(A Unified Vision Statement For All Current and Future Endeavours Into and) For the Creation of Awesomeness.

Not too long ago, I added a little note to the top of this very blog: “Dan is the creator of awesome stuff.” That’s not just some bro jargon I’m co-opting; I really mean that. I love creating stuff that’s both, A.) Cool, and B.) Useful, and when those two get together, the result is usually awesome. With everything I do, I’m shooting for awesome.

But I decided I needed a few more rules to help me in the creation process. I needed some rules to help me get from idea to awesome a little more quickly. And I needed rules to keep me from working on stuff that’s decidedly, you know… blah.

So I made a list. And here’s what’s on it for 2012:

1. Doing > trying.
2. So do shit.
3. Go fast.
4. Fail often.
5. Be curious.
6. Listen always.
7. Try impossible.
8. Build with love.
9. Serve people.
10. Don’t suck.

In 2012, that’s what I’ve got to live up to. 10 rules. Infinite challenges ahead.

Onto the next.

My List of Things for 2012. (Not a Bucket List, FWIW.)

This is the time of the year when people start making bucket lists. You know what they are; I won’t ramble on here about mine.

But what I would like to discuss is a sort of corollary to the bucket list. See: We have the bucket list, which looks long term. We have the to-do list, which covers the immediate.

What we don’t have is that list for the in-betweens in our lives.

I had a conversation with a friend last week, and I brought up this mantra that I’ve been carrying around for a few years now: “In this life, you find things you love and people you love, and you make time for both.”

And she said the most wonderful thing: Well, I suppose I should start making a list of things.

I couldn’t agree more. Because, I suppose, that’s really what I did at about this time last year. It wasn’t a bucket list that I started thinking about; I wasn’t looking to compile things that I hadn’t yet done in my life. Really, I was looking at things that I just wasn’t making enough time for in my day-to-day life, and seeing which of them I’d like to find time for in the coming months.

I didn’t write that list down, sadly, but if I had, my 2011 List of Things I Love would’ve looked like:

See more live music
Join a sports team
Find more opportunities for spontaneity
Read more often
Launch a side project
Do more yoga
Write and code

I’m proud to say that I checked almost all of those off the list this year. I’ve seen 35 concerts this year, from local bands releasing their first album to U2. I joined a kickball team in DC. I made a few spur-of-the-moment decisions. (What? There’s a Groupon for skydiving? Yeah, I’m in!) I’ve read 12 books, and I’ll be through 13 by year’s end. I didn’t quite launch BooksAround, my social literacy experiment, but I can get that done in the next two weeks. I took weekly hot yoga classes. I’m blogging more than ever, and I worked my way through a CSS tutorial. All in all, I made a lot of time for a lot of things that had gotten lost since college.

And yes, being active with that list meant that I also got to cross stuff off the bucket list. (Skydiving? Check. Visiting Israel? Check. Going to a show at Red Rocks? Check.)

Now I’m thinking about next year’s List of Things. I’d like to keep all of the above in play, but I’d also like to add three things:

Travel more
Speak publicly
Ship things

The first is self-explanatory. I love to travel, and I’d love to make more time for it next year. I don’t have any specific places in mind; I’d just like to get up and go.

The second is something I’ve come around on this year. In 2011, I’ve twice gotten a chance to give speeches to 150+ person rooms, and I’ve learned that it’s a hell of a rush. I used to fear public speaking. Not anymore. I’m never going to be a stand-up comic, so getting 150 people to keel over in laughter during a PowerPoint is about as close as I’m going to get to that sensation. I really love getting up in front of a big room, and I want to find more opportunities to speak in public next year.

And as for the third thing, that’s a business term I’d never even heard until this year. But it means: Create a product and bring it to market. Make stuff and put it out in the world for people to use.

I’ve spent a hell of a long time with Stry — from concept to now, I’m well over 18 months into this company — and what I’ve got to show for it is some blogging from Biloxi, my current fellowship and a few public appearances. What I need to do in 2012 is get this thing out in the world. I need to ship, and ship more often. I love the feeling of satisfaction that comes from getting little items done on a project. I want to experience what it’s like to bring something big to market.

So that’s my 2012 List of Things. What’s yours?

What the Hell is the New York Times Doing Selling Subscriptions Inside the ‘Wal-Mart of New York City?’

I was in New York City last week, and I went shopping with a friend. Or, more accurately: She went shopping, and I came along to try on funny hats and annoy her.

Nevertheless: She took us to a store north of Columbus Circle. I’d never heard of the store before. It was called Century 21, which is apparently unrelated to the real estate seller of the same name. My friend referred to the store as the Wal-Mart of Manhattan.

