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January 10 2011

16:30

The year ahead in narrative: Little piggies, extraterrestrial life, and how we’ll tell each other stories in 2011

Editor’s Note: To mark the end of the year, we asked a bunch of smart people for their predictions of what 2011 would bring for the evolving world of journalism. But because of an editing error, we forgot to post one set of predictions.

Here’s Andrea Pitzer, editor of our terrific sister site Nieman Storyboard, on what 2011 will bring for narrative and storytelling.

In the coming year, long-form text/print narratives will continue at a handful of U.S. newspapers, and we’ll still see stories from talented writers who will manage to cobble a career (sometimes a stellar one) out of their teaching and books or magazine articles. Aspiring storytellers will get less personal coaching, even as a broader range of people will be able to access information on craft via YouTube and writers’ networks.

Digital stories will continue to nibble away at print’s dominance of fabulous narrative—look for more things like Jay Caspian Kang’s “The High Is Always the Pain, and the Pain Is Always the High,” or Jake Bogoch’s “School of Fight” to introduce you to talented writers you’ve never heard of. A few places, like Slate, Frontline, and nonprofit journalism orgs, will continue their savvy commitment to carving out digital space for storytelling with news value that takes time or space to unfold.

These are all extensions of existing trends. So what will be new in 2011? I predict that the shift to visual narrative will pick up the pace a little, with at least one new storyteller producing surprising short-form nonfiction narrative video that will grab and hold an audience in the millions about an important issue. (By this, I mean a constructed story, not the situational video records like the death of Neda Soltan or the innovative testimonials of the “It Gets Better” campaign.)

And we’ll see social media reflected more and more in our story constructs and in the stories themselves. Curation tools are beginning to make it possible to tell stories in new forms that can make use of literary techniques — I’m still thinking about the way that Mandy Jenkins of TBD managed to recreate the moment-by-moment suspense and confusion in the wake of a death outside a D.C. nightclub. These kinds of tools for gathering and presenting social media will make it possible for new epistolary models like Slate’s mock presidential Facebook feed or collaborative Twitter efforts to serve as inspiration for nonfiction narratives.

Still, this new storytelling will likely be pretty messy through 2011. Telling a story depends on building a compelling arc, but it also relies on an audience finding a way to engage with the narrative. Quality work may fail to connect to audiences; other new-style narratives that have innovative, exciting aspects may not yet work as a whole.

I also believe that the future is often a surprise, and so it’s possible that Geico commercials, the discovery of extraterrestrial life, or something that we can’t even imagine right now might play an important role in how we’ll tell stories in the future. But I wouldn’t give up on Instapaper and long-form stories just yet.

November 18 2010

17:30

Crunching Denton’s Ratio: What’s the return on paying sources?

There was a lot of buzz on Twitter yesterday about Paul Farhi’s piece in The Washington Post on checkbook journalism — in particular the way a mishmash of websites, tabloids, and TV news operations put money in the hands of the people they want to interview. (With TV, the money-moving is a little less direct, usually filtered through payments for photos or videos.)

But, just for a moment, let’s set aside the traditional moral issues journalists have with paying sources. (Just for a moment!) Does paying sources make business sense? Financially speaking, the justification given for paying sources is to generate stories that generate an audience — with the hope that the audience can then be monetized. Does it work?

There’s not nearly enough data to draw any real conclusions, but let’s try a little thought experiment with the (rough) data points we do have, because I think it might provide some insight into other means of paying for content. Nick Denton, the head man at Gawker Media and the chief new-media proponent of paying sources, provides some helpful financial context:

With the ability to determine instantly how much traffic an online story is generating, Gawker’s Denton has the pay scale almost down to a science: “Our rule of thumb,” he writes, “is $10 per thousand new visitors,” or $10,000 per million.

What strikes me about those numbers is how low they are. $10K for a million new visitors? There aren’t very many websites out there that wouldn’t consider that an extremely good deal.

Let’s compare Denton’s Ratio to the numbers generated by another money-for-audience scheme in use on the Internet: online advertising. After all, lots of ads are sold using roughly the same language Denton uses: the M in CPM stands for thousand. Except it’s cost per thousand impressions (a.k.a. pageviews), not cost per thousand new visitors, which would be much more valuable. What Denton’s talking about is more like CPC — cost per click, which sells at a much higher rate. (Those new visitors aren’t just looking at an ad for a story; they’re actually reading it, or at least on the web page.) Except it’s even more valuable than that, since there’s no guarantee that the person clicking a CPC ad is actually a “new” visitor. Let’s call what Denton’s talking about CPMNV: cost per thousand new visitors.

