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January 19 2012

15:00

The newsonomics of signature content

What’s your signature content?

Quick: If somebody buttonholed you in an elevator, a school play, or a bar, and said, “Why should I pay you for that?” — what do you tell them?

Each passing week, it seems we’re further into the age of signature content. That only makes sense: If the death of distance is now old news, if everything is available everywhere at the touch of button or the swipe of a finger, then what makes any news or entertainment brand stand out amid this plague of plenty?

Closed systems — from three or four TV networks to less than a dozen big movie studios to a half-dozen major magazine publishers to geographically dominant newspapers — made signature content less important. Sure, big shows and big names have always driven media to some extent, but now, media without big names or big shows are going to get lost in the ether. Take Hulu’s announcement last week about Hulu Originals. You do have to wonder if Hulu’s fictional 13-episode “Battleground,” about a dysfunctional political campaign, will be bested by the Republican reality show in progress when the show debuts next month. Hulu is also bringing a Morgan Spurlock series for a second run, and probably will feature one other new program. The Hulu announcement joins Netflix’s own foray into signature content. Three years ago, would the thought of Netflix signing up Little Steven to do an original comedy series have crossed anyone’s imagination?

Hulu and Netflix both need to distinguish themselves in the market — not only from each other, but from Comcast, DirecTV, and Time Warner, among others. They need to buy protection as supposed masses consider cutting the cord on packaged services, Roku-ing and Apple-enabling Internet video onto their living-room screens. In movies and TV, we’re quickly morphing from a world of news and entertainment anywhere — get all of these things, somewhat haphazardly (Comcast Xfinity, for instance) on all of our devices — to one in which consumers ask, “What special do you have for me, in addition to my all access? Yes, All-Access, the cool feature of 2011, will quickly graduate from a wow to an expectation.

Why as consumers should we pay $7.99 (down from an initial $9.99) to Hulu Plus, when the same stuff (kinda sorta) is available through Boxee, or Apple TV, or Netflix, if I can find it? Why am I paying $7.99 a month (apparently the magic price of the moment) to Netflix for a catalog of films that is both voluminous and too often lacking what I want? Consumers are going to be asking that question a lot more.

Publishers, distributors, aggregators, and networks all want more money, and they’ve seen — courtesy of tablets and All-Access — that consumers are now more ready to pay for digital content than ever before.

Forget “content wants to be free.” Now content wants a fee. And everyone from Time Inc to The New York Times to the Memphis Commercial Appeal to Hulu’s co-owners (Fox, Disney, and Comcast) see gold. They see another digital revenue stream, in addition to advertising or to cable subscription fees. Yet they are increasingly believing they’ve got to up the ante (and Hulu is raising new funds to buy original programming) to compete and to win those consumer dollars.

News companies — at least one in ten U.S. daily newspapers and many consumer magazines — are rapidly embracing digital circulation revenue and All-Access. Yet results have been quite uneven. That makes sense: Consumers will pay for digital news, feature, and entertainment content, but they don’t want to overpay, and they’ll increasingly be forced to make choices. Buy this; let that go.

Let’s be clear. Paid media is paid media, and the original-programming pushes of the video companies have great meaning for news and magazine companies, global to local. For them, the calculus is similar. News and magazine brands can launch new products, though that’s out-of-their-DNA-tough for many. So they’ve focused primarily on sub-brands, many of which are people. These are the faces of news and magazines; many of these have become hot commodities over the last several years (“The newsonomics of journalistic star power“) as companies try to distinguish themselves — and give readers and viewers a reason to pick them out of the crowd.

How, though, can media companies afford to pay a premium for branded, promotable talent, talent that may open consumers’ pocketbooks? That’s easy: spend less on other content. So we’ve got the rise of user-generated content, obtainable free or cheap, and all kinds of new syndicate action from Demand Media to startup Ebyline (and maybe NewsRight), all trying to make it cheap and easy to get more medium- and higher-quality content more cheaply. What’s old is new again — as a young features editor, I got regular visits from syndicate and wire salesman, ranging from high-quality to the Copley News Service, that sold its stuff by the pound.

Another prominent model no news or magazine company can afford to ignore: The Huffington Post. Back to the early days when Betsy Morgan first teamed up with Arianna, HuffPost has worked this evolving content pyramid. At the top, a few highly paid site faces, many opinionated faces (some paid, most not), and then low-cost aggregation, much of it AP, headlined with the site’s recognizable swagger.

Then, of course, there’s the old standby: staff cutting. We’ve seen lots of staff cutting. In fact, these days, while we see some announcements like Media General’s big Tampa cut, most of the bloodletting is less public, but no less real. If you need to pay more to stars, and ad revenues are still declining, staff cuts of less than premium content (and those that produce it) make economic sense (“The newsonomics of the new news cost pyramid“). It’s the new news math.

These newsonomics of signature content are getting clearer. Netflix is planning to spend 5 percent of its expenses — or $100 million a year — on original, Netflix-defining content. Hulu is spending about a quarter what Netflix’s total, or $500 million in total, on all content licensing this year. We don’t know how much of that is for original content, but observers believe “Battleground” will cost $15-20 million for its 13 episodes. With its other forays, it will probably spend closer to 10 percent of its content budget on original content.

Curiously, many newspaper newsrooms constitute only 10-20 percent of the overall expenses of a daily newspaper company. So we’re starting to see some new, and old, arithmetic play out here.

Simply, Andy Forssell, Hulu’s SVP of content, explained the cost/benefit ratio to Variety: “…having an original scripted series that hasn’t been seen anywhere else yet is considered the best tool for standing out with either advertisers or viewers.”

As usual, we see the bifurcation of the bigger national brands — those with more audience to gain and more money to spend — and local news brands. While many local newspapers have cut to the bone, with too much of the tissue in the form of experienced, name-brand metro and sports columnists cajoled or drummed into “early retirement,” we see increased branding of stars at places like Time, The New York Times, Fox News, and ESPN. The sports network may be the classic business model of our age, and in its anchors and top analysts — many initially lured from daily newspapers — it has shown the way for many years now.

