Disruptive Innovation

The Guardian to make major cuts to U.S. news operation

16 September 2016

From Politico:

Executives from The Guardian said Thursday there will be cuts at the British news organization’s U.S. operation, announcing a 30 percent reduction in head count across the board.

In a meeting with newsroom staff, Guardian Media Group CEO David Pemsel called the changes a “course correction.” Eamonn Store, CEO of The Guardian’s U.S. operations, told staff that the changes were due in part to low ad sales and to revenue projections that are “not enough to maintain our current cost base.” Store said the company needs to make up for a revenue shortfall of $4.4 million over the next six months.

The company plans to offer buyouts to unionized editorial staff first and will move on to layoffs if necessary. Layoffs of business side staff will begin immediately. A source briefed on the plans said the culling would amount to a reduction of about 50 jobs across the 150-person organization. Cuts in the newsroom will be negotiated by the union that represents Guardian U.S. journalists.

In an email to staff that was sent shortly after this story was initially published, Pemsel and Guardian editor in chief Kath Viner blamed volatility in the U.S. and U.K. media industries, where publishers are struggling to achieve digital advertising growth as Facebook and Google suck up more and more of the market share.

“It is inevitable that such seismic shifts in the business model are adversely impacting our revenues despite the Guardian’s strong US brand recognition,” they wrote. “The full impact of these changes will bring Guardian US closer to its target of break even in 2017/18 and provide a clearer financial framework for Guardian US for the years up to 2021 and beyond. However, as in London, we will continue to take the necessary action to manage the cost base in a volatile market in order to protect Guardian journalism in perpetuity.”

. . . .

Guardian U.S. also has grappled with a series of leadership changes, as well as tumult back at the mothership in London, where executives have been reigning in costs and implementing cuts to make up for steep losses in recent years.

Link to the rest at Politico

We’re All Cord Cutters Now

8 September 2016

From The Wall Street Journal:

Does the internet pose a threat to established entertainment companies? Michael D. Smith and Rahul Telang lead a class at Carnegie Mellon University in which a student recently put that question to a visiting executive. He pooh-poohed the idea: “The original players in this industry have been around for the last 100 years, and there’s a reason for that.” As co-heads of CMU’s Initiative for Digital Entertainment Analytics, Messrs. Smith and Telang aim to counter this line of thought, and in “Streaming, Sharing, Stealing” they do just that, explaining gently yet firmly exactly how the internet threatens established ways and what can and cannot be done about it. Their book should be required for anyone who wishes to believe that nothing much has changed.

That such thinking still exists, at a time when Apple and Alphabet (that is, Google) are by far the world’s most valuable corporations, is testament to the power of self-delusion. Whether in music or movies or television or books, digital technology has given artists the tools to strike out on their own, enabled audiences to avoid paying for anything they don’t want to pay for and denied media companies the ability to control audience behavior. No longer can executives in New York or Los Angeles force music fans to buy an entire album instead of a single song; or movie buffs to line up at the box office for something they’d rather watch at home free; or television audiences to rush home and endure a barrage of ads in order to see their favorite shows. Remember NBC’s “Must See TV”? Not if you’re under 30.

The book opens with an emblematic story about “House of Cards,” the Netflix political drama that upended television, not just because it didn’t come from a conventional network or because the whole first season was released at once but because Netflix dispensed with the pilot process and put up $100 million to produce 26 episodes sight unseen. What looked from the outside like a stunt was a considered investment. Because Netflix has finely grained information about its subscribers—their likes, dislikes, viewing histories—the company can make determinations that television networks, which see audiences through a Nielsen lens that reduces viewers to demographic blobs, cannot.

Data gets you not just granularity but clarity. Do low-cost e-books cannibalize the sales of expensive hardcovers? No, it turns out that people who want one format were never likely to consume the other. What about piracy? Evidence suggests that it does indeed hurt music and video producers, though hardly as much as they claim. Efforts to fight piracy have been shown to cut down on illicit downloads and increase sales; so does a strategy of making more titles available legally. What doesn’t work is conducting business as usual.

Consider what happened when NBC decided to pull its shows from iTunes in a 2007 contract dispute: Not only did viewers fail to buy DVD box sets or migrate to NBC.com, as the network expected; many of them decamped for BitTorrent and started downloading pirated shows en masse—and they didn’t stop when NBC finally crawled back to iTunes nearly a year later. NBC thought it was playing hardball with Apple; in fact, it provoked its audience to learn how to pirate.

