Category: digital media

The Sports Guy Returns! Long Live the Sports Guy!

By Mike Kuczkowski

He’s baaaack!

Bill Simmons, the bad boy of podcasting, has returned to the studio and is churning out his commentary on Vegas’ National Football League lines again, along with podcasts on basketball and various other pop culture topics.

I feel like Don Imus has returned to WFAN after racist comments about the Rutgers women’s basketball team, or Billy Martin is back in the Yankee dugout.

Actually, I don’t feel that way at all. Simmons is nothing like those guys. (And I confess to loving both Imus and Martin, despite their mistakes.) Simmons is probably the most middlebrow commentator the interwebs have yet produced.

Yet Simmons managed to get himself suspended for three weeks, after saying on his B.S. Report podcast that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was “a liar.” That description, which many observers would agree holds at least the possibility of being true, apparently ran afoul ESPN’s editorial standards.

The suspension itself became a cause célèbre. Simmons’ loyal followers (he has nearly 3 million Twitter followers and his B.S. Report podcast is consistently among the most downloaded in the iTunes store) were outraged and launched a #FreeSimmons hashtag campaign. Domestic violence supporters spoke out in his defense. Commentators quickly pointed out the multi-billion dollar relationship between ESPN and the NFL, which presides over the premier league of America’s most popular sport, was probably the main reason for the suspension.

Neither ESPN nor the NFL looked good. (Here’s our crisis scorecard of both organizations.)

Simmons, on the other hand, presents a more complicated picture. Yes, he possesses a bit of a martyr halo here, for being suspended for speaking his mind. But he also was, what’s the word… stupid.

In life and in journalism, when you hear the words “I dare you” leaving your lips, you are literally asking for trouble. So, in a way, Simmons got what he was asking for.

What disappoints me is that Simmons was pontificating rather than offering the kind of nuanced, insightful analysis of which he’s capable. The analytical side of Simmons is what’s mostly on display on Grantland, with thoughtful, long-form news and commentary from his stable of writers. As I wrote in “The New Digital Journalists” these guys are bringing all the tools of the digital journalist — stats, links, YouTube clips, infographics and replay gifs — into their reporting. It’s exciting to witness.

The dark side of this is they are their own brands, and they know it. At his best, as with his interview with legendary screenwriter William Goldman, Simmons asks excellent questions and listens well. He’s witty, thoughtful and observant. At other times, he sounds like a frat boy, full of braggadocio.

Monday, Simmons returned to the BS Report, talking about the NFL’s Week 7 games and Week 8 betting lines. His only reference to the controversy was to say he was glad to be back and to thank fans for their kind emails and tweets of support. It is perhaps the most winning moment in this entire scandal. Striking a reasonable tone in his first podcast underscores the degree to which ESPN acted unreasonably.

There’s a lot of ballgame yet to be played. Grantland itself has come under scrutiny, and it’s still evolving as a platform. There are whispers that Simmons will look to walk away from ESPN at the end of his current contract, in which case he’s likely to have many suitors. Let’s hope that wherever he goes, he stays true to the thoughtful side of the brand and persona he’s created, with a lesser dose of pontification. It would be his ultimate victory.

Film Festival Lessons In Transmedia Storytelling

Filmmakers at the Mill Valley Film Festival spoke about how transmedia storytelling boosted their projects

By Mike Kuczkowski

The rise of what many call “transmedia storytelling” has been both exciting and disruptive for communications professionals. My former Edelman colleague Steve Rubel speaks and writes usefully and at length about this concept; I’ve lectured on it to college classes and found it quite a powerful organizing framework for communications efforts.

The concept involves developing a single piece of content or a theme, and activating it across multiple online and real-life channels. For example, a company might develop a piece of “owned” content, such as an interactive CSR report, on a corporate web site, “share” an infographic from the report on their Facebook page or other social media, and pitch elements of it to traditional (or “earned”) media and so-called “hybrid” channels, such as blogs or new digital media. Steve and Edelman use a cloverleaf construct to describe it; I use a solar system model. No one model is right or wrong, and as new channels and platforms emerge, the models themselves evolve.

The “Active Cinema Toolkit” panel at the Mill Valley Film Festival seemed like the perfect opportunity to explore the topic from a new perspective. It was billed as a discussion with “filmmaker-innovators” who would discuss new ways platforms could support filmmakers to inspire engagement.

I assumed filmmakers would be on the cutting edge of this.

I was wrong.

The panelists had no more of a playbook for what’s happening with new digital channels than anyone else. But, their stories did offer compelling lessons for communicators.