At the Times, consider business editor Larry Ingrassia’s build-up of business columnists, from veterans Gretchen Morgenson and Floyd Norris to new(er)bies Andrew Ross Sorkin, Brian Stelter, David Carr, Ron Lieber, and David Pogue. And the Times more recently picked up James Stewart from archrival Dow Jones.

At Fox News, Roger Ailes has cannily built the most successful cable news operation not on the interchangeable blondes that provide so much fodder for Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, but on O’Reilly and Hannity.

At NBC, the news franchise is so built around Brian Williams that his well received newsmagazine “Rock Center with Brian Williams” is synonymous with its host.

At Time Warner’s CNN and Time, we see the building of a worldly franchise on Fareed Zakaria’s clear-eyed, no-nonsense view of our times.

And then there’s the more local and regional press. Newspapers have long believed that it wasn’t any one or a half-dozen names that sold the paper. They’ve believed the news itself was the star, and the daily information report was the brand. That may be still be true of the Times, the Journal, the Financial Times, the Guardian, and a handful of other national/global news organizations — all of which have substantial, multi-hundred newsrooms that produce branded, unique products. It’s less true of regional and local dailies, many of which still present too much commoditized news in national, business, entertainment, and sports coverage, and have bid goodbye to many faces familiar to readers. Those that have retained familiar faces must do what they can to keep them; all need to recruiting more.

Then they may have a good answer to the question, in one form or another, consumers and advertisers will increasingly ask: What’s your signature content?

November 26 2011

17:55

Brian Stelter, NYT: why journalists must earn the right to teach old media new tricks

Mashable :: “We benefit when we listen,” said New York Times media reporter and blogger Brian Stelter on stage at the Mashable Media Summit. Stelter spoke about his experience as a young reporter at the Times, a company that is symbolic of old media. He argued that one must earn the right to teach and learn the way a company operates before you start making changes. After spending his time learning, Stelter began to incorporate new media concepts in a way that made sense for a publication with such legacy.

 

 

Continue to read Christine Erickson, mashable.com

October 08 2011

05:58

The future of news as "uninterrupted stream of our lives"?

Poynter :: You may have lost the weekend of August 20 to Andy Carvin’s furious chronicling of the fall of Tripoli. Perhaps you followed along with Brian Stelter as he tweeted his observations and photos of the devastation left by the tornado in Joplin, Mo. Maybe you watched the minute-by-minute drama leading up to the execution of Troy Davis, or read tweets about the East Coast earthquake before you felt it. Earlier this week, it was the helicopter crash in the East River.

[Steve Myers:] Recent news events ... has become a real-time experience, something you observe and discuss as it’s happening rather than waiting hours or days to watch or read.

Continue to read Steve Myers, www.poynter.org

Twitter cases:

The fall of Tripoli by Andy Carvin

Joplin Tornado by Brian Stelter

In the news execution drama of Troy Davis

In the news East coast earthquake

In the news Helicopter crash

August 26 2011

22:00

The NYT launches a Twitter feed for live coverage of breaking news

As Hurricane Irene storms its way toward the Eastern seaboard — and as news organizations scramble to cover it — The New York Times has launched @NYTLive, a Times-run account featuring “in-depth Twitter curation of major news stories by New York Times editors.”

In the hour since the feed’s been live, it’s served as a hurricane-tweet clearinghouse, sharing tweets from the Times’ Metro desk, @NYTMetro, as well as — quite interesting from the whole individual-vs.-institutional-brand perspective — Times reporters Thomas Kaplan and Brian Stelter. (The latter, who’s currently in North Carolina covering the storm, also had a link to his Twitter feed featured on the Times’ homepage earlier today.)

The paper’s main account, @NYTimes, has over 3.6 million followers; the brand new @NYTLive has only 2,200. Not at all shabby for an hour-old account, but why wouldn’t the Times use its biggest Twitter megaphone? First, it solves a problem faced by many news organizations, the small and especially the big, that use Twitter to share stories across several topics and coverage areas. By breaking out the breaking news from the everyday news — the you-care-about-it-now from the comparatively evergreen — @NYTLive gives the Times the flexibility to live-tweet big stories without flooding its main account and overwhelming the other stories that are sent out on its feed. You may recall that Andy Carvin recently met some criticism for over-tweeting, the main complaint being that his uber-curation drowns out the other Twitter feeds users follow; to the extent that Andy Carvin is a one-man news organization, he’s dealing with the same problem. Stelter himself used a separate account, @brianstelternyt, to livetweet a tech conference earlier this year, but the account seems to have gone dormant.

@NYTLive is also interesting, though, because it allows the Times to be much more cavalier — in the best sense of the term — about including conversation in its Twitter feed. While @NYTLive still very much lives under the umbrella of the Times, it’s not the outlet’s grand, uber-branded, multi-million-follower-strong feed. (Again, its current follower count: 2,000+.) The fact that it’s a subsidiary account gives @NYTLive more freedom to be experimental and responsive. (“This feed is not active every day,” @NYTLive’s intro text notes. “Follow it as a supplement to @nytimes.”) And it’s also interesting to note, along those lines, that the feed’s tweets so far seem to have been sent from Tweetdeck, a publishing tool that lends itself especially well to conversation and social interaction, rather than to the simple publishing of links, on Twitter. (Tweets posted to @NYTimes, on the other hand, are sent “via The New York Times.”) And @NYTLive tweets (again, so far) seem to be more invested in using hashtags like #irene and #ireneqanda than the Times’ big account is — another indication of conversation.

July 19 2011

09:50

New York Magazine: New(s) business - 21 New Media Innovators

New York Magazine :: While the dark days of journalism have receded a bit — it was only three years ago that layoffs were a weekly occurrence, and serious people discussed the closure of the New York Times — the business is still very much in a state of chaotic flux. The so-called war between new and old media rages on among the pundits, with Facebook supplanting Google News as the new bogeyman.