. . . .

The authors also note that, by making it easy for writers, musicians, and directors to work independently, digital technology has vastly increased the number of works available. Between 2000 and 2010, an explosion in self-publishing raised the number of new books issued per year to 3.1 million from 122,000. Predictably, the overwhelming majority of these titles went nowhere. But one that was self-published in 2011—E.L. James’s “50 Shades of Grey”—became the ultimate blockbuster, selling more than 100 million copies and spawning multiple sequels and a multi-billion-dollar movie franchise. And it’s not alone.

The authors’ point is not that the long tail is where the money is, though that can be the case. It’s that “long-tail business models,” being inherently digital, can succeed where others do not. Mass-media businesses have always depended on the economics of scarcity: experts picking a handful of likely winners to be produced with a professional sheen, released through a tightly controlled series of channels and supported by blowout ad campaigns. This, the authors make clear, is a strategy for the previous century.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Link may expire)

The Washington Post will use robots to write stories about the Rio Olympics

8 August 2016

From recode:

The Washington Post has a big team of journalists covering the Rio Olympics.

Also covering the games for the paper: Robots.

The Post is using homegrown software to automatically produce hundreds of real-time news reports about the Olympics. Starting tomorrow morning, those items will appear, without human intervention, on the Post’s website, as well as in outside channels like its Twitter account.

The idea is to use artificial intelligence to quickly create simple but useful reports on scores, medal counts and other data-centric news bits — so that the Post’s human journalists can work on more interesting and complex work, says Jeremy Gilbert, who heads up new digital projects for the paper.

“We’re not trying to replace reporters,” he said. “We’re trying to free them up.”

Gilbert and Sam Han, the paper’s head of data science, have a team of three engineers working full-time on Heliograf, the Post’s AI software. A few more product analysts are spending about half of their time on the project, and four or five newsroom staffers are also spending time shaping the software.

. . . .

In 2012, Gilbert said, some of the Post’s election coverage was up to 16 hours behind, as a handful of humans waded through returns.

The plan is to also use the same software to look for interesting data points, like trends in voting patterns across the country, that it can flag for human reporters to build upon.

And at some point, Gilbert says, the Post wants to be able to “inject” contributions from its AI into stories its flesh-and-blood journalists are creating. Ideally, readers won’t be able to tell who made what.

Link to the rest at recode

RIP to the VCR

22 July 2016

From Slate:

This week, the Japanese company Funai Electric announced that it wouldcease production of VCRs. Since it was reportedly the last company to make the increasingly obsolete players, the news effectively rang the death knell of a technology that had survived long past its own moment. To better understand the enduring legacy of VHS, I called Caetlin Benson-Allott, an associate professor in the English department at Georgetown, where she teaches courses on film and media studies.

Benson-Allott, with whom I went to grad school, is the author of Killer Tapes and Shattered Screens, in which she explores the ways cinema reflected on and responded to home video technology. She spoke about the strange persistence of VHS technology, discussed its role in the rise of digital culture, and reflected on what she’ll miss most about it.

. . . .

Jacob Brogan: As a scholar of video technology, what was your reaction to the news that the VCR is finally dead?

Caetlin Benson-Allott: It surprised me to find out that manufacturers were still producing VCRs, because JVC—the company that invented VHS and gave us the term VCR—actually stopped producing them in 2008. The VCR itself was outmoded by the DVD player in 2001. That’s the year that people started watching more DVDs than VHS cassettes. So, while it was refreshing to see that VCRs had made it this far into the 21st century, it was interesting that it was eight years after the very inventor of the term had given up on the technology.

. . . .

Do you think that its shelf life means that VHS is going to stick around for a while after this formal end to manufacturing?

I think it means that it should, but “should” and “will” aren’t the same thing. As a university faculty member I’ve watched multiple institutions just flat out destroy or give away their VHS collections in favor of DVD. And now they’re considering getting rid of DVD in favor of subscription services.

. . . .

You argue in Shattered Screens that VHS transformed the process of making movies. Is that a legacy that will linger?

