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July 01 2013

14:57

Monday Q&A: Denise Malan on the new data-driven collaboration between INN and IRE

Every news organization wishes it could have more reporters with data skills on staff. But not every news organization can afford to make data a priority — and even those that do can sometimes find the right candidates hard to find.

A new collaboration between two journalism nonprofits — the Investigative News Network and Investigative Reporters and Editors — aims to address this allocation issue. Denise Malan, formerly a investigative and data reporter at the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, will fill the new role of INN director of data services, offering “dedicated data-analysis services to INN’s membership of more than 80 nonprofit investigative news organizations,” many of them three- or four-person teams that can’t find room or funding for a dedicated data reporter.

It’s a development that could both strengthen the investigative work being done by these institutions and skill building around data analysis in journalism. Malan has experience in training journalists in skills of procuring, cleaning, and analyzing data, and she has high hopes for the kinds of stories and networked reporting that will be produced by this collaboration. We talked about IRE’s underutilized data library, potentially disruptive Supreme Court decisions around freedom of information, the unfortunate end for wildlife wandering onto airplane runways, and what it means to translate numbers into stories.

O’Donovan: How does someone end up majoring in physics and journalism?
Malan: My freshman year they started a program to do a bachelor of arts in physics. Physics Lite. And you could pair that with business or journalism or English — something that was really your major focus of study, but the B.A. in physics would give you a good science background. So you take physics, you take calculus, you take statistics, and that really gives you the good critical thinking and data background to pair with something else — in my case, journalism.
O’Donovan: I guess it’s kind of easy to see how that led into what you’re doing now. But did you always see them going hand in hand? Or is that something that came later?
Malan: In college, I thought I was going to be a science writer. That was the main reason I paired those. When I got into news and started going down the path of data journalism, I was very glad to have that background, for sure. But I started getting more into the data journalism world when the Caller-Times in Corpus Christi sent me to the IRE bootcamp, where it’s a weeklong, intensive week where you concentrate on learning Excel and Access and the different pitfalls you can face in data — some basic cleaning skils. That’s really what got me started in the data journalism realm. And then the newspaper continued to send me to training — to the CAR conferences every year and local community college classes to beef up my skills.
O’Donovan: So, how long were you at the Caller-Times?
Malan: I was there seven years. I started as a reporter in June 2006, and then moved up into editing in May of 2010.
O’Donovan: And in the time that you were there as their data person, what are some stories that you were particularly proud of, or made you feel like this was a a burgeoning field?
Malan: We focused on intensely local projects at the Caller-Times. One of the ones that I was really proud of I worked on with our city hall reporter Jessica Savage. She found out that the city streets are a huge issue in Corpus Christi. If you’ve ever driven here, you know they are just horrible — a disaster. And the city is trying to find a billion dollars to fix them.

So our city hall reporter found out that the city keeps a database of scores called the Pavement Condition Index. Basically, it’s the condition of your street. So we got that database and we merged it with a file of streets and color-coded it so people could fully see what the condition of their street was, and we put it a database for people to find their exact block. This was something the city did not want to give us at first, because if people know the condition of their street scores, they’re going to demand that we do something about it. We’re like, “Yeah, that’s kind of the idea.” But that database became the basis for an entire special section on our streets. We used it to find people on streets who scored a 0, and talked about how it effects their life — how often they have to repair their cars, how often they walk through giant puddles.

And then we paired it with a breakout box of every city council member and their score. We did a map online, which, for over a year, actually, has been a big hit while the city is discussing how they’re going to find this money. People have been using it as a basis for the debate that they’re having, which, to me, is really kind of how we make a difference. Using this data that the city had, bringing it to light, making it accessible, I think, has really just changed the debate here for people. So that’s one thing I’m really proud of — that we can give people information to make informed decisions.

O’Donovan: Part of your new position is going to be facilitating and assisting other journalists in starting to understand how to do this kind of work. How do you tell reporters that this isn’t scary — that it’s something they can do or they can learn? How do you begin that conversation?
Malan: [At the Caller-Times] we adopted the philosophy that data journalism isn’t just something that one nerdy person in the office does, but something that everyone in the newsroom should have in their toolbox. It really enhances eery beat at the newspaper.

I would do training sessions occasionally on Excel, Google Fusion Tables, Caspio to show everyone in the newsroom, “Here’s what’s possible.” Some people really pick up on it and take it and run with it. Some people are not as math oriented and are not going to be able to take it and run with it themselves, but at least they know those tools are available and what it’s possible to do with them.

So some of the reporters would be just aware of how we could analyze data and they would keep their eyes open for databases on their beats, and other reporters would run with it. That philosophy is very important in any newsroom today. A lot of what I’m going to be doing with IRE and INN is working with the INN members in helping them to gather the data and analyze it and inform their local reporting. So a lot of the same roles, but in a broader context.

O’Donovan: So a lot of it is understanding that everyone is going to come at it with a different skill level.
Malan: Yes, absolutely. All our members have different levels of skills. Some of our members have very highly skilled data teams, like ProPublica, Center for Public Integrity — they’re really at the forefront of data journalism. Other members are maybe one- or two-person newsrooms that may not have the training and don’t have any reporters with those skills. So the skill sets are all over the board. But it will be my job to help, especially smaller newsrooms, plug into those resources — especially the resources at IRE — the best they can, with the data library there and the training available there. We help them bring up their own skills and enhance their own reporting.
O’Donovan: When a reporter comes to you and says, “I just found this dataset or I just got access to it” — how do you dive into that information when it comes to looking for stories? How do you take all of that and start to look for what could turn into something interesting?
Malan: A lot of it depends on the data set. Just approach every set of data as a source that you’re interviewing. What is available there? What is maybe missing from the data is something you want to think about too? And you definitely want to narrow it down: A lot of data sets are huge, especially these federal data sets that might have records containing, I don’t know, 120 fields, but maybe you’re only interested in three of them. So you want to get to know the data set, and what is interesting in it, and you want to really narrow your focus.

One collaboration that INN did was using data gathered by NASA for the FAA, and it was essentially near misses — incidents at airports like hitting deer on the runway, and all these little things that can happen but aren’t necessarily reported. They all get compiled in this database, and pilots write these narratives about it, so that field is very interesting to them. There were four or five INN members who collaborated on that, and they all came away with different stories because they all found something else that was interesting for them locally.

O’Donovan: This position you’ll hold is about bringing the work of INN and IRE together. What’s that going to look like? We talk all the time about how journalism is moving in a more networked direction — where do you see this fitting into that?
Malan: IRE and INN have always had a very close relationship, and I think that this position just kind of formalizes that. I will be helping INN members plug into the resources of IRE, especially the data library, I’ll be working closely with Liz Lucas, the database director at IRE, and I’m actually going to be living near IRE so I can work more closely with them. Some of that data there is very underutilized and it’s really interesting and maybe hasn’t been used in any projects, especially on a national level.

So we can take that data and I can kind of help analyze it, help slice it for the various regions we might be looking at, and help the INN members use that data for their stories. I’ll basically be acting as almost a translator to get this data from the IRE and help the INN members use it.

Going the other way, with INN members, they might come up with some project idea where data isn’t available from the database library, or it might be something where we have to gather data from every state individually, so we might compile that and whatever we end up with will be sent back to the IRE library and made available to other IRE members. So it’s a two-way relationship.

O’Donovan: So in terms of managing this collaboration, what are the challenges? Are you think of building an interface for sharing data or documents?
Malan: We’re going to be setting up a kind of committee of data people with INN to have probably monthly calls and just discuss ideas, what they’re working on, brainstorming, possible ideas. I want it to be a very organic, ground-up process — I don’t want it to be dictating what the projects should be. I want the members to come up with their own ideas. So we’ll be brainstorming and coming up with things, and we’ll be managing the group through Basecamp and communicating that way. A lot of the other members are already on Basecamp and communicate that way through INN.

We’ll be communicating through this committee and coming up with ideas and I’l be working with other members to, to reach out to them. If we come up with an idea that deals with health care, for example, I might reach out to some of the members that are especially focused on health care and try to bring in other members on it.

O’Donovan: Do you foresee collaborations between members, like shared reporting and that kind of thing?
Malan: Yeah, depending on the project. Some of it might be shared reporting; some of it might be someone does a main interview. If we’re doing a crime story dealing with the FBI’s Uniformed Crime Report, maybe we just have one reporter from every property, we nominate one person to do the interview with the FBI that everyone can use in their own story, which they localize with their own data. So, yeah, depending on the project, we’ll have to kind of see how the reporting would shake out.
O’Donovan: Do you have any specific goals or types of stories you want to tell, or even just specific data sets you’re eager to get a look at?
Malan: I think there are several interesting sets in the IRE data library that we might go after at first. There’s really interesting health sets, for example, from the FDA — one of them is a database of adverse affects from drugs, complaints that people make that drugs have had adverse effects. So yeah, some of those can be right off the bat, ready to go and parse and analyze.

Some other data sets we might be looking at will be a little harder to get, will take some FOIs and some time to get. There are several major areas that our members focus on and that we’ll be looking at projects for. Environment, for example — fracking is a large issue, and how environment effects public health. Health care, especially with the Affordable Care Act coming into effect next year is going to be a large one. Politics, government, how money effects influences politicians is a huge area as we come up on the 2016 elections and the 2014 midterms. And education is another issue with achievement gaps, graduation rates, charter schools — those are all large issues that our members follow. Finding those commonalties and dealing with data sets, digging into that is going to be my first priority.

O’Donovan: The health question is interesting. Knight announced its next round of News Challenge grants is going to be all around health.
Malan: I’m excited about that. We have several members that are really specifically focused on healt,h so I feel like we might be able to get something good with that.
O’Donovan: Health care stuff or more public health stuff?
Malan: It’s a mix, but a lot of stuff is geared toward the Affordable Care Act now.
O’Donovan: Gathering these data sets must often involve a lot of coordination across states and jurisdictions.
Malan: Yeah, absolutely. One thing I am a little nervous about is the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in the Virginia case where they can now require you to live in a state to put in an FOI. That might complicate things a little bit. I know there are several groups working on lists of people who will put an FOI in for you in various states. But that can kind of just slow down the process and put a little kink in and add to the timeline. I’m concerned of course that now they know it’s been ruled constitutional that every state might make that the law. It could be a huge thing. A management nightmare.
O’Donovan: What kind of advice do you normally give to reporters who are struggling to get information that they know they should be allowed to have?
Malan: That’s something we encountered a lot here, especially getting data in the proper format, too. Laws on that can vary from state to state. A lot of governments will give you paper or PDF format, instead of the Excel or text file that you asked for. It’s always a struggle.

The advice is to know the law as best you can, know what exceptions are allowed under your state law, be able to quote — you don’t have to have the law memorized, but be able to quote specific sections that you know are on your side. Be prepared with your requests, and be prepared to fight for it. And in a lot of cases, it is a fight.

O’Donovan: That’s an interesting intersection of technical and legal skill. That’s a lot of education dollars right there.
Malan: Yeah, no kidding.
O’Donovan: When you do things like attend the NICAR conference and assess the scene more broadly, where do you see the most urgent gaps in the data journalism field? Is it that we need more data analysts? More computer scientists? More reporters with the fluency in communicating with government? More legal aid? If you could allocate more resources, where would you put them right now?
Malan: There’s always going to be a need for more very highly skilled data journalists who can gather these national sets, analyze them, clean them, get them into a digestible format, visualize them online, and inform readers. I would like to see more general beat reporters interested in data and at least getting skills in Excel and even Access — because the beat reporters are the ones on the ground, using their sources, finding these data sets or not finding them if they’re not aware of what data is. I would really like this to be a bigger push to at least educate most general beat reporters to a certain level.
O’Donovan: Where do you see the data journalism movement headed over the next couple years? What would your next big hope for the field be?
Malan: Well, of course I hope for it to go kind of mainstream, and that all reporters will have some sort of data skills. It’s of course harder with fewer and fewer resources, and reporters are learning how to tweet and Instagram, and there are demands on their time that have never been there.

But I would hope it would become just an normal part of journalism, that there would be no more “data journalism” — that it just becomes part of what we do, because it’s invaluable to reporting and to really helping ferret out the truth and to give context to stories.

