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March 16, 2009

More bad news for newspapers: hotels going green

Filed under: hotels, journalism, media, newspapers, travel — Rakesh Agrawal @ 8:09 am
The Four Seasons in Austin requires guests to opt-in for newspapers.

The Four Seasons in Austin requires guests to opt-in for newspapers.

This picture should send shivers down the spines of executives at USA Today headquarters in McLean, Va.

For at least as long as I’ve been traveling for business (13 years and counting), a USA Today in front of the hotel room door in the morning has been a given. It just shows up. There’s fine print in the check in folder that says that USA Today will be delivered and if I don’t want it, I can tell the front desk and get a credit of 75 cents a day. Because I do what most people do — nothing — USA Today gets to count me as paid circulation.

At least 60% of the time, the only people who see that USA Today are the person who drops it off in front of my room and the maid who throws it away. I’ve already gotten my news from my laptop and from the TV that was showing CNN while I was getting ready.

I’m surely not the only one, and hotels are catching on.

Hotels have been steadily greening their practices while cutting costs: changing sheets only between guests, changing towels only when guests leave them on the floor, providing new toiletries only when guests have used up the previous batch.

Cutting back on newspaper delivery is the next step. This year I’ve started encountering hotels that ask me at check in whether I want a newspaper. The Four Seasons in Austin has gone a step further: if you want a newspaper, you have to put a hang tag on your door before 1 a.m. And you have to remember to do this every night of your stay.

As with Web defaults, you can guess what happens. Most people do what I do: nothing. On my floor early Sunday morning, I saw three newspaper hang tags (out of about 40 rooms). Not even a free copy of the Sunday New York Times enticed people. They were easily outnumbered by the “do not disturb” hang tags.

There are a number of unknowns: how many rooms were occupied, do the hotel’s demographics shift considerably during SXSW, etc.

But the fact that an increasing number of hotels no longer consider newspapers an essential part of their service is bad news for the newspaper industry.

See also: Who needs newspapers?

More on: newspapers.

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March 15, 2009

Who needs newspapers?

Filed under: journalism, media, newspapers, web 2, web 2.0 — Rakesh Agrawal @ 12:45 am

I read two thought-provoking pieces this week on the decline of newspapers from voices outside the newspaper business and one Really Dumb Idea from a voice on the inside.

Author Clay Shirky, Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable:

When someone demands to know how we are going to replace newspapers, they are really demanding to be told that we are not living through a revolution. They are demanding to be told that old systems won’t break before new systems are in place. They are demanding to be told that ancient social bargains aren’t in peril, that core institutions will be spared, that new methods of spreading information will improve previous practice rather than upending it. They are demanding to be lied to.

Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism. For a century, the imperatives to strengthen journalism and to strengthen newspapers have been so tightly wound as to be indistinguishable. That’s been a fine accident to have, but when that accident stops, as it is stopping before our eyes, we’re going to need lots of other ways to strengthen journalism instead.

When we shift our attention from ’save newspapers’ to ’save society’, the imperative changes from ‘preserve the current institutions’ to ‘do whatever works.’ And what works today isn’t the same as what used to work.

ODP/DMOZ creator and veteran geek, Rich Skrenta, The news medium has a message: “Goodbye”:

Every so often there’s a story about about a technophobe executive so out of touch a secretary has to print out their email every morning so they can read it on paper and dictate replies.

That’s what the print newspaper is, of course. Why on earth would you print all that stuff out? Over a hundred pages, most of which you’re not going to read, with the crease down the middle of the front page photo, story jumps everywhere, a carbon-footprint disaster to produce, distribute and recycle. It’s absurd.

I once worked out some rough back-of-napkin estimates on the number of text bytes in the paper. It was only delivered once during the day, but if you average the bytes across the entire 24 hour period it came out to be about the rate of a 300 baud modem. The newspaper was the internet.

Both make essentially the same point: the newspaper is an accident of history whose time is just about up. Rather than try to figure out how to “fix” the newspaper problem, we should focus on what’s next.

A lot of the players in the news ecosystem have already done that. I’ve written before about how most newspapers are just repackagers of information.

Newspapers have long played to the middle, and not in a political sense. They put out essentially one product and hope that the average person finds enough of value in to subscribe. The cost of print means that you really can’t go into a lot of depth on a lot of topics. You can’t cover things that are extremely important to a few hundred people.

