On Journalism and Local News Sites

The world of media is a much different place than it was when I first got going with Rocketboom a full decade ago. In 2004, the format for Rocketboom was efficient, effective and exciting as a means of delivering news stories online. That was pre-video iPod (i.e pre-portable video), pre-YouTube, pre-iPhone, pre-Twitter, and pre-Facebook era.

Today, I’m not so sure the staple Rocketboom delivery style is as effective for news.

I’ve had a look around at others doing shows that would fit into the same genre of news and I don’t find their shows to be very effective either.

While video can be one of the most powerful forms of communicating news when formatted well (or not at all), I’m sure you’ve noticed that video can be one of the most ineffective and inefficient ways to communicate a news story, ever.

Just look at any mainstream TV news broadcast. Can you imagine a more ineffective way to consume the news for 30 minutes? In the same time, you could manage to absorb exponentially more information online. I regularly made this point in 2004.

As TV news has tried to make its way onto the internet, it hasn’t done much to alter its format to adapt to the medium, and is usually outdone in effectiveness by a simple text article or even a single tweet.

On the local level, most online news sites are absolute disasters.

There is a very clear reason why they are this way, related to the same kinds of problems journalism has in general: it’s completely a business model problem, one that is entirely caused by advertising.

It’s easy to understand the dilemma. The more views a story gets, the more money it makes.

But over time, technology’s effect on ad sales causes a downward trend in cost of doing business to the advertisers. I discussed the reality of this effect on video in a state-of-online-video article for Tubefilter at the end of last year.

As a result, for any ad-based content business, readership must continue to increase upwards to keep up with downward trending revenue from ad sales.

This leads to designing content for the sake of spreading it further.

This is why CNN’s homepage is filled almost completely with news stories about horror, shock, conflict, deaths and extreme instances of human suffering – these stories lead to more clicks, and thus more ad money. And then they blame it all on you: “Its what you click on the most, we’re just serving you what you want”. This is a textbook example of what happens when you allow your editorial to be controlled by the lowest common denominator click-thru-rate. CNN’s home page would be 100% porn if you would accept them for it.

Time, as another example, is also blatant about their need to create more advertising friendly journalism, to increase profits.

Buzzfeed also notes that the majority of its revenue comes from forced-meme content that it creates internally for advertisers.

But without a Buzzfeed level of scale, or a high dollar CPM due to deep ad integration, sustainability from online advertising sales is probably not ever going to be enough for anyone to afford operating a newsroom that is sufficient enough for their intended community, while keeping the needed journalistic integrity intact.

This scenario hits worst at home, where local news stories simply don’t scale beyond the interests of a single small neighborhood or town.

Local news efforts, for example, continue to lose ad revenue from their friendly local business neighbors to out-of-town companies including Craigslist, Google and Facebook.

This is not bad: local businesses are enriched as a result. And news will necessarily flow on, with or without any business. But a community with a weak news network is a community that is itself weak overall.

I’m surprised more non-advertising business models have not been tried. Especially because of the classic conflicts between editorial interests vs. advertisers interests which only gets worse with more technical ability to integrate.

People are trying to use technology to “fix” a problem so that they can be more effective with advertising while trying to keep that business more separate from their intended business of journalism.

Yet, whoever thought of paywalls as an alternative for the news was in a bad place. As if anyone wanted a world where we must pay for the NYTimes but get TMZ for free.

This is our reality now.

When a local news organization puts up a paywall so that only some of the community will be able to afford to get the news, you know as a matter of fact that the company is not there to serve the whole community. I think local news should strive for a mission to be available to all equally.

I’m not surprised to hear The Gannett, The Tribune, News Corp, Scripps and Time Warner have all essentially dumped their journalism divisions in the past year in favor of more investments in entertainment.

At the same time, I believe the need for journalism in our world is growing and should not be abandoned.

Its a problem I’ve been watching for the last decade from afar, and I’ve decided it’s time to stop talking about it and give it my best effort. I don’t have the answers to fix the medium’s problems, but I’m sick of media being manipulated by advertisers, and feel its ruining a great deal of progress for the worlds media.

CONTEXT

When I moved to NYC in 2001, I began blogging. In early 2004, when I came up with the idea for Rocketboom, I knew I was was at the right place at the right time. When I looked around to see almost no one noticed what I saw as being imminent, I built an example, put it out there, and arguably, had an impact.

Meanwhile, there was a tangential conversation going on around Rocketboom which I watched but did little to participate in. This conversation highlighted Rocketboom as a harbinger to the changing nature of journalism. By 2004 blogging had already rendered “the death of print” into a lowercase topic, just something to watch, but journalists had no idea what would happen next…to journalism. With Rocketboom, some saw it as an example of the video news medium being instantly unlocked and there was a real moment of mayhem and confusion.

‘Journalism’ was an area of interest I developed slowly over time that was unexpected. I took a journalism class in high school accidentally and didn’t think much of it but once I launched Rocketboom I was often accused of being a journalist – and I rejected the idea, because I was approaching the show from a design and technology perspective.

Over time, as I read more from other journalists about what they thought Rocketboom was doing, I found myself agreeing. I realized I just happen to be one of those people who tries to live my life with the same kind of values that journalists do. A lot of bloggers tend to be the same way, but don’t exactly identify with known principles of journalism. Even still, Rocketboom never really had a pure ‘journalistic’ intent, but I do think in many cases we consequently committed acts of journalism.

Humanwire – a Rocketboom spin-off show about local interest stories with international appeal – was my first real dive into thinking of what I was doing as wholly journalistic. Trying to make a business with Humanwire was much more difficult, and this is where I came up against what I consider this big problem at its worst: the relationship between journalism and advertising. It’s nothing short of a large scale catastrophe.

With Rocketboom, Know Your Meme and Humanwire I was constantly jumping through hoops with advertisers – and walked a thin rope to keep my integrity and the writing in tact. I was attempting to provide the greatest potential value to advertisers, to raise the most money for myself and the business. That regularly posed conflicts with the ultimate goal: providing the best work for everyone else. This conflict of interest cost me in ways that were exhausting and dissatisfying.

