apologized for being behind schedule). In it, he provides a line by line breakdown of all his income sources, from the $30 he made running affiliate advertising for a product called Sucuri to a whopping $36,150 on affiliate advertising for Bluehost (the way affiliate advertising works is that the website owner gets a cut of the revenue if someone clicks on a link to a product and buys it). Add it all up, and he brought in $97,975.41 that month. Flynn then goes to work listing all his expenses, including $9.99 for his Dropbox subscription and $13,069.40 he paid out to developers for future products he’s building. At the end of the piece, when he subtracts his expenses from his revenue, we learn that he made a net total of $80,037.81 for the month of September.

Yes, those numbers are jaw-droppingly amazing, but to focus on only them and ignore the rest of what Flynn wrote in that post is to miss what is likely the main reason he wrote it: so both he and his readers could glean lessons from his experience. The post isn’t simply a documentation of debits and credits, but rather it’s a narrative of his entrepreneurial  journey, detailing the challenges he met and the results of the experiments he’s implemented. “It’s always good to look at the past and what was accomplished and what has been set in motion for the future,” he explained in the introduction of the income report.

Flynn, one of the earliest and most prominent pioneers in transparent income reports, has been joined in recent years by a growing list of bloggers who have sidestepped the taboos against talking about money and are opening up their banks accounts for all to see. And according to the bloggers who practice this income transparency, they’re making the professional world a better place because of it.

The stigma against talking about your salary is strong. If you’re reading this and work for someone who employs multiple people, whether it’s an office job or a Starbucks, chances are very few of your coworkers know what you make and you don’t know what they take home either. Often this plays to your employer’s benefit. In a recent piece for The Atlantic, Jonathan Timm recalled how he was threatened with termination at both a coffee barista job and, later, a law firm if he spoke with his colleagues about their pay. It likely wasn’t a coincidence that these threats came at the same time he was trying to renegotiate his own pay. Managers know that employees, without this crucial knowledge, can’t use their coworkers’ pay to their advantage when negotiating.  “Employers who keep pay secret are free to set pay scales on arbitrary bases or fail to give well-deserved raises because of social norms,” Timm wrote.

For Tom Ewer, a UK-based blogger, his income reports served as a mode of accountability that forced him to keep his eye on the prize as he went from negative income to raking in up to $8,000 a month. “I thought it would be good to tell the world what my goals were, rather than keep it to myself,” he told me in an interview. “That was really the thinking behind the income reports, that they would hold me accountable and act as a very public form of success measurement.”

When Ewer launched his blog in July 2011, he was working for his father in commercial property management and development. It wasn’t that he necessarily had a particular passion for writing or blogging, he just wanted to pursue something with “more freedom and flexibility,” and he found the opportunity of earning passive income enticing. So he launched Leaving Work Behind, and within six months he felt he had enough momentum that if he quit his job and devoted himself full time to it then it would quickly reach sustainability, which it did by mid-2012.

His business plan, at least at first, was fairly simple: He would build a community by writing three posts a week and then use it to generate freelance blogging assignments. Near the year anniversary of his blog’s launch Ewer began to diversify his revenue by producing what he called “information products,” which were essentially online course made up of text and video that his readers could purchase.

Ewer started publishing the monthly income reports from day one because he wanted to map the trajectory of his growth and show the reality and hardship that goes into building a career from scratch. “All the [other income reports] I had seen seemed to start at $10,000,” he said. “Like boom. Out of nowhere. I loved the idea of being able to track my success starting from $0.”

Tom Ewer

Tom Ewer

That being said, publishing report after report showing net negative income can become disheartening at times, but Ewer argued it also kept him motivated. Writing them also forced him to perform a monthly analysis of his progress thus far, which enabled him to pinpoint his strengths and weaknesses and work on strengthening the former and avoiding the latter. And as he began to amass an audience, he found himself with a group of cheerleaders who would chime in with each report. “It was always good to get feedback from people,” he said. “It didn’t always help or inspire, but I would get some great insights at times.”

Many bloggers have found that their income reports are consistently their most widely-read blog posts, an indication that they’re filling a vacuum for a market of would-be entrepreneurs who are intensely curious about the nuts and bolts of building a business (perhaps this is why Alex Blumberg’s new podcast Startup, in which he minutely details his struggles to build a podcasting company, became popular so quickly). “People write a lot of nebulous, unproven stuff,” said Steve Scott, an affiliate marketer and ebook author who publishes his own income reports. “But when people see real numbers and real data, it’s an example of what actually worked and what didn’t. The problem is that they sometimes focus more on the financial numbers rather than the kind of the stuff that got me to that point.They seem to focus on the outcome, not the effort behind it.”


Scott, who lives in New Jersey, described transparency as a new business model; there’s a growing contingency of people who will pay for you to open up the hood to show them how the engine works, whether it’s through an ebook that costs $2.99 or a $50 video course. “As a society we’re getting more educated and our BS meter is more finely tuned so that we can tell when someone is making stuff up. We know when someone actually knows what they’re talking about.” And when we find that person, we’re willing to pay him or her to impart their knowledge on us.