That worked when getting that depth was a difficult thing for readers. Now, infinite depth on just about any topic is a click away. For sports, finance and politics junkies, sites like ESPN.com, morningstar.com and huffingtonpost.com are much better ways to quench their appetites.

In the meantime, the diehards in the newspaper business will come up with stupider and stupider ideas. Consider this story (via Blake Williams) about a personalized print-at-home newspaper:

MediaNews has been working with a technology company — Mr. Vandevanter would not say which one — to develop a proprietary printer for a reader’s home. It would receive and print a subscriber’s customized newspaper — with targeted advertising.

You have to have a new printer to help cut their printing and delivery costs! Maybe you’ll even have to buy special paper and ink so you can get that full broadsheet experience and can get that genuine newspaper experience of having ink rub off on your fingers. For real authenticity, the registration will be off every once in a while so that the pictures don’t look right.

And maybe, just maybe, you’ll be able to scan a link on the printed page with your CueCat to go to a Web site you find interesting.

January 12, 2009

6 ways a DVR is better than hulu

Filed under: consumer electronics, hulu, media, movies, television, video — Rakesh Agrawal @ 8:50 pm

I recently wrote 10 reasons why hulu is better than a DVR. Here are six advantages that DVRs have over hulu.

  1. You get higher quality video. If you have an HD source, chances are the video quality on your DVR will be much better. Hulu offers a very small selection (13 full episodes last I checked) of HD programming. Note that some local TV distributors charge extra for HD service. With AT&T u-Verse, the $15 for the DVR becomes $25 when you add HD.
  2. It’s designed for your living room. DVRs, despite the horrible UIs, were designed to be controlled from a distance and connected to your TV. It’s still only the geek set that will bother connecting their PCs to a TV for hulu. There’s hope though: Boxee is bringing hulu and other Internet video to a variety of platforms. A killer device would be a DVD player or game console that has boxee/hulu built in, similar to the LG blu-ray/Netflix player. (Boxee itself is based on XBMC Media Center, which runs on XBox.)
  3. It’s more network efficient. This isn’t a concern for most people today. But it may become one as incumbent TV providers wake up to the threat of Internet video. With a DVR, it doesn’t matter to the cable company how many people watch a show; the more the merrier. With hulu, every stream takes incremental bandwidth. Comcast is capping monthly bandwidth at 250 GB. It’s unlikely that ordinary Internet usage would come anywhere near that, but two or three people regularly watching hulu could hit that.
  4. You can record virtually anything. Although some DVRs restrict recording of some content (e.g. pay-per-view movies), the rule-of-thumb is that you can record whatever comes down the pipe. Hulu’s content comes from a select (though large) list of partners. You can’t, for example, watch ABC shows on hulu. Partners have Byzantine restrictions on when content appears. While many shows appear on hulu the day after broadcast, others appear eight days later. (House, Monk, Psych) I strongly suspect that this is because of Nielsen’s Live plus 7 TV ratings.
  5. You can keep what you record as long as you like. DVRs don’t generally expire content; as long you have free space you can keep it around. Or until you move and have to give the DVR back to the cable company. Most of the recent content on hulu expires within a few weeks.
  6. You can skip commercials.

I also came up with two more pluses for hulu:

  1. You get bite-sized content. Many of the shows I watch, such as talk shows or variety shows, are really collections of discrete elements. With hulu, I can get to just the parts I want easily. I don’t have to fast forward through the inane comedy bits to get to an interview I want to see.
  2. You get uncensored content. hulu offers content you won’t see on basic cable, such as scenes with nudity or bad language. (You must be logged in to see these.)

More on: hulu

January 2, 2009

10 ways hulu is better than a DVR

Filed under: consumer electronics, hulu, media, movies, television, video — Rakesh Agrawal @ 4:39 pm

I’ve been using a DVR for at least 8 years. I started off with a Replay 2020 and have since used other Replays, TiVos and cable company DVRs. Now my primary DVR is the whole home DVR that comes with AT&T’s u-Verse service.

DVRs have transformed the way I and many others watch TV. Besides breaking news and sports, I rarely watch live television.

But less than a decade after their inception (and before they’ve reached 50% penetration) they’re headed the way of the dodo, vinyl and cassette tape. The DVR’s kissing cousin — placeshifter Slingbox — will have an even shorter life.

