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Hearst Hosts Fashion Week Hackathon Amid an Evolving Publishing Industry

This post was originally published by PBS MediaShift on February 13, 2013. I reported live from the Hearst Fashion Hack, during Fashion Week, during a blizzard. Totally ruined my shoes.

Picture this: You’re waiting in line at your favorite local drugstore or grocery store and have two minutes to kill. What do you do?

Five years ago, many people would flip through one of the many magazines positioned near the checkout counter: Cosmo, maybe, or Esquire.

In 2013, we still browse and buy magazines in checkout lines, but customers are much more likely to whip out their smartphones — checking text messages, updating Twitter or Instagram, maybe a quick game of Angry Birds. But not so much reading sex tips in Cosmo anymore.

That’s a big problem — not just for your spouse or significant other, but for the traditional magazine publishing industry in general, which has seen it’s single-issue sales plummet because of scenarios just like I described above. Why buy four magazines and a newspaper for a cross-country flight, when you can get lots of media on your iPad or Kindle?

“We do find a number of people, if stalled for a minute, will steal a look at their email or news feed. Everyone that has products at checkout has to battle for consumer attention,” David Carey, president of Hearst Magazines, was recently quoted as saying on the front page of the Financial Times. You see, Hearst Corporation publishes Cosmopolitan and Esquire and a number of other popular titles like Elle, and you’re not buying as much of them as you used to. Roughly 18 percent less of them in the U.S., in fact.

Not coincidentally, I found myself sitting in the auditorium at Hearst Tower the very day after that quotation appeared in the FT, listening to Carey kick off a hackathon with roughly 150 hackers, designers, and fashionistas in attendance to compete for cash and prizes for the best new pieces of software designed in a frenzied 24-hour session focused on fashion and mobile.

If you’re going to look at your phone at Whole Foods, Hearst wants to be in your phone. As Carey said in the Hearst Fashion Hack kickoff, “We are blessed with so much IP.” Now the only question is, what are all these geeks going to do with it? It’s easy enough to come up with some applications of Hearst’s API, but will the new apps be truly relevant to readers as they move from print and across screens? That was the question posed to the hackers by Hearst’s creative CTO, Phil Wiser.

Creativity compressed

Hearst is an old company — over 100 years old, in fact, founded in 1886 by an American icon, William Randolph Hearst. The company is still, to a large degree, controlled by his direct descendents, which is great for control and stability but not necessarily for creative destruction. Regardless, the face of media and publishing is evolving rapidly, and Hearst and similar organizations (think: Conde Nast, News Corp., large book publishers like Pearson) need to experiment with new technologies and business models for their very survival.

And so an experiment began with these hackers and their technology company partners and sponsors, including Microsoft (which I work for), Google, Amazon, HTC, Klout, GILT, and more, fueled by Red Bull, coffee (writer’s note: the coffee in the Hearst Tower lobby is actually pretty great), cookies, and a phalanx of beefy, suited security guards watching over more nerds in one room than they’ve probably seen in their lifetimes.

At some point during the Hearst Fashion Hack, the VP of Engineering at Hearst, Jim Mortko, commented, “There’s nothing quite like the feeling you get when you have to get something done in a compressed time period.” And compressed this hackathon was, down to only about 24 hours due to, oh nothing, a Fashion Week blizzard that befell the city the evening before. But passionate hackers arrived on time in the snow and slush, ready to create fashion and mobile applications drawing on Hearst’s API and those of the tech partners present.

The hacks

I write in some detail about the best apps (and particularly about the best Microsoft platform-based projects) elsewhere at Publicyte.com, but here’s a sampler of some that I liked, in general:

  • Co-Fashion correlates static content from Hearst’s magazines with trending social conversations (on Twitter, etc.), filtered and curated by influence and theme. For example, I could pull up all the Esquire articles about coats from 2012 and cross-reference that with what coats influential people are sharing photos of online; I may find that Esquire recommends bold, plaid coats, but that influencers I follow outside of New York City and Boston haven’t bought into the message yet.
  • Zine helps you self-publish your own magazine based on Hearst’s content. Their tag line is “Ziners gotta zine.” For example, if I wanted to I could publish a zine that deciphers women’s fashion trends for urban men (I’d call it Mysterious.)
  • Shop Up extends the retail experience by empowering you to pull up Hearst content about a specific item of clothing. If you’re like me and one dress shirt looks a bit like the next one, you can actually scan the bar code and learn that Esquire recommends, say, the Ralph Lauren dress shirts but never discusses Hugo Boss ones, and that may influence your purchasing decision. (This one would be nice to see on kiosks in in retail stores too, perhaps.)

One new app even projected Hearst’s magazine content onto the inside of an umbrella (how apropos in the bad weather) — take that, smartphones!

