Facebook Instant Articles

From a NY Times article published in May:

Facebook’s long-rumored plan to directly host articles from news organizations will start on Wednesday, concluding months of delicate negotiations between the Internet giant and publishers that covet its huge audience but fear its growing power …

… Most important for impatient smartphone users, the company says, the so-called instant articles will load up to 10 times faster than they normally would since readers stay on Facebook rather than follow a link to another site.

The last thing I wanted in my Facebook feed was more news articles, so the technical improvement of faster load times does not benefit me in the slightest. The only reason I ever go to Facebook is to see what’s going on with family members. I already have to sort through the listicles, quizzes, and “surveys” that are shared on Facebook to get to their posts. Anything that makes it harder for me to see actual activity from the people I know is just more clutter.

Granted, given the quality of what is usually shared, it will probably be more interesting, higher-brow clutter, but still clutter. I had already started skipping over the regular timeline to exclusively check messages and alerts on the infrequent occasions I visited Facebook. Increasing clutter will make me less likely to bother looking through my timeline since I know it will be about as rewarding as looking though an email inbox with spam filtering disabled.

I can see the appeal for publishers, since most of the public is not as discerning jaded and cantankerous as me, and there are 1.25 billion active users on Facebook.

Let that sink in; that’s active users, as in people who actually log in and use Facebook on a monthly or more frequent basis. There must be many more registered users than 1.25 billion, since active use is typically much, much lower than registration.

That’s a metric asstonne[1] of people. The active users alone represent 17% of the current world population of 7.3 billion, so by the numbers, theoretically nearly 1 in 5 of people on the entire planet use Facebook right now. And it’s still growing.

The problem for publishers is that joining any social network is hazardous in the long term. Letting someone else publish your content means that you both relinquish control and eventually become a commodity on that platform. When you are one of several sources for a similar service, it becomes simple and easy to replace you if you decide not to participate anymore. Should Facebook later decide to play hardball, and The Times opt-out of publishing on Facebook’s platform, even they — with their strong reputation and mind-share in news — probably wouldn’t be particularly missed.

News publishing is in flux, and it’s increasingly clear that the older publishers are facing very difficult circumstances. Ironically, this consolidation approach was already tried on the internet in the past, and was generally resisted by the public.

Remember the buzz around web portals in the early days of the public internet? It’s one of the reasons AOL became infamous online, when their membership campaigns[2] resulted in floods of clueless “newbies” who knew naught of online etiquette honed on usenet in countless flamewars.

Becoming the latest implementation of a webportal is probably a good long-term strategy for Facebook, but it places it about a half-step in stodginess from “You’ve got mail!” territory. Hell, the only reason I got a Facebook account was due to social pressure from older family members. It was already losing enough social cachet a few years ago, when I finally caved, that a dude in his mid–30s didn’t think it was the cool new tech thing.

  1. Equal to 1.102 Imperial asstons, but substantially smaller than a Goatse.  ↩

  2. Kids: ask your parents to tell about the “free” frisbees and drink coasters AOL used to send to to everyone’s houses.  ↩

“Study Shows Blah-Blah-Blah”

Popular science articles almost always go with this kind of headline. The problem is that it’s almost always inaccurate. The vast majority of the time, when you check on the primary source, you find that the reporter hyped it, misinterpreted it, or is making some other error like citing a tiny study as conclusive. Even worse is when they phrase it as a question.

John Gruber at Daring Fireball has commented that if a tech article asks a question in the headline, you can safely assume that the answer to that question is “no”. “Is [insert ridiculous product name here] an iPad Killer?” Nope. The same applies to pop-sci articles.

I’m being charitable to the researchers by assuming that their research has simply been misinterpreted, but sometimes they’re overstating the case for their own research, as I’ve pointed out in the past. I deliberately phrased my headline in that piece as a question, because I was aping the usual pop-sci junk headline. It was still better than the original Atlantic title, since I removed the inflammatory “fad” and showed that the assertion was just flat wrong.