The reason: Hulu. Here are 10 reasons why Hulu is better than a DVR:

  1. It’s free. DVRs typically cost $10-$15 a month for service. For a TiVo, add $150-$600 in hardware costs. Many people can use hulu to ditch their cable TV subscription altogether and save $60-$75 a month.
  2. You don’t have to program it. Sure, programming a DVR is a lot easier than programming a VCR. But it still takes work. And with 300+ channels, a lot of scrolling. Most DVR UIs are atrocious. While Web interfaces can make things easier, AT&T’s interface (powered by Yahoo! and recently redesigned) feels like Web 2004.
  3. You don’t have to manage it. A lot of the UI on a DVR is devoted to managing conflicts among recordings, managing recording space, etc. Many a user forum has been devoted to identifying the logic behind what gets recorded and deleted on DVRs. I just know that on my AT&T DVR, things don’t work the way I’d expect. (e.g. deleting programs I’ve watched before deleting programs I haven’t watched.)
  4. It’s infinite. You have access to thousands of TV shows and movies, way more than a DVR can hold. That’s only going to expand as programmers recognize the power of hulu and television on the Internet.
  5. You don’t have to know what you want to watch beforehand. If you hear about a program you’re interested in, you can go to Hulu and watch it.
  6. It has fewer ads. For many people, skipping ads is a big part of the appeal of a DVR. But it’s still a hassle. You have to pick up the remote at the right time and you usually end up watching 7-10 seconds of ads anyway because things don’t line up right. I’d rather sit through one 30 second ad. This isn’t bad for advertisers or TV networks either. (More on that later.)
  7. It helps you discover. Hulu recommends shows you might be interested in. Most DVRs don’t. (TiVo is a notable exception.)
  8. It’s social. You can share programs that you like with your friends on social networks.
  9. Your shows won’t be screwed up due to cable system outages, storms, power outages or a football game that goes long.
  10. It’s searchable. As a search geek, I’ve been impressed with the quality of Hulu’s search interface. They’ve made it easy to find content you want.

There are some advantages that DVRs have over hulu. I’ll write about those later. In the meantime, check out my list of ways to improve hulu.

September 21, 2008

Hulu might just make it after all

Filed under: google, hulu, media, television, video, YouTube — Rakesh Agrawal @ 1:14 am

If I could award an Emmy for outstanding performance in television, I’d have a clear winner: Hulu. The video site from NBC and Fox is my leading choice for product of the year. Hulu allows users to stream television shows from NBC, Fox, Comedy Central and select other networks. Most shows are available the day after they air on television. There is also a decent collection of classic television; I recently finished watching the first season of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. A small collection of movies rounds out the offering.

I wrote about Hulu when the partnership was announced last year:

The networks have many of the assets they need to deliver a compelling product — one much better than YouTube for copyrighted content. But I wouldn’t bet on it. And  I wouldn’t hold my breath on NBC and News Corp. making the summer launch date.

Although I was right about Hulu not making its launch date, I was wrong about its inability to deliver a compelling product. Unlike the music industry, which still refuses to acknowledge the turn of the century, the television networks have responded forcefully and credibly to the threat posed by YouTube.

Over the summer, I spent at least triple the time on Hulu as I did on YouTube. That will be even more skewed when the fall TV season kicks into high gear this week. The quality of the video is much better. Searching is also easier: unlike YouTube, you won’t see the same piece of content 12 times in search results. You also don’t have to weed through content that was taken down due to DMCA claims.

To be sure, there’s nothing truly innovative in Hulu. But the execution of what they do is great. The site is visually elegant and easy-to-use. You can subscribe to your favorite shows. You can embed videos on your blog. My favorite feature is the ability to create custom clips by dragging sliders.

Hulu does a good job (perhaps too good) of helping users discover content they might be interested in. There are some feeble attempts at social networking.

The networks are using Hulu to promote the fall season. Some shows, such as Knight Rider, were made available on Hulu before their television debuts to drum up interest.

Hulu is also doing some interesting things in advertising. More on that later.

