In the news this week, Hulk Hogan wins a $140 million judgment against Gawker Media for publishing a sex tape. European micropayments service Blendle comes to the United States with 20 publishing partners. And the RIAA found that streaming music scored more revenue in 2015 than digital downloads for the first time. Plus, Mark raves about the new Quartz News app that texts you the news with emoticons. And this week we talk with Alpha Group’s David Cohn to discuss how legacy media company Advance Publications can incubate to innovate.
Don’t have a lot of time to spare but still want to get a roundup of the week’s top news? Then check out our Digital Media Brief below!
Digital Media Brief
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Mark Glaser is executive editor and publisher of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He is an award-winning writer and accidental entrepreneur, who has taken MediaShift from a one-person blog to a growing media company with events such as Collab/Space workshops and weekend hackathons; the weekly MediaShift podcast; and digital training, DigitalEd, in partnership with top journalism schools. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit.
David Cohn is senior director at Alpha Group, part of Advance Digital’s in-house incubation team. Previously, he was an executive producer at AJ Plus, part of Al Jazeera’s research and development team, leading efforts to turn a broadcast organization into a digital operation. Before that he was the Chief Content Officer of Circa, and Dave has written for Wired, Seed, Columbia Journalism Review and the New York Times among other publications.
Top News of the Week
Hulk Hogan was Awarded $140 Million in a Lawsuit Against Gawker
You can call it round one in a heavyweight First Amendment match between wrestling star Hulk Hogan and tabloid digital media outlet Gawker Media. Hogan won an incredible $140 million in damages from Gawker, according to the verdict in a jury trial in Florida. Gawker plans to appeal, and honcho Nick Denton says the lawsuit was really meant as a way to keep Gawker and others from releasing another tape where Hogan made racial slurs. When Hogan appeared on “The View” after the verdict, he said those slurs were “probably the stupidest thing I’ve said.”
In many cases like this, defendants often get large fines reduced or thrown out, and Gawker maintains that evidence not shown at trial will come up in appeals and vindicate them. While many observers believe the case would chill free speech and press, others thought that it wouldn’t have a larger effect beyond tabloids and celebrities. But should we side with the most salacious types of tabloid journalism and agree that sex tapes are newsworthy? Or should we agree with Hogan that everyone deserves at least a modicum of privacy, at least in their bedrooms? Once again, I think we have to hold our nose — despite the case involving “a couple of pricks,” as Jeff Jarvis put it — and favor free press, even if we don’t like what they’re saying, or how they say it.
Micro-payments Service Blendle Launches in the US
The latest European media invasion is coming to America, and this time it’s a whole new business model for news: micro-payments on Blendle. First, a disclosure: I’m one of the initial “curators” for the Blendle media channel, though I’m not paid but do get free access to articles. So here’s the deal: Blendle now offers 20 publications, including the Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, The Economist and Mother Jones. You sign up with $2.50 in your wallet, and then you pay 9 cents and up per story that you read. If you don’t like the story, you can get a refund. Publishers get to set prices for stories and get 70% of the revenues. Blendle already has 650,000 users in the Netherlands and in Germany, with more than half of them under the age of 35. In the US, they’re launching in beta with just 10,000 users at first, before they open it more widely.
So what are Blendle’s prospects for success? The startup has raised $3.7 million in funding from the New York Times and German media power Axel Springer. The bigger question is whether people are willing to pay for news they can get for free on other apps or the open web. The one advantage Blendle does have is that it’s a clean, ad-free experience. People who are increasingly turning to ad blockers can appreciate that. But so far, the range of publications is not super-impressive, and it will need to include more online-only outlets, too. Otherwise, it just becomes a place for more long-form reading, narrowly in the “Big Journalism” world. How Blendle expands its footprint with publications will affect how it can expand with users too.
Also, if you want to hear my interview with Blendle CEO Alexander Klopping, check out MediaShift Podcast #188 from a few weeks ago.
Streaming music brought in the most money for the music business last year
You hear artists complain all the time about streaming music services like Spotify ripping them off. But now the tide appears to be turning, at least with subscription streaming services. The big music industry association, the RIAA, recently released numbers showing that streaming music brought in more money in 2015 than digital downloads for the first time. They attributed that to the launch of Apple Music and the rise of the higher-priced Tidal music service. Last year, 34.4% of music revenues came from free ad-supported streaming and paid streaming, with 34% coming from digital downloads and 28.8% from physical music sales of CDs and vinyl.
