Tag Archives: publishing

Paper Cuts

Is journalism really in danger?

Newspapers and magazines are shutting down, long-time reporter friends of mine are going back to school to become teachers and public policy experts, and a colleague of mine who teaches journalism confided that to justify his school’s value to students, he thought it had to be looked at as a general training ground for the liberal arts.

Not too long ago, at a closed-door gathering that brought together a bunch of well-known journalists to discuss the future of their profession, the specter of a journalistic apocalypse was raised. Government officials and corporate chieftans would go unchecked by investigative reporters, all laid off as a result of advertising dollars being siphoned by the internet. Incompetent or fool-hardy “citizen journalists” would have no idea how to get a story, and if they ended up in the wrong place a the wrong time, especially overseas, they’d be tossed in jail without the protection of a high-profile media brand. This final point drew much head nodding and discussion.

I originally intended for this article to sort through the shifting economics of the media industry. I was spurred on by an observation of a colleague of mine at an important, large news organization. He told me that his company’s web revenue was coming close to equaling the total staff budget for every journalist and editorial type at the place. Many hundreds of journalists.  And 10 times as many people were getting their news via the website than the print publication.  Yet, the print publication was still bringing in about eight or nine times as much money as the website, a strange by-product of many years of severe underpricing of web advertising by powerful media brands. Web advertising was a “bonus” or “value ad,” discounted or given away to support the sale of print or broadcast advertising, which was losing its value as the public migrated to the web. Now it’s too late to jack up the online prices.

From a pure economic standpoint, if this particular company shut down their print edition, enough ad dollars would flow from print to online that every journalist at the place could keep their job. But no way is that going to happen anytime soon. Too many people have their livelihood tied to dead trees. Truckers and printers and print ad sales people and those executives whose compensation is justified by big revenue numbers and selling advertisers on the experience of holding paper in their hands. The cost of maintaining real estate is another big problem for traditional publishers: internal politics nearly always make it difficult to shut down or reduce the space of large offices made much less necessary in the age of work-anywhere-with-your-laptop and online collaboration tools. The legacy issues standing in the way of restructuring are probably every bit as tough as those faced by the U.S. auto industry.

So, even with the recessions speeding the transition, the transformation process is likely going to be drawn out. To staunch the bleeding, cuts are being made across the board– give backs negotiated with the trade unions, departments combined, and journalists laid off. For most papers and magazines, what’s happening is a slow, painful path to exclusively publishing online that could be greatly accelerated, with fewer journalist jobs lost, if  media companies were more willing to quickly restructure themselves.

Not everyone can do it. Their content just isn’t going to be perceived as valuable enough by readers and advertisers and/or the publications won’t understand the importance of community and reader involvement on their sites– a story for another time. And a few don’t need to do it unless they want to — their content is so valuable that readers and advertisers will continue to pay enough to cover the deep expenses of printing and distribution. e.g.The Harvard Business Review or The National Journal.

Some media types are hoping if they hold out long enough, the Kindle and its ilk will more or less save their world via a printless print facsimile. Kindle fans working in journalism love it because the page format looks like print newspapers and magazines. As I see it,  Kindles are nice, especially for reading books, but they aren’t going to take the place of websites for newspapers and magazines: the flood of information and community on the internet needs to become part of the DNA of media companies. A reproduction of existing print pages just isn’t going to cut it and those who make too big a bet on it will easily be outmaneuvered.

Eventually, most big media brands are going to have to voluntarily get a lot smaller (although the good ones will be able to maintain the size of their edit staffs), or involuntarily be forced into bankruptcy. Newer media brands, without legacy restructuring issues, will become more competitive if established brands take too long to dig themselves out of their structural problems.  Models for low-cost digital publishing are quickly emerging. My new company, Buzzr.com, might eventually help here on the technology front with advanced and inexpensive publishing tools tightly integrated with social media. Generating sufficient revenue for these new, small online publishers to stay afloat, though, is currently an unsolved problem. That won’t last. I know of two start ups, currently in stealth mode, with great potential solutions for helping local publishers increase their revenue. I’m sure there are dozens of others in the works.