If you see an article with a headline like this: “Study Shows Foo and Also Bar!” you can safely assume that one of the following is probably true:

  • No it doesn’t.
  • It might, but the connection is tenuous.
  • It might, but needs confirmation.

You should always check the original research — which should be cited in even a semi-crappy article — to see for yourself what was actually published.

Kindle Matchbook

Finally. I’ve been waiting for something like this for years.

I love books and have kept buying “dead tree” versions, but I have also started buying an increasing number of Kindle versions on my iPhone. Soon after trying out digital-only reading, I found that I wanted both. I wanted physical versions of books I love, so I can enjoy them at home when I can actually sit down and immerse myself, but I also wanted an always-there digital version to be able to read wherever I was.

The only thing wrong with it is that the name is a little too cutesy in combination with their other brand names. I’m almost expecting them to release a larger color tablet called Bonfire. At the same time it invites comparisons with a certain competitor’s product in a different area.

Chineasy Book Project on Kickstarter

Chineasy is now a project on Kickstarter. At this writing, they've got 31 hours to go, and have already blown past their initial funding goal. I wrote about this previously after watching the TED Talk by ShaoLan where she outlined her approach to teaching Chinese characters.

I like the bold design elements, but I'm not so sure it will be useful for learning to actually read Chinese. It'll make a great coffee-table book though, and it might just introduce some people to the characters who would have had a much more shallow interaction without it. If you'd like a cool-looking book featuring 200 basic Chinese characters, it might be worth it to snag a copy before their campaign closes.

Lick This!

My suggested title: "The Japanese Eyeball Licking 'Craze' that Never Happened"

This is a natural result of the inordinate focus on "weird Japan" stories. That focus is understandable to a certain extent. As Dave Barry astutely pointed out in his book, Japan is "an extremely foreign country" and even long-term foreign residents who speak Japanese well run into things that puzzle them.

The foreign press usually have no one who is competent in Japanese to do any fact-checking, even if they have the intention to do so. This was a problem during the Tohoku earthquake. I saw reports on CNN and BBC news that the Japanese government wasn't communicating information or was being vague about the situation in Fukushima. If you watched the news here and understood Japanese, you would have thought that there was actually a surprising amount of transparency compared to typical reporting. By normal standards, the Japanese government was positively voluble.

I was surprised that major news agencies didn't seem to have staff who were capable of doing the basic low-level work of translating the reporting that was updated literally hourly — or more often — on broadcast news. So, of course, doing any kind of critical reporting like following up on sources would be far beyond them. If they can't get it right when the stakes are that high, it's not shocking in the least that yet another report on supposed Japanese "crazes" or "fetishes" got uncritical acceptance and widespread publicity.

How Periodicals Can Save Themselves

Like books, periodicals and newspapers are facing big changes. John Gruber, author of the blog Daring Fireball, has been following the developments in publishing pretty closely because of his interest in the industry. The main problem both magazines and newspapers face is that the internet provides ready access to information. So that aspect of news reporting—information aggregation—is gone forever. Everyone has access to the AP wire, foreign news in real-time, street cams, blogs, Twitter feeds, etc. There are even more sources of raw information available to the public than the news media used to have a monopoly on when they were the gatekeepers. All they really have left are investigative reporting, exposition, and editorial writing. Of those, editorials are what bloggers have been doing best, and many of them are pretty good at explaining background and connecting related events to current news, so many newspapers and magazines don’t even hold much of an edge in expository writing anymore. As some people started pointing out, news reporters aren’t doing a whole hell of a lot of investigative reporting either these days. Sure, there are news staff who are more experienced than bloggers, better writers, better trained, but there are a lot of people blogging, and quite a few of them are doing it professionally, with the same kind of training and background behind them that those news reporters started their careers with.