As much as I like Hulu, I have a long wishlist:

  • Hulu on my TV. It’s hard to beat watching TV on a TV. A laptop display doesn’t cut it. Although my TV has a VGA input, that still means using the laptop to control playback. Hulu should seek to be on as many platforms as possible: Xbox, Tivo and Apple TV for starters.
  • Hulu on the go. There are times when I want to watch Hulu on my laptop. But those are also times when I’m disconnected — on a plane or a train. NBC offers downloads of many of its shows through NBC Direct; Hulu should do the same.
  • Local buffering of videos while watching. Unlike YouTube, you can’t buffer content. This deteriorates video playback quality by causing stuttering when you have inconsistent bandwidth. It also means that if you want to rewind, that video has to be restreamed. (This is more expensive for Hulu.) Even a two minute buffer would dramatically improve the experience.
  • More consistent content licensing. Hulu is at the mercy of its content providers for when content is made available and has to expire. Although many shows are available next day, shows like Monk and Psych are delayed eight days.
  • Fewer restrictions on embedded clips. Hulu clips expire along with the content, leaving holes in Web pages that embed videos. Although I wouldn’t expect full embeds to remain available, it would be nice to see exceptions for short clips.
  • Better descriptions in search results. “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart: Thu, Sep 18, 2008″ isn’t very helpful. The guest names should be included.

September 19, 2008

Google guys = 2(newspaper industry)

Filed under: google, journalism, media, newspapers, random — Rakesh Agrawal @ 9:50 am
Larry Page and Sergey Brin

Larry Page and Sergey Brin

Forbes list of the 400 richest Americans puts Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page at #13 and #14 with a net worth of $15.9 billion for Brin and $15.8 billion for Page.

That’s a bit less than the $20 billion I estimated for the U.S. newspaper industry as whole. But I was being generous and not subtracting out non-newspaper assets.

For example, only 21% of The Washinton Post Co.’s revenue comes from the newspaper division. (Despite the name, it’s mostly a test prep company.) More than half of Belo’s revenue comes from television operations. Belo’s television segment also generates more than double the income. Gannett also has significant broadcast operations.

If you take out those assets, it’s safe to say that each Googler is worth as much the entire U.S. newspaper industry.

Bill Gates could buy the industry several times over with his $57 billion net worth. As could Warren Buffett. He already has a head start: Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway owns 18% of the Washington Post Co.

Disclosure: I went to high school with Larry. He was talking about googol even back then.

More on: google, journalism, newspapers

September 17, 2008

Wall Street and the incredible shrinking newspaper industry

Filed under: google, journalism, media, microsoft, newspapers, yahoo — Rakesh Agrawal @ 8:35 pm

A friend asked me today “Does one Bear Stearns bailout equal the entire newspaper industry?” I decided to find out.

Although there isn’t a clear answer, I was surprised by how small the newspaper industry is. Here are the market caps for publicly traded newspaper companies:

Company Market cap (millions)
Washington Post Co. $5,450
Gannett 3,640
New York Times 1,960
Belo 627
Scripps 388
McClatchy 283
Media General 198
Lee 114
Daily Journal 64
Sun-Times Media Group 19
Combined $12,743

The key newspapers that are missing from this list are the Tribune papers and the Wall Street Journal. If you add in the $5 billion that News Corp. paid for the Journal and assume that Tribune is worth $2.25 billion ($8.2 billion value of the deal, discounted at the same rate as McClatchy’s year-to-date performance), the total value of the industry comes to $20 billion. (I’m being generous here and not subtracting out Kaplan’s contribution to the Washington Post’s market cap, which is likely 2/3 to 3/4 of the $5.5 billion.)

By comparison, the government has committed $30 billion in loan guarantees to Bear Stearns and $85 billion to AIG. The actual cost to taxpayers won’t be known for sometime. Bank of America is paying more than twice the value of the newspaper industry for Merrill Lynch.

Some other comparisons:

Market cap of selected companies (in billions)

Market cap of selected companies (in billions)

In other newspaper news:

More on: journalism, newspapers

September 11, 2008

Slice, dice, repackage and resell

Filed under: advertising, journalism, media, newspapers — Rakesh Agrawal @ 12:03 am

The newspaper business has missed out on a lot of opportunities over the years. Here’s one they shouldn’t miss: repackaging content for niches.

Most major markets have an industry specialization or two. In Detroit it’s the auto industry. Minneapolis has retail and medical devices. Charlotte has banking. Each of those industries has a number of companies in it.

Because I work on automotive products, I frequently end up on the Detroit Free Press’ site. Usually it’s because someone sent me a link or I found the story through an aggregator. Freep.com has a business front page, but often those stories there aren’t relevant to me. There should be an easier way: I should be able to subscribe to feeds about the auto industry and the companies I follow. A halfway decent publishing system should make this a very simple process.

A few newspapers are doing this already. The Seattle Times has feeds for Boeing and Microsoft. The Houston Chronicle has a feed for the energy industry.

