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June 21 2013

14:27

Pinned: Story trailers, a notable narrative, writers on rejection, writers on Twitter, Michael Hastings’ tips for young journalists

Pinned this week, for your storytelling pleasure:

Inspired: Story trailers. Esquire made not one but two (a 46- and 20-second version) for Chris Jones’ “Animals,” a taut narrative about the Zanesville, Ohio, zoo massacre. And Georgia’s Macon Telegraph just launched one for “Searching for Shorty: The murder of an unknown man,” a narrative coming this Sunday by enterprise reporters Amy Leigh Womack and Joe Kovac Jr.:

Kovac makes these himself. We asked him how he does it, and why, and here’s what he told us yesterday:

This was actually the third “trailer” I’ve done for stories in the past year and a half. They’re all fairly pedestrian, done with half-a-decade-old iMovie software on the Mac in my kitchen. (Not low-budget, but rather no-budget.) “Killing in the Country: The Death of Trevorius Thomas,” for instance, incorporates audio I recorded on my iPhone at the funeral; I used a photo I snapped at the scene as the backdrop. I made “Phantom on Emery Highway“ on a Sunday night. I filmed it through an open sunroof with a point-and-shoot camera. The idea was to follow the same route that police thought the hit-and-run driver took. Which I did. The clip ends at the spot where the man was killed. I had hoped to film it at 3:30 a.m. to capture an accurate depiction of what the traffic might have been like when the man was run over. But I figured late on a Sunday was good enough. I’ve tried to be as careful as I can on these not to go over the top with the effects and bells and whistles that iMovie offers. As a novice on video, I think sometimes there’s an urge to “use all the toys.” I’ve tried to keep the trailers simple. As we might say in a print newsroom, Write it straight.

Joe Kovac Jr.

Joe Kovac Jr.

I’m pretty much a shade-tree mechanic when it comes to video. At best. I can write “grabber” copy well enough and I think that’s why I use it instead of voiceovers. I’ve made most of these in my spare time, off the clock. But I’ve found that distilling a 5,000-word story into a minute or so of video really makes you focus as a writer. On “Killing in the Country,” about a drug deal gone bad, I made the trailer the weekend before I started writing. It was agonizing, tedious, making the text match the sound, learning the iMovie ropes trial and error. So much of it is timing. But bottom line, it forces you to find the heart of the story. But again, low-budget as it may look, it was painstaking. The “Killing in the Country” clip took … well, let’s just say longer than I’d have liked. Hours.

I wouldn’t want to do trailers on everyday features, but on a piece I’ve spent a few weeks or months reporting it can be worth it. The hope, of course, is that the videos will drive readers to our site for the stories. Hard to gauge whether it works. It’s still kind of cool.

Notable narrativesThe Washington Post’s Stephanie McCrummen wrote a remarkable piece recently about a mother, a son and schizophrenia. A passage:

It has been 10 years since he began thinking his classmates were whispering about him, four years since he started feeling angry all the time, and two years since he first told a doctor he was hearing imaginary voices. It has been 20 months since he was told he had a form of schizophrenia, and 15 months since he swallowed three bottles of Benadryl and laid down to die, after which he had gotten better, and worse and, for a while, better again, or so Naomi had thought until an hour ago, when they were in the therapist’s office and Spencer said that his head was feeling “cloudy.” 

“Wait —” she said, interrupting. “You described it as a cloudy feeling?”

Cloudy was the big, flying red flag that she had learned to dread. It might simply be a side effect of one of his five medications. But it could also be the quiet beginning of her firstborn son falling apart again, of hallucinations, or a dive into depression, or some other dimension of his illness that Naomi has yet to fathom.

“Yeah,” Spencer said. “Cloudy. It feels like these winds are blowing inside my head.”

Inspired, Part 2: Twelve famous writers on rejection, which in this fractious writing universe appears applicable across disciplines (“To ward off a feeling of failure, she joked that she could wallpaper her bathroom with rejection slips, which she chose not to see as messages to stop, but rather as tickets to the game.”—Anita Shreve) and Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, a new book about the habits of 161 creative minds. From the website of the author, Mason Currey:

Here are: Anthony Trollope, who demanded of himself 3,000 words each morning (250 words every 15 minutes for three hours) before going off to his job at the postal service, which he kept for 33 years during the writing of more than two dozen books; George Balanchine, who liked to do his own laundry and who did most of his “work” while ironing; George Gershwin, who worked for 12 hours a day, from late morning to midnight, composing at the piano in pajamas, bathrobe, and slippers.

Recommended: At NewYorker.com, Thomas Beller wrote about writers and Twitter:

Writing on Twitter brings the energy of a début to every phrase. You could say it imbues writing with a sense of performance, though writing has always involved performance in the sense of performance anxiety. The question for the writer who is leaving multiple pages crumpled on the floor—literally or figuratively—is for whom is that line, or paragraph, unsatisfactory? Who is the appraiser of one’s own unpublished, or even unwritten, work?

The editor Ted Solotaroff wrote an essay called “A Few Good Voices In My Head,” in which he talked about managing this feeling of having an audience. His prescription is summed up in his title: a couple of trusted voices with whom a writer will engage in a dialogue—sometimes literally, more often not. Twitter is messing with this equation: I have many more voices in my head than I ever had before.

Cartoontorials: It’s not that big a deal but really, people, isn’t it time to stop double-spacing after a period in your first drafts? The typewriter imperative is over.

GearThese notebooks, spotted by former Arizona Republic reporter Jamiee Rose. Not so great for reporting, maybe (we prefer the long narrow classic ones: easily tuckable or back-pocketable), but just fine for sketching out story notes and structures.

In memorium: Let’s just agree that this was one crappy week. Rolling Stone and BuzzFeed reporter Michael Hastings died at 33 in a Los Angeles car crash; the actor James Gandolfini died suddenly at 51, while vacationing in Italy; the Oregonian announced a publishing scale-back plus layoffs and the publisher referred to the newsroom as a “content organization.” (“Kill me,” tweeted Gene Weingarten.) Worth remembering as we shake off a tough one: Hastings’ 10 tips for young journalists, which in the hours after his death circulated widely beyond his year-old reddit AMA. They included:

By the second sentence of a pitch, the entirety of the story should be explained. (In other words, if you can’t come up with a rough headline for your story idea, it’s going to be a challenge to get it published.)

And:

Mainly you really have to love writing and reporting. Like it’s more important to you than anything else in your life–family, friends, social life, whatever. 

Join us on Pinterest for more good stuff, and find the burgeoning “Pinned” archives here.

May 15 2013

12:20

The newsonomics of where NewsRight went wrong

newsright-wide

Quietly, very quietly, NewsRight — once touted as the American newspaper industry’s bid to protect its content and make more money from it — has closed its doors.

Yesterday, it conducted a concluding board meeting, aimed at tying up loose ends. That meeting follows the issuing of a put-your-best-face-on-it press release two weeks ago. Though the news has been out there, hardly a whimper was heard.

Why?

Chalk it up, first, to how few people are really still covering the $38.6 billion U.S. newspaper industry. Then add in the fact that the world is changing rapidly. Piracy protection has declined as a top publisher concern. Google’s snippetization of the news universe is bothersome, but less of a central issue. The declining relative value of the desktop web — where NewsRight was primarily aimed — in the mobile age played a part. Non-industry-owned players like NewsCred (“The newsonomics of recycling journalism”) have been born, offering publishers revenue streams similar to those that NewsRight itself was intended to create.

Further, new ways to value news content — through all-access subscriptions and app-based delivery, content marketing, marketing services, innovative niching and more — have all emerged in the last couple of years.

Put a positive spin on it, and the U.S. newspaper industry is looking forward, rather than backward, as it seeks to find new ways to grow reader and ad revenues.

That’s all true. But it’s also instructive to consider the failure of NewsRight.

It’s easy to deride it as NewsWrong. It’s one of those enterprises that may just have been born under a bad sign. Instead of the stars converging, they collided.

NewsRight emerged as an Associated Press incubator project. If you recall the old AP News Registry and its “beacon,” NewsRight became its next iteration. It was intended to track news content as it traversed the web, detecting piracy along the way (“Remember the beacon”). It was an ambitious databasing project, at its peak taking in feeds from more than 900 news sites. The idea: create the largest database of current news content in the country, both categorized by topic and increasingly trackable as it was used (or misused) on the web.

AP initially incentivized member newspapers to contribute to the News Registry by discounting some of their annual fees. Then a bigger initiative emerged, first called the News Licensing Group (NLG). The strategy: harness the power of the growing registry to better monetize newspaper content through smart licensing.

