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Innovation: Twitter and Current TV founders discuss the future of news at the Web 2.0 Summit

I’m still digesting a lot of the sessions at last week’s Web 2.0 Summit. If you weren’t there, I highly recommend checking out some of the sessions which are archived here either for streaming for to download to your iPod.

The panel I was most eager to hear going in was “The Media Business: New Approaches.” The panel was moderated by Ken Auletta of the New Yorker and included Evan Williams of Twitter and Joel Hyatt of Current TV. By coincidence, I got a tour of Current the next day, and I’ll be posting a follow up on that in a couple of weeks.

In the meantime, this panel didn’t disappoint. Twitter and Current TV have a lot to teach today’s newsrooms about innovation and how to think about their relationship to their communities. I’ve embedded the full video above. But let me highlight a few of the important points that struck me during the session.

(Ken Auletta of the New Yorker, Joel Hyatt of Current TV, and Evan Williams of Twitter on stage at Web 2.0 Summit 2008 in San Francisco. Photo by James Duncan Davidson.)

A few weeks ago, I was part of an event hosted by Current and Twitter called “Hack the Debate,” where Current streamed “tweets” live on the TV screen during the first presidential debate. At the panel, Hyatt described this as a big step forward for making Current more interactive, and changing the way people interacted with politics.

“Our debate partnership with Twitter was significant,” Hyatt said. “Every other channel had one model of analysts and punditry. We were able to invite the public into the debate and discuss democracy.”

Current expanded the partnership to include Digg on Election night.

“We allowed conversations on many platforms,” Hyatt said. “Then we put it together in one place to allow people to participate.”

Hyatt noted several times that TV remains one of the least democratic mediums. Current’s goal is to change that.

Auletta asked both men about their business models. That’s been the big mystery surrounding Twitter. Yes, it’s revolutionary, but how is it going to make money? Williams didn’t seem too worried based on his responses.

“I don’t think the business model will be as big of a dilemma as people seem to think it will be,” Williams said. “But we haven’t focused on it much yet. Twitter brings a lot of value to people.”

Williams explained that the conversations taking place on Twitter were generating enormous amounts of information that could potentially be of great value to companies. He seemed to be hinting that Twitter was trying to explore ways to monetize that data, beyond simply matching it up with advertising.

“Twitter is not a purely social medium,” Williams said. “We’re experimenting with the value of the real time information that’s being created around an event. Whether it’s an election, or the release of a new camera.”

Later, Williams said: “Our revenue is not advertising, per se. I think advertising as most people think of it is a more and more difficult proposition. On Twitter, there is a lot of commercial activity. But it’s opt in. If it’s not offering value, they won’t opt in. We don’t need to put ads with that content they’re receiving. That won’t be the best value. Instead, maybe we charge people who want to use it for commercial purposes.”

Auletta asked: “Do you have faith that if you make a great product, that you’ll be able make money?”

Williams replied: “It’s more than faith. I don’t think it’s going to be hard to monetize.”

Okay, we’ll see in 2009, I guess.

In the meantime, Current is apparently doing quite well thanks to an old fashioned business model: The revenue it gets from being on cable systems. Hyatt said the idea from the very start was to build a strong financial base around this traditional revenue stream, and then use that to invest in innovative ideas and business models.

“We’ve been focused on new business models,” Hyatt said. “But we sit on a good, old fashioned business model: Being on a cable channel available around the world. We’ve been profitable from our launch in 2005. That’s how we finance new media venture experiments.

“Al Gore and I started Current TV over a series of conversations about how to incorporate user generated stuff. We decided to start with a traditional model and try to innovate around that, rather than starting with innovative technology and then seeing if we can build a business around it.”

Auletta then asked how Twitter and Current had affected mainstream media. Both men responded with several examples of how mainstream news shows were now incorporating user submitted comments and content into their regular shows.

“We’re very proud of our thought leadership,” Hyatt said. “TV was very controlled, led by a tightly controlled oligarchy. Choices were dictated. The idea of sharing that closed system with users was revolutionary. That model has been copied throughout the industry. User generated content on TV is now ubiquitous and taken for granted.”

Williams added: “I think we’re both part of the same movement. Mainstream media has realized there is value in tapping into people’s voices. It’s been interesting to see the uptake we get from the mainstream media. CNN uses us a lot on TV. They refer to Twitter. They go to Twitter to see what is happening. New organizations are watching our trend data to identify stories before they hit the wires.”

A few other interesting tidbits from Hyatt:

On the future of the broadcast news show: “TV news is dinosaur. Telling a young adult ‘That’s the way it is’ is like speaking Greek to them.”

On how Current deals with credibility and fact checking, given that 40 percent of its content is from its audience: “First, we’ve had no problems with that. What matters is how you present content. We always identify user generated content as such. We don’t say, ‘This is the truth.’ We say, ‘This is that person’s view point.’ If it’s our journalists, then we try to maintain high standards. If it’s our journalism, we’re happy to be held to the highest standards. But if it’s user generated content, then our community is the fact checker. If folks believe something is not right, the community responds in a very powerful way.”


2 Responses

  1. Current says its already making money and that it gets it from two revenue streams (licensing and ads), while Twitter says it’s not too worried about monetizing (sounds like Facebook) … who would you rather work for? Cool tools with no business model? Sounds so Internet 1.0….

  2. We did something similar on our site on Election day as well. I set up a twitter widget on our front page to pull in all tweets with a “#cccelec” hashtag (Our campus is Contra Costa College, hence the ccc). We hung up fliers around campus inviting students to join in on the twitter conversations and have their opinions/thoughts on the election broadcast on our site. It ended up being mostly our staff tweeting the entire night, but we did manage to get a couple of non-staff students tweeting as well. We had a really high number of hits on our site that night and the next, as we were twittering as all the results came in and posted full stories on Wednesday.The open-endedness of our widget did cause one problem though. Another college newspaper started to advertise their own website and election coverage using our hashtag. We ended up calling them later on in the week, and resolved the issue for the most part. I’m working on learning the Twitter API to build a customized widget to filter out users/spam/etc.

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