Curation Nation: The Rise of Content Entrepreneurs (Part 1)

Aug 17, 2011   //   by admin   //   Blog, Media blog  //  No Comments

The following is an excerpt from Curation Nation by Steven Rosenbaum, CEO of video site Curation Nation tracks the growing use of human filters for the daily info deluge overflowing our lives. Rosenbaum believes computerized curation is on its way out, and human curators are the future of media.

We are publishing two excerpts from Curation Nation over the next two days, and today you’ll learn about the entrepreneurs blazing a trial for content curators. Find out how Jon Miller of News Corp manages info overload and why his career trajectory mirrors the growth of news curation. Tomorrow we’ll publish the second excerpt from Curation Nation on this blog. From Curation Nation by Steven Rosenbaum. Copyright (c) 2011 by Steven Rosenbaum. Reprinted by permission of McGraw Hill.

I have a confession to make. I’m a content crook. A newspaper thief.

I’m pretty sure that Rupert Murdoch would say I stole intellectual property.

I started at a very young age. I was nine years old, and as a young man, I always seemed to want to be an entrepreneur. I remember clear as day the first time I noticed all that valuable content just sitting there. Waiting to be repurposed. It was pure gold, and no one seemed to see it but me. Up and down my suburban street, piles and piles of almost brand new newspapers set out by the curb to be picked up by the town’s recycling truck.

I knew they were valuable, because my mom and dad read them eagerly each day. On Sundays they were part of a family tradition that included bagels and lox. Newspapers were valuable; after all, people paid for them. And these slightly used copies were simply stacked in neat, crisp piles, there for the taking.

Now, I understood that they weren’t worth the full price. They were a day old. But they couldn’t be worth nothing. Surely someone would be willing to buy day-old newspapers at a discount!

And so, I set off, with a red wagon and a dream to be the neighborhood’s best-known proprietor of day-old newspapers. “Extra, extra, read all about it. Get your day-old news here!” I chirped as I went from door to door. I figured not everyone had the paper delivered; maybe they’d rather get a bargain on day-old news.

Selling newspapers isn’t easy. And selling newspapers that are slightly used turned out to be a bit of a challenge. But sure enough, I sold a few. And found that there was some value left between those pages. My work as a used-newspaper sales boy didn’t last for long, as I found more lucrative employment selling polished stones (Hot Rocks) and then performing as a magician at local birthday parties and Elks clubs.

But I was reminded of my used-news experiment the other day. The debate over free versus paid news distribution continues to create a dividing line between conventional printed news distribution and today’s digital Web delivery.

A few questions I found myself pondering: Was I stealing news when I resold the newspapers left by the sidewalk? Did the owner of that newspaper have the right to give me the right to resell it?

Back then, the paper was Long Island’s Newsday. Today, it’s owned by the cable giant Cablevision.

But if Newsday had known that I was selling day-old news, would it have cared? Certainly it would have said that I was profiting from the paper’s hard work, and it’s true. I think I made almost five dollars a week. Back then, a newspaper was a product. A physical thing. But today the news is digital. It moves at lightning speed and is delivered to my desktop computer almost instantly.

What if I were, as a nine-year-old boy, to embark on my usednews project on the Web today? It would, I suspect, look a lot like the Huffington Post: news, gathered and organized and resold. Did I add value back when I was dragging my red wagon around? Hard to say. I did bring my used news to my neighbor’s door, so that was helpful. But if I were doing that today, likely I’d do more. I’d select news from various sources, and I’d filter, sort, and curate my take on the links of the day. And in the end, sure, I’d charge something for my repurposed news service.

Mr. Murdoch would call that theft. Mark Cuban, another outspoken critic of aggregation, would call me a vampire. And I think I’d argue today, as I did back on Ward Street, that gathering up things that are set out on the sidewalk for all to see and delivering them to a new customer is me participating in the democracy that is free speech, news gathering, and redistribution.

