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April 27, 2014
David Warsh, Proprietor


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Going Native (Flash Boys edition)

Among writers on finance, none has been more interesting to me in recent years than Felix Salmon, of Reuters news service. So when he quit last week to join the digital side of Fusion, a cable television network, in order to pursue “post-text” journalism, I wondered what he had in mind.

Fusion is a joint venture of ABC, the diversified US commercial broadcasting network, and Univision, the surging Spanish language television network. Then I remembered that ABC has been owned since 1996 by The Walt Disney Company.

At that point I thought I understood the deeper logic of why Felix had gone to work for the Mouse. Up near the top of that astonishing spiral hierarchy is Pixar, the animation studio that Disney bought from co-founder Steve Jobs for $7.4 billion in 2006.

The Fusion network began broadcasting last year aimed at an audience of “digital native” millennials, meaning adults aged 18-34.  As much as a fifth of these are classed as being of Latino decent, hence the network’s Miami headquarters, and the emphasis on programming for “a young, diverse and inclusive America.” Fusion’s hour-long flagship television talk-show, hosted by Mariana Atencio, Pedro Andrade, and Yannis Pappas, is described as “NPR meets The Daily Show.” The same sauce suffuses the usual mix of breaking news, lifestyle, and pop culture on Fusion’s website.

But then lining up eyeballs to sell to digital advertisers is not really the point, as Salmon says, in Why I’m Joining Fusion. “That’s a tough business to be in, and is not particularly remunerative, in a world of falling CPMs”  (cost per mille, or thousand, impressions). The big advertising money remains in television.  He explains,

The core of what I do at Fusion will be post-text. Text has had an amazing run, online, not least because it’s easy and cheap to produce. When it comes to digital storytelling, however, the possibilities — at least if you have the kind of resources that Fusion has — are much, much greater. I want to do immersive digital stuff, I want to make animations, I want to use video, I want to experiment with new ways of communicating in a new medium. I can do all of that at Fusion.

He elaborated slightly to Ravi Somaiya of The New York Times, “They have the ability to help me communicate in the ways that people are going to consume information in the future. Which is not 1,500-word blocks of text.”

So how are people going to consume information in the future? Carefully-crafted monologues? Avatars in animated cartoons?  Interactive graphics?  Skits?  Guest appearances?  All of the above?  Salmon knows his stuff. He is a journalist through and through. (Seeking Alpha, the big financial agglomerator website, notes that he worked for Euromoney magazine before emigrating to the US in 1997.  Some additional details are here.)  Better than most, he understands that scoops and fresh interpretations, deeply grounded and well-situated in terms of the reader knows and doesn’t know, are scarce, and therefore precious. He won a Loeb Award for financial reporting in 2012.

But Salmon is also thoroughly entrepreneurial, and he writes better than anyone else I know about the implications of a world in which he can choose to publish or co-publish on Tumblr or Twitter or Facebook or YouTube or Facebook or LinkedIn, depending on the subject matter. In Promiscuous media last year, he spelled out in some detail the significance of social media for successful content publishing.

What television offers are the advantages of scale:  the vast size of its market permits extensive division of labor. Radio economics have enabled veteran newspaperman Tom Ashbrook and a staff of ten to turn WBUR’s On Point talk show into a staple in 229 public broadcasting markets in the US.  How much more might Felix make out of his television budget and the in-house capabilities of what Wikipedia says is the largest (in revenues) media company in the world? I don’t know, but I look forward to finding out.

I don’t have the slightest doubt that the World Wide Web, still in its infancy, will become the very landscape of the media.  Already television, radio, films, newspapers and social media of all sorts are embedded in it; new forms of consumer-driven content surely will evolve.

But whatever form the consumption of information takes, I expect well-managed traditional newspapers to continue to be among the dominant producers of news – at least those that successfully add digital publishing to their armamentaria. Video gets the eyeballs but it is in the nature of the human cognitive apparatus that the finitude and permanence of the front page will continue to shape our sense of what is most important in our daily lives, and of what constitutes dependable knowledge about it. How extensive and well-regarded news services such at Bloomberg News, Reuters, BBC and the Guardian will fit in is anybody’s guess.  But for at least one  more generation (and possibly many), print seems to have the edge.

A case in point:  Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt, by Michael Lewis (Norton, 2014), has taken the reading public by storm. It is a story of how high-frequency traders have sought to make money  in a world in which  multiple stock exchanges and bank-run trading platforms compete for orders – and how a reform-minded entrepreneur has battled back in the conviction that such markets are rigged.  Government agencies in Europe and the US have undertaken high-profile investigations. Salmon weighed in to the debate earlier this month with a savvy appraisal.

Yesterday, Bill McNabb, chief executive of Vanguard, which became the world’s largest mutual fund manager ($2.5 trillion) by keeping its overhead  expenses lower than its competitors (it pioneered index funds in the face of much industry antagonism), defended high-frequency trading on the grounds that it helped all traders lower their costs by searching many of the fractured trading venues that have evolved in recent years instead of just one or two.

McNabb dismissed claims that the market was rigged, though he agreed that some reforms were desirable. The possibility that the US Securities an Exchange Commission might reverse the rulings that permitted the high frequency phenomenon to emerge was worrisome, he said. “Our perspective is be careful in pulling the thread because the whole suit may fall apart.”

McNabb said all this in an interview with reporter Stephen Foley, published on the front page of the weekend Financial Times. With a tightly-written block of considerably fewer than 1,500 words of text, the print reporter and his source changed the nature of the debate, probably decisively.  That is not content but news.

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One Comment

  1. Dave Backus @ NYU wrote:

    Media commentary fascinating. Education next?

    Monday, April 28, 2014 at 12:14 am | Permalink

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