But will upstart websites, or revamped and much smaller existing news organizations, be up to the task of  creating great journalism? You’ll recall I said that at that closed door meeting of big-wig journalists there was much discussion about the importance of big media brands protecting properly credentialed journalists from the imperiousness of foreign governments. A blogger pursuing a story could be tossed into jail and no one would notice. Major media-brand reporters feel more protected, so they presumably, are more probing, more daring, more likely to get the story.

The world now know this assessment is false. What’s going on in Iran with Twitter and cellphones and YouTube is far beyond the capacity any mainstream news organization to collect and disseminate information. It appears some people are perfectly willing to risk dying to stand in the street and take cell phone videos. Meanwhile, most foreign reporters are confined to their hotels or being thrown out of the country.

And so where does that leave journalism?  The classic role of the investigative journalist, of Seymour Hersh uncovering the My Lai massacre, of Sydney Schanberg and Dith Pran bringing the Killing Fields to the world’s attention, is permanently undermined. And not for the worse. There are about 4 billion mobile phones in the world. About 65% of cell phones are in the developing world, and about half of the world’s residents will have mobile phones by 2012, according to the U.N. Whether it’s famine or war crimes, it’s increasingly unlikely that major events will go unnoticed and undocumented. And this is a great social good.

And this is where the original intent for this article shifted: too many journalists are hostile to the emerging models of new media, even if the net social benefit is significant. It makes it more difficult to rally to the defense of journalists if they refuse to participate in what’s happening. “Journalism is just for journalists” is no longer a defensible position. So, yes, there may very well be a catastrophe for some journalists — but it’s a self-inflicted wound.

The value a journalist still brings to the party in a situation like Iran is sorting through all the information and making sense of it for readers. Perhaps that seems a lot less special to some than breaking exclusives based on first-hand reporting. In fact, it’s not all that different from being a blogger, policy expert, or historian, and I expect we’ll see great contributions to journalism from all of these quarters. Welcome to the party.

I think people will very much value good analysis.  They can’t easily make sense of the flood of unfiltered information coming their way.  Great journalism can emerge when the record created by ordinary people is interpreted by professsionals. It’s largely because of the potential of this combination that I’m not all that worried that journalism is going to suffer in the long term. Painful restructuring ahead?  Yes. Lower pay for journalists?  Yes.  Less paper? Yes.  Greater competition? Yes. Worse journalism? I don’t think so. I think it’s going to become clear post-Iran 2009 that the information gained by the emergence of new media is outweighing the losses we’re suffering with print media.


Filed under Buzzr, journalism, Media, online communities, social networking, Uncategorized

What’s In a Name? Buzzr Unveiled.

by Ed Sussman

On Monday we released the first public demo of a product I’ve been working on for almost a year.  It’s great to be able to show people that you’re not just imagining the company you started.

The release create a mini-twitter storm because of it could lead to a dramatic improvements to the open source platform Drupal.  It’s also the foundation of my business – a hosted platform that makes it easy for ordinary people to create dynamic, cutting edge websites. Good stuff.

Even more fun for me, though, was the unveiling of our name: Buzzr.

Since October, I’ve been the CEO of a company called Codename Enterprises, Inc. At first, we called it Codename because we kept it hush hush for several months and Codename seemed to be a pretty good codename for the project.  Easy to remember and say. Kind of a meta joke.

The name quickly became second nature for those of us inside the project – not a joke at all. “Did you see the new Codename form builder Nate built!” or “Codename is driving me crazy” or “Will Codename make us very rich or very poor?”

Many, many hours went into brainstorming a suitable “real” name. I am the wistful non-owner of the parked “SiteMama.com” (is every aspect of one’s naming imagination already in existence on GoDaddy.com?) and proud owner of the rejected gem “BuzzGod”  (yours for a song!) If memory serves me correctly, several very off-color names were concocted and snapped up promptly by the creator after rejection by the team.  I am afraid to check if any came to fruition as websites.

Nothing we thought of seemed just right, though. And so, Codename remained Codename month after month.

After a while, the name stuck, to the point that it now feels odd to call the company by its new name. Buzzr. Buzz – R. Buzzr.com. It’s going to take awhile for me to get used to it.

Here’s an initial list of the characteristics we came up with for the ideal name:

All that, in 5 or 6 characters. Plus we wanted a name that would look good on T-shirts. And possibly spawn an adorable icon. And please, not for more than $3,000 bucks.