CPC rates vary wildly. When I did a little experiment last year running Google AdWords ads for the Lab, I ended up paying 63 cents per click. I ran a similar experiment a few months later with Facebook ads for the Lab, and the rate ended up being 26 cents per click.

What Denton is getting for his $10 CPMNV is one cent per click, one cent per new visitor. It’s just that the click isn’t coming from the most traditional attention-generating tool, an ad — it’s coming from a friend’s tweet, or a blogger’s link, or a mention on ESPN.com that sends someone to Google to search “Brett Favre Jenn Sterger.”

Doing the pageview math

And that $10 CPMNV that Denton’s willing to pay is actually less than the return he gets for at least some of his source-paid stories. Take the four Gawker Media pieces that the Post story talks about: the original photo of singer Faith Hill from a Redbook cover, to show how doctored the image was for publication; photos and a narrative from a man who hooked up with Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell; the “lost” early version of the iPhone 4 found in a California bar; and voice mails and pictures that allegedly show quarterback Brett Favre flirting with a woman named Jenn Sterger, who is not his wife. Gawker publishes its pageview data alongside each post, so we can start to judge whether Denton’s deals made financial sense. (Again, we’re talking financial sense here, not ethical sense, which is a different question.)

Faith Hill Redbook cover: 1.46 million pageviews on the main story, and about 730,000 pageviews on a number of quick folos in the days after posting. Total: around 2.2 million pageviews, not to mention an ongoing Jezebel franchise. Payment: $10,000.

Christine O’Donnell hookup: 1.26 million pageviews on the main story, 617,000 on the accompanying photo page, 203,000 on O’Donnell’s response to the piece, 274,000 on Gawker’s defense of the piece. Total: around 2.35 million pageviews. Payment: $4,000.

“Lost” iPhone: 13.05 million pageviews on the original story; 6.1 million pageviews on a series of folos. Total: around 19.15 million pageviews. Payment: $5,000.

Brett Favre/Jenn Sterger: 1.73 million pageviews on the first story, 4.82 million on the big reveal, 3.99 million pageviews on a long line of folos. Total: around 10.54 million pageviews. Payment: $12,000.

Let’s say, as a working assumption, that half of all these pageviews came from people new to Gawker Media, people brought in by the stories in question. (That’s just a guess, and I suspect it’s a low one — I’d bet it’s something more like 70-80 percent. But let’s be conservative.)

Expected under the Denton formula:
Faith Hill: 1 million new visitors
O’Donnell: 400,000 new visitors
iPhone: 500,000 new visitors
Favre: 1.2 million new visitors

Guesstimated real numbers:
Faith Hill: 1.1 million new visitors
O’Donnell: 1.17 million new visitors
iPhone: 9.56 million new visitors
Favre: 5.27 million new visitors

Again, these are all ham-fisted estimates, but they seem to indicate at least three of the four stories significantly overperformed Denton’s Ratio.

Reaching new audiences

The primary revenue input for Gawker is advertising. They don’t publish a rate card any more, but the last version I could find had most of their ad slots listed at a $10 CPM. Who knows what they’re actually selling at — ad slots get discounted or go unsold all the time, many pages have multiple ads, and lots of online ads get sold on the basis of metrics other than CPM. But with one $10 CPM ad per pageview, the 2.2 million pageviews on the Faith Hill story would drum up $22,000 in ad revenue. (Again, total guesstimate — Denton’s mileage will vary.)

Aside: Denton has said that these paid-for stories are “always money-losers,” and it’s true that pictures of Brett Favre’s manhood can be difficult to sell ads next to. Most (but not all) of those 10.54 million Brett Favre pageviews were served without ads on them. But that has more to do with, er, private parts than the model of paying sources.

But even setting aside the immediate advertising revenue — the most difficult task facing any website is getting noticed. Assuming there are lots of people who would enjoy reading Website X, the question becomes how those people will ever hear of Website X. Having ESPN talk about a Deadspin story during Sportscenter is one way. Having that Redbook cover emailed around to endless lists of friends is another. Gawker wants to create loyal readers, but you can only do that from the raw material of casual readers. Some fraction of each new flood of visitors will, ideally, see they like the place and want to stick around.

