Digital Media

With Digital Content Creation, the Tortoise Will Win the Race

I don't get SnapChat. Why would you spend time creating content that people can only access for a limited period of time? I shared this musing on Twitter and enjoyed exchanges that culminated in the fact that I'm old.

I may be a first-year millennial (I did in fact graduate high school in the year 2000), but I'm a member of the "Oregon Trail" part of the generation. The part that embraces new technology and still appreciates what came before it. I'm also a member of a profession that still lauds the book as the ultimate form of scholarly production. Books vary in quality, but they all take time to produce.

In the world I grew up in and the world I work in, it takes time and energy to produce content and preserve memories. These ideas and experiences shape the way I think about digital content and how it should be produced. They also make me a tortoise living and running in a hare's world.


The "Hare Approach" to Content Creation

In comparison, "real" millennials and "post-millennials" have grown up using smartphones, tablets, apps, and hardware, like Snap's Spectacles, to easily create digital content. As a childhood friend pointed out, "now, basic content creation is nearly effortless." You can create content and preserve a memory in seconds.

We live in a world full of digital content, but most of it's created quickly and it's not very good: bad blog posts, blurry photos, mundane status updates, and shaky videos. This mediocre content clogs the internet and means something only to those who created it and to those who understand the context of its creation.

Thinking about SnapChat within the context that content creation should be easy and effortless is when SnapChat started to make sense to me: The social app caters to people who want to create fast, effortless content. And thinking about SnapChat in this light has allowed me to appreciate how Snap may be doing our digital world a great service by making low-quality, hastily created content available only for a short period of time. Less clutter means more space for the great stuff to shine.

But what does the idea of creating fast, easy content on-the-go mean for the future of content creation? Has my belief that historians and other digital content producers should expend effort to produce high-quality, well thought out content become outmoded?

Should I morph into a hare?

I don't think so, at least not yet.

The "Tortoise Approach" To Content Creation

If my ideas about content creation were outmoded then Amazon, Netflix, HBO, and now Apple wouldn't be investing HUGE sums of money in the production and curation of high-quality, niche programs like Game of Thrones.

All of these companies are producing high-quality shows unlike anything you can see on a traditional network to draw people to their subscription-based, digital content libraries. And if you're like me, you enjoy programs like Game of Thrones more than the programs on network television because of their production value. They involve many characters, have huge story arcs, and contain great special effects (hello, real-looking dragons & dire wolves). These high-quality shows also aren't beholden to the traditional time clock of network television-- episodes don't have to adhere to 30- and 60-minute time slots.

And premium digital networks aren't the only ones investing time and money into highly-produced content. Masterpiece Theater produces shows of similar quality for PBS. Think Downton Abbey, Victoria, and Poldark. They have less special effects than a show like Game of Thrones, but they all have high-quality production.

It's also interesting to compare the types of content networks are producing. HBO produces content like Game of Thrones and TrueBlood to appeal to fantasy lovers. People accustomed to good stories and who have a track record of paying for merchandise, books, games, and content. Masterpiece Theater's main goal is to drive people to support public broadcasting. They mainly produce mysteries and history-inspired programs. People who like history tend to enjoy culture, are civic-minded, and they have a track record of donating money to support the work of organizations like PBS and NPR.

Video-based content companies and companies that service digital video apps aren't the only companies investing in high-quality, digital content. So are traditional news outlets like The New York Times, The Washington Post, and NPR.

The New York Times and The Washington Post have publicly declared that they are redoubling their efforts to produce well-researched, long-form articles to differentiate themselves from other news outlets. They're banking on the fact that high-quality content will drive ad sales and subscriptions. They've also started audio divisions to lead people to their print content and to advertise their areas of expertise-- The Washington Post specializes in political podcasts; The New York Times produces podcasts about culture and they just released The Daily, a podcast that focuses on a big news story and leads you to its printed or digital newspaper.

NPR is also investing money in high-quality podcasts. The powerhouse networks that feed a lot of content to the national NPR network-- WBUR (Boston), WNYC (New York City), and WBEZ (Chicago)-- all have podcast and mobile divisions to produce apps like NPR One and great shows like Modern Love, Death, Sex, & Money, and Serial. Further, NPR-trained talent has started a whole host of new venture-funded podcast companies like Gimlet and Pineapple Street Media.

