Thursday, April 03, 2003

A New Way of Thinking About Content--
Plus Some Thoughts About Peter Arnett

Okay, so I've missed checking in for a few days. Guilty as charged. I've been involved in a couple of web projects that have taken on a velocity all their own, and I stole time from y'all.
But I come back to the task here renewed by a stimulating presentation I attended this morning down in Akron. My friend Drew Holland and his Interactive Media Group ( crew hosted a thought-provoking discussion on dynamic web content and online customer service at their very interesting offices in the Rubber City.
The main point, as Drew put it: "We need to create a website that listens." Here's what he means: Commercial sites that cater to customers, perhaps even sell products to them, are used to thinking of the customer service area as a separate, distinct part of the larger whole. And software/database folks are used to using a host of sophisticated tools and programs to monitor where users are going and what they're interested in. But as we increasingly move out of static content sites, he explained, we need to increasingly use tools that let customers drive the content of a site, based on their interests and inquiries. What he's talking about is knowledge management, an increasingly hot area. It involves taking all the knowledge that resides in an organization and intelligently and efficiently bringing it to bear with customers and other stakeholders to answer questions, help solve problems, sell benefits, etc., and often without taxing the infrastructure of an organization, at least if done right. And of course Drew & Co. have just the tool for the job--at a cool $18-60 K, depending on some variables.
Drew has a way of always swimming just ahead of the currents. For me, he will forever be famous for how he got his start in the web business. By his own telling, in the mid-90s, he wore a sandwich board in the busy Galleria shopping center in downtown Cleveland. It said "Ask me about the Internet." Happily, I drove down to the event with a mutual friend, Jimmy O'Hare, who rounded out that legend of Drew's early days with an even better story. Jim described how in 1994 a yellow-Macintosh-clad Drew, all of about 24 at the time, dramatically sold a gaggle of executives at a not-so-hip Fortune 300 company on why they should hire him to do their site. He talked just a bit about his previous work, glossing quickly over that story (because of course in '94 no one had done much web work). And he got the job.
That same can-do attitude has built IMG (no, not that IMG) into a minor powerhouse, probably Akron's leading digital development shop, and increasingly a well-consulted specialist in web content servers. A major web player in Cleveland keeps trying to merge with them, but thus far no deal. And they also have what might well be the coolest offices south of I-80...

Then there's the small drama over MSNBC and its decision to jettison Peter Arnett, the leading war correspondent of his generation, for having the gall to grant an interview to Iraqi TV and admit to some doubts about the U.S. war effort.
No big surprise, really. Large publicly held media companies are not really in the fearless truth-telling business, but rather in the assembling-the-largest-possible-mass-audience business, which is quite another thing. And that spinelessness only grows more pronounced in times of war.
But for me, the real pity here goes back to his time at CNN. Arnett was already an accomplished person before the Gulf War of '91, having won the Pulitzer for his Vietnam reporting for A.P. But he became internationally famous as a CNN correspondent when he became the last guy in Baghdad as the war began. A few years ago, CNN shamefully failed to renew Arnett's contract simply because he happened to do the voice-over narration for a scathing investigative report on the U.S. Army that was produced by a couple of veteran CNN producers, including John Carroll graduate Jack Smith, a former CBS Moscow Bureau chief (I can find a JCU connection in nearly any story). The Army went nuclear, threatening to drop all cooperation with CNN if the report wasn't retracted, and so they caved.
The CNN that wimped out by dropping Arnett wasn't the same CNN that most of us grew to know and love. It was being sold by its founder to a big publicly held company about that time, and thus was running scared. So it took the easy way out and showed Arnett the door.
What we forget is the curious mix of reasons why CNN first became such a big deal, and why it had an all-but-impossible-to-duplicate reputation. It was the product of a single, loud-mouthed visionarly millionaire (and later billionaire), Ted Turner who invented, nurtured and protected it until selling it in 1997. And he did one other important thing that's almost completely forgotten today: he forced it to become a truly international channel (by, among other things, literally enforcing a ban on the word "foreign"). And guess what: the world bought it. Almost overnight a single visionary from Atlanta, once nicknamed "the Mouth from the South" had forged the kind of international news identity that it took the only remotely equivalent organization, the BBC, over a half century to form.
This international cable station thus employed a New Zealand native (Arnett) to camp out in Iraq and get both sides of the story, not simply the U.S. side. People all around the world responded to CNN as a real international entity, not simply an animal of the U.S. and its often-narrow perspective about world events. Now, we simply take for granted that all the TV networks, including CNN, are simply U.S.-centered organizations, which is why so many Americans feel the need to get their news about this war from elsewhere.
Just goes to show that the only really serious, independent reporting by news organizations happens anymore by those family-controlled operations such as the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal, run essentially as public trusts. And thank god for them, because TV journalism is increasingly becoming an oxymoron...


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