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Return Of The King: How LeBron James Nailed ‘Decision 2.0’

Photo credit: Keith Allison, via Creative Commons

By Mike Kuczkowski

Since entering the NBA 11 years ago, LeBron James has been described as the heir to Michael Jordan – big shoes to fill, given that Jordan is widely recognized as the greatest player of all time. And James has fulfilled much of the promise. Like Jordan, James possesses tremendous physical gifts, is incredibly competitive and has dominated his era. Each has been described as a basketball genius.

When it comes to managing his personal brand, though, James has been a middling playmaker. While he showed leadership during the Donald Sterling scandal this year, he was also criticized for lacking heart when he exited Game 1 of the NBA Finals due to cramps (fairly or not). Despite his impressive record of achievements, James the basketball star is not beloved.

Much of this dynamic can be traced back to “The Decision,” the televised interview with journalist Jim Gray on July 8, 2010 in which James announced he was leaving his hometown team Cleveland Cavaliers and would “take his talents to South Beach” and the Miami Heat.

The outcry was immediate and vitriolic. Cleveland fans burned his jersey. Cavaliers’ owner Dan Gilbert wrote a public letter calling it a “cowardly betrayal” – in comic sans font, no less.

Watching that live broadcast on ESPN – along with 13 million people – was painful. Gray, generally a fine journalist, did a horrible job, asking a series of questions about James’ thought process while delaying the news about his actual choice. When Gray finally asked him the key question, James stared impassively ahead and talked about how joining The Heat would allow him to win. He appeared self-centered and heartless.

In short, The Decision was a disaster.

One way to understand the impact this had on James’ brand is by looking at James’ “N-score”, a measure of marketability created by Nielsen in partnership with E-Poll. The metric looks at a combination of awareness, likeability and influence to assess how successful an athlete would be as a brand pitchman (or woman).

The chart below shows the 2011 rankings of the top 10 most influential athletes in all sports.

2011 Most Influential Athletes

Athlete Influence Awareness Like Dislike N Score
Shaquille O’Neal 21 71 45 4 334
Peyton Manning 20 49 54 5 262
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. 22 40 45 3 217
Michael Phelps 21 49 47 4 214
Troy Polamalu 21 23 64 3 165
Jeff Gordon 20 39 35 7 144
Tom Brady 23 35 40 11 131
LeBron James 20 42 33 15 131
Jimmie Johnson 25 20 47 6 72
Tim Tebow 20 19 44 13 41

SOURCE: Forbes.com, last accessed July 21, 2014

To be certain, James was still an elite brand. But in 2010, pre-“Decision”, James’ N-score was 261. Of note, James’s had the highest “dislikes/dislikes a lot” score in the top 10 – suggesting he was a polarizing figure. His 33:15 ratio of likes to dislikes stands in sharp contrast to someone like Troy Polamalu, whose 64:3 ratio represents a squeaky-clean likeability.

Fast forward to July 2014. James again stunned the world by leaving his team – this returning to Cleveland. From a communications perspective, this announcement was nothing but net.

I can see seven factors about Decision 2.0 that bode well for James’ brand and reputation:

1/ The Opt-Out: James didn’t wait; he opted out of his Miami Heat contract on July 1. He was businesslike about it. He said nothing bitter about the team, despite its stunning 5-game loss to the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA Finals. No acrimony, no ultimatums – just business. Most observers said they thought this was a non-event, and James would return to Miami, tamping down the hype cycle.

2/ The Process: James empowered his agent to meet with teams, took their measure and didn’t tip his hand. No circus act. No wild road show. The process was professional.

3/ The Silence: The King’s camp didn’t leak, which is remarkable in this rumor-mill-driven media age. There were very few rumors – speculation about Cavs owner Dan Gilbert’s jet being seen in Miami, moving trucks, that sort of thing – but generally, James and his people were disciplined.

4/ The Reconciliation: On July 6, the Cavaliers removed Dan Gilbert’s comic sans letter from the team’s Web site. We now know this was because that same day, James and Gilbert met and exchanged apologies. The act paved the way for James’ return.