PBS

Around the time I sold Know Your Meme, I decided to regroup with Rocketboom, especially as I got locked into a very strict, 3 year non-compete clause (which just ended in April of this year, BTW) and separately, I was getting deeply involved with PBS on a few levels. I was drawn to PBS early on because of the progressive ideas behind the people running the national digital department in D.C. and wanted to understand more about lessons learned from producing journalism sans advertising.

First I established a relationship by brokering a deal to bring Humanwire to PBS. Though that deal was completed, the show never aired with PBS due to…you guessed it…the unwavering demands of the advertiser, which caused a conflict of interest with the content.  Afterwards, Rocketboom produced a broadcast quality kids show with the creator of Blues Clues and won an excellence award for the program.

Also for PBS, I created a training program to serve PBS’ 250+ member stations around the country with contemporary & future considerations for online programing and audience building. The first to undergo the training was the local PBS member station in Bloomington, Indiana – and it is fair to say for both Bloomington, and myself, it was a success. This particular experience with PBS was especially influential for me as a deeper study into how the tradition of broadcast news works (from business to news cycle work flows).

I have noticed producing the news on purpose can actually be expensive, and it’s absolutely in a fragile state at the moment.

In contrast to PBS, I was curious to learn about Scripps. I went out to their HQ in Cincinnati a number of times at the end of 2013, and met with people in the broadcast and digital news departments. I spoke to them a bit about my platform ideas (though I mentioned nothing about my business ideas), and learned a bit of what they are up to – especially with their business ideas. Unlike the PBS HQ, where I found very progressive thinking, I came away from Scripps feeling like they were not going to be helping the situation much.

CIRCA AND VOX

Newer sites like Circa and Vox are interesting but not attempting to solve any big problem that we truly have, in my opinion. They will likely suffer in the long run if they rely on advertising. Vox is hands-down my favorite new news site, and I highly recommend that you get them on your radar. I like them simply because they pick great angles and write great articles, on time. How can the world support these excellent journalists, so they can keep doing what they do? They claim they have a new technological platform that is in part the answer, but I’m not sure it’s new or relevant to any answers. You could put the same journalists to work at Buzzfeed and they would continue to write great articles over there.

If you cut through the mission statement of Circa, I think they are trying to say that there is news out there already but the problem is that journalists are not very good at understanding the key points of the story, or when and how to update you about new key points. So they have come up with a new technological way to organize their articles. IMO, Circa is only interesting because they too have scooped up a few great journalists who could also write great work if they were at Buzzfeed. Relatively speaking, good journalists tend to do a fine a job at explaining the key points at the right time and updating you with the right recap when need be. If you look at this article from Circa on the Telecom industry, I believe you will find it painful and difficult to understand. They have an app that will display it better though the entire page of content could have been reduced much more, maybe down to a single paragraph.

BuzzFeed and Mashable, a couple of other examples but with scale, are some of the most valuable new journalism efforts we have, primarily because they too have scooped up some of the best journalists that already were.

These top companies know how to hire talent and talent is indeed rare. It’s the same story in terms of the need to scale your news to billions, especially if its a story about 10 Llamas You Were Born To Click On Now in the case of Buzzfeed, or Passers-by step over shot man [watch] on Mashable. These companies are feeding off of information deprived and dizzy people to sell to advertisers as the only form of profitability to warrant the loss that will come from hiring great classic journalists to cover more important stories.

I would rather read Buzzfeed’s best journalists over CNN’s do to the extra freedoms Buzzfeed can offer its journalists, but what problem is being solved? It’s a home page of cats instead of the bombs CNN uses, while the whole news medium continues to collapse for everyone else that can not scale to such worldwide proportions.

Again the problem is not a technical one – it’s a business one. It’s all about how advertising requires the kind of business dealings and scale that a great news story should not be required to have.

When I crossed my notes from my own experiences with audiences, classic concepts like 1000 True Fans, my studies with PBS’ non advertising methods, the growing crowd funding phenomenon, and especially the upcoming equity crowdfunding act, I believe the right models for local news lay somewhere near here. Far from nonprofits and paywalls, far from advertising and sponsorships, and much closer to aligning with the spirit of community that can materialize around a product or service if it fills a need for that community, and does so in a way that is excellent.

A typical way to build an online company is to create a product and put it out there, even without a business model in mind. If it becomes loved by people, you can usually find a way to monetize it. Its a classic, solid proposition that provides the opportunity to ask yourself, what is really needed for people, instead of how am I going to sustain.

Still yet, when traditional news sites partake in this mental exercise, it seems they can not let go of how the site is going to generate revenue for them while not interrupting their preexisting business, thereby extinguishing any possibility of a new product that might compete with their old product. Its either advertising or pay-wall. They accept the business model first and then try to build something from that foundation.

While there will never be one way, and everyone will want something different, this is how I believe its productive to approach the ultimate local news problem of sustainability:

1. Focus on the destination and get the right news in the right place in the right way so people will want to visit the destination.

2. Increase effectiveness in contributing original reporting and media for stories that lack coverage elsewhere.

If you can accomplish these two things effectively, everything else will fall into place naturally.

In other words, its not really a business problem after all.

Its simply a design problem.

Cities

 

 

 

New York City

Though its been pretty obvious to most people who know me by now, I moved to Boulder, Colorado.

It happened accidentally.

I haven’t actually announced it to anyone outside of Boulder but I eventually changed my twitter location (<-big moment) and began to settle in.

Thirteen years ago, just days before 9/11, I decided I wanted to move to NYC on purpose.

I wanted to be closer to technology and the arts.

But a few days later, when the attacks did occur, proximity was the reason I was afraid to make the move.

To give you a bit of perspective on just how afraid I was, even before the towers fell, on Dec 31, 1999, I had refused to go into work in downtown Austin, Tx and instead huddled up at home with extra cans of food in my apartment in case Bin Laden decided to orchestrate a nightmare across US cities during Y2K celebrations.