Denton publishes up-to-date traffic stats for his sites, and here’s what the four in question look like:

It’s impossible to draw any iron-clad conclusions from these squiggles, but in the case of Jezebel and Deadspin, the initial spike in traffic appears to have been followed by a new, higher plateau of traffic. (The same seems true, but to a lesser extent, for Gizmodo — perhaps in part because it was already much more prominent within the gadget-loving community when the story broke than, for example, 2007-era Jezebel or 2010-era Deadspin were within their target audiences. With Gawker, the O’Donnell story is too recent to see any real trends, and in any event, the impact will probably be lost within the remarkable overall traffic gains the site has seen.)

Fungible content strategies

I’ve purposefully set aside the (very real!) ethics issue here because, when looked at strictly from a business perspective, paying sources can be a marker for paying for content more generally. From Denton’s perspective, there isn’t much difference between paying a source $10,000 for a story and paying a reporter $10,000 for a story. They’re both cost outputs to be balanced against revenue inputs. No matter what one thinks of, say, Demand Media, the way they judge content’s value — how much money can I make off this piece? — isn’t going away.

Let’s put it another way. Let’s say a freelance reporter has written a blockbuster piece, one she’s confident will generate huge traffic numbers. She shops it around to Gawker and says it’ll cost them $10,000 to publish it. That’s a lot of money for an online story, and Denton would probably do some mental calculations: How much attention will this story get? How many new visitors will it bring to the site? What’s it worth? I’m sure there are some stories where the financial return isn’t the top factor — stories an editor just really loves and wants to publish. But just as the Internet has turned advertising into an engine for instantaneous price matching and shopping into an engine for instantaneous price comparison, it breaks down at least some of the financial barrier between journalist-as-cost and source-as-cost.

And that’s why, even beyond the very real ethical issues, it’s worth crunching the numbers on paying sources. Because in the event that Denton’s Ratio spreads and $10 CPMNV becomes a going rate for journalists as well as sources, that means for a writer to “deserve” a $50,000 salary, he’d have to generate 5 million new visitors a year. Five million is a lot of new visitors.

There’s one other line Denton had in the WaPo piece that stood out to me:

“I’m content for the old journalists not to pay for information. It keeps the price down,” Denton writes in an exchange of electronic messages. “So I’m a big supporter of that journalistic commandment – as it applies to other organizations.”

When we think of the effects of new price competition online, we often think of it driving prices down. When there are only a few people competing for an advertising dollar, they can charge higher rates; when there are lots of new competitors in the market, prices go down. But Denton’s basically arguing the equally logical flipside: I can afford to pay so little because there aren’t enough other news orgs competing for what sources have to offer. Let’s hope we don’t get to that same point with journalists.

September 14 2010

20:00

More growth for Gawker comments, and more power to elite commenters

We’ve written before about the commenting system at Gawker Media’s family of sites, which for my money strikes the best balance between complexity and simplicity, between encouraging good behavior and policing bad. (I also just like that Gawker’s a company that really thinks about comments, that doesn’t just treat them as an expected annoyance/pageview driver.)

The chart above shows the growth Gawker comments over time; I’ve highlighted the section on the right that represents the continued increase since I last posted these numbers in April.

So it’s noteworthy that Gawker announced today a couple small tweaks to their commenting system.

First, they’ve added a few more gradations to the kinds of discipline available to wayward commenters. Before, commenters could be banned, and individual comments could be disemvoweled (rendered less legible by removing the vowels — although some would argue disemvoweling does more to draw attention to the bad behavior than it does to punish it). Now, commenters can also be officially warned for straying from proper behavior (with a link to official commenting policy) or suspended for a week. I’d imagine that these lesser punishments might discourage bad commenters from going through the bother of creating a new false identity and continuing to stink up the joint. And it could also help people who genuinely don’t realize they’re being bad.

Of note is that these power don’t just rest in the hands of Gawker Media staff: These tools are also available to the army of starred commenters who have impressed Gawkerites with their work. So here, for instance, Gawker user morninggloria has warned a commenter for daring to say Lady Gaga looked like John Lennon in drag. (I’d like to thank morninggloria for giving me an excuse to create a “John Lennon in drag” tag here at the Lab.)

That kind of decentralization makes it tenable to govern the huge crush of comments these sites get, and it also sets a goal that encourages good behavior: write enough good comments and you’ll get a gold star and some authority to shape the site you love.

The second major change is what they’re calling thread moving. Here’s an explanation from Gizmodo’s Jason Chen:

Then, there’s thread moving. That’s what we do if we think a comment is so egregious that it deserves both a warning and a moving to a tagpage, so it’s not cluttering up the discussion. Here are the main five tagpages we’ll be moving to.

