While the Writer's Guild is on strike over Internet residuals, this is a good time to talk about the role of video over the Internet for most content organizations. Now that CQ Politics has launched, multimedia will soon be on the way, so it's been on my mind quite a bit. Here is what I think content producers--and here I mean journalism, but it probably also applies to the entertainment industry as well--need to keep in mind:
You're not going to make any money off Internet video.
In the traditional sense of "making money," at least.
This doesn't make the writers strike any less reasonable--John Rogers explains that they're just trying to avoid the mistake they made when DVD emerged--but probably should be foremost in the mind of print or old-media types who are trying to adapt to Internet trends. Stick with me.
Recently the Escapist's Russ Pitts told Ars what most online video services probably already know, which is that people are going to steal your stuff. Best case scenario is that they steal it because they love it, and they put it on YouTube and hawk your web site for you. Worst case is that they steal it and rebrand it and find ways to make money off it. The reason that this is the worst case is because online video (at least as we currently understand it) only acts as a loss-leader, getting people to watch the ads you're running or look at your other content (which, in all likelihood, pays for itself with ad revenue in turn).
As an almost unrelated note, let's make the point that you can't stop people from stealing your content. You can make it a bit more difficult for them, but this will probably require annoying your legitimate users. And since your video is, as I just said, a loss-leader, you can't afford to annoy your users. The Bank always tried to protect itself with B-SPAN by choosing to only stream RealMedia, which drove lots of people (including the production team) crazy. We could get away with it to some extent, because A) making money was not our goal, when all was said and done, and B) we usually gave the files to anyone who asked nicely. But that's not an excuse, and it doesn't excuse the attempt.
In any case, for those organizations who do have an actual profit motive, this whole chain of reasoning seems to only gradually become clear. In all the discussion about YouTube and web distribution, those who do not understand that video is a loss-leader for other projects are destined to be shocked by the practical implications of the technology (i.e., that running video online can be both expensive and logistically complicated). This leads to complaints about the Internet and the dire state of online publishing, all because they're asking the wrong question.
The real question of online video is not "how do we get this to make money?" It is "how do we produce video that will get people to come see our other products, which do make money?" or possibly "how can we use video to build brands that we can later leverage for actual money?" The answer to this, as with most online content, is to make really great, captivating content (which is easy to say but not so simple to do) and then give it away--and make it easy for other people to give it away. If you can add embed codes, do it. If you can make it available for download, do it. By all means, use standard delivery mechanisms. The easier it is for people to include your video (with credit and linkage) in a blog post or a web page, the more likely they'll do that instead of stealing it, and the more likely that you'll see those eyeballs eventually make their way to the pages that actually pay the bills.
My second AudioFile article, on the basics of MP3 compression, is now available at Ars Technica. I guess that means it's time to start calling electrical engineers for the next one...
(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.
(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.
(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
I'm having kind of a hard time with the feedback on the AudioFile article. If I'm having a hard time with it, it's easy to see how more entrenched print journalists must be losing their minds.
Basically, I wrote in one paragraph of the article that higher bit depths offer improvement for bass frequencies. I based this on a Roger Nichols article in Sound on Sound, in which he explains his own experience in going from 16 to 24 bit recording with Bela Fleck and the Flecktones. Several people have chimed in on the Ars Forums to say hey, good article, but that bit about the bass is just wrong. I haven't fixed the paragraph, though.
It's not that I think they're wrong, and it's not that I necessarily insist that I'm right, because I'm under no illusions that I'm the most knowledgeable person on earth. But as well-spoken as the Ars forums are, and as much as I have read them in the past, they're still anonymous people in an Internet forum. Whereas Roger Nichols is a guy who mixed Stevie Wonder, Steely Dan, and Placido Domingo, and also invented a new kind of atomic clock because he didn't like the digital synchronization he was getting before. I'm going to take his word, for now, and err on the side of caution.
But it's hard, getting immediate feedback from people on something you've written, especially if you're not an expert--and most journalists, as far as I'm aware, aren't. When I went in for a job interview recently, the interviewer and I talked for a little while about how blogging has affected editorials, where there's a proud tradition of writers discussing issues that they know nothing about. And nowadays, there's a whole Internet filled with people who are happy to talk about things they know nothing about, so there's a lot of competition for those editorial jobs. Not to mention, a whole Internet that's also full of people who can write e-mail and forum posts about how the editorial was wrong. Sometimes those respondents do know what they're talking about. I can only imagine the panic of some poor economic journalist being pulled under the microscope of Brad DeLong in his ongoing Why Oh Why Can't We Have A Better Press Corps series.
This is just something that journalists and writers are going to have to get used to. Feedback comes fast, online. It comes strong, too, because people are not sheltered from giving you their opinions. And a lot of it's right, but a lot of it's going to be wrong, too. To my mind, you don't just throw that feedback away. It's a valuable thing. It makes you better. And more importantly, you don't respond to it with a hissy fit, the way that some writers have done. It's a goad to either A) know what you're talking about (which is the optimal solution), or at least B) be able to cite someone who knows what they're doing, and give good reasons why you believed them.
