What Makes The Athletic Great

In recent times I’ve bought subscriptions to two online media outlets – The Ken and The Athletic. I’d subscribed to the Ken a year ago, and was happy enough with the hit rate of their pieces (I’d find one in two pieces insightful) that I extended my subscription for three years earlier this year.

And since I did that extension, the product has been disappointing. They lost half their team to The Morning Context, a breakaway (and similar) outlet. They decided to expand in South East Asia, and since I have little interest in articles about that reason (at least not enough to pay for the writing), that automatically means less content that interest me. In some senses their quality is slipping. All this together means that I find less than one in five articles in The Ken compelling, and with the frequency of their publication (one article every weekday) I’m pretty disappointed.

Maybe it has to do with Marie Kondo’s popularity, or interest in behavioural economics research about the paradox of choice, but organisations are starting to make minimalism and limitations in inventory a virtue. The Ken started with the aim of “exactly one long form article every day”.

Having less choice, and being minimalistic, is good when this limited choice fits the appetite of the customer. However, if the choice isn’t particularly relevant, then minimalism becomes a bug rather than a feature – the customer doesn’t find what she is looking for and goes on to another outlet.

In that sense, I quite like the model of The Athletic, which I bought a year-long subscription to a year back. The Athletic’s model is just the opposite – massively high volumes with a highly curated personal feed. And maybe they’ve got their curation right, in terms of getting customers to click on the right kind of tags at the time of sign up, but so far I’ve found at least two useful articles on their site every single day since I turned up. And that’s insane value for money!

And that is despite me being interested in exactly one out of the nine sports that The Athletic covers (it’s mostly US-centric, and I don’t follow American sport at all. However I guess I’ll find it useful when I have to follow any controversy in American sport). And I’m interested in a subset of that – I follow one league (English Premier League) and games played by a handful of clubs in that league.

If I compare The Athletic to Netflix (both subscription-driven media outlets with large volumes of content), where the former scores is in its discoverability.

Maybe sport is easier compared to movies/tv shows in order to understand someone’s interests. Maybe it is that The Athletic, right up front, asked me to identify which sports, leagues, authors and teams I’m interested in (Netflix never made an attempt to do that). Maybe it is that The Athletic, with loads of fresh content every single day, is able to serve my preferences far easier than Netflix.

In any case, reading the Athletic makes me think that if I were to run a media outlet some day, I would want to follow that kind of a model – produce lots of content, so that lots of people will be interested in buying subscriptions, and then hope to use superior algorithms to make sure that people can see what they want and not have to cut through too much noise in order to do so!

The Business Standard is innumerate

I guess there is not that much information in the headline here – claiming that a bunch of journalists and editors are innumerate is like saying that the sky is blue. You would be hard-pressed to find journalists and editors who can actually parse numbers, though I must mention that I’ve been lucky enough to work with a few editors who actually understand arithmetic!

So what happened today? Basically in today’s front page, BS journalists (one Vinay Umarji in particular) and editors have displayed an utter lack of understanding on how relative grading and percentiles work. The context is CAT results, which came out yesterday.

(I’ve put a scan since the online version is behind a paywall).

There is information in saying that “number of candidates scoring 100 percentile is lowest in six years”, and the information I take out of that is that the number of test takers this year is the lowest in six years.

And for four of those six years, the numbers were inflated, since double the number of people who were supposed to get 100 percentile actually got 100 percentile. Since CAT percentiles are given to two decimal places, you get 100 percentile if you are in the top 0.005% of all candidates who took the exam. Or – if your “percentile” is higher than 99.995, it gets rounded up to 100.

For three years in the middle, the CAT administrators (usually they’re Quantitative Methods professors at IIMs), for whatever reason, rounded up everyone who got a percentile higher than 99.990 to 100. I’d written about that in my article for Mint three years back.

Coming back, CAT is an exam that follows relative grading. All that someone  has got “100 percentile” means is that they are within the top 0.005% of all candidates who wrote the exam. So if more candidates write the exam, more people will get “100 percentile”. In my time, for example (CAT 2003-4) some 1.3 lakh people had written the exam, so 7 of us got “100 percentile”. Nowadays the number of test takers has gone up, so more people get that score.

