Blind auditions for comedy writers

Comedian Samantha Bee has a late-night talk show that starts this week. From a recent New York Times story on the show:

“The ‘Full Frontal’ producers used a blind submissions process to hire new writers, meaning they did not know the names or backgrounds of the people whose material they were reading.”

That’s a great way to hire writers.

The story goes on to say that showrunner Jo Miller created an “application packet” showing applicants how to format their submissions, so no one would be penalized for not knowing how to do that.

Miller also noted, in a recent NPR interview, that the Daily Show and all of its spinoffs have long used a blind submissions process, and also do a lot of outreach to encourage a wide variety of people to apply.

All three are great techniques to increase diversity in your hiring.

Aside

7 thoughts on the tech media in 2016

The media is in a state of upheaval. 2015 was a stormy year, and signs indicate that 2016 will be even more turbulent.

Last month brought the news that Al Jazeera America will shut down, that Facebook multimillionaire Chris Hughes is throwing in the towel on his ill-fated attempt to bring the New Republic into a more digital frame of mind, and that Quartz may be seeking a buyer.

Last year, we saw the demise (and subsequent resurrection under new ownership) of GigaOm and The Bold Italic. Nobody was happy about Verizon buying up AOL. Re/Code sold to Vox Media in an exit that few saw as a success. About the only spots of bright news in the media were Business Insider’s $200 million sale to Axel Springer and, now, rumors that Mashable might be in talks to sell itself for $300 million — both handsome exits but also indications of ongoing consolidation.

Through all this M&A activity, it’s not clear that the fundamentals have changed much. So much of media is available for free that consumers are not willing to pay for it unless it delivers tremendous perceived value — and they’re increasingly impatient with advertising, especially in the form that it takes online. These things have been true for a decade. Yet many publishers continue whistling in the dark, as though it was still 1995.

It’s time to get wise. Here’s what anyone publishing media needs to know in 2016.

1. The news business is toughest in the middle.

News is a tough, tough business, made ever harder by shrinking rates for advertising and the massive amounts of competition. In tech news, the battle is especially fierce, and you have to hustle hard every day just to stay relevant, as my former colleagues at VentureBeat know well. Not that we were unusual: Tech reporters everywhere are busting their asses to get the news out fast, and have been doing so for years.

The problem is, even with all the hustle, the underlying business is not a particularly good one for most publications — a fact that was masked for a few years by the large amounts of venture capital pouring into tech media publishers. As that VC money dries up or runs out, the actual business models will become clearer. In most cases, it won’t be pretty.

The best chances of survival will go to the giants, who are big enough to command enormous audiences and build their own networks of advertisers, and the midgets, who can find and nurture a tiny, valuable niche. The Information charges $400 a year to deliver a few, well-selected, very informative stories a day. Pando Daily charges for access to extremely lengthy, opinionated insider stories about the startup ecosystem. Small markets, both of them, but probably defensible. They won’t ever turn into media empires and are unlikely to generate VC-worthy returns, but you can make a good small business out of a well-focused media property.

The trouble comes when you try to build a fast- or even medium-growth business on a medium-sized audience. Ad networks and programmatic buying keep pushing ad revenues downward, while ad blockers cut into the margins even more. Competition is fierce, and there are so many alternatives for mid-tier news sites that it’s difficult or impossible to convince readers to pay for information. I don’t see any good alternative business models emerging this year. If anything, it will only get tougher, as ad budgets get squeezed by an overall contraction in the tech industry. That means, unfortunately, everyone caught between giant and tiny is going to run into trouble.

2. Video is powerful but capricious.

I love video. Video is engaging, immersive, and emotionally powerful. There’s a reason TV and Hollywood still make billions of dollars. There’s a reason people “Netflix and chill” but they don’t “TechCrunch and chill.” But it’s difficult to pull off. Producing quality video is both more expensive and more challenging than most people recognize, if they haven’t done it before. And there’s a certain mysterious magic to it — it’s not easy to define a formula for success. Viewers are fickle and unpredictable, and even high-quality videos don’t always find a big audience. Some standouts: The WSJ’s digital team has been producing some outstanding videos with Joanna Stern, and The Verge does great product videos.

3. Podcasts can be surprisingly effective.

Like video, audio can be very powerful. It’s an intimate medium, where the words literally go into the listener’s ears. It’s also compatible with commute-time listening on trains or in cars, and podcasts have made possible an incredible flowering of audio alternatives, far beyond what radio could ever have done.

