Podcasts and the Case for Bundled Content

From The Atlantic, “The Like Button Ruined the Internet”:

In the Google Reader days, when RSS ruled the web, online publications — including blogs, which thrived because of it — kept an eye on how many subscribers they had. That was the key metric. They paid less attention to individual posts. In that sense their content was bundled: It was like a magazine, where a collection of articles is literally bound together and it’s the collection that you’re paying for, and that you’re consuming. But, as the journalist Alexis Madrigal pointed out to me, media on the web has come increasingly un-bundled—and we haven’t yet fully appreciated the consequences.

When content is bundled, the burden is taken off of any one piece to make a splash; the idea is for the bundle—in an accretive way—to make the splash. I think this has real consequences. I think creators of content bundles don’t have as much pressure on them to sex up individual stories. They can let stories be somewhat unattractive on their face, knowing that readers will find them anyway because they’re part of the bundle. There is room for narrative messiness, and for variety—for stuff, for instance, that’s not always of the moment.

Madrigal suggested that the newest successful media bundle is the podcast. Perhaps that’s why podcasts have surged in popularity and why you find such a refreshing mixture of breadth and depth in that form: Individual episodes don’t matter; what matters is getting subscribers. You can occasionally whiff, or do something weird, and still be successful.

Imagine if podcasts were Twitterized in the sense that people cut up and reacted to individual segments, say a few minutes long. The content marketplace might shift away from the bundle—shows that you subscribe to—and toward individual fragments. The incentives would evolve toward producing fragments that get Likes. If that model came to dominate, such that the default was no longer to subscribe to any podcast in particular, it seems obvious that long-running shows devoted to niches would starve.

The Not-So-Mystifying Power of Groupthink and Habits

My friend, Greg, recently sent me this excellent and troubling Nate Silver article, “There Really Was A Liberal Media Bubble,” on the 2016 presidential election. Silver references James Surowiecki’s book, The Wisdom of Crowds and suggests that political journalists fail the first three of Surowiecki’s four conditions for wise crowds.

  1. Diversity of opinion (fail)
  2. Independence (fail)
  3. Decentralization (fail)
  4. Aggregation (succeed)

Many of Silver’s points hit very close to home, not just because I believe very strongly in the importance of a strong, independent media, but because improving our collective wisdom is my business, and many fields I work with — including my own — suffer from these exact same problems.

On diversity, for example, Silver points out that newsrooms are not only not diverse along race, gender, or political lines, but in how people think:

Although it’s harder to measure, I’d also argue that there’s a lack of diversity when it comes to skill sets and methods of thinking in political journalism. Publications such as Buzzfeed or (the now defunct) Gawker.com get a lot of shade from traditional journalists when they do things that challenge conventional journalistic paradigms. But a lot of traditional journalistic practices are done by rote or out of habit, such as routinely granting anonymity to staffers to discuss campaign strategy even when there isn’t much journalistic merit in it. Meanwhile, speaking from personal experience, I’ve found the reception of “data journalists” by traditional journalists to be unfriendly, although there have been exceptions.

On independence, Silver describes how the way journalism is practiced — particularly in this social media age — ends up acting as a massive echo chamber:

Crowds can be wise when people do a lot of thinking for themselves before coming together to exchange their views. But since at least the days of “The Boys on the Bus,” political journalism has suffered from a pack mentality. Events such as conventions and debates literally gather thousands of journalists together in the same room; attend one of these events, and you can almost smell the conventional wisdom being manufactured in real time. (Consider how a consensus formed that Romney won the first debate in 2012 when it had barely even started, for instance.) Social media — Twitter in particular — can amplify these information cascades, with a single tweet receiving hundreds of thousands of impressions and shaping the way entire issues are framed. As a result, it can be largely arbitrary which storylines gain traction and which ones don’t. What seems like a multiplicity of perspectives might just be one or two, duplicated many times over.