And then I found the rest of the article funny in a way as well, trying to do some sort of sociological analysis of the backgrounds of the people who had scored highly in the exam.

PS: The graph doesn’t give out much information (and I don’t know why the 2019 data point is missing there), but I guess it’s been put in there to make the journalists and editors seem more numerate than they are.

 

Video Geographic Monopolies

There is one quirk about video which we don’t face with print – some content is simply impossible to access legally in some parts of the world.

I’m specifically talking about BBC’s Match Of The Day, their end of day highlights package covering the English Premier League. It was one show that I watched unfailingly during my time in London, both for the match highlights, and for the quality of the discussion featuring Gary Lineker, Alan Shearer, Ian Wright et al.

Now I find that the show is simply not available in India – some youtube channels illegally offer the show (before they are taken down, I guess), but without the bits that show pictures of the game (which they are not allowed to show). And that makes for rather painful watching, knowing that you’re watching something substandard.

This is not the case with something like text – as long as I’m willing to pay, I’m able to access content produced anywhere in the world. I can sit here in Bangalore and buy a subscription to the New York Times, and access all its content. Audio is also similar – I can sit here and subscribe to any international podcast, and be able to access the content.

Video doesn’t work that way. The problem is with the way rights are sold – the Star network, for example, has a monopoly on showing pictures from the Premier League in India (having paid a substantial amount for it). And part of their arrangement means that nobody else is allowed to broadcast this material in India. A consequence of this is that we are stuck with whatever (mostly crappy) analysis Star decides to provide around its games. Stuff that is unwatchable.

There is a lot of great sport content online, but the video part is constrained by the inability to show pictures. Check out analysis by Tifo Football, for example – it’s absolutely top class. However, for most games, they have to rely on stock images and block diagrams since they can’t show the pictures which someone has a monopoly on. And that makes the analysis less rich (the Athletic, which I have a subscription to, “solves” this in an interesting way – by using screenshots of the TV footage of the game as part of their text analysis).

I wonder if there is a way out of this. Some leagues such as the NBA have shown some enlightened thinking on this – while they are anal about copyright of their live feed, they don’t care about copyrights on recorded footage. This means that anyone can use footage from historical NBA games as part of their analysis. Better analysis means more people interested in the sport, which means more people watching the live feed, which makes more money for the league (read this excellent interview of NBA Commissioner Adam Silver).

I’m also beginning to think if there is a regulatory antitrust response to this issue. Video distribution (especially of live content) is a natural monopoly, so it doesn’t make sense to have competing broadcasters. However, I wonder if there is any regulation possible for historical feeds that makes them more tradable (with the rights holders getting appropriately compensated without much transaction costs)!

One can only hope..

Evolution of sports broadcasting

I had a pleasant surprise yesterday morning when I was watching the highlights of Liverpool’s 4-0 victory at Leicester. The picture quality suddenly looked better. The production aesthetics in the first few seconds (before coverage of the actual match began) looked “American”. I doubted myself for a minute if this was actually English football I was watching.

And then I remembered that the pictures for this  game came from Amazon Prime. The streaming service had got rights to broadcast two full rounds of Premier League games this season, making a small chink in the duopoly of Sky Sports and BT Sport.

Traditional media wasn’t too impressed by it. Streaming necessarily meant a small delay in broadcast, and that made it less exciting for some viewers. The Guardian predictably made a noise about the “corporate takeover” with Amazon’s entry. From all the reports I read (mostly across the Guardian and the Athletic), commentators seemed intent on picking holes in Amazon’s performance.

That said, the new broadcaster also brought a fresh production aesthetic. While there were the inevitable teething problems (I must confess I didn’t watch these games live – being midweek evening games, they were very late night in India), Amazon for sure brought some new ideas into the broadcast.

