Media’s Future: Retail

(This is a copy of my weekly newspaper column, distributed by Loose Wire Service)

By Jeremy Wagstaff

As you no doubt know, Rupert Murdoch has decided to put up a front door on the The Times’ website, demanding a modest toll for reading the online content.

Needless to say this has prompted laughter among those who think that content should be free. This is silly: Someone needs to pay for this stuff at some point. And no one else has any better ideas right now, so good luck to them, I say.

Though I would counsel them to be smarter about the way they make folk pay. Demanding a credit card in the age of PayPal, as well as lots of other personal data is old wave. If you want to make light of the pay wall, make scaling it easy and simple.

(Disclosure: I worked, and occasionally work, for another Murdoch company, The Wall Street Journal.)

But what disappoints me elsewhere is the limited range of options being discussed. For most the question is: how do I charge for what we do? This is not the right question—or at least not the only question.

Think about it. We’re in the midst of some of the most exciting viral experiments in the history of the world. Twitter, Facebook, Ning, flickr are all evidence of the extraordinary effects  of high viral coefficients—in other words, the ability to expand users exponentially.

Now we know all about this, especially those loyal readers of this humble column.

But news organizations seem to ignore it.

They have readers. Lots of them. But the only thing that they can think of using that network for is to give them ads, or make ‘em pay.

A better question, then, is to ask: How can we make use of this network?

Well, one way to would be to sell them stuff.

Some news websites do this. The UK’s Guardian website offers books, CDs, gardening tools and holidays to its readers. Not that you’d necessarily know this to look at the website. The “readers offers” link is buried way down on the right hand side of the home page.


In fact, I was surprised to find that the Guardian has a dozen self-contained mini websites, called verticals, that try to sell their readers stuff. From mortgages to hand trowels.

But I’m guessing this isn’t making a huge dent in the losses the company has been suffering. I couldn’t find anything in their annual report mentioning any of these websites or their contribution to the bottom line. (My apologies if I missed it.)

To me this is an opportunity lost.

Not least because the Guardian, as many English-language newspapers, are developing huge markets overseas. Of the main British newspapers, for example, more than half their traffic comes from overseas, according to Alexa data. For the Guardian, Telegraph, Times and Independent, a whopping two thirds of their readers are outside the UK.

The Guardian website has a quarter its readers from the U.S. For the Times it’s more than 30%. Even the Daily Mail, not known for its global view, has more than a third of its readers in the U.S.

These foreign-based readers are huge opportunities missed. Not for advertising, but for selling them stuff. After all, if people go there to read stuff, wouldn’t they also be interested in buying stuff?

There are signs that this is the case. The Guardian Bookshop, for example, delivers all over the world, and has more traffic from outside the UK (55%) than from within it, with the United States accounting for 17% of visitors.

But the actual volume of traffic is still tiny for these verticals, suggesting that they’re not really part of the Guardian vision of its future. Still, at least it’s trying. I couldn’t much except wine for sale on the Times’ homepage, and nothing on the Daily Mail’s.

To me it’s obvious that if you’ve got an audience you try to sell them stuff. Especially if you’re not charging them for what they are there to see. And ads aren’t filling the coffers. So somehow you’ve got to sell them something else. And if your audience is overseas then that’s a clue about what they might not be able to get where they’re accessing your site from.

Books is an obvious one. Food is another. More than 10% of Brits live overseas, so it’s fair to assume that a fair few of them miss their PG Tips and bangers. Indeed, there are dozens of websites catering to just that.

But of course it’s expensive. At one website I visited $20 worth of chutney will cost you $60 to ship to Singapore, for example. And many won’t ship to far-flung places that aren’t the U.S.

Which is where we come back to the network thing. Newspapers still don’t really understand that they have a readymade community in front of them—defined by what they want to read. So while I may not be willing to pay twice again to ship the chutney, I might be willing to split the shipping cost with others living nearby.

But whereas I may not be willing to take that risk with people I’ve met on eBay or a porn site, I might be more inclined to do so if they’re the kind of people who read the same paper as I. So it’s both common sense and good business sense for The Guardian, say, to leverage its existing network of readers and to use the data it has to make it easy for that community to make those kinds of connections.

The readers get their chutney at a reasonable cost, the paper gets a cut of the sale.

In short, a newspaper needs to think of itself as a shop. You may go in for one thing, but you may come out having bought something else. Indeed, online shops have already figured this out.