But what made an impression on me wasn’t the store itself — though it did seem like a Wal-Mart that was trying extra hard to dress up appropriately for the city — but this display in the front of the store. It was a table near the entrance, and there was a rep from the New York Times sitting there, selling subscriptions to the paper. Buy a subscription, get a $50 gift card to shop at Century 21.

And this just started to bother the hell out of me.

So I’m writing this post now because I’d like some answers. I’m confused as to how the New York Times — the newspaper of record for the freaking universe — could end up in a business relationship with a store that sells designer gloves at 50% off retail. Such a partnership seems to violate even the most basic rules of branding.

Because if I’m in charge of the New York Times brand, I’m asking these questions before I enter into any business relationship:

-How does this extend the New York Times’ brand?
-Is this a positive extension of the Times’ brand?
-Is the Times reaching new clientele with this partnership? Could this clientele be reached otherwise?
-Does this make the New York Times money?
-Does it do enough of both — reach new clientele and make money — to justify the partnership?

In my estimation, I’m not sure what such a partnership with Century 21 does for the Times. There are an endless number of points where you can interact with the Times’ brand: In print, online, through advertising, through social media. If you pop into an Apple Store to test drive an iPad, and you see a New York Times app on the device, that’s an interaction with the brand. (And for the record, that’s a damn good interaction. Gold stars to the Times rep who pulled that one off.)

So I’m confused as to why the Times would want a “Please buy our product and we’ll give you a few bucks off shoes!” brand interaction at Century 21. If anything, it seems to cheapen the Times’ brand. It seems to scream, “We’ll sell papers anywhere they’ll let us. Even here!”

Here’s what the Times itself wrote about the store in an article just two months ago:

“Civilized it’s not.”

“The dramatic markdowns and bazaarlike atmosphere (nothing’s chained for security, yet) can encourage foolish fashion risks.”

“I descended to hell, a k a the fluorescent-lighted basement footwear department…”

“What the branch lacks in ambience (brace for cheap carpets, garish cylindrical light fixtures and droning soft rock)…”

You get the idea. Why’s the Times decided to associate itself with that?

To go question by question through the bullets I’ve listed above:

How does this extend the New York Times’ brand? It gives the Times a direct presence in seven large department stores in and around the city.

Is this a positive extension of the Times’ brand? Unlikely. Here’s how I’ve always determined a newspaper’s true audience: See who they’re writing about in the vows and the obituary sections. Those are the types of people they’re really writing for. I’m not sure that I see the Times’ vows/obit audience having much crossover with Century 21’s core of shoppers, most of whom seemed to be foreigners and out-of-towners. (The locals were all bargain hunters, and I’ll get to them in a second.)

Is the Times reaching new clientele with this partnership? Could this clientele be reached otherwise? Maybe. There might be a non-New York crowd at Century 21 that might want to subscribe to the paper, I think. But it’s also worth asking: Are the kinds of people shopping for deep discounts the same people with disposable income to spend on a yearly subscription to a print newspaper?

And I do think much of this audience could be reached otherwise. Might some of this audience — especially the foreign shoppers — be more interested in a subscription to the Times online as opposed to a print subscription?

I’m told the Times also has a similar presence at the city’s many street fairs, but that’s a different story. In that case, the Times is also associating itself with a brand, but the brand is New York City itself. The Times wants to be the paper of record for the city. Nothing wrong with being visible within city limits, and I’d guess that the street fair audience isn’t all that different from the Century 21 audience. (In fact, it might be more domestic, and weed out the international shoppers who can’t buy a print subscription anyway.)

Does this make the New York Times money? This is the big question, and I don’t have an answer to it. In most arrangements like this, it’s the Times that would be paying to get a spot inside the store. (It is also possible, though less likely, that it’s Century 21 that’s paying the Times, and Century 21 is hoping that the halo of “elite” status that the Times exudes will help increase sales of, I dunno, handbags.) I’d guess that the Times offers up a percentage of in-store subscription sales to Century 21, on top of a fixed payment to get into the store in the first place.

Does it do enough of both — reach new clientele and make money — to justify the partnership? I just cannot imagine a situation in which it does much for the Times’ brand or bottom line. Who okayed this partnership? The whole thing confuses me, really.

Of course, I’d love to get a real answer on this from someone at either the Times or Century 21. Because the way I’m seeing it, this is the kind of partnership that reeks of desperation. This looks like a brand that’s going to any length just to make a sale — even if in the course making the sale, they’re actually hurting the overall reputation of the Times’ brand.

I just don’t understand it.