Alexis Grant

Alexis Grant

So should we all start publishing income reports tomorrow, giving play by play details of how we secured each penny? It turns out that this kind of transparency is more amenable to some kinds of business, particularly the kind where you’re selling a product at a fixed price. Alexis Grant, a longtime journalist who now runs a content marketing company, has dabbled in income reports, but there are some aspects of her business that must remain hidden. In October, she published an income report for The Write Life, a blog she runs about the business of writing. The Write Life generates money through affiliate marketing and advertising, but it makes up a tiny percentage of her overall income. Most her money comes from Socialexis, a content marketing company she runs. “I’m happy to blog about revenues with The Write Life and ebooks,” she told me. “But I wouldn’t do this for the client side of my business, specifically because I just feel like some of our clients pay us more than others.” In other words, an income report would essentially remove her bargaining power, just as letting your employees discuss their pay with each other gives them more leverage in negotiating their salaries.

Of course another possible worry about producing income reports is that they have a tendency to shift your entire self worth so that it rests upon a single metric: how much money you make. Tom Ewer, after publishing income reports for nearly three years, suddenly stopped them. In a blog post announcing the decision, he explained that as he made more and more money, he found the reports less useful. Their main function was to provide structure as he tried to get his business off the ground, but now that it was humming along, he found they were providing a different mode of motivation. “Money has become a lot less important to me, and Leaving Work Behind was never about making loads of money,” he told me. “It was about freedom and flexibility. They were affecting how I viewed my business perhaps in a way I didn’t want to.”

Before you dismiss this as hippy idealism, consider how Americans, especially younger generations, are increasingly making lateral career moves because they value happiness over money. Nowhere has this been seen more prominently than with Wall Street’s struggles to recruit Ivy Leaguers who are flocking to Silicon Valley because they’re more interested in changing society than making more money. In a world where money truly isn’t everything, income reports can sometimes be viewed as merely shallow materialism masquerading as transparent business advice. The decision to produce your own may depend on whether they actually help clarify your business goals and, perhaps more important, whether you can publish the reports without suddenly finding yourself a slave to them.


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Images via Twitter and Leaving Work Behind

The Snow Fall backlash


In my article last week for which I interviewed New York Magazine digital editor Ben Williams about the magazine’s experiments with more ambitious article design, I mentioned the success of the New York Times’ Snow Fall feature and how many publications were trying to emulate it. Snow Fall, for those who don’t know, was a custom-designed article about a deadly avalanche in the state of Washington. In addition to its written reporting, it included extensive use of photography, documentary film making, design, and even GIFs (or at least something like GIFs) to tell its story. It was a visual wonderment and, to many people who visited it, felt like a step forward in storytelling and journalism. According to former New York Times editor Jill Abramson, the piece generated 2.9 million visits. But when I brought up Snow Fall to Williams, he was quick to differentiate what his team does from what the New York Times accomplished. “It’s possible to build them with each issue and without overwhelming the team,” he said of New York’s own custom-designed articles. “I don’t know how long it took to build Snow Fall, but I imagine it was quite a long time. These are more manageable.”

Perhaps something even more telling came later in my article when I asked him whether New York would expand these design elements to more articles on its website, rather than just one a week. “He said there were no current plans of doing so,” I wrote. “In fact, he said, such multimedia offerings can become distractions from the main text of a piece if used indiscriminately.”

This point was more fully detailed in a 2013 Medium article written by Bobbie Johnson. Cleverly titled “Snowfallen,” it laments how the journalism industry has become enamored with Snow Fall stories, by which he means articles that go to extreme lengths to add design elements to a piece that, as he argues, do little more than distract from the story itself:

Almost every example of snowfalling that I’ve seen in action puts reading second to the razzle-dazzle. Can you even remember what happens in Snowfall? Do you remember who wrote it? What did the multimedia help you do?

Snowfall was a good story, but it felt as if getting you to read it was the story’s secondary ambition. When I did it, I was constantly interrupted or distracted. And while the multimedia elements provided atmosphere, in all honesty they didn’t mean much. As a reader they drew me away from what I was there for. I came away from it thinking “ooh, lovely design” — not “this story is amazing”.

There are other problems you run into when rolling out these multimedia extravaganzas. For instance, many publications are reporting that nearly 50 percent of their traffic is coming from mobile phones, yet Snow Fall articles, with all their interactive design and wide page layouts, don’t convert on mobile screens at all. Look at this Pitchfork feature on Bat for Lashes and then visit again on your phone. Designers and coders are spending all this time custom-building an article and their efforts won’t even be seen by half the people who view the article.


That leads to a second point: the labor that goes into these. By their very nature they’re unscalable, and so any publication has to devote significant resources into developing them, resources that could be spent building more scalable tools and designs that can have utility beyond a single article.

It’s certainly true that Snow Fall stories can be fun to read and, when done well, significantly advance a story. But just as we shouldn’t publish longform journalism just for the sake of doing so, an editor should ask himself, before assigning a team of programmers and designers to pretty up an article, a question that isn’t always asked in the media industry: Why?


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Is launching an online advertising network a losing proposition?