But if you look past the hype, a bumper crop of new jobs and new ways of reporting have taken root, created by people who are willing to throw themselves into the breach and experiment. What follows is a list of 21 journalists and like-minded inventors who have created something exciting, interesting, and just plain cool.

Do you think there are people missing? Tweet me your thoughts!

Continue to read Chris Rovzar | Noreen Malone | Dan Amira | Adam Pasick | and Nitasha Tiku, nymag.com

June 16 2011

08:15

In the absence of ... female voices: 88-minutes inside New York Times "Page One"

Business Insider :: The absence of female voice in the main narrative of Page One: Inside the New York Times, the new documentary that spends a year following the NYT, is notable -- which stars David Carr, Brian Stelter, Tim Arango, Bill Keller, and media editor Bruce Headlam -- particularly considering this month's news that Jill Abramson will be taking over as the paper's first female executive editor.

[Glynnis MacNicol:] ... a 88-minute documentary about the most important paper in the world during, arguably, the most important period the industry has ever undergone, that features no women power players at the paper of record does get tedious

Continue to read Glynnis MacNicol, www.businessinsider.com

June 02 2011

17:30

Is Twitter writing, or is it speech? Why we need a new paradigm for our social media platforms

New tools are at their most powerful, Clay Shirky says, once they’re ubiquitous enough to become invisible. Twitter may be increasingly pervasive — a Pew study released yesterday shows that 13 percent of online adults use the service, which is up from 8 percent six months ago — but it’s pretty much the opposite of invisible. We talk on Twitter, yes, but almost as much, it seems, we talk about it.

The big debates about Twitter’s overall efficacy as a medium — like the one launched by, say, Malcolm Gladwell and, more recently, Bill Keller, whose resignation from the New York Times editorship people have (jokingly, I think?) chalked up to his Twitter-take-on column — tend to devolve into contingents rather than resolve into consensus. An even more recent debate between Mathew Ingram and Jeff Jarvis, which comparatively nuanced, comparatively polite) ended with Ingram writing, “I guess we will have to agree to disagree.”

But why all the third-railiness? Twitter, like many other subjects of political pique, tends to be framed in extremes: On the one hand, there’s Twitter, the cheeky, geeky little platform — the perky Twitter bird! the collective of “tweets”! all the twee new words that have emerged with the advent of the tw-efix! — and on the other, there’s Twitter, the disruptor: the real-time reporting tool. The pseudo-enabler of democratic revolution. The existential threat to the narrative primacy of the news article. Twetcetera.

The dissonance here could be chalked up to the fact that Twitter is simply a medium like any other medium, and, in that, will make of itself (conversation-enabler, LOLCat passer-onner, rebellion-facilitator) whatever we, its users, make of it. But that doesn’t fully account for Twitter’s capacity to inspire so much angst (“Is Twitter making us ____?”), or, for that matter, to inspire so much joy. The McLuhany mindset toward Twitter — the assumption of a medium that is not only the message to, but the molder of, its users — seems to be rooted in a notion of what Twitter should be as much as what it is.

Which begs the question: What is Twitter, actually? (No, seriously!) And what type of communication is it, finally? If we’re wondering why heated debates about Twitter’s effect on information/politics/us tend to be at once so ubiquitous and so generally unsatisfying…the answer may be that, collectively, we have yet to come to consensus on a much more basic question: Is Twitter writing, or is it speech?

Twitter versus “Twitter”

The broader answer, sure, is that it shouldn’t matter. Twitter is…Twitter. It is what it is, and that should be enough. As a culture, though, we tend to insist on categorizing our communication, drawing thick lines between words that are spoken and words that are written. So libel is, legally, a different offense than slander; the written word, we assume, carries the heft of both deliberation and proliferation and therefore a moral weight that the spoken word does not. Text, we figure, is: conclusive, in that its words are the deliberate products of discourse; inclusive, in that it is available equally to anyone who happens to read it; exclusive, in that it filters those words selectively; archival, in that it preserves information for posterity; and static, in that, once published, its words are final.

And speech, while we’re at it, is discursive and ephemeral and, importantly, continual. A conversation will end, yes, but it is not the ending that defines it.

Those characteristics give way to categories. Writing is X; speaking is Y; and both have different normative dimensions that are based on, ultimately, the dynamics of power versus peer — the talking to versus the talking with. So when we talk about Twitter, we tend to base our assessments on its performance as a tool of either orality or textuality. Bill Keller seems to see Twitter as text that happens also to be conversation, and, in that, finds the form understandably lacking. His detractors, on the other hand, seem to see Twitter as conversation that happens also to be text, and, in that, find it understandably awesome.

Which would all be fine — nuanced, even! — were it not for the fact that Twitter-as-text and Twitter-as-conversation tend to be indicated by the same word: “Twitter.” In the manner of “blogger” and “journalist” and even “journalism” itself, “Twitter” has become emblematic of a certain psychology — or, more specifically, of several different psychologies packed awkwardly into a single signifier. And to the extent that it’s become a loaded word, “Twitter” has also become a problematic one: #Twittermakesyoustupid is unfair, but #”Twitter”makesyoustupid has a point. The framework of text and speech falls apart once we recognize that Twitter is both and neither at once. It’s its own thing, a new category.

Our language, however, doesn’t yet recognize that. Our rhetoric hasn’t yet caught up to our reality — for Twitter and, by extension, for other social media.

We might deem Twitter a text-based mechanism of orality, as the scholar Zeynep Tufekci has suggested, or of a “secondary orality,” as Walter Ong has argued, or of something else entirely (tweech? twext? something even more grating, if that’s possible?). It almost doesn’t matter. The point is to acknowledge, online, a new environment — indeed, a new culture — in which writing and speech, textuality and orality, collapse into each other. Speaking is no longer fully ephemeral. And text is no longer simply a repository of thought, composed by an author and bestowed upon the world in an ecstasy of self-containment. On the web, writing is newly dynamic. It talks. It twists. It has people on the other end of it. You read it, sure, but it reads you back.