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Come, and Embrace the Joy Of Time-Shifting and Longreads-Related Metrics, Ye Merry Publishers!

Screenshot of TiVo

In 2002, the company that measures how many people watch television decided to do something experimental: They started measuring how many viewers were watching TV shows via something called TiVo, a personal recording device that had come to market three years earlier.

Nielsen Media Research, the ratings company, had been measuring TV ratings since the 1950s. But their ratings technology only accounted for viewers who were watching shows at the very moment the shows were airing live. If a viewer decided to save a show to his or her TiVo, and then watched the show at a later time, that viewer didn’t count towards the overall ratings for the show.

It’s about this time that ratings for some shows started to decline. TV executives had their suspicions about the declining numbers. They felt their shows were still being watched, but they were being watched via TiVo, and Nielsen wasn’t counting these viewers. As far as the Nielsen ratings were concerned, watching via TiVo was the same as not watching at all.

And since the value of television advertising rises and falls with TV ratings, ignoring actual viewers was costing TV channels money. So they pressured Nielsen to add these TiVo viewers into the overall ratings picture.

This all sounds kind of ridiculous today — I mean, really, how could Nielsen have just ignored these viewers for years? — and that’s because it is ridiculous. Eyeballs are eyeballs. They should all be counted equally, whether they’re seeing a show when it first airs or a week later via TiVo.

It’s also why it should confuse you when I tell you this: News publishers today are making the exact same mistake that Nielsen did a decade ago.

❡❡❡

The world of modern news publishing isn’t all that different from the world of TV. Like TV, publishers rely heavily on advertising to sustain their operations. Put simply, the more readers a news site has, the more money it typically can charge advertisers.

TV ratings center around two main numbers: Rating (the number of TVs watching a show compared to the total number of TV households) and share (the number of TVs watching a show compared to the total number of TVs tuned in at that particular moment).

Online news metrics are slightly different. Three stand out:

-Time spent on a news site
-Pages read per visit to that site
-Unique visitors to the site

All three are important. But all three also fail to accurately measure a vital chunk of their audience.

❡❡❡

About two years ago, a Twitter hashtag kickstarted a small but influential movement for readers. The hashtag was called #longreads, and it promoted interesting stories of 1,500 words or longer. A story of that length might take anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours to read. Hence, the name #longreads.

The problem is, #longreads disciples don’t always have the time to read these stories at the moment they arrive in an inbox or pass through a Twitter feed. Sometimes, readers need to save a story for later.

It’s not a coincidence that just as #longreads was starting to grow, a handful of sites popped up to serve that very need. These sites enable users to time-shift stories to a time/place when the reader actually has time to read said story.

It’s not a coincidence that these are known as time-shifting tools. That phrase first became popular with the advent of TiVo.

There are three big sites that allow users to time-shift stories: Instapaper, Readability, and ReadItLater. All three take user-saved stories and store them on the site’s own servers. When readers want to read something, they head over to their site of choice (or the site’s app) and search through their queue for something good that they’ve already saved. The reading experience happens there, not on the publisher’s site.

So this is the good news for publishers: A community of avid readers has access to thousands of new stories that they otherwise wouldn’t see, and these readers are reading and sharing these stories. They’re passionate about this type of reading experience. These are the kind of readers who read so much that they need a TiVo-type tool just to hold all that they want to read.

This is the bad news for publishers: Readers are spending an awfully long time reading great stories, but they aren’t doing it on the publisher’s site.

A reader like me might spend half an hour reading a #longreads essay or exposé, but all the publisher sees is the handful of seconds I spent on the story before bookmarking it for later. Some of the most engaged readers are going, essentially, uncounted.

❡❡❡

Which brings me around to some data that ReadItLater — one of the three big time-shifting sites — published last week.

The data was mined, in part, by a guy named Mark Armstrong. It’s no coincidence that Mark was the one who started the #longreads hashtag. (Now, he’s an editorial advisor for ReadItLater.)

The data shows that ReadItLater has some powerful tools for measuring user engagement with a story. They can measure which authors and sites are most popular. They can measure which stories get put most often into the queue, and which stories get read the most once they’re put in the queue. And that’s just what we learned from this first data set. Just wait until ReadItLater really starts digging.

Unfortunately, this is vital data about power users that publishers aren’t factoring into their metrics. These users aren’t being counted in the overall numbers, and we need to start counting them. Core users are just being ignored, simply because their reading experience is happening on a different server.

Don’t underestimate the size of this audience, either. ReadItLater has four million users, and they’re hosting just a fraction of the time-shifting audience.

