Bill Simmons and Marc Maron discuss their early days with podcasting

Bill Simmons spoke with Marc Maron on a recent episode of “The Bill Simmons Podcast.” It was fascinating to hear these two long-time podcasters discuss the evolution of the format.

Of particular note: It took a long time for Simmons and Maron to figure out how their podcasts would work and how they’d approach them. They tinkered and pushed until they landed on the right combination. It’s a reminder that when you have a nagging sense you’re on to something, persist until you can’t persist anymore.

Listen for: The embedded ads during the episode (no, really). Companies like Stamps.com and Squarespace are ubiquitous podcast advertisers—so much so, Maron was able to finish Simmons’ ad copy on the fly (“click the microphone in the upper-right corner …”).

And they said it wouldn’t work: Digital subscriptions are a thing now

Farhad Manjoo has some good news for those of us who want this internet experiment to work out: People are paying for stuff .

This paragraph caught my eye:

“Apple users spent $2.7 billion on subscriptions in the App Store in 2016, an increase of 74 percent over 2015. Last week, the music service Spotify announced that its subscriber base increased by two-thirds in the last year, to 50 million from 30 million . Apple Music has signed on 20 million subscribers in about a year and a half. In the final quarter of 2016, Netflix added seven million new subscribers — a number that exceeded its expectations and broke a company record. It now has nearly 94 million subscribers.”

Netflix has nearly 94 million subscribers.

That’s an amazing number. Those aren’t “users.” Those are people who pay for the service.

For years I’ve joined the chorus lamenting the impending doom of creativity, content, and culture. No one will ever pay for anything .

I think back to that moment 10 years ago when I realized that online advertising was a race to the bottom for all but a few massive companies. I was distraught. Really, I was legitimately upset. I was fascinated by the internet’s possibilities, yet it seemed to be built on a pile of sand. I wondered how it would all play out. I wondered if I needed to find a new line of work.

And yet, here we are.

When I consider my own digital subscriptions I’m struck by how easily and naturally they’ve arrived. At a certain point, each one just made sense and just fit in.

I guess I’m not alone.

Why every web publisher needs to know its essential metrics

Caroline O’Donovan offers an excellent summation of online analytics and their accompanying repercussions:

If you measure performance in pageviews, you encourage slideshows. If you measure performance by social shares, you encourage clickbait headlines and giant Like buttons. Finding a metric that lines up with a publisher’s goals is one of the most important things it can do to encourage better work … [Emphasis added]

Put another way: Choose wisely.

Here’s what good web production looks like

Video section on the ESPN.com homepage

Video section on the ESPN.com homepage

This is a screenshot of the video block that sits half-way down the ESPN.com homepage.

Notice each video has a specific and properly formatted headline. No clunky ellipses. Every word carefully chosen. Even the spacing matters.

These are the subtle cues that separate excellence from mediocrity. Taken individually, these efforts don’t matter much. But put them together — all the thoughtful edits, all the care that goes into media selection, all the language — and they create the sense of professionalism that’s a hallmark of top-tier organizations.

Jeff Bezos gives The Washington Post something better than hope — now it’s got potential

Jeff Bezos’ purchase of The Washington Post has inspired lots of “Why would he buy that“? analysis — some of it is quite good and some of it is really funny.

But this single tweet from Adrian Holovaty explains why Post staffers, subscribers and anyone else who cares about the institution should feel good about the move:

Bezos’ involvement gives the Post potential. Now there’s a chance that something interesting is going to happen there; something that’s not just a repackaging of content or yet another paywall or some other half measure driven by desperation.

Open question: Do you capitalize quotes that fall in the middle of sentences?

I run into this all the time, yet I’ve never found a definitive usage rule.

Here’s an example:

Let’s say I have a sentence that goes on a bit, and then, in the middle, I drop a quote that says something like “We were tired and angry, but we persevered,” and then I continue on with the rest of my sentence.

Should that quote be capitalized if it falls in the middle of the sentence?

Specifically, should I do this?

… I drop a quote that says something like “We were tired and angry, but we persevered,” and then I continue …

Or should I do this?

… I drop a quote that says something like “we were tired and angry, but we persevered,” and then I continue …

The Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL) recommends the fragment guideline: Capitalize the first letter if the mid-sentence quote is a full sentence and make the first letter lowercase when the quote is a fragment.

I’m inclined to trust OWL, but I’d also like to know how others handle this.

The two things I focus on during redesigns (the home page isn’t one of them)

Ann Friedman has a smart piece at Columbia Journalism Review that examines the role of the home page.

