On the Flip Side of Exposure

It is late when I am writing this, so hopefully I do not make too many gaffes. I may fix it up tomorrow.

Most professionals and amateurs working within the creative industries have recognised that there is a somewhat dubious payoff for keen amateurs and early career professionals for submitting free work that would otherwise demand payment and that is exposure. ‘It is a good way to gain exposure’ or ‘Make connections’ say many senior professionals to juniors and amateurs. What this produces is a hub-and-spoke type network arrangment where one senior professional gets to choose what work by certain juniors or amateurs gets further exposure and perhaps ultimately some kind of financial reward. The point of ‘making connections’ is that eventually you come to be seen as someone who is a hub and has the power to shine the quasi-transcendental beam of ‘exposure’ upon others.

There is a flip side to this logic of exposure. Jason Potts, Stuart Cunningham, John Hartley and Paul Ormerod co-authored a journal article published in 2008 on the concept of ‘social network markets’ as a general concept that should replace the ‘industrial’ era concept of the creative industries. Social network markets, as a concept, hasn’t really taken off, although I have not read everything in the field, so maybe it has.

They define the creative industries “in terms of the system of activities organized and coordinated about flows of value through the enterprise of novelty generation and consumption as a social process”.
Furthermore, the creative industries are “properly defined in terms of a class of economic choice theory in which the predominant fact is that, because of inherent novelty and uncertainty, decisions to both produce and consume are largely determined by the choice of others in a social network”. People choose to consume based on the choice of others. The weakest version of this was identified by Adorno who wrote (as I have recently noted) that in “Amercian conventional speech, having a good time means being present at the enjoyment of others, which in its turn has as its only content being present”.

They run through a series of descriptive postulates:

1) The set of agents and agencies in a market characterized by adoption of novel ideas within social networks for production and consumption
a) The CIs are not about the allocation of resources: they are about the creation of new resources. “The core business of the CIs is, after all, the representation and coordination of new ideas”, because “the origination, adoption and retention of novel ideas is the primary cause of economic growth and development”.
b) The CIs are not about mature technologies; they are about the evolution of new technologies. “In essence, design is the new engineering, but between physical and social technologies.”
c) The CIs are services; specifically, services to the growth of knowledge and economic evolution.

2) The creative industries are the set of economic activities that involve the creation and maintenance of social networks and the generation of value through production and consumption of network-valorized choices in these networks. “In turn, the new cultural industries, both historically and contextually conditional, are rightfully included as their production and consumption is heavily influenced by social networks for the simple reason that their value is uncertain.”

I think this work is fantastic and I am annoyed to have largely missed its development. What it certainly needs however is a bit of a Marxist and even a Foucaultian shunt.

If there is an upward pressure from these amateur and junior professional practioners regarding the production of new cultural commodities, then surely the hub-exposer senior professionals experiences this pressure as a threat to their position? No. Well, sometimes. What happens more often than not, the hub-exposer only selects ‘ideas’ that conform to the existing ‘correct ideas’, which may have originated from… the hub-exposer professional. This reproduces the heirachical distinction between hub and spoke, exposed/exposer and exposee. Hence, there are micro-power relations in effect visible in the discursive fabric of innovation (ie the ‘stuff’ creative industries/social network markets produce). This is the Foucaultian bit.

EDIT: There is something else going on here regarding the shaping of markets and the labour required to massage communicative action. Here is an example that just popped up in my Facebook stream today about Ferrari.

The Marxist shunt is a little bit more complex. It revolves around the recurring problem of ‘value’. Firstly, I don’t want to get into a stoush with quasi-classical economists about where value is located within a market or at what point is it realised. Having said that however, I argue that the creative industries turn enthusiasm into a resource. It is not ‘ideas’ that are a resource of value (just like it is not a commodity as the originator of value), but the labour required to produce them. Within the emergent social networks of the creative industries, the social network markets organise around enthusiasms. Crowd sourced valorisation is derived from a subjective appreciation of an impersonal and collective enthusiasm for various challenges that define a given cultural formation. For example, car enthusiasts are not into cars per se but the socio-technical challenges that the car represents. I have rendered this concept and process and explicit at the magazine publisher where I work when training new writers. They don’t write about the car as an object but the car as a project, the narrative of which is determined by the challenges faced by the enthusiast.