NLG grew into a separate company, with AP contributing the registry’s intellectual property and becoming one of 29 partners. The other 28: U.S. daily newspaper companies and the leading European newspaper and magazine publisher Axel Springer. Those partners collectively committed more than $20 million — though they ended up spending only something more than half of that before locking up the premises.

Renamed NewsRight, it was an industry consortium, and here a truism applies: It’s tougher for a consortium — as much aimed at defense than offense — to innovate and adjust quickly. Or, to put it in vaudevillian terms: Dying is easy — making decisions among 29 newspaper companies can be torture.

It formally launched just more than a year ago, in January 2012 (“NewsRight’s potential: New content packages, niche audiences, and revenue”), and the issues surfaced immediately. Let’s count the top three:

  • Its strategy was muddled. Was it primarily a content-protection play, bent on challenging piracy and misuse? Or was it a way to license one of the largest collections of categorized news content? Which way did it want to go? Instead of deciding between the two, it straddled both.
  • In May 2011, seven months before the launch, the board had picked TV veteran David Westin as its first CEO. Formerly head of ABC News, he seemed an odd fit from the beginning. A TV guy in a text world. An analog guy in a digital world. Then friction between Westin and those who had hired him — including then-AP CEO Tom Curley — only complicated the strategic indecision. Westin was let go in July, which I noted then, was the beginning of the end.
  • Publishers’ own interests were too tough to balance with the common good. Though both The New York Times Company and AP were owners, it was problematic to include feeds of the Times and AP in the main NewsRight “catalog.” The partners tried to find prices suitable for the high-value national content (including the Times and AP) and the somewhat lesser-valued regional content, but that exercise proved difficult, the difficulty of execution exacerbated by anti-trust laws. Potential customers, of course, wanted the Times and AP as part of any deal, so dealmaking was hampered.

Further, all publishers take in steady revenue streams — collectively in the tens of millions — from enterprise licensors, like LexisNexis, Factiva, and Thomson Reuters, as well as education and copyright markets. NewsRight’s owners (the newspaper companies) didn’t want NewsRight to get in the way of those revenue streams — and those were the only licensing streams that had proven lucrative over time.

Long story short, NewsRight was hobbled from the beginning, and in its brief life, was able to announce only two significant customer, Moreover and Cision, and several smaller ones.

How could it have been so difficult?

It’s understandable on one level. Publishers have seethed with rage as they’ve seen their substantial investment in newsrooms harvested — for nothing — by many aggregators from Google to the tens of thousands of websites that actually steal full-text content. Those sites all monetize the content with advertising, and, save a few licensing agreements (notably with AP itself), they share little in the way of ad revenue.

But rage — whether seething or public — isn’t a business model.

Anti-piracy, itself, has also proven not to be much of a business model. Witness the tribulations of Attributor, an AP-invested-in content-tracking service that used some pretty good technology to track pirated content. It couldn’t get the big ad providers to act on piracy, though. Last year, after pointing its business in the direction of book industry digital rights management, it was sold for a meager $5.6 million to Digimarc.

So if anti-piracy couldn’t wasn’t much of a business model, then the question turned to who would pay to license NewsRight’s feed of all that content, or subsets of it?

Given that owner-publishers wanted to protect their existing licensing streams, NewsRight turned its sights to an area that had not well-monetized: media monitoring.

Media monitoring is a storied field. When I did content syndication for Knight Ridder at the turn of the century, I was lucky enough to visit Burrelles (now BurrellesLuce) in Livingston, New Jersey. In addition to a great auto tour of Tony Soprano country, I got to visit the company in the midst of transition.

In one office, older men with actual green eyeshades meticulously clipped periodicals (with scissors), monitoring company mentions in the press. The company then took the clips and mailed them. That’s a business that sustained many a press agent for many a decade: “Look, see the press we got ya!”

In Burrelles’ back rooms, the new digital monitoring of press mention was beginning to take form. Today, media monitoring is a good, if mature, industry segment, dominated by companies like Cision, BurrellesLuce, and Vocus, as social media monitoring and sentiment analysis both widen and complicate the field. Figure there are more than a hundred media monitoring companies of note.

Yet even within the relatively slim segment of the media monitoring space, NewsRight couldn’t get enough traction fast enough. Its ability to grow revenues there — and then to pivot into newer areas like mobile aggregation and content marketing — ran into the frustrations of the owner-newspapers. So they pulled the plug, spending less than they had actually committed. They decided to cut their losses, and move on.

Moving on meant making NewsRight’s last deal. The company — which has let go its fewer than 10 employees — announced that it had “joined forces” with BurrellesLuce and Moreover. It’s a face-saver — and maybe more.

Those two companies will try to extend media monitoring contracts for newspaper companies. BurrellesLuce (handling licensing and aggregation) and Moreover (handling billing and tracking) will make content available under the NewsRight name. The partnership’s new CAP (Compliant Article Program) seeks to further contracting for digital media monitoring rights, a murky legal area. If CAP works, publishers, Moreover, and BurrellesLuce will share in the new revenue.

What about NewsRight’s anti-piracy mandate? That advocacy position transitions over to the Newspaper Association of America.

NAA is itself in the process of being restyled into a new industry hub (with its merger and more) under new CEO Caroline Little. “As both guardian and evangelist for the newspaper industry, the NAA feels a tremendous responsibility to protect original content generated by its members,” noted Little in the NewsRight release.

What about the 1,000-title content database, the former AP registry that had formed the nucleus of NewsRight? It’s in limbo, and isn’t part of the BurrellesLuce/Moreover turnover. Its categorization technology has had stumbles and overall the system needs an upgrade.

There’s a big irony here.

In 2013, we’re seeing more innovative use of news content than we have in a long time. From NewsCred’s innovative aggregation model to Flipboard’s DIY news magazines, from new content marketing initiatives at The New York Times, Washington Post, Buzzfeed, and Forbes to regional agency businesses like The Dallas Morning News’ Speakeasy, there are many new ways news content is being monetized.

We’re really in the midst of a new content re-evaluation. No one makes the mistake this time around of calling news content king, but its value is being reproven amid these fledgling strategies.

Maybe the advent of a NewsCred — which plainly better understood and better built technology to value a new kind of content aggregation — makes NewsRight redundant. That’s in a sense what the partners decided: let the staffs of BurrellesLuce and Moreover and smarts of the NewsCreds make sense of whatever newer licensing markets are out there. Let them give the would-be buyers what they want: a licensing process to be as simple as it can be. One-stop, one-click, or as close as you can manage to that. While the disbanding of NewsRight seems to take the news industry in the opposite, more atomized, direction, in one way, it may be the third-party players who succeed here.

So is it that NewsRight is ending with a whimper, or maybe a sigh of relief? Both, plainly. It’s telling that no one at NewsRight was either willing or able to talk about the shutdown.

Thumbs down to content consortia. Thumbs up to letting the freer market of entrepreneurs make sense of the content landscape, with publishers getting paid something for what the companies still know how to do: produce highly valued content.

May 10 2013

15:46

How’s it going with The Big Round Table and other narrative ventures, Michael Shapiro?

As if longtime Columbia J-school professor Michael Shapiro didn’t already have enough to do, with Big Round Table launching in September: Yesterday he put 17 of his students’ stories online in a pay-what-you want experiment. Project Wordsworth runs for the next week. The idea intrigues us* and we’re interested to see what will happen. As of this morning Project Wordsworth had seen 5,000 page views and the writers, Shapiro said, had earned more than $1,000. Excerpts from a few of the stories:

W.125th to 99 Madison Avenue: 30 minutes on the 1 and N trains according to Google, which was five minutes off. Apparently, Google doesn’t account for 4 inch heels in their walking and transfer time estimations. Seat: Yes. Ambiance: 4. Time in transit: 35 minutes. The OpenData NYC meet-up was hosted at ThoughtWorks, one of the many Manhattan tech start-ups indistinguishable from each other with their fridges full of beers and vague mission statements. ThoughtWorks was unusual only in that its offices were in Midtown rather than the downtown corridor of the original “Silicon Alley.” (from “The Little Blue Book: The Worlds of Commuting Obsessives,” by Madeline K.B. Ross)

Sitting on a plastic bed in the in-patient/out-patient wing of the Weinberg Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins with an IV connected to a catheter that had been implanted in my chest, things were looking up. It was 2008 and I was 28 years old, and due to a recent battery of high-dose chemotherapy that had left me with maybe one white blood cell, which I’d named Melvin, I had to wear one of those surgeon’s masks at all times to keep the world’s germs out of my face. Here I was, if you can imagine, bald and eyebrowless with a paper mask over my mouth, a tube coming out of my chest, the picture of cancer, and things were looking up. Scans showed that the cancer (along with just about every other cell in my body) was disappearing. (from “Healing Me Harshly,” by Keith Collins)