June 27 2013

15:17

The newsonomics of Advance’s advancing strategy and its Achilles’ heel

Another city. Another melange of limited information, confused storytelling, and an unsuccessful attempt to put on a happy face to mask a huge change in newspapering and civic life.

Last week, Oregon’s dominant paper, The Oregonian, followed in the footsteps of other Advance papers and announced it would be delivering to homes only four days a week come fall. It will be greatly slimming down staff, including dozens in the newsrooms, formally going digital-first, reorganizing into two companies, and producing newsstand editions on the days it won’t home deliver. It’s Advance’s Slim-Fast, Phase 2, tweaked after its torturous New Orleans rollout last year (“The newsonomics of Advance’s New Orleans strategy”).

That’s the new Advance playbook, as the company — a top 10 newspaper company by revenue in the U.S. — proceeds with a revolutionary restructuring of the local news business. It’s a play that serves at this point as a contrarian example. Most publishers believe the Newhouse family, owners of the very private Advance, is downsizing its own business, and about to give away the local market dominance in readership and commerce monopoly regional dailies have long had in the United States.

Within Advance, you hear that its strategy isn’t just on plan — it’s ahead of it. How do we put together what’s really happening and figure out what to make of it?

It’s not easy. Working with sources up and down in Advance cities is one way, gathering lots of partial views. While top editors are willing to talk, Advance’s business leaders are mum. That’s just silly: Newspapers have a special responsibility to the public, one that although further tested by Advance’s new strategy, is universal. Newspapers are citizens of their community — leading ones, we’d hope — and clamming up about changes of this significance is contrary to the values of the trade.

Just as curiously, Advance isn’t sharing much with its peers in the industry. If Advance has really developed the new secret sauce, why not share it with other newspaper publishers nationally and globally? After all, they’re not the competition. Yet Advance’s omerta-light DNA is a sideshow here. What we care about is the Advance strategy and what it means to the readers, to the journalists, and to the business of news going forward.

So let’s look at the updated newsonomics of the Advance strategy, Phase 2, as it rolls out in Portland in October, two months after Cleveland’s Plain Dealer takes the same plunge. Let’s look the strategy — which has a fair amount of smarts built into it — and its challenges, pitfalls and, likely, its Achilles’ heel.

Planning for print decline

As a strategy, think shock therapy and you’d be close. For decades, the Advance papers had been the epitome of corporate paternalism. The no-layoff pledge, generous health benefits, and good salaries all said job-for-life. Advance’s separation of its local digital sites (OregonLive.com in Portland, for instance) from the newsroom — literally 10 blocks away and reporting to corporate, not the publisher or editor — greatly hampered a singular reader focus.

As other companies struggled mightily with the digital transition, the huge staffs of the Advance dailies found themselves too often sitting on the sidelines. Individual editors, with great variability, tried to innovate. Overall, though, Advance dailies were falling behind the peers in trying to meet the digital revolution.

After years of waiting, waiting, and waiting, the company is now in a mad rush to change. When it came time to acknowledge basic truths about newspapering, Advance management reached for the hand grenade rather than the scalpel.

Reading the same tea leaves of print decline as their brethren, they decided that blowing up the enterprise (reassembling it in two pieces) and downsizing their operations, their home delivery, and their community service was the answer.

Their analysis, curiously, parallels that of iconoclast John Paton, the mastermind behind Digital First Media, as Journal Register and now MediaNews properties experience their own more evolutionary revolution. The in-common belief: As print ad revenues show accelerated decline, companies must greatly reduce their legacy costs and concentrate on the digital future. In fact, Paton has somewhat endorsed Advance’s efforts.

While the experiments began in Michigan in 2009, it was the the New Orleans Times-Picayune downsizing that riveted public and industry attention. In fact, 60 Minutes, which had sought the one moment for years to finally talk about the decline of the U.S. press, used the Times-Picayune’s réduction des effectifs as Exhibit A.

Everyone acknowledges that Advance publicly handled the New Orleans changeover as poorly as it could. Marketing. Messaging. Engagement. All subpar.

The T-P seemed to be at odds with the community that went into the streets to demand its very pulp-based existence. The community’s clamor for a seven-day paper went unheeded — until Monday, when the street edition of The Times-Picayune hit pavement, in 60 glorious tab pages. The New Orleans paper had borrowed a page from its northern cousin, the Post-Standard, which cut back home delivery Feb. 1, publishing a print edition even on days that it no longer offered home delivery. The changeover, Phase 2.

Now The Plain Dealer, which just announced a set of layoffs last week, and The Oregonian are following the same five-point model:

  • Massively cut expenses: At The Oregonian, about a sixth of the 650 staffers will lose their jobs. At Syracuse, the number was closer to 30 percent of about 400. Overall, I’ve extrapolated that Advance is aiming for an about 25 percent expense reduction (mainly in staff, printing, and distribution); I’ve been told that is close to the mark.
  • Pixelate the remaining ink-stained wretches: As Oregonian editor Peter Bhatia made (solely, he says) the layoff decisions that eliminated the jobs of about four dozen journalist staffers — about a quarter of the newsroom — he’s been quite clear that digital skills played a part in his decision-making. “How well [people] will work in the new world order” is key, he told me this week. (For the depth of the tumult within The Oregonian, check out Willamette Week’s takeout here.)
  • Separate out the old business from the new: In all its restructured cities, two separate companies have emerged to replace the old print. In Portland, it’s the Oregonian Media Group (yes, the already much-satirized OMG) that will now employ the content and sales people. As I’ve argued over the years, it is content and sales, quite simply, that are the foundation of the new business. The Advance strategy recognizes that and takes it to an operational level. The other new company Advance Central Services Oregon houses “support” of OMG. So it’s mainly made up of the print-oriented parts of the business — production, printing and distribution — along with HR, finance, and technology.
  • Provide seven-day print, but not home delivery: In New Orleans, and at Advance’s two Alabama dailies, the end of seven-day print was cold-turkey. One day: seven days a week of print; after the changeover, only three days. Then, Advance learned something from the Syracuse model. Pushed to continue (at least for a while) the semblance of seven-day print, the Post-Standard found that a by-product of daily print — the durable, seemingly vestigial e-edition — achieved a market purpose. Today in Syracuse, with a daily circulation of about 75,000, about one in ten readers downloads that daily e-edition. E-editions have been around for 15 years; essentially, they’re replicas of the final edition of the printed paper, ones that can be updated during the next day, but often aren’t.

    Why would anyone want to read a static copy of yesterday’s news? Think older readers. They own computers, but are more comfortable with the format of the newspaper they’ve read for decades. This is an interim market, to be sure, but serving it is a subscriber retention must. To publish an e-edition, you need a print edition. If, like the Oregonian, you’re making substantial revenue printing other publishers’ papers, adding a short run of single-copy papers can be done very cheaply. Hence, single copy editions.

    In Portland, there will be four days of home delivery. The Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday editions are clearly full papers. The content emphasis of a Saturday paper — first called a “bonus” in its announcement — is still taking shape, says Bhatia. Consistent with Advance’s marketing and messaging faux pas, it has also named its daily e-edition, “My Digital O,” to the guffaws of many. Talk about service journalism.

    This single-copy story may get more interesting. Whereas Syracuse has stuck to a 16-page edition, with a single ad — to facilitate that e-edition — New Orleans’ TP Street debuted with 60 pages and a good run of ads, adding three to its print team to produce it. Both cities’ papers are delivered to hundreds of newsstands. An ironic question: What would Advance have to charge to restart seven-day home delivery, coming full-circle in its digital-first, cost-cutting exercise?

  • Keep digital access free — at least for now: Most puzzling in Advance’s strategy is its reliance on advertising, which continues to go south for the whole industry — including Advance. As more than 500 dailies in the U.S. move to charging for digital access, including all of Advance’s peer chains, Advance eschews paywalls. Why? Well, given the tight lips, we’re not sure.

    The lack of an All-Access model, I believe, looks like the Achilles heel of the Advance strategy, even if that strategy works in other ways. Why? Advance depends and will depend much more on ad revenue than its peers. Many of those peers believe that reader revenue may reach 50 percent of total revenue within two to five years. They believe that print advertising’s fade looks near-irreversible. Further, they’ve learned that the sharp growth curve upward in digital ad revenue has hit a wall. Some struggle for growth at all; most are in single-digits, well below the 15 percent growth of digital ad revenue overall. Sure, The Oregonian, The Post-Standard, or The Harrisburg Patriot-News could institute a paywall. It would likely, though, yield much less than it could have.

    Getting the order of things right on a paywall is important: Much better to improve the seven-day print product, add usable mobile apps, and then price up, even if you have a mind to cut home delivery. That way, you’ve established a new, higher price — and the monetary value of digital. Instead, Advance maintains what now seems like a nonsensical approach to paid print and free digital, and that bodes ill for holding on to current print subscribers, much less convincing many people to pay much for all-access down the road.

    If other publishers believes half of their 2016 revenue will come from digitally oriented readers, how will Advance newspapers deal with the lack of that revenue? It will have two major choices: find currently unknown large sources of revenue — or keep cutting expenses, including newsroom staff.

Stand back from this audacious strategy — with all its staff-cutting pain, its inducing of reader pain, and the promise of its digital-first, future-is-now thinking — and it’s hard to get past the point of its missing digital reader revenue strategy.

That said, Advance’s more immediate bet is that it can radically reduce its costs and maintain its dominating presence in local news and commerce.

It’s too early to assess the local advertising challenge. It’s a hyper-competitive marketplace, and Advance seems to succeeded in corralling seven-day advertisers into three days. (I’d projected it would hold on to 85 percent of its print advertising revenue in New Orleans; the number appears to be closer to 90 percent.) It still faces, though, a fast-declining (high single digits loss in metro markets) print market. Further, its ability innovate fast enough in the digital ad marketplace is unproven.

As one observer put it to me today, does the new Oregonian plan to make its future on display banner ads? I’m sure execs would answer that no. But its work in newer forms of digital advertising, from content marketing to marketing services to a major video presence, all seem relatively nascent. Is it ready for prime time as a digital-heavy company? Not yet, certainly, and the clock shows two more big Advance dailies going digital-first within 90 days or so. As it fights for digital ad revenue, it faces many competitors from Google and Facebook nationally to lots of local players.

New competition

In news impact, so far, there is mixed evidence.

Observers in both New Orleans and Syracuse tell me it is a crazy-quilt. Yes, with time-stamping on the website, more stories and posts are being pumped out of the newsroom.

The new operations break their share of news, and some second-day stories do a great job of summing up major news events. Sometimes, though — more than they used to — both papers drop the ball on breaking news. Other news players, from NewsChannel 9 WSYR in Syracuse to The Lens and the just-launched Baton Rouge Advocate’s greatly energized New Orleans play (“The New Orleans Advocate”), are competing more consistently. The Advance papers are still the biggest dog in town, but the dog park is now more diverse. Come fall, The Plain Dealer and The Oregonian will wake up to find their traditional alpha status more challenged day by day.

Times-Picayune editor Jim Amoss believes he is already seeing the dividends from the wrenching change the newsroom has seen. His staff is thinking news, not the next day’s paper.

“We’ve had eight months of having the news gatherers and editors separate, physically separate, from the print team and not having to think about the print product. The new rhythms have been inculcated in everybody,” says Amoss. “The total number of people in news went from 181 pre-change to 160 now. We’re still in the process of filling some of those positions. That total includes 91 reporters (including metro area news, sports, entertainment, Baton Rouge, and Washington correspondent). The number of reporters pre-change was roughly the same.”

Digital audience has grown, as we would expect given the print stoppage. Overall pageviews are up 15 percent, and “eyes on content” — meaning views of articles, videos, and photos across the site — are up 35 percent. A significant part of that is huge photo growth, up 150 percent year over year; photos represent 16 percent of the site’s traffic.

With the changeover, editors and ad directors have more direction of their own digital presentations and business. Advance Digital, to whom the separate sites used to report, still provides digital product development, sales strategy, news and information content product development, and centralized technology for the digital products.

Oregonian editor Peter Bhatia echoed Amoss’ newsgathering point to me this week: The Oregonian newsroom today has about 90 reporters and will have about the same in the fall. The newsroom cutting has fallen disproportionately in middle editor and copy editing ranks in all the Advance cities, a strategy well-employed by others over, including the Star Tribune, over the past several years in making cuts.