• #trollpatrol. Originally we used this tag for identifying trolls, but we’ll throw actual trolls in there as well. But please, continue using that as a place to show us where the trolls are.

• #fanboys. Another obvious tagpage. This isn’t for people who use and enjoy products, it’s for people who lose their damn minds over a brand or idea and are blind to any other options or dissenting opinions. You should know who these are.

• #timeout. A place where we send commenters that need a little time away from typing words into boxes in order to think about whether or not this is the right place for them. This goes with a 7-day suspension—something milder than a ban, but still serves the purpose of telling them that we don’t like what they’re doing with their comments.

• #phantomzone. If you make uninformed, stupid or otherwise lousy comments, this is where that comment will be. Say hi to Zod.

• #whitenoise. Offtopic discussions go here. If a post is about keyboards and you talk about picking out new curtains, we’ll escort you over here.

• #dev/null. I just came up with this one, and I’m pretty sure I’m going to use it quite often.

Essentially, it’s a way to apply tags to individual comments, have them detach from their native post, and live another life in the Gawker Media forums, which are tied to the tags. This could separate off-comment topics without killing them off completely; one suspects the bad-behavior tag pages will have their own regular denizens. And the change could work to liven up the tag-based forum pages, which it appears have gained traction in only a limited number of cases. (See Deadspin’s #iwasthere tag page, or Gawker’s #tips page.) I love the concept of comment tag pages — treating the comment as an independent unit of content, opening up new avenues for involved commenters to create and contribute — but I’m not sure how well it’s worked in practice. It may be the point where the system grows too complex for most users.

Gawker Media CTO Tom Plunkett posted the above chart today and added this about the changes:

At Gawker Media, comment growth continues to be strong — both in volume and quality. It’s good to see validation of the processes we’ve introduced.

This week we’ve rolled out new features that will allow us to further improve the experience. It is now possible to move comment threads from posts to forums (think “off topic” threads: we’re happy to let you keep the conversation going, but it’d be better to continue the discussion in a forum appropriate to the subject). We will utilize thread moving for many situations (off topic, inappropriate comments, bannable offenses, etc.), and think it will only improve our platform.

If you are paying attention to beta.gawker.com or beta.jalopnik.com, you will see more improvements we plan to roll out in the future. Remember – these sites are beta (alpha may be a more appropriate description)! Don’t expect everything to work perfectly all of the time!

So if you want to see what Gawker’s thinking about for the future, the beta site features a more magazine-like front page (as opposed to straight blog hierarchy — the most popular recent story gets top billing), non-standard fonts via Typekit, a wider story well, smooth page transitions, a stationary sidebar, and a more prominent footer. We’ll see how much of that reaches the production sites of one of the more adventurous new media companies around.

April 13 2010

17:22

Tough love: Gawker finds making it harder for comments to be seen leads to more (and better) comments

That chart is, for news organizations seeking to tame their commenters, perhaps the best evidence yet that adding a few obstacles for those seeking the leave their mark on a web page can actually lead to more comments. And better ones, too.

That chart (bigger version here) tracks the number of comments left by month on the Gawker Media blog empire, Nick Denton’s collection of themed sites (Gawker, Gizmodo, Deadspin, et al.). It covers September 2005 to the present. See that big dip on the right? That’s when Gawker implemented a new, stricter commenting system, in which trusted commenters get preferred access to readers and the unknown hoi polloi have to audition for an audience. (We wrote about it at the time; in an internal memo, Denton wrote about “taking back the site from some commenters who thought they were in charge” and said “we’ll be able to encourage the kind of discussion that *we* want — not one that is dominated merely by the most prolific of our commenters. It’s our party; we get to decide who comes.”)

In essence, Gawker’s “class system” means unknown commenters get stuck behind a “show all discussions” link few users will click. What most readers will see are only the musings of trusted commenters and the few comments from the riff-raff that either Gawker staff or trusted commenters have decided to promote — the “featured discussions.” (The system also put the most recent comments on top, not on bottom as at most sites. That would seem to reduce the possibility that a dumb early comment would sway the chain of comments that follow it into irrelevance.)

As the chart shows, the shift led to an immediate decline in comment volume. (Interestingly, the biggest drop seems to have been at Jezebel, Gawker’s women-centric site. Attention communications and/or gender studies grad students: There’s a thesis somewhere in there!) But comments quickly rebounded and have since skyrocketed at a much faster slope than before the switch. Some of that is no doubt related to Gawker’s overall increase in traffic, but the scale of the increase is still remarkable.