Just like Fox Sports had done when it had done a big launch into NFL broadcasting in the early 90s. Read this oral history of that episode. It’s rather fantastic. Among the “innovations” that Fox Sports brought into American broadcasting (based on its sports broadcast in Australia, primarily) was this box at the corner showing the time and the live score. The thing wasn’t initially well received, but is now a fixture.

For evolution to happen, you need sex. And that means mixing things up, in ways they weren’t mixed before. If we were all the children of a super-god and a super-goddess, we would all be pretty much the same since the amount of “innovation” that could happen would be limited. And things would be boring, and static. Complex forms such as human beings could have never happened.

It is similar in business, and sports broadcasting, as well. When you have the same channels covering the same sports, they get into well-set local optima, and nothing new is tried. There is no necessity for improvement in that sense.

When new players comes in, preferably from another market, however, they see the need to differentiate themselves, and bring in ideas from their former market. And this leads to a crossover of ideas. In their efforts to stand out and make an impact, they might also bring in some ideas never seen anywhere – “mutations” in the evolutionary sense.

A lot of them don’t make sense and they die out. Others score unexpected hits and catch on. And that way, this memetic evolution leads to better business.

The great thing about memetic evolution is that while bad ideas come along much more often than good ideas, they get discarded fairly quickly, while the good ideas live on. And that leads to overall better products.

Right now in India we have a duopoly in sports broadcasting, controlled by the Star family and the Sony family. I’ve ranted several times about how the latter is absolutely atrocious and does nothing to improve the game. Hopefully a new player getting rights of some sport here will shake things up and bring in fresh ideas. Even if some of the ideas turn out to be bad, there will be plenty of good ideas.

Check out the highlights of the Leicester-Liverpool game, and you’ll get an idea.

Amazon and Sony Liv

Amazon is pretty bad at design of products they’re not pioneers in. They’ve built a great shopping engine (25 years ago) and a great cloud service (15 years ago), but these were both things they were pioneers in.

Amazon being Amazon, however, they have a compulsive need to be in pretty much every industry, and so they’ve launched clones of lots of other businesses. However, their product design in these is far from optimal, and the user experience is generally very underwhelming.

Prime Video has a worse user experience than Netflix. The search function is much worse. The machine learning (for recommendations) isn’t great. The X-ray is good, but overall I don’t have as pleasant a time watching Prime as I do with Netflix.

However, the degree to which Prime Video is worse than Netflix is far far smaller than the degree to which Amazon Music is worse than Spotify. The only thing going for Amazon Music (which I only use because it comes free with my prime delivery membership in India) is that they have inventory.

Spotify in India has been unable to secure rights to a lot of classic rock and metal bands, such as Iron Maiden and Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin and Dream Theater. And these form a heavy part of my routine listening. And so I’m forced to use Amazon Music (Apple Music has these bands as well, but I have to pay extra for that).

The product (Amazon Music) is atrocious. The learning is next to nothing. After five months of using the service to exclusively listen to Classic Rock and Heavy Metal, and zero Indian music, the home page still recommends to me Bollywood, Punjabi and Tamil stuff! History is not properly maintained. Getting to the album or playlist (the less said about playlists on Amazon, the better) I want takes way too much more effort than it does on Spotify.

In other words, the only thing that keeps Amazon going in businesses they’re not pioneers in is inventory – Prime Video works because it has movies and shows other streaming services don’t have. Amazon Music is used because it has music that Spotify doesn’t.

I figured it is a similar case with Sony Liv, Sony’s streaming service in India. They sit on a bunch of lucrative monopolies, such as rights to broadcasting Test cricket in a lot of countries (all three Test series being played right now are on Sony, for example), Champions League football and so on. Beyond that it’s an atrocity to watch them.

I remember missing a goal in the Liverpool-Porto Champions League quarterfinal because of a temporary power cut. There was no way in the broadcast to go back and see the goal. If I by mistake pause for a couple of seconds, I’m forever behind “live” (unless I refresh). Yesterday during the classic Ashes Test, the app simply gave up when I tried to load the game.