Kathryn Denning spends a lot of time studying scientists who think about aliens. Denning, an anthropologist at York University in Canada, is fascinated by the idea of The Other in relation to humans. Her recent research has focused on how scientists think about the evolution of intelligence in relation to hypothetical extraterrestrials, ethical difficulties and the future of the human colonization of Space. A big reason we’re so drawn to space, she told me, is “its importance in traditional culture.” We all share the experience of looking up at the stars and trying to make sense of it all. “It tends to get intertwined with the heavens and Heaven and we think of it as a place of revelations and knowledge and dreams,” Denning said. (from “Cosmic Postcards: The Adventures of an Armchair Astronaut,” by Kamakshi Ayyar)

In the days and months that followed I replayed the incident in my head over and over again. It seemed so unreal that I often questioned whether what I saw actually happened or if I dreamed it all up. What always made it real again was not the image of a man jumping but the memory of the jolt the train made as it ran over his body. I needed to know who this man was. I looked in the newspapers but found very little. I learned that his name was Dwight Brown and that he was 27 years old. He lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Then the trail dried up. It was as if this man’s trace of life vanished. I thought if I could find more about this man, meet his family and friends, I would be able to make sense of that morning. (from “The Witness,” by Mary Ann Georgantopoulos)

Screen Shot 2013-05-09 at 4.51.05 PMShapiro also gave us a status report on his larger project, The Big Round Table, a Kickstarter-funded web-based publisher of longform narrative that attempts to crowd-curate storytelling by bypassing the “gatekeepers” of publishing and posting what readers say they want to read. Stories get greenlighted by a cooperative of journalists “committed to the future of big narrative ambitious nonfiction” based on the first 1,000 words. Writers earn $1 of every sale. We talked to Shapiro last night by email. Here’s some of the discussion:

Storyboard: You went big with the pitch: “There is a revolution taking place in journalism. With it have come possibilities for writers who despaired of ever finding a way to make a living at their craft. Writers are now freed from the constraints of convention in telling their stories and from the commercial needs of editors and publishers, who determine what tales get told. That, in turn, means a new era of creativity for authors of narrative nonfiction—new writers, new stories, new audiences waiting for a friend to say, Here’s a story you’ll want to read. The Big Roundtable is more than a digital publishing platform; it is a movement, one that we believe can expand the possibilities for writers, and readers.” Where’d this idea come from?

Shapiro: It came from, how best to put it, 35 years of writing for a living—in newspapers, magazines, and books, and seeing how the publishing world felt as it were shrinking, while all around it, the world was expanding. Believe me, I felt the pinch. There was ever more pressure, especially when it came to books, to come up with ideas that were sure to sell. Well, how is anyone supposed to know what will sell, other than genre fiction? At the same time, magazines were feeling ever more predictable, and had been for years. For several years I was a judge at the National Magazine Awards, and found ever more that while the stories I was reading while not bad, seldom lifted off the page. The writing had become so formulaic, so safe—anecdotal lede, nut graf, quote from eminent sociologist. It was ever harder to find a story that you sensed a writer needed to tell. And we all know the difference. We know what it is like writing a story that burns inside of us, and a story that is, well, interesting. The result was a landscape of predictability. Why were journalists, smart and eager journalists, constrained, when writers of creative fiction were freer to experiment and push? What happened to the New Journalism revolution? I cannot believe it peaked a generation ago. Where was the surprise?

You had a $5,000 Kickstarter goal and took in nearly $19,219, from 220 backers. Who gave, and why?

People we know—God bless them. And a lot of people we’d never heard of who contributed generously and who sometimes wrote to say, Hey, cool idea. I have a story. Can I send it along? The answer was, and is, always yes. (Pitches should go to TheBRTable@gmail.com.)

“Now everyone can be a writer and a publisher,” you said in your campaign. Please explain. 

I suspect every writer falls asleep and dreams that come the dawn they will become the next Amanda Hocking, that from the acorn of a few sales via Amazon to friends will spring the mighty oak of best-sellerism. Pretty to think so, no? The problem isn’t one of production or dissemination; no one needs a publisher to print and sell. The problem is audience. How do you find one, and make people feel as if their lives will be lessened if they don’t read your work?

But hold on: There’s still a gatekeeper aspect, because BRT ultimately decides which stories move forward. No?

Shapiro

Shapiro

Yes. But. The gatekeeper is not me. Lord knows if it were me there would be a surfeit of baseball stories. Who is to say that my taste, or any other individual’s tastes, is superior? I may be skilled at seeing where a story slips and can be improved. But I enjoy no monopoly on taste, and nor does anyone else. And so, we’re experimenting, yes experimenting because in a venture like the BRT we are in a permanent state of beta, with the idea that if you ask a small group of readers what they think about a story, you improve the chances of achieving that rarest and most sought after quality in a story: surprise. In an early—call it alpha—version of the experiment, we asked people to read full drafts. Huge mistake. Because presented with a story, writers cannot help but take out their red pens and try to fix things. So, we wondered what would happen if we asked those same people to read, say, the first 1,000 words. Takes five minutes. You can do it on your phone waiting for your tall soy latte. All we asked was: Do you want to read more, or no thanks? Quick response, and much more useful. It told us whether the story had an audience. Why 1,000 words? Because—and here, I am drawing more on experience than data—if you can nail the first 1,000 words of a story, the odds are good that you’re on your way.

Curation is the thing right now—Longreads, Longform.org, etc. You describe the project as a platform “through which writers of nonfiction stories too long for most magazines, and too short for most publishers, can find their readers,” but that also describes, sort of, platforms like Byliner and, to some extent, Kindle Singles, which publishes stories too long for a magazine and too short for a book. How does BRT differ from those?

All our content is original. Byliner does some original work, but mostly curated; they’ve been very kind about curating my stuff. I know David Blum, who edits Kindle Singles, and think he is a very smart editor. But in the end, David, talented as he is, is the gatekeeper. We’re trying something different.

The idea is that a happy reader will (and can) share the story with three friends, which is encouraged through the BRT model. The sharing aspect seems central to this concept. Why the sharing? 

Think about it: When you choose what you read for pleasure is on the basis of a) a review, b) something you heard or read about, or c) because a friend, not a Facebook friend but a living breathing want-to-get-dinner-this-week friend, said, You Have to Read This! I’ve asked this question many times to many different groups of people over the past year and the answer always comes up C. It is all about sharing. The question is, How do you replicate that moment at scale? That, in the end, is what this is all about. Again, it is all about increasing the chances of finding under your nose a story that is surprising.

Writers will make $1 per sale. How will you handle the operational transparency aspect with writers? How will writers know precisely how well their work is doing and whether they’re getting their fair share? 

We will do so contractually—no writer should ever for a moment think, Jeez, these guys aren’t being straight with me. That would be bad on so many levels.

You use the term “nonfiction novella,” the kind of language that makes a lot of people nervous. What does that term mean, from BRT’s perspective?

It means too long for most magazines and too short for a conventional book. Say, 5,000 to 30,000 words. Loosely. There are so many times I wished I had more space—and I have written 17,000-word magazine stories. I also can look at my books and think, you know, I think this would have been perfect at 40,000. If my publisher reads this they will not be pleased. Sorry fellas.

Where does this project live? Looks like you’ve got Facebook, Tumblr and Twitter covered.

It lives on the Internet because we live in a world where it is ever clearer that the Internet—and by this I mean the great amorphous amalgam of feeds and inboxes—decides what shall thrive. There is a terrific book by the sociologist Duncan Watts called Six Degrees—as in, yes, six degrees of separation—that captures as well as anything I’ve read the science of social networks. Watts is a pal of Jonah Peretti of Buzzfeed and HuffPost fame, and they take different views of network creation. Peretti, a born optimist, believes that it is possible to tweak a budding network into something larger. Duncan takes a less sunny view. I fall someplace in between but veer toward Jonah. The Internet feels to me like a lava lamp, bubbling around, waiting for someone or something to tip it and get all that action flowing a certain way. Does this analogy make me sound like a Dead Head?

Yes. In a good way. The first story runs in August. What’s in the lineup? Can you give us some idea of the first few pieces?

Some great ones, and I will do so as cryptically as I can, so that people might think, “cool:” Inside the Albanian Mob; My Weekend at Adolf’s; How Disco Never Died; The Mother of Creedmoor; Of Inmates, Fire, and Death; The Miracle on Molokai. And those are but a few.