So when he finally did attack in Sep 2001, I was *extremely* afraid.

CNN was not helping with all of their red banners of terror.

It turned out, due to the number of people who were so afraid that they actually left NYC, an opportunity opened up.

I had applied for an MFA in Design & Technology at the Parsons New School for the following year but Parsons needed to fill abandoned seats and approved a small group of students to begin in January. The offer came with a 2 year graduate degree compacted into just under 1.5 years with the summer as a full term, so I decided to go for it and plugged in.

I’ll never forget those first few months of adjusting to living in NYC with all of the noise and soot.

And I couldn’t help but imagine my local post office as a viable anthrax target to be avoided.

In my closet at home I kept two gas masks with extra canisters, a rock climbing rope, a large roll of plastic, lead pills, a geiger counter and a hard copy map with an escape plan off the island to the north or west depending on wind currents.

On many days the city would announce that creditable information had been obtained threatening various landmarks, including particular buildings and bridges.

One day, out of nowhere, I finally just dropped the mic, said to myself I’m going to walk across that bridge right now, and I did.

Along with thousands and thousands of others who weren’t the least bit concerned about it.

I didn’t move to NYC for the people, but I discovered them immediately.

While I was scared of more terror, New Yorkers were not only resilient, but generating an overwhelming sense of camaraderie and positive energy towards any and everyone.

In no time, I meshed in and became fearless.

It was the most incredible period I experienced in my thirteen years there, for not only is NYC the world’s best example of a true melting pot, with representation from all cultures living side by side, I was there during a time when everyone came together and truly noticed each other with a deep sense of empathy.

Over the next decade I watched as that energy around me faded, but only a little bit. This beauty continues to define the New Yorker today.

NYC is the greatest city on Earth because of this.

The energy and consolidated brain power propells you forward.

Some times you have to work so hard just to get a bagel, but its worth it.

The moment you step foot in NYC, you goto work, for the city.

You become part of the constant construction.

Visitors are squeezed of everything they have, ending each day of their vacation more exhausted and overspent than they’ve ever been before.

Ten years is the known cut-off point for living like this before going insane.

Its the density of cement, the trash and the noise that stacks up against you.

If you make it past 10 years by your own will, you stay forever.

I fall into the unfortunately class of people who wanted out before ten years but didn’t make it.

In my last months, as I strolled my newborn son around town, I tried to imagine what he was experiencing as he took in the views of bricks and steel, the smells of urine and decaying food, and the constant white noise mix of sirens and machines.

 

Boulder

 

The landlord from my Rocketboom studio in Manhattan, Mike, has a company here in Boulder called In The Spotlight that sells custom frames to businesses with their reviews.

You may have seen them before, they’re in restaurants all over America. They usually hang on the walls or sit by the register showing off restaurant awards like “Best Lobster in Boston, 2014”.

The company has been around for fifteen years but they are admittedly antiquated, so Mike solicited me to help him come up with technological solutions to scale up the company.

I proposed some product ideas just to be helpful but he decided he actually wanted to go with them and offered a compelling enough partnership that I decided to go for it.

I’ve now developed the first product, an online review reporter.

Any restaurant (or any service business that has reviews) can sign-up to get free real-time or weekly aggregate reports with their reviews from review sites including Yelp, Trip Advisor, 4sq, etc, nicely formatted by email and without the need to go around to any websites.  The new site is http://watermelon.la Its free and in trial mode. You can see where this going with stats, etc. As it suggests on the site, we can send an alert like “We notice your star rating on Yelp dropped from 4 to 3 stars and the key negative word is “enchiladas”, might um, want to look into those”. The next step is to build out freemium model features, while also being able to introduce offers for sales related to the preexisting frames.

After we tested it in January of this year, the company asked me to move to Boulder to build a team to launch it. Interested? There is a big need for biz dev right now, especially.

As you can probably imagine, this type of business is not my calling, but I enjoyed the process and it was worth the experience of taking a product to market that actually has a market.

MEANWHILE…..

I fell in love with Boulder and wanted to stay!

My wife Rima and I had been traveling around in November and December looking for a place to move and hadn’t considered Boulder.

I’ve been interested in collaborating with, buying or building a local news station in a small market of 100,000 people or less, in an attempt to transform local media once and for all to the internet where it should be.

We wanted to find a place that we liked, but we were preparing to pick a place ultimately for business, and our expectation on likability-factor was low.

So when we stopped in Boulder – population around 100,000 – for the other reason of checking out the plaque company, I was immediately surprised at how much we actually liked the town, despite its small population.

I passed through once about twenty years ago and had always thought of it as a hippie college town.

That is definately not the case.

While I’m still a newbe to Boulder, I feel right at home with Colorado .

My father had a vacation house in Aspen which was a dream and I visited every winter to ski Snowmass and every summer to hike around the Rockies.

One of my very best experience ever was in Colorado when getting married outdoors at Maroon Bells.

So how did I miss Boulder?

#1 Most Educated Metro Area in America via the US Bureau of Labor Statistics

#1 Most scientists & engineers as a percent of workforce via Natl Science Board

#1 Best Town for Startups via Bloomberg

#1 Best City to Raise an Outdoor Kid via Backpacker Magazine

#1 Well-Being Index via Gallup-Healthway’s

#1 Town to Live Well via Forbes

#1 Best Quality of Life in America via Portfolio.com

#1 Tree City USA Award for 30 consecutive years via The National Arbor Day

#1 Foodiest Town via Bon Appetite

#1 College Town for Livability via Livibility.com

#1 Most Economically Vibrant College Town via The Atlantic Cities.

#1 Fitest City in America via Gallup

Despite my interest in all of these things, maybe I’ve never heard of Boulder because there isn’t much in the way of media here.