The naming exercise was led by Evan Orensten of Bond Art + Science, our usability and design partner. Liza Kindred, Jeff Robbins, Karen McGrane and I were probably the most active name brainstormers, but a lot of the Lullabots pitched in: Kent Bye and Jeff Eaton come to mind. We even sent Kent on an undercover mission to suss out background on the owner of a domain.

At first, an orderly process was followed: a formal name and branding strategy workshop was convened. A seven-page brand characteristics survey was completed in several multi-hour meetings. A wall-sized whiteboard was organized around themes and the names springing from these themes. Lots of springtime themes kept popping up. Flowers, bugs, trees, birds, bees and fecund rabbits.

We actually settled on one, then another, only to discover their owners were recalcitrant to part with non-earning domains that had been parked for years. I’m not exactly sure why, although I can speculate: either it’s the fantasy that if they hold out a bit longer, that $2,000 offer is going to turn into $1 million. Or, perhaps they harbor a dream of a building a website they just haven’t got around to yet. (Buzzr.com will help with that.)

I ended up pre-occupied with possible names for months. I’d post long lists on our team blog (always to tepid responses.) I became a fanatical user of www.makewords.com Throw in a few letters or word, enter a category (e.g. business, medicine or music), a base language (Finnish is a good one), and MakeWords spits out a long list of possible domain names, along with whether the names are taken or available for registration. (The site could use a makeover, but the technology works just fine.)

I think it was MakeWords that led me to BuzzGod. We were doing various takes on “Buzz” and I was immediately drawn to BuzzGod. My narcissism unveiled in the name of branding.

I wasn’t the only one making lists. By the end, we had considered several hundred names and were only been pleased with a handful.

Jeff Robbins came up with Buzzr. He and his wife are good namers. As a musician/lyriscist and artist, respectively, they have the proper credentials to create silly icons and names.

The bee, most lately shanghaid for mass-market commercial purposes by Jerry Seinfeld’s Bee movie, is our intended symbolic stand-in for our website. Bees get around, they make a lot of love, they fertilize a lot of flowers. And when they get together, there’s an audible buzz. Good subliminals, no? Plus anytime you put together two “z”s and roll them off your tongue, it tingles a smidgen in your mouth. Jazz. Fuzz. Buzz.

Ok, if you piss off a bee, it’ll sting you and possibly send you into shock. That’s a negative. So the Buzzr bee has to be very friendly. We’re still playing around with a few different bees. Some seem more fertile, some more frenetic, some more fuzzy. You can see the current contender here.

All in all, I’m pretty pleased.  At the very least, my tongue gets to tingle night and day.

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Filed under Buzzr, Drupal, Start Up, Uncategorized

Why Start (Up) Now — 10/24/08

The following is reprinted from my announcement of the creation of Codename Enterprises. It orginally appeared on the Lullabot  website: http://www.lullabot.com/blog/edward-sussman-why-start-now

by Ed Sussman

Amid the gyrations of the stock market, and predictions of a severe economic downturn, I have found myself in the interesting position of launching a start up with my friends at Lullabot and Bond Art + Science. Over the past six years, I’ve worked within the comfortable fold of two well known brands in the media world: Inc. and Fast Company, the last four years as president of a digital division with six websites, 40 employees and more than $10 million in revenue. Now I’ve left to be the CEO of a self-funded company formed by Lullabot and Bond Art + Science that doesn’t even have a name for its product yet (even the name of the company is just Codename Enterprises.)

Some people think we’re crazy to do this now. Jason Calcanis wrote a couple of weeks ago that he expects 80% of the start ups already funded would collapse because of the down, part of a “start up depression.” And legendary VC Fred Wilson said companies without angel or VC funding in place would probably have to try to make it without VC funding.

There’s an old axiom, “There’s no bad time for a good company” but that’s a bit flip for the times. After all, some companies with good products are going to fail this year because of the downturn – they won’t be able to cut their expenses deeply enough to make up for lost revenue, and VCs will cut the cord before second or third round financing becomes available. That’s why there’s some panic in the start-up world right now, tempered by lots of practical advice from VCs about tucking in for the long winter of recession ahead. Sequoia Capital’s long slideshow shared with their portfolio companies recently is the best I’ve seen on the subject.

