I am writing this from a train somewhere between Washington D.C. and Pittsburgh atop the Alleghany’s where there is no WiFi or cell reception – a place the Internet cannot reach. My company has been working with the artist Doug Aitken on a project called Station to Station. It is a “nomadic happening” featuring a vintage 9-car Amtrak train/artists’ studio, wrapped in LED light, and packed with musicians, visual artists, writers and other creative types that is travelling from coast-to-coast. We kicked-off last night with an event in New York City that featured a performance of colored smoke bombs, a step dance youth marching band, auctioneers, a whip cracker, a ballerina dancing with roller skaters, and live music from No Age, Ariel Pink and Suicide, the storied NYC punk band. We’re stopping for performances (or “Happenings”) in cities across the country on route to San Francisco. At one stop we’re even going to have a UFO flyover (Yes, you read that right. Read it again. I said a UFO.). My friends have taken to calling the project the “Magical Mystery Train.” I just call it the best project ever.

My company’s job on Station to Station is to create the digital experience and content, and to build a digital audience, or as Doug has put it, make Station a cultural touchstone. No small task. And seemingly impossible in this day and age, with infinitely fractured audiences, and miniscule, distracted attention spans, as we’re all increasingly tethered to devices checking something – email, texts, Facebook, Twitter, you name it. Our experience of the world has been reduced to something glossy and flat you can hold in the palm of your hand.

Station to Station fights everything small and flat. It’s a multisensory, live event unfurling across the entire country over 3 weeks time. It is truly, actually disruptive, not in the corporatized marketing-speak sense of the term, but because it actually disrupts. It’s noisy, disorienting and has never before been done.

But. Without a pre-existing platform for promotion, how do you start from scratch, literally zero, and make a project that no one has ever heard of cut through? Grab attention? And how do you capture and express a fluid, energetic moment in time, and convey its textures and vitality in a medium that is ostensibly, painfully, flat? And how do you do it on an art project budget – and in real-time?

As we began to plan the digital strategy and product, we started with a Happening. Which is what, exactly? What makes for a successful Happening – especially when the only rule for a Happening is that there can be no consistent rules. Cribbed from Wikipedia:

Happenings take place anywhere, and are often multi-disciplinary, with a nonlinear narrative and the active participation of the audience. Key elements of happenings are planned, but artists sometimes retain room for improvisation. This new media art aspect to happenings eliminates the boundary between the artwork and its viewer. Henceforth, the interactions between the audience and the artwork makes the audience, in a sense, part of the art.

Sounds remarkably like the Internet – or the core elements that lead to success when building a product or business on the Internet – both Happenings and digital products are open, native, change and adapt, and are powered as much by the audience, as by their creators.

So, with these principles in mind, we set off to create an open platform to enable participation and make the audience and viewer as much a part of Station to Station as possible.

Content – The core of any experience is its content. Content defines it. Content becomes the currency that is traded and forwarded, the instigator of conversation, the catalyst for reaction. Without a doubt, Station to Station has a great richness of content – in quality, in quantity, in uniqueness – and it is the primary asset we chose to work with. We viewed the entire project, from its making through its happening as a massive engine for the creation and distribution of content, to build an initial audience and begin establishing the language of the project for the consumer.

People – We decided to rely on people to power the experience. We’ve all known for a long time now that the Internet is about the crowd. Like crowded movie theaters or sporting events, collisions of individual and collective reactions create tremendous, dynamic energy. It’s this cacophony, this energy that we wanted to come through in digital. Now, you might say, well you could just live stream the thing, and yes we could have and we debated many hours and discussed with a number of potential partners the idea of live streaming our Happenings, but in the end, even the movement and sound of video, the one-way broadcast of something so multi-dimensional, still felt like it would be flat and cold with attention only garnered for fleeting moments. (Note: Having been responsible for the live streaming of myriad concerts, television shows and events, I can attest to the dirty little secret of live-streaming: only a very small percentage of your audience tunes in to a live stream online, most viewing is on-demand. And yes, the Olympics is an exception. The exception so far.)