“The Internet looking back at you”

In his social media-themed session at last year’s ONA conference, former Lab writer and current Wall Street Journal outreach editor Zach Seward talked about being, essentially, the voice of the outlet’s news feed on Twitter. When readers tweeted responses to news stories, @WSJ might respond in kind — possibly surprising them and probably delighting them and maybe, just for a second, sort of freaking them out.

The Journal’s readers were confronted, in other words, with text’s increasingly implicit mutuality. And their “whoa, it’s human!” experience — the Soylent Greenification of online news consumption — can bring, along with its obvious benefits, the same kind of momentary unease that accompanies the de-commodification of, basically, anything: the man behind the curtain, the ghost in the machine, etc. Concerns expressed about Twitter, from that perspective, may well be stand-ins for concerns about privacy and clickstream tracking and algorithmic recommendation and all the other bugs and features of the newly reciprocal reading experience. As the filmmaker Tze Chun noted to The New York Times this weekend, discussing the increasingly personalized workings of the web: “You are used to looking at the Internet voyeuristically. It’s weird to have the Internet looking back at you….”

So a Panoptic reading experience is also, it’s worth remembering, a revolutionary reading experience. Online, words themselves, once silent and still, are suddenly springing to life. And that can be, in every sense, a shock to the system. (Awesome! And also: Aaaah!) Text, after all, as an artifact and a construct, has generally been a noun rather than a verb, defined by its solidity, by its thingness — and, in that, by its passive willingness to be the object of interpretation by active human minds. Entire schools of literary criticism have been devoted to that assumption.

And in written words’ temporal capacity as both repositories and relics, in their power to colonize our collective past in the service of our collective future, they have suggested, ultimately, order. “The printed page,” Neil Postman had it, “revealed the world, line by line, page by page, to be a serious, coherent place, capable of management by reason, and of improvement by logical and relevant criticism.” In their architecture of sequentialism, neatly packaged in manuscripts of varying forms, written words have been bridges, solid and tangible, that have linked the past to the future. As such, they have carried an assurance of cultural continuity.

It’s that preservative function that, for the moment, Twitter is largely lacking. As a platform, it does a great job of connecting; it does, however, a significantly less-great job of conserving. It’s getting better every day; in the meantime, though, as a vessel of cultural memory, it carries legitimately entropic implications.

But, then, concerns about Twitter’s ephemerality are also generally based on a notion of Twitter-as-text. In that, they assume a zero-sum relationship between the writing published on Twitter and the writing published elsewhere. They see the written, printed word — the bridge, the badge of a kind of informational immortality — dissolving into the digital. They see back-end edits revising stories (which is to say, histories) in an instant. They see hacks erasing those stories altogether. They see links dying off at an alarming rate. They see all that is solid melting into bits.

And they have, in that perspective, a point: While new curatorial tools, Storify and its ilk, will become increasingly effective, they might not be able to recapture print’s assurance, tenacious if tenuous, of a neatly captured world. That’s partly because print’s promise of epistemic completeness has always been, to some extent, empty; but it’s also because those tools will be operating within a digital world that is increasingly — and actually kind of wonderfully — dynamic and discursive.

But what the concerns about Twitter tend to forget is that language is not, and has never been, solid. Expression allows itself room to expand. Twitter is emblematic, if not predictive, of the Gutenberg Parenthesis: the notion that, under the web’s influence, our text-ordered world is resolving back into something more traditionally oral — more conversational and, yes, more ephemeral. “Chaos is our lot,” Clay Shirky notes; “the best we can do is identify the various forces at work shaping various possible futures.” One of those forces — and, indeed, one of those futures — is the hybrid linguistic form that we are shaping online even as it shapes us. And so the digital sphere calls for a new paradigm of communication: one that is discursive as well as conservative, one that acquiesces to chaos even as it resists it, one that relies on text even as it sheds the mantle of textuality. A paradigm we might call “Twitter.”

Photos by olalindberg and Tony Hall used under a Creative Commons license.

May 30 2011

12:25

Mathew Ingram - Twitter's real-time news format can't replace journalism

GigaOM :: In the wake of a number of events, including the use of Twitter as a real-time reporting tool by New York Times writer Brian Stelter during the aftermath of the recent tornado in Missouri, media theorist and journalism professor Jeff Jarvis has written a post about how the “article” or traditional news story may no longer be necessary. With so much real-time reporting via social networks, he argues that the standard news article has become a “value-added luxury..” But Mathew Ingram disagrees.

[Mathew Ingram:] while real-time reporting is very powerful, we still need someone to make sense of those streams and put them in context. In fact, we arguably need that even more.

Continue to read Mathew Ingram, gigaom.com

May 28 2011

11:39

Brian Stelter, NYT - Disaster reporting, Twitter's strength and "what I've learned in Joplin"

GigaOM :: In his Tumblr post Brian Stelter, New York Times reporter, describes how he was woefully under-prepared for reporting on the aftermath of the recent tornado in Joplin, Missouri, U.S. It was also his first disaster for the newspaper.

Among other things, he didn’t even bring a pen, and his shoes got soaked within hours of being in the tornado-struck region. On top of those issues, Stelter also writes about how the cellular telephone system was almost unusable because of the damage, so he resorted to sending virtually everything via text message, and to posting his observations about the effects of the disaster on Twitter.

What can we learn?

Continue to read Mathew Ingram, gigaom.com

Brian Stelter on Tumblr thedeadline.tumblr.com

Brian Stelter on Twitter www.twitter.com/brianstelter

May 13 2011

14:00

This Week in Review: New business models and traffic drivers in online news, and wrangling over app ads

Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week’s top stories about the future of news.