5/ The Announcement: James surprised everyone by announcing his intention to return to Cleveland via an open letter on Sports Illustrated’s web site. No press conference, no party. By using a print medium, he controlled the narrative out of the gate, again with admirable discipline. And, he went directly to the fans first before any leaks could trump his message, showing he understands they are his most important stakeholders.

6/ The Message: James’ decision creates a potential redemption narrative for him. By using a first-person narrative approach to announce the news, James humanized himself and his choice. This was brilliant. We will judge him by his love of Northeastern Ohio and his desire to bring a title back to his birthplace. (Note: while he again used the word “I” plenty, the spirit of his remarks was team-oriented.) His statement acknowledged past mistakes and forgave past slights. It was authentic, classy and clear.

7/ The Messenger: Lee Jenkins did not play circus showman to the James sideshow, as Gray did in 2010. While playing the “as told to” card was uncharacteristic, it worked. Jenkins also penned an in-depth cover story analyzing the move and explaining how the first-person breaking news happened. Props for transparency.

[Note to digiratis: The mainstream media still have plenty of clout and cred, especially to drive a news cycle; Note to old-school media types: The news broke via SI’s Twitter feed.]

King James’ homecoming will salve a lot of wounds from 2010. If he can deliver Cleveland its first pro sports championship in 50 years, all will be forgotten. Still, we don’t even know how long he’ll stay.

One thing we do know: James has learned how to make a decision with authenticity, clarity and conviction. If he and his advisors continue to manage his personal brand deftly, I expect his reputation will continue to improve in the months and years ahead.

A final note re: the aforementioned comparisons to Michael Jordan: However close to His Airness James may come on the basketball court, he has a huge gap to close in terms of his personal brand. In 2011, when James’ N-score was 133, Jordan’s was a whopping 553.

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Six Truths About The New York Times’ Innovation Report

By Mike Kuczkowski

On May 15, someone leaked a copy of The New York Times’ Innovation Report, a 96-page internal memorandum examining why the Times is falling behind in the digital journalism game to the likes of Buzzfeed, Huffington Post and Politico.

It was a meta-media moment, the leak of a key internal document from The New York Times, published first by Buzzfeed, then by Mashable and amplified by the whole digital media pack. Media prognosticators combusted with a combination of shock and awe. Shock, because it was a strikingly candid assessment, with a sharply critical tone, that may have explained the unexpected departure of Executive Editor Jill Abramson (it did not). Awe, because, well… it was a strikingly candid assessment with a sharply critical tone, written by New York Times staffers themselves.

The Neiman Lab at Harvard called the report “one of the key artifacts of the digital media age.” The debate that has followed has been wide-ranging, from praise of the report’s brilliant distillation of the concept of disruptive innovation, to Jill Lepore’s deconstruction and dismissal of the entire genre of disruptive innovation (most notably the work by Harvard Professor Clayton M. Christenson, author of The Innovator’s Dilemma) in The New Yorker.

The Times’ Innovation Report is a great read. There’s only one problem: It offers very little in the way of innovation.

The bulk of the report focuses on the Times’ cultural barriers to innovation, notably the wall of “Church and State” that exists between the business side (focused historically on advertisers, the report said) and the editorial side (focused on readers). There are fulsome examples of cases, like the Times’ Upshot, where innovation failed to tap all the resources it might have in order to be successful. (For an excellent summary of all the issues tied to the Times’ report, check out Vox’s storystream on the subject.)

[Disclosure: In 1998, I freelanced briefly for The Times’ Connecticut Bureau. I am a huge fan of the Times and have been an avid reader for my entire adult life.]

The Times’ Innovation Report fails to offer a compelling case for how the Times will compete in the future as the leading media property, regardless of channel. Here are the key issues, as I see them:

1/ Problem definition: The Times claims it is “winning” in journalism. I won’t dispute this claim, and it is supportable. But, it is also the heart of the issue. The definition of successful journalism is evolving, and everyone is struggling to keep up – including readers. That is the central problem The Times’ leadership should be addressing. What the Innovation Report offers up instead as its core problem is “the art and science of getting our journalism to readers.” This suggests better systems and training in content distribution and promotion, a manageable task. But, the report’s recommendations reach far beyond that solution set. I think they failed to confront the toughest reality: That the definition of great journalism is evolving, and the business model to support it is even harder to pin down.