Back in 2006, frequent visitors of Technorati, a popular blog search engine at the time, began seeing ads for a site called Performancing. Launched by a group of “professional bloggers,” presumably people who had figured out how to make a full-time living online, the site had the ambitious goal of serving as a resource to the blogosphere as it shed its pajamas and entered adulthood. In addition to how-to advice columns on making a living online, the company also planned to release a bevy of tools, from web analytics software to a blog advertising network. As someone who at the time dreamed of making a full-time living blogging (hell, I still do), I was addicted to sites like Performancing and Problogger, refreshing them multiple times a day so I could glean whatever information I could that would take me beyond the few bucks a day I was pulling in through Google AdSense.

The appeal of a blog advertising network is rather obvious. It allows content creators to focus on writing great posts and marketing their websites while the ad network takes on the responsibility of finding ways to monetize that content. As long as the network collects enough websites to its inventory, then it has at its fingertips millions of daily readers. This allows it to attract big name advertisers who wouldn’t otherwise bother with smaller blogs. The network runs the ads on the websites within the network, pays the bloggers 70 percent of earnings, and then takes a 30 percent commission for its troubles. And if you have enough websites within your network with enough inventory, that 30 percent can scale up to a lot of money.

Or so you’d think. Alas, many ad networks over the years have discovered that simply gaining access to million of readers doesn’t necessarily lead to advertisers beating down your door. Performancing suffered its own quick and ignominious fall, shutting down its ad network before it even got off the ground (I found an article claiming that it resurfaced the network in 2008, but if it’s still in existence I couldn’t find any evidence of it on its website). And it wasn’t alone. The last decade is rife with the carcasses of dead advertising networks, each more ambitious than the last. In 2009, Pajamas Media, which had inked deals with just about every major conservative blog on the internet, sent an out-of-the-blue email to its shocked bloggers that it was pulling its ads and focusing efforts on its video network. Common Sense Media, an ad network for liberal blogs, filed for bankruptcy in 2013. 

Even Federated Media, which was led by John Battelle, one of the most sought-after minds on online advertising, sold itself this year for $22 million to a Texas media company, far below the $200 million valuation it had received from investors. “We made money many years, and when we didn’t it’s because we decided to invest,” Battelle told Forbes’ Alex Konrad, trying to strike an optimistic tone. “… I think it’s true that it’s hard to make money in ad networks, but the specific story here could be different.” And then last week Say Media, which had purchased a number of high-profile blogs like ReadWriteWeb and XOJane, decided to sell off those properties after struggling to monetize them.


Why are the networks having such a hard time monetizing when they have such massive scale? Well, as Mathew Ingram argues in a recent Gigaom column, most of these networks are built upon the framework of display advertising, which has always struggled to gain a foothold for even the most sought-after media properties. In a world where you’re lucky to get $5 for every thousand pageviews generated,  there’s just not that much money to go around, for the network or for the content creator. Let’s say a network has access to blogs with a combined 10 million daily pageviews and is managing to secure CPMs of $5. It’s then generating $50,000 a day in revenue, or $18.25 million annually. Once you subtract the 70 percent cut for bloggers, that leaves a paltry $5.5 million. Not bad for a small business, but that hardly makes you a media mogul worthy of Silicon Valley investment.

Ingram says that these networks exist in between the two real moneymakers in online advertising — programmatic (think Google Adwords and Facebook’s promoted posts) and custom native advertising (practiced by BuzzFeed and Vice):

In effect, the low end of the ad market has been colonized by Google and Facebook — it might as well no longer exist, because those massive operators are the only ones who can compete on the basis of scale and algorithmic ability. And the middle of the market is a dead zone, filled with rapidly-declining banner ads and other gimmicks. All that is left that’s worth focusing on is custom content, and that is a tough game that requires 100-percent focus.

That’s not to say that there haven’t been successful ad networks. Blogads, a North Carolina company founded in 2002, has continued to be the little engine that could, floating mostly under the radar. It was first to the scene with providing an advertising platform for major bloggers like Daily Kos and Perez Hilton, and you can still see its signature ad slots at places like Marginal Revolution and Wonkette. I’ve always liked the concept of Blogads because its tool has always, like Facebook or Google ads, been programmatic, allowing everyday people to place ads without needing to go through a salesperson.

And then there are Glam Media and BlogHer, both of which, at least from the outside, seem to be thriving. Glam has pulled in a reported $35 million in investment and BlogHer has received $20 million (I have no idea what the valuations were). In 2013, BlogHer CEO Lisa Stone told USA Today that it had generated $100 million in advertising revenue in the past four years and paid out $25 million to its bloggers.

It’s difficult to tell why Glam and BlogHer are succeeding where others failed (or if they’re even truly succeeding at all. These could be bubble valuations). It could be because they focused on niche consumer sites whereas political news content, the kind published by Pajamas Media and Common Sense Media bloggers, has never been very attractive to advertisers. BlogHer also heads an influential conference, which has likely enhanced its name recognition for brand marketers.