Leaving the old ad model behind: Much of the commentary about digital news this week was generated by two big reports, one on the business of digital journalism and the other on its consumption. We’ll start on the business side, with the Columbia j-school’s study on what we know so far about the viability of various digital journalism business models. As Poynter’s Bill Mitchell suggested, the best entry point into the 146-page report might be the nine recommendations that form its conclusion.

Mitchell summed the report up in three themes: The audience for journalism is growing, though translating that into revenue is a challenge; the old model of banner ads isn’t cutting it, and news orgs need to look for new forms of advertising; and news orgs need to play better with aggregators and sharpen their own aggregation skills. In his response to the study, Reuters’ Felix Salmon focused on the advertising angle, arguing that journalism and advertising have too long been linked by mere adjacency and that “when you move away from the ad-adjacency model, however, things get a lot more interesting and exciting.”

The New York Times’ story on the report centered on advertising, too, particularly the growing need for journalists to learn about the business side of their products. (That was media consultant Mark Potts’ main takeaway, too.) Emily Bell, a scholar at the center that released the study, said that while journalists need to understand the business of their industry, integrating news and sales staffs isn’t necessarily the way to go.

The J-Lab’s Jan Schaffer recommended that news orgs respond to their business problems by learning from smaller startups and incorporating them more thoroughly into the journalism ecosystem. And paidContent’s Staci Kramer advised news orgs to focus on regular audiences rather than fly-by visitors: “Outwardly we like to complain about content farms; in reality, a lot of what news outlets are doing to the side of those front-page stories isn’t very different.”

Facebook’s growth as news driver: The other major report was released by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism and looked at how people access news on the web. This study, too, found that despite a small core of frequent users, news sites are dependent on casual users who visit sites infrequently and don’t stay long when they’re there. Poynter’s Rick Edmonds conveniently distilled the study into five big takeaways.

The study also found that while Google is still the top referrer to major news sites, Facebook is quickly emerging as a significant news driver, too. University of British Columbia j-prof Alfred Hermida said this lines up with recent research he’s done among Canadians, and GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram said it showed that while Google is a dominant source for online news now, Facebook is primed to succeed it.

Meanwhile, the study also found that surprisingly little traffic to news sites is driven by Twitter. Lauren Dugan of All Twitter said this finding casts some doubt on the idea that Twitter is “a huge link-sharing playground,” though the Wall Street Journal’s Zach Seward said the study misses that Twitter referrals are undercounted.

The Twitter undercounting was one of several problems that TBD’s Steve Buttry had about the study, including inconsistent language to characterize findings and a bias toward large news organizations. “This study probably has some helpful data. But it has too many huge holes and indications of bias to have much value,” Buttry wrote.

Pricing ads and subscriptions on tablets: Condé Nast became the third major magazine publisher to reach an agreement with Apple on app subscriptions, and one of the first to offer an in-app subscription, with The New Yorker available now. (Wired subscriptions are coming next month.) Time Inc., which reached a deal with Apple last week, clarified that it won’t include in-app subscriptions, which would be where Apple takes that now-infamous 30% cut. The Financial Times, meanwhile, is still negotiating with Apple.

Forbes’ Jeff Bercovici explained why publishers may be warming to Apple’s deal: Turns out, more people are willing to share their personal data with publishers feared. Still, Mathew Ingram of GigaOM used iFlowReader’s bad Apple experience as a warning to other companies about the dangers of getting into bed with Apple.

Now that Apple-publisher relations have thawed, the New York Times’ David Carr moved to the next issue: Negotiations between publishers and advertisers over how valuable in-app ads are, and how much those ads should cost. Time.com’s Chris Gayomali wondered why magazines are more than giving away app subscriptions with print subscriptions, and concluded that it’s about getting more eyeballs on the print product, not the app, in order to maintain the all-important ad rate base.

In other words, Carr said in another post, publishers are following the old magazine model, where the product is priced below cost and the money is made off advertising instead. He questioned the wisdom of applying that strategy to tablets: “the rich advertising opportunity that will produce may be a less durable and less stable business than grinding out highly profitable circulation over the long haul.”

A postmortem on Bin Laden coverage: It’s now been close to two weeks since the news of Osama bin Laden’s death broke on Twitter, but plenty of folks were still discussing how the story was broken and covered. Gilad Lotan and Devin Gaffney of SocialFlow put together some fascinating visualizations of how the news spread on Twitter, especially the central roles of Donald Rumsfeld staffer Keith Urbahn and New York Times reporter Brian Stelter. Mashable’s Chris Taylor concluded from the data that trustworthiness and having active followers (as opposed to just lots of followers) are more important than ever on Twitter.

Media consultant Frederic Filloux was mostly reassured by the way the traditional news outlets handled the story online: “For once, editorial seems to evolve at a faster pace than the business side.” There were still folks cautioning against going overboard on Twitter-as-news hype, while the Telegraph’s Emma Barnett wondered why pundits are still so surprised at the significant role Twitter and Facebook play in breaking news. (“It’s exactly what they were designed for.”)

New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane gave the blow-by-blow of how his paper responded to the story, highlighting a few tweets by Times reporters and editors. Reuters’ Felix Salmon chastised Brisbane for not including Brian Stelter’s tweets, which were posted a good 15 minutes before the ones he included. The exclusion, Salmon surmised, might indicate that the Times doesn’t see what Stelter did on Twitter as reporting.

Google News founder Krishna Bharat compared the way Google handled 9/11 and Bin Laden’s death, marveling at how much more breaking-news coverage is available on the web now. The Lab’s Megan Garber used the occasion to glean some insights from Bharat about trusting the authority of the algorithm to provide a rich palette of news, but at Search Engine Land, Danny Sullivan used the Bin Laden coverage to point out some flaws in Google News’ algorithm.