One last point. The authors write: “The standard (DCMS) definition of the CIs is based on an extension of the cultural industries, and so inherits a propensity to view CI policy in terms of market failure in the provision of public goods. […] The domain of policy is radically shifted from a top-down re-compensatory model to a bottom-up model of experimental facilitation and innovation.”

Indeed. What I find very exciting about all this research is that I very closely examined the last three decades of a single cultural industry and uncovered precisely this shift in the composition of the cultural formation itself and the function of the creative industries and role of government in them (ie. what Foucaultians call the dispositif or composition of power relations). I now have a very powerful way to frame my research.

Writing & Publishing Online Content: Evergreen vs Churn vs Viral

As an extension of my previous post about online business models I have been thinking a great deal about different kinds of online content in the context of how journalism students are taught to write. This post is a continuation of my work developing some rough notes for a book on writing for the enthusiast media based on my professional experience and my PhD research. I hope to finish a complete draft by the end of the year.

Journalism students are taught to write in two primary modes ‘news’ writing and ‘feature’ writing. There are different ways to define the two modes of writing, but the most relevant way to define them in an online publishing context is temporal. ‘News’ writing is timely and is normally concerned with covering events as they are happening. Feature writing takes a longer or more in depth perspective.

When it comes to writing for an online publishing environment for enthusiast publications the question of timeliness becomes even more important. In the markets pertaining to the car enthusiast magazines I work for there are a couple of good examples of what I regard as the three main forms of content: evergreen, churn and viral. These three forms of content are not entirely distinct and the terms I’ve used are somewhat arbitrary. There are two main ways to define the types of content in terms of their structural relation to the media ecology within which they appear. The first way is in relation to the scene and enthusiasm, i.e. a consumer side definition. The second way to define the three main forms of content is in relation to different revenue streams that can be combined in different ways depending on the business model.

Evergreen Content

Evergreen content does not have an expiration date. In the context of enthusiast media, evergreen content is always about critically representing how to engage with challenges that pertain to a given enthusiasm. These are more often than not ‘how to’ articles. Within modified-car culture, the challenges are mostly technical and pertain to automotive mechanical design, repair and modification. Other enthusiasms organised around other challenges will have slightly different kinds of evergreen content. A recipe is a classic example, while a how to article on setting up port forwarding on your home router for correct torrent connection is a contemporary example.

Evergreen content is written not so much for the immediate number of readers that are interested in it. Rather evergreen content is written for the searchable database. Challenges that pertain to a given enthusiasm very rarely expire, they simply transform depending on the cultural shifts that are occuring more broadly in the scene. A good example in modified-car culture is the centrality of the Ford flathead V8. Powering the iconic 1932 ‘Deuce’ coupe, the flathead was the engine of choice for the generation of young hot rodders during hot rodding’s initial wave of popularity in the immediate post World War 2 period. The ‘hot rod’ as a particular configuration of automotive technologies has coalesced into a coherent cultural form that now mostly transcends short term trends within the scene, which means that a flathead V8 is often used as the motor of choice even though there are more advanced engines easily and more cheaply available. The flathead is a culturally appropriate engine choice. Due to the shifting cultural significance of the flathead V8 it will be written about in different ways now compared to the way it was written about in the 1950s, but because the basic technical design of the engine has not changed in almost 80 years there will be some commonality across all articles.

A good example of evergreen content is the now near-defunct site, Autospeed. Autospeed was started in 1998 by Julian Edgar and went live in 1999. The site has gone through a cycle of free, paid and free content and advertisement, subscription and then advertisement-based business models. There was a great deal of critical discussion when the site shifted from a free content and advertisement based model to a paid content subscription model. In some ways it is similar to the US-based Ford Muscle online magazine. Co-founder of the site, Jon Mikelonis, commented on my previous post about content to say:

I believe you’ve touched on something critical by making the distinction between “evergreen” content and “news”. With respect to the automotive enthusiast niche, where a technical barrier exists in most cases, I do agree you are best to focus on tech content for online publishing.
We shut down feature stories and do very little news for the sake of allocating more time to creating and incentivizing technical and investigative content, “evergreen” content as you said. Yes, there is more mileage there. We still monetize from content produced more than 7 years ago.

