Want to make a cool million more? Get a degree

The Brookings Institute compared the return on investments in bonds, gold, real estate and education. Assuming you are positioned to get a degree and a long career afterward, they found that getting a degree is just about the best investment you can make.

“On average, the benefits of a four-year college degree are equivalent to an investment that returns 15.2 percent per year. This is more than double the average return to stock market investments since 1950, and more than five times the returns to corporate bonds, gold, long-term government bonds, or home ownership. From any investment perspective, college is a great deal.”

Based on U.S. Census data reported in 2012, a worker with a bachelor’s degree will earn $1 million more over their lifetimes than a worker with only a high school diploma. While college is expensive — let’s say $40,000 to $90,000 for a four-year career at a decent public school when you add up costs of housing, board and tuition — it can be far more expensive not to earn one, and that’s not mentioning all of the non-monetary benefits that higher education can offer — better writing and critical-thinking skills, a social network, work and leadership experience and self confidence.

Some say “College isn’t for everybody,” but it’s hard to argue there’s anything that does as good a job at preparing millions of people every year to work and lead the next century.

Houston Public Media embraces different forms of convergence

Houston Public Media has launched a converged website that rolls up two radio stations and a TV station into one single brand and under a new non-profit board called the Houston Public Media Foundation.

It’s a unique case study in media convergence, a strategy that has had shaky success in the newspaper world. Ever since the Tampa Tribune partnered and moved in with a local NBC affiliate in 1999, many media observers have projected the inevitability of media convergence. Inevitable perhaps, but not easily achieved. (In 2012, the company that owned the Tribune and the NBC affiliate put the newspaper up for sale, opting to focus on broadcasting amid declining newspaper revenues.)

Convergence isn’t just moving in together. It takes different forms whether you are talking about management, news production, promotion and content delivery. Rich Gordon’s summary of convergence forms in 2003 is still relevant and gives us a way to analyze how media organizations approach the complexities of media mergers, cooperative agreements and digital transformation.

So to walk you through what Houston Public Media as been going through from the convergence lens (referring to Gordon’s descriptions of each type):

  • 2011: Radio and TV CEOs are phased out to make way for one chief in charge of public media (structural/organizational convergence)
  • 2013: Elimination of more staff and a new focus on a “multi-platform” arts coverage team (tactical convergence)
  • 2014: New merged website and brand under Houston Public Media (presentation/distribution convergence)

For most media organizations, convergence is a way to find cost efficiency, to do more with less. (It’s questionable whether that actually plays out.) The question will be whether this move helps or hinders HPM’s ability to raise funds, since each entity handled that independently. With this latest move, HPM’s management seems confident that one global brand will help all of its properties during its fundraising drives. It will be interesting to see how its members respond.

Differentiating authors and users in WordPress

I wrote a plugin called Byline that lets a WordPress content manager assign multiple authors to a post without having to give them a username/password and modifying the theme to allow for an advanced co-author function.

Ideally, WordPress would have native co-author and guest-contributor functionality built-in, especially if it is intended to be a platform for community and collaboration.

For now, what my plugin proposes is that the User who creates a post entry and ensures it appears on the site is a distinct taxonomy from who wrote or contributed to the content. The notion of “author” in the WordPress admin is suited for blogs, but not a CMS that might handle a 1,000 different one-time contributors, like a community newspaper or student-run publication.

Should Facebook users expect more ads? You betcha.

With Facebook stock continuing to underwhelm ($31 at the time of this writing), one of the key worries among investors is whether the social media giant has a viable advertising revenue model to make it a longstanding company. According to its S-1 filing, ads made up 85 percent of its revenue in 2011.

Here are a few ways Facebook is pivoting (or could) to get more revenue their way.

