Who will pay for real news? Döpfner’s question to Google still unanswered two years later


News quality and a free press shouldn’t be the price paid for internet media

Jason Pontin, MIT Technology Review Editor-in-Chief posted Mathias Döpfner’s Why we fear Google on his Facebook page last weekend. It is Op-Ed piece that ran in English and German in the Frankfurter Allgemeine  written in 2014 as an open letter to Eric Schmidt Executive Chairman of Google. Pontin didn’t get many bites from the many writers that follow him but his post infected me. My professional and cultural experience with Germany began in the early 1990’s when publications like the Allgemeine and Handelsblatt’s ventured into the United Kingdom and the British Financial Times’ ventured into Germany seeking print subscribers and it continued through the digital transformation of the country’s networks, media and markets.

It is a very important culturally influenced essay written by Mathias Döpfner Vorstandsvorsitzender (loosely translated but not exactly chairman of the board) of Germany’s largest publisher Axel Springer. The most important distinction in his role compared to the American chairman is the German board of directors has a social charter with labor leaders sitting at the board table instead of across the table. In a socially progressive country a the transparency of a free press is more highly valued than it might be elsewhere.

Döpfner’s letter reminded me of the movie Spotlight’s sad theme. Not sexual abuse of course, but the relentless digital erosion of the once formidable Boston Globe. After shuttering bureaus around the world and cutting staff a visit to the Globe’s Boston headquarters on Morrissey Blvd in Dorchester arouses the uncomfortable chill of a mausoleum. The Tomb of the Unknown Investigative Reporter should be built on the Globe’s grounds to represent the crimes, corruption and political malfeasance like the Catholic Church’s sexual abuse scandal that will now go unreported because so many of the Globe and other publishers’ investigative staffs were let go.

Bloggers aren’t a replacement for investigative reporting because crowd sourced editorial oversight isn’t a replacement for editors who run retractions and corrections and fire reporters who intentionally misreport the news. Reports from Facebook, Buzzfeed or Fox News are not credible without corroborating them with Bloomberg, the Economist, BBC or other reliable and responsibly edited publication.

Döpfner has presided over dismantling and remaking Axel Springer in the face of digital transformation. He was appointed Editor-in-Chief in 1998 just when the internet began to boil news media in a sea of electrons. The turmoil of Germany’s equivalent of People Magazine, Bunte or the New York Daily Post, Bild don’t really measure the social loss. The loss can be seen in the debilitation of German publications of record like the Allgemeine by the same forces that put the Boston Globe on life support.

Steven Johnson wrote an insightful piece this summer for the York Times Sunday magazine the Creative Apocalypse That Wasn’t in which he assessed the economic impact of the digital transformation of the arts on artists and performers. He concluded that the creatives are thriving; it is only management such as the record labels that have been squeezed by digital transformation without any loss to society.

But management is what news readers pay for when they buy a paper or digital newspaper. Editors manage the news content quality and Editors-in-Chief like Döpfner, Mark Thompson of the New York Times or Mike Sheehan of the Boston Globe try to balance the social contract to deliver real news with arts, entertainment and whatever else produces the clicks that keep the lights on. For the last decade they have been distracted by keeping the lights on as the free fall of prices paid for digital display revenue continues and print advertising dies off with its subscribers.

Pro Publica president Richard Toefel recently challenged McKinsey’s report that the print newspaper decline is leveling off in an analysis posted to Medium.  If Toefel is right the clicks will continue to grow diluting a declining amount of news.

News is an exception to Johnson’s conclusion that there isn’t a social loss from the internet’s eliminating the management layer that once produced the arts because editorial management is more than promotion and distribution it is reputation. Without editorial oversight there is no news. If a way to pay for editors to manage news reporting in a free market continues to elude the best efforts of almost every publication in the developed world, perhaps the freedom that a free press brings should be subsidized like solar energy.

Döpfner fear of Google must extend to the angst of peering into an internet abyss because he is faced with breaking a much stronger social and cultural contract to produce news.

Find everything by Steven Max Patterson on Twitter @stevep2007


Contrary to what Topolsky and Malik say, Twitter’s model is sustainable

twitter problem
Comparing Twitter to Facebook boosted VC IPO returns but didn’t help the company. But thinking Twitter is failing because its not Facebook is sheer folly

Rant: To protect the health and safety of venture capitalists’s children, VC offspring shouldn’t be allowed to compete at sports – for fear the VC’s would shoot their child-athletes so full of steroids to be mistaken for the Russian Olympic track team. Twitter is that steroid bloated clumsy Baby Huey VC offspring, straining to look coordinated and graceful next to the gifted child Facebook.

Steroids were necessary for Twitter though, in the VCs’ perpetual quest to parlay one overvalued private investment round into the next until finally the company like a listing cargo ship over–laden with VC hype crashes onto the rocks of a public offering while the VCs sell their holdings and take the women and children’s lifeboat seats.