Native – To engage and use the crowd, creating the digital happening had to be easy. We didn’t want to teach anyone to do something new. Or have another human intervene. Instead we chose to leverage existing social media habits and platforms. At each event as people walk through the gates, we hand them a small sticker with the hashtag #TrackSTS on it, and if and only if they asked what it was for, we told them to use it when they post to Twitter and Instagram so it could appear on our website.

Open – In turn our platform (just a responsively designed website), pulls in all of the tagged posts, plus posts from specific accounts we set it to follow, in real-time and publishes them to the homepage. There are a couple of nifty things we do to adjust and update the experience. We have a “live switch” that turns the social media publishing on and off, and we can delete any objectionable material. We can also go back in to the site and clean things up and publish posts to other pages.

Last night was the first test of our theories.

Would people participate?

Would the overall effect present the energy and various textures of the event?

Would the act of social media publishing build audience, awareness and impressions?

Would we turn an audience of about 1000 into a real-time content creation farm and social media marketing army?

Would we “own the conversation”?

The result:

In four hours there were 1500+ posts originating with the hashtag #TrackSTS and published to our site with the potential reach of 12 million people on Twitter alone. Take a look.

Tonight Pittsburgh.

GigaOm published a post I wrote on why we tried to buy The Daily from News Corp. Check it out.

Bottom line, The Daily was a budding asset, well positioned for growth and possible dominance if people who knew digital were given the chance to unlock its potential.

100,000 paying subscribers, with a 98% renew rate netting $2.5M – $3M in revenue after Apple’s cut is a lot to work with. Any year-old start-up would be envious of those numbers.

Here’s some more about what we were thinking.

We’d like to thank our friends, family and clients for your generous and heartfelt donations to Hurricane Sandy relief and recovery efforts.

We had a huge level of immediate support, with over 50 donations pouring in over a short six days. Together we raised almost $5000 for The Mayor’s Fund to Advance NYC, 100% of which will go directly to efforts on the ground with a focus on immediate aid, including food, water and hygiene supplies, as well as long-term relief and restoration efforts.

Though our fundraiser was pegged to my Philadelphia Marathon run, we are keeping the site up and donation window open. If you’d like to donate (or donate again), please go here:

http://www.crowdrise.com/heysandy/

We are New York City company. We love our town. And we’d like to see it recover and come back stronger… the way it always does.

With the Digital Content Upfronts in full swing, I wrote a column in TechCrunch calling for the industry to start putting real rigor, thought, time, energy (and most importantly)
creativity
into the making and marketing of original web programming.

As Alyson Shontell at Silicon Alley Insider wrote in her coverage of Ken Lerer’s video news start-up: “If people watch TV all day, why wouldn’t they watch news streamed online all day?”

The same is true for all programming, not just news.

Viewers no longer differentiate between platforms (TV, tablet, computer, phone — it’s all the same), the digital audiences are there, the ad dollars are available. It’s time to start delivering some epic programming to mass audiences.

Check out my column here.

And here is a collection of links for more information/background:

PandoDaily: The Future of TV is More Than Social, It’s Distributed and Always-On

Vanity Fair: The Oral History of Friends: Jennifer Aniston Almost Didn’t Play Rachel Green

VideoNuze: What is “Premium” Video Anyway and Why Should We Care?

The Hollywood Reporter: Netflix’s Ted Sarandos Explains Original Content Strategy

TechCrunch: Hulu Announces Four More Original Series, Bringing Total Lineup To Seven

Billboard: Exclusive: Andrew W.K. To Star In New Myspace Series

The New York Times: Online Show Wins Fans in High Places

The Hollywood Reporter: Poll – 9 out of 10 Call Social Media New Form of Entertainment; Young People Want Texting in Movies

PaidContent: Yahoo Video Chief: How To Get $3 Billion Closer To $50 Billion

PaidContent: YouTube Isn’t Just Short-Attention-Span Theater Anymore

TechCrunch published my column today declaring: Print is dead.