2/ Audience insights: For all the talk about audience development and engagement, The Times’ report contains no data or insights whatsoever about its audiences, current or aspirational. This has always been the key to success for any journalistic – or commercial — enterprise. The Times has become the newspaper of record by delivering a definitive daily news report to its readers, satisfying their desire to be well-informed, on a general basis, about the events of the day. The playing field of that issue has changed dramatically due to the rise of digital competitors and a host of other factors. It may be that a host of other internal study groups are tracking audience desires and behaviors, cracking the code on the complexities of online, social and mobile personas. But the lack of mention here is glaring, and concerning.

3/  The Competition: I’ve got news for the leadership of The Gray Lady… Buzzfeed is not your competition. It may have a massive audience, but if The Times went head to head with BuzzFeed on “The 23 People Who Should Stay Away From The Beach For A While”, I think readers of both The Times and BuzzFeed will be quite confused. The Times must compete with upstarts from a position of strength. Can it do more to offer readers the level of context for important global stories? Absolutely. Does it have the resources and archives with which to do so? Unquestionably. The Times never went head to head with The Daily News and the Post in the tabloid circulation wars of the ’70s and ’80s, I don’t think a different strategy is warranted today.

4/ The Brand: The Times still does not appear to understand that its biggest asset is not its print edition, its talent or its content – it’s The Times’ brand. Few brands in the world are as instantly recognizable or as deeply understood. We readers have come to expect the most definitive, contextual, well-reported — if slightly left-leaning — journalism available. Period. The brand is far more valuable, in terms of its leadership, reputation for quality, credibility and tone, than any other media brand. The Innovation Report makes a reference to this, recommending a larger investment in Times-branded events, but this is presented as a tactic in search of a strategy. The strategy is, build and capitalize on the value of The Times’ brand, through a variety of available channels, experiments and revenue-developing activities.

5/ Defining Innovation: The report talks about innovation (and even gives a neat graphic treatment of disruptive innovation.) But it doesn’t actually define the term. And that’s challenging, because the Times has been innovative on a number of fronts, including data journalism, design and products. (Snow Fall, which has been widely praised, was a piece of beautiful journalism, from reporting to presentation.) It has not, in my view, done an excellent job of sustaining those innovations. The report goes into great detail on how The Times has failed to innovate – and how others have succeeded. It is likely that innovation at The Times means something other than a popular listicle. By failing to define the connected, agile, interactive and user-driven traits that The Times does value, the report leaves staffers and readers to wonder what innovation means in The Times’ eyes.

6/ Strategic Experiments: Ultimately, the business of innovation – particularly the kind of innovations meant to help a successful business change its business model in the face of uncertainty — is a matter of strategic experiments. Most organizations fail at this, which is why in the list of the world’s top 100 companies in 1912, only 19 remained on that list by 1995. I strongly urge The Times leadership to read 10 Rules for Strategic Innovators, by Vijay Govindarajan and Chris Trimble. They recommend setting up strategic experiments that are explicitly charged not with generating profits, but with learning how to succeed in new, hostile business environments. If their rules can be distilled to a mantra, it is this: forget, borrow and learn. Tough medicine for an operation as focused on profits as The Times, but good medicine nonetheless.

What does this all mean? There is little question that The Times is struggling to adapt to a world of online journalism that is rapidly evolving and unpredictable. I have no doubt that the internal barriers to innovation and experimentation are substantial.

I suspect the problem that The Times is trying to solve is far more complex and nuanced than the one outlined in the Innovation Report. I believe The Times wants to continue to be the definition of quality among general-interest, mass audience media outlets, in an age in which interests are ever more specialized, and audiences are fickle.