The big questions, of course, are who those reporters are, how much experience they have and what beats they cover. In any newsroom restructuring, newsroom managers can use the opportunity to make changes they long wanted to make, but found inconvenient. In this great shuffle, some areas, like environmental beat experience, have been wiped out at the Oregonian.

Further digital skills may have trumped journalistic skills in such Sophie’s Choice decision-making. Finally, The Oregonian — as keenly aware of its newsroom dollar budget as of its actual headcount — cut many high-salaried people, as well as some younger staffers, weighing, I’m sure, one more factor: exposure to age discrimination suits, as any employer in such a situation would do.

All of that change means The Oregonian, come fall, will find new areas in which to excel — and will leave its flanks more open to competition. In Portland, there’s a lot of it. Pulitzer Prize-winning Willamette Week provides city-smart, well-established news coverage. Oregon Public Broadcasting has been adding coverage area after coverage area. Add in a strong TV news presence and several niche print players, and The Oregonian may find what its sister papers in New Orleans and Syracuse have found: breaking news and analysis becomes more of a multi-horse race.

It’s not just news-gathering and writing that matters on the web, of course. A digital-first news operation should be the go-to news aggregator for the region; The Oregonian isn’t. It should have the best tablet and smartphone apps — news and entertainment — and its offerings so far are nothing special, open to competition. It could leverage community, user-generated content far better, borrowing a page from its Northwest neighbor, The Seattle Times, but hasn’t moved in that direction.

Broadly, let’s say the strategy — at least parts of it — may be right. Then the question becomes: Is the Oregonian ready to execute on it?

There’s little doubt that most of Advance’s employees — whose work will make or break the strategy — have little confidence in the “the plan.” It’s paternalism gone awry, and the sense of abandonment is clear. The lurch in strategy is offering little comfort, as Advance and its publisher largely keep the staff in the dark about how the new business is going to create successful products and long-term employment.

What Advance has done is buy some time. In radically cutting its cost base, it may have given itself a couple of extra years to get its new strategy right. It will need that time, at least, to work the prodigious to-do list it has handed itself.

Photo by Josh Bancroft used under a Creative Commons license.

June 26 2013

16:48

What’s New in Digital Scholarship: A generation gap in online news, and does The Daily Show discourage tolerance?

Editor’s note: There’s a lot of interesting academic research going on in digital media — but who has time to sift through all those journals and papers?

Our friends at Journalist’s Resource, that’s who. JR is a project of the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, and they spend their time examining the new academic literature in media, social science, and other fields, summarizing the high points and giving you a point of entry. Roughly once a month, JR managing editor John Wihbey will sum up for us what’s new and fresh.

We’re at the halfway mark in our year-long odyssey tracking all things digital media and academic. Below are studies that continue to advance understanding among various hot topics: drone journalism; surveillance and the public; Twitter in conflict zones; Big Data and its limits; crowdsourced information platforms; remix culture; and much more. We also suggest some further “beach reads” at bottom. Enjoy the deep dive.

“Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2013: Tracking the Future of News”: Paper from University of Oxford Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, edited by Nic Newman and David A. L. Levy.

This new report provides tremendous comparative perspective on how different countries and news ecosystems are developing both in symmetrical and divergent ways (see the Lab’s write-up of the national differences/similarities highlighted.) But it also provides some interesting hard numbers relating to the U.S. media landscape; it surveys news habits of a sample of more than 2,000 Americans.

Key U.S. data points include: the number of Americans reporting accessing news by tablet in the past week rose, from 11 percent in 2012 to 16 percent in 2013; 28 percent said they accessed news on a smartphone in the last week; 75 percent of Americans reported accessing news online in the past week, while 72 percent said they got news through television and 47 percent reported having read a print publication; TV (43 percent) and online (39 percent) were Americans preferred platforms for accessing news. Further, a yawning divide exists between the preferences of those ages 18 to 24 and those over 55: among the younger cohort, 64 percent say the Web is their main source for news, versus only 25 percent among the older group; as for TV, however, 54 percent of older Americans report it as their main source, versus only 20 percent among those 18 to 24. Finally, 12 percent of American respondents overall reported paying for digital news in 2013, compared to 9 percent in 2012.

“The Rise and Fall of a Citizen Reporter”: Study from Wellesley College, for the WebScience 2013 conference. By Panagiotis Metaxas and Eni Mustafaraj.

This study looks at a network of anonymous Twitter citizen reporters around Monterrey, Mexico, covering the drug wars. It provides new insights into conflict zone journalism and information ecosystems in the age of digital media, as well the limits of raw data. The researchers, both computer scientists, analyze a dataset focused on the hashtag #MTYfollow, consisting of “258,734 tweets written by 29,671 unique Twitter accounts, covering 286 days in the time interval November 2010-August 2011.” They drill down on the account @trackmty, run by the pseudonym Melissa Lotzer, which is the largest of the accounts involved.

The scholars reconstruct a sequence in which a wild Twitter “game” breaks out — obviously, with life-and-death stakes — involving accusations about cartel informants (“hawks,” or “halcones”) and citizen watchdogs (“eagles,” or “aguilas”), with counter-accusations flying that certain citizen reporters were actually working for the Zetas drug cartel; indeed, @trackmty ends up being accused of working for the cartels. Online trolls attack her on Twitter and in blogs.

“The original Melissa @trackmty is slow to react,” the study notes, “and when she does, she tries to point to her past accomplishments, in particular the creation of [a group of other media accounts] and the interviews she has given to several reporters from the US and Spain (REF). But the frequency of her tweeting decreases, along with the community’s retweets. Finally, at the end of June, she stops tweeting altogether.” It turns out that the real @trackmty had been exposed — “her real identity, her photograph, friends and home address.”

Little of this drama was obvious from the data. Ultimately, the researchers were able to interview the real @trackmty and members of the #MTYfollow community. The big lessons, they realize, are the “limits of Big Data analysis.” The data visualizations showing influence patterns and spikes in tweet frequency showed all kinds of interesting dynamics. But they were insufficient to make inferences of value about the community affected: “In analyzing the tweets around a popular hashtag used by users who worry about their personal safely in a Mexican city we found that one must go back and forth between collecting and analyzing many times while formulating the proper research questions to ask. Further, one must have a method of establishing the ground truth, which is particularly tricky in a community of — mostly — anonymous users.”

“Undermining the Corrective Effects of Media-Based Political Fact Checking? The Role of Contextual Cues and Naïve Theory”: Study from Ohio State University, published in the Journal of Communication. By R. Kelly Garrett, Erik C. Nisbet, and Emily K. Lynch.

As the political fact-checking movement — the FactChecks and Politifacts, along with their various lesser-known cousins — has arisen, so too has a more hard-headed social science effort to get to the root causes of persistent lies and rumors, a situation made all the worse on the web. Of course, journalists hope truth can have a “corrective” effect, but the literature in this area suggests that blasting more facts at people often doesn’t work — hence, the “information deficit fallacy.” Thus, a cottage psych-media research industry has grown up, exploring “motivated reasoning,” “biased assimilation,” “confirmation bias,” “cultural cognition,” and other such concepts.

This study tries to advance understanding of how peripheral cues such as accompanying graphics and biographical information can affect how citizens receive and accept corrective information. In experiments, the researchers ask subjects to respond to claims about the proposed Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero and the disposition of its imam. It turns out that contextual information — what the imam has said, what he looks like and anything that challenges dominant cultural norms — often erodes the positive intentions of the fact-checking message.

The authors conclude that the “most straightforward method of maximizing the corrective effect of a fact-checking article is to avoid including information that activates stereotypes or generalizations…which make related cognitions more accessible and misperceptions more plausible.” The findings have a grim quality: “The unfortunate conclusion that we draw from this work is that contextual information so often included in fact-checking messages by professional news outlets in order to provide depth and avoid bias can undermine a message’s corrective effects. We suggest that this occurs when the factually accurate information (which has only peripheral bearing on the misperception) brings to mind” mental shortcuts that contain generalizations or stereotypes about people or things — so-called “naïve theories.”

“Crowdsourcing CCTV surveillance on the Internet”: Paper from the University of Westminster, published in Information, Communication & Society. By Daniel Trottier.

A timely look at the implications of a society more deeply pervaded by surveillance technologies, this paper analyzes various web-based efforts in Britain that involve the identification of suspicious persons or activity. (The controversies around Reddit and the Boston Marathon bombing suspects come to mind here.) The researcher examine Facewatch, CrimeStoppers UK, Internet Eyes, and Shoreditch Digital Bridge, all of which had commercial elements attached to crowdsourcing projects where participants monitored feed from surveillance cameras of public spaces. He points out that these “developments contribute to a normalization of participatory surveillance for entertainment, socialization, and commerce,” and that the “risks of compromised privacy, false accusations and social sorting are offloaded onto citizen-watchers and citizen-suspects.” Further, the study highlights the perils inherent in the “‘gamification’ of surveillance-based labour.”

“New Perspectives from the Sky: Unmanned aerial vehicles and journalism”: Paper from the University of Texas at Arlington, published in Digital Journalism. By Mark Tremayne and Andrew Clark.

The use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, or “drones”) in journalism is an area of growing interest, and this exploration provides some context and research-based perspective. Drones in the service of the media have already been used for everything from snapping pictures of Paris Hilton and surveying tornado damaged areas in Alabama to filming secret government facilities in Australia and protestor clashes in Poland. In all, the researchers found “eight instances of drone technology being put to use for journalistic purposes from late 2010 through early 2012.”

This practice will inevitably raise issues about the extent to which it goes too far. “It is not hard to imagine how the news media, using drones to gather information, could be subject to privacy lawsuits,” the authors write. “What the news media can do to potentially ward off the threat of lawsuits is to ensure that drones are used in an ethical manner consistent with appropriate news practices. News directors and editors and professional associations can establish codes of conduct for the use of such devices in much the same way they already do with the use of hidden cameras and other technology.”

“Connecting with the user-generated Web: how group identification impacts online information sharing and evaluation”: Study from University of California, Santa Barbara, published in Information, Communication & Society. By Andrew J. Flanagin, Kristin Page Hocevar, and Siriphan Nancy Samahito.

Whether it’s Wikipedia, Yelp, TripAdvisor, or some other giant pool of user-generated “wisdom,” user-generated platforms convene large, disaggregated audiences who form loose memberships based around apparent common interests. But what makes certain communities bond and stick together, keeping online information environments fresh, passionate, and lively (and possibly accurate)?

The researchers involved in this study perform some experiments with undergraduates to see how adding small bits of personal information — the university, major, gender, or other piece of information — to informational posts changed perceptions by viewers. Perhaps predictably, the results show that “potential contributors had more positive attitudes (manifested in the form of increased motivation) about contribution to an online information pool when they experienced shared group identification with others.”

For editors and online community designers and organizers, the takeaway is that information pools “may actually form and sustain themselves best as communities comprising similar people with similar views.” Not exactly an antidote to “filter bubble” fears, but it’s worth knowing if you’re an admin for an online army.

“Selective Exposure, Tolerance, and Satirical News”: Study from University of Texas at Austin and University of Wyoming, published in the International Journal of Public Opinion Research. By Natalie J. Stroud and Ashley Muddiman.

While not the first study to focus on the rise of satirical news — after all, a 2005 study in Political Communication on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” now has 230 subsequent academic citations, according to Google Scholar — this new study looks at satirical news viewed specifically in a web context.

It suggests the dark side of snark, at least in terms of promoting open-mindedness and deliberative democracy. The conclusion is blunt: “The evidence from this study suggests that satirical news does not encourage democratic virtues like exposure to diverse perspectives and tolerance. On the contrary, the results show that, if anything, comedic news makes people more likely to engage in partisan selective exposure. Further, those viewing comedic news became less, not more, tolerant of those with political views unlike their own.” Knowing Colbert and Stewart, the study’s authors can expect an invitation soon to atone for this study.

The hidden demography of new media ethics”: Study from Rutgers and USC, published in Information, Communication & Society. By Mark Latonero and Aram Sinnreich.