Generally speaking, are BRT stories those that got rejected elsewhere?

Maybe. We look at the stories as stories. We don’t ask them to come with a CV.

It can be hard enough getting phone calls returned when you’re on staff, but when you’re working without an institution attached to your project, how do you represent yourself? How would you advise a prospective BRT author to identify herself?

I am a writer with a story to tell. Here it is. Our promise is that people will read the first 1,000 words.

Will the authors report/write the whole piece on spec and then hope the thing flies with readers? So much of great storytelling depends on the reporting. You need to report enough to write a great top, since readers will green light the piece (or not) based on the first 1,000 words, but that puts writers working without a net. Say you spend three months reporting enough just to get a great opening, but then nobody bites. That’s three months you just spent, for nothing. Or no?

Out there, as I write, I know, just know, that there are all these wonderful writers with stories burning in their notebooks who are thinking, “There is more to this story than 700 words.” Maybe the New Yorker? The Times magazine? Maybe. But the odds aren’t good. I know this because I have been that writer and I wanted to tell that story and yes, I wanted to be paid for it. But I needed to tell it. And to put my money where my mouth is, I’m working on one now for the BRT. I really need to tell this one. No advance.

Who is your envisioned audience?

Ah, that is the $64,000 question. We have an incredible story in which a woman recounts her banker father slowly drinking himself to death. (Trust me, you cannot put this one down.) Is that only for an audience of children of alcoholics? Or will others, for whom this bears no direct connection to their lives, nonetheless see in the story a quality that speaks to them, that surprises them?

Who will edit the stories? Will there be fact checkers? Copyeditors? How will the actual editorial process work?

We have my all time favorite editor working with us, Mike Hoyt, the longtime editor of Columbia Journalism Review. Best hands, as they say, in the business. If we don’t have terrific stories, and yes fact-checked stories, we are nowhere. But it is not Mike’s job to choose. It is his job to lift those stories, with the author.

You have a stated goal of studying “how people find, read, fall in love with a share stories” and becoming “the research lab of the longform revival” by gathering data that “will at long last illuminate what happens when one friend feels compelled to share a story with another.” There’s a longform revival?

Don’t you think so? Look at all these ventures—Atavist, Longform, Longreads, to say nothing of these heretofore impossible to imagine stories in the Times and elsewhere.

We like “longform” without the hyphen. Looks like you do too.

Cleaner, no?

You’ve said a paid staff will produce BRT. Paid how? Who’s on the masthead?

We have some money from Kickstarter and hope to start getting more—grants, we hope. We have a small staff: Mike, me; our product manager is a journalism school grad, Anna Hiatt. We’re being assisted by Rashmi Raman, who is our engineer, Anna Codrea-Rado, who manages the audiences and our designer, Eleonore Hamelin.

You’ll sell directly from the BRT website rather than through a distributor like Amazon. Why?

Because Amazon does not share all its data. And we want, need, to be able to see and test and iterate.

Whom do you envision as your typical writer?

The writer with a story he or she is burning to tell. Really, it is that simple.

The goal is to understand how readers find, read and fall in love with work, and share it. Assuming you figure that out, what next?

Heaven knows. We’re making this up as we go along. I am learning what it means to be involved in a startup.

 

(*having had some experience with it ourselves) 

April 04 2013

10:32

Game Changer? Inside BuzzFeed's Native Ad Network

After quietly piloting the concept for months, BuzzFeed officially launched its own native ad network this March. The mechanics of the network are bizarre, yet intriguing: Participating publishers allow BuzzFeed to serve story previews on their sites which, when clicked, bring visitors to sponsored stories on BuzzFeed.com. The network, whose ads resemble real story teases, is brash and a bit risky, but it may just help publishers circumvent the abuses of today's established, banner reliant, ad network ecosystem.

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The current ad network model, or indirect sales model, is a mess. It functions based on an oversupply of simple display ads and is rife with inefficiencies, opening the door for middlemen to reap profits while devaluing publisher inventory. BuzzFeed's native ad network, along with others in a similar mold, has the potential to minimize these drawbacks by giving publishers a simple, safe way to make money through indirect sales channels.

How We Got Here

The ad networks we know today came about as a result of the poor economics of the banner ad. A little history: In the early days of Internet publishing, the banner ad seemed to make sense. Just as many publishers began figuring out the Internet by taking content produced for print and slapping it on the web, they took the standard print ad format -- selling advertisers designated space on a page -- and brought it online too. Instead of selling these ads by the inch though (a measurement suitable for edition-based print publishing), digital ads were sold by the impression, or view, a better fit for the unceasing nature of online media.

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Over time, the acceptance and standardization of the banner ad brought a number of side effects along with it, the most important being an incentive for publishers to pack their pages with as many banners as possible. For publishers, the decision was easy: The more banner ads they placed on a page, the more money they stood to make. So instead of running a more manageable (and more user-friendly) three or four banner ads, publishers cluttered their pages with 10, 15 or even 20 of them.

Placing ads on a page was only half the equation though; publishers still needed to sell them. As they soon found out, selling premium, above-the-fold ads was a lot easier than getting advertisers to pony up for the glut of below-the-fold, low-quality inventory. A significant percentage of ads thus went unsold, and into the void stepped ad networks. Even at a heavy discount, publishers figured, it was better to get some money from remnant inventory via ad networks as opposed to making nothing. This would prove to be a poor calculation.

The Dark Side of Ad Networks
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Rather than question the logic of creating more inventory than it was possible to sell, publishers stuck with the model, growing their audiences along with their inventory and watching the original ad networks evolve into a multibillion-dollar tech industry fed largely on remnant inventory. Soon, publishers found themselves exposed to more drawbacks than they perhaps initially bargained for, and the original premise of making more money with more ads came into question.

As it grew, the indirect ecosystem not only enabled advertisers to buy publisher inventory at cheaper prices, devaluing even premium inventory, it also allowed them to buy premium publisher audiences on non-premium sites, thanks to the third-party cookie. The Atlantic's Alexis Madrigal zoomed in on this problem in a long piece about the tough economics of the online publishing industry.

"Advertisers didn't have to buy The Atlantic," he wrote. "They could buy ads on networks that had dropped a cookie on people visiting The Atlantic. They could snatch our audience right out from underneath us." The indirect system, in other words, commoditized his audience, leaving his impressions as valuable, in some ways, as those on third-rate sites.

Recognizing these and other abuses as endemic to the system, publishers today are starting to fight back. Many are trying to limit their dependency on banner ads either by cutting them out of their business completely or by constricting supply. David Payne, the chief digital officer at Gannett who oversaw a major USA Today redesign which dramatically reduced the site's supply of banners, put it this way when I spoke with him for an article for Digiday: "I think we've all proven over the last 12 years that the strategy we've been following -- to create a lot of inventory and then sell it at 95 percent off to these middlemen every day -- is not a long-term strategy."

Publishers have started looking for alternative forms of revenue to fill the gap and, so far, the hottest alternative is the native ad. Everyone from The Atlantic, to Tumblr, to the Washington Post, to Twitter is giving it a try and BuzzFeed, perhaps the extreme example, is all in. It sells only native ads, no banners.

BuzzFeed Susceptible to the Same Problems?

Which brings us to BuzzFeed's ad network. At this early point, it seems like the network should indeed be free of many of the abuses listed above. Its simple nature, for example, ensures that most of the value won't be siphoned out by a group of tech middlemen and will be largely shared by BuzzFeed, participating publishers and minimally, the ad server. Participating in the network, furthermore, should not devalue publishers' existing inventory since it will not provide advertisers access to the same inventory at cheaper prices.

BuzzFeed also claims its networks steers clear of third-party cookies, the audience-snatching culprit that The Atlantic's Madrigal railed against.

"We believe the ultimate targeting is real human-to-human sharing, digital word of mouth, so we don't do third-party cookie targeting," BuzzFeed advertising executive Eric Harris told me via email. "We're not collecting individually identifiable data and will not sell any data."

The approach should help participating publishers breathe a bit easier -- and they may just want to consider demanding the same from any network they engage with, not just BuzzFeed's.

"It's cleaner; it's more straight up," said Fark.com CEO Drew Curtis of BuzzFeed's network. His site, which is one of the partners participating in the launch, embeds BuzzFeed sponsored story previews on its home page, marking them as sponsored. "I just like the fact that there's no screwing around," Curtis explained in a phone interview, "It's exactly what it appears to be, no more no less." Rates from BuzzFeed's ad network, he added, are significantly higher from other indirect channels. "Advertisers," he said, "are willing to pay for less bulls#*t."