Friedman’s conclusion:

It’s [the home page] gone from something like a newspaper’s A1—a glimpse of and portal to the day’s top content—and become more like a magazine cover, providing a tease and a hint at the editorial project, but not a direct path to stories themselves … For a majority of readers, who come in through the side door and then pare back the URL or click on the publication’s logo, the modern homepage conveys what this news outlet is all about, but little else. It’s still valuable. It’s just not as important to the business model or editorial project. And the sooner editors come to grips with that, the better.

This shift started with SEO. It didn’t take long for savvy Internet types to realize Google was sending traffic to specific pages, not necessarily the home page. Social tools amplified this trend. No one tweets a link to your front door.

This is why I limit my focus to two things anytime a redesign is discussed:

1. The design and utility of the article page — I assume most visitors will interact with the site at this level, so the article page better look and work well. It must be clean, fast and intuitive.

2. The formatting of the body area — People come to a site to read or see something that sits in the body segment of the page. That “something” better look good. That means p tags and subheads and line height deserve attention. Videos should be large enough to look right but not so large they get cut off. Pictures should have adequate spacing. All of these details matter because this is the stuff people are looking for and at. And if you send your content out through a full RSS feed, body copy is the only thing people see.

Related thought No. 1: This is my nightmare.

Related thought No. 2: Always use a text editor. Always.

De-emphasizing the website (a pile of thoughts)

A number of smart posts have recently focused on a thing called “sub-compact media” or “subcompact publishing” or “artisanal media.” (That last one is ridiculous. Artisanal?)

What we call it is less important than what it is: The much-needed, long-desired, I’m-so-happy-this-is-happening metamorphosis of digital content.

For far too long publishers have crammed digital material into poor representations of newspapers, magazines, and books. These forms work fine in the physical world, but their digital counterparts leave much to be desired.

The humans that read this stuff have adapted to these half-assed mechanisms. But if this was being handled correctly — if we were truly beginning at the beginning — publishers would see that reader adaptation is failure. Readers shouldn’t have to adapt. It’s the forms that need to change.

An essay like this tells me we’re getting closer to how it’s supposed to be. This is an exciting time.

Somewhat related to all this: For a while now I’ve toyed with the idea of publishing a website without placing undue emphasis on the website itself.

So much of the focus is put on the part that falls between the www. and the .com. Yet, the audience doesn’t really gather there. Or, if they do, they don’t only gather there like they once did.

People go where they want and consume what they want. The smart publishers are the ones that diversified their offerings and embraced this shift. These publishers go where people already gather.

But what if we took it a step further? What if we considered all platforms to be equal?

Instead of this:

How it is. Website at the center

What if we did this?

How it should be. Content at the center

This requires a shift in mindset.

If you’re going to build one beautiful chair, you put everything into that single piece of furniture. But if you’re building a beautiful set of chairs, you approach the project differently.

This same shift applies to content. Crafting a single article is different than crafting a set of content. Without this shift, what you get is one good thing (the article) that’s orbited by a bunch of lazy repurposed bits (headlines as tweets, the same excerpt cross-posted on every social media platform you use, crappy metadata, and on and on).

Here’s how this revised model could work:

→ Choose three to four platforms to focus on (RSS, Twitter, Facebook, mobile app, website, Google+, newsletter, LinkedIn, whatever works best for you). Be picky. Have a firm understanding of who uses those platforms and how you can serve them. This understanding will guide the publishing program. You’ll be customizing material for each audience on each platform.

→ A single piece of content is made up of components customized for each platform (this is why you should be picky with your chosen platforms — the more platforms you serve, the work you have to do).

Example: An interview would include the main Q&A posted on the website and formatted lovingly; two or three tweets that showcase notable quotes/points so Twitter followers can get the gist of the interview without diving into the full version (really — give them everything and they’ll come to you for more); a shorter version of the interview for the email newsletter, or perhaps a few portions that only appear in the newsletter; and a special RSS version of some sort (I’m not sure what this would entail, exactly — Do your RSS readers want shorter content or longer? Do they want multimedia or not? These are the questions that need to be answered).

The important thing is that a “piece” isn’t finished until all these components are composed and published (kinda like Voltron).

→ Analytics would need to expand to include activity across platforms (this requires a lot of hand work because cross-platform analytics tools are horrendous, but the work is necessary and you can’t skip this step).

To be clear: You still need a website, and that site should be your canonical source. But your content should not be limited to, nor defined by, the website.

I need to think about this more (clearly), but I wanted to jot down a few introductory thoughts before they evaporate.

Known issues:

  1. This is rough. Very, very rough. Much work needs to be done.
  2. This will not work for sites that depend on impression-driven advertising. But here’s the thing: that model was always going to be an interim step. The sooner you get past it the better you’ll be positioned for the inevitable transition to come. (I’ve been harping on this for a long time.)