If The Times relies on the brand values that have brought them this far, I’m confident they can succeed. But, my faith is rooted more in my belief in The Times’ leadership and the strength of its journalism and staff, rather than any insights gleaned from its Innovation Report. In the end, The Times will succeed or fail based on its ability to evolve and innovate its journalism and related products for the needs of its audience. And, we’ll read all about it, most likely in The New York Times, but maybe in Buzzfeed, too.

A full copy of the NY Times Innovation Report, via Mashable

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The New Digital Journalists

Source: www.grantland.com

With Grantland, Vox and Fivethirtyeight.com, a new breed of digital media properties emerges

By Mike Kuczkowski

Over the past six months, I’ve been closely observing three web sites: Grantland, Fivethirtyeight.com and Vox. These three sites represent a vision of digital journalism that holds great promise. They’re lively, they make great use of their online platforms. They aren’t afraid to go long, which I love. They weave in multimedia, multi-channel content fluidly, whether via animated gifs, infographics, interactive charts or Youtube clips. They showcase the talents of their staff in multichannel formats, whether that’s a podcast, Youtube videos or traditional print-style article drenched in links, infographics and multimedia.

These outlets are giving voice to a new breed of journalist that is thoughtful and expert, just like the old shoe-leather types. Yet, just as Tom Wolfe declared his generation of reporters “The New Journalists,” this online gang is empowering a new generation of reporters who can tell stories with a full toolbelt of digital content tools. The New Digital Journalists are steeped in their beats, highly analytical and willing to put forth a prediction or two — and willing to admit when their predictions were wrong.

All in all, it’s gripping journalism, and signals a major evolutionary step in online reporting.

The one thing that gives me pause is, the editors at these sites appear to have removed the quotation keys from their reporters’ keyboards. They run right up to the line between analysis and authority, which may come to haunt them over time.

More on that later. First, here’s a quick overview of the three media properties:

GrantlandGGrantland is the brainchild of ESPN basketball columnist and commentator Bill Simmons. Simmons is an everyman commentator on a wide range of sports and pop culture topics, with a particular passion and expertise in basketball. Listening to his podcast (the BS Report) is almost always a treat. He’s smart, humble, and insightful. The author of the best-selling The Book of Basketball, Simmons goes out of his way to pay tribute to ABA legends onto his podcast, and talk about how the game has changed. He’s willing to go out on a limb on predictions, and he’s often entertainingly wrong. He does not hide his Boston sports allegiances – he even has his father as a regular guest on his podcast – and his listeners are the better for it. He humanizes sports, without dumbing it down.

Beyond Simmons, Grantland features analytics-friendly reporting on all manner of sports and pop culture. It’s good stuff, by and large. Sometimes it gets wrapped up in its own particular perspective on what’s important, but the team has a good ear for what’s important. Writers post news and analysis, they do Youtube videos on their own Grantland Channel and podcasts, and they are very, very smart on what they cover.

FFoxFivethirtyeight.com, also owned by ESPN, is the brainchild of Nate Silver, formerly of the New York Times and before that, a blogger on politics and economics. Silver is smart, and his site is at its most interesting when it takes a fresh look at some kind of spreadsheet – whether it’s children’s naming patterns over time or how old we can expect elite tennis players to be and still win Grand Slam titles. Silver’s vision for data-analytics in journalism is expansive, and his site is appropriately broad as well. While his greatest strength is on display in features on electoral college or baseball, there is a breadth to the site that is thought-provoking and engaging. I particularly like the way so many of the articles take pains to explain even mildly complicated statistical analysis. This is a real strength for Silver, which in turn makes his site accessible but not reductive.

VoxVVox is the brainchild of Ezra Klein, formerly of the Washington Post. What distinguishes Vox is its use of ‘storystreams’, which are snippets of reporting displayed in web-based card stacks (think post-it notes), with embedded objects (tweets, video, documents, links to other news articles, etc.) that comprise different elements of a story. I love, love, love this approach. It’s as though a reporter has handed us her notebook and allowed us to flip through it. The effect is that we explore the stories based on our own curiosity. It’s ‘discover, don’t sell’ journalism, which very subtly upends the traditional top-down tendencies of most news organizations to tell readers what’s important. The format is pure genius, pure digital genius, that no one at the NY Times was going to come up with looking at things from a print-driven perspective. I thought the high point of Vox’s journalism was the storystream on L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling, which allowed readers to venture down the path directly to the TMZ audio recording of Sterling’s alleged racist comments, but then also made it equally easy to stay current on the Clipper’s team protest and other breaking news. Occasionally, a storystream “card” felt a bit thin, but more often than not, it provided just the right level of definitive reportage and links to external sources.