That sadly is Twitter’s story. A wonderful company with a great idea that just wasn’t going to go to college on a sports scholarship giving the VCs a huge return without some help overstating expectations. The most valued VC skill is repeatable overvaluation schemes because real value like Apple, Google and Facebook are too rare to be counted on for fat returns. Right now twitter is recovering from an overdose of VC steroids.

Almost everyone from Marc Andreessen @pmarca to Pope Francis @Pontifex announce daily magna opera and interpretations of the day’s most relevant personal and public developments on Twitter. Monetization and user growth doesn’t match Twitter’s over-stated expectations and it never will match the Facebook-sized social network expectations that the VCs created with the public to “enhance” their return. At the risk of endorsing Chris Anderson’s @chr1sa the Long Tail that was simply another VC start-up overvaluation scheme, Twitter has a very long tail, not because of the cash it has in the bank, but because people use it. Twitter’s model is sustainable despite what Om Malik @om and Joshua Topolsky @joshuatopolsky and the New Yorker @NewYorker say.

New Yorker Editor-in-Chief David Remnick needs to build some in-house technology talent instead of outsourcing Twitter opinions to Malik and Topolsky whose perspectives are tinted by VC-rose-colored glasses.

Twitter just needs a couple of changes: more verified users will give tweets authenticity, user-reputation-ranking will confront bullying and spam and user filtering that give users the same ability that geeks have to pan for the nuggets of gold in the rushing river rapids of Twitter without having to learn complicated tools.

Now I’m going to tweet this.

Find everything by Steven Max Patterson on Twitter @stevep2007

A writers temptation with Donald Trump

temptation of trumpA first hand account of the Trump Effect: Tempted by the devil of analytics to write about Trump

Google Trends tells the truth; Trump got more coverage by not attending last night’s debate than all the candidates put together. The search interest chart of the GOP candidates caused me to look up the analytics of my own postings. The reason for the nation’s interest in Donald Trump hit me like an epiphany. Writers can’t resist the temptation to write about Trump.

A single short post I wrote about Trump brought 5 times my average readership. Trump in a headline attracts more readers than putting Tim Cook, Elon Musk Steve Jobs, electric vehicle, Apple and Tesla all in the same headline.

My brain jumped to mental comparisons of the web results of a Trump story run with the digital publishers for whom I write: IDG, Fast Company, Quartz, TechCrunch…There’s always an angle that can be drawn. For all those eyeballs I could draw one between Trump and technology.

I regained control when I started to write an email to one of my editors pitching a Trump story. Steadied by my close call I reminded myself that politics isn’t my professional domain; I decided to live without Trump.

Find everything by Steven Max Patterson on Twitter @stevep2007

Finding the important posts on Facebook and Twitter

fb filterFacebook’s algorithm hides important posts in its newsfeed and Twitter’s overwhelming volume obfuscates them

After reading Walt Mossberg’s story Twitter has become secret-handshake software on the Verge, Dave Winer thought out loud on Facebook that “what Walt said about Twitter applied equally to Facebook.”

Perhaps Dave, Walt Mossberg and I are interested in the same special Twitter and Facebook use cases – My use case is breaking news, interesting developments and tasty treats that reflect the personalities of the people who run the companies and develop the technologies that we follow and write about.

Facebook’s filters don’t work for me. Technology related posts aren’t prioritized to the top of my newsfeed the way Robert Scoble says they should. I may be interfering with Facebook’s algorithm because I am fascinated and simultaneously horrified by American politics and post too frequently about it. Facebook filters much from the raw newstream and gives me what it thinks I want with about 20% accuracy.

Twitter is just raw data dropping the most recent tweet on top of the stack. I prefer this to Facebook’s approach.

As I look at both Twitter and Facebook’s APIs, custom filters are pretty easy to build. Here’s what I think the options are:

Convert Twitter and FB feeds to RSS on a tablet and just swipe through really quickly a couple times a day.

Tweetdeck gives basic keyword and handle filtering – it works well until about 15 rows and then my i7 16GB computer starts to protest. (Here I share Walt’s opinion that Tweetdeck needs improvement. At the top of my suggestions for Tweetdeck’s product manager is a scripting capability within columns; simple sandboxed JS would do.)

RSS and regex – Yahoo Pipes was really good at that but there are many ways to accomplish the same thing. Basic maintenance of the regex filter is an ongoing burden because interests change.

Find everything by Steven Max Patterson on Twitter @stevep2007

Thinking about buying an Apple Watch – Listen to Walt and Nilay first

apple-watch-3Two leading personal technology journalists parse the Apple Watch into bite size morsels

Thinking of buying an Apple Watch or other smartwatch – listen to this regular podcast on personal technology that should be on your podcast list. RE/Codes Walt Mossberg and the Verge’s Nilay Patel’s opinion about the future of smartwatches is insightful and complete. This might be the best Ctrl-Walt-Delete podcast so far. I’ll merge Walt and Nilay (which is impossible because Walt is ever the deliberately accurate statesman and Nilay has late actor Peter Ustinov’s suspicious incredulity and subtle sense of humor.) 