Ford Muscle seems to have an advertising-based model, but another way to produce content that is relevant for a given scene is to produce sponsored content. Sponsored content is not the same as advertorial in the traditional journalistic publishing model, particularly when it comes to enthusiast publishing, if it is produced in a relatively sophisticated way. Advertorial is basically PR content dressed up as editorial and often appears in print and online as buyers guides or similar. Sponsored content if produced correctly taps into the expertise of an advertiser and represents the advertiser’s ‘know how’ in producing a ‘how to’ article. The advertiser will offer their ‘know how’ as a commercial service, which is why they will pay for the content, but the sponsored content represents technical information for the audience from someone with professional expertise in a given endeavour. The skill in producing sponsored content from the editorial side is in isolating what exactly is worthy of representing and valorising in the advertiser’s practice or ‘know how’ by having a very good understanding of your audience’s interests.

There are other ways to produce sponsored content based around a hybrid business model that incorporates event management, where seminars or courses are run to connect the professional expertise of journalists or advertisers with one’s audience. If such events are filmed or reported on then they can be tapped for more than one revenue stream. In fact there are some online publishers that use their online reporting simply to bolster their image so they can run profit making events.

There are other forms of evergreen content not directly tied to editorial for an online publishing environment, such as branded wallpapers.

Churn content has an expiration date and includes event coverage (before, after and during an event), ‘soft news’ based on media releases and ‘hard news’ based on investigative reporting. Churn is best defined in terms of who has the best coverage quickest will get the most readers. Within modified-car culture, blog-based sites are almost entirely driven by churn editorial content. A good example is the Speedhunters site created by EA Games for the Need for Speed game franchise and launched May 2008. Speedhunters delivers ‘up to the minute’ coverage of global car culture relevant to the audience of their video game franchise. Car culture here is not based around an active enthusiasm full of challenges, but something more ephemeral. The site serves as a space for fans to voice their opinions about cars, styles, drivers or events.

It is possible to produce content for more active enthusiasts that is churn-based. Rather than drawing on fans’ taste cultures, churn-based content for active enthusiasts is mostly a narrative organised around the challenges faced by other enthusiasts. For example, race coverage is not a superficial account of an event with nice looking images, but a blow by blow of the problems overcome by certain race teams. Churn-based content for fans, rather than enthusiasts, can be produced by interested amateurs, but to get an insider’s point of view of an event requires access to insiders which is normally only afforded to professionals actually working in the media.

There is a bigger issue here to do with one of the primary functions of the enthusiast media to select and valorise certain elements of the scene. Within a fragmented media ecology where a given scene is not serviced by a single dominant enthusiast media brand (an example of dominating single media brand is Street Commodores), and is fragmented across a number of forums, blogs, websites and traditional print magazines, the question of valorisation becomes a tricky one. I may write more about this in the future.

Traditional journalistic skills are required for producing churn content. The who, what, where, when, why and how, and the rest that journalism students are taught at university. There is a real problem that I have encountered when teaching new writers in on the job training. Part of what I need to teach is the ability to search beyond Google and Facebook for answers and the slightly more complicated problem of new writers being able to ask questions that do not have answers that are Googlable. This is a real problem, particularly when working in an industry that traditionally hires from enthusiast ranks and not the university-educated. Teaching writers about the different values of newsworthiness and more often than not all a story needs is to ring up a few key figures in an event to get a quote or two. This is less of a problem for those new hires that have gone through a traditional journalism course. If an answer can be Googled then whatever churn content is being written is already out of date. If a story has broke through another outlet and even on an enthusiast forum somewhere, then follow up with further research for fresh content.