These new digital audio companies were founded to produce high-quality, on-demand audio content. Their funding models are based on three ideas:

1. High-quality, intellectually-driven content attracts listeners that advertisers will pay a premium to get access to because host-read podcast ads aren't yet regulated by the FCC, which means ads don't have to sound like ads, and the listeners the intellectually-driven content attracts tend to have disposable incomes.

2. If you have enough high-quality content, listeners will pay to access a back catalog like a subscription network. (These paid-subscription models are just starting to appear and will become more visible as these networks add to their content catalogs.)

3. Big companies recognize the value of high-quality content and are willing to pay networks to create custom content for them--like Open for Business by eBay, produced by Gimlet, and GE's podcast The Message, produced by Panoply.


Why the Tortoise Will Win in History Content Production

Tortoises like me live in a hare's world. We look slow and outmoded in the way we produce digital content. But our goals are different from those of the hare.

In my case, I want to create content that resonates with people, that creates wide awareness about history, and that cultivates a sentiment within society that history and the work historians do is worth supporting. I'm, in fact, running a tortoise's race. So my ideas aren't outmoded, they're timely and they make sense.

I believe there is a place for the hare's content. Photos and images created quickly with smartphones are fun to produce and share. However, the hare's content won't build a lasting audience. Within the last decade we've seen Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram content producers who quickly built massive audiences only to watch those audiences dwindle and leave as new apps and social networks came out and interests changed. The quick and easy content they produced entertained only for a limited time.

History has staying power. People will always be interested in history because it helps us grapple with the big, existential questions of who we are and how we came to be who we are. This is why historians have always invested time and energy into producing content that lasts: books, articles, museum exhibits. And this tried-and-true method of investing time and effort in the content we produce should also be our approach in the digital world.

We should embrace the hare, borrow everything from its technological toolbox that will help us communicate history, and then adapt these tools to amplify our work. Because just like in the analog world that came before the digital world, quality work will rise to the top, be consumed by more people over time, and will last-- just like tortoises, which live an average of 200 years versus hares, which live an average of 5.5 years.


Historian, Podcaster, Business Owner?

Wonka MemeSince January 2016, I have been traveling across the United States speaking about history, podcasting, and digital media at conferences, events, and interviews. The experience has revealed that people have 3 key questions for me:

1. What is the role of podcasts and other digital media in the future of historical scholarship?

2. What has the impact of Ben Franklin's World been on furthering historians' ideas about history?

3. How are you making a living/what are you doing with your career?

I answered the first two questions in a previous post, "Digital Media and the Future of the Historical Profession." In this post, I'll answer the third question(s): "How are you making a living/What are you doing with your career?"


Digital vs. Traditional Scholarship

I’m not making a living podcasting.

I'm still living on the "18th-century patron support plan" provided by my partner, Tim.

I am making some money podcasting. The Omohundro Institute pays me to produce the “Doing History” series (we share series editorial and production decisions) and I make about $140/month from crowdfunding pledges. These funds have and do pay for most of my monthly podcast expenses. They do not pay me for my time.

I’m in the process of figuring out how I will make money from podcasting to support my scholarship and work. The delay in figuring this out has been the fact that I’ve needed to undergo a HUGE mental shift in how I view myself as a historian.

Ben Franklin’s World started as an experimental side project. At most, I thought it would be a fun outlet for my public history and scholarly communications interests. I never intended for podcasting to turn into my full-time scholarship.

I’ve always thought of myself as a book and article historian. Books and articles have always been how most historians prove themselves and showcase their ideas and research. As such, making the mental shift to seeing myself as a digital media historian has been a long and hard one. I'm not even sure I've made the full mental shift yet. My decisions about how to spend my work time are still fraught with tension between digital and traditional media. (Old habits and thoughts really do die hard.)

Although I still feel a desire to produce scholarship in text-based, traditional media, I have decided to continue making digital media my primary scholarly output. I've experienced a lot of success with it and I tell myself that working as a digital media historian doesn't mean I can't write books and articles too. Books and articles will just have to become my side projects.

