Get ready for the 'Twitterization' of mainstream media

Back in 1991, when I first started as a tech journalist for PC Week (now eWeek), there was no Web. There was print, TV, and radio.

Back in 1991, when I first started as a tech journalist for PC Week (now eWeek), there was no Web. There was print, TV, and radio. PC Week was a print book and, to the extent that any of the parent company Ziff Davis' publications were online, it was within the "ZiffNet" domain of a proprietary system called CompuServe that was eventually absorbed by AOL. ZDNet editor in chief Dan Farber (my current boss) was my boss at PC Week and we went our separate ways in the mid-90's. Him to run the Web-based ZDNet. Me to run the print-based Windows Sources -- a magazine that Ziff-Davis has since shuttered.

Dan and I were thrust into opposite worlds of a media revolution. He had to figure out how to put all the Ziff Davis magazines online in such a way that the whole was a greater opportunity than the sum of its parts and I, for all intents and purposes, ran one of those parts. But as much as I saw the Web for what it was, I was still a print guy. My job was to fill a certain number of column inches in a monthly publication and, like it or not, that was my priority. As close as Dan and I were as friends and colleagues, I was beholden to print and if he had an idea for making the Windows Source Web site better, I was at best mildly interested. Part of the reason was the financial/political structure of Ziff-Davis. At that time, not only did ZDNet run the magazines' Web sites, it (instead of the magazines' sales teams) sold the advertising space on them as well. In other words, online revenues went one way (to the online group) and print revenues went another way (directly to the magazine that paid my salary). Perhaps that structure was a mistake. Perhaps it wasn't. It's all history now.

In the bigger picture, I was a laggard. Even though the Web was about to completely change the media world forever, I had my allegiances and, under that financial/political structure, had very little interest in reinventing Windows Sources for the online world. In other words, I was not an early adopter when it came to the first wave of media reinvention. The same could probably be said for what I think is the second wave: blogging.

In 1998, as a latecomer to the Web revolution, I rejoined Dan and ZDNet as executive editor. After surviving the tumult of the dot com bomb and being sold to CNET Networks as a separate entity from the print publishing arm of Ziff Davis (now known as Ziff Davis Media), Dan saw the blogging phenomenon for what it was and went about leading his second media reinvention (ZDNet, on the Web, was the first).

As was the case when I was at Windows Sources, Dan came to me and said if you would embrace this next revolution, that would be good and like when I was at Windows Sources, I resisted. Not for financial/political reasons. It just didn't make sense to me. But this time, he was my boss. I didn't kick or scream as I was dragged into the blogging revolution. But I wasn't gung ho about it either. ZDNet's blogging network -- now one of the biggest (in terms of roster size and traffic) of any media company in the world (particularly any media company in CNET's class) -- began with one blog, co-authored by me and Dan (Between the Lines) and grew from there. Once again though, I found myself riding a wave of revolution at someone else's insistence while I was really resisting.

By 2005, I realized that it had taken someone else to keep me from missing two important waves and knew that, as career moves go, to continue to rely on the intuition of someone else was not a good thing. I put my radar up for the next of those waves and instead of waiting for someone to say "there's your next surfboard, get on," I'm a bit more self-sufficient. Although it was not entirely disruptive to our existing efforts the way the Web was to print or blogging was to traditional Web publishing, podcasting (RSS delivered audio) was and still is clearly a disruptive force that all mainstream media will need to reckon with if they haven't already.

Here at CNET Networks, within months of the pioneering work in podcasting done by Dave Winer, Adam Curry, and Doug Kaye, I led the internal charge to make podcasting the primary delivery vehicle for our audio content and CNET Networks was the first of any media company in its class or bigger to produce podcasts. Second behind us was the BBC. But in its case, the podcasts were repurposed audio from other broadcasts. Our podcasts were all original content.