Of course, one question participating publishers might ask themselves is why they are helping BuzzFeed profit from sponsored posts instead of selling them on their own sites. The answer might worry BuzzFeed -- at least until it can get its traffic up to the point of advertiser demand -- but if publishers decide to go that route and withdraw from the network, they may be able to pull themselves away from the bad economics that brought them into the network game in the first place.

Alex Kantrowitz covers the digital marketing side of politics for Forbes.com and PBS MediaShift. His writing has previously appeared in Fortune and the New York Times' Local Blog. Follow Alex on Twitter at @Kantrowitz.

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April 02 2013

10:49

Native Advertising Shows Great Potential, But Blurs Editorial Lines

Radio legend Paul Harvey was such a great storyteller that he could totally enthrall you before you realized you were listening to an ad.

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Today, you'd call that sponsored content. The larger term is native advertising -- strategies that mesh branded messages into the media where they appear. They include articles on news sites; funny videos and animated GIFs on humor sites; tweets and Facebook updates, and more. Instead of interrupting the flow like a typical TV commercial, pre-roll, pop-up or print ad, it blends into its surroundings and, in theory at least, offers the reader/viewer/listener something interesting.

Pew Research Center's 2013 State of the News Media Report found that while the amount spent on native advertising in 2012 was comparatively low -- $1.5 billion compared with $8.6 billion for banner ads -- it's rising fast. Spending for sponsored content grew 45 percent in 2011 and almost 39 percent in 2012. That's second only to video ads.

A Word from Our Sponsor

Some fear sponsored content blurs the ethical church-and-state division between advertising and journalism, while others say the revenue keeps reporters employed.

Reuters' Jack Schafer put it strongly in a recent piece, "A Word Against Our Sponsor": "If, as George Orwell once put it, 'The public are swine; advertising is the rattling of a stick inside a swill-bucket,' then sponsored content is the meal so wretched that even pigs will reject unless sugar-frosted," he wrote.

But whether you love or hate native advertising, examining the recent history of the news business, including declining revenues and widespread layoffs, sheds light on why it's growing so quickly.

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Mark Jurkowitz, associate director of the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism, told me that tough economic realities and the "anemic" growth of digital ad revenue opened the door.

"The grimmer news is that basically for every $16 that a newspaper is losing in print revenue, they're gaining $1 in digital," he said. "Just as the case with classified ads, which disappeared ... it's very possible that other forms of digital ad revenue are maybe more difficult than previously thought."

Forbes Leading the Way

Forbes was the first major news site to integrate sponsored content. In 2010, I wrote about how Forbes Media chief product officer Lewis Dvorkin shook up the established formula with AdVoice -- which hosted sponsored articles on Forbes.com.

Forbes Media chief revenue officer Meredith Levien told me it was slow going at first, especially since few companies had the staff or mindset for content creation. But in the last 18 months it's grown dramatically, in part because the publication added a team of writers, editors and graphic designers -- separate from the editorial team -- to help brands produce their articles. "We can't staff it fast enough," she said, adding that BrandVoice was "No. 1 on the list" of factors that made 2012 revenues the best in five years.

Last year, Levien successfully lobbied for the name to be changed to BrandVoice.

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"AdVoice conveyed the notion it was part of the advertising mix," she said. "This is really about content and thought leadership."

Levien adds that she was gratified to see the Washington Post adopt a similar model earlier this year. "I don't think we can take credit for it, but we were especially pleased to see the Post get into it," she said.

A recent random look at BrandVoice content showed a piece from Oracle titled "King Richard III: Villain, Hero, or Tragic Victim of Identity Theft?" NetApp offered "3 Steps To Build Your Personal Brand For Tomorrow's Business (Tips From The CIO)." The CapitalOneSpark credit card team offered: "Optimize Your Website To Convert Visitors To Buyers." The "Voice" pages include links to more from the sponsor, which in some cases includes press releases.

In February, Dvorkin blogged that BrandVoice now has 20 partners. While he remains passionately upbeat, others are more cautious.

Digiday recently quoted Businessweek.com editor Janet Paskin saying she's treading lightly: "Our credibly and integrity, for all journalists, is sometimes harder to defend than it should be. We don't want to compromise that or allow for that perception."

Edgier Sites Jump In

While the traditional journalism community remains divided, many edgier news and entertainment sites see no problem at all. Some of BuzzFeed's snappy content is sponsored, as is some of what you'll see on Cheezburger, Gawker, Vice and others.

Onion Labs, the in-house advertising and marketing team of The Onion humor site, works with sponsored content in several ways. It integrates brands into its own video content -- such as 7-Up's placement in its morning show, "Today Now." It creates original content for major brands. It also posts or links to content produced by the brands themselves, like this video for Adobe:

CollegeHumor CEO Paul Greenberg said his site embraced the concept five years ago. At the Native Advertising Summit in February, he said there's such interest that the site's inner workings now resemble a digital ad agency.

"We've really had to turn into a machine to super-serve the clients that come to us and meet the demand that we're seeing in the marketplace," he told me. Listerine, he says, saw a 17 percent jump in sales after its native ad campaign.

Matt McDonagh, vice president for national sales at The Onion, says a Nielsen study shows that humor is the best way to reach a young target audience. Even big names such as Hilton and Coke Zero are dipping their toes into the comedy pool. "Brands are willing to take a few more risks than they were a few years ago because to hit 18- to 24-year-olds -- you're not going to do that on '60 Minutes,'" he said.

It seems that when it comes to entertainment sites, sponsored content has found a comfortable home.

"Those kinds of sites have pretty seamlessly integrated this," Pew's Jurkowitz said. "It's a more controversial choice for traditional legacy news organizations."

What Not to do

In 2010, Gary McCormick, then-chair of the Public Relations Society of America, publicly warned that poorly labeled sponsored content could be confused with objective news, especially because disclaimers can be lost as information is shared. Three years later, he feels media and brands understand the need for authenticity and transparency.

"It may be that it's no longer always the 'buyer beware' -- it's now the 'manufacturer beware' of putting out false claims," McCormick said. "If you come out with something hidden behind the wall it only takes one consumer to spot it ... They're going to dig deep."

When The Atlantic ran a boosterish Church of Scientology native ad, then deleted critical comments, the outcry prompted an apology with the opening line, "We screwed up."

At the Native Advertising Summit, The Atlantic Digital's vice president and general manager, Kimberly Lau, called the Scientology incident a lesson in what not to do. "The whole experience clarified how it is people are going to judge these things," she said.

The Onion did a scathingly hilarious take featuring fake content praising the Taliban.

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The Onion's McDonagh notes the parody came from the editorial, rather than sales side, but he feels their pain. "To The Atlantic's credit, they're testing some things out and trying to make themselves a smart digital publisher," he said. The key, he adds, is to understand and stay true to your audience.

Sharing the Wealth

The native ad boom is also already creating new business models -- maybe even a whole new advertising sector.

Take, for instance, the success of Sharethrough, which helps increase the reach of sponsored content. For example, if a brand creates a post for one site, Sharethrough carries it to other platforms such as WordPress, Forbes.com, The Awl and Thought Catalog, which direct traffic back to the original post. Videos can be embedded and viewed in a number of blogs and sites.

Although it's only four years old, it's worked with 20 of the top 25 brands of AdAge magazine's Megabrands list. Relationships with many websites and publishers helped it create the Native Advertising Summit. (As a matter of fact, it popularized the term "native advertising," building off the phrase "native monetization" used by venture capitalist Fred Wilson.) Sharethrough has also become a clearinghouse for information about the new industry with tools such as the Native Advertising Leaderboard, which is searchable by brand, publisher, topic and social actions.

"There's a lot of creativity happening in this space right now," said Chris Schreiber, the firm's vice president of Marketing & Communications. One recent project promoted an infographic Pop Secret developed about how people watch movies. "They were delivering value -- something you didn't know and was easily sharable," he says.

When sponsored content -- especially videos -- work, he says, it's great. "It's more about thinking what's valuable for the audience and the consumer rather than what's valuable for the marketer."

Microsoft met its marketing goals while engaging a new audience with its The Browser You Love(d) to Hate campaign for Internet Explorer 9. Roger Capriotti, director of Internet Explorer product marketing, hired producers to create visual content that targeted young people who might otherwise disregard the product. The effort relied on viral shares and news coverage instead of paid posts; the most frequently shared video recalled memories of growing up in the '90s:

As anyone who's tried to make a video go viral knows, 25 million video views -- including 22 million for "Child of the 90s" alone, is nothing to sneeze at, even for Microsoft.

