David Carr of The New York Times started a wee bit of a panic at AOL subsidiary Patch over the weekend it seems. He declared Patch, the hyper-local news product that was the brainchild of current AOL chief Tim Armstrong, essentially dead.
Not so according to a memo that was leaked to Business Insider. Yet the writing is so clearly on the wall: Patch is doomed. GigaOm’s Mathew Ingram breaks it down:
As I and a number of others have argued for some time, Armstrong’s solution to this hyper-local conundrum — and the related hyper-local advertising strategy he hoped would help pay for it — was fatally flawed because it is an inherently industrialized approach to what isn’t an industrial problem. In a nutshell, hyper-local news or journalism or content of any kind isn’t something that can scale to the point where a single massive entity like AOL can apply an assembly-line solution and profit.
Part of the reason for that is economic, and related to the breakdown of the traditional advertising model, as well as the disruptive effect that digital content has had on the journalism business, both large and small. But part of it is about what makes hyper-local news work at all, and that is community.
I’ve been thinking about the relationship of local news, citizen journalism, and big-time aggregators a lot recently. There may be some role for Patch-like entities to play in an effectively crowdsourced news ecosystem, but purveyor of a “one stop shop” isn’t it.
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The revelations of National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden are the gift that keep on giving. Today tech giants Apple, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo, AOL and Linkedin issued an open letter to President Barack Obama and Congress asking for the surveillance programs administered by the NSA to be reined in.
The companies outlined five principles based on a “strong” belief “that current laws and practices need to be reformed.”
The principles and much more after the jump.
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Filmmaker and Webby Awards Founder Tiffany Shlain has brought the style, and substance, of her personal essay film "Connected" to a new AOL Original web series.
Shlain's "The Future Starts Here" tackles the same thematic concern as her 2011 documentary: the effect that technology is having on our personal lives. Only instead of looking to tie all the various thematic threads into one grand thesis, each episode of the series takes on a single component.
The first episode "Technology Shabbats" makes the case for a practice that Shlain has been promoting for a few years now: taking one day a week to unplug.
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First off: when did AOL get into the quality online video business in a big way? How did I miss that memo?
More to the point: how are they managing to be so forward thinking as to make author/comedian/entrepreneur/Twitter wit extraordinaire Baratunde Thurston the front man for a show about crowdfunding?
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In the Game of Buzz it’s be noticed or be nobody. Win, Lose or Spin, as long as you’re talked about you’re alive. For now.
- Turntable.fm: There’s been little buzz about Turntable.FM for a minute now. Not too surprising as Spotify ate up a bunch of attention as the summer wore on. But it’s a new season, and time for the mainstream press to catch up, which our big sister — NPR — did today with a long post about Turntable.fm. Nothing revelatory, just that it exists. For revelations you’ll have to turn to MG Sigler who got the scoop that the service has an iPhone app in the works. Complete with screenshots. Too bad for MG and Turntable that that particular scoop was being held back for the TechCrunch Disrupt conference — the blog he works for sponsors. Oops. All’s fair in tech muckraking it seems.
- Nintendo: When is a radical price drop that demonstrates the weakness of your product launch not a bad thing? When it stimulates demand enough to triple sales. And unlike HP, who saw massive sales spikes when they slashed the price of their TouchPad, Nintendo is actually committed to the 3DS as a platform. Going so far as to create an add on right analog stick — that totally uglifies the system. Hmm… maybe this belongs in the next category.
- Tumblr: The popular, and always fun to beat up on, blogging platform hit it’s 10 BILLIONTH post today. For reference: it hit 1 Billion posts a year ago. You can do the math yourself. That doesn’t mean questions about the stability, reliability, and just plain seriousness about the service have gone away. A widely circulated interview with founder David Karp by Reuters writer and known critic Anthony DeRosa paints a picture of a company that has the temerity of following Apple’s philosophy when it comes to vision and secrecy, but perhaps without the chops to pull the pose off.