Lately, it may seem as though podcasting has been undergoing a bit of a resurgence. In reality, it has been there all along, slowly growing, but it took a few breakout successes to bring podcasting back into the popular eye. Last year’s Serial was a surprise hit. Marc Maron got the president to sit down for an interview — in Marc’s garage! And business podcasts like the a16z podcast are doing surprisingly well. I also think Slack’s “Variety Pack” podcast shows a lot of promise: It’s diced up into bite-sized, shareable chunks, making it easier to digest than a traditional full-length podcast.

But like video, podcasts can be unpredictable. It’s hard to know what makes one take off and another fail to gain traction. I should know: I’ve done both kinds.

4. Infographics are dead. Charts and visualizations live on.

Nobody really wants your big, vertical-format, cutesy graphics that don’t tell much of a story and have your logo at the bottom.

But give us some data, attractively presented as a clever interactive visualization? Now you’re talking. Heck, I can even get excited about a simple bar graph or pie chart, if the underlying data is interesting.

Data-driven stories are especially powerful if augmented by visual presentations. And charts and visualizations can be made into shareable assets, which can help extend the reach for their stories.

5. Content published by companies will continue to grow.

Just because news organizations are struggling doesn’t mean the need for news — or information — goes away. People still want to learn about the world. People will still be looking for information about products and services. And companies will still want to tell the world about their products.

That’s why there’s such a boom in content marketing in tech: Tech companies have increasingly realized that they can reach customers by publishing their own stories.

It doesn’t always work. There’s a lot of me-too publishing going on, too much focus on SEO and short-term customer acquisition, and not nearly enough attention to quality. Too much of it is obnoxiously self-serving. Some companies and VCs have already experimented with hiring editorial people out of the ranks of journalism, only to let them go after it becomes clear the experiment didn’t work. But the overall trend is not going away. If anything, companies will be publishing more and more in 2016.

Think of it this way: If you have a marketing budget of, say, $100,000, would you blow that on a single prime time commercial? Or would you rather build your own mini media company, fund it for a year, and create your own audience?

6. Distribution is way more important than anyone thinks.

“If you build it, they will come.” This only works in the movies. In real life, building an audience is the hard part. That’s why I think the word “media” is often more useful than “content,” because the word implies a focus on the means of distribution, not just the ideas it contains.

You think the value of a newspaper lies in the information it publishes? Guess again. Sometimes that information has great value. But in most cases the value of a publication stems from the audience it has built, and the medium on which it reaches that audience.

Publishers of all kinds need to devote attention to building and cultivating an audience. Buzzfeed understands this (in fact, it is the insight on which Buzzfeed was founded). That means more than just publishing content and waiting for people to find it. You have to actively build and feed that audience.

7. Quality media will continue to pay off — eventually.

In the end, there will be a flight to quality. Most readers are savvy enough to smell out marketing or advertising, no matter if it’s concealed as “native advertising” or advertorial. Many have gotten disgusted enough with excessive advertising that they’ve turned to ad blockers to rescue some scraps of usability.

The problem is that so much of this advertising and marketing is just crap. It’s intrusive, it’s ugly, it interrupts, and it’s deceptive. And sometimes it’s just badly written and badly presented.

I believe readers are smart enough to know that many publications depend on advertising, and they’re willing to put up with the ads if the ads are tastefully and respectfully presented — or if the ads themselves are interesting. Look at a copy of Vogue if you want to see what good advertising looks like in print. But if publications can’t find a way to make their ads more acceptable, they’ll have to find alternatives. One possibility is shown by The Wirecutter: Outstanding reviews of the very best gear, with a business model based on a moderate amount of advertising and affiliate links. And Wirecutter is doing quite well.

As I mentioned above, the path will be very, very challenging for many publishers in 2016. The business of the media is in trouble. But to survive in the long term, the old principles still apply: Be useful, be entertaining, be honest — and don’t be a tool.

7 thoughts on the tech media in 2016

Wired gets tough on ad-blockers

Sometimes we get just what we deserve.

This week the news hit that Wired is about to start offering an ad-free edition of its website for a reasonable subscription fee. For $3.99 you get access to a version of the website that shows no ads at all. That’s a pretty reasonable-sounding $1 per week, which seems like a lot for some of the web’s most terrific tech and culture and cybersecurity journalism.

In full disclosure: I worked at Wired.com for four years, 2007-2011, and I still know some of the good people there. I was and still am a strong believer in the website. I like Wired a lot and I want it to succeed.

But it’s the other part of this announcement that will make people upset: If you’re running an ad blocker, Wired.com will now block you. In other words, if you want to read the Wired website, you have a choice: See all the ads, or pay for access to the ad-free edition. It will no longer be possible to hack your Wired.com experience using an ad blocker.

