Oct 20 2007

Contrary to what a very loud proportion of our readers say, we're actually fairly sophisticated over here in the newsroom information center. Once we kicked the five-drink-minimum policy (and that was just before breakfast, mind you) we had decades of clear thinking to create what we are — a hard-charging yet reflective organization obsessed with metrics.

It's just that sometimes they're the wrong ones. Or we don't measure the ones we really need. Lemme 'splain.

We've had a lot of practice lately with audience metrics and narratives. We work hard at knowing who they are, what they do, and what they're looking for in their media mix. We do that geographically, demographically, and — using the following word is guaranteed to make you sound like a raving lunatic, moron or both — psychographically. Then we try to match the content up to what we think the audience wants. So if you wonder why we run home-made pasta recipes for food-allergy sufferers, you can bet there's a valued (and valuable) audience somewhere for that sort of thing, and advertisers who want to peddle their wares to them.

There's something missing in this equation, though, and it's a remnant of the days when all we did was print newspapers. It's not just your interests that lead you to a newspaper, magazine, meeting, TV show, blog, chat room, podcast, DVD, book, MMO, video game, or some variant of dancing bear. It's also the context in which you have time to take part in a conversation about those interests. I'll use conversation even though your participation may be fairly passive (TV) or extremely active (internet, face-to-face meeting). It's a weaselly and vague word, but it's useful in that it takes us back to the original context: Sitting around the fire, belly full, pleasantly tired. And I'm tired of the word "media" – we use it so often and in so many different ways that it doesn't serve much of a purpose outside of a particular subculture.

OK, fine, so what is context? Let me spit out some examples, starting with the endangered one I'm sad to see go: You sitting at the breakfast table, reading text. There are many reasons this context is disappearing. The morning TV shows are easier to watch or listen to while you're preparing breakfast, everyone has a car, and we're all moving further away from our workplace. That private commute time eats into our reading time in a way that public transportation doesn't — you can read a newspaper while you're riding on a bus, but not while you're driving.

Speaking of driving, there's another one. Even here in Reno your commute time is going to be about 15 minutes one way, which means you have 30 minutes of daily tedium to kill. That time can get filled with talk radio, music, books on tape, or phone conversations. Someday most vehicles will have internet access and download audio content seamlessly, but in the meantime even a podcast works for a growing minority of people with all the cables plugged into the right place.

Then you get to work, and you sit down at your workstation with free internet access provided by your employer. Now you and I are on the same side. My goal is to get you to come to my news site, and your goal is to take a break from work. You have the time and the opportunity to just sit in front of a computer most of the day, and that's why news sites are busiest during weekday business hours. In your free time, you'd rather run errands, spend time with family or friends, or do any of a zillion other things.

It's this complicated nexus of a person at a particular time and a particular place that really matters to an organization that specializes in conversations, or to a solo operator (read: blogger or freelancer). We get so hung up on the MEDIUM and the potential for storytelling with the MEDIUM and the unique constraints of the MEDIUM and what the MEDIUM really means that we just jump straight into our own navel while the person on the other end of the conversation says, "Fuck it" and finds someone more interesting. If all you do is write a blog, you're ditching a vast segment of the population who might find you extremely interesting. If all you do is put video into a custom player and don't make it easy for the alpha geeks to download it to their iPhone, you're going to be playing catch-up when everyone watches TV on their cell phone while they're waiting for someone. Because the context for video may not — and probably isn't, if our numbers are right — be your workplace. I don't know about you, but the last thing I want to do is make it known that I'm wasting time at work.

"Multi-media" is not some giant conceptual train wreck created in Flash (can't spell "shit-flavored" without it) with completely reinvented navigation, lots of black backgrounds and silly noises whenever you move the mouse. It's all about your ability to carry on a conversation with lots of different people, at different times, in different places, and on many levels. It's about meeting them where and when they are, and respecting their context — not yours.