This is the opportunity that I discovered that was unexpected: If you reconsider the list of stats above, you will understand that the intellect that makes up this small community is not your average small town interested in your typical small town grain report or high school football stats. This is a community that is plugged into the rest of the world and consumes something much more than your typical small town newspaper offers.

Over the last several months as I’ve been acclimating, I’ve attended Boulder Startup Week, been to a lot of founder meet-ups, I’ve started to meet entrepreneurs, engineers and investors and I can safely say there are not many people involved in media businesses here, new or old, at all. I’ve heard of a few spirited efforts from the past, but I’m feeling nearly alone here with regards to news and media.

I’ve been surveying people day in and out and find no one seems to know whats going on with the news around here.

Everyone knows how to find the information that they are looking for, but there is hardly anywhere to go to get new news on your radar.

I’ll read a great local news item and bring it up in conversation to my neighbors and they will be surprised to hear about it, even weeks later.

People are absolutely interested in the topics of Boulder, and become glad to know the information when you tell them.

Its as if by accident, I found the opportunity I had been looking for in the place I would rather be.

I’ll leave you for now with my very favorite perspective on cities, a must read by Paul Graham:

http://paulgraham.com/cities.html

Track Reddit

There is a really neat site called http://trackreddit.com/ which allows you to monitor keywords across the site.

Over the last couple of days I have been tracking the word “memetics”. Only two references so far.

 

Screen Shot 2014-07-16 at 7.38.39 PM

For the last month I’ve been taking photos of a Banksy piece. Here you can see how it evolves over time.


I wrote a post for Tubefilter about the online video economy today. In the article I argue that YouTube has demolished the video CPM to become little more than a social media content platform, and it’s not the right stage for other types of content, like Breaking Bad for example.

What if Breaking Bad – a TV original – was released on YouTube? Do you think it would have become as impactful and influential to mainstream culture, or as big of a monetary success story? I don’t. Not at all. Check out the article to read more, it’s been getting great reviews: Click here to Read.

George Bush on 9/11 Video

Being in NYC, on most years, Rocketboom has done something to commemorate the 9/11 attacks.

On September 11th, 2007, we uploaded a video of George Bush being told that a second plane had hit the second World Trade Center tower.

You might of seen a segment before, there is slow-mo version that is typically shown. In time, this one has gone on to gain over 700,000 views and is notable for the amount of comments it has received, over 4000. Almost every day, we receive a comment on this video.

Personally, this video has become a big part of my consciousness for I receive an email in real time for every comment on every video we have ever posted to YouTube and thus get to hear people’s ongoing remarks about this daily.

Now twelve years later, and six years after uploading it, I decided to present an overview of what I think people are saying about it. I think it is interesting from several perspectives, but mostly from the perspective of psychology and how humans deal with large scale challenges like this.

From the standpoint of an entrepreneur who is forging new ground to someone who is running a city or even one of the most powerful countries in the world, you have to wonder, as we do, is this person right for the job?

I grabbed up the comments and put them through various text analysis tools and here’s what I came up with. I’m not sure there is any revelation here, or answers in particular. It is simply an interesting topic to consider, maybe a good question for someone who you are interviewing for a position. “What would you have done in that situation?”

CONTEXT

Bush was visiting young children in a school at the time. At one minute into the video, you can see the moment where an agent enters in, whispers into Bush’s ear that a second plane had hit the second tower, and then the following 4 minutes of raw, unedited footage giving you a chance to consider his reaction to the news.


THE REACTION

The undisputed #1 question here is, what WAS Bush thinking? I know what I was thinking. I happened to be tuned into the live news with a friend that day from Austin, Texas, and we watched live as the second plane crashed into the second tower. It only took me about 2 seconds to realize that this was defiantly not an accident anymore.

One recent commenter (and one responder) to the video had this to say:

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It’s an interesting psychological question. Psychology is a pretty muddy study, but this question of what would you do under pressure if you were the leader of a country is the kind of question people want answered when interviewing you for the job of running a country. What would you do if your country or business was attacked? Can you handle the stress? Can you organize and take action? Can you lead?

First off, here is a word cloud of all of the comments:

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Notice anything patterns? You can break this down in other more interesting ways. Here is a tree layout:

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I followed several lines, for example, ‘Bush was in shock’:

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Here is a Phase Net cloud:

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Granted this is one set of comments, on video, on YouTube, on Rocketboom’s account so the sample is not the best for general purposes. Here is an overview of just the last 30 days:

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Essentially there are two primary directions people wanted to go with this:

1. A large number of people used this as evidence to support the possible idea that Bush ‘knew’ and had something to do with it. To clarify, these people are suggesting Bush didn’t react because he anticipated the news and that the whisper in his ear was just a confirmation in his mind that everything happened according to plan. It is a pretty tired theory but appears to remain alive and active, somewhat like the JFK conspiracies remain alive today.

2. While some suggested he was just shocked, an even larger number suggested that he did not react in order to be kind to the children and not cause alarm, and that this was the extent of it. Though as many commentators to the video countered, Bush could have politely and calmly left the room without the need to explain why, thus rushing off to lead a crisis while not alarming the children.

Fewer comments suggested other theories: He did not understand the implications; he was waiting for instructions from someone because he didnt know what to do; he was in fact thinking about what to do and used the opportunity to think about his plans in the background.

You have to admit, it is odd that he sat for so many critical minutes just thinking. What would the other presidents have done?

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A Refutation To Jason Calacanis’ Critique Of YouTube or, Why YouTube is Not A Bad Deal For Creators

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In response to I ain’t gonna work on YouTube’s farm no more, I am in the same camp as Jason with an ultimate goal of owning and controlling as much of my own company as possible. But I think Jason is in a different position as a venture capitalist or investor when he rejects YouTube funding than the typical creator who is not a venture capitalist.