Now that I've made that decision, I need to find a way to support my scholarship.


Going Corporate & Starting a Network

In my dream scenario, a forward-thinking college or university would hire me in an editorial faculty role. I would continue to produce Ben Franklin's World and other podcasts I have in the works, while teaching undergraduate and graduate students how to do all aspects of this new, historical work along the way.

With that said, I’m a pragmatist. I've spoken with department heads and colleagues and I see that most of the historical profession is still 5-10 years away from recognizing what people in quicker-to-change professions see: that digital media is here to stay, that we shouldn’t be afraid of it, and that it’s highly effective at conveying and creating awareness about ideas, products, and services. Therefore, I’ve decided to create my dream job the old fashioned way: I've started a business.

I’m going to experiment with my new company and see if I can build it to the point where it pays for my scholarship and time and hopefully the scholarship and time of others.

The company is called Discover History Media Group, LLC. My first act as a business owner was to hire a media agent to seek sponsors for Ben Franklin’s World. The agent has several potential deals in the works, nothing has been finalized. I'm being mindful of the types of advertisers I want to sponsor my scholarship and I hope that by mid-to-late fall we will have found a good fit for the podcast.

Discover History Media Group LLC is also the legal entity under which I am starting the Explore History Network—a digital media network of reliable, high-quality history content created by historians. The Explore History Network will launch its second podcast by the end of this year and its third podcast by the end of 2017. The network will start with podcasts and will add blogs, video, and other digital media as it matures.

Over time, the network will (hopefully) fund itself from different revenue streams: sponsorships, member dues, custom content creation for groups and organizations, consulting fees, supporter pledges, and show merchandise.

Admittedly, I'm reluctant business owner. I know my strengths. Creating, researching, writing, launching, producing, and communicating historical content are strengths. Managing a business and creating a long-term, implementable plan for its success...I need to develop this skill set or partner with someone who has it.


Parting Thoughts

On a different note, all of the speaking I’ve done this year has combined with the success of Ben Franklin's World to bring forth a new revenue stream: paid speaking. I have three paid speaking engagements this fall with academic organizations and institutions and one that’s almost confirmed for next spring.

So no, I'm not making a living from podcasting, but I have a plan that will hopefully change that. I'm in the process of getting organized and I'm looking forward to seeing if the new scholarship I produce will be as successful and as well received as Ben Franklin's World.


A Podcast Network for Historians?

Historian Podcast NetworkWhat if historians owned and operated a media network? How much impact could they make with the ability to create wide public awareness about their research?

Last week, I attended Podfest, one of the two major conferences about podcasting in the United States. I used the opportunity to share ideas, meet with friends, and help new podcasters launch their shows.

As I shared my ideas, four veteran podcasters told me they had an idea for me too: Think BIGGER.

They suggested that I parlay the success of Ben Franklin's World into a history podcast network.

Truthfully, I had this idea last year, but I became busy and I haven't thought about it for awhile. Now the podcasters' suggestions have me thinking about it again.

In this post, you will discover what podcast networks are, the benefits they offer, and an overview for how to start one.


Podcast Networks

A podcast network is a group or company that produces, promotes, sells ad space on, and manages more than one podcast.

Some networks, like Gimlet Media and Radiotopia, own all of their own shows. Other networks, like Panoply, own some shows and manage the distribution, promotion, and ad sales for other shows they invited to join their network.


Network Benefits

Podcast networks offer many benefits, although not all networks offer all benefits.

1. Consistent content: Finding high-quality content can be difficult. Podcast networks offer listeners and advertisers an easy way to find shows with similar quality and/or topic(s) to the shows they already like.

Many networks offer programs that have a similar genre or topic. Gimlet Media produces a variety of storytelling podcasts. Radiotopia offers both storytelling and editorial shows.


2. Training and Editorial Assistance: Networks offer show hosts training and editorial guidance.

Networks that own all of their shows have producers who help hosts come up with show ideas, strategies for how to implement those ideas, and editorial assistance when it comes time to edit the show together. They also ensure that a consistent group of audio engineers edit and master episodes.