"If we can build good content, we can engage them in a way that we haven't engaged them in the past," Capriotti says. The best part, he says, was reading positive reviews posted by new-found fans.

The Rest of the Story?

Jurkowitz, of the Pew Research Center, questions how far the native ad trend will reach.

"Obviously the growth rate is high, but we're talking about a universe of small numbers here," he says. "There's some momentum in this direction, understandably, but it's not by any means a foregone conclusion that this is going to become a dominant form of advertising in mainstream news outlets going forward."

But The Onion's McDonagh clearly sees brands moving away from conventional ad campaigns, and demanding more creativity. "Brands are trying to develop content and trying to act more like publishers, and that's a sea change from where we were three to five years ago."

Sharethrough's Schreiber notes that as soon as new platforms crop up, advertisers jump on them -- as they've done with Twitter's Vine app, which creates short videos. He expects newer platforms will arise specifically for native advertising. "You're going to see new media created with native advertising, knowing that's how they're going to make their money," he says. And brands, he says, will learn what works best for their audience and their message. "They'll find their voice," he concludes.

Usually at this point in a Paul Harvey show, he would knowingly say, "And THAT's ... the rest of the story." But right now, prospects for native advertising are not so clear-cut that any one person or group can claim to have the last word. The only thing that's certain is that they will continue to evolve.

Terri Thornton, a former reporter and TV news producer, owns Thornton Communications, an award-winning PR and social media firm. She is also a freelance editor for Strategic Finance and Management Accounting Quarterly. Follow her on Twitter @TTho

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August 28 2012

06:13

"Twitter is the homepage of politics": How Buzzfeed is remaking campaign coverage

The New Republic :: In a sense, all of BuzzFeed Politics’s articles, even the long ones, are spiritually 140 characters or fewer. This is no accident; as Peretti likes to say, “Twitter is the homepage of politics.” (Facebook, typically a much larger traffic-driver, is not where the elite political conversation plays out.) Not only has Twitter grown at a staggering rate—the 1.8 million tweets published on Election Day 2008 equal the number sent every eight minutes in 2012—but it has also uniquely lent itself to, and helped speed up, the minute-to-minute, who’s-up-who’s-down political culture. It’s the place where reporters share their stories with thousands of followers, trade gossip, and spend most of their waking hours.

"The Tweeps on the Bus" - A report by Marc Tracy, www.tnr.com

HT: and quoted here: "How BuzzFeed has become the new ‘tweeps on the bus’ this election season," Poynter

August 22 2012

17:19

August 15 2012

15:42

13 ways of looking at Medium, the new blogging/sharing/discovery platform from @ev and Obvious

[With apologies to Wallace Stevens, the finest poet to ever serve as vice president of the Hartford Livestock Insurance Company.]

I.

Medium is a new online publishing platform from Obvious Corp. It launched yesterday. Obvious is the most recent iteration of the company that created Blogger, Odeo, and Twitter. Blogger was the outfit that, until it was bought up by Google, did the most to enable the early-2000s blogging boom. Odeo was a podcasting service that never really took off — 20 percent ahead of its time, 80 percent outflanked by Apple. Twitter — well, you’ve heard of Twitter.

Ev Williams, the key figure at every stage, tweeted about Medium yesterday in a way that slotted it right into the evolutionary personal-publishing chain he and his colleagues have enabled: Let’s try this again!

II.

Medium has been described as “a cross between Tumblr and Pinterest.” There’s some truth to that, in terms of presentation. Like Tumblr, it relies on artfully constructed templates for its structural power; like Pinterest, it’s designed to be image-heavy. But those surface issues, while interesting, are less consequential than the underlying structure of Medium, which upends much of how we think about personal publishing online.

III.

When the Internet first blossomed, its initial promise to media was the devolution of power from the institution to the individual. Before the web, reaching an audience meant owning a printing press or a broadcast tower. It was resource-intensive, and those resources tended to congeal around companies — organizations that had newsrooms, yes, but also human resource departments, advertising sales staffs, and people to man the phones when your paper was thrown into the bushes (we’re very sorry about that, Mrs. Johnson, we’ll be happy to credit your account).

The web, by reducing potential worldwide access to basic knowledge of [1996: Unix and <table> tags; 1999: how to input FTP credentials; 2005: how to come up with a unique login and password; 2010: how to stay under 140 characters], eliminated, at least in theory, the need for organizations. (Vide Shirky.)

IV.

In theory. In reality, organization still had some enormous advantages. Organizations are sustainable; they outlive the vagaries of human attention. Some individuals flourished in the newly democratic blogosphere. But over time, people got bored, got new jobs, found new interests, or otherwise reached the limits of what people-driven, individual-driven publishing could accomplish for them. The political blogosphere — the cacophony of individual voices on both left and right circa, say, 2004 — evolved toward institutions, toward Politico and TPM and The Blaze and HuffPo and the like.

Personal publishing is like voting. In theory, it’s the very definition of empowerment. In reality, it’s an excellent way for your personal shout to be cancelled out by someone else’s shout.

V.

That was when a few smart people realized that there was a balance to be found between the organization and the individual. The individual sought self-expression and an audience; the organization sought sustainability and cash money. Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

So Facebook built a way for people to express themselves (by providing free content) to an audience (through their self-defined network of friends), while selling ads around it all. It’s a pretty good business.

So Twitter (Ev, Jack, and crew) build a way for people to express themselves, in a format that was genius in its limitations and in its old-media model of subscribe-and-follow — again, transformed from institutions to individuals. It’s not as good of a business as Facebook, probably, but it’s still a pretty good business.

So Tumblr, Path, Foursquare, and a gazillion others have tried to pull off the same trick: Serve users by helping them find an outlet for personal expression, then build a business around those users’ collective outputs. It’s publishing-as-platform, and it’s the business model du jour in this unbundled, rebundled world.

VI.

What’s most radical about Medium is that it denies authorship.

Okay, maybe not denies authorship — people’s names are right next to their work, after all. But it degrades authorship, renders it secondary, knocks it off its pedestal.

The shift to blogging created a wave of new individual media stars, but in a sense it just shifted traditional media brands to a new, personal level. Instead of reading The Miami Herald or Newsweek, you read Jason Kottke or John Gruber. So long, U.S. News; hello, Anil Dash. They were brands in the sense that your attraction to their work was tied to authorship — you wanted to see what Lance Arthur or Dean Allen or Josh Marshall or Ezra Klein was going to write next. The value was tied to the work’s origin, its creator.

And while social networks allowed that value to be spread, algorithmically, much wider, the proposition was much the same. You were interested in your Facebook news feed because it was produced by your friends. You were interested in your Twitter stream because you’d clicked “Follow” next to every single person appearing in it.

VII.

Degrading authorship is something the web already does spectacularly well. Work gets chopped and sliced and repurposed. That last animated GIF you saw — do you know who made it? Probably not. That infonugget you saw on Gawker or The Atlantic — did it start there? Probably not. Sites like Buzzfeed are built largely on reshuffling the Internet, rearranging work into streams and slideshows.

It’s been a while since auteur theory made sense as an explanation of the web. And you know what? We’re better for it. In a world of functionally infinite content, relying on authorship doesn’t scale. We need people to mash things up, to point things out, to sample, to remix.

VIII.

Where Medium zags is in structuring its content around what it calls “collections.” Here’s Ev:

Posting on Medium (not yet open to everyone) is elegant and easy, and you can do so without the burden of becoming a blogger or worrying about developing an audience. All posts are organized into “collections,” which are defined by a theme and a template.

The burden of becoming a blogger or worrying about developing an audience. That’s a real issue, right? I’ve talked to lots of journalists who want to have some outlet for their work that doesn’t flow through an assigning editor. But when I suggest starting a blog, The Resistance begins. I don’t know how to start a blog. If I did, it’d be ugly. Or: I’d have to post all the time to keep readers coming back. I don’t want to do that. Starting a blog means, for most, committing to something — to building a media brand, to the caring and feeding of an audience, to doing lots of stuff you don’t want to do. That’s why ease of use — the promise of Facebook, the promise of Twitter, the promise of Tumblr — has been such a wonderful selling point to people who want to create media without hassle. Every single-serving Tumblr, every Twitter account updated sporadically, every Facebook account closed to only a few friends speaks the same message: You can do this, it’s simple, don’t stress, you’ll be fine.

IX.

So Medium is built around collections, not authors. When you click on an author’s byline on a Medium post, it goes to their Twitter feed (Ev synergy!), not to their author archive — which is what you’d expect on just about any other content management system on the Internet. (The fact we call them content management systems alone tells you the structural weight that comes from even the lightest personal publishing systems.) The author is there as a reference point to an identity layer — Twitter — not as an organizing principle.