Here are synopses of their projects:

  • Denise Zmekhol, a Brazililan-born filmmaker, talked about “Trading Bows and Arrows for Laptops,” a project born out of her own documentary, Children of the Amazon, in which an Amazonian tribe collaborated with Google on a project that trained members of the Surui tribe in the Amazon how to document their tribe’s cultural history on Google Earth.
  • Filmmaker Helen Demichiel embarked on a traditional documentary about activists who were trying to change the way children eat in Oakland’s public schools. As the cultural and policy conversation about childhood obesity gained momentum, the project morphed into a Website with webisodes, activist tools and curriculum guides, and a forum for community engagement.
  • Kenji Yamamoto and his partner Nancy Kelly produced Rebels With A Cause, the story of how activists saved the Marin Headlands as open space starting in the 1950s. He talked about how social media tools allowed him to organize around the project, overcome barriers and become his own distributor for the film.
  • Zeresnay Berthane Mehari wrote and directed Difret, a feature film about a 14-year old girl who was abducted for marriage and later became the first girl in Ethiopia to be acquitted of murder on grounds of self-defense. The project, which took six years, has won multiple film festival awards and is this year’s Ethiopian entry for the Academy Awards.
  • Wendy Levy, the executive director of the National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture (NEMAC), described the Oakland Fence Project, a large-scale interactive art project that will debut in Oakland’s Jack London Square in 2016. It’s built around a fence on which 6-foot-high photographs will be displayed. Observers will be able to get more information about the photos, artists and NGOs the artists support from their mobile phones while they stand in front of the pictures. They’ll also be able to buy the art or make a donation in the moment. It sounds brilliantly counterintuitive: a fence symbolizing a gathering place, as in “Meet me at the fence,” rather than a dividing line.

With each film, the rise and availability of new digital channels—though not necessarily case studies for integrated, transmedia storytelling—played different and important roles in their success.

For example, Yamamoto said he was unable to get a Bay Area theatrical release without a review in The San Francisco Chronicle. But in a kind of Catch-22, he could not get a Chronicle review without a guaranteed San Francisco theatrical run. He and his wife secured a screening at The Roxie, in San Francisco, and persuaded the Chronicle to review it.

Yamamoto and Kelly then self-distributed the film, securing week-to-week renewal deals with several area theaters, including what became an 11-week run at the Smith Rafael Film Center. They then used social media channels and screenings in small towns to drive further buzz and turnout. Interestingly, the power of good old-fashioned celebrity endorsement was key: After a celebrity agreed to promote film on her web site, their Facebook and Twitter views jumped from 5,000 to 26,000. They secured a deal with American Public Television to distribute the film to PBS stations, and hired a ‘station relations’ person to persuade more than 300 broadcast station managers to air the film, getting 83% of PBS stations on board during Earth Week 2014.

Mehari, on the other hand, started out wanting not to be an activist and being rejected by NGOs because his feature film was a non-traditional approach. Over time, though, he found support from an NGO that led to a dramatic spike in fundraising efforts, including two Kickstarter campaigns and a series of sponsored dinners in New York and London. (As with so many so-called “overnight” successes, Mehari had toiled for years without getting traction.)

Of all the projects, Levy’s seemed the only one to be designed as a multi-channel storytelling effort, with all the depth and dimensions that the technology allows. Hers is still in development. And while the interactive elements sound engaging, I wonder whether mobile devices will enhance or detract from the experience of viewing public art.

Here were my takeaways from the discussion:

  • Change is hard: Filmmakers, as creators, think of themselves as storytellers specific to their medium. So, while I might have thought that the rise of short-form video would naturally play to their strengths, it’s not necessarily so. As much as we say “form follows function,” in this case the functions have been emerging so quickly that it has been very disruptive, and hard to master, even for skilled artists.
  • Adaptability is critical: No single “model” dominates. Some filmmakers used multiple channels to raise money, some used it for publicity purposes. For the most part, it seemed that the filmmakers flexed to changes in their environment, and allowed themselves to explore new approaches in the face of unexpected challenges or opportunities. Demichiel made it clear that it wasn’t easy for her to let go of the concept of a full-length feature documentary, but the emergence of the childhood obesity issue and the needs of the activist community around it led to the webisode and resource center approach.
  • New skills are needed: As much as filmmakers know how to produce a film, they also needed to acquire skills in social media or, as in Zmekhol’s case, technology tools. Her videos of Google training Surai tribesmen and women in coding skills, so that they could embed their cultural map in Google Earth, was itself a fascinating story.
  • Old skills still matter: Yamamoto and Mehari said each said that a lot of what worked for him involved old-fashioned networking and pressing the flesh. “If I can’t look someone in the eye,” Yamamoto said, “I’m not going to be able to understand how to work with them.”
  • Passion counts: Asked by a novice filmmaker in the audience how to raise funding Mehari replied, “I could tell you the story of how I raised money for my film 500 different ways, but it would never happen the same way again. Ultimately, it’s about the passion you bring to the work; that’s what people will see in you.”

At bottom, the slow adoption of new media channels by filmmakers may be a comfort to communicators who have taken a similar “go slow” approach. Levy recalled dealing with the filmmaking community in 2004 through her involvement in NEMAC. “They’d say, ‘I don’t need a Web site.’ I’m a storyteller. We’d get lots of resistance,” Levy said. “Then in 2008, they would say, ‘I don’t do Facebook.’” In time, those answers changed, she said.

Fastforward to 2014. The ad hoc experiences these storytellers have had with various social media channels shows they are now more open, and more willing to experiment, when it comes to emergent digital channels. Imagine the power they’ll unlock with a truly integrated, transmedia storytelling approach in the future.

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

Share Button

The New Digital Journalists


With Grantland, Vox and, 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, 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., 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’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, they’ve screwed up a couple of things. On Grantland, there was this piece, which handled transgender issues with ham-fisted insensitivity, and on, 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, 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.

Share Button