The study leverages 2006 and 2010 survey data, both domestic and international, to take an analytical look at how notions of intellectual property and ethical Web culture are evolving, particularly as they relate to ideas such as remixing, mashups and repurposing of content. The researchers find a complex tapestry of behavioral norms, some of them correlated with certain age, gender, race or national traits. New technologies are “giving rise to new configurable cultural practices that fall into the expanding gray area between traditional patterns of production and consumption. The data suggest that these practices have the potential to grow in prevalence in the United States across every age group, and have the potential to become common throughout the dozens of industrialized nations sampled in this study.”

Further, rules of the road have formed organically, as technology has outstripped legal strictures: “Most significantly, despite (or because of) the inadequacy of present-day copyright laws to address issues of ownership, attribution, and cultural validity in regard to emerging digital practices, everyday people are developing their own ethical frameworks to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate uses of reappropriated work in their cultural environments.”

Beach reads:

Here are some further academic paper honorable mentions this month — all from the culture and society desk:

Photo by Anna Creech used under a Creative Commons license.

June 20 2013

14:02

The newsonomics of Spies vs. Spies

So who do you root for in this coming battle, as Google petitions the feds? Are you on the side of Big Brother or Little Brother — and remind me, which is which? It’s a 50-year-update on Mad Magazine’s iconic Spy vs. Spy.

The Surveillance State is — at least for this month — in front of the public. The Guardian’s rolling revelations of National Security Agency phone and web spying have again raised the bogeyman of Big Data — not the Big Data that all the airport billboards offer software to tame, but the Big Data that the unseen state can use against us. We’ve always had a love/hate relationship with big technology and disaster, consuming it madly as Hollywood churns out mad entertainments. We like our dystopia delivered hot and consumable within two hours. What we don’t like is the ooky feeling we are being watched, or that we have to make some kind unknowable choice between preventing the next act of terror and preserving basic Constitutional liberties.

Americans’ reactions to the stories is predictable. Undifferentiated outrage: “I knew they were watching us.” Outrageous indifference: “What do you expect given the state of the world?” That’s not surprising. Americans and Europeans have had the same problem thinking about the enveloping spider’s web of non-governmental digital knowledge. (See The Onion headline: “Area Man Outraged His Private Information Being Collected By Someone Other Than Advertisers.”)

While top global media, including The Guardian, The Washington Post, and The New York Times, dig into the widening government spying questions, let’s look at the ferment in the issues of commercial surveillance. There’s a lot of it, and it would take several advanced degrees and decoder rings to understand all of it. No, it’s not the same thing as the issues surrounding PRISM. But it will be conflated with national security, and indeed the overlapping social and political questions are profound. Let’s look at some recent developments and some of the diverse players in this unfolding drama and see where publishers do — and could — fit in.

The commercial surveillance culture is ubiquitous, perhaps even less hemmed in by government policy than the NSA, and growing greatly day by day. While Google asks the FISA court to allow it to release more detail about the nature of federal data demands, its growing knowledge of us seems to have no bounds. From our daily searches, to the pictures (street to sky) taken of our homes, to the whereabouts relayed by Google Maps, and on and on.

It’s not just Google, of course. Facebook, whose users spend an average of seven hours per month online disclosing everything, is challenging Google for king of the data hill. A typical news site might have 30 to 40 cookies — many of them from ad-oriented “third parties” — dropped from it. That explains why those “abandoned” shopping carts, would-be shoe purchases, and fantasy vacation ads now go with us seemingly everywhere we move on the web. It’s another love/hate relationship: We’re enamored of what Google and Facebook and others can do for us, but we’re disquieted by their long reach into our lives. It’s a different flavor of ooky.

We are targeted. We are retargeted. Who we are, what we shop for, and what we read is known by untold number of companies out there. Though we are subject to so much invisible, involuntary, and uncompensated crowdsourcing, the outrage is minimal. It’s not that it hasn’t been written about. Among others, The Wall Street Journal has done great work on it, including its multi-prize-winning three-year series on “What They Know.”

Jim Spanfeller, now CEO of Spanfeller Media Group and the builder of Forbes.com, related the PRISM NSA disclosures to commercial tracking in a well-noticed column (“At What Price Safety? At What Price Targeted Advertising?”) last week. His point: We’re all essentially ignorant of what’s being collected about us, and how it is being used. As we find out more, we’re not going to be happy.

His warning to those in the digital ad ecosystem: Government will ham-handedly regulate tracking of consumer clicks if the industry doesn’t become more “honest and transparent.”

Spanfeller outlined for me the current browser “Do Not Track” wars, which saw its latest foray yesterday. Mozilla, parent of Firefox, the third most-popular browser by most measures, said it will move forward with tech that automatically blocks third-party cookies in its browser. Presumably, users will be able to turn back on such cookies, but most will go with the defaults in the browsers they use.

The Mozilla move, much contested and long in the works, follows a similar decision by Microsoft with its release of the latest Internet Explorer. Microsoft is using a “pro-privacy” stance as a competitive weapon against Google, advancing both Bing search and IE. Spanfeller notes that Microsoft’s move hasn’t had much effect, at least yet, because “sites aren’t honoring it.”

These browser wars are one front, and much decried by forces like the Interactive Ad Bureau, the Digital Ad Alliance, and its “Ad Choices” program — which prefer consumer opt-out. Another front is an attempt at industry consensus through the World Wide Web Consortium, or W3C. Observers of that process believe it is winding its way to failure. Finally, also announced yesterday was the just-baked Cookie Clearinghouse, housed at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society. The driving notion, to be fleshed out: creating whitelists and blacklists of cookies allowed and blocked. (Good summaries by both Ad Age’s Kate Kaye and ZDNet’s Ed Bott.)

Never too far from the action, serial entrepreneur John Taysom was in Palo Alto this week as well. Taysom, a current senior fellow at Harvard’s Advanced Leadership Initiative, is an early digital hothouse pioneer, having led Reuters’ Greenhouse project way back in the mid-’90s. His list of web startups imagined and sold is impressive, and now he’s trying to put all that experience to use around privacy issues. As a student of history, old and modern, his belief is this: “When they invented the Internet, they didn’t add a privacy layer.”

“We need a Underwriters Laboratory for our time,” he told me Wednesday. UL served a great purpose at a time (1894) of another tech revolution: electricity. Electricity, like computer tech these days, seemed exciting, but the public was wary. It wasn’t afraid of behind-the-scenes chicanery — it literally was concerned about playing with fire. So UL, as a “global independent safety science company” — a kind of neutral, Switzerland-like enterprise — was set up to assure the public that electrical appliances were indeed tested and safe.

Could we do the same with the Internet?

He’s now working on a model, colloquially named “Three’s A Crowd,” to reinsert a “translucent” privacy layer in the tech stack. His model is based on a lot of current thinking on how to both better protect individual privacy and actually improve the targeting of messages by business and others. It draws on k-anonymity and Privacy by Design principles, among others.

In brief, Taysom’s Harvard project is around creating a modern UL. It would be a central trusted place, or really set of places, that institutions and businesses (and presumably governments) could draw from, but which protect individual identification. He calls it an I.D. DMZ, or demilitarized zone.

He makes the point that the whole purpose of data mining is to get to large enough groups of people with similar characteristics — not to find the perfect solution or offer for each individual. “Go up one level above the person,” to a small, but meaningfully sized, crowd. The idea: increase anonymity, giving people the comfort of knowing they are not being individually targeted.

Further, the levels of anonymity could differ depending on the kind of information associated with anyone. ”I don’t really mind that much about people knowing my taste in shirts. If it’s about the location of my kids, I want six sigmas” of anonymity, he says. Taysom, who filed a 2007 U.K. patent, now approved, on the idea, is now putting together both his boards of advisors and trustees.

Then there are emerging marketplace solutions to privacy. What havoc the digital marketplace hath wrought may be solved by…the digital marketplace. D.C.-based Personal.com is one of the leading players in that emerging group. Yes, this may be the coming personal data economy. Offering personal data lockers starting at $29.99 a year, Personal.com is worth a quick tour. What if you could store all your info in a digital vault, it asks? Among the kinds of “vaults”: passwords, memberships and rewards programs, credit and debit card info, health insurance, and lots more.

It’s a consumer play that’s also a business play. The company is now targeting insurance, finance, and education companies and institutions, who would then offer consumers the opportunity to ingest their customer information and keep it in vault and auto-fill features then let consumers re-use such information once it is banked. Think Mint.com, but broader.

Importantly, while Personal.com deals potentially with lots of kinds of digital data, its business doesn’t touch on the behavioral clickstream data that is at the heart of the Do Not Track fracas.

Do consumer want such a service? Personal.com won’t release any numbers on customers or business partners. Getting early traction may be tough.

Embedded in the strategy: a pro-consumer tilt. Personal.com offers an “owner data agreement,” basically certifying that it is the consumer, not Personal.com, that owns the data. It is a tantalizing idea: What if we individually could control our own digital data, setting parameters on who could use what and how? What if we as consumers could monetize our own data?

Neither Personal.com nor John Taysom’s project nor the various Do Not Track initiatives envision that kind of individually driven marketplace, and I’ve been told there are a whole bunch of technical reasons why it would be difficult to achieve. Yet, wouldn’t that be the ultimate capitalist, Adam Smith solution to this problem of runaway digital connectedness — a huge exchange that would facilitate the buying and selling of our own data?

For publishers, all this stuff is headache-producing. News publishers from Manhattan to Munich complain about all the third-party cookies feeding low-price exchanges, part of the reason their digital ad businesses are struggling. But there is a wide range of divergent opinion about how content-creating publishers will fare in Do Not Track world. They may benefit from diminished competition, but would they be able to adequately target for advertisers? Will Google and Facebook do even better in that world?

So, for publishers, these privacy times demand three things:

  • Upscale their own data mining businesses. “There’s a big difference between collecting and using data,” says Jonathan Mendez, CEO of Yieldbot, that works with publishers to provide selling alternatives to Google search. That’s a huge point. Many publishers don’t yet do enough with their first-party data to adequately serve advertiser needs.
  • Take a privacy-by-design approach to emerging business. How you treat consumers in product design and presentation is key here, with some tips from Inc. magazine.
  • Adopt a pro-privacy position. Who better than traditionally civic-minded newspaper companies than to help lead in asserting a sense of ownership of individual data? If news companies are to re-assert themselves as central to the next generation of their communities and of businesses, what better position than pro-privacy — and then helping individuals manage that privacy better?

It’s a position that fits with publishers’ own interests, and first-party data gathering (publisher/reader) makes more intuitive sense to citzen readers. For subscribers — those now being romanced into all-access member/subscribers — the relationship may make even more sense. Such an advocacy position could also help re-establish a local publisher as a commercial hub.

News and magazine publishers won’t have to create the technology here — certainly not their strong suits — but they can be early partners as consortia and companies emerge in the marketplace.

Photo by Fire Monkey Fire used under a Creative Commons license.

June 17 2013

09:48

Monday Q&A: Designer David Wright, departing NPR for Twitter, has just one favor to ask

David Wright is an award-winning designer who, in his time at NPR, worked on everything from their mobile music platform to NPR’s homepage design. Wright has spent a lot of time sharing his design philosophy with the news world, trying to explain how he built what he built, but also trying to make news managers understand the importance of making design a priority early on.

But now, Wright is leaving the news world behind — sort of. He’ll be moving over to Twitter, to work with what he considers an all-star team of web platform designers. (He joins API whiz Daniel Jacobson, now at Netflix, as NPR talent to move to prominent positions in the technology world — not the most common path.) Though not entirely sure what projects he’ll be working on, Wright says he has a lot of big ideas for simplifying Twitter and making it a bigger part of a variety of websites. And while he won’t be working in a newsroom anymore, Wright predicts he’ll learn a lot about how people are sharing and consuming information that could, down the road, be of great value to publishers.

Days before his final departure, we chatted about building platforms for distribution of audio, narrowcasting, Twitter on steroids, and World War II-era telephone operators.

O’Donovan: So! Obviously, there’s a lot of exciting stuff going on for you. How does it feel to be packing up and heading out of NPR?
Wright: I think that I have not yet realized how hard it will be for me to walk out of this building on Friday afternoon.