As Dave Winer noted, Medium does content categorization upside down: “Instead of adding a category to a post, you add a post to a category.” He means collection in Medium-speak, but you get the idea: Topic triumphs over author. Medium doesn’t want you to read something because of who wrote it; Medium wants you to read something because of what it’s about. And because of the implicit promise that Medium = quality.

(This just happens to be promising from a business-model perspective. Who needs silly content contributors asserting authorial privilege when the money starts to flow? Demoting the author privileges the platform, which is nice if you own the platform.)

X.

At one level, Medium is just another publishing platform (join the crowd): You type in a title, some text, maybe a photo if you want, hit “Publish” and out comes a “post,” whatever that means that days, on a unique URL that you can share with your friends. (And let me just say, as a Blogger O.G. from the Class of ’99, that Medium’s posting interface brought back super-pleasant memories of Blogger’s old two-pane interface. Felt like the Clinton years again.)

XI.

Ev writes that a prime objective of Medium is increased quality: “Lots of services have successfully lowered the bar for sharing information, but there’s been less progress toward raising the quality of what’s produced.” That’s probably true: There are orders of magnitude more content published every day than was the case in 1999, when Blogger launched as a Pyra side project. The mass of quality content is much higher too, of course, but it’s surrounded by an even-faster-growing mass of not-so-great (or at least not-so-great-to-you) content.

Medium takes a significant step in that direction by violating perhaps the oldest blogging norm: that content appears in reverse-chronological order, newest stuff up top, flowing forever downward into the archives. Reverse chron has been key to blogging since Peter Merholz made up the word. (Older than that, actually — back to the original “What’s New” page at NCSA in 1993.) For the pleasure centers in the brain that respond to “New!,” reverse chron was a godsend — even if traditional news organizations were never quite comfortable with it, preferring to curate their own homepages through old-fashioned ideas like, you know, editorial judgment.

Medium believes in editorial judgment — but everyone’s an editor. Like the great social aggregators (Digg is dead, long live Digg), Medium relies on user voting to determine what floats to the top of a collection and what gets dugg down the bottom. (A reverse chron view is available, but not the default.) It’ll be interesting to see how that works once Medium is really a working site: Will a high-rated story stick to the top of a collection for weeks, months, or years, forever pushing new stuff down? Will there be any way for someone visiting a collection to see what’s new since she was last there? The tension between what’s good and what’s new is a long-standing one for online media, and privileging either comes with drawbacks — new material never reaching an audience, or good stuff being buried beneath something inconsequential posted 20 minutes later.

Considering Obvious Corp.’s heritage in Blogger and Twitter — both of which privilege reverse chron, Twitter existentially so — it’s interesting to see Ev & Co. thinking that a push for quality might entail a retreat from the valorization of newness.

XII.

There’s been a lot of movement in the past few months toward alternative, “quality” platforms for content on the web. Branch is based on the idea that web comments are shit and that you have to create a separate universe where smart people can have smart conversations. App.net, the just-funded paid Twitter alternative, is attractive to at least some folks because it promises a reboot of the social web without the “cockroaches” — you know, stupid people. Svbtle, an invite-only blogging platform, is aimed only at those who “strive to produce great content. We focus on the writing, the news, and the ideas. Everything else is a distraction.”

This new class of publishing platforms, like Medium, is beautiful — they share a stripped-down aesthetic that evokes the best of the early web (post-<blink> tag, pre-MySpace) modernized with nice typography, lovely textures, and generous white space. (Medium, in particular, seems to be luxuriate in giant FF Tisa, evocative of Jeffrey Zeldman’s huge-type redesign back in May.)

This new class has also been criticized with a variation on the white flight argument — the idea that the privileged flee common spaces and platforms once they stop being solely the realm of an elite and become too popular. (Vide danah boyd. Also vide your favorite indie band, the first time you heard them on the radio.)

For (just) a moment, strip away the political implications of that critique: What each of these sites argues, implicitly, is that the web norms that we’ve evolved over the past decade err toward crassness and ugliness. That advertising — which all these sites lack, and which is proving to be less-than-sufficiently-remunerative for lots of “quality” online media — is an uninvited guest in our reading experiences. That the free-for-all of a comments thread creates broken-windows-style chaos. That the madness of the web might be tamed through better tools and better platforms. That the web’s pressure to Always Keep Posting New Stuff leads to a lot of dumb stuff being posted. It’s a critique of pageview chasing, a critique of linkbait, a critique of content farms, a critique of SEO’d headlines — a yearning for something more authentic, whatever the hell that means.

I think we’d all like to know what that means. And how to get there.

XIII.

Is Medium the route there? I’m skeptical.

I’m unclear who, beyond an initial crowd of try-anything-once types, will want to publish via Medium, as lovely as it is. Or at least I’m unclear on how many of them there are. The space Medium, er, mediates is between two poles. On one side you’ve got people who want to hang out a shingle online and own their work in every possible sense. On the other, you’ve got people who are happy in the friendly confines of Facebook and Twitter, places where they can reach their friends effortlessly and not worry about writing elegant prose. Is there an audience between those two poles that’s big enough to build something lasting? Is this Blogger or Twitter, or is it Odeo?

But even if Medium isn’t a hit, however that gets defined these days, I think Ev & Co. are onto something here. There are seeds of a backlash against the beautiful chaos the web hath wrought, the desire for a flight to quality. There will be new ways beyond ease of use to harness the creative powers of the audience. And there will be new ways to structure content discovery that go beyond branding authorship and recommendation engines. Those trends are real, and whatever happens to Medium, they’ll impact everyone who publishes online.

Blackbird photo by Duncan Brown used under a Creative Commons license.

August 10 2012

18:12

August 09 2012

15:50

August 04 2012

15:15

The 2012 Summer Olympics: A giant coming-out party for the animated GIF

Nieman Lab :: Did you hear about the Olympic fencer who refused to leave the piste after losing to a computer glitch? I didn’t watch it on television or on NBC’s web livestream, since I don’t have cable. But I did watch the next best thing — maybe the better thing: BuzzFeed’s strangely compelling and haunting recap, presented in videos, still images, and animated GIFs.

Storytelling with animated GIF's - A report by Andrew Phelps, www.niemanlab.org

July 27 2012

16:11

July 26 2012

16:43

How Buzzfeed wants to reinvent wire stories for social media

The wire story is an atomic element of news: It’s the basic material upon which more journalism can be built. But wire stories, as a compact unit for getting out the basics of an updating story, are also a commodity. Thanks to the speed of information and the glut of channels we can access it on, it’s not uncommon to get flooded with the same story when major news breaks. If you were on Twitter or Facebook the day the Supreme Court issued its decision on the Affordable Care Act, you know the signal-to-noise ratio was high on the noise side.

A torrent of repetitive news updates is a problem for readers, and for editors, like BuzzFeed’s Ben Smith, it’s a frustration. Smith was brought on in late 2011 as editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed to develop the company’s journalistic side and has since hired a staff of reporters and built out more news-esque sections for the site. The challenge in all of this is finding a way to graft the sensibilities of a news organization onto BuzzFeed’s fabulous Internet harnessing machine. The principle here is to take whatever it is that makes things like 14 First World Problems From the 90s popular and apply it to stories about Mitt Romney and SEC filings.

One place Smith wants to experiment now: The wire story. When I talked with Smith, he said the idea of the wire story needs to be reworked in the era of social media. This week they took a step towards that goal by hiring a new breaking news reporter for BuzzFeed. Jessica Testa, who previously wrote for BuzzFeed Shift, will be stepping into the breaking news job. Part of her work, as the posting for the job advertised, will be “Creating posts on the stories that are just starting to take off on the social web, with the goal of reinventing the wire story for the social web.”

The old model, where wire stories run 2-8 paragraphs with varying degrees of fresh reporting, doesn’t work when people are exposed to so much information on a continued basis, Smith said. “There’s no audience for ‘Here’s this thing you just heard and I’m going to say again,’” he said.

Journalism has always been about speed and precision, but as the place for that has shifted from stories to blog posts and now social media, Smith said journalists have to be more creative in the ways they deliver vital information. They also have to make better decisions. Living and writing in the current news environment means calculating the costs and benefits of working on a “second-rate aggregated version of what someone wrote 20 minutes ago,” versus pursuing an original story, Smith said.

“I feel in general the 800-1,200 word form of the news article is broken,” he said. “You don’t see people sharing those kind of stories.” Smith’s talking about those daily stories that only seem to provide two paragraphs of new information layered on top of several inches of context. Nothing wrong with context, but explanatory journalism now comes in different forms, not just at the tail end of a story.