With our fledgling company, we only need to move around headcount numbers on a spreadsheet to make phantom staff we never hired go away. We’re working lean from day one. If this were a funded start up, about three million dollars of other people’s money would have been burned up so far. Instead, we just burned a few more pounds off of Lullabot Jeff Eaton. (That’s an inside “skinny” joke.) By the way, Eaton talks about the technical work done by Codename so far, and the excellent contributions that will ensue for the Drupal project, in this blog post.

That’s been the story for almost a year, now, actually. Day one for Codename was about ten months ago, when Lullabot managing partner Liza Kindred and I started talking about how damn hard the Drupal open source social publishing platform was for the likes of her and me (non-developers), and seemingly, even for the many developers who were working on a large project for me. I was in the midst of launching two of the most complex Drupal-powered sites to date – FastCompany.com and IncBizNet.com – and the separation between the promise of Drupal and the practical restraints were fairly maddening. I advised the Lullabots (the world’s leading Drupal consultants) to start working with Bond Art + Science, one of the best user experience firms in the nation. I also read an amazing post called “How Drupal Will Save the World” by Lullabot CEO Jeff Robbins, that pretty much laid out all the guiding principals that came to be the Codename company.

Some 4,000 hours of development and design by Lullabot and Bond Art + Science ensued. The object was and is to build a hosted platform, powered by Drupal, that gives ordinary people, businesses and organizations simple tools (like drag and drop or point and click) to custom-craft websites with features such as multi-user blogs, social networks, wikis, member reviews and ratings, photo sharing, and custom form fields. With these tools, even newcomers should be able to build feature-rich multi-user websites that go well beyond the boundaries of blog sites, or more rigid products such as WordPress.com and Ning.

“Working lean” is an understatement of what happened. Working for nothing is what happened. Lullabot juggled consulting and Codename to make it happen so far. The excellent user interface experts at Bond similarly kicked in their valuable partner time. An amazing advisory board has similarly been offering up valuable advice: Jeff Dachis, former CEO of Razorfish and senior partner at Bond Art + Science; David Bradley, owner of Atlantic Media; Jeff Veen, founding partner of Adaptive Path and former design manager for Google; and Lane Becker, co-founder of GetSatisfaction.com and a founding partner at Adaptive Path.

The Product

But “Why Start Now” isn’t answered just by saying, ‘we know how to do it if we want to, even if it means working lean and in a tight economy.’ “Why Now” requires a deeper examination of the importance of this product, especially in tough economic times.

The short answer is that websites that are social and dynamic are dramatically more useful than websites that are static, and that has a powerful social implication. In his post, Jeff Robbins tells the story of a village in Nigeria that allowed an oil company to use its land in exchange for clean water and schools. Because they had a website with some flexibility, they were able to post the contract with the oil company and bring attention to the oil company not living up to its obligations.

It’s incredible how many organizations and businesses in the United States, let alone the world, still have static websites where they can\’t even change their business hours without going back to the developer who built the site for them. The simplest CMS back-end remains unavailable to them, unless perhaps they keep a blog (which in all likelihood is hosted elsewhere.)

I switched FastCompany.com over to Drupal in February, making it a dynamic site for the first time. Within three months, repeat visits had increased 1000%. The site went from a straightforward publisher to a platform for conversation. But it took us almost a year to build and the work of half a dozen full time developers – not something ordinary people or businesses can do.

Yet, think of the practical implications if we could create a widely accessible web publishing tool with great social tools and format flexibility:

  • Small businesses in search of leads for scarce business online could do a significantly better job attracting and creating a conversation with clients. More efficiency means more business and more jobs. Really.
  • Small organizations could tap into the knowledge and needs of their members, and help them better engage with one another. Stronger organizations mean more powerful grass roots social movements. (Or at least better organized bowling leagues.)
  • Bloggers could expand their work into real websites, with highly flexible formatting of pages and forms, rich tools to interact with their readers, and a back-end CMS akin for group blogging to what a major publisher pays thousands of dollars for. Better blogging platforms mean better information to readers at a time when newspapers are disappearing.

Earlier this year I was a judge at a startup competition put together by Jeff Jarvis, one of the great voices of \”citizen journalism.\” We were charged with judging the business plans of a group of grad students who thought running their own websites might be a better alternative to getting a job. A couple of the plans were, in effect, community newspapers, and a big chunk of the money they were after would have gone to pay for development of their sites. A few others involved more sophisticated dynamic tools: bookmarking, ranking and rating, user profiles, and the like.