There’s a lot of really amazing stuff going on here, and it’s bittersweet because I’ve been really excited about what we’ve done here, and I don’t know if I really realize what it will be like to leave some of this amazing work unfinished.

O’Donovan: What are some of the bigger projects that are hanging out there, that you’re passing on? How do you and with whom do you hope to see them completed?
Wright: Well, that they will be completed is not really a question. They will be. The big ones that are going on right now are — the most obvious one is we’re in the midst of a fully responsive redesign of NPR.org that we began last fall and are picking away at, section by section. We’ve recently launched the small screen version of a redesigned and rethought homepage, and soon we’ll be releasing that to more viewports and moving on to the rest of the important pages, not just NPR.org. So that’s exciting. And I think in many ways the team is moving at a breakneck pace and I’ll be excited when the whole site kind of is finally launched in this unified rethought visual vocabulary. It’s amazing work, I”m super proud of it and the team that’s in the trench right now.

The other one that’s cool is one we haven’t really launched publicly yet, but we’re thinking a lot about what a reimagined kind of radio experience would feel like — taking some of the best of on-demand pieces that we know and love from services like Rdio and Spotify and Pandora and thinking about how public radio fits into that picture. So a lot of experiments that we’re taking small steps with. It’ll make me sad to not really be as involved with those anymore.

O’Donovan: The last couple years, you’ve spoken a lot about how you think about design and the fact that it’s different from storytelling. Can you talk a little about how — and I know it’s obviously been a dynamic experience — how your philosophy there has changed over time and if there are any big elements of it that have changed since you started?
Wright: I think that obviously the more that I’ve worked with what has become here, over the time that I’ve worked at NPR, the product team has really become a — I thought we were pretty high performing when I got here, but the kind of talent that we’ve been able to add to the team, and the methods and the processes that we use to create digital products has become more and more refined over time. I think that it’s fair to say that any of my thoughts that I’ve shared publicly are certainly the synthesis of my ideas, but they’re so greatly informed by the amazing people that I’ve worked with here.

So I think as we’ve gotten better at making stuff, my thoughts and how we could refine the process has really gotten a bit more sharp. But I think what’s most fascinating, and maybe what I’m most proud of leaving this building, is to be able to look back and see what an important part design has been able to play in the making of products here. I think it’s easy for lots of people to recognize that it is an important ingredient, but sometimes it’s hard to get an organization to understand why that is, and I’m really fortunate to have had a lot of really willing people here at NPR who’ve heard that message and have really embraced it. I think that’s changed a lot as we’ve sort of matured on our own, and our own understanding of what makes good products, we’ve really been able to convince a lot of folks here that design is really at the core of helping us figure out what problems to solve and how to solve them and most importantly how to solve them well.

O’Donovan: One of the questions I had for you was: How do you explain to management or people who are really editorially focused the importance of design? You’ve said that it’s the number one problem journalism is facing. Do you still feel that way? And for people who are struggling to make that clear, how would you advise them?
Wright: I think without calling out any specific products that are out there, I think we can all say that we’ve used and experienced journalism on platforms and in different situations that were less than satisfying, and I think just being pretty unbiased about what we think makes a good experience and what we think makes a great experience and what we think makes a terrible experience. They’re easy cases to show. Do we want to be more like this, or do we want to be like this? Nobody argues with the fact that everybody wants to create a good experience, but I think the most important thing that we as design thinkers can do is help explain how design is not really something that is an option.

If you want to create a good product, it can’t be a condition — it has to be something that is an absolute. You must include it, in order to create efficiencies, in your process, and make things that are fantastic and meaningful to people and beautiful and useful. It’s really about calling out these examples and saying: Here’s a perfect case where work design was involved from the beginning and it made this product better. And whether you’re editorial, or you’re a manager or a coder or a designer, you can look at those and from a pretty unbiased point of view say, Yes, you’re right, that’s better because design was involved.

O’Donovan: So, and you can explain to me the extent to which this is accurate, but assuming that you’re taking a step away from designing for news, as you look farther down the road, for people who are still in it, what are the next major hurdles? If you were still working for NPR, what would be the next areas you wanted to tackle?
Wright: I think NPR is a bit of an interesting animal, only because the kind of content that we deal with is a little bit different given how audio-centric much of what we do is. But I think it’s going to be really interesting for organizations who are wrestling with really getting their content to appear how they want to on many different platforms. I think that’s crucial. If a news organization is really not thinking beyond — I’m stating the obvious here  — if a news organization is not thinking beyond the desktop browser, I think that’s going to become much more problematic in the next coming years.

We’ve been really good at building stories and trying to express what I like to call editorial intention in what viewport size on the desktop. We can go to any one of our home pages, anybody in the news business, you can go to a homepage when it’s a papal conclave story or a Boston marathon or an election night, we know those patterns and we’re good at them. We can reflect them well on the desktop.

I think we have a harder time thinking about how to take what editors can do, what news professionals do, how they express themselves in other places, and separating them from the desktop page. So figuring out ways — news professionals need to express hierarchy and importance of stories and that this one is louder than this one — figuring out ways to make sure that works everywhere, I think is going to be a really big challenge for a lot of organizations, but a very important one to solve.

O’Donovan: You said at one point, I think, that you expected to see NPR rather quickly have a larger audience on mobile than they did for desktop. How close are you to that?
Wright: I think, as far as numbers go, we’re not there yet. But a little bit of that is from the hip and it will be interesting to see if history agrees with my proclamation there. I think there are actually more and more organizations who are being, and I can’t really name any off the top of my head, that have definitely read anecdotally about how mobile traffic is something that is catching up for everyone a lot faster than anyone really would have thought. There’s really no surprise in that. I think that should really be expected. If anyone’s paying any attention to any of our competitors in this space, which they all should be, that’s not a big surprise.

But yeah, I think we’re close — I think that every month we’re really seeing traffic growth across the board and most of our platforms and, on the desktop for sure it’s incremental, but it’s really quite a bit more pronounced on the mobile web for us. And I think it can only continue, given the number of devices and potential people that we can reach.

O’Donovan: You mentioned how NPR has a unique situation because of being predominantly audio focused. But I’ve heard from at least a handful of people that there are people out there who really think that it’s going to become a much more important part of everyone’s strategy, in the same way that we talk about video. But there are definitely people who say that audio will become increasingly important. Do you think that there are in your mind any big design takeaways that people who might be looking to get more into the audio game would want to know about?
Wright: Yeah! I think that. I would certainly not claim that NPR has solved every problem in this space, and in fact, I think if you asked a lot of people here, we still have some pretty major problems to solve in terms of how we distribute audio effectively.

I think that SoundCloud is doing a great job of creating some really interesting innovations in the space. Anybody could look at them and say that seems like a really solid platform for audio distribution. I think, for us, the most important thing is to think about why — the distribution could be anybody’s game and I think that, especially for organizations who aren’t very well resourced, nobody wants to. Just like we don’t all want to rebuild the exact same CMS at great expense and very little gain, I don’t know that everybody just wants to invest in building audio delivery platforms.

But I would say that I think it’s so important ot understand why people gravitate toward audio, the same way they gravitate toward video or photography. What is the recipe, or the formula, that goes into creating compelling audio that matters? I think it has much less to do with design of the experience right now and much more to do with what makes great audio great audio. I think we’ve all been fans of podcasts that are amazing, and there are certainly lots and lots of things not produced by a public radio community that are amazing and that we love. There are lots of things that public radio creates that are amazing and we love. But that has a whole lot more to do with the content than the presentation and delivery. There’s lots of room for innovation there. My best advice to anybody who wanted to get into that game, is to really think a lot about why people love it.

O’Donovan: I was looking over some presentations you’ve given in the past, and one of the things that you emphasize is that, while you haven’t served as a storyteller or journalist at NPR, you have taken away from working around journalists not only the importance but the ease with which it is possible to ask questions and get out there and talk to people about the things you want to know about. So I want to move into talking about your next step at Twitter, and how you see that playing into the rest of your career.
Wright: Anybody who wants to be successful at making products has to be able to draw on all of the places where we are when we’re making things. Often the most important person whose voice is the most important part of your team is the user. We have a lot of really great ethnologists and design thinkers and people who are creating content, but the people who are consuming it are often absent from that conversation. So it’s less about “is this a good idea” or not. I think it’s almost always a good idea at some stage in the process to really incorporate users and listeners into what w’ere making.

Journalists, if they’re not doing it, they should be, because they’re already really good at that. They’re good at talking to people and asking hard questions and figuring out how to get somebody to say something meaningful, even if it’s hard to coax it out of them. It’s a natural fit. So if you’re trying to convince journalists and news organizations that talking to people about what you make is a good idea, it’s easy to tell them by saying, you’ve already done this. You already do this.

As far as the next phase in my career, I’ve fortunately had the great pleasure of working shoulder to shoulder with some really amazing journalists and some really amazing storytellers and some really great reporters, and people who know how to chase stories, and I think I’ll always feel in some way like I’d like to try to harness what I’ve witnessed, a lot of what these talented people do. In my own practice, whether it’s outside of a newsroom or in newsroom, I’d always like to channel that as best I can.

You know, What would David Gilkey do in this scenario? He wouldn’t be shy about approaching this curmudgeonly user? No, he wouldn’t.

O’Donovan: How do you approach the curmudgeonly user? How do you go about getting that opinion?
Wright: At NPR — there’s a million ways that organizations do it, but at NPR we use a mix of what I might really consider three major kinds of audience feedback.

The first one is really kind of faceless and it’s field surveys. We do this the most infrequently, but basically we’ll say we really need to get a handle right now on how we think people are consuming digital news of this sort. We’ll put together a fairly lengthy survey and field it with the understanding that by the time we process the results, they’ll already be a little bit dated. But it gives us a really good snapshot of the time of how many people really listen to NPR, how many people are looking at news sites, how many people are reading newspapers, how many people are watching TV news — getting demographic information about that. We do that pretty infrequently, but it gives us pretty low resolution blocks of people we need to be thinking about and it helps us figure out where opportunities are.

The second kind of testing or conversation that we have really has to do with our ability to have long-term conversations with people about stuff that we make. So existing users of products — we have opportunities that are much more regular than large surveys — opportunities to reach out to people that are on our listener panel, or other people that we can intercept or make callouts in social media and say, “Take five minutes and tell us what you think of this particular feature.” We can ask questions that way. It certainly puts more of a face on things and we can get very specific about product features.

And then the most specific thing we try to do is actually bring real life users into our world and sit down with them and lead them through testing that says, “Hey, we made this thing, it’s kind of half baked, and we want you to use it and tell us what you think about it.” Pretty standard user testing.

O’Donovan: I do want to talk about what’s coming up for you. How much do you know about what you’re doing there, what are you really excited about, what do you hope to see come out of it?
Wright: I wish that I had a lot more information — well, no, I’m fine having a vague sense of what’s going on, but, you know, we know what Twitter is and what Twitter does and it was really exciting for me to be able to visit with that team and learn about the kinds of things that they’re tackling and the things they’ve built and some of the plans they have for the future.

To the extent that I can be specific about what I’ll be working on, what I do know is that I’ll be focused at first on a platform team. I’ll be working with the Twitter for websites team, figuring out interesting ways to make Twitter appear in more places than it does today. The thing that I think I’m most excited about is that I feel like I work with a very talented team at NPR and I know it will be true about the team I’ll be working with at Twitter — just a lot of really smart people that, as a designer, I’ve just really respected and followed a lot in my design career.

To have so many of those people — like Doug Bowman and Mike Davidson, founder of Newsvine — just really smart, smart thinkers who, like I said, are respected web design heroes of mine. I’m really excited to be able to go and solve problems with them, to get up in the morning and go to work and try to figure out how to make Twitter better, which is great. I think that the other part that is a huge selling point for me is, there’s lots of reasons that my family wanted to get to California and be there and be a part of the amazing community that’s happening, and the amazing design community that is part and parcel of the Bay Area.

But for me to leave news is hard. It’s really hard. But what’s interesting is that while I feel like I’ll be leaving journalism, going to work at Twitter, I don’t have to squint very hard to see how involved I still will be in news. I think it’s a really fascinating platform for me to be able, as a user and an observer and a guy who spent a lot of time in newsrooms, who watch what I think this platform could do.