The product is atrocious (actually more atrocious than Amazon Music), but people are forced to use it only because they have a monopoly on content. And in that way, it is similar to Amazon, which can get away with atrocious products only because they have the inventory!

I’m glad the Premier League is on Hotstar, which is mostly a pleasure to watch! (actually back in the day when I had cable TV, the star sports bouquet had significantly superior production values to the sony-zee-ten bouquet)

Content Flooding

I just came across this nice article on content flooding, which is about how the same sort of content “floods” us from all possible sources. All newspapers and news website (not to mention news TV), at any point in time, are “flooding” us with articles about the same thing. This quote from the article possibly makes the point:

Ravi Somaiya wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review last year. In the cacophony of content and conversation around that content, the most familiar voices at the largest, fastest, trendiest outlets carry the farthest; according to SimilarWeb, which tracks website statistics, only five sites dominatearound 50 percent of the share of newspaper traffic in the U.S. CJR also reports that newspapers online, now with a borderless audience, publish more than twice as many stories as they used to, often with a much smaller staff. So what you get are dailies that operate like news channels, dissecting stories (sometimes even original ones) for ratings, which basically means they cover more of less . “Faced with a sea of headlines, in every permutation,” wrote Somaiya, “even the most determined mind rebels and begins to dismiss it all as noise.”

(ed: emphasis added)

Now I don’t intent to reinforce flooding, but I’ve written about this topic before, about how Twitter is like Times Now. However, in the last month or so, when I’ve been mostly off social media, one primary reason why I went off was to avoid flooding. Rather than getting lots of news about the same topic from all sorts of sources I want to learn about a variety of things.

And I’ve tried to tune my media consumption to try and avoid this kind of flooding. I’m off social media now, for there everyone talks about the same topic of the day most of the time. I haven’t watched news TV for some 10-15 years now. I get my article and blog content from RSS feeds (if you have any RSS feeds you think I might like, do share!), and from a bunch of newsletters I’m subscribed to (the article shared at the beginning of this post came from a newsletter by the Guardian).

And by myself being not part of the flooding monoculture (on twitter), I end up writing about stuff that other people may not be writing about at that point in time. And that’s my little contribution to reduce flooding in the world!

 

News

I wake up early on weekdays nowadays, so go the first two hours of the day without really knowing what is happening in the world. As you might know, I’m on a social media break, so that source of news is cut off. And it’s only around 7 am by when a copy of the Business Standard gets delivered to my door.

Until last month, a copy of the Deccan Herald would arrive at home as well, but I stopped it after I found it to be largely useless. A lot of stories in that newspaper were written as they might have been 20 or 30 years ago. There was little distinction between reporting and analysis and opinion. A lot of news couldn’t be simply consumed without the accompanying (and sometimes patronising) opinion.

The Business Standard, which I started reading in 2005, is still a very good paper. The editorials continue to be first-rate (though their quality had dipped in the 2011-14 period). The analysis pieces and columns cover a variety of topics that simply don’t make it to social media (since they aren’t really “sensational”). And the newspaper is “crisp” and quickly tells you what’s going on in India.

For two years, when I lived in London, I lived without a daily newspaper, and it was a struggle. Online newspapers have simply not been able to provide the same kind of product as offline newspapers. And the reason is that online newspapers are “flat” – all the contextualising and prioritising that a dead-tree paper can do is completely absent in the online version.

In a dead-tree newspaper, you know how important a piece of news is based on the page it appears, the size of the headline, the size of the column and so on. Based on where it appears, you know if it is news or analysis or opinion. In case it is opinion, you can easily see who has written it before you “click through” (start reading it). You can easily how big a piece is (and how much of your time it will take) before deciding to invest time in it.

All this is absent from an online newspaper. Check out, for example, the homepage of the Business Standard, that I so fulsomely praised earlier in this post.

It is impossible to know what’s the important stuff here. If I have only five minutes to read, I don’t know what to focus on. I don’t know which of this is opinion and which is news. Before I click through, I don’t know how big a piece is or who has written it or if it has been syndicated.