OPTIONS

From the non-venture capitalist standpoint, there are three blaring options that I would like to note for context:

1. You can build your own and if it is good and you get it out there properly, they will come (i.e. you don’t need investment if you can launch a great show and integrate into YouTube on your own, e.g.) The ad revenue is enough for hit shows to maintain themselves, and grow. From there, you can parlay a strategy beyond YT, if you would like. For people who are talented and ambitious, it is becoming easier and easier to do this. Quite frankly, this is the promise of internet video. This is the disruption that happened when you no longer needed to “get a Hollywood deal” by a major studio in order to find a distribution avenue for your work. And YouTube currently offers the best plug-in-play revenue, free bandwidth and international accessibility without the need to take a YouTube grant, or investment.

2. You can take investment from an angel investor or VC, someone like Jason himself who invests in companies as his main source of income. [*Update: Jason just emailed me the following fact-check: “I’ve never been a VC and my primary source of income is as a founder (inside.com). I do angel invest and have a small angel fund. That’s 5% of my time/5 investments a year”] There are some incredible benefits to VC, most of which can come from meeting other talented people in business who can help you grow your business.

3. You can take a YouTube grant with the type of terms that have been going around, where YouTube takes ~45% of ad rev until they recoup their investment. It’s likely there are various versions of the grant, but the typical idea is that YouTube will invest $X and then go to work to generate buzz and revenue for the content, with the hypothesis that if people like the show, everything else will be in place and the show will thrive. Once YouTube recoups their cash investment, the creator is free again.

PERSPECTIVE

There are different reasons and different times to consider these options (or others). For almost everyone, the best option is number one – a natural hit – and doesn’t really need much discussing here. You have a well received show on YT that you built on your own and you are getting the best deal that YT has to offer (good or bad), but you are also nimble. As a hit show, you are able to generate enough from YT ad rev to work on it full-time, keep it growing, and to some degree, expand on your business by launching new shows. In this case, you can keep focusing on your growth at YouTube, for now, because that’s where almost anyone in the world can watch you on almost any device, freely and easily, and where practically all of the money in internet video is, for now [FWIW, you can not get your internet show listed on iTunes unless its under the almost-impossible-to-discover-freebe-podcasting section, but if the world changes, or something better comes along, you can still be ready.] In this case, you are growing revenue (perhaps modestly if that is the main complaint), and you are growing your audience and your brand, expanding on your primary work, while actually focusing on the main activity of your product, as opposed to say, business development.

The second option, taking VC or angel investment from someone like Jason who put a call out for YouTubers to join him, is probably the worst option for most YT creators. People who successfully take investment from good investors tend to be, or want to be, entrepreneurs who are ready to spend full-time growing their business, thinking about hiring and charts, perhaps even spending more time on biz dev than as a creator. It’s hard to write and produce your best work while meeting over revenue numbers and assuring you meet the benchmarks laid out by your investors – or else!  Also, a VC is usually not going to care what you perform, but rather, how you perform, as a business person. But perhaps most importantly for the sake of this discussion, VC typically provides a limited amount of ramp-up time for your scale to occur, at which time, if it doesn’t, you may be forced to stop.

Finally then, with regards to the YouTube grant, for the creator, there is really not a single good reason that I can think of NOT to take a grant from YouTube right now, even if you have the money yourself to go alone. For almost anyone, this option should increase cash flow thereby allowing more growth and more profit. Being part of the focus and hope in YouTube’s eyes does in fact bring a lot of extra value to the creator, whereby YouTube is acting a lot like a VC would act in getting the inside deals to happen for their startups. Perhaps Jason is frustrated that YouTube is not giving him enough attention, but the reality is that most VC’s will give you much less attention and provide much less direct support.

There is another reason why it makes a lot more sense to consider a grant over VC at this time. As noted above, the YT grant is not a “forever” kind of thing and there is no date at which the show explodes and must die or be liquidated. It’s a lot like a bank loan that the bank goes out to try and recoup but that you don’t have to pay back if it fails.

DIVERSIFICATION

Jason is making a very important point that is worth reiterating, even though his point is not mutually exclusive and does not require one to abandon YouTube: Don’t bet your business on YouTube. I think that is what he is saying, though its a sentiment ruled seemingly by the breakdown of his negotiations with YouTube over his grant terms. Instead, the better message, I think, is don’t bet your business on YouTube, only. But again, why abandon YouTube instead of collaborate with it? If the goal is to cause an exodus away from YouTube in order to cause a break down of the platform, so be it, but the most successful creators will side-step their way into the next best thing when that arrives, without throwing away everything that they have built up of now for a principle.

BEYOND YOUTUBE

In order to make the leap beyond YouTube, there are a couple of obvious routes to try: 1. create a popular destination where you can sell directly to your audience without a middle person, and 2. create additional products perhaps related to, but not video. For example, expand your makeup show into a line of makeup products, or expand on your radical cooking show to a line of bacon.

At Rocketboom, I was able to use YouTube’s free platform to expand my main show into a spin-off called Know Your Meme which first became well received on YouTube. As a result, I decided to invest more resources into building up the destination site, http://knowyourmeme.com, which was first built up by our YouTube audience, but went on to become bigger than our YouTube audience. It was then that I was able to set up internal ad sales and grow a separate business. And all of that non-YouTube action was none of YouTube’s business, through meanwhile, I continued to generate revenue from YouTube as well.

Eventually, the non-YouTube Know Your Meme platform became not only larger, but more valuable than the show because of the large number of users who were participating. As an important side-note, having a large audience on YT and moving them off of YT is not an easy thing to do and is not very valuable compared to growing an actual platform where users can contribute to the growth. I found a VC that had agreed to invest in Know Your Meme, LLC due to its large, active community, and in my opinion, that would of been a good time, e.g., for a YouTuber like myself, who is also an entrepreneur (in-training), to take VC (I also was approached by a couple of buyers so I decided to sell). [*In the name of transparency, I should also note that Rocketboom was the in the first batch of creators to ever obtain a grant, before the grants were announced publicly].

So, regardless of YT grants, why do you need to poo poo on YouTube? Why not co-evolve? If Jason can come up with a strong competitor platform, great, I’m all for that. Perhaps he can suggest an alternative to Facebook and Twitter that would allow us to leave them behind without cutting ourselves off from so much potential audience, too. Let a decentralized web return. We need some competition to increase value and break down these exclusive grant deals that ultimately recreate the old school TV economy of the haves and have nots.