In a way, this makes every outlet, even the largest, into a small-town newspaper. I don't know from experience, but I hear you've got to have a thick skin to work a small town beat. People run into you on the street, they're going to tell you what they thought of that story you wrote last week. And they're not going to treat "journalist" like a big-time profession or a position of authority. They know better, and they know you better. Overall, I think that accessibility and lower status is a good thing for journalism, which has gotten a bit big for its britches at times. But it doesn't make the letters much easier to read right now.
Last couple of days have been crazy.
The second day of the conference, yesterday, I only saw one of the sessions before I had to run off to another appointment. It was on "disintermediation," the idea that there are now fewer steps between musicians and audiences. One of the ideas that someone mentioned was that of a "musician's middle class," which I love, because it really expresses the current state of music. There's a very tiny population of mega-artists, and then a very large population of bar bands and struggling acts, and very little in between. Several of the panelists, including Tim from Pandora, said that their goal is to build that middle class. More on it when I write it up for Ars.
After the conference ended, I went to the Pandora event to hear Tim speak. I highly recommend it if he comes to your city (turn on their ability to contact you by e-mail, or watch his blog). I doubt there was anything really new for anyone who's read about the service, but Tim's a good speaker and there were some things I didn't know. For example, at peak times (around lunch), Pandora accounts for 1.5% of all global Internet traffic. That's pretty amazing.
And they gave me a shirt, which is nice.
While we're on the topic of sound and music, the first of my AudioFile series is now up at Ars. It's on basics of digital audio, so if you're a little bit sketchy on the whole idea it's a good introduction. It is very basic, but I wanted to write this before getting into more complicated topics like lossless compression and 1-bit sampling. Response has been relatively good so far. The followup article on MP3 encoding has been submitted, and should go up soon.
Mental note: music journalists are a scruffy, hipster-looking lot. Despite my feelings about dress shoes, I'm not wearing the Chucks tomorrow. I'd like to stand out from that crowd.
The best exchange of the day, easily, came during an otherwise tedious bandwidth policy/Net Neutrality debate, in which Scott Cleland (NetCompetition.org, a.k.a. the ISPs) insisted that Net Neutrality has never existed in domains like wireless and cable, so why fight so hard for it?
Ben Scott from Free Press had not been terribly impressive for most of the talk, but he took the mike and said (I quote mostly from memory and my notes):
I'd like to agree completely with Scott on one point, because it's true that net neutrality has never applied to wireless providers. And I'd submit that if you want to see what it looks like when providers are allowed to be gatekeepers, just look down at your handheld device.
The wireless companies can choose what music you listen to. They can choose where you can go to buy that music. They can choose where you go on the Internet. That's what it looks like without Net Neutrality.
To which I can only say, yeah, pretty much. And if anyone thinks, as Cleland sputtered in reply, that the USA offers "lower costs" or better quality than wireless phones in other developed countries, then they pretty much deserve what they're getting.
My article on the Hero Rat program went up this morning over at Ars Technica, drawing heavily on my interview with founder Bart Weetjens, who was nice enough to put up with my mispronunciations of his name and the limitations of a Skype session in Tanzania. Good stuff.
I've sent them a guide on basic PCM audio already (perhaps too basic--I have my doubts as to its necessity, and if they don't take it I won't be insulted), and am roughly 50% done with the article on MP3 for laypeople. I'm grouping these together under the title "The AudioFile" (geddit?) and may add at least one more installment on HD formats to round the series out.
Also for Ars, next week I'll be covering the Future of Music Conference over at GWU (conveniently, only a few blocks from the Bank) and a Pandora Internet Radio meetup, which should be interesting. After that, I guess I'll have to start thinking of new articles.
Elsewhere in employment, I finished the second interview for a new full-time position with a news organization today, so I might finally be leaving WBI. Which I will miss, but will also be kind of nice: I'm getting a little tired of telling people "Real soon now!" when they ask when I'm leaving.
By a combination of opportunity and wheedling, I've garnered an invitation to contribute articles on digital audio to Ars Technica, both from a production standpoint as well as the technical side. This is kind of a wide range. Now I just need to get some pitches together. Here are a few that I'm considering, and I'd appreciate feedback.
Suggestions are also welcome, and feel free to bring up topics where I'm not any kind of expert. I'm always interested in exploring new areas and then writing about them.
Ars Technica has posted the remaining two articles I wrote about UX Week. The first is mostly about Yahoo! Teachers. The second covers the OLPC Design Keynote, thus proving that I am not above reporting on initiatives I personally find distasteful.
I've got three short articles on UX Week 2007 going up on Ars Technica, the first of which has been posted. The rest will be published today, I hope, so keep an eye out.