Major League Baseball’s draft is tonight, which has me thinking about “Moneyball,” the best book ever about the way baseball teams are built. I love this one scene from the movie adaptation of “Moneyball,” where the scouts are sitting around the room, trying to figure out how to replace three key stars from the previous year’s team, and the team’s GM — played by Brad Pitt — has his mind on something entirely different:
Grady: We’re trying to solve the problem here, Billy.
Billy Beane: Not like this you’re not. You’re not even looking at the problem.
Grady: We’re very aware of the problem. I mean…
Billy Beane: Okay, good. What’s the problem?
Grady: Look, Billy. We all understand what the problem is. We have to replace…
Billy Beane: Okay, good. What’s the problem?
Grady: The problem is we have to replace three key players in our lineup.
Billy Beane: No. What’s the problem?
Pittaro: Same as it’s ever been. We’ve gotta replace these guys with what we have existing.
Billy Beane: No. What’s the problem, Barry?
Barry: We need 38 home runs, 120 RBI’s and 47 doubles to replace.
Billy Beane: [Billy groans, loudly] The problem we’re trying to solve is that there are rich teams and there are poor teams. Then there’s fifty layers of crap, and then there’s us. It’s an unfair game.
Let me bring this around to email for a second. Every time I get to talk with other email marketers about their programs, I keep coming back to that quote: What’s the problem? When you’re on the inside, it’s hard to see what the problem is. You think the issue is that your open rates are too low, or you’re not growing your list fast enough, or your click throughs aren’t where they need to be, or you’re not getting the results you wanted on that A/B test, or whatever. Doesn’t matter.
You’re lost in the weeds. You’re solving the wrong problem.
And what I usually end up asking is: Are your emails any good? Are you delivering something of real value to your subscribers?
Don’t worry about the rest of the metrics. First you’ve got solve a simple problem: The work you’re producing probably isn’t good enough, and until you make it really, REALLY good, fixing it is the only problem that matters.
It’s not the wake-up call people want to hear, but sometimes it’s the one you need.
I can’t believe I’m saying this, but: I completely agree with Simon Cowell on something.
You remember Simon, of course. He was the loud, controversial judge from “American Idol”, and the reason even I tuned in to see that show’s finales.(1)
Anyway, he said something in an interview with the New York Times last weekend that got me thinking about the way we define failure. He was asked about one of his other shows, “X Factor”, and he said:
“I read a book once about Coke and Pepsi and it was called ‘The Other Guy Blinked.’ And we blinked. We thought 12 million [viewers] was bad. Now, I’m thinking, ‘Christ, if I could launch a show with 12 million today, I’d be a hero.’ But we beat ourselves up so much about it and we changed so many things. The show became unrecognizable. I blame myself, but we made crazy decisions. We didn’t treat it like a hit. We treated it as a failure. I wasn’t aware the market had gone down to that level so quickly. I was in this La-La Land head space of 30 or 40 million and I thought 12 million feels terrible.”
That last sentence is the big one. What must it be like to launch a huge TV hit and still feel like a failure?
It makes sense if you think about where he’s coming from. Simon’s first U.S. hit, “American Idol” once drew 38 million viewers for a finale. But then the numbers dropped, and never fully recovered. Here’s what it looked like, according to Billboard:
Even into it’s thirteenth season, the show was still drawing big numbers for finales. But it wasn’t what it had been a decade earlier.
That’s a chart that Upworthy, one of the fastest-growing publishers of the decade, showed off publicly in 2014 as they grew from zero to nearly 70 million unique visitors.(2)
Now let’s zoom out for a second:
That’s what it looks like when you rely entirely on another entity for success — in this case, Facebook — and then that business changes they way they do business. Facebook changed their algorithm, and Upworthy went from 70 million uniques to 50 million uniques, and kept dropping. Afraid that they could go from 70 million to nothing just as fast as they’d gone from 0 to 70, Upworthy changed their publishing strategy, and then changed it again. Now they’re doing what a lot of media companies — including BuzzFeed, where I work — are doing: Following the lead of distribution channels and hoping that the Facebooks and Snapchats of the world take us all to profitability. We’ll see how that strategy plays out over the next 3-5 years.
