Jason Hirschhorn: “The Internet Will Never Run Out of Fish”

An Eclectic Lunch in which the History of Media ReDEFined, the Manner by Which It Is Produced, and An Oblique Reference to Filipino Social Networks Are Discussed.

Jason Hirschhorn

Does Jason Hirschhorn read EVERYTHING? Well, possibly. His Media ReDEFined email / newsletter / twitter feed is a must-scan for every executive in media, entertainment and tech, many of whom feel pangs of anxiety (as in “I CAN’T KEEP UP!”) when his list of personally selected 30-40 “must reads” hits their inbox every day.

SUBSCRIBE to Jason’s Amazing newsletter at http://www.mediaredefined.com/.

Jason is omnivoracious. What makes Media ReDEFined work is his insatiable curiosity, joy, and appreciation of the worlds of media and technology. He’s not hawking, not pushing one point or another — he loves the discussion, the ins and outs, the personalities.

This past weekend marked the fifth anniversary of Jason’s newsletter. The first subscriber was Judy McGrath (former Chairman and CEO of MTV Networks). Today, it’s a must-read (sometimes the only read) for thousands of media / tech / culture insiders.

He and I have been friends for decades. I asked him to share the secrets of Media ReDEFined, which he did over a long and amazingly eclectic lunch discussion. Here’s what I learned, in Jason’s own words (and my headlines).

THE FUNNEL AND THE FIRE

I basically put a human funnel and sifter at the end of a huge firehose. I go through 3-4,000 pieces a day. I use Google Reader for my RSS feeds. It’s a list of sources I’ve built up over years and years. I think I do a pretty good job of finding stuff, and while I have no problem with algorithms or personalization technologies, I’ll play against the computer any day of my life. They don’t account for quality, emotion or context. Technology to hunt and gather, humans to pick. That’s a great mix.

Have you ever seen the movie The Polar Express? It was one of the first great CGI movies, I think they used real actors and then they were animated. But one of the criticisms of the movie was that when you looked at the children’s eyes, they were dead. They had no life in them. I like to think, if you matched Media ReDEFined every day against a computer picking the stories, their “eyes” would still be dead.

I really admire the ability of journalists and daily bloggers to put out tremendous amounts of content, and some of the quality is really unbelievable. My job is to go and find it and choose. Listen, I miss stuff. Choosing is more art than science. It’s not everything.I would say that I read a third of what goes into the newsletter before it goes out. I read every summary and I double back at night and read some articles that I chose but didn’t get a chance to fully read. I used to get up at 5 am and I did it all then. Now with mobile technology, I use a combo of my Air, iPad and iPhone. I’m doing it throughout the day, in cabs, between meetings. I’m doing it right now as you eat your salad, actually.

And now it’s available in many different forms for the audience to choose. Twitter, Facebook, Flipboard, Pulse, Paper.li and more. All those things, and the feeds and APIs I use, are a very big part of the ecosystem of how people get Media ReDEFined.

MEDIA REDEFINED IN FLIPBOARD.

I love the Flipboard version of Media ReDEFined. I met Mike McCue (Founder and CEO) through our mutual friends, Quincy Smith and Mike Marquez, the day after it launched. It’s an elegant and simple experience. It just works beautifully. It changes the experience of Media ReDEFined. When I saw it inside Flipboard for the first time, I really started to think to myself “Wow! This could be a publication. This could be a new thing. If I could build the futuristic magazine of my must read, watch and listen tos, the greatest magazine ever, this is what it would look and work like.”

Quincy and Mike suggested that McCue check ReDEF out and Flipboard was great about making it happen and putting it in. This is sort of how I see some of the future of all this curation — you’ll go in to Flipboard or Pulse, and we’re a publication that’s built right inside.

For all of my work life, I’ve been involved in how things are presented. And that is still a huge reason I get up each day and love all this stuff, you know. Because I think that user experience tops everything. Code elegance, cool functionality. All great and necessary things. But you need a great user experience and content or you don’t have much.

Right now I’m thinking about the future of publications or curation – I think about something Om Malik of GigaOm said to me: “Don’t compare it to anything in the past or you will limit your ideas.” He’s right, and I hate to compare it to anything in the past, but technology is enabling users to take the media that used to come to us in a package or a bundle, and enabling it to be unbundled — whether the bundlers like or not. And new collections or bundles are being created by curators with completely new contexts. The collections are content. Never more important than the content itself though. Chicken and egg sort of thing.

WOULD YOU GO EXCLUSIVELY TO ONE “BUNDLE” OR PRODUCT?