O’Donovan: In the future, how do you see people, specifically journalists but also more broadly, using Twitter differently than they do now? What would you like to build for, for what kind of usage?
Wright: That’s something I’m really looking forward to learning more about as a person on the inside, because I think that even though I’ve spent a considerable amount of time talking with folks there about what they’re trying to build and what they need help building, I still don’t think I have a full enough picture to really know what is even in the realm of possibility. I have lots of sort of fantastic dreams about what could happen, what sort of the Twitter-on-steroids might look like — and maybe even a simpler version of Twitter. I think there are many things. It’s probably too much for me to speculate right now.
O’Donovan: Well, give us one fantasy. What’s the craziest Twitter-on-steroids fantasy?
Wright: Wow.

I think that there’s something fascinating to me about the range of information that you can get from Twitter. We often talk a lot at NPR about making sure that people get their vegetables and also get really delicious pieces of candy that we can distribute through the radio. What I love about Twitter is that, in a combined stream, I can see this heartbreaking story or updates from people who are literally fighting for their lives in Egypt as they are in the midst of the revolution, and then, you know, followed by an update from somebody who’s, you know, explaining how hungover they are because they were at their favorite bar. I think that, as a medium, like, what else does that? That is never part of the presentation that happens on our broadcast news.

This is certainly not a Twitter-on-steroids idea, but, in terms of being able to harness the ability for people be able to narrowcast to them in really specific ways, I think has such a reach potential. That my mom can find value in that, in a way that manifests itself very differently from the way that I would, but we can find the same value out of it with very different content. I think that the challenge of kind of wrestling with: How do you create an experience that will be as useful for my mom as it will be for me, using the same basic parts and concepts but obviously delivering very different content? That’s a fascinating problem to solve, and I’m excited to roll my sleeves up and give it a go.

O’Donovan: Was it you who was tweeting about explaining Twitter to your grandmother recently?
Wright: It was. Absolutely it was. I believe the thing I said after that was if she gets sudden onset dementia, I’m going to feel partially responsible.

Yeah, the thing that’s cool though, is, her story is great. She was a telephone operator back in the day, where, we’ve all seen the photos of people plugging all the lines into one of the boards. One of my favorite stories that she told me was she was manning a board the night that it was V-E Day, and as soon as the word got to the United States via the phones, that victory in Europe had happened, she said the board lit up!

So I was trying to tell her: This is what we do now. We don’t use phones anymore — this is what we do. The fact that Twitter would blow up with this information is how we know it. She said, “I think I understand.” I said, “All right, well, it’s the same thing.”

O’Donovan: I guess it’s not altogether entirely undigestible.
Wright: Yeah, there was part of it she thought was pretty cool.
O’Donovan: We talked a little bit at the beginning about designing for audio, and I’d be curious to know if you think those skills will come into play.
Wright: We haven’t talked specifically about audio, but we had a lot of really great conversations about the experiences that I’ve had designing for news organizations and bringing with me information about how publishers specifically are using lots of different tools, Twitter included.

I’ve built really — I wouldn’t call them large muscles, I’d call them interesting muscles over the last 12 years, thinking a lot about these problems. I think it would be really hard for me to not apply some of those skills. It’s become such a part of my DNA that I’m interested in seeing, How do those skills fit and work? How are those patterns applied out of a newsroom?

O’Donovan: I would imagine you also bring some insight about what publishers want or what they think they want from ads. I don’t know if you have thoughts about Twitter’s different advertising strategies lately, but you’ve said in the past that you think publishers need to be thinking really differently about advertising.
Wright: What I said in my conversations with people at Twitter was, if you’re looking for a client services manager to go to newsrooms and write down the requirements of what would make Twitter great on news websites — I’ve been pretty vocal about some of the things news organizations aren’t doing as well as I wish they were, or things I wish they were doing differently — but I was pretty clear that I might not be the best guy to come in and take those kinds of requirements down.

So I’ve been critical about some of the things publishers have done and ads are chief among them. I think display advertising as we know it is in many cases a race to the bottom and is in many ways unsustainable. What I’m excited to learn more about is advertising models that are so native to the platform — and Twitter is a good example of that, I think the best is obviously Google’s AdWords, AdSense — and just feel like part of the experience. I won’t have a ton of good things to bring along with me from the point of view of what I think digital news design is doing in general. I think it will be more of the other way around, where I eventually might be able to bring some of the information and things I’ve learned working with a company like Twitter to help publishers figure out how to think differently about how they’re doing things. I expect it might go the other way.

O’Donovan: So, let’s say you’re leaving NPR and the whole news world throws you a party. And they say, What’s the one thing we can do for you while you’re gone? What would you want them to do?
Wright: Oh! This is easy. My one wish is for every news org, to really understand the importance of having — it doesn’t have to be a visual designer, but to have design thinkers have a seat at the table. It’s not about deciding what work gets done or how it gets done but it’s really about making design as important an ingredient in what we make as editorial, as reporters, writers, photographers, and technologists. Designers bring such a unique value to the table and can just help solve so many interesting problems in really thoughtful ways. The best presents the news community could give me is to say, Everybody, designers are always at the table.

Photo by Casey Capachi via the ONA.

June 11 2013

17:00

OpenData Latinoamérica: Driving the demand side of data and scraping towards transparency

“There’s a saying here, and I’ll translate, because it’s very much how we work,” Miguel Paz said to me over a Skype call from Chile. “But that doesn’t mean that it’s illegal. Here, it’s ‘It’s better to ask forgiveness than to ask permission.””

Paz is a veteran of the digital news business. The saying has to do with his approach to scraping public data from governments that may be slow to share it. He’s also a Knight International Journalism Fellow, the founder of Hacks/Hackers Chile, and a recent Knight News Challenge winner. A few years ago, he founded Poderopedia, a database of Chilean politicians and their many connections to political organizations, government offices, and businesses.

But freeing, organizing, and publishing data in Chile alone is not enough for Paz, which is why his next project, in partnership with Mariano Blejman of Argentina’s Hacks/Hackers network, is aimed at freeing data from across Latin America. Their project is called OpenData Latinoamérica. Paz and Blejman hope to build a centralized home where all regional public data can be stored and shared.

Their mutual connection through Hacks/Hackers is key to the development of OpenData Latinoamérica. The network will make itself, to whatever extent possible, available for trouble shooting and training as the project gets off the ground and civic hackers and media types learn both how to upload data sets as well as make use of the information they find there.

Another key partnership helping make OpenData Latinoamérica possible is with the World Bank Institute’s Global Media Development program, which is run by Craig Hammer. Hammer believes the data age is revolutionizing government, non-government social projects, and how we make decisions about everyday life.

“The question for us, is, What are we gonna do with the data? Data for what? Bridging that space between opening the data and how it translates into improving the quality of people’s lives around the world requires a lot of time and attention,” he says. “That’s really where the World Bank Institute and our programmatic work is focused.”

A model across the Atlantic

Under Hammer, the World Bank helped organize and fund Africa Open Data, a similar project launched by another Knight fellow, Justin Arenstein. “The bank’s own access-to-information policy provides for a really robust opportunity to open its own data,” Hammer says, “and in so doing, provide support to countries across regions to open their own data.”

Africa Open Data is still in beta, but bringing together hackers, journalists, and information in training bootcamps has already led to reform-producing journalism. In a post about the importance of equipping the public for the data age, Hammer tells the story of Irene Choge, a journalist from Kenya who attended a training session hosted by the World Bank in conjunction with Africa Open Data.

She…examined county-level expenditures on education infrastructure — specifically, on the number of toilets per primary school…Funding allocated for children’s toilet facilities had disappeared, resulting in high levels of open defecation (in the same spaces where they played and ate). This increased their risk of contracting cholera, giardiasis, hepatitis, and rotavirus, and accounted for low attendance, in particular among girls, who also had no facilities during their menstruation cycles. The end result: poor student performance on exams…Through Choge’s analysis and story, open data became actionable intelligence. As a result, government is acting: ministry resources are being allocated to correct the toilet deficiency across the most underserved primary schools and to identify the source of the misallocation at the root of the problem.

Hammer calls Africa Open Data a useful “stress test” for OpenData Latinoamérica, but Paz says the database was also a natural next step in a series of frustrations he and Blejman had encountered in their other work.

“Usually, the problem you have is: Everything is cool before the hackathon, and during the hackathon,” says Paz. “But after, it’s like, who are the people who are working on the project? What’s the status of the project? Can I follow the project? Can I be a part of the project?” The solution to this problem ended up being Hackdash, which was actually Blejman’s brainchild — an interface that helps hackers keep abreast of the answers to those questions and thereby shore up the legacy of various projects.

So thinking about ways that international hackers can organize and communicate across the region is nothing new to Paz and Blejman. “One hackathon, we would do something, and another person who didn’t know about that would do something else. So when we saw the Open Data Africa platform, we thought it was a really great idea to do in Latin America,” he says.

Blejman says the contributions of the World Bank have been essential to the founding of OpenData Latinoamérica, especially in organizing the data bootcamps. Hammer says he sees the role of the bank as building a bridge between civic hackers and media. “More than a platform,” he says it’s, “an institution in and of itself to help connect sources of information to government and help transform that data into knowledge and that knowledge into action.”

Giving people the tools to understand the power of data is an important tenet of Hammer’s open data philosophy. He believes the next step for Big Data is global data literacy, which he says is most immediately important for “very specific and arguably strategic public constituencies — journalists, media, civic hackers, and civil society.” Getting institutions, like newspapers, to embrace the importance of data literacy rather than relying on individual interest is just one goal Hammer has in mind.

“I’m not talking about data visualization skills for planet Earth,” he says. “I’m saying, it’s possible — or it should be possible — for anybody that wants to have these skills to have them. If we’re talking about data as the real democratizer — open data as meaningful democratization of information — then it has to be digestible and accessible and consumable by everyone and everybody who wants to access and digest and consume it.”

Increasing the desire of the public for more, freer data is what Hammer calls stoking the demand side. He says it’s great if governments are willingly making information accessible, but for it to be useful, people have to understand its power and seek to unleash it.

“What’s great about OpenData Latinoamérica is it’s in every way a demand-side initiative, where the public is liberating its own data — it’s scraping data, it’s cleaning it,” he says. “Open data is not solely the purview of the government. It’s something that can be inaugurated by public constituencies.”

For example, in Argentina, where the government came late to the open data game, Blejman says he saw a powerful demand for information spring up in hackers and journalists around him. When they saw what other neighboring countries had and what they could do with that information, they demanded the same, and Argentina’s government began to release some of that data.

“We need to think about open data as a service, because no matter how much advocacy from NGOs, people don’t care about ‘open data’” per se, Paz says. “They care about data because it affects their life, in a good or bad way.”

Another advantage Bleman and Paz had when heading into OpenData Latinoamérica was the existence of Junar, a Chilean software platform founded by Javier Pajaro, who was a frustrated analyst when he decided to embrace open data platforms and help others do the same. Blejman said that, while Africa Open Data opted for CKAN, using a local, Spanish-language company that was already familiar to members of the Hacks/Hackers network has strengthened the project, making it easier to troubleshoot problems as they arise. He also said Junar’s ability to give participating organizations more control fit nicely into their hands-off, crowd-managed vision for future day-to-day operation of the database.

Organizing efforts

Paz and Blejman have high hopes for the stories and growth that will come from OpenData Latinoamérica. “What we expect from these events is for people to start using data, encourage newspapers to organize around data themes, and have the central hub for what they want to consume,” Blejman said.

They hope to one day bring in data from every country in Latin America, but they acknowledge that some will be harder to reach than others. “Usually, the federated governments, it’s harder to get standardized data. So, in a country like Argentina, which is a federated state with different authorities on different levels, it’s harder to get standardized data than in a republic where there’s one state and no federated government,” says Paz. “But then again, in Chile, we have a really great open data and open government and transparency allows, but we don’t have great data journalism.” (Chile is a republic.)

Down the road, they’d also like to provide a secure way for anonymous sources to dump data to the site. Paz says in his experience as a news editor, 20–25 percent of scoops come from anonymous tips. But despite developments like The New Yorker’s recent release of Strongbox, OpenData Latinoamérica is still working out a secure method that doesn’t require downloading Tor, but is more secure than email. Blejman also added that, for now, whatever oversight they have over the quality and accuracy of the original data they’re working with is minimal: “At the end, we cannot control the original sources, and we are just trusting the organizations.”

