How Google can really help news & media

Earlier this month, folks from Google invited me along with Kara Swisher and Audrey Cooper for a conversation about the future of news. Towards the end of the conversation, we were asked what Google could do in order to help the news and media industry. Obviously, we joked about buying the New York Times, but when asked, I pointed out that Google is good at one thing — software — and instead of trying to do crazy things, why not build tools that help the news ecosystem? Why not create tools that help data novices make sense of information? Or how about a smarter, simpler and more nimble analytics tool just for reporters? (Or simply buy Chartbeat!) I forgot to mention one tool that they could build in their sleep, and in the process help not only save many reporter hours but make the news better, smarter and more contextual.

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Now that was an eventful weekend

I was supposed to fly down to Los Angeles this weekend for a friend’s birthday celebrations, but cancelled at the last minute because my Fast Company editor politely reminded me that I was late with my column by a few days. So instead of having fun in the La La Land, I spent most of Saturday slaving away infront of a computer. For some odd reason, mind was being stingy with words, so instead I ended up meeting and befriending many folks I follow on Instagram. We all went for a photo walk organized by Arthur Chang, who is quite an amazing photographer.

We all met at Equator Coffee on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge. Fortified by a few espressos, with Instagram handles exchanged, a convoy of cars took off towards the top of Mount Tamalpais. The winding roads were only a small part of the overall journey. After parking the cars in the small Pan Toll Road parking lot, we climbed up various mountains by hiking up many small winding trails. I brought up the rear — mostly because I don’t hike, and also I was wearing absolutely the most inappropriate shoes for the climb. Lose earth and flat soles meant that I had to tread carefully.

As most marched ahead, I took my time – paused, took photos and breathed in the fresh air. In front of my eyes, fog caressed the skin of the earth, moving sensuously between the ground below and the heavens above. After a long climb I caught up with other hikers. As the magic hour approached, I decided it was time to take out the iPhone and start snapping.

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Cole Rise’s Tuscan Edit

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Freedom

ParisDecember20131

August 15th is India’s Independence Day. It is ironically the day when I received my passport — just days after I got my US citizenship a year ago. Something strange about the cosmic turn of events. The US passport has been the best gift in life, for it has allowed me to travel as much as I want, as often I want. It has set me free.

For the longest time, whenever I had to go somewhere, I needed to plan weeks ahead — I had to get visas for the countries I wanted to visit. It was often a tedious process and it often killed the spontaneity of travel. This past year I have traveled to London (UK), Copenhagen (Denmark), Paris (France) twice, Italy twice, Mexico and India. The only place for which I needed a visa — India. It wasn’t a fun process, but it’s okay — a chance to spend time with friends and family and celebrate my parents 50th anniversary was totally worth it. 

My 5 Favorite SF Eateries

A newish food enthusiast & review website, The Infatuation, recently asked me what were my five favorite restaurants and what were they perfect for. The list was published this morning and included my all time current favorite, Piccino and my favorite brunch spot, Hakkasan. Of course, there are many other places but for now I am keeping them to myself. via 

What I am reading today

BuzzFeed & The Attention Game

BuzzFeed, the company started by Jonah Peretti has received $50 million in funding from Chris Dixon at Andreessen Horowitz, making it one of the largest VC investments in a media company. The news has everyone talking about the deal and everyone has an opinion, including me, which I shared with Bloomberg West’s Emily Chang and her viewers.

The investment values BuzzFeed at $850 million, which seems to be pretty rich for a news organization. It is actually not high if you look at BuzzFeed from the lens of “media company.” Media companies are those companies that have our attention — they can be social networks (Twitter), games (Farmville/Zynga or Candy Crush/King.com) or photo sharing services (Instagram) or a listicles powered flywheel of social attention — BuzzFeed. Like I have said before, they all are basically trying to get us to spend many fractions of our attention on their offerings.

BuzzFeed seems to have a lot of attention from a different generation of viewer/reader/consumer. It has done that through deliberate choice of content, deep understanding of social platforms and a technical stack. Paul Kedrosky calls it “engineered attention.” And this attention, theoretically allows them to expand to different markets. Attention-to-expand into new markets is a strategy that works — as I explained in my Fast Company column. It has worked for cable companies in the past. It has worked for P&G and it has also worked for my much smaller company, Gigaom Inc., which started as a blog and now has expanded into events, subscription offerings and an enterprise research business. It would be fairly easy for BuzzFeed to expand to video, podcasting or whatever next that becomes popular.

It is one of the main reasons why Disney wanted them. BuzzFeed is a media/entertainment company, no different than Disney. Its news operation is as relevant as ABC News is relevant to the larger Disney empire — it gives them a nice cachet and pretensions of being a real news company. It is not — and that is a good thing. And that is what makes it worth so much money that an astute investor like Dixon (trust me, he is!) thinks he can make money. Even a modest IPO helps them win big on this investment — though they don’t expect modest returns on any of their investments. (I might be a premature, but a Yahoo+BuzzFeed merger with Jonah running the show would make a lot of sense sometime in the future.)

The risk for a company like BuzzFeed is that attention is fleeting and viewers are whimsical and fickle. They can move onto something new as quickly as they embraced BuzzFeed. How big of a risk? I don’t know — people still are using Yahoo and people still listen to radio. The other risk is algorithmic. BuzzFeed is very reliant on other platforms for growth and ability to engineer attention. Facebook is known to tinker with its algorithms and destroy businesses in the process.

Google with a few little tweaks were like a gently breeze that knocked down many house of cards including red hot content farm, Demand Media. BuzzFeed is in a lot less risky position — its fortune isn’t tied to just one social platform (though I suspect Facebook is their sugar daddy) and can tap into multiple platforms such as Pinterest and Tumblr.

The big question is how they are going to scale their revenues using native advertising. The risk for native ads is that at scale they can lose potency, much like the more traditional banner ads. As such I have mixed feelings about native advertising, so it would be interesting to see what BuzzFeed does to scale, because it would actually create a template for the traditional news houses. The good news for BuzzFeed — it now has money and thus time to experiment and come up newer & bigger sources of revenue and profit. 

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