Unless the link has come from a qualified source (such as Twitter) I don’t know much about it, and so don’t know how to consume it. This might explain to you why a lot of online news sources are losing revenues to the likes of Google or Facebook – the latter do the important job of putting the news in context!

Finally, I’m glad I now consume news only once a day (from the physical paper). Sometimes, what is news intra-day would have ceased to be news by nightfall. So when you consume news at a reasonable interval (such as daily), what comes to you is “qualified” real stuff. A piece of news should have been important enough for a day to make it to the next day’s newspapers. And once a day is also a reasonable interval to get to know of what is happening in the world.

Mass marketing and objective journalism

This is a fascinating essay by Antonio García Martinez on the history and future of journalism (possibly paywalled). The money paragraph is this:

The bigger switch happened as a national market for consumer goods opened after the Civil War, when purveyors like department stores wanted to reach large urban audiences. Newspapers responded by increasing the number of ads relative to content, and switched to models that went light on the political partisanship in the interest of expanding circulation. This move was driven not exclusively by lofty ideals but also by mercenary greed. And it worked. Newspapers used to make lots of money. Mountains of money.

Basically, the move to objective journalism came in the late 1800s when advertisers such as Macy’s wanted to take out full page ads, and wanted to do so in newspapers that served the largest sections of the market. And when a newspaper had to reach a large section of the market, it inevitably had to tone down the partisanship, and become more objective.

Over the last decade, we have been witnessing (across the world) the decline of objective media. All media is “#paidmedia” based on which side of the political spectrum you stand on. There aren’t that many truly objective papers around, and social media is bombarded left and right by extremely politicised reporting that goes as “news”.

It is perhaps no coincidence that this period has coincided with a time when print circulation has been dropping steadily (in the developed world at least), and where online advertising can be highly targeted.

In theory, mass marketing is inefficient. When you pay to put up a hoarding somewhere, you’re possibly paying a small amount for each person who sees the hoarding, but not all of them might find it interesting. Consequently, this reflects in a depressed per-person price of the hoarding implying the owner of that real estate can’t make as much as she could if the hoarding were to be more “targeted”.

When you can target your advertisements more precisely, everybody wins. You as the marketer know that your advertisement is only being shown to your intended audience. The owner of the real estate where you put your advertisement can thus charge you more for your advertisement. Even the customer will be less pained by the advertisement if it is highly relevant to her.

Another way of seeing it is – an advertisement shown to a customer who doesn’t want to see it is wasted. The monetary cost of this waste are borne by the owner of the real estate and the advertiser, and the non-monetary cost is borne by the customer (being forced to see something she didn’t want to see). And so one of the biggest technological problems of today is on how we can target advertisements better so that we can minimise such costs – and in the last decade and half, we’ve made significant progress on that front.

The problem with greater efficiency, however, is that it comes with the side-effect of biased media. When Nike knows that it can precisely target an advertisement at American leftwingers, it makes an ad with Colin Kaepernick and shows them to American leftwingers to sell them more shoes.

This doesn’t however, mean that Nike only sells to left-wingers. The same company can make another advertisement targeted precisely at right-wingers and use it to sell shoes to them!

So now that you can make left-wing and right-wing ads, and you have the ability to target them, you want to cut the waste and place the ads so that you can target as best as possible. In other words, you want to place your left-wing ads in places that only left-wingers want to see, and right-wing ads only in places that right-wingers will see. And so you prefer to advertise in CNN and Fox rather than in a hypothetical “broad market” media outlet.

And the reason you created the politically charged ads in the first place was because there were some outlets (Facebook, for example) where you could precisely target people based on their political orientation. And so you see the vicious cycle – that you can target in some places means you want other places where you can target and that creates demand for more polarised media.

It was the opposite cycle that took effect in the late 1800s and early 1900s. There was no way brands could target (also, when you make physical advertisements, with 1900s technology, each advertisement is costly and you don’t want to make one per segment) too effectively, and so they went mass market in their communication.