I am not the first to say it. (Read what John Paton, CEO of MediaNews Group told a conference of journalists earlier this month, this report The Annenberg School published in January, and this blog post Clay Shirky published over the summer. There are a host of others.)

I wrote the post, because the fact is print as we know it – as in newspapers and magazines delivered by truck and humans to homes and newsstands, as in old guard companies in which the primary source of revenue is derived from publishing text and photos on plant pulp – is over; and the big print media companies are not doing enough, and moving fast enough to ensure their futures.

A few big print companies will survive in the paperless future, and a small handful may even prosper. It’s likely that standard bearers such as The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, which benefit from positions as undisputed papers-of-record and still employ a few smart people will adapt. The Economist with its multi-platform juggernaut, resurgent brand and own really really smart people might evolve into a superlative new media company. And even Hearst, with its portfolio approach to digital investment may turn into the quintessential content company of the future (…or maybe a really successful venture fund and investment house, not bad either).

In the past week more, clear and present signs have popped-up, each revealing some of the sources of Old Print’s cloudy future:

The old media mindset is forcing way too much reliance on the PAYWALL as savior.
Gannett’s $100M plan to set-up paywalls in all 80 of its local newspaper markets made big news, as did yesterday’s paywall announcement from LA Times. These are big bets driven by industry-wide ego (that people “must pay” for what we do), and a mad dash to copy mild successes like The New York Times and others. But the fact remains: It is incredibly hard if not impossible, to get users to pay real dollars in a completely commoditized market. What the $.99 song is to the music industry, the paywall is to print.

Further commoditization, and fragmentation.
Pressly – With the launch of its self-serve platform that transforms WordPress sites, Tumblr blogs and Twitter updates into beautiful tablet friendly presentations is completely commoditizing the magazine – its form factor, and its content. Pressly now turns anyone’s content into an iPad app that looks just as good as the big magazine companies’ flashy new bespoke apps. And with a fancy – and free – shell, Jane Blogger is now competing head-to-head with the best and highest paid writers and editors.

Industry-wide fear and self-loathing.
Onswipe – With the release of its cross-publisher content recommendations just revealed its ambition, and is starting to steal business from its partners, companies like Ziff Davis, Slate, Thomson Reuters, NY Times and Conde Nast, by rockin’ a classic 90’s dotcom move: We (Onswipe) will provide you (publishers) a service that you can’t seem to figure out, and build our own platform/network off the backs of your content while we’re at it. Rad. Onswipe is preying on the old guard’s fear of the future, its rush to tablets, and its self-doubt that it can build great apps and interactive experiences internally.

Paleolithic technology, and no respect for the right data.
Poynter smartly rang the bell feeling it was necessary to tell publishers Buzzfeed is a “real news site.” Yes, it is. It’s a news website and it’s the future. Buzzfeed is data driven, and it knows in a real and provable way what its readers want – and it’s growing like gangbusters. As HuffPo proved – and as the history of digital media keeps proving again and again – data rules. Data is how you find audience. Data is how you retain it. Sure, old guard websites deploy analytics to track usage patterns on the sites themselves, but they are missing the boat on analyzing the important stuff – share, search and social – to inform their edit and product decisions.

Print people are confused about what’s valuable, and most don’t do digital.
Vogue is making much ballyhoo of the fact it has decided digitize its archives and make them available on the Web – and searchable by Google boot! Of course, Vogue should do this. They should have done it a dog year ago – think about all of that lost SEO – but it’s a web 1.0 tactic, and no big deal. The announcement just shows how behind the times they are.

With all of that said, there were some bright spots too:

Spin launched a it’s new site, embracing a “digital first” strategy, and showing signs it is starting to think more about its digital products – and it looks pretty good – though it’s just scratching the surface.

The Washington Post started dabbling publicly with personalized news.

PBS’s Mediashift published a good, if belated, piece about teaching future journalists to think agnostically about the format of their reportage.

New Yorker editor David Remnick sat down with Kara Swisher at the WSJ to talk about digital and the future of his magazine.

For a roadmap to old print’s new digital future, read my original post on TechCrunch.