When our platform reaches its potential, the startup costs for making these business plans real will drop dramatically. Companies will launch that would otherwise have never had a shot. And more start ups equals a better economy — it’s large enterprises that shed jobs during a recession. Job growth comes from small business.

Drupal is a magnificent modular platform that lets you build most any website you can imagine. If only you have the special know-how. It\’s hard even for developers to master, though. And that\’s not good enough to reach the mass audience that needs a social platform to build their websites.

That\’s why we\’re building a layer between Drupal and the end-user — a layer that simplifies choices, but leaves Drupal core intact. And it\’s free.

Can we make money with a free product?


Some websites will want help with advertising. That something I\’m good at, having grown ad revenue almost 600% during my time at Inc.com and FastCompany.com. Some will want premium services, like extra storage space, beyond what we\’ll provide for free. And some websites will want to tap into our expertise in how to maximize a social website with great copywriting, custom branding, SEO, SEM, and community building.

The business model for freemium remains viable even in a weak economy. Fred Wilson wrote a good post about this. The services surrounding a free product can be very valuable, and even in the worst economy, people will pay to get help succeeding in whatever is most important to them.

We\’re well aware that plenty of others have their own visions of expanding social media platforms to more people: Ning with better social networks, WordPress.com with better blogs; Acquia with better, supported distributions of Drupal itself.

What we will offer as an alternative is a more flexible format that\’s still straightforward for average users. And we\’ll be improving Drupal all along the way by giving back to the open source project. Jeff Eaton discusses a number of important breakthroughs we\’ve already contributed in his blog post.

We\’ll see over the coming months whether this approach interests outside investors — outside investment money would certainly speed things along. But we\’re going to keep going in any case.

So why start up now?

Because innovation is always important.

Because getting in at the bottom is how you make the most money in the long term.

Because aggressive companies pick up market share more easily during bad economic times.

Because efficient ad-supported media, like radio during the great depression, can and do catch hold even when times are rough.

Because, as investor Mike Moritz put it, the best time to invest is when people are cowering under their desks.

Because people need this product.


What’s the alternative?

On October 14th, 2008 Scott Phillips (not verified) said:
What’s the alternative? Simply throwing in the towel because the Dow had a wild ride this week? Bah. Go get ’em, I say. I can’t wait to see how this turns out. Very exciting stuff.

Fantastic news

On October 15th, 2008 Benjamin Melançon (not verified) said:
It’s always bothered me that the minimum cost for a genuinely good dynamic web site was too much for many people, groups, and even businesses that should have one. And Agaric makes money doing those sites!Best to you and Lullabot in this venture. benjamin, Agaric Design Collective

Something like Elgg?

On October 17th, 2008 Lucas Pereira (not verified) said:
Are you guys trying to achive something like Elgg?

Hi Lucas, Elgg appears to be

On October 17th, 2008 liza said:
Hi Lucas,Elgg appears to be very similar in offering to Ning – a way for users to create their own social networks. This is definitely a part of what we are going to offer!We’re going to offer a lot more, too. We’ll offer social networking capabilities, as well as social publishing, media sharing, wikis, blogs, and tons more.Thanks for your interest, and stay tuned!

It’s the “Perfect” Time to Launch!

On November 10th, 2008 John Smart (not verified) said:
My logic has always leaned toward following the crowd, however, after many hard lessons, 20 years of experience have taught me that I\’m usually wrong to take that path! Now is the \”perfect\” time to launch a serious enterprise..1) Talented human capital is readily available.
2) Every major business is trying to “leverage” their market to survive – The web is their natural means to do this.
3) “Downturns” are ALWAYS the source of innovation, to do it better, faster, employ smarter thinking… (the little “G” company that began in ’98 but “thrived” during 2000-2003)
4) Everyone will “watch” you just for kicks, so you can cut back on marketing expenses. Every press release that hits their inbox will be read! :>
5) Open Source is here to stay…business just wants a solid partner behind it to deliver a solution and hold their hand.I plan to drop all my focus on Microsoft solutions in favor of a value added “FREE” (license wise) solution to my business customers that includes my service delivery aspect. And I have always received better response from the Drupal Community than the “paid” MS support option.Best Regards,

Please heed my Vote of Confidence!

John Smart

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