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Tuesday, 29 Jan 2008

Flashback to the CueCat: Google tries barcodes in print ads


It’s not something we talk about.

Until today, we never blogged about it.

And since 2000, we have been trying to figure out how we could have stopped it - the CueCat.

(Cue harpsichord strings for flashback scene)

I remember the day in 1999. Shayne and I were working at a large media company in Texas.

My boss walked out of his office to tell me the news. The conversations went something like this:

“Chris, this company, Digital Convergence or something, wants us to put barcodes on articles and ads in the paper. They then want us to give away barcode scanners to millions of people. When they scan these barcodes, we’ll take control of their browser and display whatever web page we or the advertiser wants. I’d like to know what you think.”

“That’s a terrible idea.” I said.

A moment later, CitySearch CEO Charles Conn came in to meet with Shayne and me.

“What’s new?” he asked.

I told him.

“That’s a #@!%&$*-up idea.”

But, our distaste alone was not enough to discourage the executives. They wanted bullet points.

I outlined the obvious:

  1. The CueCat does not solve a problem for readers.
  2. The CueCat puts our offline business in jeopardy. It’s like throwing a big stone in the glass house we’ve built called “readership.” Advertisers are interested not just in circulation numbers but how many people are actually reading their ads. Our readership number was about 2.5 times circulation and would not likely bear the scrutiny of the CueCat.
  3. Significant reader adoption of the CueCat was impossible due to privacy concerns, installation issues, cost and, in this case, common sense.

I received no feedback on the objections and thought nothing of it until one day another executive stopped by.

“Chris, you remember that CueCat thing?”


“We’re gonna do it. We need some help.”

At the time, print advertising was still growing the bottom line. So media executives likely believed that the CueCat was an easy answer to their dream: A way to get more money without having to figure out this Internet-thing.

But the CueCat was a rare and notable invention in at least one respect: Anyone who knew anything was certain it would fail. And they were right.

Some months after leaving this media company, I was taking with a former colleague still working on the CueCat some months after its debut.

I ask him how many times people had scanned barcodes.

“Nine,” he replied.

“Nine million?”

“No, just nine.”


Google’s 2D Barcodes raise a similar repulsion though the circumstances are quite different - people use a cellphone camera not a CueCat, less privacy concerns, people at Google should be smarter.

Google believes that technology can revolutionize traditional print advertising and make it even more useful for readers. This fits with our commitment to making advertising as useful as possible for the end user.

Though history might not be repeating itself, it’s sure starting to rhyme.

Related: Joel on Software: Wasting Money on Cats (Sept 2000)

Posted on Jan 29, 2008 | 7:53 pm EST
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Wednesday, 21 Nov 2007

Newspaper ad sales decline at a quickening pace

According to Alan Mutter of Newsosaur, newspaper print advertising is tracking at a 10-year low. And when you factor for inflation the story gets much worse:

"If you subtract this year’s likely $42.7 billion in print-ad revenues from the constant-dollar value of the sales a decade ago, the difference of approximately $10 billion means that today’s revenues are nearly 20% lower than they were in 1997. On a constant-dollar basis, therefore, industry sales this year will be about one-fifth lower than they were in 1997."


Print advertising makes up more than 90% of the industry’s revenues so losses here have a huge effect.

Mutter says the news industry was able to bounce back from a similarly dire situation in the early 90s:

"The 9% decline in print sales to $10.1 billion in the three months ended in September marked the industry’s six straight quarter of year-to-year sales declines. The only worst performance in the last three decades was an eight-quarter sales slump in 1990-91."

Of course, the internet wasn’t a factor then.

Update (13 Dec 2007): Someone out there thinks there’s value to be found in newspaper stocks. via I Want Media

Posted on Nov 21, 2007 | 2:59 pm EST
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Wednesday, 24 Oct 2007

Twitter used by news outlets and emergency services during California fires

As the fires in Southern California rage out of control, the LA Times and KPBS -
even the Los Angeles Fire Department – have started posting real-time updates and public service announcements on Twitter.


NASA satellite photograph of fires taken 24 hours ago:

Fires in Southern California (23 Oct 2007)

Posted on Oct 24, 2007 | 6:41 pm EST
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Wednesday, 17 Oct 2007

Japanese air target anlaysis

We just got finished digitizing 7,800 pages of US Japanese Air Target Analyses (subscription required) for the first time on the web. It makes for interesting reading.

It reviews the Allied bombing strategy in aerial attacks on Japanese targets during World War II. It includes mission reports, details about targets, bombing data and hundreds reconnaissance photos.

This is is literally a formula for destruction used by planners to gauge expected damage on Japanese targets: 

WW2: Formula for destruction

This is a generalized topographical map of of the island:

WW2: Generalized topography of Japan

I’m looking for a reporters, historians, history buffs out there who find this interesting. If so, leave a me a note in comments, and I’ll provide you complete access.

Posted on Oct 17, 2007 | 8:12 pm EST
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Thursday, 11 Oct 2007

7 Rules for Social Media

A few weeks ago, I gave a keynote presentation titled “We Media: How Audiences Are Changing The Future of News and Information” (PDF) at the Fall Meeting of the Association of Information and Dissemination Centers in Arlington, Virgina.

The ASIDIC meeting attracted folks from organizations like ProQuest, Newsbank, Thompson, Hewlett-Packard, NARA and the Smithsonian together to talk about digital content strategies.

If my talk added anything to the conversation, it was this: Whatever your strategy, make sure that Social Media (user contributions, ratings, networks) is a central part of it.