Reading roundup: Lots of interesting little rabbit trails to choose from this week. Here are a few:

— ComScore’s April traffic numbers are out, and there were a number of storylines flowing out of them: Cable news sources are beating print ones in web traffic, the New York Times’ numbers are down (as expected) after implementation of its paywall, and Gawker’s numbers are starting to come back after dropping last year with its redesign.

— Last week, ESPN columnist Rick Reilly told graduating students at the University of Colorado’s j-school to never write for free. That prompted Jason Fry of the National Sports Journalism Center and Craig Calcaterra of MSNBC.com’s Hardball Talk to expound on the virtues of writing for free, though Slate’s Tom Scocca took Reilly’s side.

— Late last week, Google lost an appeal to a 2007 Belgian ruling forcing it to pay newspapers for gaining revenue for linking to their stories on Google News.

— Finally, two thoughtful pieces on brands and journalism: Jason Fry at Poynter on assessing the value of organizational and personal brands, and Vadim Lavrusik at the Lab on journalists building their brands via Facebook.

September 20 2010

17:30

In a hamster-wheel world, is there room for journalistic creativity? Evidence from The New York Times

The essential question facing newsrooms today is this one: Does more speed and more content come at the cost of creativity? Does the “hamster wheel,” as described by Dean Starkman in this month’s Columbia Journalism Review cover story, reduce journalists’ capacity to move stories forward instead of playing catch-up online? And does the demand for speed and the hunger for clicks come at the cost of thoughtful editing and crafting of stories?

This question is at the core of my (almost written) dissertation — when news is made in an online newsroom, what happens to the invention process? But it is my contention, after having the privilege to spend five months, day-in and day-out at Business Day at The New York Times, is that even though many journalists there often feel like wire reporters, many also feel that writing a story five times actually makes their work better.

But that division in sentiment is not the heart of the argument. My sense so far is that there are five factors that encourage creativity in newsrooms even at a time when journalists are producing more with less.

— Newsrooms, recognizing that news is everywhere, need to differentiate their content.

What makes a story in The New York Times business section — even if it the third time it is written by a staffer — different from the same story in The Wall Street Journal? The hope and aspirations by editors, at least, and the goal expressed to me by the close to 50 journalists I interviewed on the business desk, was that the intention of every story was to provide “added value” — something that other newsrooms wouldn’t have.

Most journalists referred to the news that everyone else has as “commodity news” — the news that you can get anywhere. But if newsrooms are to survive, newsrooms as they produce multiple iterations of the same story throughout the day must provide something different than their competitors. This challenges the journalist further to provide a different take, and the most successful journalists will be able to distinguish their content. Those who win that battle will also win the click battle, eventually.

— Newsrooms that still have a print cycle have to pause and think about the day ahead.

If print newsrooms are to remain competitive, there is necessarily a point at which journalists must think about what’s going to be in the paper. If a developing news story has been up on the web all day for readers, newspapers won’t maximize their return by just plopping that story into the next day’s paper. At The Times, the story in the print paper was viewed much more as a “second-day story” — even if the event had taken place the same day the story was written. A few staffers said that The Times in print was become more like a daily news magazine than a daily paper, giving people a step back from the daily hubbub of the news to provide a deeper and richer story.

Take, for instance, a Goldman Sachs earnings report. In the morning, it might be a routine earnings story with the numbers. Over the course of the day, a reporter might differentiate that story with different questions asked to bigwigs at Goldman, different snippets of life from the trading floor, and perhaps proprietary reporting gleaned from sources, or even takes on the earnings from academics. At a certain point in the day, the rewriting of the story stops and it becomes time to look for the big picture — there has to be enough that people who haven’t been following the story all day have enough to understand the story, but there will be a larger tale, perhaps about the broader significance of the numbers, or what larger trends at the bank might mean, or other take-outs that make the story different from competitors.

And don’t forget: This final print story is the final story that ends up online.

— Speed only applies to certain kinds of stories.

Only certain stories lend themselves to the kind of developing coverage that would require multiple rewrites. Hearings on Capitol Hill might lend themselves to something like the attention of a live-blogger plus the attention of a reporter tasked with covering the take-out stories as they develop, from pre-written statements to the actual question and answer period. On the day Apple’s iPad was introduced, I saw multiple stories being written as the story developed — and the attention of everything from a live-blog to all-hands on deck with Twitter and The Times’ Bits blog. These stories require constant updates because something new is happening as the day develops. There is more to add to the story. And determining which updates are worth including is the careful task of editors and reporters who must again decide where added value comes in.

But it is my thinking that newsrooms, even those with increasingly limited resources, also understand the importance of pacing and managing staff. A newsroom that has everyone devoted to playing catch-up will not have the substantive stories that will distinguish their news from all the other products out there. Thus some reporters have to be taken off the breaking news bandwagon — this may be for particular days, or it may be that some reporters simply do not have to do regular breaking news. This is one way to keep coverage fresh and inventive. A newsroom that can figure out how to allocate resources will be a newsroom that continues to remain creative and one that ultimately will keep readers coming back.

— The audience does want more, now more than ever. And journalists can listen, too.

Presuming a developing story will go through multiple iterations, it is reasonable to suspect that audiences will be checking back. Or that since the audience is fragmented, there are different audiences checking in at different points of the day. Shouldn’t we have something for audiences that choose to follow the story over the course of the day? And shouldn’t we have something for audiences that choose to read just once, say at 3 p.m., instead of the moment that the news is breaking? My thinking is that the audience wants more from journalists because journalists can provide more; the voracious news consumer (and ultimately the news consumer who will be most valuable when news organizations switch to paywalls or meter models) will be checking the site frequently. And for those drop-in audiences, people who maybe check once in the morning and once in the evening, don’t they also deserve something new?

But there’s another element here: Developing stories also are also the ones, I’ve observed, to be most likely to be open to comments. Though not all journalists have gotten the hang of reading comments or monitoring Twitter, they are definitely reading reader email as it comes in. And this audience feedback provides journalists with new opportunities for direction for stories, and a sense of how their stories are being received in a way that they never could have had before. This sense of instant feedback on a story’s progression has the opportunity to shape reporting. This is still early in its development, and at this point most likely to affect reporters who can monitor Twitter and check comments as part of their regular routine. But I see great opportunity for audience feedback shaping developing news in the future.