I think it has lingered! We don’t necessarily appreciate how much our use of DVD or streaming or electronic sell-through is based on videotape—Betamax and VHS. The idea of coming home and saying, “I’m in the mood for House of Cards,” or “I want to watch all of Martin Scorsese’s movies in order,” wouldn’t be possible without VHS. The expectation that our media is there when we want it—what Chuck Tryon calls on-demand culture—was born with the VCR.

Does that mean that VCR, maybe video tape more generally, trained us for the agency that we have in our contemporary media culture?

Absolutely! VHS and videotape gave us an expectation of access that—as Lucas Hilderbrand points out in his book Inherent Vice—is foundational to the way that we approach media today. If you try to think back and imagine what television and film were like before VHS, you had to wait. To see a film that wasn’t just released, you had to make a trek to your local repertory theater on the one night they decided to play it. And if you didn’t live near a repertory theater—as most Americans didn’t—you were out of luck.

. . . .

What will you miss most about VHS?

What I miss most—and I have to say I already miss this—about VHS are the video stores. I miss walking into the cornucopia that was my local Lincoln Video of Lincoln, Massachusetts, and finding out about some guy named Scorsese when I was way too young to be watching his movies. And then working back from him to other things that he liked. I miss having a relationship with a video clerk and the esoteric taste, the evolution of taste, that I got from knowing that guy or that gal.

We have that in a sense with the you-might-also-like function on Netflix, but that’s an algorithm replacing a human relationship, which is never the same thing.

Link to the rest at Slate and thanks to Matthew for the tip.

While reading the OP, it occurred to PG that he has no anticipation of obtaining ideas for his media consumption from a physical person as part of a commercial transaction – a video store clerk or a bookseller.

While PG is a reasonably social guy and enjoys face-to-face interactions with others, he receives better suggestions for media consumption from family and friends who don’t work in bookstores, online articles/discussions and Amazon than he would ever expect to receive from a Barnes & Noble employee.

He’s not trashing those who work in bookstores, but doesn’t think they have a very good idea of what he might like. (For the record, PG is reading a history of the Congo right now, not a book he would expect to see on the front table at his local B&N.)

There is also the problem that PG hasn’t purchased a physical book in years.


Internet Publishers vs. Newspapers

7 June 2016

From Business Insider:

Newspapers are dying and the internet is rising.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics recently highlighted a stark indicator that this generational shift in the nature of media is happening: Since October of last year, there have been more people employed in internet publishing than by traditional newspapers.

. . . .

According to the BLS, “In June 1990, there were nearly 458,000 people employed in the newspaper publishing industry; by March 2016, that figure had fallen to about 183,000, a decline of almost 60 percent. Over the same period, employment in Internet publishing and broadcasting rose from about 30,000 to nearly 198,000.”

Link to the rest at Business Insider

Delivery Service Brings Groceries to Your Fridge When You’re Away

31 May 2016

Not exactly about books, but certainly about ecommerce.

From The Wall Street Journal:

In Sweden, groceries and fresh food can be delivered in your absence and directly to where they belong: your kitchen and fridge.

A Scandinavian courier company, PostNord AB, and supermarket chain, ICA AB, are testing the new service with about 20 households in the Swedish capital, promising that messengers will remove their shoes and unpack online deliveries, even when customers are away.

The pioneering service hinges on a new add-on lock, which customers must install on their doors and which messengers can open with their smartphones. Made by Swedish startup Glue AB, the lock allows residents to decide remotely when to allow access to their homes.

Kiku Mlosch, a 29-year-old German product manager living in Stockholm who has agreed to help test the delivery system, said she enjoys not having to wait at home and isn’t too concerned about security.

“Maybe I wouldn’t lay out my diamond ring,” she said, adding, however, that other people, including a cleaning lady, have access to her home when she is absent. “It’s quite a controllable risk.”

. . . .

The Swedish experiment is part of a global race aimed at solving one of the main headaches facing retailers and logistics companies from Amazon.com Inc. to United Parcel Service Inc.: elusive customers. Without having to juggle the conflicting schedules of customers reluctant to sit at home, PostNord says it can organize more efficient delivery rounds and cut costs.

In-home, in-absentia delivery could help the logistics industry meet a continued surge in online commerce. This year, 8.6% of total retail sales world-wide will happen over the Internet, amounting to more than US$2 trillion in sales, according to digital marketing research firm eMarketer—a rise of 23% compared with 2015.

