Australian entrepreneur with FanFooty (alive) and Tinfinger (dead) on his CV. Working on new projects, podcasting weekly at the Coaches Box, and trying not to let microblogging take over this blog.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Journalists as database reporters

An excellent article on Gannett today by Rich Gordon from the Readership Institute at Northwestern University. Gordon highlights the Indianapolis Star's attempts to go beyond the traditional role that Web sites play in mainstream media organisations, which is to say shoveling their journalism products out with little to no effort. The Star is forging Internet-native applications that are built less on simple prose and more on structured data. Most cuttingly, Gordon presents a hierarchy of what he calls "database journalism", culminating in level 5 where journalism which is developed in conjunction with databases, turning the raw facts into human stories.

It's no coincidence that Gannett, owner of the Star and many other regional American newspapers, is one of the purchasers of Topix.net, about which I have written often in the past. I don't know if it's a case of Gannett "getting it" and the Topix buy-out being a consequence of that, or whether the influence of Rich Skrenta, Chris Tolles and the Topix gang has percolated back through stuffy old-style institutions... probably a bit of both.

I have always been amazed, not having ever worked for a newspaper during my journalism career, at how pitifully little newspaper companies have made use of obvious strengths in their current operations which could have been used to dominate huge portions of the Web advertising pie. The "morgues" where the newspaper archives are kept are goldmines which their owners have seemed clueless about how to monetise. Put a search engine optimisation consultant in charge of the back issues of any major newspaper... well, that argument has been made over and over.

The point about how databases can be made to serve and advance journalism is not really new, either. Reports about polls, economic figures, sociological studies, sporting statistics, and many other kinds of databases fill the pages of newspapers already. The key difference in Gordon's analysis is Adrian Holovaty's motto of "everything that can be linked should be linked". It is as if most newspaper sites have a religious intolerance against linking within their stories, not to sully their professional prose with anything so tawdry and utilitarian. That attitude must change.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Crazy Uncle episode #389,235: CPC ads

Why is it that memes in the tech blogosphere are so often structured around "A-List" Crazy Uncles saying stupid shit just to get a reaction, and right-minded people on less popular blogs having to set them straight? The latest is Steve Rubel, who has been particularly stupid lately, pitifully missing the mark again with a piece on why he thinks cost-per-click (CPC) ads are heading for a recession (which I refuse to link as it is nakedly manipulative linkbait) and people like Andrew Goodman at the excellent Traffick blog providing comprehensive rebuttals.

The craziest thing is that Rubel didn't even bring up the main possible reason why CPC ads will see a decline - which is that CPM ads (i.e. display ads which generate revenue for the publisher even if they are not clicked on) will increasingly dominate online ad inventories. That was certainly the case on my site FanFooty this year: for the majority of the year, 80-90% of the AdSense inventory on the site was bought out by advertisers with CPM display ad campaigns, culminating in a battle over the inventory in the second half of the year between Schick and Gillette.

I don't think it would be telling any secrets to say that the difference in earning potential between regular CPC text link ads and CPM display ads hovered for me between 1:5 and 1:30. Cost-per-action (CPA) ads are notoriously poor earners for publishers - you only have to look at Google's failing Referrals product to see that. As Andrew points out, it is folly to think that CPA is going to replace everything, because the three marketing tools each have their place and not every site will engineer its content towards being a simple affiliate marketer.

People have been saying for years that adoption of the Web as an advertising platform has lagged adoption of the Web by users, and as large advertisers shift their budgets online there will be a lot more display advertising to fill publisher inventories. Thankfully we have blogs like Traffick to disseminate useful analysis, quietly but effectively, without needlessly emotional rhetoric.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Metanarrative, Joe Morgan and Dave Winer

Many of my past experiences and hobbies have assumed post-facto significance in my own mind as I work on the looming beta version of Tinfinger, informing my understanding of what it is to create "an Internet version of the Who's Who". One of these hobbies is my predilection for snark blogs, specifically snark blogs which are focused on attacking one person. They are mostly anonymous, or at least pseudonymous, for obvious reasons. Some of them have evolved to the point where they are an essential part of the celebrity of their target.

Arguably the best such snark blog on the Internet - I would love to see a full list - is Fire Joe Morgan, which is mostly concerned with the eponymous baseball Hall of Famer and current ESPN gamecaller. As the name of the blog suggests, the author, who rejoices in the nom de plume of Ken Fantastic, thinks very little of Joe Morgan's fitness to be paid a lot of money to commentate on baseball matches. The high points of the FJM blog each week of baseball season are Ken's reviews of what he calls JoeChats, which are live online chats he has with fans on the ESPN Web site. Ken rails against Joe's obvious peccadilloes of poor communication: his overuse of the word "consistent", his inability to spell "concentrate" with two Ns, his complete cowardice in taking any stance at all on many questions, and his weasel words to get out of saying anything remotely interesting or controversial. What is more remarkable is that the FJM blog has become popular enough that readers who agree with him about Joe's incompetence have infiltrated these JoeChats and feed Joe with obviously staged questions, replete with misspelt "concetrate" and as many mentions of "consistent" as possible, purely to show Joe up. Ken, of course, gleefully highlights his reader's sly digs, and it all adds to the frivolity. One has to think that some people at ESPN must know about FJM by now and must know that they're being played for fools, which makes one wonder whether the tech lads who run the JoeChats agree with Ken and his minions and are also in on the gag.

While this is all very funny, it is also interesting in what it says about how the Internet is being used. The critics of a media practitioner are invading the medium itself and making parody part of his actual performance. I'm no media studies expert with a handle on the jargon of philosophy, but it seems to me that in this case the metanarrative is merging with the narrative.

Another example of where the snark blogs are becoming vital to comprehension of a person's fame is Dave Winer. Eye on Winer is not the first anti-Winer snark outlet and it probably won't be the last, but it's increasingly starting to look like FJM in that you can't really read Scripting News without also reading the comments on EOW to understand what's really going on.

For example, the anonymous author of EOW linked to the comments on a previous item today which predicted two weeks ago how Dave would react to the recent Google OpenSocial API moves, correctly identifying that Dave would attack Google for every flimsy reason other than the real one, which is that he hates Google whenever they support Atom as a competitor to RSS (not to mention OpenSocial as an alternative to XML-RPC). Is Dave that transparent? If so, is that just a function of age in that like Morgan, Dave is just too set in his ways to realise when he's retreading old ground and displaying his mental quirks one too many times? Dave shows some knowledge of the snark blogs tracking him, so he must know that he is being mocked constantly for the same bugbears. Does that make him more or less worthy of mocking? Familiarity breeds contempt, they say, and perhaps one of the downsides to the constant media exposure that both Joe and Dave enjoy, albeit in different media environments, is that personality faults are magnified and repeated again and again.

The tones of FJM and EOW are very similar: incredulity that their targets are so consistent (pun intended) in their incompetence and/or gutlessness. As long as Joe and Dave keep using the Internet to communicate, they seem incapable of changing their ways, and there will always be snark blogs there to feed off them in a relationship that becomes more symbiotic over time.

PS: Steve Gillmor would be another highly appropriate target of such a snark blog, given how much he's rumoured to be culpable for the downfall of Podtech... but no one cares enough about him to start one. :)