Churn is an exhausting way to produce content. New content has to be published at least two or three times a day. If a day is missed then numbers will drop immediately. If on the other hand, evergreen content is also produced then the numbers for a site will be driven by the ‘long tail’ of enthusiasts trying to figure out ways to engage with a challenge.
Churn content is excellent for branding purposes as it demonstrates that a media outlet is contemporaneous with the happening (or broader inclusive event) of a given scene, i.e. the media outlet has its collective finger on the pulse.

Churn-based content is good for informing an audience about developments in the market from advertisers in the form of new products, new services, changes of address and achievements. It is a way to keep advertisers happy, by being mentioned, even though evergreen content may be a far better investment in the long term. Churn helps exposure, but evergreen content helps reputation. In an era of online forums and user-generated content or user-led discussion reputation management is an absolute priority for advertisers.

Viral content is designed to be shared through various social media platforms. Online media professionals will talk about ‘a viral’ as if it is a specific genre of media content. I am not convinced it is. Every form of media content is potentially viral if it is written for an appropriate audience. What is transmitted by a viral is not so much the actual media content, although it may be if it is a single image or a video, but the excitement about the piece of media. Viral media is primarily affective in character. The question then that needs to be asked is: What will make my target audience excited enough to share their excitement with others?

It gets a bit tricky when social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook are used as media channels for the dissemination of content. Speedhunters uses Twitter relatively effectively and Twitter suits the churn-based model of media content. Evergreen content almost by definition will not be viral, that is unless it ‘solves’ some long standing problem or another within a given community of a scene.

Online Niche/Enthusiast Media: Business Models

Online business models. I hadn’t thought about ‘business’ at all except in a critical (but not always negative) sense until about a year ago. Here is an abstract to a paper I have in the works. However, I’ve been thinking about business models for the magazines since I’ve been involved in developing a new online presence for some of them. This post is the result of some of the thinking I have been doing on the subject and has been in the works for a while now (several weeks). I’ve been thinking about it constantly but have little time to actually work on it.

I work at Express Media Group, which publishes a number of niche-market enthusiast titles. EMG is currently developing its online presence and is working on ways to successfully integrate print and online publishing. As well as working as a Production Editor, I’ve been involved in developing some of the websites for the motoring titles. The first new website up is that for Zoom magazine.

We have a massive advertising campaign starting tomorrow that requires the other websites to be up and I am waiting on our overworked web team to finish them. I look forward to seeing the results.

I’ve been carrying out research in my own time to think about new business models that integrate print and online publishing. I have no official role in this at EMG (yet), rather I have been treating it as an extension of my PhD research on enthusiasm in modified-car culture where I looked at the relation between the enthusiast media and the scene over a 30 year period.

I used philosophical concepts to examine the composition of power relations in the organisation of the scene (dispositif) and how this has changed a number of times over the time period (an event-based conception of history). Now it seems my research is going to be the most relevant if it is developed in a simple set of critical tools for understanding legacy business models.

The general character of these legacy business models is mostly well understood. The current public workshops being hosted by the FTC are working on the issues and problems of “how the Internet has affected journalism”. The FTC has posted a Staff Discussion Draft paper that explores some of the points raised over the course of several months worth of hearings. In the first few pages of the paper (2-3) the FTC outlines the general problem with legacy business models faced by all print-based publishers. I have extracted the three main points below:

1. Newspapers’ revenues from advertising have fallen approximately 45% since 2000. For example, classified advertising accounted for $19.6 billion in revenue for newspapers in 2000, $10.2 billion in 2008, and is estimated to be only $6.0 billion in 2009.
2. With the advent of the Internet, advertisers have many more ways in which to reach consumers, including, for example, through a marketer’s own website or through topical websites that relate to the products that an advertiser wants to sell (e.g., a soccer blog for soccer equipment). Search engines also provide sites for advertising related to particular search queries.
3. Although some types of online advertising (e.g., advertising targeted to a consumer’s known interests) can generate greater revenue than other types (e.g., banner ads), the vast supply of online sites for advertising reduces the amount that an online news site can charge for advertising at its site. This means that online advertising typically generates much less revenue than print advertising (often described as “digital dimes” as compared to the dollars generated by print ads). It appears unlikely that online advertising revenues will ever be sufficient to replace the print advertising revenues that newspapers previously received.