. . . .

“It eliminates failed delivery attempts, which usually cause lots of friction,” he said. The cost of failed deliveries of goods ordered online was estimated at £771 million (US$1.13 billion) for 2014 in the U.K. alone, according to IMRG, an online-retail association.

To get around the problem, the logistics industry has been mostly focusing on halfway solutions, such as collection points or lockers. But those aren’t suited for fresh-food deliveries, and force customers to take on the final leg of their orders, often causing frustration.

. . . .

At €249 (US$277), the Glue smart lock features a small electronic motor that is to be placed over the existing lock on the inside of the door. Users can hand out access passes, possibly limited to a particular time period, to visitors, family members or delivery people, through a smartphone application, while being updated on the exact position of the lock through built-in sensors.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Link may expire)

The first great works of digital literature are already being written

23 May 2016

From The Guardian:

It’s an unfortunate feature of working as both a novelist and a games designer that I end up sitting through a lot of panels, round-tables, conferences, discussions and other exercises in head-nodding where digital people try to get to grips with storytelling, or where story people try to understand the digital world.

Both these types of event have their aggravations. When digital people run workshops or colloquia or jams (there are infinite names for the basic principle of bringing people together in combination with coffee) about storytelling, they often seem not to notice that quite a lot of very clever people have been thinking very hard about stories for, oh, the past 3,000-4,000 years. I’ve heard people suggest that maybe stories have a “pattern” or “structural ordering” that holds together their parts, without apparently realising that a lot of people have written about this, from Aristotle on.

And let’s not even get on to the people who say things like “data is a story”, “products are a story”, “your robo-vacuum cleaner has a story to tell you”. No it isn’t, no they’re not, and no – unless artificial intelligence has come on much faster than anticipated – it doesn’t.

But more aggravating even than this are the forums, summits, breakout sessions and seminars on “digital literature” run by exceedingly well-meaning arts people who can talk for hours about what the future might be for storytelling in this new technological age – whether we might produce hyperlinked or interactive or multi-stranded novels and poems – without apparently noticing that video games exist. And they don’t just exist! They’re the most lucrative, fastest-growing medium of our age. Your experimental technological literature is already here; it’s the noise you’re trying to get your children to turn down while you pen your thoughts about the future of location-based storytelling.

When I bring this up with arts and literary types, I often get the sort of “oh come, come” response that can only emerge from someone who has no familiarity whatsoever with what video games are, have been, and can be. “You can’t claim that Grand Theft Auto has literary merit,” they say. Maybe you can – plenty of people have – but no, I wouldn’t cite GTA as fascinating experimental literature any more than I’d cite robo-Godzilla-fighting blockbuster Pacific Rim as an example of avant-garde film-making (it’s fun though).

But are there video games experimenting with more interesting storytelling than any “digital literature” project I’ve seen? Yes, certainly. And if you want to think of yourself as well read, or well cultured, you need to engage with them.

Link to the rest at The Guardian and thanks to Sean and others for the tip.

This dark side of the Internet is costing young people their jobs and social lives

22 May 2016

From The Washington Post:

It was group discussion time at reSTART, a woodsy rehabilitation center about 30 miles outside Seattle. Four residents sat around the living room and talked about their struggles with addiction, anxiously drumming their fingers on their legs and fidgeting with their shoelaces. One young man described dropping out of college to seek treatment for the crippling problem that brought them all here: compulsive Internet use.

It is easy to scoff at the idea of Internet addiction, which is not officially recognized as a disorder in the United States. Medical science has yet to diagnose precisely what is going on in the brains of the addicted, and there is no clear definition of what entails an Internet addiction. Yet a growing number of parents and experts say addiction to screens is becoming a major problem for many young Americans, causing them to drop out of school, withdraw from their families and friends, and complain of deep anxieties in social settings.

. . . .

“It’s not as obvious as substance addiction, but it’s very, very real,” said Alex, a 22-year-old who had been at reSTART for five days with a familiar story: He withdrew from college because he put playing games or using the Internet ahead of going to class or work. (Like the other patients, he declined to reveal his full name, for fear he would be stigmatized as an addict.)

. . . .