Take Net-a-porter for example. It’s a fashion clothing e-tailer, run by a woman who was a journalist and who wanted to be a magazine editor. Instead Natalie Massenet set up an online shop, but which is also a magazine.

A recent article (in The Guardian, ironically) quotes her as saying: “I hadn’t walked away from being editor-in-chief of a magazine – I’d just created a magazine for the 21st century instead, a hybrid between a store and a magazine that was delivered digitally.”

In other words, Net-a-porter goes at it the other way round: It’s a retailer that also informs. Newspapers could be informers who also retail. Of course fashion is relatively easy, and the road is littered with possible conflicts of interest. But probably fewer than the sponsored editorials we’re starting to see even among serious broadsheets.

There’s nothing wrong with trying to sell your readers something, if you feel that something reflects your brand and your commitment to quality. Indeed, your readers may thank you for it. The power of the network, after all, isn’t just about size: It’s about trust.

Babylon? Oh So 1999


I used to think that small programs that sat in your computer’s memory and could be accessed quickly by a keystroke were the future, but nowadays I’m not sure that’s true. At least, they’ve got to be real careful. If they’re not, they end up looking and behaving dangerously like adware.

An example that steers dangerously close is Babylon. Once a service with great promise, and still used by at least one of my friends, Babylon offers access to all sorts of online content — dictionaries, thesaurii, Wikipedia entries — just by highlighting a word in any application and hitting a couple of keys. A wonderful idea, and, with so much great reference material online, something that should by now have come into its own. But the experience falls short.

Install the software and you immediately get a pop-up suggesting you buy the product. It’s strange how out of sync that sort of behaviour is in today’s more demanding, less patient world. And while the information Babylon retrieves for you is impressively large, it’s probably too large to be useful. Nowadays we need surgical strikes on information, not carpet bombing.

Given it’s supposed to be a writer’s and browser’s tool, the occasional pop-up balloon from the system tray doesn’t help either. I don’t want programs blitzing me with reminders that the program is there, or that I am still using a trial version. This behaviour is, frankly, so 1999 it’s not funny.

Needless to say, I uninstalled the software within ten minutes. Or at least I tried to: Babylon has a few more tricks up its sleeve to make sure that isn’t as painless as installing it.

First off, there’s no uninstall shortcut in the Start menu, only the application that sits proudly alone outside a folder:


This approach–not putting a shortcut inside a folder along with an uninstall link–always strikes me as the refuge of the pompous and delusional. Microsoft does it; Adobe does it; Real does it. They could just about get away with it. Everyone else is kidding themselves.

So, it’s to the Add or Remove Programs folder, which, under XP, always takes so long to load it gives you time to wonder why you haven’t switched to a Mac already. And there, one finds two more surprises from Babylon:

Firstly, there are two entries, not one in the list:


Interesting. I don’t recall for a while coming across a program thinking it carried that kind of weight. More pumped up self-importance, I fear.

That’s not the end of the fun. Click on the first of these and instead of the usual confirmation box about uninstalling, you’re given one last chance to cough up:


I’m pretty sure that breaks all sorts of user design rules. It’s annoying: Why would someone who had gotten this far in uninstalling suddenly say to themselves “Doggone it! What was I thinking? Why don’t I just buy the thing instead?” By now I’m regretting even downloading Babylon to start with. All I wanted, for Chrissakes, was a decent Thesaurus.

The truth is that software has now learnt to fit better to the way we work, and not to intrude in the way that Babylon does. Look at browser widgets or the Mac’s Spotlight, or even’s 1-Click Answers. Luckily, perhaps, Babylon’s lack of manners stands out because it’s just not how programs are written these days.

Software That Plays Tag

This week’s column (subscription only, I’m afraid) is about Jiglu, a sort of automatic tagging service you can see in action somewhere on this blog:

If you’re a writer, you hope your words will be etched in stone for eternity. If you’re a blogger, you’re happy if someone stumbles on your writings a few days after you posted them. Blogs, partly because they often consist mainly of commentary on things that have just happened, and partly because of the way they are structured (most recent postings first, making it easy to ignore everything you wrote before), are a transient medium. Rarely is a blog post treated as permanent. We write, then we forget.

The problem, I conclude, is that amidst all the writing, and despite the power of tagging

Blog posts, left to themselves, tend to have a short shelf life.