But aside from these few success stories, it seems apparent, for the most part, that display advertising — which is still inherently tied to pageviews — is not and perhaps never will be a major money maker for your average single-author, independent blog. And if you look at some of the most successful independent bloggers on the web, whether it’s Andrew Sullivan, John Gruber, or Ben Thompson, nearly every one of them has eschewed banner ads entirely. So if you’re a content creator looking to launch a blog that you hope to make a full-time living on, maybe you should focus less on generating massive web traffic and instead place all your effort in gaining your 1,000 true fans.  They may be your only hope.


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New York Magazine’s experiments with more ambitious article design


In a recent long New York Magazine interview with Jon Stewart, the Daily Show host made an offhand reference to a man named Conrad Murray, whom many likely recognized as the doctor who was convicted of manslaughter for prescribing the pills to Michael Jackson that eventually led to the singer’s death. But if you’re like me, you either never knew the name or had long-ago forgotten it, and you would have either needed to open a new browser tab to Google Murray or, more likely, just kept reading the interview without getting the reference. But on this particular article, I noticed a red line under Murray’s name, and when I hovered over it a box popped up on the side of the page informing me of his significance.

In a media world where we’ve become obsessed with the phrase “explanatory journalism,” I found this feature to be a simple yet elegant way of providing contextual information without disrupting the flow of reading. It seemed particularly well suited for this kind of QandA interview, where the journalist can’t pause every few moments to explain something that Stewart just said.


According to Ben Williams, the editor of digital who oversees New York Magazine’s web content — including Vulture, The Cut, Grub Street, Daily Intel, and Science of Us — these explanatory footnotes are part of a larger effort to enhance the design and layout of New York’s feature articles.

Each week, Williams and his designers choose one of the feature articles set to appear in the print magazine, usually the cover story, and brainstorm ways they can add visual design elements that improve the storytelling process. This has become increasingly common at many publications ever since the launch of Snowfall, the multimedia story project produced by a team of New York Times journalists, designers, videographers, and coders. Though when I mentioned Snowfall, Williams was quick to note that New York Magazine’s forays into the medium are much less epic in scale. “It’s possible to build them with each issue and without overwhelming the team,” he said in a phone interview. “I don’t know how long it took to build Snowfall, but I imagine it was quite a long time. These are more manageable.”


New York Magazine began to experiment with designs outside the normal scope of its content management system with the publication of a long feature story on former baseball player Derek Jeter. The story centered on Jeter giving access to a photographer to document his daily life, so it lent itself to a wider display of photographs, rather than confining the images to the much narrower section allocated for text.

drones 2The team then moved beyond just crisper images in October when the magazine published a story on the rise of drones. In addition to sprinkling drone-filmed videos throughout the piece, it also utilized animated gifs of cartoons hovering next to the story copy as you scrolled down.

“The footnotes are an outgrowth of this,” Williams explained. The magazine runs a regular feature about a half dozen times a year that consists of a long interview with a cultural influencer. “When you read these interviews, there’s a lot of in-depth conversation,” Williams said. “And we run them as transcripts. We can’t add an explanatory sentence. So this is a nice way to give people more context on the references that are being used. If you’re reading the Marc Andreessen interview and you’re not fully immersed in the world of venture capital then he’s kind of talking about things you don’t necessarily get, and the footnotes are the easiest way to explain it.”

So what’s the editorial process like for such a project? How does Williams decide which articles to give this treatment to? “Once we know what’s going to be in each issue, which might be a week before it goes to press, we’ll pick a story, and often it’s the cover. It’s usually the story that will be most impactful and a lot of people will read.” For stories where they want to add footnotes, the editor who works on the story and the writer who did the interview will make the decisions on which elements need to be explained more.

I asked Williams whether his team planned on building some of these tools into the CMS so they could be used more widely, but he said there were no current plans of doing so. In fact, he said, such multimedia offerings can become distractions from the main text of a piece if used indiscriminately.

It’s hard to determine how useful readers have found these new designs (other than my anecdotal observation that I found them informative). Williams said they aren’t measuring how many people are hovering over the footnotes. “In terms of the stories that we’re choosing for these treatments in general, they’ve been pretty successful in terms of traffic. They’ve almost always been our biggest stories on any given week. Now you can’t say necessarily that this is because of the design, it could just be the story itself that’s drawing readers. You don’t know. But certainly it’s paying off in terms of some of our most visible stories looking a lot better and they’re more pleasurable to read now, so hopefully that has some kind of traffic impact as well.”


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The teenage YouTuber building a massive fanbase across college campuses


When Yafate Beyene informed his parents that he was going to forgo college and, almost immediately after graduating high school, move out to California, they didn’t believe him. “When I first told them back in Minnesota that that’s what I wanted to do, they kind of brushed it off saying, ‘Ah, he’d change his mind eventually,’” he told me in a recent phone interview. “But once they started seeing the feedback I was getting on the show, once my cousins in Africa were calling my parents and saying they liked the show, that’s when they knew the potential. That’s when they started supporting it.”