But what I’m most interested in is what happens to the people on the inside when a rocket ship like Upworthy starts to level off. That’s where Simon’s quote comes to mind. Read it again:
“We didn’t treat it like a hit. We treated it as a failure. I wasn’t aware the market had gone down to that level so quickly. I was in this La-La Land head space of 30 or 40 million and I thought 12 million feels terrible.”
“American Idol” was a rocket ship, too. It grew from nothing into a national phenomenon. But it didn’t last forever. The numbers dropped, and “Idol” merely became a big and hugely profitable TV show — merely a big and hugely profitable TV show! — not a supernova.
It’s all about perspective, though. What “Idol” built — and “X Factor” did, too — was a huge success, but from the inside, it clearly didn’t feel like that. And when you’re on a rocket ship like “Idol” or Upworthy, or the one I’m still on at BuzzFeed, it’s all about perspective. They’re about understanding that the ride up doesn’t last forever, that leveling off can be a normal course correction, that from where you stand — 12 million viewers, 50 million unique visitors, whatever — you’ve still built something impressive. You might feel like you’re losing ground because you’re not meeting your own expectations, and then you look around and realize where you actually are.
Maybe it’s not the up-up-up ride you thought, but you’ve still reached rarified air.
One last anecdote, from one of my favorite singer-songwriters, Todd Snider. I saw him tell a story once about Hootie and the Blowfish, a band he opened for back in the ‘90s. He talked about how their first album sold 16 million copies. Their second sold 3 million. Their third sold a million. They were a rocket ship that burned out. People called them a failure.
And it’s at this point in the story that Snider said, “Their third album still sold a MILLION copies! Sign me up for that kind of failure!”
It’s worth saying again: After “Idol” started to fail as a show, it still ended up running for 15 years. Simon Cowell launched two more hit shows. Upworthy is one of the biggest publishers in the world. Hootie sold several million albums. Darius Rucker went on to win a Grammy.
I’m taking the week off, and spending it up in Nantucket. I love it up here: the days are simple, and there isn’t internet or TV at the house. (I’m making a quick exception to log online for this post.)
The island is an interesting case in reinvention. A few hundred years ago, this was the whaling capital of the world. Today, the big industry is tourism. Aside from the Whaling Museum downtown, and a few extra copies of “Moby Dick” at local bookstores, you wouldn’t have any idea that life on Nantucket was so radically different in the 1700s and 1800s.
But something caught my eye this week in the local paper, the Inky Mirror. (Back in the day, I used to write for the Inky’s rival, the Indy. They like their newspaper abbreviations up here.) Every week, they publish an excerpt from the paper back in the day. The full excerpt is at the top of this post, but I wanted to highlight a snippet. It’s from the Inky 150 years ago, and it depicts an island on the verge of a huge transition:
“But the whale fishery is gone; gone beyond hope of revival. And if we truly love our island home, and would retain its already reduced population, we must introduce new branches of industry.”
The general theme of it seems familiar to me: Good news to report on the new industry in town, followed by a warning that said industry might not actually work, followed by a reminder that the old industry is long gone, and total reinvention could be necessary.
Why so familiar? Because… that’s the formula for nearly every report on the state of the news industry over the past 10 years! There’s always the good news (“We’re making more money via digital advertising than last year”), following by the big warning (“But this pales in comparison to ad revenues from 20 years ago”), followed by the requisite announcement (“We still need to make much more money to be sustainable in the long run.”).
I know how things turned out on Nantucket, even though I’m not sure islanders would’ve believed it 150 years ago. (“You’re telling me that this postage-sized stamp of scrub brush 30 miles off Cape Cod is going to be a tourist destination? And everyone’s going to wear cranberry-red pants? Really???”) How things turn out for the news industry, I’m not sure. But it’s not hard to alter that Inky warning for the news media of 2015:
“But print advertising is gone; gone beyond hope of revival. And if we truly love journalism, and would retain its already reduced influence, we must introduce new branches of revenue and distribution.”
Anyway, check back to this blog in 2165, and I’ll probably have an update then on how things turn out. (Hopefully sooner.)