Ironically, the "ad-light" experience actually has more ads than the regular experience.
Ironically, the “ad-light” experience actually has more ads than the regular experience.

How exactly the site will pull this off is still unclear. It’s not the first to fire back at ad-blocking users. I was surprised when visiting Forbes.com last month to see that its usual “please turn off your ad blocker” splash screen had gained the ability to enforce its request: If you keep your ad blocker on, Forbes will no longer let you past that splash screen. I assume Wired will do something similar.

That countermeasure will probably be met by other, more sophisticated counter-countermeasures, and the war between advertisers and ad blockers will continue. But in the meantime, it has already caused cries of outrage about Wired seceding from the open web: “So much for fair use” tweeted Chris Messina.

The critics have a point. Wired’s last experiment with a “closed” publishing platform was its iPad magazine. That project was widely lauded, and won prizes for its beauty and sophistication. It also weighed in at half a gigabyte per issue, and after the initial enthusiasm wore off, struggled to retain readers and generate revenue, according to reports I’ve heard. Among other problems: Advertisers weren’t getting the data they were accustomed to seeing, and readers weren’t able to share and use content in the ways they were accustomed to doing it (tweeting it, Facebooking it, saving it to Evernote, or whatever). Some of those bugs were fixed in later editions but the app never had the seamless ability to interconnect and share that the website did.

A similar fate may befall Wired.com’s new paywall, if it’s not able to find a way to keep the casual browsers and sharers of content engaged. A hard anti-ad-blocking wall may just wind up pissing off those readers, 20 percent of whom are now using ad blockers, Wired reports. (The percentage is even higher at other, more tech-centric websites, I’ve heard.)

Unfortunately, the publishing industry brought this on itself, along with its readers and advertisers. We taught readers over a decade ago that the price for reading high-quality journalism should be zero. We taught readers and advertisers that the most effective form of Web ad was the kind that was most in-your-face: Pop-ups, takeovers, and interstitials. We taught advertisers that Web readers were worth about 1/10 print readers. We continued to exalt print products as the paragon of quality and design, whether that was advertising or reporting: The Pulitzers, ASMEs, and similar industry awards were all slow to embrace online content.

And not only that: Craigslist taught us that the value of a classified ad should be zero. Google and DoubleClick taught us that advertising was a commodity, best bought and sold in an auction market that didn’t differentiate between publications, audiences, or platforms. Apple and Facebook taught us that the best way to engage readers was to forget about the open Web and just develop apps, where you can track people even more closely and deliver any kind of messages to them whenever you want, without restriction.

So yeah, you can see why Wired, like Forbes, has found itself at this desperate juncture. A large and growing segment of its audience has decided to block the site’s primary source of revenue, so it is fighting back with a carrot and a stick. Will the carrot be tasty enough to be worth $52 a year? Will the stick be painful enough to make people whitelist Wired.com in their ad blockers, or cough up the subscription fee?

Or will this just be another salvo in the ongoing war between publishers and their readers?

Wired gets tough on ad-blockers

AppDynamics CEO: Don’t call my $2B company a unicorn (podcast)

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This week’s guest is David Wadhwani, the (relatively) new CEO of AppDynamics. My interview with him is in this week’s podcast.

David Wadhwani

Above: David Wadhwani

Image Credit: AppDynamics

Wadhwani joined AppDynamics as its CEO and president in late 2015, after a storied career at Adobe. AppDynamics, which provides application monitoring services for developers and enterprises, recently raised $150 million in a round that reportedly valued the company at close to $2 billion. Note: Wadhwani wouldn’t confirm the valuation and didn’t want to talk about it too much, which is not surprising, given how much downward pressure unicorn valuations have come under lately. Still, he gets some points for foresight and prudence: I recorded the conversation with him in December, well before this month’s valuation and stock market downdraft.

I talked with Wadhwani about the investment climate, application performance monitoring in general, DevOps, and about how he helped Adobe manage its transition from packaged software to cloud services.

Plus, Jordan Novet and I tell you what to think about:

  • the possible bursting of the “unicorn” bubble in 2016
  • Apple abandoning its iAd platform
  • Google’s AMP platform for faster mobile pages, and
  • Jordan Novet’s home-built Oculus Rift-compatible PC.

You can listen to this episode in the embedded player below:


Or, click here to get the MP3 of this episode of What to Think.

You can also listen to this episode of What to Think on SoundCloud.

And please subscribe to What to Think in iTunes, where you’ll get every episode delivered to the device of your choice as soon as it’s released!

AppDynamics CEO: Don’t call my $2B company a unicorn (podcast)