So was this a victory for streaming services that are finally gaining some respect from artists? Not entirely. RIAA honcho Cary Sherman complained that YouTube still wasn’t paying its fair share, noting that artists were paid less from music videos on ad-supported YouTube than from vinyl record sales! Re/code’s Peter Kafka pointed out that record labels and artists could just pull their music from YouTube if they were upset, but that won’t happen. They’d rather have SOME money than NONE. He points out that the best solution at YouTube is the new paid ad-free service, YouTube Red, which would pay artists more. Now, YouTube just has to figure out how to convert all its free-loading users to premium, the way that Spotify has done it so deftly with 30 million paid subscribers now.
Rant & Rave by Mark Glaser
I’ve always been a little obsessed with news apps. Ever since the earliest RSS news readers, like Google Reader, I’ve thought that there must be a way to get perfectly tailored and curated news each day to match my interests. And you’d think we’d be there by now.
There have been some interesting apps along the way, including Flipboard, Zite and Trove, and less personalized apps like Yahoo News Digest and NYT Now. AJ-Plus takes a very video-heavy, interactive take on news. And there’s LinkedIn’s Pulse with an emphasis on work-related news.
But in most cases, these news apps show us a list of stories, we choose the ones that interest us, and click to see text stories, photos and videos. That’s the usual format. But now comes the new Quartz news app, which changes the convention completely by texting you the news. Well, not really texting it, but I’ll explain how it works in a moment.
First, a little background. For those who don’t know, Quartz is an online-only business publication that’s part of Atlantic Media, which publishes The Atlantic magazine and associated websites. Quartz was founded to be a new type of publication, with no real home page, a bold responsive design, and native advertising as its core business. Reporters wouldn’t have beats, but instead have “obsessions” with certain hot topics.
And in the spirit of experimentation, the Quartz News app looks like no other news app out there. You open it up, and it looks exactly like a texting interface on your phone. The app begins a scripted conversation with you about the news. “Good Morning. Amazon says its female and minority employees earn just as much as their male and white counterparts.” And then you have a choice of reading more, or asking for another story. Typically your choices include cute emoticons.
If you want more information, you can click on one of the text boxes to link to a full story. But it’s more useful as a quick way to get caught up on the news. Because Quartz has a focus on global business, you can expect a story or two in finance along with stories on politics and breaking news. The text stream is filled with charts and animated GIFs to make its points.
The words that comes to mind most when using Quartz News are “fun” and “personal” because it really does succeed in making the news into a conversation — even though it’s scripted. Of course, when the news isn’t quite so fun, emoticons feel a bit strange and out of place. Especially with the recent terrorist bombings in Brussels. And sometimes you’re forced to agree with the editorial slant of Quartz, which tends to be on the liberal side.
For example, there was a story about a North Carolina law restricting transgender people’s bathroom use. The choice given to read more in the story was a “thumbs down” emoticon. Of course, I agreed with that emotion, but there’s something strange about having that opinion foisted on to me.
At the moment, there doesn’t appear to be any personalization at all, just a stream of news stories where I choose to learn more or not. And then comes an ad for the Mini Cooper, complete with animated GIF. If you try to get more stories too soon, the app offers up a quiz of the news.
Obviously, Quartz News is a first crack at something different, something that fits into our texting and messaging lifestyle. TechCrunch’s Tom Popomaronis saw the potential for a lot more than news in the app. He saw this type of artificial intelligence moving into live-chat support for products, and even having conversations with people about the type of products they might like.
He imagines swapping out news for daily deals that are relevant for people, and maybe spreading to gamification and surveys — to become the next generation of consumer interaction. That could be true, but the devil is in the details. Alexa and Amazon Echo are going in that direction, and texting on Quartz News is another baby step toward that.
But before we consider an AI future where human customer service reps are on the unemployment line, let’s think about where Quartz can go with news. More personalization, for sure, maybe more details on each story, more topics, and definitely more interesting, relevant native ads. Everyone talks about news as a conversation, but Quartz is actually putting it into action — even if the conversation is programmed for now.
Music on this Episode
Jefferson Yen is the producer for the Mediatwits Podcast. His work has been on KPCC Southern California Public Radio and KRTS Marfa Public Radio. You can follow him @jeffersontyen.