A rainy day & I’m thinking about the current state of media

I am sitting here, looking out of the window and it is pouring buckets. It feels colder than usual. And all that gray and rain has made me a little solemn. Or maybe it is the news — which is becoming increasingly atomized, lacking in context and creating a froth of noise pretending to be signal. 

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Or maybe it is the news of one of my favorite business people and human beings, John McFarlane, founder and CEO of Sonos stepping down from the role after fourteen years. I still remember sitting outside the “Om Bucks” with him — espressos and cigarettes (I don’t smoke anymore) and talking about the future of music, hardware and consumption of media. It was so long ago and it is hard to imagine how clear eyed and passionate John was about this coming home audio and music listening revolution. 

Like all early propenents of a new way of doing familiar things, his startup had essentially spent money, time and creativity, inventing key components of this new future, including coming up with a proprietary wireless format and networking stack, all based off a stripped down version of the Linux OS. The interface, the hardware, the stack — all were amazing and ahead of their time. 

“Our role in that is make the ultimate sound experience everywhere in your home,” John once told me. While that future hasn’t arrived yet — Spotify with its machine intelligence can make some of the musical magic stream on the Sonos. 

John and I have often talked about music’s future and I have found him erudite, full of wit and wisdom. He spoke at one of my events — a rare occasion for John who is an unusually low key guy in an industry of blowhards. He might do something new, he might chill, but either way, I will think of him as a mensch and a guy who opened my eyes to the potential of streaming music — first within the home, and lately everywhere. 

Look around you — everyone is making streaming boxes. Spotify is going to go public. Apple has made it virtually impossible to miss the streaming option in its Music App. My friends wanted Sonos for Christmas. John and his little Santa Barbara, Calif. based company sparked a revolution. I understand if John is tired or looking for a new challenge. Fourteen years is a long time. For me, John will always be the soul of Sonos. See you around buddy and thanks for the magic that is Sonos! 

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His exit, made me think about the obsessive coverage and fetishization of what are essentially HR moves. I am surprised by the attention being accorded to the shift of Chris Lattner, an Apple veteran and creator of Swift programming language. He is going to work on Tesla’s AutoPilot software. While his exit seems to be a big deal, I am yet to read a single post explaining what is the business impact on Apple, Swift and what does it say about the company and its priorities. Mac blogs have regurgitated the news release, some predictably snarky tweets have been written, but context is missing like sunshine on this rainy Tuesday. 

One of the current downsides of news blogging is that we have atomized it to a point where the whole stream is just noise. In the tech industry, funding news and HR moves have been fetishized to a point where there’s no point checking anything. Companies are getting smart and spewing so much PR content that everything and anything seems all the same — important and unimportant, both at the sametime. 

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I signed up for the new Axios newsletters — ProRata by Dan Primack and others including the Vitals. ProRata is all too familiar — Dan has been doing that for a while and I can’t tell who publishes his email. I do know he writes it. It has a lot of information, sometimes there is nugget of intelligence that is unique and mind-opening, but in the end it is his curation that makes it worth reading. I “get it” because I have read it for so long. 

I be happy to pay $10 a month for Dan’s ProRata, if there were no ads. It is good and worth my money. I love supporting media that matters and Primack’s work has always been useful, information and carefully informed.
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 I wish I could say this about other products from Dan’s employer. “People want more digestible news. They want it shorter and more shareable, so it makes no sense to not have ads structured the same way,” Jim VandeHei, chairman and CEO of Axios, told the Wall Street Journal at launch. “To keep doing the same thing as has been done in media nowadays means death.”

Either that is the worse quote from who should be a well-spoken master of spin, or it is poorly edited version of what he said. It is confusing because on one hand VandenHai says media is broken, and then on the other hand spends time about conflating advertising and content in the same breath. Isn’t that really the problem? Or am I missing something! 

He is essentially saying content has to retrofit itself to the advertising formats. I signed up for Vitals and found it disappointing beyond belief. There was no context to the information and there was no reason to believe the editors made good choices when curating the news. And what is worse — the native ads were way longer than the chunks of information themselves. 

In other words, I haven’t seen anything fresh and wonderful from this latest attempt to save the media. Ironically, what Axios is doing is no different than what the Fierce Group and others like them have done in the past, and done it well: create specialized newsletters going after a demographic of high end users. Even old school print groups did this well. Institutional Investor Group published newsletters such as Bond Buyer that cost thousands of dollars which were the cat’s meow for the industry insiders. I will tell you one thing — east coast guys with digital background are way smarter at getting funded by marketing themselves as angels with elixer to fix media’s troubles. The native ads on the Axios Vitals were so long and intrusive, I have already unsubscribed. 

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I don’t want to sound too bloody gloomy — I just think as a voracious consumer of media – news and entertainment— I know one thing: there is so little context to what we read that when we find something intelligent, we actually read it, even when there are annoying banners or native ads or teeth-whitening messages. 

January 10, 2017. San Francisco

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