Of the three conditions where political journalism falls short, Silver thinks that independence may be the best starting point for improvement:

In some ways the best hope for a short-term fix might come from an attitudinal adjustment: Journalists should recalibrate themselves to be more skeptical of the consensus of their peers. That’s because a position that seems to have deep backing from the evidence may really just be a reflection from the echo chamber. You should be looking toward how much evidence there is for a particular position as opposed to how many people hold that position: Having 20 independent pieces of evidence that mostly point in the same direction might indeed reflect a powerful consensus, while having 20 like-minded people citing the same warmed-over evidence is much less powerful. Obviously this can be taken too far and in most fields, it’s foolish (and annoying) to constantly doubt the market or consensus view. But in a case like politics where the conventional wisdom can congeal so quickly — and yet has so often been wrong — a certain amount of contrarianism can go a long way.

Maybe he’s right. All I know is that “attitudinal adjustments” — shifting mindsets — is really hard. I was reminded of this by this article about Paul DePodesta and the ongoing challenge to get professional sports teams to take data seriously.

Basis of what DePodesta and Browns are attempting not new. Majority of NFL teams begrudgingly use analytics without fully embracing concept. Besides scouting and drafting, teams employ analytics to weigh trades, allot practice time, call plays (example: evolving mindset regarding fourth downs) and manage clock. What will differentiate DePodesta and Cleveland is extent to which Browns use data science to influence decision-making. DePodesta would like decisions to be informed by 60 percent data, 40 percent scouting. Present-day NFL is more 70 percent scouting and 30 percent data. DePodesta won’t just ponder scouts’ performance but question their very existence. Will likewise flip burden of proof on all football processes, models and systems. Objective data regarding, say, a player’s size and his performance metrics — example: Defensive ends must have arm length of at least 33 inches — will dictate decision-making. Football staff will then have to produce overwhelming subjective argument to overrule or disprove analytics. “It’s usually the other way around,” states member of AFC team’s analytics staff.

On the one hand, it’s incredible that this is still an issue in professional sports, 14 years after Moneyball was first published and several championships were won by analytics-driven franchises (including two “cursed” franchises, the Boston Red Sox and the Chicago Cubs, both led by data nerd Theo Epstein).

On the other hand, it’s a vivid reminder of how hard habits and groupthink are to break, even in a field where the incentives to be smarter than everyone else come in the form of hundreds of millions of dollars. If it’s this hard to shift mindsets in professional sports, I don’t even want to imagine how long it might take in journalism. It’s definitely helping me recalibrate my perspective about the mindsets I’m trying to shift in my own field.

Hate Has No Place in San Francisco

My face has been up on a San Francisco billboard on 10th and Howard for the past week. I knew the billboard was up, but I didn’t have a chance to see it until today, and I didn’t tell anyone that my face was on it. I wasn’t being modest, I was just busy, and I didn’t think to tell anyone about it.

Frankly, I didn’t really think that anyone would discover it on their own. Sure, a billboard is huge, and it got good placement, but I personally tune out billboards, and my picture was just one of many.

So I was delighted and amused when I started getting texts and emails from friends and colleagues this past week confirming that it was indeed me on that billboard. In theory, I should have expected this to happen, but the reality is that I’m so immersed in my own little, mostly digital world, it’s easy for me to forget the immense power and reach of good ol’ fashioned analog media.

Which brings me to the real story — the story of the billboard itself and the tool, called Louder, that enabled the billboard to happen.

A few months ago, my friend, Christie George, posted on Facebook about an anti-Muslim smear campaign where a certain individual with lots of money and very little sense was purchasing hateful ads on San Francisco city buses. Christie and her friends were organizing a counter campaign to purchase a prominent billboard stating, “Hate has no place in our city.”

The proposition was simple. If enough people gave a little bit of money, we could fight fire with fire by amplifying a message that truly represented the people of San Francisco. As a clever bonus, the billboard would include pictures of the donors. Almost 100 people donated, resulting in a successful campaign and the billboard that is up today.

This notion of crowdfunding advertising is brilliant, and it is made possible by a tool appropriately called Louder. Founded by Colin Mutchler and Christie, Louder is a community organizer’s dream tool, because it enables movements to level the media playing field. Just as Kickstarter is enabling anyone to invest in projects they care about, Louder enables anyone to amplify messages they care about. This goes well beyond Facebook likes or online petitions, resulting in broader reach and greater impact.

I am proud to have been a minor contributor to such a worthwhile campaign. I especially loved getting to experience this innovative way to make a difference.