What it really comes down to is “dinosaurs and mammals,” Gruber says, and I agree. News companies have become big and bloated. A huge chunk of the personnel at a typical newspaper or magazine do not contribute content or perform editorial services. In contrast, even the bigger pro-level news blogs and sites have virtually no dead weight. Everyone contributes, everyone wears different hats, no one can get away with just working in “management.” They’re smaller, leaner, faster than the large top-heavy news corporations they’re competing with, and that’s why they’re taking over more and more of the niches news corporations used to have.

Periodicals had three main sources of income: newsstand sales, subscriptions, and advertising. Newsstand sales are gone. No one cares enough to buy print for ephemeralities like news, and non-tangibles generally don’t feel worth paying for. What might work is giving people something different from web content, something that feels worth the cost. Apps on something like the iPad have promise. People are okay with paying a couple of bucks for something on their portable device—especially if it’s well designed, has useful interactions, and offers a good reading experience. They’ll even pay small subscriptions through a convenient service like iTunes. But they’ll resist paying for content on the plain old web, partly out of habit and partly because of competition from other sources.

They’ve tried putting up pay walls in an attempt to get people to pay subscriptions. That hasn’t been working so well. It shows that the people running these companies don’t seem to know what their real business is. How do you get known as a good news outlet? People quote you, refer to you, and point their contacts in your direction as an authoritative source. Putting up a pay wall is like setting tariffs on goods you’re attempting to sell in a foreign market; it’s back-asswards.

You want more traffic, not less. You want people to access your information and bring even more people your way through linking and word of mouth. You want influence and presence in people’s lives. You don’t do that by setting a cover charge and turning away people at the door. It’s not an exclusive club you’re aiming for. If it is, you’re in the wrong segment of publishing.

The only strategy that will work on the web as of right now is advertising, and virtually all of the news companies simply require more revenue than ads bring in to support the personnel they have. They are making money, just not enough to support all the dead weight. And let’s face it, the guys in charge of making these decisions are Exhibit A examples of “dead weight.” Of course they’re not going to make their jobs obsolete, because they like their big paychecks. So they’ll steer their respective companies right into the wall just as long as they get a good severance package.

Some will argue that depending on advertising as the main or sole source of income is bad because then you don’t concentrate on your readers, but instead on your advertisers. I think that’s completely wrong for two reasons: If you don’t write good articles that people want to read, you don’t have an audience to sell ads to. And periodicals have always made far more from advertising than they ever made from subscriptions and newsstand copies, so they’ve always been more beholden to their advertisers than their readers.

The way I think newspapers and news magazines can survive is to evolve. Local papers are still mostly profitable because they have their niche; local news. Bigger organizations are going to have to become much leaner and faster, or they’re going to be carrion for the new furry denizens of the news world. They’ve got two options for revenue streams: advertising (as always) and subscriptions.

Don’t get me wrong, I think subscriptions can work, but so far periodical publishers have been going about it the wrong way. If they want to charge subscriptions, the way to do it is through a central service to make it easy for people to spend their money on you, and you have to offer a fundamentally different experience from the web version. One of the reasons Apple got people to pay for music from iTunes when those people could have gotten it from other places was because they made it easy. You don’t have to put in your information every single time, you don’t have to manage multiple charges and subscriptions. You can buy things on impulse.

Frankly, the news corps have demonstrated that they don’t have the know-how or the will to make a service anywhere near as good as iTunes on their own, so if they’re smart they’ll use Apple. (I would say, they should use Amazon’s Kindle or Barnes & Noble’s Nook too, but for magazines the lack of color is an enormous stumbling block. It’s probably all right for newspapers though.) The promise of iTunes and access to the iPad hasn’t escaped all of the publishers, but so far most of their implementations suck, and the value isn’t there.