Briton Nigel Cannings thinks he has the solution to this: automatic tagging. He sees value in all those old blog posts of mine (he may be the only one) and reckons all that old content out there is a repository of wisdom that just needs to be sorted out better. Tagging it ourselves, he thinks, just isn’t enough because we don’t always see what we’ve written in a broader context. “Manual tagging is the first step” to sorting and storing blogs and other online content better, he says, “but it still relies upon people understanding themselves, whatever they’ve already written about, and how their content fits in with other people’s content.”

More at Loose Wire –

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The Pop Up Piggyback

Is it just me, or have these interstitial ads or whatever they call themselves suddenly become ubiquitous, and no less annoying for it? They now seem to be everywhere (even O’Reilly uses them, shockingly, although it does offer a way to disable them). These are ads, courtesy of companies like Vibrant Media IntelliTXT, that add underlined links to certain words on a website which, when you move your mouse over them, pop up an ad that’s tangentially related to the word in question. This one, for example:


The ad is for digital cameras. The word link is “review”. The piece itself is about solar-powered garden lights from one of my favorite gadget sites, the long running Gadgeteer. But these ads drive me nuts. Move your mouse over any of the nine links on that article and you’ll get a popup window like the above. Few of them are useful or relevant, as the following study reveals:

  • AC adapter – as in “There’s something really cool about using the power of the sun instead of the power of an AC adapter, when it comes to powering products” — throws up an ad for Laptop AC adapters
  • Review – as in “that’s why I was more than happy to review a solar powered garden accent light” — throws up an ad for Digital Cameras
  • Light weight – as in “The product is composed of a durable and UV protected resin material that looks very much like stone, while remaining light weight” — throws up an ad for Light weight (sic. The ad text is for “Shop for great deals on light weight and millions of other products”. No idea what they’re talking about)
  • Picture — as in “One clue that this might be the case [i.e. that the product cracks; They’re thorough in their reviews over there] is the picture hanger built into the back of the stone” — throws up ad for Free Digital Photo Software
  • Battery – as in “On the back of the stone, you see the battery compartment” — throws up ad for PDA batteries
  • Batteries — as in “Two rechargeable nickel-cadmium AA batteries are included and pre-installed” — throws up ad for Siemens Cordless Phone Batteries
  • Rechargeable batteries — as in “pre-installed rechargeable batteries store energy to power the light at night” — throws up ad for Sanyo rechargeable batteries, the first ad in this bunch which is vaguely relevant to the context.
  • Photo — as in “The built-in photo sensor automatically activates the light” — throws up an ad for Musical Slideshow software
  • Flash — as in “Here’s a picture of the stone that I took without a flash” — throws up an ad for Pentax SLR Digital Flash, arguably relevant but so specific you have to wonder whether anyone is really going to be reading the piece and needing a Pentax SLR Digital Flash
  • Conclusion: Out of 9 ads, 1.5 might be possibly considered useful to the reader.

I’ve whinged about this before (and before), believing it was too intrusive and likely to create a conflict of interest on the part of content creators who may be influenced to insert words that are more likely to match contextual words sold to advertisers. In the example above, for example, a less scrupulous content producer than The Gadgeteer might have chosen, or be encouraged to choose “photo sensor” over “photosensor” (the latter spelling slightly more popular online than the former) because the word “photo” would attract more ads. That’s not a sinister example, but what if the ad sellers forwarded a list of words popular among advertisers, which would steer content producers into putting those words into their writing?

(Vibrant Media says that “IntelliTXT ad units are delivered in real-time and deployed after the article has been published by the website. This is an automated process that cannot influence, or be influenced by the Editorial Team at this website or any other partner publication.” It also includes in its guidelines (PDF) a line: “Vibrant Media strongly encourages publishers not to implement IntelliTXT in late breaking news, political coverage, or other news channels that Vibrant Media deems to be controversial or inappropriate.”)

But the conflict of interest issue (news websites like stopped dealing with IntelliTXT, apparently over this issue) is less important to me than the annoyance and befuddlement that comes with these faux links. There is one real link in Julie’s review but it’s lost in there. First off, it’s the same color as the IntelliTXT ads, but it’s not double underlined, and it’s covered, when the mouse moves over the line above, by an IntelliTXT pop up (see if you can spot it in the screenshot above.) I find these ads annoying, distracting, and not a little confusing. When you compare it to the contextual ads displayed alongside content, you can’t help wondering whether this is a big step backwards for online content. (The ads alongside Julie’s review include one on Solar Powered Fountains and one on Solar battery chargers. I’d argue both those are a darned sight more relevant than any of the interstitials.)