But they don’t seem to be capitalizing on the advertising opportunity. Having a highly targeted business audience makes that traffic much more valuable. A conference that is targeting decisionmakers in the auto industry can spend a lot more than the spam ad inventory that is classmates.com. (Which is what currently appears on the Freep page.)

Newspapers can also serve other niches depending on the local market. The most obvious is out-of-town fans of local sports teams.

September 9, 2008

Old gnews is bad gnews for United Airlines

Filed under: google, journalism, media, newspapers — Rakesh Agrawal @ 12:22 am

An amusing story today about a cascade of errors. Amusing, that is, if you weren’t a United Airlines shareholder. United’s stock plummeted more than 75% in Monday’s trading after an erroneous report on the company’s bankruptcy.

The report came from a December 2002 story on the Sun-Sentinel’s Web site. The story found its way from the Sun-Sentinel to Google News to an investment research firm to the Bloomberg terminals which sit atop many traders’ desks. The Tribune company, publisher of the Sun-Sentinel, claims that the story was clearly labeled as an archive story. Google and Tribune are pointing fingers at each other.

I’m not sure that I buy the Sun-Sentinel’s claims. It’s archives aren’t indexed by Google in the same way that archives of papers like The New York Times are. Archive pages are very clearly differentiated. It’s also unlikely that an archive story would make the “Most viewed” promotional box. Google’s account of the incident is more believable.

I do have to question a reporter who would republish such a major story without any attempt to verify it. It’s one thing for an algorithm to make such mistakes; entirely another for a reporter to do so.

Ironically, this occured on the same day that Google announced that it is digitizing the archives of newspapers in a blog post titled “Bringing history online, one newspaper at a time.” 

(Yes, that’s an ’80s cultural reference in the headline.)

More on: Google, journalism

Disclosure: I interned at the Sun-Sentinel in college. If you search their archives, you can find the stories I wrote. These stories aren’t in Google’s index. I don’t think I wrote any market-moving stories.

September 1, 2008

Taking the “dead” out of the dead tree media

Filed under: journalism, media, newspapers, wikipedia — Rakesh Agrawal @ 1:48 pm

Last week we saw that Steve Jobs died. The week before, we learned that Barack Obama chose Chet Edwards to be his running mate.

Both were the results of slips by news organizations. Bloomberg prematurely put Jobs’ obituary across the wire, apparently after someone had just finished updating it. The Los Angeles Times released various versions of a story about Obama’s vice presidential pick featuring likely candidates and a couple of long shots. (I wonder if they had a version ready for McCain picking Palin.)

News organizations routinely prepare and update profiles on famous people to be ready to go when something big happens. In one odd case, the author of The Washington Post’s obituary of Gerald Ford died 11 months before Ford.

The big mistake isn’t that news organizations accidentally release the work like they have in the last few weeks; it’s that they don’t keep that work online to begin with. All of this time and effort goes into maintaing these stories and they only see the light of day when someone dies or otherwise makes news. The profiles of Chet Edwards, Kathleen Sebelius, Evan Bayh and others written by the Los Angeles Times are valuable, even though they weren’t selected to be Obama’s running mate.

Think about the people pages you could create with such profiles. They could be linked to from within news stories to provide users context or serve as a standalone reference. Think of the Google juice!

One thing that computers suck at and humans excel at is analyzing and synthesizing information. Compare the Post’s automatically generated page on DC mayor Adrian Fenty with the Adrian Fenty page on Wikipedia. For someone looking for a summary of Fenty, the Wikipedia page is the clear winner. The Post page requires the reader to read and synthesize many stories. (This page, incidentally, is the page that washingtonpost.com automatically links to on Fenty stories.)

The Post surely has an obit ready to go in its system with a profile similar to the Wikipedia page. But that more helpful page won’t be available until Fenty dies.

To be sure, that information isn’t updated as often as Wikipedia. But the edited profiles along with automatically generated recent stories would be a big improvement over what exists today. It would be even better if significant stories were highlighted versus run of the mill daily stories.

Even the list of people for the reporter to call for quotes at the top of the Jobs’ obituary is valuable to readers who are trying to understand a subject. The list includes Steve Wozniak, Heidi Roizen, Bob Iger, Al Gore and John Lassiter. Think of the page views!

The problem is old line thinking in newsrooms that revolves around traditional media. The assembly line mentality needs to go.

See also:

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