— Speed also means more attention has to be devoted to more than just the text of the story.

If a story is going to be big enough to merit multiple rewrites — if it is a developing story all over the web — you better hope that the story isn’t just text. The room for creativity does depend on the capacity of newsrooms. At The Times, the newsroom is privileged to have an amazing staff of web producers, graphics folks, photo staff, and videographers who can create a multimedia package to go along with a developing story to make that story stand out. But the lesson is true for newsrooms that do not have the same depth of resources as The Times (which, it must be said, often can’t do everything it wants, either).

There are other ways for stories to become more than just stories. Without multimedia, reporters even as they go about collecting their moment-by-moment updates, can also be engaged with conversations on social media platforms. This is an adjustment for reporters, and it certainly adds another layer to the concern about speed and burnout, but it inspires, as I noted before, creativity — and it adds further interest to the story. I have seen reporters working on intense deadline pressure on competitive stories use social media to enhance their work — extending the story beyond text. For those looking for some inspiration, check out what Michael de la Merced, Brian Stelter, and Micki Maynard (who has since left the paper) have been able to do on big stories.

So am I setting up an unfair example?

Certainly you could argue that a place like The Times is an outlier and an unfair place to start talking about creativity under pressure. But I don’t think that The Times is doing anything that other newsrooms aren’t, except for perhaps the amazing multimedia opportunities. The Times is still in fierce competition to distinguish coverage, reporters are still writing multiple times during a day on developing stories, and the challenges on journalists to do ever more are common to all newsrooms. But I see incredible opportunities for the hamster wheel to produce even better journalism — it just might take some time to figure out.

August 02 2010

15:00

Following up on the need for follow-up

Matt Thompson, currently of NPR and always of Snarkmarket, left a comment on my post from Friday about the need for follow-up journalism — including a link to a Snarkmarket post he’d written back in 2007. After reading that entry, and the very smart comments-section conversation it occasioned among Thompson and fellow-Snarkmarketeers Robin Sloan and Tim Carmody, I had what is probably the most common thought in the blogosphere: “Damn, I wish I’d seen that before I wrote my post.”

Thompson, who lived in Minneapolis in 2007, looks at the collapse of Minneapolis’ 35W bridge — which killed 13 people, and which was, tragically enough, all too predictable (and, thus, preventable). The press saw it coming; in the end, that didn’t matter. Because “even when our coverage anticipates disaster,” Thompson notes, “it often draws too little attention to avert it.”

I highly recommend reading Thompson’s post, and its comments section, in full; you’ll be hard-pressed to find smarter stuff. But if Instapaper you must, the nut of it is this: As journalism moves beyond physicality — as digitization allows our stories to transcend not just print and air, but atoms themselves — it is also free to move beyond temporality. Again, Thompson:

I think this may be one of the most important and underappreciated realities of journalism right now: Journalism can now exist outside of time. The only reason we’re constrained to promoting news on a minutely, hourly, daily or weekly basis is because we’ve inherited that notion from media that really do operate in fixed time cycles.

We tend to understand the news cycle in analog terms, and so to assume that journalists have basically one chance — via the daily paper, the nightly newscast, the monthly magazine — to share a particular piece of news with their audiences. And the chance to contextualize that news for audiences — to give them a sense of information’s importance compared with the other news of the minute, of the day, of the year — is even rarer. What results is a flattening: the stories of our day, big and small, silly and significant, are leveled to the same plane, occupying the same space, essentially, in the wobbly little IKEA bookshelf that is the modular news bundle. That collapsing of context occurs not just in print papers, but in broadcast and online, as well (as even the most cursory glance at the HuffPost’s homepage — Midterms! Palin! Afghanistan! LiLo! — will make clear). And yet we want perspective; we want to give the public a sense of the relative significance of our stories. So we’ve hacked a workaround: a code of assumption embedded in the stories we tell, a language whose grammar is visual (headline size, font) and whose syntax is graphical (page location).

Semantics, however, suggest sympathy; you have to understand those subtle signs in order to make sense of them. Many readers, for no other reason than that they haven’t gone to journalism school, don’t do the former — and therefore can’t do the latter. A better hack would be no hack at all — a system that doesn’t try to work around temporal constraints, but that, instead, restructures its relationship with the news cycle itself. There’s little implicit or necessary about that cycle; like so many other features of journalism’s core workings, it is for the most part an accident of history.

But as much as journalism has evolved with the web, its epistemology — the assumptions it makes about how best to structure and divide and filter lived experience — has remained fairly static. Even the most dashingly experimental of news outlets have generally cleaved to journalism’s traditional method of portioning the world for mass consumption: topical beats. Most reporters cover a particular, defined space — education, the arts, suburban Jersey — and they do so, significantly, from all angles: factual and conceptual, hard and soft, small-angle and wide-. (So when Brian Stelter, for example, covers “the media” for The New York Times, all the levels of complexity that that topic embodies — from nuggets of breaking news to business-deal analyses to step-back, thinkier pieces — fall under his aegis.) It’s a kind of Linnaean approach to our journalistic infrastructure — the same impulse that views a taxonomy of nature, with its neat families and phyla, not as an imposition of order, but as a metaphor for the one that already exists.

And that’s logical, of course; the most common complaint against digital news being its chaotic nature (and, for that matter, the most commonly accepted assumption about it being that we need better filters to keep it coherent), topic-based journalism makes sense. But it also has a side effect: Because we choose, essentially, topic over time as journalism’s core ordering principle, we don’t generally think about time as an order unto itself. Newness, and nowness, become our default settings, and our default objectives. The “tyranny of recency,” Thompson calls it.