Their consensus opinion smart – watches are great but not finished yet. Most of Walt’s and Nilay’s opinions were sourced reviewing the Apple Watch.

Awkward gestures needed to turn on the screen make watches bad at telling time.

Notifications are good and bad; good if users like Walt filter their apps but Nilay thinks watches need an intelligent agent to filter notifications.In my opinion Google’s machine learning give it an advantage to create this intelligent agent.

Fitness tracking is sort of good, but not really accurate if you are a pro athlete. The watch will tell you if you are a couch potato.It reminds sedentary people like Walt to burn more calories and move around. I have to insert my disappointment with watch designers who have not chosen from the really great sensors that would provide more useful metabolic information. It strikes me that the watch designers don’t dare to include more expensive, more accurate and more interesting sensors.

Authentication is a real opportunity. Apple Pay works conveniently but QR codes for boarding passes and the like can be awkward because the reader terminals aren’t designed for wrist worn screens. NIlay points that something like an EKG authentication would be necessary to tie the wearer to his or her identity. NYMI introduced at the MIT Technology Review’s Emtech conference a couple years ago can accurate authentica a person’s identity. NYMI uses EKG heartbeat readings that are claimed to be as accurate a biometric identifier as the fingerprint. Information about NYMI has been public for two years and EKG authentication hasn’t been added to any watches yet makes my point that designers aren’t stretching to find useful new sensors.

Verdict, buy a smartwatch with eyes open after listening and put Walt and Nilay on your drive time or gym podcast RSS list.

Follow everything I read and write on twitter @stevep2007

Trump on US manufacturing jobs: wrong and right at the same time


Trump’s blustering about bringing manufacturing jobs back to the US brought scorn, but perhaps not everywhere

Trump wants Apple to bring manufacturing jobs back to America. It sounds flat to American ears. But elsewhere “das hört sich gut an,” loosely translated from German “that rings true.”

Investment banking doesn’t create value it just moves it from one group to another. Transformation creates value; converting ore into metal, sand into silicon or parts into a car creates value. Triple investment banking employment, the net gain is null. Hence manufacturing is a vital component of a modern economy.

American business and politicians read Tom Friedman’s book “the World is Flat” and decided that the erosion of high value manufacturing jobs was inevitable. Germany read the same book and concluded that following Friedman would ruin their economy based on high value manufacturing jobs and ignored it.

A total of 3.2 million — one in six U.S. factory jobs — have disappeared since the start of 2000 replaced by lower value and lower paying service jobs.

Just look at every city in New England with a few exceptions — they are post industrial decaying urban nightmares. The only city transformed from an industrial economy to a post industrial economy is Boston blessed with the wealth of MIT, Harvard and other universities.

I’m not defending Trump, but rather illuminating the panglossian view that there is something in the future that will replace the value of manufacturing jobs. Take a trip to Naugatuck, Springfield, Lowell, Lawrence, Brockton, Fall River…Detroit, cities that wait patiently for an economic force to raise them from post-industrial depression.

Find everything Steven Max Patterson published on Twitter @stevep2007

SOPA and PIPA: Political Miscalculation

Congress’s brinksmanship with new media.

At lunchtime today I stopped by the San Francisco Civic center to listen to some talented people speak out against SOPA and PIPA. Flickr co-founder Caterina Fake, legend venture investor Ron Conway, Craig’s lists founder Craig Newmark and MC Hammer all took the microphone and condemned the legislation for its violations of law, common sense and economic good.

 It is hard to determine if congress is that easily influenced with campaign contributions from the old media music and movie industries or are they out of touch with the internet’s transformation of the world during the last 20 years. Did they miss the memo on the Arab Spring in which new media played a significant role in toppling three governments. Clearly they have miscalculated in choosing sides.

Congress has aligned with old media in an attempt to turn back time to $14 CDs and daily late charges at Blockbuster. Old media has chosen to lobby for protective legislation rather than take advantage of the internet’s capabilities through innovation.

Even if consideration is not given to the opponent’s charges that SOPA and PIPA will violate freedom of speech and due process, you have to question the wisdom of congress to pick a fight with the people that build and operate the internet. The people that know how to attract billions of daily internet views like Craig Newmark and Reddit cofounder Aaron Swartz and many others who have been energized into activism to oppose congress’s threat to their beliefs and livelihood.

Even if new media loses and congress passes SOPA and PIPA, there will be an army of well educated, competent and economically advantaged new media internet opposition that will boil them in an ocean of electrons come the next election.

Matt Bai detailed and predicted the political influence of new media in 2007 in his book “The Argument: Billionaires, Bloggers, and the Battle to Remake Democratic Politics” and predicted Obama’s presidential success in part due to the creativity of Blue State Digital‘s harnessing of the influence of new media and the internet to help him. “The Argument” should be on every congressman’s night table though it might keep them awake for fear of their reelection.