Over the past week, we have been hiring editors and auditioning new hosts at our studio in Chelsea and FYI, most people in professional production still think Vimeo is the better platform for professional work, and that YouTube is just for cat clips. As you can imagine, everyone has a different perspective, but the reality is, YouTube offers a good platform and a good deal for creators, something that is fair and can be worked with in symphony with efforts outside of YouTube.

There will be a handful of shows that go on to create HBO and even Disney-sized network brands with or without YouTube. In the long run, those will be rare because talent is rare.

The History of Know Your Meme

image

I thought I would do a little history of Know Your Meme because there isn’t a good one out there. I had written one up before on the Know Your Meme website, but it got deleted.

In the Fall of 2007, Know Your Meme started one day in a moment.

At the time, Joanne Colan was the anchor of Rocketboom, I was selecting the content, writing the scripts and producing the show, Joe Bonacci was editing, Kenyatta Cheese was organizing company operations (the editing department in particular), Jamie Wilkinson was operating dev and Elspeth Rountree was administrative assistant. It was an awesome time because we all loved what we were doing and everyone was sincere. 

Not that it matters, but for a bit of context, I was in complete control of any creative or business decision as I had hired everyone, Rocketboom was 100% my investment, 100% my LLC and there was no board. This would never change and I eventually formed and owned 100% of Know Your Meme, LLC which I sold to Cheezburger outright last year.

Anyway! One day in early August 2007, Kenyatta and I were deeply involved in discussing Rocketboom’s video content. It was a formal meeting with just the two of us and we were discussing creative ideas for topics and writing. With the exception of Joanne at times, no one else at the company discussed production concepts. I wrote all the scripts at home myself without consulting with anyone at the office so whenever I could tap people for ideas, I would do it. Kenyatta was always my first go-to when looking for extra script ideas.

Having noticed that some of the “segments” I had been doing were working, I wanted to find some more segments to do inside of the Rocketboom show. A segment happens in the middle of a news episode where it suddenly breaks into a reoccurring theme that is predictable and formulaic, but then breaks out and back into the normal episode. From a writing standpoint, it’s a crutch to lean on when time is running out and you need to deliver a script. From the audience perspective, it’s a welcome return to something familiar. From a business standpoint, it’s a great way to spin off a new show.

Since pretty much every other word out of our mouths those days was “meme”, Kenyatta turned to me and blurted out “Know Your Meme!”, and then proceeded to provide context for the history of “Know Your _[fill in the blank]____”, especially with regards to World War II propaganda. For me, it seemed like it would be a perfect mechanism to explicate memes. As we were developing the idea further, Kenyatta also brought up the idea of the white lab coat and by this point, boom, I added it to my list of script segment ideas.

On September 4th, I surprised Kenyatta by telling him I had written a Know Your Meme segment into a Rocketboom episode. Joanne was wearing a white lab coat, I directed and shot, and Joe edited. At the time, Kenyatta was focused on shaping up the editing department and took over the edit from Joe at the end of the night, and then I directed it to completion.

Below is a section of the script I wrote from that day along with direction for a graphic intro, the first ever mention of “Know Your Meme”:

Hello and good Tuesday September 4th, 2007. Im Joanne and this is Rocketboom. Its great to be back. Lets get right to the news.

———

[v/o http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lj3iNxZ8Dww in context of YouTube site, zooming in slowly on number of views, then http://www.youtube.com/browse?s=mp&t=a&c=0&l=&e=en_US&p=2 then for predecessors, show http://www.youtube.com/browse?s=mp&t=a&c=0&l=&e=en_US&p=1 ]

Miss Teen USA video on YouTube reaches 12million hits in one week, quickly working its way into the most viewed you tube videos of all time. As far as we know, this may be the quickest any video has shot up this high. Predecessors took many months to accomplish what Miss Teen USA has in just a few days.

———

Why has this video become so popular? 

———

[Play “Know Your Meme” intro, just like “Word Play” intro to april 12th, 2007 [see 15sec in] use images of Numnuma, lolcats, ipod, tay zon day, xmas tree lights, dance 1:12sec in http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HSoVKUVOnfQ , ok go http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pv5zWaTEVkI , guitar http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QjA5faZF1A8 ]

——- 

[v/o Play video of miss teen in the middle of the video [show in context on the youtube site] then start up v/o after about 8 seconds]

This type of meme falls under the category of what we call “Natural Parody”. Not only does this video represent a strong, melodramatic portrayal of the poor state of the US educational system, 

——

this video is for real!

——

[resume video of Teen USA but this time on Dotsub]

 and we all share the feeling that the reality of the melodrama portrayed here is quote, REALLY BIG

———-

[play know your meme intro to end segment]

—————

Taking things one step further,

———

[v/o http://www.memeorandum.com/070903/p16#a070903p16 ]

behind, George Bush was in Iraq yesterday on a surprise visit to convince troops that they not only needed to be there, but that we need to keep them there and find some more people to join them.

As I mentioned, for me, Know Your Meme was all about explicating memes and establishing a vocabulary. You can see that even in the first segment, there was an air of presumption that this was not actually the first segment, in the way it assumes the audience already knows the vocabulary and the scene.

Something else had occurred to me as well. Rocketboom needed a place to aggregate these explicated memes and our audience might contribute. While there were a number of other comprehensive sites that would collect the source videos for memes, there wasn’t a good site out there for documenting the whys and wherefores. And a lot of memes were not video based. To me, this was always the most exciting aspect of Know Your Meme. Once you understand how content goes viral, by studying IRL case examples, that knowledge becomes powerful and valuable. So that night while the episode was being edited, I decided to install a Know Your Meme wiki onto rocketboom.com envisioning a ‘wikipedia for memes’, so to speak, but one that our audience at Rocketboom would understand enough to kick into gear. One that cited sources that Wikipedia would not consider authoritative. One that was completely and utterly free and open. I used to write on my blog and speak at conferences a lot about the power of collaborating with wikis. I then put up a few meme terms on the wiki and wrote up a few pages for starters and linked to the wiki from that day’s episode on Rocketboom.