Right now, in the publishing community, we have opportunity to prove that these sites have the same type of impact on overall numbers that the TiVo did on Nielsen’s TV numbers. We need to start accounting for this time-shifting in our metrics.

If we don’t, we’re just ignoring some of our most engaged users, and we’re costing ourselves money.

❡❡❡

One other thought: The three services I mentioned do essentially the same thing. But not all three will last. There’s a reason that VHS and Betamax didn’t co-exist for a decade; there’s a reason why Foursquare beat out all the other location-based services. The market will pick a winner.

And I don’t think I’m going too far out on a limb to say that the winner will be the one that:

A.) Helps publishers make money, and
B.) Shares their data with publishers to make content more measurable, and therefore more valuable to advertisers.

The question is, Who within this market will step up to do just that?

❡❡❡

One final quote on the matter:

“Time-shifting will be something more people are really comfortable with. We never know if the technology is going to sizzle or fizzle, but you can’t wait until it takes off before you say, ‘Hey, maybe we should measure this.'”

Yeah, you guessed it: That quote’s from 2002, in an article about Nielsen and the DVR.

But here’s what I’d like to point out: You don’t have to change even a single word from that quote to apply it to today’s time-shifting tools for reading. The call to the action is the same.

Here’s my plea to publishers: It’s time for us to stop ignoring active readers. We’re in the business of telling great stories. We shouldn’t forget about those who love to read them.

Let’s start measuring the true reach of our stories.

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These Are Some Really Smart Thoughts On Leadership in Newsrooms. I Stole Them From Other People, and You Should Steal Them From Me.

I spent the weekend at NewsFoo, this unconference out in Phoenix. It’s a strange affair: The organizers — O’Reilly Media, the Knight Foundation and Google — handpick about 150 people involved in all corners of news, and they throw them in a building together for a weekend. There aren’t any sessions planned out in advance. People just show up, and what happens happens. The thing gets made up as it goes along.(1)

It was a remarkable weekend, and I had to remind myself to look up every once in a while from taking notes to remind myself that, yes, I was in this room, too. It was impossible not to enjoy the energy that everyone seemed to bring to the weekend.

I showed up at NewsFoo hoping to keep my mouth shut and steal some great ideas, but one session got my especially energized: A session about leadership, innovation, and how the two can come into play when merging the worlds of traditional news and startups. I’m not sure exactly what the session was called; Lead, Follow or the Get the Fuck Out of the Way would have been a decent title, I suppose.

But here’s what I heard that I think is worth repeating(2):

The first step to success is defining what success means. What the editorial people think success is is often different from what the revenue people think. It’s tough to chase success if you don’t agree on what it is. — Raju Narisetti

Talk about what you’re really doing with a particular project. When you can’t agree on the size of the opportunity, it’s tough to figure out how big an investment (time/money/people) should be made to seize it. — Gregg Lindahl

When you try to apply old news operation standards to startups — where things are inherently messy — you’re going to struggle. To thrive, traditional operations must be able to tolerate risk. — David Cohn

Use human language when operating within a news organization. Avoid jargon. And when you’re trying to create organization-wide change, start at the top and work down. Once you enable the upper management to think differently, it makes it easier for lower-level employees to want to change. — Julie Starr

Break down points of resistance. Reduce friction. — Miguel Paz

If you’re chasing something really big, then prepare for it to play out slowly. But don’t say that out loud. Once you tell people things are going to happen slowly, then that’s the pace they’ll go. — Raju Narisetti

I especially loved a thing that Javaun Moradi from NPR said. He works with APIs at NPR, and he talked about NPR’s Serendipity Days. These are designated periods when the tech guys at NPR stop everything they’re working on for 48 hours, form teams and work on anything they want. They put up a board in the office and make a list of big problems. And then they get to work at solving them.

You’ve probably heard of similar corporate examples, like Google’s 20 percent time, or maybe FedEx Day.(3)

But what Javaun said I found especially insightful. He said it’s events like Serendipity Days that help create grassroots serendipity, and that’s where the great stuff happens. Once you empower people to do, they’ll start making/building/breaking things. That’s a huge leap towards change.

And being at NewsFoo this weekend, just bullshitting about ideas and listening to so many smart people, it was tough not to feel like I was in the midst of a pretty amazing weekend proving exactly his point. What happens now is up to us, and damn if that isn’t an empowering feeling.

  1. In fact, the photo at top is of the official conference schedule that was made up Friday night, a few hours into the event.
  2. Everything here is roughly paraphrased, FWIW.
  3. I also recently stumbled upon a web development company that created a side organization to foster and promote these ideas/projects that come from outside the normal workflow.