Gawker Media CTO Tom Plunkett posted the chart on his blog. His interpretation?

Quality *and* growth — it’s possible! We launched tiered commenting mid-year 2009, and introduced a new process to manage comment volume. Note the dramatic drop in volume, and the subsequent rise (double in 9 months). With this increase, Gawker still has the best commenting system/experience out there — and I usually hear the same from people that want to share their opinion…

Though there were some calls to do so, purging commenter accounts is not a solution for the out-of-control commenter community. Nor is a large moderation staff. We believe pruning, and a commenting platform as we have implemented, will lead to increased participation, while at the same time encouraging quality. This data, and the subjective opinion of many, seem to back this assertion.

I’m a regular Gizmodo and Gawker reader (and less regular Lifehacker and Deadspin reader), and I can add to the subjective opinion that average comment quality is higher than before. But “better” isn’t the only scale on which you can measure comments. I think the audition-for-an-audience nature of the new system also makes the comments quippier; Gawker comments can feel like a bunch of wannabe Henny Youngmans spouting one-liners and seeking attention. But that vibe may have more to do with Gawker’s content and tone than the details of its commenting policies.)

In any event, complaining about awful commenters seems to be the first thing any gaggle of journalists does when lamenting the new news reality. The default solution has been to say every commenter should have to use his or her real name — a solution with practical as well as ethical problems. (Although Facebook Connect may be taking away some of the practical concerns.) Still, there’s a whole world of ways a news site can improve the tenor of its comments while keeping itself reasonably open. Gawker Media’s success is one example of how.

January 07 2010

15:13

To grow, Gawker turns its attention to unique users

Gawker Media’s web measurement of choice is shifting from pageviews to unique users. That’s a pretty big deal for an organization that led the charge in pageview obsession. Gawker founder Nick Denton explained the refocusing in a staff memo:

The target is called “US monthly uniques.” It represents a measure of each site’s domestic audience. This is the figure that journalists cite when judging a site’s competitive position. It’s also the metric by which advertisers decide which sites they will shower with dollars. Finally, a site with plenty of genuine uniques is one that has good growth prospects. Each of those first-time visitors is a potential convert.

Gawker wants to expand its audience, and in the web world that often means launching new sites targeting different audiences. That’s not the case here: Gawker has sold properties, rolled others into its flagship and cut staff in recent years.

So how will Gawker grow amidst consolidation? By focusing efforts on scoops and original content; the stuff that spreads like wildfire through Twitter and Digg. “What is new is our feeling that we have tapped out our existing core audiences, and need to incentivize writers to find the next million people,” Denton wrote in an email. And as our colleague Zach Seward pointed out on Twitter a few days ago, the most popular Gawker posts are disproportionately the ones with original reporting.

The memo points out four stories that fit this new mindset:

Think of an exclusive such as Gawker’s embassy hazing pics, Deadspin’s expose of ESPN’s horndoggery, Gizmodo’s first look of the new Microsoft tablet or io9’s Avatar review. An item which gets picked up and draws in new visitors is worth more than a catnip slideshow that our existing readers can’t help but click upon.

Gawker turned a lot of heads when it grew advertising revenue by 35 percent while the rest of the industry was imploding. Other media organizations may scoff at some of Gawker’s methods, but they’d love to have its growth pattern. If a refocusing on unique users keeps Gawker on an upswing, there’ll be a lot of new passengers on the unique-user bandwagon. I don’t believe we’ve reached the “as Gawker goes, so goes the industry” inflection point, but the company is an industry trendsetter.

I see Gawker’s move plugging into a broader evolution where web publishers seek to attract people, not just clicks. Generating an audience is tough work. Original content and exclusives require far more time and energy than excerpting and aggregating. (That’s not a shot at aggregators — just an acknowledgement of reality.) The upside is that all that extra effort can create strong relationships with audiences and advertisers alike. Engagement leads to revenue, which leads to sustainability, which stokes hope and other things in short supply these days. A focus on uniques may or may not yield better journalism, but it could create better businesses.

Update: Denton followed up with a clarification:

“One minor quibble about your piece. We periodically cut staff and sites — more aggressively than usual last year, of course. But we’ve been hiring too and investing in our most successful properties. Edit budget [is] up 20% this year,” he wrote.

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