Beyene, better known as Yafa to his fans, produces, shoots, edits, writes, and stars in The Yafa Show, a man-on-the-street interview series for the YouTube age. At 19, he’s collected over 10,000 subscribers and nearly a million views. Sure, he’s still small fries compared to YouTube celebrities in the Million Billion Club — YouTube channels that have amassed at least a million subscribers and a billion views — but he has tripled his subscribership in the last year and gained nearly 500 new YouTube subscribers just in the two weeks that passed between when I interviewed him and when I began writing this article. And if you show one of his videos to a student currently attending college, there’s a good chance they’ll recognize him.

Yafa started playing around on YouTube as early as 13, though back then what he posted had little structure or consistency. It wasn’t much later, however, when he began to contemplate what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. “I decided I wanted to travel and I wanted to meet new people,” he recalled. It was around the age of 16 or 17 when he abandoned that first YouTube account and launched the Yafa Show, at first shooting it at local malls around his small hometown of Lakeville. But it turns out mall security doesn’t like you walking around bothering customers with a video camera, so he kept getting kicked out. “I wanted a more secure location where I could just come every week and have an actual talk show kind of format,” he said. “So on Fridays I’d get out of school and get in my car, in my 2000 Pontiac Sunfire, and I’d drive about 45 minutes to downtown Minneapolis.” He’d often arrive around 11 p.m., just as young 20 somethings would begin herding from bar to bar. Yafa would set up his tripod, pick up his microphone, and begin asking people walking by if they were willing to be interviewed.

The concept of the Yafa Show is deceptively simple, in that its description belies the skill and dexterity that goes into making it. On his phone he keeps a list of questions that he believes many people find themselves wondering but are too afraid to ask. Do women really fake orgasms, and why? How much daily masturbation is too much? Why do couples cheat? Once he’s chosen a question, he then proceeds to ask it to every single person who agrees to appear in front of his camera. Often, there will be group dynamics at play as he asks a couple friends together and they each riff off each other. Other times he’ll interview them alone, which can sometimes produce cringe-worthy moments as he asks that person a sometimes deeply personal question. Sometimes a person, upon hearing the question, will walk away without answering it. But perhaps his most consistent observation about the people he interviews is how much information they’re willing to give up. “I’ve gotten people to say some things that while I’m editing the footage later I’m like, ‘I can’t believe I got them to say that.’”

Yafa’s editing process is perhaps the most important component to his show. When it’s at its best, it’s not simply a chronological replaying of answers, but rather he groups the answers into thematic sequences that tell a longer story arc about how human beings approach a cultural issue. In the video on how much masturbation is too much, for instance, we learn there’s a solid contingent of free-flowing, everything goes individuals who think there’s never too much. Then we’re introduced to the prudes who consider more than once or twice a day for self-indulgence as rather pathetic. And then general consensus seems to settle on chaffing and blisters signalling that you’ve reached your daily limit. The follow-up questions become increasingly personal as Yafa switches from how much masturbation is too much to direct inquiries into how often his interview subjects masturbate themselves.

“He is a journalist and a cultural critic,” said Dane Golden, the vice president of marketing for Octoly, which consults with brands on how to properly utilize YouTube. Yafa reached out to Golden a few years ago and he’s since become a mentor and a kind of unofficial producer for the Yafa Show. “He’s going out into the world and finding people and asking them what they think and he’s doing serious reporting, even if it’s on not so serious topics.”

And it may be Yafa’s status as a person of color that allows him to wade into often taboo subjects like cultural and racial stereotypes — asking his interview subjects to provide answers that they may not want recorded for posterity a decade from now. An 18-year-old freshman at the University of Minnesota or UCLA who’s answering questions like “What’s the definition of a bad bitch?” or “Signs she’s on her period?” likely won’t find his or her answers so humorous once they’ve entered the job market, so perhaps Yafa’s best talent is getting these people to shed their inhibitions and caution and blurt out whatever thoughts reside within the id. “I think it’s important to make the interviewee feel as comfortable as possible — a true conversation rather than just hitting them with question after question,” Yafa said. “It feels like we’re just a whole bunch of bros talking about the girl they want, and I think that’s the way you can get the best answer from people.”

yafa 2

It wasn’t long before the University of Minnesota campus began to seem too small and confined for the ambition of the show, so on his spring break of senior year in high school, Yafa piled his stuff into his car and set off across the country, heading toward West Virginia and the Big 10 colleges in the area. “I was 17 and I couldn’t really stay in a hotel, so I slept in my car for those seven days. At 3 a.m., after I was done interviewing, I’d sleep there and then wake up at like 6 a.m. freezing. Then I’d drive to a new city, plan out the interview for the day and shoot at night. I just did that for seven days straight. I’d shower at gas stations. It was very low budget.”


A surprising thing happened as he went from campus to campus: Some people recognized him, and sometimes he’d have a line of people waiting to be interviewed. It was a sign that he was slowly but surely building an audience of fans. His most explosive growth, however, came after one of his videos was featured on WorldStarHipHop, the controversial website that has aggregated everything from funny videos to footage of young people, often minorities, engaging in violent fist fights (the website’s founder, Q, has been accused of promulgating negative stereotypes). WorldStarHipHop is so popular and powerful that major entertainers regularly choose to debut exclusive music videos there. “The day that happened, my phone got a notification every two minutes for the rest of the day and the following day. I had to put my phone on vibrate it was getting beeped so much. I was getting messages from people on Facebook, people texting me and saying, ‘Everybody at the University of Minnesota is talking about your video!”