People were clearly open to the message. But just telling people what they already know or want to hear is not actionable. So, I put together a few rules for guiding their innovation.

Why some sites like Facebook experience a meteoric rise and many others never make it off the launch pad is a mystery. But it seems clear that those who are successful have at least these 7 things in common:

  1. They start with a compelling idea & simple solution.

  2. They let people make your stuff better, more findable or entertaining.

  3. They live by the Golden Rule - be nice to others.

  4. They encourage lots of feedback.

  5. They create “usable exhaust” - new things are created just by people doing stuff they want to do.

  6. They let many groups form easily and quickly.

  7. They recognize and encourage the good people in the network.

This list will no doubt change over the coming months as more of you help us figure out how to create a better place for you to find, share, relate and discuss your stories.

Update: Social Media Web sites are the future of the media business via CNet.

Posted on Oct 11, 2007 | 3:33 pm EST
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Friday, 14 Sep 2007

The Networked Journalism Summit

Thanks to the kindness of Daylife, I, Chris, have been sitting next to Jeff Jarvis all day in their Soho loft.

Jeff always impresses me with his energy. He types or talks or brainstorms non-stop. On his way out he let me know that the The Networked Journalism Summit has just been announced.

The Summit, according to Jeff will skip MSM bashing in favor of sorting out what’s working from the international to the hyper-local level.

"The premise of all this is that even as journalistic organizations may shrink, along with their revenue bases, journalism itself can and must expand and it will do that through collaborative work. The internet makes that collaboration possible and we’ve barely begun to explore the opportunities it affords."

The event will be held on Oct. 10 at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism, thanks to a grant from the MacArthur Foundation.

We’re looking forward to it.

Posted on Sep 14, 2007 | 6:31 pm EST
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Saturday, 08 Sep 2007

Chris giving keynote address at ASIDIC Fall 2007 Meeting


Chris is off to Arlington, VA to join a panel discussion and give a keynote address, on “We Media: How Audiences Are Changing The Future of News and Information,"at this week’s ASIDIC gathering.

If any of you are planning on being there, please make sure to stop by and say “hi.”

We’ll post the slides here after the talk.

Posted on Sep 08, 2007 | 3:05 am EST
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Monday, 03 Sep 2007

Traffic to online news sites up dramatically but revenues show signs of slowing

In May the Newspaper Association of America study looked promising. It showed the audience for newspaper web sites growing at nearly twice the rate of the overall online audience (5.3% increase compared to 2.7% overall increase for the general internet audience).

Friday’s release was also upbeat saying that advertising expenditures for newspaper Web sites increased by 19.3 percent in Q2.’s David Kaplan didn’t have to dig too deep to see that this number alone might not be telling the whole story:

”… that number fell far from Q206’s 33 percent jump over the same period in 2005. And compared to the beginning of this year, the NAA said newspaper sites was up 22 percent in Q1 over the year before."

There were also continued declines in print advertising that might be too much for newer revenues to overcome. For every print reader lost, the Financial Times recently calculated that tens of online readers must be gained to make up for missing subscription and advertising revenue.

According to the Financial Times, online ads are poised to take over US newspaper advertising in terms of size by 2011.

Posted on Sep 03, 2007 | 8:32 pm EST
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Saturday, 01 Sep 2007

Google News starts hosting news services content

Google News is looking to clear up a sea of redundant wire stories by directly providing content from The Associated Press, Britain’s Press Association, Canadian Press and Agence France-Presse. The move is part of licensing agreements that have been stuck over the past year.

Google says it believes its users will be better served if they won’t have to pore through search results listing the same story posted on different sites. They add that this will make it easier to discover other news stories at other Web sites that might previously have been buried.

"This may result in certain publishers losing traffic for their news wire stories, but it will allow more room for their original content.” – Josh Cohen, business product manager for Google News


Above: A comparison between the same AP story on Google News and Boston

The approach promises a more consistent news reading experience but there is a disadvantage: Both Google and Yahoo will have to pull these licensed articles after a set period of time, usually 30 days.

According to, this will reawaken frustration over the way Google News blocks its own site from being crawled.

Update: Earlier this month Google News took another step away from just being a news aggregator and by allowing comments from a special group of readers, “those people or organizations who were actual participants in the story in question.”

An unsigned LA Times editorial thinks Google has crossed the line.

Posted on Sep 01, 2007 | 2:48 pm EST
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Thursday, 19 Jul 2007

Thomas Jefferson: Citizen journalist

There is no master plan of History.

Events happen, we witness and, later, we try to make sense of them.

When tragic or momentous events do occur, we often seek to forgo patience for prescience. We want it all to make sense now. We want order and meaning restored.

In an age when reporting has mostly given way to analysis, a look back into history suggests that observations and facts are far more valuable since true perspective can only come with time.

As an example, I came across this letter written by Thomas Jefferson 218 years ago today:


It is vivid and striking not only because of its rich details but in its lack of any superfluous prognostication or color commentary. It’s just the facts written by a shaken but brilliantly coherent observer.

The letter describes an angry mob storming a prison, taking up arms, freeing captives and beheading authorities.

Jefferson, for all of his intellect, cannot see beyond that moment. So he writes for it. It’s what a good reporter would do.

He stands amid the chaos watching the instant one of the world’s most powerful countries begins to furiously unravel at the seams.

He witnesses the genesis of something before its consequences can be known, or before the master plan can be seen - even before it has a name: The French Revolution.

Posted on Jul 19, 2007 | 12:00 am EST
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