First year journalism students are taught about the ‘news hole’ well in the actual publishing business there is often an ‘advertising hole’ as well. As more advertisers have moved online to directly target the niche market enthusiast communities that the advertiser services, there are less advertisers looking at print-based advertising. Of course, this is a generalisation as there are many enthusiast communities, of mostly older enthusiasts, that have not gone online.

All is not lost, however. There are other ways to sell advertising beyond simple ‘display’-type advertising. Dan Blank has a good post up from over a year ago on different sources of revenue for online media publishers.

The main goal here is for editorial teams to be pursuing fewer standalone articles that rely solely on CPM ads, and look to more integrated packages that build many products from a single effort.

For the last six years or so I have long looked at this from the flip side. Media events assembled from a series of inter-related texts. Often these texts are assembled around a non-media product, so a product is doubled as its media-based simulacra. It was the basis of my work I carried out on exchange to Sweden during my PhD looking at media events not as the media coverage of an event, but the event produced through the media.

In social media circles posting the same material across a number of channels is called ‘content leverage’. So a Facebook post about a blog post describing a Youtube video is Tweeted. At EMG I have been working on producing media content from single opportunities that can be distributed across a number of media channels. So far the best example of this was an ECU guide in Zoom issue 147 that is currently on the stands. I have several hours of video that I shot and I am currently editing to be posted to our Youtube channel and posted to our blog. Here is an example:

The real problem with thinking about new business models for niche/enthusiast media that integrate online and print elements is that most of the current discussion about the state of print media has been about ‘hard news’. Niche/enthusiast media and ‘hard news’ work following different journalistic models of content production. For example, Blank writes:

An underlying theme in many of these is to create evergreen content whose shelf life is longer than a news article – with multiple segments that extend the ways you can market it and sell it. Focusing on business needs beyond the cycle of “breaking news” may diminish the reliance on the single revenue model of advertising.

We already do this to a certain extent, but we are going to be doing much more of this style of content production and it is going to be a real challenge for editorial teams working under increasingly tight deadlines (we make a magazine per week on average!). To make this possible Blank has two suggestions:

1) Editorial teams mapping out a product roadmap, not just an editorial calendar.
2) Editorial teams working more closely with their sales teams to come up with these ideas, and ensure that the sales dept has this information with enough time to test the market, and ideally, sell these products.

Working closer to advertising sales teams is not a problem, the other challenge, beyond deadlines, is getting a sense of what is happening in the scene. There is so much activity nowadays that to track it all, even just all the online activity, for the scene in Australia is a full-time role.

So where to go from here? I am currently rewriting some of my PhD research for a draft paper about legacy media business models for niche/enthusiast media.

Hello Blog!

I’ve been a bit busy lately and have been neglecting my blog.

Firstly, I’ve been promoted at my day job from Feature Writer to Production Editor. This has meant a different set of responsibilities, which I am enjoying, but also a new set of opportunities. I’ve been attacking these new opportunities with gusto as my activities and capacities are now more visible within the workplace. One opportunity has been to take on some of the responsibilities of event management for our presence at certain car shows. I’ve been developing event strategies to maximise the benefit to the magazines and these strategies have been received well by management and the other editorial teams.

Secondly, I’ve taken on another job that is mostly at night. This is back at Gleebooks working events. I have been made Assistant Events Manager and my responsibilities so far mainly include staff rosters and some initial tentative forays into social media. I will also be organising the Gleebooks presence at conferences and other similar events. This is basically all event management work.

There are some other exciting developments that may or may not happen, but more on these as they come to fruition (or not).

I am also behind on some promised writing, including a blog post on here about the Ford Fiesta Econetic which I had on loan from Ford as a media car and a book chapter on Derrida and Marx for a forthcoming book. I am hoping to wrap both of these up by the end of this weekend.