Video blogging wasn't far behind and while a combination of YouTube and "YouTube-ready" cameras have made child's play out of putting video on the Web, I've spent the last year figuring out the best way to harness that disruptive force for media companies in CNET's class (or bigger). We're no stranger to video and in fact, CNET's roots are in video production dating back to CNET's television efforts in the mid-90's. But that effort and some existing video efforts at CNET are about an old school business process strapped to a new antenna: the Internet. Yes, video on the Net is a disruptive force. But for media companies like CNET or even CNN, the real disruption that we need to harness has to do with two vectors: Multi-medium publishing and economics.

On the economic front, I refer to the business process disruption that I'm working on as the "Broadcast quality production on YouTube economics" principle. Once the recipe for that is figured out (and I think we're very close), it becomes a part of a bigger multi-medium publishing story that sees the Internet as a way to deliver blogged content to our audience members any way they like it -- as text, still images, audio (podcasted or streamed), and/or video.

Over the last year, I've published many blog entries each of which include all four medium types and, in so doing, part of the emphasis internally has been on doing it without the need for crews of people for production and post production, weeks of time, or expensive studios. Instead, I do it with the help of one additional person, just hours of time, and a studio that, excluding our camera and micropones, has so far cost me about $100 in lumber and other materials. Again, the focus is on broadcast quality production via YouTube economics. The truth is that we'll probably never get broadcast quality production or YouTube economics. But with those as our goals, the closer we get to both, the more disruptive the underlying business model is to the status quo, especially in the context of multi-medium blogging.

So, there was the Web itself. Then blogging, podcasting, video, and multi-medium publishing. It has been a continuum of media revolution that begs the question of what's next. My answer? Twitter.

Today, Twitter is primarily used to, in 140 characters or less, let others know that what you're currently up to. For example, eating a burrito for lunch. I remain thoroughly unconvinced that this is a sustainable application for an infrastructure like the one Twitter offers (but then again, I've haven't been very visionary throughout the media revolution). Right now, I'm following a bunch of other people's lives on Twitter and, while I'm happy for them that they've got so much going on in their lives, I've got enough incoming as it is and the signal-to-noise ratio isn't good enough for me to justify keeping these feeds of Tweets in that stream. I fully acknowledge that it might be for others though and perhaps that's one of the beauties of Twitter. Like with blogs, you can always change the channel or turn your tuner off altogether.

To me. Twitter is a lot like blogging. If you ask me, the special ingredient in blogging is that it's just Web publishing, greatly simplified. Blogs are Web pages and, a decade ago, nothing prevented you or me or anyone else from using our favorite HTML publishing tool to build pages that looked just like today's blogs look. But, compared to the seconds it takes today to publish a blog entry and have it show up in some chronological order with some fairly sophisticated navigation and other accoutrement, the amount of time and heavy HTML lifting required would have been extraordinary. The RSS factor for notifying others of new entries was icing on the cake.

Like blogging, I see Twitter more as a disruptive Web publishing tool with ramifications to existing media business processes than I do as a way to find out when and where my friends are going to lunch and how much indigestion it gave them after.

A couple of days ago, I noted how Twitter is the sort of technology that could completely up-end subscription-driven outfits like Bloomberg or Reuters. Investors subscribe to these services and sit in front of giant consoles as editors from these organizations spit out one-liners at them -- one-liners with material information to investors -- in near real-time. In other words, if there's a reporter at a financial briefing for some public company and an executive of that company makes an important forward looking statement, that statement will appear on the consoles of thousands of investors within seconds of it being uttered.

On the investor side, there's a stream of these one-liners about everything that's important to them flowing by their consoles like a river. The secret sauce is not just in the business process (a chain of talented writers and editors who feed the system), but also in the infrastructure that facilitates that process: a proprietary infrastructure that, as far as I can tell, has been completely cloned by the likes of Twitter and Twitter-competitor Pownce.