With startups like ModCloth, StyleSeat, Birchbox and others merging fashion and technology and making Fast Company’s “most innovative companies in technology” list for 2013, it’s more important than ever for fashion brands, media companies, and other entities in the space to be building relationships with tech-savvy idea people, developers, and established entrepreneurs.

By that standard, Hearst Fashion Hack was a success for its namesake. Wiser summed it up nicely for me just before the final app judging on the stunning 44th floor of Hearst Tower, overlooking Central Park and midtown Manhattan: “This event has already exceeded our expectations…Everything is upside from here.” I’m looking forward to seeing if Hearst Fashion Hack becomes a yearly New York Fashion Week staple.

Mark Drapeau, Ph.D. is the director of innovative engagement for Microsoft’s public sector division, is a member of the Microsoft Office of Civic Innovation, and is the producer of the Microsoft-Bloomingdale’s charity fashion show series Geek 2 Chic. You can follow him on Twitter at @cheeky_geeky.

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Bantamweight Publishing in an Easily Plagiarised World

This post was originally published on O’Reilly Radar on July 15, 2009. I still (2014) think this – ownership and plagarism of micro-publishing – is a greatly underappreciated topic.

Even professional writers are prone to infrequent accidental plagiarism. But in the world of novels, newspapers, and college exams, there are rules about bootlegging others’ work that are well-established – most everyone agrees on what behaviors are unacceptable and what the consequences are. In bantamweight publishing, however, the rules are not so clear.

In order for the British Army to raise more units during the First World War, it created battalions of otherwise healthy men with lowered minimum height requirements. In this way, short, powerful miners and similarly swarthy individuals were able to contribute to the war effort. These soldiers were called bantams (a term now heard most commonly in boxing, bantamweight). Similarly, in a Web 2.0 environment, the short powerful bursts of searchable, findable, and sharable data emitted from personal electronic devices are a form of bantamweight publishing in which persons outside the regulated publishing industry can contribute to the information sharing effort.

Bantamweight publishing comes in many forms. Twitter is certainly in this category, but there are a steadily increasing number of ways to share small bits of information with the world. From updating your Facebook Wall to Yammering inside your enterprise to updating your LinkedIn status to commenting on people’s BrightKite locations, everyone is doing it. But in an easily plagiarized world, who owns your sentences once you publish them? It’s not really clear. And in a murky environment where someone might get a macropublishing book deal by popularizing someone else’s creative hashtag, bantamweight publishing runs the risk of serious future problems.

Oh, bantamweight publishing has its customs. Self-policing crowds ensure that most people who lift someone else’s excellent quote or funny picture or news link give credit to the originator using the “retweet” (RT) convention followed by a username. But there is little downside to cheating relative to being expelled from college or fired from your newspaper. As is well known in animal behavior circles, it can be temporarily advantageous for cheaters to infiltrate a system like this.

To be sure, quoting someone’s original haiku verbatim and making it appear as if it were your own is an infraction of bantamweight publishing customs. But what if someone tweets an Abraham Lincoln quotation – must the re-tweeter cite the originator? The custom seems less pressing in this case, mainly because of a lack of intent to deceive and arguable “fair use” of a well-known statement by a famous person. One can imagine altruistic plagiarism as well, where people repeat memes to raise money for charity, or virally make people aware of an immediate Amber alert. Further, who could fault someone for copying information about a charity onto their Facebook Wall without citing the originator? In the bantamweight publishing world, information sharing can easily supersede attribution. There are gradations of citations.

Bantamweight publishing is popular among those who feel brevity is a virtue. But when an entire work of art is bounded in 140 characters, even brevity has its limits. Sometimes, squeezing in a proper attribution through editing content can change the original meaning, when the edits unwillingly shift from cosmetic to substantive. And what happens when you run out of space when attempting to retweet someone who retweeted someone who tweeted an important quotation from the Washington Post? To a large degree, a work of bantamweight publishing is like a painting with an upper weight limit, where the novelty is the canvas and the attribution is the frame; most viewers would choose to appreciate the canvas without the frame if given the hard choice.

Another major difference between regular publishing and bantamweight publishing is the lack of research and editing standards. Sometimes people attribute flawed information properly. It is obvious that excellent curators of information like NYU professor Jay Rosen and publisher Tim O’Reilly are exceptions to the rule, based simply on the phenomena of Rick Rolling, #moonfruit, and celebrity death hoaxes. To many, bantamweight publishing is not an micro-investigatory piece to be researched, sourced, edited, and spread, but rather a form of enhanced social chatter and gossip spreading. And according to the rules of gossip, it doesn’t really matter where it comes from; gossip is fun.

Few would argue that the British bantam units were a bad idea, and likewise bantamweight publishing has many virtues. But there are also pitfalls to this in an easily plagiarized world, particularly when money comes into play. Who’s looking out for the intellectual property of a winning hashtag that becomes a book, or a stream of haikus that becomes a blog that companies advertise on? At some point, bantamweight publishing will no longer be a lawless frontier territory; what will it look like next?

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