I know nine-year-olds see the world in a pretty simplistic way, but the more I think about my used-news endeavor, the more I think both my neighbors and I got it right. I was trying to add value by providing a slightly dated, lower-cost news service. And my neighbors, other than a few generous souls, determined that the cost of fresh news wasn’t cost prohibitive. If they wanted the paper, they’d get the delivery boy to toss it on their lawn the day it was printed.

If anything, my business was way ahead of its time.

Curating Content: The Early Search for New Models

Today, we need more context and organization around information. So if that means more nine-year-olds are cutting and pasting the New York Post or the Wall Street Journal, well, to me that’s something that can only lead to good things for readers and media barons alike.

So, it might seem odd to you that I went looking for a bit of a history lesson on the roots of content curation at News Corporation, the media empire built and run by newspaper baron Rupert Murdoch. But, entering 1211 Avenue of the Americas and walking through the newsroom of the Wall Street Journal, I couldn’t help but feel as if I was in exactly the right place.

There, in the corner office, was one of my favorite media executives, Jon Miller. He is the CEO of Digital Media at News Corp., overseeing the digital properties including the once-mighty MySpace. But I wasn’t there to talk about the current squabbles between Murdoch and Google, or the free versus paid questions that have been brought to the fore as Murdoch has erected pay walls and called into question the whole concept of free content on the Web. Miller’s trajectory in media parallels the growth of the curation ecosystem, so I wanted to get his point of view on where all this was going. But first, how did he end up as the guy to try and fix both AOL and then MySpace?

Miller graduated from Harvard in 1980 and took a job as a researcher with the FCC on the anticipated impact of cable TV. As he surveyed people regarding whether they’d pay for cable if it came to their town, it became clear that cable was going to spread fast. Miller explains, “I thought, ‘If it comes to this city, people are going to go for it if there’s more programming. I should go figure out how to make some programming.’”

It’s worth noting that the early days of cable programming were, in Miller’s words, aggregated broadcast signals. There was no such thing as original cable programming. Miller saw the future and jumped on it.

Miller found a job in production, at first making commercials. Then he shifted to programming, with a gig at WGBH in Boston. And then in 1987, using his God-given talents as a really tall guy— six-foot-four to be exact—Miller worked his way into a great gig at the NBA as vice president of programming at NBA Entertainment. Back then few games were on TV, and many weren’t even recorded. Miller changed that—and the league mandated that all games had to be recorded. It was a very rudimentary setup, just three cameras recording to three-quarter-inch U-matic videocassettes. This would be the foundation of what is now the highly valuable NBA archives. But back then it was all they could manage to get even basic metadata captured as the raw footage was screened.

“The tapes would come in and literally we had kids out of college who got paid next to nothing to label every play, descriptors like pass left or right,” Miller recalls. “This became the archives of the league and when you wanted to put out a TV show or supply your network operators or whatever, you just go back and find stuff for commercials. But before that, it wasn’t even recorded.”

No longer did the NBA have just live games, now it had media assets. Early footage of Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Hakeem Olajuwon, Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas, Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, and Dennis Rodman were being recorded as cable sports channels were arriving on the scene.

Says Miller, “It became a basis on which you can think of yourselves as a media company. Now you have a library and now you have archives. It is like a film library but in this case it is footage of games and players. And the most important question was, what was more valuable: aggregated content, as in games, or disaggregated content, as in plays. Plays became highlight reels and stories. Games were their own self-contained things. If you think in media terms, it is like the trailers and highlights versus the film. Which was the most valuable part and how could they work together?”

The answer turned out to be both. The powerful thing about monetizing a film library is that you can use the same material in multiple markets and they don’t cannibalize each other. The annual value of the NBA’s television rights was pegged at $400 million a year through 2008, and that doesn’t include the future clip royalties.

Then, after a stint at Viacom and Barry Diller’s Studios USA, Miller took on the unenviable task of fixing AOL. It was 2005, and the problems were written large on the front door.