The segment felt right, the wiki got a bit of action and so I decided to write another one. On September 16th, I wrote a Leave Britney Spears Alone reaction video segment and Joe edited. Bonus cameo by Steve Garfield that day.

[joanne throws iphone]

Steve? Steve are you there? Damit! [throws iphone again] And now ladies and gentlemen, Spiders, bots and lolcats, its time again for anther installment of…

——-

[play know your meme intro]

———

Making its way onto the pop charts by Piggybacking [flash text below “PiggyBack Meme”] critique against Britney Spears MTV return performance,

———

[v/o leave britney alone video]

this gentleman has made his way into the #8 spot on YouTube for Most Discussed video of all time with over 1300 video responses and over 9 thousand comments. The video uses techniques of absurdity and sympathy in way that seem real enough to actually be absurd and sympathetic.

And then Christmas was coming on. Kenyatta and I had several meetings to discuss content for the upcoming Christmas holiday. I was *completely* exhausted because I had not had a single vacation for literally 3 full years so the plan was to pre-program two weeks of content and have everyone take a break at once. Since I knew in order to accomplish this I would need to write 10 scripts, I went right to my crutch when the idea dawned on me that the Know Your Meme segments are ready for the next step, to become full-blown episodes and that it would be relatively easy (and a lot of fun) to do and so that’s what I decided I would do.

So Kenyatta spoke to Joanne to get her up to speed about it and on November 21st, Kenyatta informed the rest of the crew of what we were doing in order to seek input on which memes to cover because we knew everyone at the office would have big opinions on this. Ellie’s first contribution to Know Your Meme suggested we look at other videos of people talking about the year in memes to get some ideas. Jamie sent us all a link to a playlist of videos he had been collecting on YouTube.

I took everyone’s suggestions for which memes to cover, decided on the list, got Kenyatta’s feedback and then started cracking on the writing. 

Though we had just now asked Jamie and Ellie to name some memes they liked, at this point, Jamie and Ellie were still not involved or really aware of what was going on with the creative or the production for Rocketboom or Know Your Meme and were not a part of production meetings or discussions. Jamie and Ellie actually didn’t even watch the episodes sometimes which was an outspoken point of contention for Kenyatta (and myself at times) but ultimately, I just saw it as a sign that we needed to make the show better.

Though some people might assume that Ellie and Jamie are also co-creators, or co-founders of Know Your Meme, and while both would go on to contribute significantly to Know Your Meme, by the time they entered the conversation, Know Your Meme had already established a name, a style, costumes and props, a theme, intro graphics, a wiki site, produced segments, a plan for ten episodes and a purchased domain name. Jamie and Ellie didn’t call themselves creators or founders while they were at the company (I might of even thrown these terms around loosely at times without thinking much of it), it’s just that the press calls them founders and creators for some reason. Kenyatta, Greg, Joe and Joanne didn’t call themselves founders or creators either. But Kenyatta was in fact a co-creator of Know Your Meme as you can see due to his critical contributions. Without Kenyatta, there would be no Know Your Meme.

At the end of November, when it started to look like Joanne might be out sick during the critical shoot period, Kenyatta suggested Ellie and Jamie be on camera. I thought that was a good idea and suggested Kenyatta be on camera too. I was nagged to be on as well and even got my own embroidered lab coat but I’ve *never* wanted to be on camera [protip: There is one KYM episode I am in but no one outside of our group has discovered it yet] 

As I mentioned, though Jamie and Ellie had not been involved in any way in the production process at Rocketboom before, it was an obviously good idea to try having them as on-camera “meme experts” or “scientists” to fill in for Joanne and everyone agreed to lend a hand, despite the crunch we were all under to get our other work done.

After I realized it would be impossible to get all of the scripts done alone, especially while continuing to write scripts for the daily show and acting as CEO, etc. etc., Kenyatta got Ellie and Jamie to pitch in with some script writing. This is the initial list of memes I decided on, and Kenyatta sent it out to the group to pick:

KnowYourMeme Ideas

RickRoll (include Tay Zonday and Family Guy versions)

Soulja Boy

Tay Zonday/Chocolate Rain

09 F9 11 02 9D 74 E3 5B D8 41 56 C5 63 56 88 C0 (The Digg Revolt)

LOLCats (interview with Anil?)

Dramatic Chipmunk

I like turtles!

TechnoViking

Walk It Out

Homemade Music Videos/Commercials (Daft Punk, Flagpole Sitta, iPod Touch)

Don’t Tase Me Bro

General Groupings/Topics

Commercial Memes (Gorilla Drummer, etc)

Gross out/Shock Vids

Reaction Vids

I wrote the first full length script to help act as a guide for the others. The first ever episode of Know Your Meme then was about Tay Zonday (as a musician myself I was a big fan), starring Joanne:

[intro graphics]

———-

[Joanne standing with clipboard?]

Ta Zonday.

——-

[short graphic intro continue]

——

Otherwise known as Adam Nyere Bahner, Tay Zonday came into fame overnight on You-Tube with his own video hit single, Chocolate Rain.

——

[play some video of Chocolate Rain]

——

The question for us follows, why did this video hit count go insane?

——

[v/o tay on connan obrian]

After watching the audience reactions on National TV only to be followed by an abrupt finale – notice how they just turned off his piano as he was looking away and came out to stop him as if it were already over – one may still wonder,

—-

Why? Why even experts at Encloypedia Dramatica have not considered this question and in our research around the internet, we were unable to find any theories as to WHY this video became popular. Lets have a look,

———transition edit with a wavy dream-like edit——-

[v/o scientists standing over Joanne while she is looking at the video, point to it and they all exchange ideas and opinions about the video. At first everyone stares at video for 10 seconds just watching (to p/u enough roll) / interchange this with asset from chocolate rain.]