When Yafa graduated, he flew to Spain for a week for a brief vacation, but once he came back he spent a day in Minnesota before packing up his stuff and heading to LA. He wasn’t even 18 years old yet and therefore couldn’t sign a lease, so for the next few months he sublet in an apartment with six other roommates and got a job at a Starbucks a 45-minute bike ride away (you can see a Starbucks in the background many of his most recent videos). Almost immediately after turning 18 he got a job at a sports bar and has been there ever since, working at the bar at night and then shooting the Yafa Show on his days off.

At first, he was plagued with self doubt about whether he’d made the right decision and if the show would ever really take off. “I remember I was at a Starbucks going over some ideas, and I had a guy approach me who said, ‘Yo Yafa, I’m a big fan, I didn’t know you moved to LA. I watched your show back when you were in Minnesota. Big fan.’ And that gave me all the motivation I needed to go back out there and start shooting.” Within months, he became a fixture on the UCLA campus, and by living in LA he’s begun to make some crucial relationships that might lead to future collaborations with entertainers and famous YouTubers.

But during our entire conversation there was one topic he never broached: money, or, more specifically, how he planned to make it. So I asked him about his business model. Was it to simply rack up views and participate as a YouTube partner, taking a cut of pre-roll ads on his video? “I’m a YouTube partner,” he said. “I think when the content is sometimes risque, it’s harder to get advertisers on the show.” And some YouTubers have complained over the years that the pre-roll ads don’t pay very high rates, requiring you to amass millions and millions of views per month in order to make decent money — a bar Yafa hasn’t reached yet.

Instead, he’d like to pursue an avenue already being mined by other major YouTube personalities — direct sponsorship. “Maybe a clothing line to go along with it,” he said. “Or maybe a travel sponsor.” In this scenario, a hotel chain or airline pays for him to travel from city to city to shoot his show. He’s also contemplated selling merchandise, like t-shirts with his face and show logo on them. “I’m focused [on revenue], but I’m not purely focused on it. Right now I feel like working on the content is the most important thing and once the show gets big enough the sponsors will come to you.”

I asked Yafa’s friend and mentor, Dane Golden, about the longterm business viability of the show. Golden has worked on the brand side of YouTube sponsorships, after all. He didn’t seem worried about Yafa’s prospects, and said it would be disastrous for his brand if he started using cheap gimmicks to juice up his YouTube views for advertisers. “He’s gradually finding an audience and it isn’t happening right away,” Golden said. “He is doing all he needs to do. He could do some collaborations [with other YouTube personalities], and collabs are how smaller YouTubers get bigger, but he doesn’t want to do it with just anybody, he wants to only do it with people who really identify with his audience and his type of show. So that takes time to find that audience.”

Until he does find that audience, Yafa will continue to get up, work his sports bar job, and then shoot on his days off, staying up all night editing the video while subsisting on coffee and chicken nuggets. Because that’s what he set out to do when he threw away a traditional career trajectory to pursue this dream. Most kids his age haven’t even figured out what they’re going to major in in college. Yafa, though he couldn’t pinpoint the exact number of subscribers he needs to have crossed the threshold between amateur YouTuber and professional, at least knows where he’s going. “It’s the point where if you tell a random person on the street that you have this number of subscribers, whether it’s 50,000 or 100,000, they say, ‘Wow!’ That’s how I’ll know I made it.”


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It’s not a theory. We know for a fact Facebook can influence elections


This week we learned, from an article by Ben Smith, that BuzzFeed has gained near-exclusive access to Facebook sentiment data from now until election day 2016. This data is important, he tell us, because Facebook is quickly becoming a dominant force in U.S. politics, one that will surpass television in importance and become the battleground for targeted ads and direct-to-constituent messaging. “Facebook is on the cusp — and I suspect 2016 will be the year this becomes clear — of replacing television advertising as the place where American elections are fought and won,” Smith wrote.

But elections are already being fought and won on Facebook and we’ve had definitive proof of such going back as far as 2010.

In August 2011, Facebook’s official Government and Politics page published a little-noticed case study about a state-wide ballot initiative in Florida, Amendment 8. The amendment essentially wanted to change the state’s constitution so that it allowed larger class sizes in public schools. Like similar initiatives in other states, the issue was falling along party lines. Fiscal-minded conservatives pushed for it because with larger class sizes you needed fewer teachers, and liberals hated it because they felt it would harm the education process and hurt the teacher unions. The pro-amendment side needed 60 percent of the votes to get it passed.

The anti-amendment side, a campaign called “Vote NO on 8,” hired Chong & Koster, a DC digital advertising firm that ran the online advertising for Al Franken in 2008 and helped with the online advertising for Harry Reid’s close race in 2010. This particular campaign was somewhat unique for the firm, however, because instead of being an add-on service in addition to television and direct mail buys, it was tasked with spending most of the ad budget online, largely on Facebook.