- Yahoo! Do you still Yahoo!? We all know who doesn’t anymore: recently fired Yahoo! CEO Carol Bartz. She had some choice words for the company’s Board of Directors, who fired her by telephone this week. The company has had a long string of missteps, but it’s hard to tell if this is a sudden awakening or a dip of the toes into the deadpool. Now rumors are cropping up that AOL is looking to merge with the former king of internet portals , which could create a content focused powerhouse with a seemingly ubiquitous reach. When in doubt, combine to form Voltron?
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Sometimes the Game of Buzz is a matter of Win, Lose or Spin. This week in tech has been all about mergers, acquisitions, and abject surrender.
- EVERNOTE: This is a WIN-WIN. The company behind the popular “external memory” application, whose founder has dreams of hooking computers up to our brains, has snapped up another geek favorite, quick fire screencap and image tweaking app Skitch. On the very day they announced the acquisition they dropped the price of the $19.99 image app to the ultra competitive FREE. As a long term user of both apps, this was awesome news to brighten up a turbulent week.
- GOOGLE: In the latest skirmish in the never ending patent wars, Google has gone and bought itself a phone hardware manufacturer: Motorola, to be precise. If you don’t remember, they were the makers of the once ubiquitous Razer phone whose last big success was… the Razer phone. The move has been heralded as everything from shrewd to desperate. That’s the problem with big, landscape altering acquisitions – only time can tell the outcome. When AOL acquired Time Warner in the 1990’s everyone thought the old media universe was gone for good. Now we’re just surprised that AOL, after being spun off of the media giant, managed to have enough strength left to swallow The Huffington Post. Only one thing is certain: Google just tied up $12.5 billion. [Our verdict? This is going to end badly.]
- HP: Once upon a time in America a business the size of Hewlett Packard would tough out a bad product launch — like what they just experienced with their TouchPad tablet computer — and keep revising and refining until they got it right. But that was before the dark times, before the drumbeat of quarterly profits made CEOs skittish in the face of seemingly unbeatable competition. This week saw HP abandon the tablet market, kill off their development of WebOS (which they like, just bought), and seemingly run away from the PC market altogether.
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UPDATED at 5:11PM PST
This is the question that media observers and pretty much everybody inside the industry is asking all the time. One they’ve been asking since mainstream America figured out they could use something other than AOL to go online. Yet it’s the framing of the issue that causes the most confusion. What’s at stake isn’t so much whether journalism is going to live or die, but who makes the editorial decisions that shape the national conversation.
This year has already seen some big shake-ups and scandals. A long document detailing AOL’s editorial practices leaked, throwing fuel on the fire. The media powerhouse- which has bought out major sites like Engadget and TechCrunch- laid out its priorities: quantity over quality. Not long after that AOL bought up internet broadsheet The Huffington Post, and pretty much the entire blogosphere freaked out.
A good example of the reaction is established writer Douglas Rushkoff’s declaration that while he would write for Arianna Huffington for free, he wouldn’t do the same for AOL. The prevailing perception across the web being that the site’s success was built on the back of unpaid contributors. A lot of well known personalities use the HuffPo as a soapbox, giving the HuffPo the aura of the place to be if you were a left-of-center commentator. While this gives them social credibility, the staff at the HuffPo were quick to point out that the spine of their organization is built around their paid staff.
Some of that paid staff is a whole lot richer thanks to the $315 million dollar buyout. The New York Observer reports this week that around a half-dozen veteran HuffPo staffers received million dollar bonuses. Which is crazy money no matter how you look at it. While no one can seriously expect this kind of deal to become the norm, it illustrates the new media dream: get in early on a project and pray for the pot of gold at the end of the development cycle.
The real issue is not whether journalism is dying or not. The question is how much is original reporting worth in the market, and is there going to be a professional journalistic class that extends beyond the privileged pundits of the cable news circuit?
Digital Lords & Lackeys
The realm of professional journalism has become a kingdom of the haves and have nots. On the high end of the spectrum are the million dollar buyout bonuses, and yearly salaries for marquee-name editors that hover around a half million a year. At the lower end of the pay scale, just before we hit the scorched earth of free, are the content farms and hyperlocal projects like AOL’s Patch.