A couple of notable things about all three sites:

1/ The Branded Journalist: Simmons, Silver and Klein are each journalists AND brands. Their sites showcase their individual talents, but not (at least in my view) in an ego-centric manner. There’s plenty of room for other voices, and Simmons in particular uses his personal brand to promote the personal brands of his team. Klein conducts video interviews with prominent sources on his site.

2/ Brand support: All three sites appear to be willing to integrate brands in a ‘native’ or nearly native way. Vox has a partnerhsip with GE called ‘pressing’ that offers expository videos on a variety of news topics. Grantland’s YouTube Channel is sponsored by Jeep, and their podcasts are sponsored as well. This suggests that a classic publishing model — advertisers sponsoring content to get a corporate brand/reputational lift (a la a public radio model) rather than flight specific product ads. (Though they do that too.)

3/ Willingness to take risks: The sites are at their best when they go out on a limb, whether it’s FiveThirtyEight.com’s use of Yelp reviews to create a “Value Over Replacement Burrito” metric, as part of its ‘Burrito Bracket’ feature. Or when Simmons and his NBA analyst pal Jalen Rose, an ex-player who speaks with wisened authority, lay out their power rankings of NBA teams (note: the Chicago Bulls were #1 this year, and even Rose protested that the list was Simmons’s).

That’s what’s good about these new properties. Here’s what’s not so good:

1/ The Loss of Attribution: Nobody quotes anyone anymore. Which I find incredibly irritating. As a reporter, I always thought it was absurd when an editor required me to find someone to quote something that was a provable fact. I mean, there is actually no reason one should need to quote a meteorologist on the days’ temperature. One can simply look at a thermometer, positioned in a reasonable outdoor position, and read it. But, that’s not the same thing as taking an innovative approach to a data set and reporting it without including any critical views from economists saying whether that’s a valid way of reporting something, or not. I don’t mean to clip the wings of these very smart reporters, but it’s an issue.

2/ The Editorial Judgment Learning Curve: In the case of both Grantland and Fivethirtyeight.com, they’ve screwed up a couple of things. On Grantland, there was this piece, which handled transgender issues with ham-fisted insensitivity, and on Fivethirtyeight.com, there was this piece on climate science that was, by Silver’s own admission, lacking in balance. Yet, even in this criticism, which is potentially the most damning, I find seeds of salvation. Both sites showed a level of transparency and genuine apologia that was admirable. Grantland dedicated a significant editor’s note, and a podcast with a transgender sports reporter, to explain what went wrong. Fivethirtyeight commissioned someone to critique its own article to review the controversy around its first author’s piece. To me, this represents a kind of digital new-world order that is instructive for media organizations – and potentially all kinds of content-generating organizations (including corporations). These editors are willing to say, we should have asked tougher questions, and in the future we will. Meanwhile, we’ll tell you everything we can about what went wrong. It would be fascinating to consider how the NY Times would handle the Jayson Blair scandal in today’s hyper-transparent news era.

3/ The Stretch. I’ve noticed that in a few cases, particularly on fivethirtyeight.com, but potentially on all three sites, there is a tendency to take an interesting analytical point and stretch it beyond the accuracy of the data. One example, for me, was when Silver wrote about fan allegiance across America based on a Facebook data feed on location-based ‘likes’ of Major League Baseball teams. It was a great, fun data set to analyze, but as I said in a comment at the time, it really only tells you what people who click ‘like’ on a team’s Facebook page think. It does not illustrate what is happening in real life. And while that may seem like a subtle point, it may ultimately prove to be a significant one. (NOTE: Silver made his name by looking at historic voting patterns and weighting them more than many pollsters did, so it may well be that he is predisposed to think about real-world data and context in his journalism.)