AOL was an ISP (a dial-up Internet service provider) in a world that was going broadband. You didn’t have to wake up in the morning and have cognitive dissonance around that. AOL knew it couldn’t sell its dial-up business and that it was going to go to zero—and fast. And, since parent company TimeWarner owned cable, the broadband business was already taken. Miller needed to imagine a new AOL with a new focus: “There aren’t a huge number of options, but I thought, ‘How do you figure out how to make a lot of content that people want to consume, since you’re essentially an aggregator of lots of other peoples’ content and services?’”

Searching for a content creation model that was Web-driven, low cost, and could create a large volume of material, Miller turned to AOL executive Jim Bankoff, who introduced him to entrepreneur Jason Calacanis. Weblogs Inc., Calacanis’s company, was creating a network of low-cost blogs, what Miller called “magazines on the Web.”

The first one to catch his eye was the tech blog Engadget. Says Miller, “Engadget was a Web magazine on an incredibly distributed low-cost model. Peter Rojas was the creative force; Brian Alvey, technologist; and Jason Calacanis created the model and the ability to stamp these things out with a lead curator. Then we could plug that in to what I call ‘the machine,’ our sales operation.” With Weblogs, Miller was able to find a model, both technical and editorial, to curate low-cost content. Back in 2004 the deal wasn’t seen as a slam dunk with the execs at TimeWarner HQ. Miller now reveals that he had a hard time selling it to his bosses.

Miller says his bosses challenged his basic assumptions, asking him why content was going to matter. But harkening back to his early precable TV days, he saw the same phenomenon affecting the Web. More bandwidth, in this case broadband, meant that users would consume more content if it was offered. “It was almost that simple,” Miller says. “Without broadband it was a lousy experience so it was limited in what the Web could do. With broadband it wasn’t as limited. It’s not much deeper than that.”

Miller decided the solution was to have AOL buy Weblogs Inc., the editorial properties that Calacanis had spun up, and the technology that his partner Brian Alvey had developed. Check in hand, Miller went shopping.

“I met him [Calacanis] at Four Seasons hotel in L.A., I said I should come by your office. You know, it was part of my process. I bought a lot of Internet companies and had seen a lot of companies. Generally, you go in and you kick the tires, you get vibe, you see what’s going in the office, you meet the people.”

But that was his first surprise: Calacanis explained there was no office.

Miller says, “I go, ‘Wait a minute—no office?’ “‘Yeah,’ and he explained to me, he pulled up on his computer, he could see all the bloggers and what they were doing that day, that hour, that minute, who was posting, how many responses they got, and it was all there on the screen. And that was like the lightbulb going off. I was like oh my God! It was from all over the country.”

If Jon Miller was able to look out across the country and see that the emergence of cable TV was going to create a huge demand for content, what does the coming deluge of content create a need for? Miller sees a massive content creation explosion in the next five years, as phones, tablets, and social networks all encourage and even automate the creation of data, feeds, choices, Diggs, and Facebook “Likes.” Content creation explodes, and the need for filters goes from being helpful to being essential.

“MTV fine-cut the network business in a sense, cable took what was a network, i.e., NBC, which would have kid’s programming,women’s programming, adult programming, late-night comedy all during the course of a 24 hours—news, et cetera, all in a 24-hour day— and it basically took each of those and made networks out of each of those. And they were big, broad ideas: CNN equals news, MTV equals youth and music, Nickelodeon equals kids. They were still big swatches. And what that told you is what was coming, which is as more bandwidth appeared both on television and something called the Internet, the cuts got finer. So now news is not just one idea, it’s a zillion ideas. And you could see the process was just going to keep going into finer and finer cuts.”

Photos courtesy of

Tomorrow we’ll publish the second part of this excerpt from Curation Nation. Come back tomorrow to learn how and other media mavens found success by curating news. They’ll also share advice on what start-ups can do to stay ahead of the times.

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