I’m not sure that would work for me, specifically. At least now. I suppose at some point that kind of exclusivity could become a reality. I think that you are going to start seeing a lot of more of that in general, regardless of all the choices. It will happen because someone that owns a catalogue or a piece of content wants to maximize the value. And distributors want something unique to distinguish themselves. I would love to think everything will be ubiquitous, but terms make players choose sides sometimes.

I’m not really thinking about revenue models right now. I’m thinking about product and audience. You’ve got Paper.li, you’ve got Twitter, you’ve got Facebook, you’ve got RSS Feeds, you’ve got E-mail, you’ve got all these presentation layers. Should I even force someone to use any one of them? No! Let them use what they want to use. Containers change.

I mean, e-mail in its purest form is still a killer App. It’s in your box every day. I started to realize that this summer, that when Media ReDEFined would go out in the morning, within an hour, all these emails would start flooding in. “Hey can you take a look at our startup” or “I’ve been meaning to call you.” The e-mail became sort of like a reminder that I’m around.

DO YOU PICK THE ORDER OF THE STORIES?

I do choose the order. I used to put in like 90 articles on a daily basis. Now, it is under 40. I try to keep it under 40 for the newsletter and around 100 for Twitter. It’s really interesting, a lot of the “traditional” media executives were complaining about the length. It’s more of a layout issue than anything else. But to them it’s overwhelming. Basically what they were saying is, “I want to read every article in there but I don’t have the time so I’d rather you not put it in so I don’t know what I’m missing.” Some pretty big execs have said that me to in so many words. Pretty funny. The new jacks never say it. My favorite story is when Zander Lurie from CBS had his assistant print each article in the newsletter out for him for a plane ride. I think she misunderstood his request. Poor trees.

But I do order every one. It’s a pain in the ass frankly just because of the way I have to currently work. The tools I use are very antiquated and curation-unfriendly. Mostly Google stuff. I’ve given them feedback but I don’t think they think it’s a big enough idea for them. They have the ingredients for THE curation platform. I wish they understood all the pieces they have and how to integrate them, but they don’t. So I am going to build a few.

And I’m also very aware of which articles are behind pay walls. And that’s fine. I basically have infinite choice; the internet will never run out of fish. I’m looking for original ideas, original takes on things. Even the stuff that “everyone” is covering, I try to find a blogger or someone involved who posts about their own first-hand experience. I’m looking for the diamond in the rough. I’m scanning all of the people I’ve subscribed to on twitter, browsing sites, people are sending me things, and the little gems start to pop through. It could be an executive writing about their blunder, like Reed Hastings’ apology on Netflix’s blog. Or Dan Frommer’s SplatF. That to me is often more interesting than major media coverage, because it’s an independent voice without filter going deep.

A lot of these bloggers don’t necessarily have any motive other than they’re very interested in a certain subject. It could be a video, a tweet, it could be anything. And they write in an in-depth way that a traditional publication doesn’t usually go into, because there’s a certain kind of publication that would dumb down the subject matter in order to reach the max audience.

I still hold Wired, The Economist, The NY Times, Fast Company, The Wall Street Journal, Fortune and others in high regard — I put them in the list all the time.

I tend to favor timely and in-depth takes. Some traditional publications tend to be further out in terms of coverage. So they may not cover something like a BitCoin until it’s been pretty well been picked over. That said, it’s all morphing. And traditional pubs like The New York Times have blogs now and journalists like Brian Stelter, Nick Bilton, David Carr, Jenna Wortham and others are doing a killer job.

I’m constantly amazed by the writers, journos, bloggers who turn out new, original stuff every day. I don’t know how they don’t burn out.

YOU DO A LITTLE WRITING YOURSELF — I’M REFERRING TO THE COMMENTS AT THE TOP OF YOUR EMAIL.

I like to put in some stuff that’s maybe a little funny, a little snarky, a little insider. Every once in a while I will write a piece. And so, whether it was the piece on Judy McGrath leaving MTV Networks, or on getting my first big check, I’ll do something if I’m excited, frustrated, or something makes me laugh, like the piece I did on Florence + the Machine.

I personally find it very hard to write because I never was a writer and when I sat down to write the Florence piece, it literally took three weeks and it was only 2500 words. And the reason? I sat down to write it the way I was told to write in high school. Here would be the intro and here the conclusion. And it was horrible. And it didn’t sound like me at all. Then, I guess one of Bob Lefsetz’s newsletters came through one day. And Lefsetz writes as if he is having a conversation with me.

I speak in fragments. I don’t speak in soliloquies. I tell stories. So I was able to learn how to write almost like a conversation and be very me. That was the beginning of me being comfortable writing. Some can write every day. There are people like that and they do very well. I can’t. I can tweet like a mother*cker for sure. But if I wrote pieces every day it would become less interesting and forced.