As one Patch freelancers tells us “the contract states that it’s 25 dollars for a post and 50 for a post with pictures or video. Somehow, though, I did make 40 an article (with pictures) for one of the towns, which meant that discretion came down to editors, and they didn’t have to follow that contract.” Editors at Patch pull in roughly 30K a year, for jobs that are essentially 70 hour a week gigs. [UPDATE: We reached out to Patch, and while they would not speak on the record they dispute these figures. Their policy is not to discuss reporter compensation.]
With freelancers being offered a per post bounty that amounts to the cost of dinner and a movie- for one, sans tip, at a fast food joint with a student discount card, there’s little question of why the quality of reporting down in the trenches is suffering. Amateurs may bring the passion- personal interests and obsessions driving their investigations- but a professional journalistic class requires stable financial support to dig into a story and get original material. Even for fluff pieces. When the economic incentives are there to do the work quickly and move on, there is little chance of creating value for the audience.
Those who are looking at journalism as a potential career face stark choices. A pathway can be carved out if you’re willing to spend the time building up a name online. Book deals and national magazine assignments can net big paydays. The risk involved is high, however, and must be fueled by great passion, deep pockets, or dumb luck. Nothing is gained by putting down those who have the entrepreneurial spirit to carve their own niche out in the world, but society has been suffering without a legion of reporters doing the day to day grunt work. Big stories like the City of Bell corruption scandal don’t come out of nowhere. While channels like Wikileaks may open up new avenues for whistleblowers, they can’t replace boring old beat reporting that distills and analyzes the impact of such corruption.
Not all is bleak. Rupert Murdoch’s new iPad venture The Daily is offering piece rates in the hundreds of dollars for 800-1000 word pieces. Yet the question remains as to whether the tablet-based “newspaper” model will catch on. Moreover, the new model looks a hell of a lot like the old model, but with some of the cash flowing through a new channel: the digital platform holder.
More Cooks In A Smaller Pot
In the case of The Daily, that platform holder is Apple. For their subscription service Apple is taking a 30% share off the top. This Apple “tithe” (“tax” doesn’t do the amount or terms justice) cuts right to the heart of the problem of funding journalism- indeed any media venture.
The question is who should be taking home the bulk of the earnings. Those creating the content, or the publishers and the platform holders? Conventional wisdom is that the spoils go to those who are taking the economic risks. In the prevailing system the risk is put increasingly on the back of freelancers working for little to nothing, while the platform holders attempt to lower their own risk by shifting the center of economic activity to sheer volume.
New models have emerged, with efforts like Spot.us which uses crowdfunding for targeted investigations. Then there is software like Readability, which had planned to roll out an iOS client in Apple’s App Store until they ran afoul of the new subscription rules. The Readability model involves end users subscribing to the service, which divides 70% of the fee among the publishers that utilize the service.
Yet there are problems with both. Crowdsourcing is subject to the whims of the audience. Investigations that don’t attract interest go unfunded, leaving potentially important stories untold. Readability came up against the Apple 30%, which would severely impact their bottom line. It is a case of content aggregators and platform holders competing for the same piece of the economic pie.
Every one of these economic factors affects what we see and hear as “news”.
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Sara Imjan on Tuesday, Feb. 8th
It’s one of those rare days on which the tech press and the mainstream press are completely saturated with coverage of the same story…so naturally Turnstyle can’t hold back from weighing in on AOL’s purchase of the Huffington Post.
A less ubiquitous angle version of the story than speculation that the deal will turn all of HuffPo into a cesspool of banality, thus tanking both businesses, is the question of what will happen to some of the sites AOL has acquired that are meant to serve audiences of color.
Preceding the big announcement, the Huffington Post quietly announced that Angela Burt-Murray, head honcho for its GlobalBlack project targeting black audiences, had left the site, which was developed in partnership with BET co-founder Sheila Johnson. Huff is not saying what will happen to GlobalBlack, or sites like AOL’s BlackVoices and AOL Latino, which were “mysteriously omitted” from a graphic depicting its coterie of sites.
Murray too has refrained from comment about her departure.
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The last decade introduced us to dial-up and PDAs, but we quickly transformed into iPhone, iPad, Facebook and Twitter consumers. In partnership with Youth Radio, we take a stroll down memory lane and look back at what young people call “ancient” technology.
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