There are a lot of great things happening with web content right now. The connection of content and data. The ability to bake social tools into sites. The emergence of a relationship between data and editorial.
One of the people who’s played a role in developing some of these innovations is Rex Sorgatz, the well-known blogger and digital socialite who runs the self-described “co-operative, think-tank, anti-agency,” Kinda-Sorta-Media (KSM).
Sorgatz graduated from the University of North Dakota in 1996 with a triple major in philosophy, psychology and english. “I was an editor for the school newspaper,” he said. “I was doing journalism and writing, and I had a blog really early on. I think the blog started to get attention first, and then places like Wired noticed it and the writers liked it, and they started asking me to do pieces. So I always kept kind of a background of thinking of myself as a writer and wanting to do more of it, but then entrepreneurial and managerial things overwhelmed that.”
Sorgatz’s first big gig was producing web sites for the Olympics (Torino and Athens) and he went on to be an executive producer at MSNBC. He worked in and around NBC for the next 10 years including projects for various NBC units like SNL before setting out on his own to start KSM, which he grew into a big agency as clients clamored for more of his hybrid skills in editorial, aggregation and curation.
“I came out of blog culture,” he said. “I started a blog, like, 11 years ago and, you know, was reading Metafilter and all the things that were going on at that time. I was intrigued by it. Many years ago when I was still living in the Midwest I started a site that was around community news and how you could do a news story collaboratively. And so I just came out of that culture even more so than how I came out of media. I came out of, how can people work together to make a story emerge? And then I just pushed those principles and started to work for larger companies. I just tried to infuse blog thinking into big media brands.”
Today, KSM is a fast growing agency with a different way of looking at the web. “I call it crowd sourcing projects,” said Sorgatz. “We keep the staff small and nimble, and then we bring in lots of experts from different fields to work on projects.”
To understand the way Sorgatz views new media, just look at his work with Dan Abrams, the former general manager of MSNBC and founder of Mediaite.
“He had an idea for a media site, and I would say, ‘Oh great! Another media site. That’s just what we need,'” said Sorgatz. “And we just spent a lot of time thinking about making it different, and after a while I was like, ‘Just throw out the blog, I don’t want another blog,’ cause I have this antagonism with media companies who come along and think, ‘I have something innovative, I am going to do another blog.’
“We started to think about how we can add something big and interesting that sits next to it and I called it ‘blog plus,'” Sorgatz continued. “I’m trying to get a lot of my clients to think, ‘What are the things you can add on to differentiate as features, as functions?’ Scraping the index of the Internet and see if we can somehow deduce their power index.”
The result was Mediaite’s “Power Grid,” a ranking of print and online reporters that takes data from the web and turns it into blogable editorial. It’s a feature that has helped set Mediaite apart.
Sorgatz explained: “The Power Grid aggregates miscellaneous statistical data about media personalities found online (Twitter followers, Google hits, etc.) and offline (TV mentions, company valuations, etc.) to surmise an overall power ranking based upon a proprietary algorithm.” In other words: data mixed with editorial.
“The Week is a really good example of this,” he said. “They’re so interesting because they’re already intuitively the most Internet-y magazine in existence. It’s all about aggregation, synthesis, bringing you the essentials of a story. And so we’re trying to think about how to make the website really in tune with that philosophy. And a lot of what we’re doing is just getting them to think about, with all this massive amount of information out there, ‘How do I go to something that just gives me the key central pieces of it. And how do I find those things?'”
For Sorgatz, the sheer size and speed of the web creates editorial challenges, as well as opportunities. It requires a new kind of urgency that must be powered by both technology and human editorial.
“In real time now, Karl Rove is twittering about something that’s happening on MSNBC,” he said. “In a way, Karl Rove’s Twitter might be the thing that’s more interesting than the thing that’s happening on MSNBC. How do you really key into finding those things that are interesting?”
Sorgatz’s advice for his media clients?
“We have words for it,” he said. “Pure Media, Small Media. I have lots of media clients, and you know, the first thing I say to every one of them is, when they ask what’s your overall big advice, it’s ‘Get small fast.’ Small might not be sized, although often times it should be. It’s actually how do you do small products, how do you get your things out into all those little places that exist out there, and don’t think about your footprint in being in as many places as you can. It’s fun.”
Fun for KSM means inventing new “products” for editorial organisations.
“It all depends on the client. It all depends on what we are trying to do,” said Sorgatz. “There’s always a point where you want to focus on a new thing that’s about aggregation. Because sometimes you don’t have to revolutionise your brand. Is there a way that you can build a new product that’s differentiating and new and interesting? Whether it’s a game or it’s an index or it’s based upon curation, aggregation, whatever it is, it’s complimentary to your brand, but is a new product. Because that’s even more exciting. “
“We’re about to announce a bunch more companies coming on board,” he said. “Mostly startups, actually. And they’re falling into categories. Fashion is a big category. Travel is a big category. And we’re developing narrative that has a lot to do with how you use the Internet for real world businesses.”
“Right now we’re launching a restaurant called 4Food in midtown,” Sorgatz said. “It’s a socially networked restaurant. And the experience is you customise a burger, you pick one of five buns, and you pick one of six patties. The interesting detail is that there’s a hole in the middle of it, and inside the hole you put one of 40 scoops; and scoops can be everything from edamame to mac-n-cheese, to salsa to whatever. Then you pick a slice and you kinda bundle it all up together, and say I’m gonna be there at 3 o’clock to pick it up. You walk in and pick it up. You don’t have to worry about the transaction at the counter because you already did all that. And it’s really easy to use.
“The reason it’s social networked,” he continued, “is that once you’ve created your burger, there’s all of these levels of customisation that you can go through — there’s something like 110 million options if you do the maths — once you’ve created it you can then name it and then you can market it. And market it means put it on Facebook and Twitter. And if other people buy your burger you get a quarter. And there’s a leader board of the highest selling burgers. Once you end up on the leader board you’re probably gonna get free food every time you come in because people are just gonna continue buying it. I think that’s like a new, unique way to approach, to use the internet to approach doing a restaurant.”
So how big is KSM? And how likely is it that it has touched some site or content that you care about?
KSM’s mission statement sums it up nicely: “Rather than write some sort of grandiose tatalizing theory of The Future Of The Internet And All Things Media, we are pragmatists. We solve problems. We have some ideas where things are going, but we don’t plan to beat them over your head.”
Steve Rosenbaum is founder and CEO of Magnify.net, a NYC-based Web video startup. He has been building and growing consumer-content businesses since 1992. He was the creator and Executive Producer of MTV UNfiltered, a series that was the first commercial application of user-generated video in commercial TV.
You can follow Steve on Twitter @Magnify
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