But more than anything, Paz is excited about seeing the beginnings of the stories they’ll be able to tell. He plans to use documents about public purchases made by Chile’s government to build an app that allows citizens to track what their government is spending money on, and what companies are being contracted those dollars.

Another budding story exemplifies the extent to which Paz has taken to heart Craig Hammer’s emphasis on building demand. In Chile, there is currently a significant outcry from students over the rising cost of education. Protests in favor of free education are ongoing. In response, Paz decided to harness this focus, energy, and frustration into a scrape-a-thon (or #scrapaton) to be held June 29 in Santiago. They will focus on scraping data on the owners of universities, companies that contract with universities, and who owns private and subsidized schools.

“There’s a joke that says if you put five gringos — and I don’t mean gringos in a disrespectful way — if you put five U.S. people in a room, they’re probably going to invent a rocket,” says Paz. “If you put five Chileans in a room, they’re probably going to fight each other. So one of the things — we’re not just building tools, we’re also building ways of working together, and making people trust each other.” Blejman added that he hopes the recent release of a Spanish-language version of the Open Data Handbook (El manual de Open Data) will further facilitate collaboration between hackers in various Latin American countries.

With a project of this size and scope, there are also some ambitious designs around measurement. Paz hopes to track how many stories and projects originate with datasets from OpenData Latinoamérica. Craig Hammer wants to quantify the social good of open data, a project he says is already underway via the World Wide Web Foundation’s collaboration with the Open Data for Development Camp.

“If there is a cognizable and evidentiary link between open data and boosting shared prosperity,” Hammer says, “then I think that would be, in many cases, the catalytic moment for open data, and would enable broad recognition of why it’s important and why it’s a worthwhile investment, and broad diffusion of data literacy would really explode.”

Hammer wants people to take ownership of data and realize it can help inform decisions at all levels, even for individuals and families. Once that advantage is made clear to the majority of the population, he says, the demand will kick in, and all kinds of organizations will feel pressured to share their information.

“There’s this visceral sense that data is important, and that it’s good. There’s recognition that opening information and making it broadly accessible is in and of itself a global public good. But it doesn’t stop there, right? That’s not the end,” he says. “That’s the beginning.”

Photo of Santiago student protesters walking as police fire water canons and tear gas fills the air, Aug. 8, 2012 by AP/Luis Hidalgo.

May 30 2013

11:36

The newsonomics of climbing the ad food chain

The numbers are sobering.

While digital advertising has been growing at a 15 percent pace annually in the United States, the digital ad sales of news companies have largely plateaued, struggling to find any growth year over year. The New York Times Company reported digital ad sales down 4 percent for the 1st quarter, while McClatchy managed a 1.5 percent increase in the first quarter. Most news-based companies are significantly underperforming that 15 percent average — in the low single digits, either positive or negative. Meanwhile, the top five digital ad companies, led by Google, increase their share of ad revenue year after year and soon will hold two-thirds of it.

Why are publishers lagging?

Publishers describe their digital ad woe with these terms: “price compression,” “bargain-basement ad networks,” and “death of the banner ad.” Each describes a world of hyper-competition in digital advertising — a world of almost infinite ad possibility and unyielding downward pricing pressure.

Not long ago, news companies believed that their premium-pricing models would withstand the competitive onslaught. Now they’re retooling, trying to speed their adaptation to the new nature of the digital ad beast.

It’s a matter of survival. For some, all-access circulation revenues are a good positive (pushing overall circ revenue up 5 percent in the U.S. last year). All, though, find themselves running as fast as they can to make up both for the freefall of print ad loss and that overall digital ad pricing downturn. “The ground is falling away under you” is how FT.com managing director Rob Grimshaw describes it.

Let’s look at what some of the leading digital ad innovators among publishers are doing to regroup. Let’s look at the newsonomics of climbing the ad food chain, checking in with two global publishers, The New York Times and the Financial Times, and two regional ones, the Minneapolis Star Tribune and Digital First Media. They provide a snapshot of a world in ever-spinning change.

Their strategies are all fairly similar: employ a range of new techniques that will justify premium prices. Let Facebook, which controls as much as a quarter of all web ad inventory, sell at 80-cent CPM and make money on scale. Publishers know they will never win that game. They want rates *20 to 50* times that, offering increasingly better targeting of their affluent readers.

Climbing the ad food chain is mainly about three things: technology, creativity, and sales relationships. It is also, overall, about differentiation, the roar of a lion in a crowded landscape.

Grimshaw, a former ad guy, says simply: “You’ve got to be doing something unique.”

Let’s look at each of the areas:

Technology

Digital advertising is all about technology in 2013, and you’ll see lots of talk of the ad-tech stack, and who owns it. Google, of course, owns much of it, through its successive AdWords/Doubleclick/AdMob and more creations, acquisitions and integrations. Its stack is so efficient that many publishers feel compelled to use it, though they are wary of getting their businesses tied ever more directly to Google — or the Google “Death Star,” as some critics call it.

For most publishers, Google is the classic frenemy. They work with it when they think the advantages outweigh the hazards, even as top publishers build their own programs. In fact, expect to soon see U.S. news publishers transition their Newspaper Consortium partnership with Yahoo into something intended to be broader, something that allows publishers to opt into and out of the ad programs of multiple portals — not just Yahoo — harnessing the ad tech of the day.

Six-month-old Smart Match is one of the FT’s latest innovations to stay “premium.” In brief, the content of an advertisement is matched, dynamically, to that of an article. The technology: semantic targeting of both article content and the FT’s current “ad library” for the best matches on the fly, as compared to standard keyword targeting.

Advertisers commit specific budgets for specific time periods, and the FT does the matching. The FT says it gets a major lift in ad engagement with the technology, an average of 9x over its average clickthrough. Ten clients are now live in Smart Match’s soft launch period.

Ad effectiveness isn’t a one-time process; breakthroughs like Smart Match require ongoing engagement with marketers, as publishers work with them to figure out what works and what doesn’t — and to tweak constantly. “Ads can’t be a fire-and-forget enterprise” any longer, says Grimshaw.

The FT is setting floors on pricing and better controlling inventory, testing small “private exchanges” with select ad buyers and agencies, working with Google in the U.S. and Rubicon in Europe. Exchanges have caused publishers lots of headaches, as too much of their inventory — mixed and matched with lots of “lower quality” inventory — helped drive down pricing and deflated the meaning of “premium.” So many have pulled back from exchanges in general; a few are starting to harness the exchange concept, but in a members-only approach.

“We are constantly evolving our approach to the programmatic marketplace, and private exchange activity is one part,” says Todd Haskell, the New York Times Co. group vice president for advertising. “We’ve been using private exchanges for a series of single-client buys executed using private exchange technology, and are now exploring several single buyer/multiple brand programs.”

One big notion here: minimize channel conflict, so that a publisher isn’t competing with itself, making its inventory available at variable prices here and there. Private exchanges are proceeding cautiously. Buyers get more flexibility, but within the control of publishers.

Such private exchange testing follows the adoption of RTB (real-time-bidding), which publishers are honing to get better rates for the ad inventory they can’t sell locally. “We moved away from a remnant inventory model a few years ago with the adoption of RTB and actively manage all of the programmatic demand that we see through the ad exchanges,” says Jeff Griffing, the Star Tribune’s chief revenue officer. “As a single-entity, local site publisher, our strategy is to make sure as many bidders/buyers as possible can transact on their audience impressions that we fulfill on our site.”

Similarly, Digital First Media is moving to add new data — including third-party data from traditonal sources like Experian — into its own systems. “As we move more into the programatic world, with our own Trading Desk and all our own inventory in our private exchange, we keep adding data to all that traffic and match it in a way that enhances the ROI for the small and medium advertisers,” says Digital First Ventures managing director Arturo Duran.

Ad tech is also allowing publishers to do things they couldn’t previously do. The Times is using new brand new ad formats to help marketers gain interactivity. One new program will allow for coupon delivery within an app.

The idea of delivering more experiences within experiences — rather than alongside — can be seen in another recent announcement. Twitter Amplify allows advertisers to deliver videos in-stream — part of a slew of ad-friendly moves, well described by Ingrid Lunden at TechCrunch. Among the early partners to sign on: BBC America, Fox, Fuse, and The Weather Channel. The goals here: make ads both more experiential and more lead-generating.

Yield optimization is a term now part of everyone’s vocabulary. Optimization — the better use of data through adjustment of the digital pulleys and levers that adjust what’s offered, at which price points when — has always been a part of the advertising game. Cycle time, and sophistication, though, have markedly moved up. Where the Times used to adjust in 24-month cycles, says Haskell, it now makes significant moves in three-month periods.

There are lots of moving pieces to optimization. The Star Tribune’s chief revenue officer Jeff Griffing describes how his company does it: “The push to premium help us drive our effective yield on pageviews; we’ve established baselines that our different pageviews should meet or exceed and factor in our directly sold campaigns with those indirectly or programmatically filled. We have an optimal formula for how will fill inventory and have set up systems that make sure we’re delivering maximum revenue across all ad units.”

Of course, publishers have long adjusted based on supply and demand. Today, though, the complex external development — various sales partners, through networks, private exchanges and more — requires fine tuning to get the highest possible price for fleeting inventory.

If this all seems like four-dimensional chess, mobile adds a fifth dimension. Haskell recalls the boom in second-screen tablet usage found on election night last November. That development provides a new place for the text-, numbers-, and analysis-driven Times to play in what is usually an immediate TV story. Consequently, it opens up new ways for the Times to exploit the tablet as a second-screen, timely ad vehicle.

The tablet (and mobile, generally) is quickly moving from niche to main play for the Times and others. Of its 43.6 million U.S. unique users in March, 18.3 million arrived via mobile devices, the Times says.

There’s targeting — and then there’s super-targeting. So the Times is selling what Todd Haskell calls “super premium.” It is able to target, through its growing audience database, readers with certain job titles, reading certain sections of content. That kind of targeting drives higher rates, and it’s part of the Times’ plan to move up on the food chain, just as the middle and bottom of that chain widens infinitely.

Creativity

Over the past year, publishers have reawakened to the notion of commercial storytelling. They now see it — a cousin to editorial storytelling — as a core competence, and one that many marketers envy.

“Agencies and many advertisers don’t know how to do it,” says Grimshaw. “There’s a constant need for fresh [marketing] content.”

Enter content marketing, which I recent covered in depth in “The newsonomics of recylcling journalism.” The Star Tribune’s Griffing points to his company’s first big foray into the field, a Kids Health site. Sold to a single sponsor for one year, Children’s Hospital, the new content was produced by Star Tribune staff and is a prototype for products to come. Griffing says the company’s innovations, overall, have pushed year-over-year digital ad growth into the teens.

2013 is the year of content marketing, from New York to D.C. to Minneapolis to Dallas to San Francisco. The creative spark comes from a combination of old-fashioned journalism skills, both editorial and marketing. Sums up Rob Grimshaw: “Publishers have tremendous assets that have never been exploited.”

Now, often, the creation and placement of “native advertising” are inextricably tied. As with the Times’ IdeaLab, the Washington Post’s Brand Connect, and Atlantic Media Strategies, global publishers have asserted their high-end editorial skills, applied to other people’s storytelling, and are packaging that skill with an ad buy. Haskell points out that the creative costs can be built into the ad buy itself, if the buy is big enough. “We’re not looking to make money on the creative,” he says.

That combination of the creative and the buy shows the newness of it all, and the early flux in the content marketing craft. Over time, we’ll likely see a greater cross-title placement of above-average creative, saving on creation costs. How then will the various content marketing works of a Times, an FT, a BuzzFeed, or an Atlantic Media compare? Which will become go-to creative companies, and which will return to the old comfort area of selling placement?

Video creation has also unearthed new creativity among the formerly ink-based wretches. In fact, most companies tell me that video ad demand, at anywhere from $25 to $75 cost per thousand rates (many multiples beyond display ads), is still outstripping supply.