“In any other election this would have been run as a mail and robocall race,” Josh Koster, a partner at the firm, told me in 2011 (I had interviewed him for an article I never ended up writing). “They would tightly target a certain percentage of the electorate with mail and then you pound them with five, 10 mailers, and then robocall those same people. That’s basically how both sides do it in non-TV elections.”

There are two kinds of campaigns in American politics: television and non-television, and the overwhelming majority of races are the latter. For one, television ads are just expensive, but they’re also not very efficient in many cases. If you’re running for office in a district of 40,000 people but the media market where you ads are shown reaches a larger geographic area with 100,000 people, then you’re paying to show ads to 60,000 people who can never vote for you. So that makes most races direct mail races, whether it’s city council, city comptroller, school board, or even U.S. Congressman.

In the case of Vote NO on 8, it was a state-wide ballot initiative, but there simply wasn’t enough money to make a serious go at television. “Both sides spent roughly the same amount, half a million dollars,” said Koster. “But a week of TV in Florida costs a million, and that’s a thin week, and mailing every Democratic voter costs $400,000 per drop. And so when your campaign budget is $500,000, it doesn’t give you a lot of room to work with in terms of hitting people 10 times with your ad. That’s what we tried to do — that’s what everyone wants to do with a TV or mail piece — you want to hit them again and again and again.”


The firm didn’t even have enough to money to run state-wide online advertising campaigns, so it focused just on Dade and Broward, two of Florida’s most populous counties with a combined population of 4.2 million. Both are also Democratic strongholds. Using Facebook’s targeted advertising tools, which allow you to not only target by geographic location but also age and interests, Chong & Koster ran 7.5 million Facebook ads, 10.5 million animated banners, and 1.7 million pre-roll spots. Here’s how  Tyler Davis, a partner at Chong & Koster, described the campaign to Facebook’s Government and Politics:

With Facebook’s real-time performance reporting, we were able to pinpoint the best message/image for each audience, and move those findings to inform display ad production within a week.”  The agency also used Facebook to target people who liked politically oriented Facebook Pages or who listed relevant Likes & Interests or Education & Work. For example, it targeted people who listed terms like “teacher,” “pta” “math teacher” to reach educators. Because both the polling and Facebook research indicated that the issue carries special resonance with parents of school children, it even included interests like “I love my son” and “I love my daughter” (and layered them with demographic targeting.)

The ballot initiative ended up being defeated, but that doesn’t mean, in and of itself, that Chong & Koster’s Facebook advertising was the reason. And it was important to figure out whether it was responsible, because Republicans were pushing similar ballot measures in states all across the U.S., so the backers of Vote NO on 8 needed to know whether this was an efficient use of their money.

So they hired polling firms to go back and check their work. “Of the 16 largest counties in Florida, the only two that broke 50 percent for our client were Broward and Dade,” said Koster. “In fact the difference is a 19 point margin in those counties. Again, we did choose Broward and Dade because they’re Democratic counties, and education is a Democratic correlating issue, so in theory, Democrats should do a little better there. So right there is not yet proof of anything. However, it’s important to point out that Palm Beach and Broward are almost identical in Democratic swing, and there was an outside-the-margin difference between them.”

They used two call centers with live callers to poll Floridians on measurements like their amount of web use, their party affiliation, their ability to recall specific messaging around the campaign, and how they voted on the amendment. What the polling firms found out was astonishing.

Everyone assumed this was a party line vote, and it was just a matter of finding Democratic voters, educating them on the issue, and getting them to the polls. But what the polling firm found was that heavy web users who were on Facebook were 10 points more likely to vote no on 8 than Democrats (who may or may not have seen the ads) were. “The people who self identify as Democrats who should have voted our way were 10 percent less likely to vote for it than people who were heavy web users on Facebook,” said Koster. “And people who were heavy web users on Facebook, including Republicans and independents, outperformed Democrats on a Democratic issue because of the online ads.” Not only that, but heavy web users were often able to repeat back the messaging slogans they’d seen verbatim.

Though this amazing feat wasn’t reported on much in the mainstream press (or at all, as far as I could tell with a Google search), the firm won “Best Use of New Technology” Gold at the 2011 Pollie Awards, a prestigious accolade within the political advertising industry.

And that was in 2010. So yes, Facebook is a gargantuan force in U.S. politics, even if many campaigns haven’t caught on to its importance. Political candidates consistently talk about reaching across party lines with little to show for it. Chong & Koster didn’t just use Facebook ads to reach across party lines, it obliterated them.


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Stop conflating the woes of book publishers with the decline of books


Over the last decade, whenever the subject of the state of journalism has come up, the most common assessment presented is that “journalism is dying.” The evidence for this? Massive layoffs at newspapers, which began hemorrhaging jobs in the mid 2000s and accelerated their death spiral when the recession hit and advertisers’ budgets collapsed. The main culprit for this decline, we’re told, is the internet, or, more specifically, the likes of Craigslist, Google, and Facebook, which have stolen away eyeballs and, more important, advertising dollars. And because of all this, society is worse off; without journalism, we have no government and corporate watchdogs, no method by which to keep the public informed.