The problem lies with the delivery, design, and presentation of stories, he said. Think about the structure of wire stories. Most reporters are taught to put old information, the background stuff, at the bottom of stories, thus leaving room for copy editors to lop things off if necessary. But that assumes two things: The value of longer stories and readers ability to keep reading something once they get past new information.

So instead of pushing out a developing story and leading with headline in a Facebook or Twitter post, Smith wants BuzzFeed to experiment. One example he pointed to was the news North Korean leader Kim Jong Un had been promoted to the highest military rank in the country. Instead of an AP-style news update, BuzzFeed took the vital parts of the story and made it a little more shareable via animated GIFs with “Kim Jong Un Gets A Promotion.”

Smith thinks BuzzFeed is well suited to rework the wire story because it’s a company that is deeply web native. The way BuzzFeed works is by trying to pinpoint what web phenomenon will explode next, whether it’s photos, gifs, or news stories. BuzzFeed staff have to have knowledge of sources, but also of different forms of media, Smith said. That means on any given day news on the site doesn’t have to take a predictable shape. It could be a collection of photos, a dominant photo with links, or a collection of quotes.

“It’s something that does the work of a wire story and informs people about this very important piece of international news in this way that was authentically in the language of the social web,” Smith said.

While Smith wants BuzzFeed to tinker with wire stories and try new ideas, that doesn’t mean the site won’t be producing more traditional looking stories. He told me one reason he wants his reporters to think smarter about wire stories is to free them up for original reporting. But it’s worth noting that when news broke of the movie theater shootings in Aurora, Colo., Testa led BuzzFeed’s coverage with a curated mix of text, images and tweets.

Smith expects there will be a period of trial and error as they see how different ways of delivering wire stories that connect with readers. “We’re trying to find ways to tell (stories) that are more visual and more emotionally direct,” he said.

05:09

BuzzFeed’s strategy: Social advertising, what users love and share

CDixon :: (Jonah Peretti, Buzzfeed, wrote:) ... we don’t show crappy display ads and we make all our revenue from social advertising that users love and share. We never launched one of those “frictionless sharing” apps on Facebook that automatically shares the stories you click because those apps are super annoying. We don’t post deceptive, manipulative headlines that trick people into reading a story. We don’t focus on SEO or gaming search engines or filling our pages with millions of keywords and tags that only a robot will read. We avoid anything that is bad for our readers and can only be justified by short term business interests.

Buzzfeed: Jonah Peretti's letter to staff - Published here Chris Dixon, cdixon.org

Discussion: "17 Very Cute Pygmy Goats That Look Like Scarlett Johansson in Jonah Peretti's BuzzFeed Strategy Memo" by Alexis Madrigal, www.theatlantic.com

Tags: Buzzfeed

April 29 2012

10:06

Buzzfeed’s Jonah Peretti: Display dollars aren’t coming back

paidContent :: Content providers are wringing their hands over how to get advertisers to pony up the big bucks they once spent on display ads. Maybe that money is just gone forever. Jonah Peretti, a founder of the Huffington Post and viral content site Buzzfeed, says the sun is setting on display ads, and publishers should focus instead on ads tailored for social media.

HT: Mediagazer

Continue to read Jeff John Roberts, paidcontent.org

March 30 2012

13:00

January 07 2012

08:24

Why 400-500 words? What BuzzFeed’s new politics team is doing right

Mediaite :: Several months ago, Politico reporter Ben Smith lamented that his blog at the site was being trumped by his Twitter feed. Where once people would refresh his blog for updates, now they could simply follow him on Twitter and know what he was going to post before he posted it. The blog became secondary, slower – a formalized storehouse for organized pieces of information.

[Philip Bump:] The long news story is an artificial construct, one largely predicated on filling a certain amount of printed space. Articles often don’t need to be 400-500 words with compelling intros and robust context – they certainly don’t always need to be. 

Why short and fast can matter.

Continue to read Philip Bump, www.mediaite.com

May 05 2010

16:00

Tracking memes on their native turf: Viral anthropology at ROFLcon

If ROFLcon isn’t the world’s largest gathering of Internet celebrities, it at least appears to have the highest concentration. In the audience was Matt Harding, who danced around the world in his series of videos, Where the Hell is Matt? Brad O’Farrell, creator of the viral hit video Play Him Off, Keyboard Cat was around and in costume, as was the man behind the cat’s paws from the original footage, Charlie Schmidt. They were among the many creators and enthusiasts of viral web content meeting at the MIT campus last weekend for the two day conference.

Now in its third year, ROFLcon (Rolling on the Floor Laughing conference, for the n00bs) seems less like a discussion of some obscure online culture than a look at an edge of the mainstream. After all, 4chan was the answer to a question on Jeopardy. CNN’s played the Keyboard Cat video, and ABC Nightly News had a segment on Three Wolf Moon. Many of the best known web celebrities have appeared on late night talk shows or in ad campaigns.

This year, ROFLcon looked to the past to better understand the Internet memes it celebrates. Guests included Usenet moderators, FidoNet creator Tom Jennings, and Mahir, whose “I Kiss You” website dates back to 1999. But the climate’s different from the web’s earlier days, with the growth of Facebook, Digg, Twitter, 4chan, and other social media networks. That Neiman Marcus cookie recipe couldn’t last an afternoon if it were sent around today.

A viral Tumblr, single serving site, or a humorous web video can now see massive traffic in a short time frame. Tens of millions have seen Matt Harding dance. Over a thousand have added humorous reviews to the Three Wolf Moon Amazon page, and since the meme began, it has ranked among Amazon’s bestselling clothing items. But the behavior of sharing and linking content is difficult to predict.

The hunt for the heart of buzz

The huckster with a formula for making your brand “go viral” is the Brooklyn Bridge salesman of our time, but ROFLcon presenter Jonah Peretti isn’t your average social media “strategist.” The Huffington Post co-founder was invited to talk about the “social reproduction rank” measured at his other website, Buzzfeed.

Buzzfeed’s focus is on the media that gets shared, with buttons and traffic stats on posts indicating the trajectory of these memes. There are millions of people bored at work every day, sharing links with their friends, and that “bored at work network” is bigger than the BBC, NBC, or any media outlet, Peretti explained. High clickthrough rates don’t always predict lots of sharing: “Porn isn’t viral,” Peretti said. (Those who click a link to see “Lindsay Lohan sideboob” probably aren’t going to then tweet or blog about it.) Peretti also finds that what people search for online is similarly kept private. But while Peretti was clear about what doesn’t create a meme, what does remained something of a mystery. Certainly, engaging with groups of “maniacs” (Ron Paul voters, Justin Bieber fans) or providing an outlet for playful narcissism (“Elf Yourself“) can build crowds — but that still leaves a lot of high-traffic Internet weirdness still unexplained.

As for the meme makers, few had an answer for why their media had taken off the way they did. Most of them were not the sort of SXSWi-attending microcelebrities who were in the audience; as Matthew Battles tweeted, “unlike most conferences, the audience are the experts & the panelists are outsiders. And *they* are the creators.” One guest pronounced “meme” incorrectly several times, and two other panelists were unfamiliar with the term “IRL.” Given the lighthearted spirit of the conference, ROFLers seemed to regard this less as ignorance than further proof of their authenticity. They weren’t “trying too hard” (the worst insult to a meme maker.)

Tracking the numbers

Sharing wacky Internet memes seems driven by some of the same desires that lead to sharing news or more serious media. The gut-wrenching video of Neda Agha-Soltan’s death and the footage of ex-marine David Motari throwing a puppy off a cliff spread on the Internet as easily as Keyboard Cat. News of a celebrity’s death — real or not — gets “shared” on Twitter, and many people first heard about the earthquake in Haiti or the bomb in Times Square via social networks.

There may be no crystal ball to predict “virality” in advance, but media organizations can control how an existing meme gets aggregated and filtered. Trending topics and to-the-minute analytics like Chartbeat are essential for tending to traffic spikes as they happen. Peretti explained The Huffington Post keeps constant watch over every post, moving items up and down the homepage as pageviews rise and fall — even rewriting headlines when they don’t appear to work.

It is unclear why one cat video finds a million viewers and another never reaches a thousand. And success may only come once: At ROFLcon, Brad O’Farrell and “Dancing Matt” even made a video together, and at around 8,000 views, it does not appear to be viral. But if your content does go viral, you’ll want to be able to laugh along with the crowd when the traffic spikes— especially if they are laughing at you. Otherwise, you’ll never live it down.

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