Vibrant Media call this kind of advertising “user-driven advertising”. How is it user-driven? It says that “IntelliTXT helps empower users to view relevant advertising on their own terms.” Relevant? I think not. How “empower”, exactly? “Own terms”? I’d argue IntelliTXT piggy backs a fine tradition of hyperlinking — the vision and bedrock of the World Wide Web to sucker users into mistaking a popup ad for a genuine link.

Vibrant Media sells the idea to advertisers as a way to “Use words to brand. Cut through the online advertising clutter”. Actually, I’d argue it adds to the clutter, and, as the example above shows, has nothing to do with “branding” as anyone I know might understand it.

So what can one do? First off, IntelliTXT isn’t loading anything onto your computer. The ads are sleazy, but the actual implementation isn’t. If you’re a Firefox user, install Greasemonkey and then this IntelliTXT Disabler script. The IntelliTXT links will load, briefly appear and then you won’t see them no more. If you’re not a Firefox user, get it. Sure, websites need advertising to survive, but lets make sure they are either smart ads, funny ads, ads that are relevant to the content, ads that don’t mislead the reader, and, finally, ads that don’t get in the way.

What Newspapers Should Do: Gist and Juice

I’m sure I’m not the first to say it, but there’s so much hand-wringing going on about the future of newspapers in the Second Age of the Internet I thought I would throw in my two cents: Newspapers need to treat print and online as two different audiences, and cater for them accordingly. It’s about getting the word out, not getting a product out.

The rule is a simple one: Newspapers are for people who love to read, and want something in a format and depth they can take with them. They are looking for layout, nuance, photos, details, rich writing and analysis. In short: Storytelling.

Online, meanwhile, is for getting up to speed quickly. It’s information as briefing. Tell me what I need to know so I can get on with my day. In short, it’s short, to the point: for people who don’t like (or don’t have time) to read.

It’s not just about brevity for the sake of speed. People don’t like reading lots of text online, so it’s obvious that writing for the Internet is best done short and to the point. (This, incidentally, is one reason why blogs are so successful: Bite-sized chunks that deliver something that fits nicely on the average computer screen. Sure there are some bloggers who write essays, and write them beautifully, but most blog postings are short and to the point.)

But this doesn’t necessarily mean putting a few paragraphs on the net, or a teaser or two, and then a link to the full-blown story on a subscribe-only website. What is online still needs to be as comprehensive a product as the newspaper would offer its hardcopy readers. It just needs to be shorter, and, as I’ve said elsewhere [ link: Subscription only, I’m afraid], formatted in a more imaginative way than merely a vague pastiche of a newspaper with a few HTML tricks thrown in. (Think newsmaps.) It’s intriguing to see newspapers, including my own paymaster The Asian Wall Street Journal, toy with formats; when is the same big thinking about format going to happen online?

Online content needs to be short and sharp. That doesn’t mean dumbing it down to wire service copy or wire service- style writing; it means reducing the amount of text to something manageable in an online format. So, say a piece on Medium being the new Large (something I just read in the still excellent The Guardian) could be delivered online as a briefer piece, the main point summed up in a paragraph with the main examples to back it up. Not necessarily pretty, but just because it’s a feature doesn’t mean it a) isn’t useful information and b) has to be feature-length to convey its meaning.

The newspaper reader is still going to prefer the full length version. There’s something delightful and serendipitous about reading a thoughtful newspaper like The Guardian in its entirety (or the International Herald Tribune, another coffee-time favourite despite, or perhaps because of, its quixotic choice of stories). There’ll still be a market for that, whatever the size of the paper it’s printed on. But how many of us get time to read these papers cover to cover every day?

The Internet needs to be a faster mechanism to get that same rush of interesting fact and insight that reading a newspaper cover to cover offers. The journalists who write the material may baulk at seeing their lovingly crafted 3,000 words reduced to 300, but they shouldn’t grumble. The offline world will still see their 3,000 words and, if the editing is good, the online reader will still get the gist, if not the juice, of their writing. It’s no longer about one product delivered from an ivory tour. It’s about getting the word out.