Which ends up translating, less elegantly but more specifically, to the tyranny of the news peg. In our current approach to news, ideas and connections and continuities — context, more generally — often become subsidiary to “now” itself. Newness trumps all, to occasionally devastating effect. There’s an economic reason for that, sure (the core of it being that audiences like nowness just as much as journalists). But we also now have tools that invite an intriguing possibility: new taxonomies of time. We have Twitter’s real-time news flow. We have Wikipedia’s wide-angle perspective. We have, above all, the web itself, a platform that’s proven extraordinarily good at balancing urgency with memory. We’d do well to make more of it — if for no other reason than the fact that, as Thompson puts it, “a journalism unfettered by time would align much more closely with timeless reality.”

April 13 2010

16:00

“The 24/7 News Cycle”: David Carr, Arianna Huffington, and Mark Russell debate the future at ASNE

Earlier this morning, David Carr, Arianna Huffington, and the Orlando Sentinel’s Mark Russell gathered to discuss “The 24/7 News Cycle: New Opportunities, New Pressures.” The panel had, surprisingly, a more elegiac tone at the outset than some of the previous events at this week’s “NewsNow Ideas Summit“; near the start of the conversation, Carr mentioned starting as The New York Times’ media columnist during a time when mass layoffs at papers and other media organizations were already the norm. “For a while I was thinking, ‘Does this end with me typing my own name into a sentence about layoffs?’” he said.

Now, though, at least according to the panel, things are turning around. Despite the recognition of context, optimism — tempered by pragmatism — was the talk’s overall sensibility. “I think we’re getting to the good part,” Carr said. “That’s what it feels like to me.”

Below, three (by now familiar) ideas that emerged, again and again, during the conversation:

1. The core need for context in addition to, and as part of, news narrative.

“We need to go back to getting stories,” said Huffington. But we need, she continued, to tell stories in a new way — to bolster them with background information, smart framing, and, overall, context. “How do we do impact journalism — especially at a time when so many institutions are crumbling?” Huffington asked. Which is also to say: “How do we do journalism in a way that is transformational?”

One answer to that question, she said, is to leverage the expertise of editors. Even in the aggregative work The Huffington Post is engaged in, Huffington pointed out, “the editorial function is paramount.” If a story is “surging” — i.e., getting heavy traffic and pass-around — it’s up to an editor to decide whether to increase its reach and impact, she said. Is the story, ultimately, “worthwhile”?

Context also demands stepping back from the tumult and taking time to process information as well as produce it, Carr pointed out. “I think because we’re so busy pushing media out, that it makes us dumber and dumber,” he said. (Later, he added: “This thing about iterating, iterating, iterating — great. But every once in a while, pick up the gun and shoot it.”)

“Editors are always saying, ‘Do more with less,’” Carr said. “We know that’s baloney. We know that’s not true.” He echoed a comment Mark Russell had made earlier: Know your strengths, he said, and focus on those. “We have a guy named Brian Stelter, who every time he moves his elbow, media pops out,” Carr pointed out. But Stelter is a digital native, Carr said; not everyone can — or should — be like him. Pick your battles.

2. The need for strategic use of new technologies.

“The cloud enriches what we do in ways that we don’t even see — because it happens slowly,” Carr said. And it opens up the possibilities for journalistic creation. “There’s this cereal box of things I could be doing every single day,” Carr pointed out. But, then again, “just because you can do it doesn’t mean you should do it.” Again, be selective.

And that’s a rule for preserving not just journalists’ sanity, but also their journalism itself. “It’s not how many times you tweet,” Huffington said; rather, “it’s how effectively we can use the new media and the new technologies.” And it’s about taking advantage of the new connectivity that the web allows to improve journalistic storytelling. “Technology has allowed millions of people to express themselves as they’ve never been able to before, she said — to the extent that “self-expression is the new entertainment.” And leveraging that expressive explosion is to everyone’s benefit.

(As to the payment question: People ask why people edit Wikipedia for no money, Huffington said. People ask why people tweet for no money. “But nobody asks, ‘why are they watching seven hours of bad TV for no money?’”)

3. The need for respecting readers and their desires for the news.

The patriarchal days of journalism are over, the panelists suggested; today, news is about determining what readers want — and not only giving it to them, but giving it to them where they are. Social media aren’t merely valuable as crowdsourcing mechanisms; they’re valuable as distribution platforms. “That’s the stage you have to be in because that’s what the users expect,” Russell said. Ultimately, “we have to be in the spaces they’re in.”

4. The need for collaboration.

We’re in a time that finds discrepant news approaches colliding with each other. “Arianna’s marching toward us in terms of some things that she’s up to; and we’re marching up toward her,” Carr said. It’s “insurgent warfare” — “and we’re at a disadvantage because we have all of these legacy costs and systems,” he pointed out of the Times. “The frictional stuff that’s going on is breathtaking to behold.”

One thing to remember, though: When news outlets become casualties of our transforming news system, their loss “is not collateral damage,” Carr said; it’s a real reduction in our ability to cover communities. Which makes collaborations — which are, among other things, hedges against news vacuums — increasingly valuable.

A lot of these hybrid models — “which I thought were, frankly, baloney when they first launched,” Carr said — are now playing an indispensable role.

February 05 2010

16:24

Live webcast from NYC: crowdsourcing and journalism

Via paidContent, we see that a live conference from the New York Times building is being webcast right now (not sure for how much longer), with a stellar line-up: Brian Stelter, media reporter & Media Decoder blogger, the New York Times (moderator) with Aron Pilhofer, editor, interactive news technology, the New York Times; Andy Carvin, senior social media strategist, National Public Radio; Amanda Michel, editor, distributed reporting, ProPublica; Jay Rosen, professor, New York University; and Joaquin Alvarado, senior VP, digital innovation, American Public Media.

Live Webcast Happening Now: Crowdsourcing For Journalists, at NYT Building | paidContent.

Watch live streaming video from smw_newyork at livestream.com

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