Most news magazines, for instance, break even at about $1 a copy for a paper version. These guys don’t realize that print is dying, so in an obvious attempt to avoid cannibalizing their vanishing paper copy sales, they’re charging an exorbitant $5 per issue for access to the magazine through an iPad app when subscriptions for the paper versions are running between $12 and $15 a year. They’re setting up the digital versions for automatic failure, while their print versions go unsold at the newsstands. Considering that every halfway-aware consumer knows that virtually none of the logistical and material costs apply to a digital version, few people are going to feel that it’s worth it to pay that much simply for access to it on their mobile device.

So if news periodicals want to survive, they’re going to need to cut personnel back to those who can do writing, editing, design, and some of the support tasks. They should leverage proven online content services like iTunes and the iPad, along with possibly Barnes & Noble’s and Amazon’s e-readers. They should make sure that their respective applications are clean, well-designed, and offer a good reading experience. And they should make sure that their prices are appropriate; neither too low to meet their actual operating costs while generating sufficient profit, nor so high that readers automatically dismiss them in favor of free alternatives.

Death of Publishing

I don’t know much about the Japanese book publishing industry, specifically, but I do know a bit about how publishing works in general, and about business relationships in Japan. Ryu Murakami has released a book specifically for the iPad that bypasses his publisher, Kodansha, entirely. Kodansha is the largest publisher in Japan. Even in the West, publishers see themselves as patrons of authors, supporting and nurturing them while making money off marketing their writing. In Japan, patronage and loyalty to a hierarchy are systemic and cultural values, so the fact that Murakami publicly bypassed his publisher while creating this new work is huge, huge news. That the talks about a print version are an afterthought makes it even more painfully obvious that traditional print’s days are numbered. And this is in Japan where the publishing industry has seen much less of a slump than the English-language market.

No matter what publishers think, e-books are here to stay this time. Amazon recently announced that its Kindle digital book sales have surpassed hardcover sales, and the iPhone and iPad are possibly even better platforms for e-readers than the Kindle.

You’d think that publishers would be wetting themselves in excitement over the prospect of bypassing distributors. After all, under the traditional publishing and distribution model, publishers hemorrhage money at every step in the process.  But most of them can’t change their business model fast enough to keep up with the changes that are already happening in the market, much less figure out how to benefit from those changes.

Some of them get it. Baen Books has put up free digital copies of books in the Baen Free Library for years now. Backlist books tend to be pretty stagnant for most publishers. The Free Library has generated substantial interest in backlist books and introduced people to authors they might not have tried under other circumstances. I wouldn’t be surprised if Baen is one of the first traditional publishers to go all or mostly digital.

The barriers to publishing something are virtually gone with digital distribution. This scares the shit out of publishers who have thought that far ahead, but who haven’t figured out how they can change to still be relevant in the future.

The publishing industry is going to have to move to totally different business models in order to survive. I see editors working more as curators of content, finding the cream, presenting some of the best work they see in attractive forms. Authors can still benefit hugely from the expertise of good editors, who can offer advice and criticism that often makes the difference between decent work and great work. Selling services to authors, and selling screening for quality and presentation to readers are two big niches that publishers can fill.

Print books are going to become collector’s items again, like they were primarily until around the end of the 19th century when the pulp process made printing cheaper at the cost of inferior paper quality. You can already see this happening with innovative designs and beautifully printed small-press books.

Mass-market consumer books will probably be digital, but there will always be a market for well-designed books of quality as art objects, if nothing else. There’s a visceral quality to tangible goods that can’t be replaced. In re-printing Art Space Tokyo, Craig Mod found out that the silkscreen printer he worked with is even seeing more business than usual lately because designers want to use different printing processes for book covers and promotional posters.

These are just a few of the changes I can see for the future of publishing. I’m sure that I’ve barely even scratched the surface of what’s possible. What’s fairly certain at this point is that traditional publishing is dead—but authors, editors, designers, typographers, binders, printers and all the other people involved in that industry will still be around, still doing most of the same things that they’ve done in one form or another from the time of Gutenberg.