Technology

Buzzmachine goes clunk: When media companies do tech

Jeff Jarvis has a typically provocative post, saying that newspapers should outsource their technology. Lloyd has already responded saying that there’s more to journalism than news-gathering, and previous technological mistakes should not close the door on future successes. Here’s my response.

In this article:

The original position

Jeff’s position is part of his book-to-be on thinking like Google, which we assume is going to be called “What would Google do?” He’s taking many different aspects of the (traditional) commercial world and asking how organisations should reshape themselves in the light of Google’s success. A central theme is aggregation, and that a much greater, cheaper, more valuable whole can be found by uniting and organising many disparate smaller parts. Or to, reword James Carvill’s phrase for Bill Clinton, “it’s the network, stupid”.

In his latest post the proposal is that newspapers should push their technology into the cloud and focus on news. Actually, this is a bit odd, because I don’t know of a newspaper which doesn’t consider itself part of a media organisation, and Jeff would certainly say they should do so, so I’m going to refer to media organisations instead of newspapers. I think this is fair. Jeff kicks off with a discussion from Edward Roussel of the Telegraph, which one might mistake as a newspaper, but is more correctly seen as a multimedia operation within the Telegraph Media Group.

Much of Jeff’s argument, however, comes from Bob Wyman of Google, who says

Your IT infrastructure is a COST of doing business. It is not a thing of value.

Today’s newspapers invest in their web sites out of vanity and from an inability to get their heads out of the geographically defined markets of the past.

And when prompted by Jeff he says, yes, it would make a lot of sense for publishers to hand over the technology to Google. Jeff then sums up his own position like this:

So take the advice, papers: Get out of the manufacturing and distribution and technology businesses as soon as possible. Turn off the press. Outsource the computers. Outsource the copyediting to India or to the readers. Collaborate with the reporting public. And then ask what you really are.

So that’s the position. And here’s why I disagree…

Argument 1: You’re asking the wrong people

This is the flippant response I’ve already posted on Jeff’s blog. Since the question posed is “What would Google do?” Jeff naturally dropped a line to someone at Google, and guess what they said? They said “Let Google deal with it.” Amazing! What do think the response would have been if he’d called up a Microsoft executive? “Let Microsoft deal with it” perhaps?

So let’s take Bob Wyman’s opinion for what it is: an intelligent and thoughtful response from someone who has already made his choice about which company he wants to work for. Then we can take that opinion, and use it alongside many others (perhaps including Microsoft’s) and find a conclusion that we think appropriate.

Maybe we should even rephrase the question. It’s not a foregone conclusion that we all want to be like Google. Maybe the question should be “What should we do?”

Argument 2: How much do you want people to change?

Deploying standard technology in an organisation is often perfectly good, and pushing technology into the cloud is often useful. For example, Google Apps as an commercial office suite is going to be perfectly usable and very cost-effective for many organisations.

But sometimes that technology isn’t going to be quite right for your staff. Maybe they regularly need to read complex Word documents from clients which don’t import very well into Google Docs; maybe you need to change a few processes in your business to better fit the technology; maybe your staff need to stop whinging and be reminded who’s boss, dammit. What approach are you going to take? How much are you going to ask your people to change, and how much should the company (and its technology) change around the people?

This is part of the reason we have our own content management system at Guardian.co.uk. We could have bought one off the shelf — a lot of similar companies did: The Times, The Jewish Chronicle just this week, The Telegraph with its blogging platform, and so on. These organisations seem to have decided that their staff would learn to work in a new way, with new workflows and new concepts, all driven by what the technology offered. (I say “seem to” because I have no insider knowledge.) This is fine, and change is good for people, if not always comfortable. By contrast our technology development is driven a bit more from people than to people, and hence we have a content management system designed very much around the needs of our journalists, sales staff and others.

All that probably says something about the various organisations’ cultures. If what’s in the cloud or on the shelf suits the organisation and its people then that’s great; if not, then it’s not necessarily right to force your staff to change for the sake of technology.

Interlude: How to build a media company in the cloud

Before the final push here’s a scene-setting interlude…

Let’s consider Bob Wyman’s list of Google’s offerings, and just for fun let’s run with the idea for a bit:

Heck, an online paper isn’t much more than a complicated Blogger.com. […] Google has search engines, alert systems, video serving, annotations, database services, AppEngine, more scalability than you can imagine, etc…. […] But, if Google doesn’t do this or, because of political issues can’t do it, then Yahoo! or Daylife or even the AP should do it instead.

So you’re just starting out in your media empire, you set yourself up on Blogger.com and start publishing. Then a while down the line you find you want to distinguish yourself and put a nice logo on your site. You find a graphic designer with Adobe Illustrator (that’s not really a techie skill) and they design a nice logo, and put it into your Blogger.com template because they know a bit of HTML and CSS (those are techie skills, but, hey, your 10 year old nephew can do that even if you can’t, so it’s not very techie).