But this viewpoint adopts a major logical fallacy, that just because newspapers are dying then that also means journalism is dying as well. Put another way, while the internet has played its part in crushing newspapers and their business model, it’s also given rise to other forms of journalism that, I think, have improved the industry for the better. Not only have we seen the emergence of new news products, from explainer sites like Vox and FiveThirtyEight to local news startups like TAPinto, but everyday people who don’t consider themselves journalists now have vehicles with which to contribute on-the-ground reporting. We saw this with the tweets that arose during the Ferguson protests and videos that emerged on Facebook in Hong Kong. Cynics will note that many of these new journalism jobs are for bloggers who merely partake in aggregation and frivolous content, but newspapers have always relied on repackaging content and still do. I worked as an editor for a major magazine as recently as 2013, and much of its reporting focus consisted of following the news cycle with a cursory call to a company or politician’s spokesperson for a fresh quote. Little of what we did is what I’d consider “original reporting.”

I was reminded of this relationship between newspapers and journalism when reading about the current battles between major book publishers and Amazon. Though a lot of ink has been spilled on this dispute, Franklin Foer made perhaps the most definitive case for labeling Amazon a monopolist and prosecuting it as such in a long article for the New Republic.  He details how “Amazon has left a trail of destructioncompetitors undercut, suppliers squeezedsome of it necessary, and some of it highly worrisome.” And in a Vanity Fair article published this week, Keith Gessen gives us a detailed history of how Amazon went from savior of the publishing industry to a supposed cutthroat monopolist that will hasten its death. But buried within a several thousand word article, we have this startling paragraph:

Meanwhile, in the background, a funny thing was happening. The publishers were doing well. Print-book sales were down, but e-book sales were up. On a unit basis, the new e-book sales more than made up for lost print-book sales. On a dollar basis, because e-books were cheaper than print books, revenues were flat. But with e-books there were no manufacturing costs, no warehousing costs, no shipping costs, no returns. Even at a lower price, the profit margins were higher. Some revenues, it turns out, are better than others. “I’ve been in this business a long time,” one publisher told me recently, “and it’s always been that one house was up one year and down the next, whereas another house was down one year and up the next. But for all the houses to be up at the same time, year after year? I’ve never seen that. And the number-one reason is the Kindle.” The Kindle was doing what Amazon had claimed all along it would do: it was making publishers money.

So Amazon was lowering the price of the books for consumers while generating the same profits for publishers? It hardly seems like the work of a monopolist to create an ecosystem in which nearly every side benefits. Instead, what we’re seeing here is a resistance from major publishers over two things.

The first is their sense of pride. Whenever they sit down to try and negotiate pricing with Amazon, they’re told to take it or leave it. They find it outrageous that another corporate behemoth would have the gall to dictate to them the price at which their products are sold (nevermind that they’ve always had the power to launch their own ereader apps and sell at whatever price they want). To them, Amazon is a schoolyard bully they must stand up to, even if it that bully, like Robin Hood, distributes its benefits to the masses.


The second naturally arises from the first. Sure, publishers are making money now, but if they don’t fight to regain control then Amazon will consistently squeeze them until both authors and publishers make virtually nothing.

Both of these motivators, of course, lie within their own corporate interests, and the public rarely becomes incensed on behalf of huge corporate behemoths, so their public relations strategy has been to present this battle as one over the very future of books, enlisting several of their own authors to mobilize their fan bases and declare Amazon the enemy of the written word.

But just as we saw with newspapers being conflated with the journalism industry, major New York book publishers are conflating themselves with the book industry. It’s hard to argue that books are in danger, for instance, when you read the National Endowment for the Arts report that found that “for the first time in over a quarter-century … literary reading has risen among adult Americans.” The most significant gains were among young adults (ages 18 to 24), a demographic, I’ll note, that sees some of the highest adoption rates of smart phones and tablets.

We’re not just seeing an expansion of readers, but of writers as well. The author Hugh Howey issued a report finding that, of the 120,000 bestselling titles on Amazon, 25 percent were written by self-published authors. Many writers, after trying unsuccessfully to penetrate the New York publishing scene, are now selling thousands of books a month on the Amazon Kindle and other ereader apps. And they’re getting a bigger cut of the sale as well, pulling in between 35 and 70 percent on every ebook sold vs the 10 percent given to traditionally-published authors.

We’ve also experienced the expansion of book-like products, like the proliferation of longform journalism. While most the articles promoted on LongReads are shorter than your average book, they still scratch that itch all book readers have to dive more deeply into a particular subject.

Matt Yglesias has argued in Vox that not only are book publishers on the wrong side of the dispute, they also deserve to be crushed. The publishers, he argues, have become superfluous in a world where technological tools allow anyone to lay out an ebook, and they often fail at what they should arguably be best at: marketing books. “The real risk for publishers is that major authors might discover that they do have the ability to market books.”

So when book publishers argue that the book industry is under threat, what they really mean is their own bottom lines are threatened. And if you believe that your book reading experience will thrive after Amazon relinquishes and gives them better negotiating terms, well then I have a newspaper to sell you.


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Image via Blunderbuss