On balance, I believe these news sites are fine additions to the journalistic canon. I think they represent a significant evolutionary step in the world of online/digital journalism. They’re smart vehicles for a range of long/short, predictive, reportage, opinion and analytical journalism. They make great use of their digital media, offering multiple entry points into the properties. They are led by people who have a strong sense of editorial direction – and aren’t afraid to make mistakes.

Moreover, they are likely to continue to evolve, which bodes well for the future of journalism. For people in communications like myself, these trends suggest we should look at new ways to tell our clients’ stories, through data, analytics and multi-channel content. It’s clear that these reporters will be open to persuasion and compelling perspectives about the news of the day, but they aren’t going to fall for glib publicity stunts, thinly researched pitches or experts whose expertise does not exceed that of the reporters themselves. Listening to Zach Lowe interview Jeff Van Gundy is a damned fine interview, in part because they both know their stuff.

So here it is, the new digital journalism. I can’t wait to see where this is headed next.

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Why Orangefiery?

Book excerpt

Two men sit across from each other at a table, one of them turning a white and orange business card over in his fingers.

–       What’s with the name?
–       Do you like it?
–       It’s different.
–       When I tried to come up with a name for the company, I was looking around for inspiration. I grabbed my copy of my favorite book, James Joyce’s Ulysses.
–       Yeah?
–       And I found this passage describing communications between two characters. It used the word orangefiery, which immediately jumped off the page at me.
–       Interesting.
–       Joyce’s lexicon is the stuff of legend. I thought about orangefiery as a name and I thought it was perfect. As a word, it was unique, distinctive and stood out. And it had a certain classic quality.
–       Okay.
–       And then there is Ulysses itself, which is arguably the greatest novel ever written. An epic narrative built on another epic narrative.
–       Right.
–       With tons of fascinating metaphors and stylistic changes and social commentary woven in.
–       Right.
–       All of which is the point I’m trying to make. Great communications is rooted in both art and science. It’s not a whim of the moment, something created by digital technologies — those are just enablers, albeit important ones. 

–       Explain.

–       For example, ‘orangefiery’ is in a passage called the Cyclops episode. And in Homer’s Odyssey, on which it’s based, the character is a warrior who falls off a roof and dies, but who comes back from the afterlife because he wants Odysseus to say the warrior died in battle, an honorable death.

–       A kind of PR for the non-martyr.
–       Sort of… and then Joyce’s Cyclops episode is fascinating. It’s a stinging social commentary on narrow-mindedness—err, Cyclops. In it, Leopold Bloom is trying to appeal to reason against a man who is spouting nationalist rhetoric, which many scholars say is about Joyce’s own views as a younger man—and how as a grown up, he regrets his youthful willfulness.
–       So, Joyce is saying he’s grown up?

–       Exactly. 

–       Fascinating.
–       And the particular section where Joyce uses the word orangefiery is a parody of a then-contemporary strand of Dublin intellectualism called Theosophy. Fancy stuff. Which Joyce was mocking it by writing in the sort of style that they used in their newsletters.
–       So, this thing has many meanings to it.
–       Exactly. Multiple meanings and layers. Joyce once famously stated that he had put so many enigmas and puzzles into Ulysses, it would keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what he meant.
–       So you liked it.
–       I thought there was a lot to it. A lot I could relate to about personal growth, about standing by principles, and about having both creative and strategic purpose in what you say to your audience. And fundamentally, it was a beautiful, descriptive word that stood out in the crowd and connected two people. Sender to recipient. Message, received.

–       What’s with the logo?
–       I was working with a friend of mine who is a fantastic designer, and when I was trying to explain the inspiration for the name, I said I wanted to convey something literary that was not a blazing fire, but the spark of an idea.
–       Nice.
–       And this is what he came up with.
–       I like it.
–       That’s a long way of saying, I did not name the firm orangefiery because I am a ginger with a temper.
–       Ha.
–       What do you think?
–       I like it. I really do. Good luck.


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