“Whatever you believe / You might be wrong.” — Paul Thorn
When I was in college, I was part of a small group of journalism students who took classes that were basically about the Internet. This was 2005 or so. Journalism on the Internet wasn’t new, but it was for journalism schools.
Anyway, we spent a lot of time in class talking about things that seem funny now. Was Facebook journalism? Was blogging?
Again: It was 2005.
But one thing was made very clear to me by my professors, and by pretty much every professional person I knew: We had to be careful about what we posted online. If we weren’t vigilant, we’d never get a job in the real journalism world!
And I could go on and on. Just know: All of that comes from respected, professional, important people who make stuff in our world.
Point is: Whatever the experts are telling you, there’s a good chance they’re wrong. Seven years ago, every professional journalist in the world would’ve told you that professionalism came first. That keeping the appearance of seriousness mattered.
It turned out that they were wrong. Newspapers might’ve been built for professional-looking/sounding reporters, but the web is a wonderful place where strange/eccentric/bizarre people flourish. Weirdness is celebrated here.
About nine months ago, I launched jstart.wikispaces.com, a wiki of journalism resources. It’s massive now — some 500+ tools and tutorials for journalists.
The problem is, it’s tough to sort through all of that and figure out what the best tools are.
So I’m launching a new project: ToolsForReporters.com, a weekly newsletter geared specifically to reporters. Each week, I’ll highlight a different tool and how people in the journalism/storytelling world can get the most out of it.
If you’re a reporter who wants to build a better toolbelt, sign up today! Together, we can do better work.
There is a lot of frustration in the news industry right now. We have this amazing distribution system called the web. We’re entering a golden age of storytelling. Every year, more and more people are taking time for stories.
And we’re still not making money.
But consider the following:
Peter Durand patented the tin can in 1810. Ezra Warner patented a can opener in 1858. In between, people used chisels and hammers.
The can was invented, and then it took 48 years to invent the can opener, which made the can truly useful.
This is what I’m talking about.
We invented the web. We haven’t figured out how to fully open it up, though.
We’re still learning about this amazing thing we’ve created. What we know is, with the web:
-We can build amazing tools.
-We can build amazing communities.
-We can learn amazing things.
We don’t know much else.
Journalism is searching for this big, magic answer to our problems. We want things fixed now.
They’re not happening now. They’re happening slowly. Eventually.
That’s no consolation for the mid-career professionals who are really struggling in today’s journalism market. But its the truth. It’s going to take a long, long time to sort out the business models. Decades, probably.
But we will figure it out. We will invent our can opener.
I got asked to speak to a class of business students about two weeks ago. The students were all upperclassmen, all entrepreneurial-minded. I talked about learning how to adjust to life after college, and then we got into the Q&A. One student asked me if I had any heroes in journalism.
“I’m not going to stand up here and be the reporter who tells you I want to be Bob Woodward when I grow up,” I said.
She looked at me blankly.
“I don’t know who that is.”
I went into defense mode.
“Oh… oh, that’s okay. You’re not a journalism student. You’re not legally obligated to know his name.”
“Who in here knows who Bob Woodward is?”
There were 16 students in that room. They were all 20 or 21 years old. They were all well read. Several of them have founded their own businesses.
Point is: These are not dumb kids.
Not a single hand went up.
And I stood there, just kind of numb. This wasn’t me pulling out a reference to a semi-famous writer for SI or Esquire or the LA Times. This wasn’t me proclaiming my love for Studs Terkel.
This was Bob Fucking Woodward, the man who brought down the President of the United States. Every one of these students knew what Watergate was.
Not a one knew who’d written the stories that had forced Nixon’s resignation.
A few nights later, I met up with Chase Davis, a fellow Mizzou grad who runs the tech arm of the Center for Investigative Reporting. I mentioned that story to him, and he said the wisest thing: That’s the perfect anecdote to explain how insulated journalists are from the rest of the world.
And he’s so spot on here. I don’t think there’s a reporter out there who doesn’t want to see his/her story create impact. Create change.
But the truth is, so much of what we do doesn’t break through to a large audience. So much goes ignored.