HOW THE LIST GREW, AND HOW IT WAS CRAFTED

When we were at MTV Networks (note: Jason and I were there together in the late 90s/early 00s), I would get on my soapbox about the changing tide in media and technology and people got to the point where nobody really wanted to hear me preach time and time again. So I started sending links around via email. I’m self taught, I learn a lot from reading. Then, right after I quit, people at Viacom were complaining and asking me “Can you still keep sending these links?” So I found Reader and Feedburner and started the newsletter

The funny thing is as I curated the articles I actually handcrafted the recipient list. I have breakfast, lunch, dinner and drinks with people every day. I want to learn things. I’m very social with business. There’s no motive really — just hearing new things. And after I meet you, I’ll send you an invite. And then those invites get passed around. I started doing that because of course I needed the readership but also, I was always fascinated by how networks started to develop. Like how did Friendster become a Filipino social network? Or Orkut?

I really crafted an audience. After some point it was almost like your friend’s list on Facebook where you sort of plateaued out on who else you can start sending invites to and it started to grow organically. But very much centered on media, communications, technology and entertainment industries because of the early seeds.

The actress, Alyssa Milano, reads Media ReDEFined on Twitter (@MediaReDEF). And I imagine that she has been in the business for a long time and she’s interested in the cross section of media and technology. She Tweets a lot. When she retweets some of the curated articles, a weird thing happens. I get an influx of audience. But HER audience that subscribes to me on Twitter withdraws pretty quickly. They don’t really know what they are subscribing to. They do it because of her influence, not because of the actual subject matter.

Over my career. I’ve made a lot of good friends in different companies, whether it’s Viacom, News Corp, Disney, Google, whatever. Every once in a while I ask a favor. I would say, “Hey, I know you really like the newsletter and I would love your colleagues and staff to get the benefit of reading on a daily basis. Would you mind sending a note out to a bunch of people?” And you know, the friends do me a favor and that’s how I recently spread it to Yahoo, talent agencies, Ad agencies and others. Virality has many forms.

THERE’S AN ARGUMENT AGAINST THIS KIND OF NICHE CURATION: THAT PEOPLE WITH THE SAME POINT OF VIEW JUST END UP GETTING THE SAME POINT OF VIEW FED BACK TO THEM.

My audience has creators, executives, analysts, reporters, pundits, fans and others. Trust me they don’t all agree. That’s kind of the opposite of what I’m trying to do. I think of myself in the audience, and I say
“Show me everything I wouldn’t normally see or you think I wouldn’t like.”

I’m actually interested in opposite ideas. What I find is if there is a trusted source like a curator and you put in disparate ideas, people are mostly okay with that. Some of the challenges that arise are related to the fact that finding something interesting doesn’t mean that you actually AGREE with it. So I’ve gotten a lot of crap on Twitter and other places where I post and people say “I can’t believe you’re putting an article up about this or whatever or I can’t believe you agree or support whatever the topic and scandal of the day is.” It’s happened around News Corp issues, IP protection, you name it. The reality is if you only expose yourself to what you think you are interested in, you will lead a myopic life. Knowledge is everywhere, on both sides. It’s one of the reasons I am skeptical of personalization technologies. I think they fall in on themselves. If I relied on them I would be at home watching kung-fu movies, gangsters and financial malfeasance documentaries, and only those. I mostly have no idea what I’m interested in until I’m interested in it.

I’VE ALWAYS KNOWN THAT YOU’RE A VORACIOUS POP CULTURE FAN. I THINK IT MIGHT HAVE COME AS A SURPRISE TO YOUR GENERAL FOLLOWERS.

I have very broad tastes. My thing is that I imagine those riches are out there. Wonderful art and wonderful thoughts. I’m a fan and I want you to know about what I’ve watched, read or listened to NOT because of me… but because EVERYONE should know about it. I’m not the guy that doesn’t want you to know about the indie band or film. I shove it down your throat!

You should see my DVR, my music collection. There are not enough hours in the day as far as I’m concerned.

IT’S THE PROBLEM OF EVERYTHING BEING AVAILABLE, ALL THE TIME.

My media consumption life, thanks to the internet, is 1 foot in the future and 1 foot in the past. By the time I was around 20, media was really heading into the digital future. But I remember the old world, I remember when access was limited. When you got what was on the Blockbuster shelf. Or you had to go to Amoeba or Smash Compact Discs to get what you wanted and then just maybe. But everyone growing up now knows that, eventually, everything is going to be available. My nieces and nephew don’t know a world where Dora and Diego aren’t on call.

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Twitter: @MediaReDEF and @JasonHirschhorn

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