  1. Moving to a single stream. Whereas the desktop browser version of Facebook gives you a news feed and a sidebar with ads, a better approach would be to consolidate these into a single feed. This is already happening with “Sponsored Stories.” That has proved effective, and it’s likely that more ads will be offered in this way. Done in a gradual way with a focus on the user experience will ensure most users don’t jump ship. Twitter users are already getting accustomed to “Promoted Tweets.”  Adopting a “single stream” from a design standpoint could also eliminate a lot of the clutter that has overtaken the desktop version of the Facebook site.
  2. Monetize business pages. According to Mark Zuckerberg’s letter in the S-1 filing, Facebook hosts pages for more than 4 million businesses. And yet not a single one of them is monetized (unless they buy ads to promote them). While offering free business pages is a smart open-door strategy, there is an opportunity to add on premium services. This could mean more location-based services, such as push notifications to people within the vicinity of a store, especially if you can get users to accept this kind of intrusion. Perhaps the Gowalla acquisition will help here.
  3. Create an ecosystem of services. While Zynga has definitely helped Facebook become the #1 provider of distractions, other application services could be deployed to make it a more helpful platform. Say Facebook partners with Evernote, putting all of your notes and collections in a single spot and allowing you to scrape Facebook posts into a virtual, private scrapbook. There’s also a huge opportunity for collaborative tools to compete with Google Docs. These could be developed by third parties but tightly integrated into the FB experience.
  4. Create an advertising network. Take Facebook ads out of Facebook. With revenue sharing, Facebook could compete with AdSense and leverage its existing network of sites that already use FB integration for in-page “Likes,” comments and recommendations. Instead of contextual ads, data-driven ads could follow you as you browse the web. The same demographic targeting features that allow marketers to pinpoint Facebook users could be deployed on the network, provided that users are persistently logged-in (or some other cookie mechanism is used).

I’m sure I’m not the first person to suggest or imagine these things. It just seems that now that Facebook has to make revenue to keep investors happy, you’re going to see them get more aggressive about doing just that.


Non-profit news and the idealogy problem

News organizations are often painted “liberal” and “conservative” for good reason — usually because their editorial boards are generally left- or right-leaning. Sometimes this stigma carries over into characterizing news coverage, warranted or not.

Some of our nation’s earliest newspapers were, in fact, political newspapers established and funded (often by government subsidy) to further the interests of the party. Even in the last few two-newspaper towns, one paper was generally regarded conservative, the other liberal.

So, we shouldn’t be surprised then when the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism discovers that about 44 percent of the nation’s new non-profit news agencies have a clear ideological leaning and along with that, an unclear source of funding.

Those non-profits actually producing original, non-partisan coverage were generally more transparent in how they were funded. See the Texas Tribune, for example.

The Internet has merely given fertile ground for a new crop of partisan publications. The low cost of entry will ensure a healthy run of ideologically driven “news” agencies, but none of them will be a singular replacement for the moderate, generalist palate of ideas that the newspaper was. And that’s OK — we are gradually moving into a world where news consumers are creating their own palate of news sources on tablets and mobile devices and RSS readers.

To help educate us news consumers, Pew provides a few criteria to use to gauge a site’s journalistic worthiness. I’d like to see those applied to some mainstream media! Sure, the consumer must always be on guard. But for the non-profit news industry to mature, publications must adopt transparency and contextual clues to help readers ascertain whether what they are reading is information or whether it is opinion, or whether the news organization is at all concerned with producing new information in the first place. This basic virtue helped bring good journalism out of the murky depths of the partisan press and into real public service.

Newspapers: once part of a complete breakfast

Breakfast 7/14/08

Your typical metropolitan newspaper was like a good breakfast: an assortment of information nutrition to get you started for the day. You got a mix of local, state, national and international stories — the fruit, meat and fiber you need to be reasonably informed and clear-minded about the state of the world that morning. But you might nibble on some celebrity gossip, sample a society or lifestyle column, scan the sports box scores, picking up all the information that interests you, plus some incidental information that gets absorbed along the way. If you were to consume the paper in its entirety, you would no doubt be a well-rounded, informed individual — at least for a day.

Needless to say, one-third of US adults say they eat breakfast regularly. About the same proportion consumes newspapers reguarly. I wouldn’t go far as to say one caused the other but surely they correlate in some way — but it is awfully interesting to observe. In many households, eating a nice breakfast is likely reserved for the weekends, as is perusing a good newspaper or magazine. And so, it’s not hard to imagine more newspaper subscriptions becoming weekend-only.

Nowadays, it’s much preferable for working-class people to check their laptops or smartphones whilst nibbling toast and sipping their morning coffee. The newspaper simply has no place at the kitchen table.

And just in case you’re wondering, this won’t be the last time I compare newspapers and media to food.