This Week in Review: Google’s Buzz buzz, Demand Media’s plans, and turning relationships into revenue

[This review was initially posted at the Nieman Journalism Lab on Feb. 12, 2010.]

Google Buzzes social media: For the second week in a row, the biggest story at the intersection of journalism and new media is an innovation by Google: This week, the talk was about Google Buzz, a real-time program for sharing status updates, links and media through Gmail’s platform. You can find helpful summaries of how Buzz works at The Official Google BlogO’Reilly AnswersMashable and Search Engine Land. A theme that’s clear especially from the Google blog and Search Engine Land: Google sees Buzz as a big part of its effort to organize the “torrent” that is the web’s social information with the help of the same algorithms that gave Google its search primacy.

The most important stuff first: As for Buzz’s implications for journalism, the two best quick guides are by Will Sullivan at Poynter and Google-watcher Jeff Jarvis at BuzzMachine. Jarvis sees Buzz as a major step toward the “hyperpersonal news stream” that Google’s been visualizing and magnifies the value of voice and local news. Sullivan focuses largely on Buzz’s impact on adding the element of location to news and advertising. (The local media site Lost Remote touches on this, too.) By the way, I’m with Sullivan on this — I think Buzz’s greatest impact on journalism may be as an incremental step in the development of mobile news, a sort of early bud in the ecosystem of location-based news.

The initial response from the tech crowd tended to be negative. RSS and blogging pioneer Dave Winer declared it a dud, and PR exec Steve Rubel called it “Google Wave light, a non-starter.” Others saw major privacy issues with Buzz revealing your email contacts to the world, though Google gave us a fix Thursday afternoon.

Much of the discussion around Buzz, though, was about which social network it will or won’t tear into. Before it launched, it was called a “Twitter-killer,” and DigitalBeat countered that it wouldn’t kill Twitter, while telling us what role itwould play. (Meanwhile, Dave Winer opined on what a social-media platform would have to have in order to kill Twitter.) Several others noticed its similarity to Facebook, and in a smart post at The Big Money, Chris Thompson explained where it might have an advantage. And at the tech blog ReadWriteWeb, Frederic Lardinois has a great list of improvements Buzz could make.

Demand’s plan for publishers: Four months after Wired brought the business model of online content producer Demand Media to light, the conversation about the company remains on a slow burn. We’ve been hearing lately from several Demand execs; most newsworthy is the revelation that Demand is experimenting with several major publishers and plans to move into the business of selling their original content to supplement publishers’ websites.

Why does this have people worried? Because Demand Media is being held up as the poster child for so-called “content farms” that flood the web with content of dubious quality and pay their freelance writers a pittance to do it. (Last week, news business expert Alan Mutter stirred the pot by telling freelance journalists to refuse to work for so little, and j-prof C.W. Anderson noted that just because someone will work for that kind of money doesn’t make it right.

Demand Media’s Richard Rosenblatt and Steven Kydd both defended themselves against those charges in interviews with GigaOM and Beet.TV, respectively. A bit more surprisingly, they got some support from New York Times media columnist David Carr, who quoted several Demand Media freelancers who said, among other things, “Demand has been as close to a safety net as anyone gets in this business.” As for consumers who are frustrated by the lack of quality content, Carr says, “ignore the loudmouth and ask someone else.”

Are people paying for news — or relationships?: There was no single major news item on the paid-content front this week, but we did get a handful of interesting pieces of news and conversation on the subject. First, on the newsier side: An exec with the recently bankrupt newspaper chain MediaNews told Poynter’s Steve Myers they plan on rolling out their new paywall at two papers in the next few months, and gave him a loose description of what it will look like. (Summary: A metered model, like the Financial Times or The New York Times’ plans; breaking news and multimedia will be free; enterprise reporting, columns and reviews will be behind the paywall.) Another exec in the paid-content business, Journalism Online’s Gordon Crovitz, says the unnamed publishers they’re working with are also leaning toward metered models.

On the discussion side, two sharp pieces were written this week about what will sell online. First, CUNY j-prof and web guru Jeff Jarvis tells us what won’t sell: Scarcity. In media, Jarvis says, that means content and information aren’t scarce and can’t be sold as such. Instead, he advises news orgs to base their business on relationships with readers and marketers, saying, “We must also align our interests with those of the community … helping them do what they want to do, adding value and recognizing it that way.”

Second, PBS MediaShift’s Chris O’Brien notes that quite a few people are spending $1 to buy each other virtual beers on Facebook and wonders what it might mean for news. He theorizes that it indicates that true value lies “not in the thing itself, but in something adjacent to the thing, some feeling you have about it, or something you can do with it in terms of expressing yourself.” In a brilliant post, former McClatchy exec Howard Weaver takes the idea a step further, arguing that what people value is the community that they’re helping enrich and sustain by buying the virtual good. News orgs, he says, need to nurture the consumption of news as a social act, to create “an ecology where caring about the news becomes satisfying and rewarding social behavior.”

Gauging Facebook’s expansionLast week’s discussion about Facebook’s potential power as a news and information source spilled over into this week, spurred on by reminders of Facebook’s furious rate of expansion: Sharing on it has quintupled in the last six months; it’s developing webmail to compete with Gmail; it’s creating its own targeted display ad system; and it’s hoping that Facebook Connect will become the web’s universal login. (As an added bonus, the latter article also has a wildly entertaining comment thread of people who thought they were logging into Facebook instead of commenting on a tech blog.)

Steve Rubel gives a vision of where Facebook might be headed next — business networking, helping developers build mini-sites within its networks, and ramping up search — and sums it up with a sweeping statement: “Facebook is becoming the web for millions and millions of people. … Facebook is unstoppable. They aren’t just the next Google. They’re the next web.”

Reading roundup: We’ve got quite a few (mostly short) miscellaneous items that are well worth a read this week. I’ll give them to you in no particular order:

— Here at the Lab, Martin Langeveld breaks down the 2009 fourth-quarter results from several of the nation’s largest newspaper companies, discerning a few interesting trends (advertising revenue and total revenue are down, but profits are generally up).

— Missouri j-prof Clyde Bentley lays out a step-by-step three-year plan for newspapers to prepare for a world in which mobile Internet access is the modus operandi, rather than PCs. It’s a great jumping-off point for newsroom innovation.

— The new director of BBC Global News challenged the network’s reporters and editors to deepen their engagement with social media and other web tools. Meanwhile, USC j-prof Robert Hernandez advises journalism students that the most essential 21st-century journalism skills are still the basics.

— Two interesting studies: A Penn study of The New York Times’ most-emailed list provides some clues to what kind of news people most like to share online, and research by social media consultant Jamie Beckland hints that in Portland, at least, policy-oriented journalism is thriving more in the local blogosphere than traditional media.

— Finally, UT-Dallas j-prof David Parry turns some keen observations of his students’ media habits into an insightful argument that “new media” aren’t all that new — in fact, they’re now “a fundamental part of our cultural, legal, and social institutions. It is time we started treating them as such.”

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22. February 2010 by Mark
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