Those who say they suffer from Internet addiction share many symptoms with other types of addicts, in terms of which chemicals are released into the brain, experts say. The pleasure centers of the brain light up when introduced to the stimulus. Addicts lose interest in other hobbies or, sometimes, never develop any. When not allowed to go online, they experience withdrawal symptoms such as irritability, depression or even physical shaking. They retreat into corners of the Internet where they can find quick success — a dominant ranking in a game or a well-liked Facebook post — that they don’t have in the real world, experts say.

Link to the rest at The Washington Post and thanks to Julia for the tip.

The Tech World As We Know It Is About To Be Rewritten

17 April 2016

From Medium:

I had a sharp moment of clarity in the summer of 2007. After standing in line for four hours at an Apple Store outside of Boston on the day the first iPhone came out, I finally had one in my hand. It felt like a stereotypical Hollywood dream sequence; a long road stretching to the horizon and all of the traffic lights go green at the same time. I imagined I could see a map of how the next five years would unfold. How the whole world would rewrite itself around this new device. We built Evernote by betting on that map.

I hadn’t had a similar sense of certainty since then, but it’s happening again now. This time, it’s around conversational UX’s — bots for short — and the world is going to be rewritten again.

. . . .

What are bots? Think of them as interactive services that provide a conversational experience and contrast them with traditional “static” apps. In a static UX, you have to learn how to operate each control; push this tab to go here, then swipe left, then push the little ‘i’ button, and so on. In a conversational UX… you just have a conversation. This doesn’t necessarily mean speech input and output, or texting, although it’ll often include those elements. It means that the product understands what you want to do and responds dynamically. Some of these bots will have their own apps, and others will live inside of Slack and Facebook and other messaging channels. Some will be accessible through voice devices like the Amazon Echo. The best bots, I think, will be hybrids with multiple interaction modalities. You talk to a bot in whichever way is most natural, and it responds in the most efficient way possible. Think less Turing test and more R2D2. Bots don’t have to pretend to be human; they just have to be fast and effortless.

. . . .

Anything that involves collaboration, communications, consumption, organization, etc. will probably become a bot. I think bots will replace 80% of what we use at work and half of what we use at home.

Link to the rest at Medium

PG says talking machines have, of course, existed in the world of science fiction for a long time. It’s interesting to think about how they might work in a contemporary world – the interaction of the bots of two lovers, for example. Do the bots have to figure out how to be compatible? What if they’re not?

Someone has probably written the definitive SF story about bots and the people they manipulate.

Stop Wasting Time in the Attention Economy

13 April 2016

From Digital Book World:

For many people, web browsers and phone screens have grown to become the main sources of information. To that end, there’s a constant and massive stream of media arriving on our screens. We live in a cutthroat attention economy.

As a result, every product will get more persuasive over time. Facebook must become more addictive to compete with YouTube. In return, YouTube must become more immersive if it wants to compete with Facebook. And we’re not just talking about “cheap” amusement like Candy Crush or cat videos; in their quest for our attention, these services also compete with studying, exercising, cooking and reading to our kids.

Media today threatens our fundamental agency. Maybe we are “choosing” to engage with these services, but we are choosing from persuasive menus driven by companies whose goals seemingly aren’t aligned to ours. As Tristan Harris further argues, there is “time spent” and “time well spent.”

Consider that the average teenager now spends more than 40 hours a week in front of a screen—almost three times as much as 10 years ago. Regardless of whether you think it’s all good or bad, hundreds of millions of young people are now spending almost 30 percent of their entire waking life in front of a digital screen. It’s hard to overstate the vast consequences—for the relational bonds of families, for our aspirations and anxieties, for our political beliefs, and ultimately for our understanding of reality itself.

. . . .

Nowadays, online discovery is mostly managed by recommender systems, which are widely integrated into applications. Some well-known examples include Facebook’s News Feed, movie recommendations on Netflix and Amazon, and of course Google Search, which these days is mostly a recommendation engine, too.

. . . .

By only being introduced to content algorithmically deemed “worth your attention,” these systems also heighten the risk of harmful “my side” bias. This ubiquitous bias is the conviction that your belief system and that of other in-group members is always correct and righteous, and that other peoples’ belief systems are always misguided and wrong-headed.

Link to the rest at Digital Book World

PG says new stuff happens.

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