Think back to the first time you experienced the Tay Zonday video. He had such a young, childish face and his voice was just so… low. Many of us stopped to ask, “Is that really that guy’s voice? How could he go so low? Is it even physically possible?

——

And so we got sucked in.

——-

[v/o all scientists hard at work, maybe all lined up in a row working at computers or maybe with clipboards, etc, lots of action and commotion or completely still at work on the computer]

We analyzed the video for authenticity, fidelity, uniformity, viscosity –  we tested the lip to audio sync propensity at variable bit rates as well as searched for inconstancies in interpolation and interlacing.

——

The video is real. [passionately->] Yet it was the question – the investigation itself – which led so many to look more closely. And thats when, Bingo! – level two sinks in.

——

[v/o original vid]

As Tay Zonday looks away to take a breath, he suddenly takes himself out of the video at hand and puts himself into our shoes. It happens, in a way, teasing us even further into searching for the authenticity of the video because we know now that even HE is questioning his own authority symbolically.

————

[v/o scientists agreeing that its all good]

Supporting the environmental predisposition for natural memage, by the time we concluded that the video was authentic… and that the low voice in the recording was true… we were already hooked. Its a one chord, repetitious stuck-in-your-head sensation.

———

If it was an accident, we may never know, but after many follow up successes,

——-

[v/o yt videos and dp commercial]

including more on YT as well as TV appearances and now for a new DP,

——-

[checking off clip board]

This is no one hit wonder, this is a true talent that made its way naturally through the system, a true value of internet meme quality. Forever a part of the year 2007.

And on December 15th, I took everyone’s submissions and began to revamp the complete lot of scripts. I sent them to Kenyatta and Joe that day to get started on the edits (Michael Clays was also editing).

Here are the scripts for the meme episodes. Currently, the info is all there and I wanted to send it over to you now before it got any later, but this is a terrible representation of the overall vision for each episode as well as the whole thing. So today/tonight I will draft up a complete, beggining-to-end, detailed script of everything, including directions for assets, etc for each script, order for episodes, etc. Im available to discuss anything anytime today so feel free to call, I can clarify anything you need to know in the meantime.

The next day I sent the updated notes and the episodes turned out to be a great success and everyone got a nice break. 

By the end of the holiday, however, the wiki at http://knowyourmeme.com had turned into a real battlefield. I dreamed of a wiki that could remain open and had left the registration settings such that anyone could come in anonymously to create new meme entries and update old ones. I thought somehow removing the barrier to entry would work, like the Open Constitution Wiki, but it didn’t. Every time I turned around, someone would deface the wiki just to have fun and mess it up. I constantly had to go in and revert content and then soon, I added a login feature. As you can imagine, that was a weak fence.

Many months later, this is where Jamie came in strong. Though Jamie began to appear in some more episodes, his best contribution IMO was eventually building out a new Know Your Meme wiki styled database from scratch. This was also the first project that Jamie was able to run with and develop significant amounts on his own without the need to have me direct.  We continued to use my wiki for about a year until we finally released the new Know Your Meme site. Greg Leuch was also critical to the buildout. As the lead designer of the site, Greg should get a lot more credit than he has ever gotten in the press for his input and his ability to design in code.

As the site began to take shape on the backend, Chris Menning who also never gets enough credit was in charge of populating articles. I had hired Chris as my first assistant writer for Rocketboom and assigned him to help write entries for the database. We had a tumultuous relationship because I was so controlling and demanding over the writing but Chris endured, grew and grew and continues to do a great service to internet culture. 

Establishing the right academic voice for the meme entries was crucial. Not too long ago there was some confusion over who wrote the “first database entries”. Though Jamie’s name is stamped on them, it’s because he was the one who set up the database and thus was the first user that everything went under. Chris was actually the one that wrote the bulk of the first articles based on what we could salvage from the best entires we had written on the wiki, and anew. The voice of the articles was critical because this is what would guide others when creating their own articles. I insisted it be extra academic along the lines of the episodes while Chris injected many crucial style elements as well.

Over the next year, Kenyatta would slowly take over the production of the Know Your Meme show and the others would slowly begin to collaborate more on scripts. I still maintained control over the topics and would write many scripts, taking them all in to finalize, along with signing-off on each edit, but saw Kenyatta as my way out and on to running Magma. I’ll never forget the day (over a year later) I announced to the team that I was handing over creative control of the Know Your Meme video production to Kenyatta. That meant Kenyatta would no longer need my sign-off on anything from ideas to publishing. This had never happened at Rocketboom before with any department (and hasn’t happened again since).

Eventually, I decided I would name Kenyatta CEO of Know Your Meme but he abandoned it short of that time. Since I had mostly handed off Know Your Meme by the end of 2010, it left me with quite a load on my shoulders suddenly, along with Rocketboom. After fixing the operations and training a new team, so that it remained tuned for just a fraction of the cost, I was solicited by Cheezburger and sold last year.

Though I no longer participate much there, I still love Know Your Meme and I’m glad it’s able to keep doing its thing. The current staff of KYM which I hired, organized and negotiated employment for at Cheezburger has my heart for pulling together and stepping up to the plate to help keep Know Your Meme alive and looking good. 

When I was in the process of selling and trying to assess it’s long term value, I wondered if it would one day fade. Of course Cheezburger could effect it in any way they want, but IMO, all things being equal, it will continue to remain an important resource for years to come, perhaps following a steady and enduring upward path, much like the incline seen over the past decade for the wonderful Urban Dictionary.

From everything I’ve learned, the best advice I can give to anyone at this point is simply to study how memes happen. Once you do, your voice will be become empowered.

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* Image Credits: Top: Know Your Meme; A picture of an IRL cut-out diorama made by Brad Kim. Bottom: Urlesque; Myself with the Know Your Meme team from the first ever Hollowmeme party put on by Rocketboom & AOL, October 2009.