And this meant advertising in the outlets that could get them the maximum number of eyeballs. When you can’t discriminate between a “right” and a “wrong” eyeball, you pay based on the number of eyeballs. And the way for media organisations to grow then was to cater to everyone. Which meant less less bias and more objectivity and more “features”.

Sadly that cycle is now behind us.

The problem with online media

… is that there is no ending. There is no sense of having “finished the newspaper”.

And there is no context. You see the homepage of a major newspaper, and you see a bunch of headlines leading to links. Occasionally there are section headers that tell you which broad section of the newspaper they come from (news/opinion), but that context is usually far inferior to what you see in print.

So addressing the issues one by one, the first “issue” with online media which no website (AFAIK) can solve is that online news is an online process (apologies for the pun) – as news comes in it needs to be displayed on the website, without really waiting for “editions”. This means there is a conflict between “importance” and “recency” – what kind of news do you show near the top and in bold? Stuff that came in latest or stuff that you think is important?

This means that you need a “live editor” (might be replaced by a bot very soon) all the time who takes a call on what comes on top. Yet, if I’m checking the news after a day, what might be “important” for me is very different from what might be important for you who is checking the news after half an hour. You most definitely want the latest stuff, while I possibly want to know everything that’s happened in the day. And a simple news website cannot cater to both.

The other problem is the lack of context and information before clicking through. In an offline newspaper, there is a large amount of information you have before you “click through” to an article. There is the page it appears on – if you are a regular reader of the paper, you know the kind of articles that appear on each page.

There is the author – you have most definitely built a model over time on which authors to not miss and whom to avoid. There is the length of the article. And there are articles that appear around it. And all these put together provide you enough information on whether it might be worth reading the content on an article.

Most of this is missing in online media, where you need to make your decision to read on headlines. Which can sometimes be click-baity and not all that informative. And so the chances of regret having clicked through to an article is high. Which means that you need some sort of external cues to make you want to click through and read an article.

And so you start consuming news through social media – articles that your friends recommend, with possibly some more information and context on what it’s about. This information and context would have in an offline world been given to you by the newspaper itself.

And so as you consume more and more news from social media, you have the usual problems of echo chambers, and not even glancing through the headlines of news you don’t like (notice how a traditional offline newspaper makes you go through most headlines, whether you like it or not!).

Finally, in an online newspaper there is no concept of having “finished” the paper, of having consumed all the news. As you keep consuming news, you find new pieces of information being thrown at you. Not knowing when to stop, you simply give up!

Context sensitive and context free journalism

My wife thinks that most of my writing for Mint is incredibly boring, and of a significantly inferior quality to what I publish on this blog. Initially I thought it was because I was taking myself too seriously for Mint (a national newspaper and all that), but despite my attempts to “loosen up”, and write my Mint articles “in flow”, the criticism continues.

Now thinking about it, one reason why my writing for Mint might be boring is that in the beginning of each piece I try hard to provide context. I write without assuming that my readers know exactly what I’m writing about, and so I spend some time giving sufficient background so that my readers appreciate my articles (and most of my pieces appear with minimal edits).

This, I realise now, is not how Indian journalism usually works, for in a large majority of pieces it is assumed that the reader has context. Many a time I find myself reading a piece and not being able to make the head or tail of it, and then going back and trying to figure out the context. The point of several articles I’ve read has become clear only in retrospect, when I’ve found something else that this article was referencing (but didn’t link to).

On the other hand, a “newspaper” like The Economist mostly does context-free journalism. Every piece comes with sufficient background for the reader to know what is happening. There may not be links to find out more, but the limited context provided is enough to understand the point of the piece. Maybe that they are a weekly, and cover news from all over the world makes them want to provide context?

In any case, I find context-sensitive journalism (like what most daily newspapers practice) irritating. Or maybe it is that they haven’t really made the transition from print to digital? Print is a medium where the publisher controls what articles are seen together by a reader, and so one article can provide the required context to an adjacent article.

There is no such “togetherness” in digital. This strengthens my belief that journalism is still yet to “get” digital.