Then you get an e-mail from an unhappy reader saying your site doesn’t render very well on Safari 3, and that’s a bit embarrassing. But now your graphic designer can’t help you, because they’re a graphic designer and they’ve reached the limit of their CSS skills. So you hire a professional web developer, and now that actually is techie, but at least they’re not a programmer…

…which is a shame really, because you’re suddenly finding you want to allow your readers to slice and dice some scandalous schools data, and you could make use of Google AppEngine if only you had someone with Python skills.

Some time later, in your now-bigger media group, you’re finding that for some months many of your services haven’t been performing terribly well and you’re losing traffic and reputation. After some pain, due to lack of in-house skills, you become aware that the problem is in the database. So at great expense you hire in a database performance expert who tells you that different databases need to all be tuned differently because they have different performance profiles, and Google’s own database services don’t offer the tuning you need for your particular setup. In fact, says the expert, the people who developed your current system had to write it in a really weird way just to get the performance they did, because they were constrained by the particular services that Google did and didn’t offer, so it’s now absolutely at the limit of its capability.

Never mind. You can always move it to Yahoo! or Daylife “or even the AP”. Obviously you’ll need to draft in a whole bunch of people. I’m afraid there will be some techies among them, and obviously none of the code in Google ports to any of the new services, so they’ll have to be rewritten; you’d have known that before you started all this, if only you had some technical staff of your own, but of course you didn’t because you’ve been concentrating on your core business. You’ll need some programmers, a project manager, and I suggest an architect, some quality assurance people and a couple of systems people, including a performance tester.

You might be wondering at this stage whether you can identify a suitably skilled group of people, and of course you would be able to do that if you’d built up a technical competence in-house.

You might also be wondering if moving to Yahoo! or Daylife “or even the AP” will leave you vulnerable once again to the limitations of their services. And well you might. And you might be wondering if your site will still end up looking like a hundred other blogs-with-knobs-on, or if you’ll ever achieve something like the New York Times, or El País, say. There is another option: to bring your technology much more under your control. It might not be right decision for some. But for you, it might be spot on.

Argument 3: Technical investment is inevitable

I hope that interlude shows that developing in-house technical capability is essential to any media organisation that is even fractionally ambitious. That capability will always include people, and sometimes it will include hardware or software. To make an up-front decision that your technical capability will never include hardware or software is pointlessly limiting.

You may argue that in the interlude above the media owner took a wrong turn. Perhaps they shouldn’t have introduced that schools data mash-up. Perhaps they were wrong to use Google’s database services in the way they did. Maybe they should have stopped before putting the company logo on their web page. But to argue any of those things is simply to argue that a media company shouldn’t be ambitious. It’s perfectly reasonable to argue that a media company can be too ambitious, but to set the bar at the same level for all such organisations regardless of their size, their history, or their people, must be a mistake.

On a more positive note…

Finally, let’s dispel the tone of opposition, because there’s one thing about Jeff’s argument I’m very happy about.

One of the central planks of Google’s success, and Jeff’s thesis, is harnessing the power of the network for mutual benefit. And Jeff doesn’t just talk the talk: he walks the walk, and he’s using the power of commenters to build the arguments in his book. (In one post he’s even quite explicitly soliciting input.) And that’s really great, because it’s all for mutual benefit. It’s advertisers who make Google’s services worthwhile, and Google shares that revenues with them, for mutual benefit. And because I know Jeff walks the walk I know he will share the success of his book with all those in the blogosphere who have built, tested and shaped it.

Jeff, I’m delighted to have contributed. I’ll be sending you my bank details momentarily.

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Discussion

2 thoughts on “Buzzmachine goes clunk: When media companies do tech

  1. When you have a damned good reason to create technology no one has yet created, then good. Crunch those school numbers.

    But…

    The network of news would be better off if we all open-sourced that, eh? That technology is not going to be what distinguishes you, eh? (Wow, have to go to the Guardian, they crunch numbers like nobody.) No, it’s substance that will win (I hope).

    And so as far as I’m concerned, every buy-v-build decision should start with the question: borrow? Is there something open I can use or pluggable I can license (e.g., Pluck)?

    Posted by Jeff Jarvis | 12 July 2008, 8:29 pm
  2. Now most of that is something I agree with: you have indeed got to have a damned good reason to build. But as far as I can see your original position didn’t say that, it said building is always wrong.

    And you also stray down a new (but very interesting) path here… The network of news might perhaps be better off if we open-sourced everything, but I’m not sure how interested, say, the Guardian is in enabling the success of Fox News, or vice versa. Unfortunately I suspect the interests of news consumers are not the same as the interests of news producers. That’s not a criticism of Guardian or Fox, although it could be used as a criticism of a capitalism.

    Posted by Nik | 12 July 2008, 9:15 pm