That shouldn’t stop us from reporting. It can’t stop us from telling great stories.
But it’s something we have to be aware of. Historically, news organizations have done a lousy job interacting with readers. Things are getting better — thanks, Internet! — but only a fraction of readers are actually taking to social media/blogs to talk back.
We in the journalism world have to work quadruply hard to break through with our stories. We have to continue to expand our networks beyond the newsroom. We have to be a part of the conversation out in our communities.
Because forty years ago this June, Bob Woodward was part of a team that produced the single most impactful piece of investigative journalism that’s ever been done. Woodward’s stories forced the most powerful person in the known universe to resign his office.
And forty years later, a group of well-educated, well-read students didn’t know his name.
They should. One day, I hope they will.
We have to keep telling important and powerful stories. But we also have to work so much harder to share our stories.
There are so many people out there who still aren’t reading, and who don’t make news an active part of their lives. We need to break through and get to them.
Our work has only just begun.
Every week, I send out an email newsletter with one awesome tool to help you do your job better. It's called Tools For Reporters. Want to tell better stories? Then sign up!
Plus: If you sign up, I'll send you my five favorite tools EVER. Total cost to you: $0.
You’re a newspaper. You’re looking for a way to tell an interesting story, to engage users and make $50,000.
Quick: How do you pull it off?
I’m thinking about calling up the team at Quarterly. It’s a new subscription service for interesting people and brands. Alexis Madrigal of the Atlantic, Gretchen Rubin at the Happiness Project and Maria Popova at Brain Pickings are all early contributors to the site. Customers can sign up to get a package from a contributor of their choice. You get one package per quarter. The package is hand curated, with items and notes that combine to tell an interesting story. Customers pay $25 per quarter for that package.
So let’s say you’re the New York Times. You have a massive library of infinite things. Why not set up on Quarterly? Make it an exclusive thing — only 500 customers can subscribe. That alone is worth $50,000 per year.(1)
Send me newsprint, guys. Send me something from the Times archives that I couldn’t get elsewhere. Hell, sell me a bolt from the printing press or a Post-It off of David Carr‘s desk. I don’t care what it is; I’m sure it’ll be awesome.
But these guys at Quarterly are in the business of telling interesting stories, engaging customers and making money. News organizations should be in business with companies like them.(2)
They’re the ones who we should be working with to make money. This one might only make you $50k.
But it’s a start.
$25 per month x 4 packages per year x 500 = $50k. Well, a little less after Quarterly takes their cut. But you get the idea. ↩
The PhD with whom I share an office wall at RJI just published a cool study on how readers react when they stumble across news. In it, she makes a number of really interesting points about serendipity and the news. And before I go any further, I want to say this: Many of the points the study makes seem to be universally true. Points like:
-People like checking the Internet for news when they get bored at work.
-People feel guilty when they waste time reading news on the Internet.
-People read news because they want to be well informed.
But the real meat of the research looks at how readers respond when they stumble upon news. I was excited about this. A real look at how certain mediums — print, or social media, or smartphones — affect the way readers experience a story? Yeah, I’m interested!
Then I read the fine print, and it bums me out. The research is based on interviews with readers in Columbia, MO… in April and May of 2009.
Remember how people consumed news 33 months ago? Facebook and Twitter were wildly different(1). There were no tablets. The iPhone and the App Store were less than a year old.
It’s strange to read a story about modern news serendipity and see more mentions of Yahoo.com’s homepage (4) than Facebook (0), smartphones (0) or tablets (0) combined.(2)
I’m not saying the study is worthless. I’m not saying the study is wrong. In fact, just the opposite: A lot of the points made in the study seem universal and worthy of larger discussion.
My frustration is that the study is based largely on media consumption habits that are three years old, and in Internet time, that’s just a step away from forever. I wish it better reflected how readers consumed news today.
Actual sentence I just dug up from a social media site in July 2009: “We’ve all heard the predictions and discussions from those in the blogosphere around MySpace. However, whether or not you believe that Facebook is going to overthrow MySpace, and Twitter is going to rule over all isn’t really important.” ↩