Publishing one-liners takes only as long as it takes to type the one-liner. Subscribing to a source of one-liners the way an investor might subscribe to Bloomberg's information services takes only seconds as well. Whereas Bloomberg puts a sophisticated system in the hands of an exclusive group of people on a private network, Twitter and Pownce make such a system available to everyone on the Web. Bloomberg gives subscribers a means of instantly offering feedback to publishers. For example, as it was once described to me by a Bloomberg editor, "If we don't get the information into the system in time for investors to make key decisions, it could cost them millions of dollars. When they lose millions of dollars, you hear about it right way. They're very quick to tell you you're late." I haven't played with Pownce yet (I've reached out to the folks at Pownce but have yet to hear back), but Twitter offers precisely the same private feedback capability.

Much the same way the advent of blogging has made it possible for us to turn our RSS readers into our own personal newspapers where content from multiple sources is easily aggregated into one river of news and much the same way millions of 'publishers' have embraced that new medium (much to the delight of those willing to consume that information), it isn't hard to imagine a world where experts who don't work for Bloomberg or Reuters (ones who are just as good at feeding one-liners to investors) start to publish useful, timely, and material information using a tool like Twitter. It's equally unimaginative to picture investors subscribing to those feeds. They'll do anything and consider any information that comes their way in an effort to beat other investors to the punch.

What does that mean for the mainstream media as well as CNET Networks and other media companies? Media companies look to satisfy people with information that's relevant to them. It's a mission that involves quality, quantity, and relevance. On the quantity front, not everything that comes across a reporter's desk is fair game for an article or blog. But a lot of what falls on the cutting room floor might be fair game for a one-liner. In TV-land, this is evidenced by the stories the anchorperson is talking about at the same time that a marquee scrolls across the bottom of the screen with other useful newsbytes.

Enter Twitter.

As you can see on the right side of this blog page (you may have to scroll up or down a bit), we're piping my last 10 Twitter entries into my blogs. And, instead of using Twitter to tell you what I had for lunch, I'm using it to summarize the other news, information, and random analysis that needn't be processed with a full-blown blog entry. For example, yesterday, Citrix acquired XenSource. Using Twitter, I wrote:

Citrix's acquisition of XenSource: keep your friends close. Keep your enemies closer. Virtual Machine+Windows Remote Desktop = Citrix. Oops.

Which is what I thought when I first heard about it and is pretty much all I have to say on the matter. It took me all of 10 seconds to crank this out and publish it to my blog. You may not agree with my analysis of the acquisition. But, at the very least, you can see how Twitter's infrastructure can be leveraged to better serve the information needs of a media company's audience with something other than up-to-the-minute notifications of what's going on in someone's life. Another example entry --- more of just passing information on -- was this news item from Red Hat:

Via Red Hat (RH) PR: After piloting with RH Fedora, Virgin American airlines has officially migrated to and deployed RH Enterprise Linux.

Normally, I'm not one to regurgitate information from a press release. But, with so much data coming across my transom and so little time to process all of it, my choices are normally to write my own analysis or write nothing at all. In my estimation, writing nothing at all is of lesser value to ZDNet's audience than passing the news along and disclosing that it came from Red Hat's PR department.

In many ways, I hate Twitter's 140 character limit. Especially since it won't accomodate HTML hyperlinks that would be helpful to the audience. Today, URLs eat into the 140 character limit which in turn gives a publisher like me less room to pack some news in or get my point across. But in other ways, I love the 140 character limit. I didn't cut and paste that Red Hat news from the press release into Twitter. I had to distill the press release into 140 characters or less: the net result of which is putting material information into the hands of ZDNet's audience with great economy of words (as you can tell, not one of my strong points). Note to press release copywriters -- see if you can do this too. Imagine that someone like me would cut and paste directly from the press release into a Twitter tweet if only there were 140 characters in the release that adequately summed things up (which there almost never is). If you can do this, not only do you have the first line of your press release, you have a much better press release overall.

We'll continue to experiment with Twitter as another one of the arrows in our quiver for meeting the informational needs of ZDNet's audience. I suspect that other media companies may see Twitter for the same potential, as well as the revolution in publishing I think it represents.