Networks that own some shows, but not all shows, may offer their members all or some of the above services.

3. Promotion: Word-of-mouth recommendations provide podcasts with the best avenue for finding new listeners.

Networks find new listeners for their programs by promoting member shows across their network. This promotion generates lots of word-of-mouth support that can quickly expand listenership for new programs because listeners are more likely to check out podcasts that belong to the same network. Listeners like consistent quality.


4. Bulk and Centralized Ad Sales: Advertisers want to invest in ads that generate awareness and sales. They want to work with companies (or networks) that have a track record of producing high-quality, consistently-released content that their target audience consumes.

Networks offer advertisers stability and opportunities to be heard by members of their target audience across multiple shows.


Why a Historian Operated Network

History is one of the most popular podcast genres. The most popular history podcast (and one of the most popular podcasts) is Dan Carlin's Hardcore History. New episodes of Carlin's podcast receive approximately 3 million downloads within the first month of availability.

The present landscape of history podcasts reflects that journalists and amateur historians, like Carlin, produce most of the podcasts about history. Although several of these podcasts are good, most reflect a lack of professional historical training.

A podcast network operated by historians would offer historians the ability to both professionalize and participate in a popular genre of a steadily growing media. The fact that such a network could tout podcasts produced by professional historians would provide its member shows with instant credibility.

Another advantage for historians: the network could be built into a sizable media outlet historians could always use and control. No more waiting for NPR, The New York Times, or the History Channel to come calling. In fact, a podcast network would increase the visibility of historians and their important work. This in turn would increase the frequency that popular media outlets would contact us.


Brief Overview for How to Start a Podcast Network

The first step for creating a historian-driven podcast network is to settle on an approach.

Will the network produce and own all member podcasts? Will it own some and invite other hosts to participate? Will it offer shows about any historical topic? Or will it offer shows related to a certain era, geographic area, or subfield?

The network would need a name. This name would need a domain name for its online presence, incorporation as a business entity, and trademark protection.

With legalities in place, the network would need to produce or find its first show(s). The selection/production of this show(s) is incredibly important because it will establish the reputation of the network with listeners and help the network gain an audience.

Once the network felt secure in the production of its first show it could create or add member shows. The addition and creation of member shows would likely be dependent upon the first show generating revenue from advertisements and affiliate opportunities.


Will I Start A Historian-Run Podcast Network?

Will I follow the podcasters’ advice and use Ben Franklin’s World to start a historian-driven podcast network?

I don't know.

I have the knowledge and a well-established first show. I also know I could help historians learn how to podcast and produce great, compelling content.

But, starting a network would require me to place my current research and publication plans largely on hold for an unknown period of time. Sure, I could create opportunities to blend my research agenda with that of the network, but it may take several years before I could really go back into the archives and work on a book-length project.

There is also the fact that starting a network would multiply the business/administrative aspects of producing a podcast that I don't always enjoy.

Network creators are both the face of the network and its "janitor." I would be responsible for finding and training new talent, creating or finding new shows, managing network hosts and show edits, show promotion, finding and securing advertising partners, and solving problems that arise.

With that said, I love the idea of building something that would allow historians to expand the reach and impact of their important research. And I think I could find a partner or two to assist with the administrative work.

Now is also the perfect time to start a network.

Historians are embracing the history communications movement and podcast networks and digital content providers are beginning to bring order to the "Wild West" atmosphere of digital media. Starting a network now will be easier than it will be two years from now. And starting now would give historians the opportunity to help shape the order content providers and networks are applying to the digital media landscape.

Over the last six months or so, I have felt like I am standing at a crossroads with my work, but I couldn’t articulate why. The idea of starting a network has forced me to figure out why I have this feeling. It’s because I need to make a choice about the type of scholarship I want to produce over the long term.

Do I want to be a historian who dabbles in digital media and researches and writes books and articles that contribute to the historiography?

Or do I want to be a historian who uses their training to shape the way historians utilize new media to present their scholarship to the world?

I have been podcasting long enough, and I see the landscape well enough, to know that I have to make this choice and I must make it soon. If I wait too long, I will miss this opportune moment.