Sports Illustrated debacle; Reading + cultural heritage in digital era

Who can forget that image of LeBron James after JR Smith’s match-losing blunder in the NBA Finals 2018. Well that was also the reaction of Sports Illustrated journalists and their readers after learning of new owner TheMaven’s plan to turn SI into a content mill. This and other culture-tech stories below…

What You Need To Know 👀

  1. Inside TheMaven’s plan to turn Sports Illustrated into a content mill 🏀

Last week we heard a lot about renewed M&A activity in the media market. TCG buying Food52 for $83M, Vox acquiring New York Magazine, and content recommendation companies Outbrain and Taboola merging were the top stories of the week. All were largely positive news. The same can’t be said for another big story that hit late last week: Sports Illustrated’s new owners, TheMaven, sacked roughly half of its journalists and announced a plan to replace them with 200 low-paid freelancers. Deadspin published a lengthy and brilliantly reported expose:

“In conversations with Deadspin, several sources who were pitched jobs running Maven team sites under Sports Illustrated branding described a bleak scenario. They said they were told they would earn between $25,000 and $30,000 per year, with vague opportunities to make extra money by hitting “traffic bonuses.” They would be expected to post three “news videos” per day to their site—they were to wear Maven polo shirts in these videos—as well as hundreds of posts per month. The message was clear: Quantity over quality.”

My take: This depressing playbook is familiar from the Web 2.0 era, from companies like Demand Media and Huffington Post. The saddest thing is that it can still work: if you flood the Web and social media with low-paid or free content, almost all of it low-quality, then some of it is bound to ‘go viral’ and thus encourage more of the same. In the Deadspin article, the authors make a point of emphasizing the past failures of TheMaven’s founders. So perhaps this latest content mill plan for SI will fail too. One thing’s for sure though: SI will no longer be a trusted news and analysis source for my favourite US sport, the NBA. A couple of my favourite NBA writers worked at SI until recently (one was among the fired last week, the other jumped ship earlier this year).

  1. Reading in a Digital Age 📚

Read NZ, formally known as the New Zealand Book Council, has just released a report entitled ‘Reading in a Digital Age.’ It has some interesting statistics about our reading habits these days:

“The study found that at any point in time, two thirds of us are reading something and of those who are reading, 70% are reading online. We are most likely to be reading our emails, news websites or our social media feeds.

This online reading usually involves skimming and switching between different texts and devices at the same time. 53% of those surveyed said they usually skipped over long text when reading online.

44% said they found it harder to read long and challenging content than they did in the past. This is especially true of those aged 25-54 and tertiary qualified New Zealanders.”

My take: Other surveys I’ve reported on and analysed recently have concluded that people are reading less books now. However, the Read NZ survey shows that if we count internet and social media content, we’re actually reading more now. As Read NZ noted about its findings, “a third [of respondents] say they are reading more now than ever before because of the availability of content and ease and enjoyment of switching between formats.” The question of course is whether this “skimming and switching” mode is ultimately as good for us as diving into a book (personally, I don’t think so).

  1. Digital cultural heritage: apps, microsites and collections online 🏛️

Dr Mia Ridge, a Digital Curator at The British Library, recently blogged a presentation she made at the ‘Festival of Maintenance‘, a “celebration of those who maintain different parts of our world.” Among her suggestions for museums and similar cultural institutions were to “collect digital ephemera” and “plan for a graceful exit” (e.g. ensure you can export and document the data). I also liked this advice:

“You can’t save everything: make the hard choices. Make conscious decisions about what to maintain and how you’ll close the things you can’t maintain. Assess the likely lifetime of a digital product before you start work and build it into the roadmap.”

My take: Much of today’s internet era is about the ephemeral. Facebook doesn’t even have easily accessible archives of your own posts over the years (try searching for something you posted 2-3 years ago and you’ll see what I mean). Meanwhile services like Snapchat and Instagram Stories were designed to delete your posts shortly after you make them. I do pity future historians, who will struggle to piece together online content about lives from this era. So I’m glad professionals like Dr Ridge are looking out for us.

  1. A.I. musicians are a growing trend 🤖

Luke Dormehl from Digital Trends writes:

“The most prolific musical artists manage to release one, maybe two, studio albums in a year. Rappers can sometimes put out three or four mixtapes during that same time. However, Auxuman [an AI startup based in London] plans to put out a new full-length album, featuring hot up-and-coming artists like Yona, Mony, Gemini, Hexe, and Zoya, every single month. How? The power of artificial intelligence of course.”

My take: Dear God… This is like the music equivalent of what TheMaven is doing to SI. Would I prefer to listen to a machine or the latest (rather beautiful) Nick Cave album? Give me human-created art anytime.

Data Points 📊

  • ABC 2019 Podcast Survey: Comedy podcasts appeal more to a younger audience (14-34) while Society & Culture and Health & Lifestyles appeal more to an older audience (55+). 🎧

  • Liftoff: On average, it costs $35.42 to get a mobile gamer to make first in-app purchase. 🎮

  • SensorTower: Top Social Media Apps Worldwide for September 2019 by Downloads 📱

  • Variety Intelligence Platform: Subscription video streaming services, smart TVs, and 5G internet will be three key driving forces behind propelling U.S. consumer spend on tech products throughout 2020. 📺

  • Association of National Advertisers: 69% of advertisers say they have updated their contracts within the past 3 years to address transparency issues. 💰

Tweet of the day 🐦

If you thought this scenario could only be played out in an episode of Succession, sadly this became a reality for SI journalists:

That’s the Monday update, hope you found it useful! Your early support of Cybercultural is much appreciated. 🙏