The Star Tribune’s Griffing puts it this way: “This one is simple. We are selling as much video inventory as we have; 1.2 million plays per month, which is significantly more than the next closest competitor, a local TV station. That said, until we’re doing 10M plays a month, revenue for video will be relatively small.”

In a nutshell, that describes the dilemma. The New York Times recently hired Rebecca Howard, late of AOL/HuffPo, to expand its sold-out video inventory.

For Digital First Media, a pioneer in local news video through the Journal Register Company, new video formats offer premium possibilities. It’s going short, and long. “For short format we just closed a deal with Tout.com, and we are deploying their player in all our sites.” DFM journalists will take videos, through Tout (“The newsonomics of leapfrog news video”) and place them quickly on the sites, says Digital First’s Arturo Duran. “Some of those ‘Touts’ are embedded inside the articles. This is following what the consumers are doing, and the tests by WSJ and BBC. They have created snippets of 15 seconds of information that feed their sites with real time information on events. For end users, it’s a faster, easier way to watch it. There is a big play in the mobile arena, specially smartphones, as end users are watching more video in this [short] format than any other.”

Longer-format video is still in the planning stages for DFM, says Duran, pointing to the potential of live events, interviews with personalities, direct chats with readers, and more. It’s noteworthy that despite the success of video advertising, text-based sites still haven’t mastered greater quality production of greater scale and aren’t well-using third-party, “higher quality” video to satisfy ad needs.

Sales relationships

In an age of self-service, spawned by Google’s paid search products, the sales channel is still multi-tiered. Self-service works profoundly for some products, but telesales and in-person, feet-on-the-ground sales forces are finding new life.

Blame complexity. The choices advertisers now have are endless. Top-tier advertisers are served by such specialized teams as the FT’s “strategic sales” unit. The group works matches the complexity of FT’s analytics-fueled approaches to marketing with advertiser needs.

At the other end of the spectrum, the burgeoning marketing services business (“The newsonomics of selling Main Street”) is bringing these new approaches to smaller, local businesses. The Star Tribune’s Jeff Grilling, a major proponent of the marketing services business, has already learned some lessons from his company’s Radius marketing services foray.

“I’m finding more similarities than less, to our traditional sales approach. I’m finding that we are only as good as our sales people and the relationship they create, and that many small business customers have been approached by some sort of digital solutions vendor in the last few years. Make no mistake, there is no easy money in the SMB digital solutions business — it is very competitive and customers have are typically skeptical because of weak solutions they’ve experienced by other vendors in previous years. So if it’s a quick and easy revenue stream that a media company is looking for, I would look at options other than SMB digital solutions. I do still believe, however, that if your intention is to genuinely help local businesses grow, and you have the stomach for investment, strategy, execution, and patience, SMB digital solutions can be a viable product line.”

That tells you how long a haul this digital transition remains, and how many twists and turns even the innovators must endure.

Photo by NJR ZA used under a Creative Commons license.

May 22 2013

15:00

Objectivity and the decades-long shift from “just the facts” to “what does it mean?”

1960S ART

If I had only one short sentence to describe it, I’d say that journalism is factual reports of current events. At least, that’s what I used to say, and I think it’s what most people imagine journalism is. But reports of events have been a shrinking part of American journalism for more than 100 years, as stories have shifted from facts to interpretation.

Interpretation: analysis, explanation, context, or “in-depth” reporting. Journalists are increasingly in the business of supplying meaning and narrative. It no longer makes sense to say that the press only publishes facts.

New research shows this change very clearly. In 1955, stories about events outnumbered other types of front page stories nearly 9 to 1. Now, about half of all stories are something else: a report that tries to explain why, not just what.

rise-of-context-over-events-chart

This chart is from a paper by Katharine Fink and Michael Schudson of Columbia University, which calls these types of stories “contextual journalism.” (The paper includes an extensive and readable history of all sorts of changes in journalism in the 20th century; recommended for news nerds.) The authors sampled front-page articles from The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in five different years from 1955 to 2003, and handcoded each of 1,891 stories into one of four categories:

  • conventional: a simple report of an event which happened in the last 24 hours
  • contextual: a story containing significant analysis, interpretation, or explanation
  • investigative: extensive accountability or “watchdog” reporting
  • social empathy: a story about the lives of people unfamiliar to the reader

Investigative journalism picks up after the 1960s but is still only a small percentage of all front-page stories. Meanwhile, contextual journalism increases from under 10 percent to nearly half of all articles. The loser is classic “straight” news: event-centered, inverted-pyramid, who-what-when-how-but-not-so-much-why stories, which have become steadily less popular. All this in the decades before the modern Internet. In fact, previous work showed that the transition away from events began at the dawn of the 20th century.

Investigative journalism may have pride of place within the mythology of American news, but that’s not really what journalists have been up to, by and large. Instead, newspaper journalists have been producing ever more of a kind a work that is so little discussed it doesn’t really have a name. Fink and Schudson write:

…there is no standard terminology for this kind of journalism. It has been called interpretative reporting, depth reporting, long-form journalism, explanatory reporting, and analytical reporting. In his extensive interviewing of Washington journalists in the late 1970s, Stephen Hess called it ‘social science journalism’, a mode of reporting with ‘the accent on greater interpretation’ and a clear intention of focusing on causes, not on events as such. Although this category is, in quantitative terms, easily the most important change in reporting in the past half century, it is a form of journalism with no settled name and no hallowed, or even standardized, place in journalism’s understanding of its own recent past.

From this historical look, fast forward to the web era. The last several years have seen a broad conversation about “context” in news. From Matt Thompson’s key observation that a series of chronological updates don’t really inform, to Studio 20′s Explainer project, to a whole series of experiments and speculations around story form, context has been a hot topic for those trying to rethink Internet-era journalism.

I believe this type of contextual journalism is important, and I hope we will get better at understanding and teaching it. The Internet has solved the basic distribution of event-based facts in a variety of ways; no one needs a news organization to know what the White House is saying when all press briefings are posted on YouTube. What we do need is someone to tell us what it means. In other words, journalism must move up the information food chain — as, in fact, it has steadily been doing for five decades!

Why does this type of journalism not even have a name?

I have a suspicion. I think part of the problem is the professional code of “objectivity.” This a value system for journalism that has many parts: truth seeking, neutrality, ethics, credibility. But all of these things are different when the journalist’s job moves from describing events to creating interpretations.

There are usually multiple plausible ways to interpret any event, so what are our standards for saying which interpretations are right? Journalism has a long, sorry history of professional pundits whose analyses of politics and economics turn out to be no better than guessing. In concrete fields such as election forecasting, it may later be obvious who was right. In other cases, there may not be a “right” answer in the traditional, positivist sense of science. These are the classic problems of framing: Is a 0.3 percent drop in unemployment “small” or is it “better than expected”? True neutrality becomes impossible in such cases, because if something has been politicized, you’re going to piss someone off no matter how you interpret it. (See also: hostile media effect.) There may not be an objectively correct or currently knowable meaning for any particular set of factual events, but that won’t stop the fighting over the narrative.

This seems to be a tricky place for truth in journalism. Much easier to say that there are objective facts, knowably correct facts, and that that is all journalism reports. The messy complexity of providing real narratives in a real world is much less authoritative ground. Nonetheless, we all crave interpretation along with our facts. Explanation and analysis and storytelling have become prevalent in practice. We as audiences continue to demand certain types of experts, even when we can’t tell if what they’re saying is any good. We demand reasons why, even if there can be no singular truth. We demand narrative.

What this latest research says to me is that journalism has added interpretation to its core practice, but we’re not really talking about it. The profession still operates with a “just the facts, ma’am” disclaimer that no longer describes what it actually does. Perhaps this is part of why media credibility has been falling for decades.

Photo of Sol LeWitt’s “Objectivity” (1962) via AP/National Gallery of Art.

May 21 2013

14:00

At The Miami Herald, tweeting’s about breaking news in the a.m. and conversation in the p.m.

miami-herald-old-building-cc

Have you ever tried tweeting at a major news organization? How often have they responded or retweeted? Probably not often — and that corresponds to the findings offered by a GW/Pew study of 13 major news organizations which found “limited use of the institution’s public Twitter identity, one that generally takes less advantage of the interactive and reportorial nature of the Twitter.”

So when I went to The Miami Herald as part of a much larger project looking at newsrooms and news buildings, I was pleasantly surprised to find it, like some other newspapers, has actual people manning Twitter — breaking news “by hand,” interacting with readers, and having a genuine public conversation over the main @miamiherald Twitter account, with its 98,000 followers. (Aside from Twitter, The Miami Herald is making ample use of its Facebook account, posting new stories once an hour and relying on feedback from the 46,000-plus audience for stories and tips — and as an extension of the Public Insight Network pioneered by American Public Radio.)

In Miami, Twitter takes on two distinct modes during the day — in the morning as headline service and in the afternoon as conversation. “In the morning, we try to get the audience between 6 and 8 a.m. on Twitter and on the website,” says continuous news editor/day editor Jeff Kleinman, who says he wakes up at 4:30 to begin monitoring the news.

Kleinman uses Twitter to break news — whether or not it’s on the paper’s website. “We want to be first,” he noted, as he quickly dashed off a tweet about a boat fire in front of me. More often then not, though, there will be a link to a short two-paragraph story begun on the website. But not always.

Miami still remains a vibrant and competitive news marketplace with three local TV stations chasing breaking news, the Sun Sentinel, and even blogs getting in on niche action. So in the breaking-news morning environment, “If something happens, I’ll put it up on Twitter, I’ll write or have the reporter write two quick grafs on the homepage with italics that say ‘More to come,’” he said. “We’re constantly updating over Twitter and on the website as news comes in.”

There’s less time for conversation, but Kleinman is especially careful to do one thing: retweet what his reporters are offering from the field to the wider audience. “We’re not there, but they are, and Twitter is often the fastest way to say what’s going on,” he noted. So while the reporters have their own followings, their work gets amplified to a larger audience.

Take this example of breaking news:

BREAKING: RT @waltermichot: Neighbors gather at scene of one shot and transported 5644 NW 4th Ave. twitter.com/WalterMichot/s…

— The Miami Herald (@MiamiHerald) May 2, 2013

Walter Michot, a former photographer who prowls the city with an iPhone (another story), has frequently broken news on his Twitter account, which has then been retweeted by @miamiherald. The mantra in the newsroom is to tweet, write, tweet, write, perhaps blog, and then write a takeout for the web and perhaps the paper.

Later on in the afternoon, Twitter and Facebook take on a more conversational tone. Luisa Yanez runs the @miamiherald account then. She focuses on three key things: curating incoming reporters’ work and retweeting it — adding additional substance if necessary; offering updates from the website; and responding to readers. The Miami Herald also offers updates about traffic and weather “as a public service and because people want to know,” Kleinman said, so followers might see something like this.

#Weather alert: Severe thunderstorm warning issued for the #Keys until 1:30 p.m.

— The Miami Herald (@MiamiHerald) May 2, 2013

And then Yanez will retweet a reader who happens to chime in with a photo, in this case, Marven The Martian (@DaReelMJ), who offers a twitpic of the nasty weather brewing.

@miamiherald Even from the balcony it doesn’t get any better as it has started to rain in Sunny Isles. #Weather twitter.com/DaReelMJ/statu…

— Marven The Martian (@DaReelMJ) May 2, 2013

The Herald also uses Twitter as a direct way to ask its readers to pitch in for story help:

The Herald is writing about ruling that would allow teens to obtain the “morning after” pill. Please contact aburch@MiamiHerald.com.

— The Miami Herald (@MiamiHerald) May 2, 2013

The main Twitter feed doesn’t shy away from letting reporters show off their spunk. For instance, on Evan Benn’s first story for the paper (yes, they hired someone):

MT @evanbenn: My first @miamiherald story. Can’t beat ‘em? Eat ‘em. Smoked python at invasive-species meal hrld.us/11EXFcO

— The Miami Herald (@MiamiHerald) May 2, 2013

That, of course, is what they call in the newsroom an only-in-Miami story. And it prompted some only-in-Miami community conversation:

@miamiherald @evanbenn I would think it would taste like smoked eel but maybe more like gator? Either way, great idea hrld.us/11EXFcO

— Jackie Blue (@JackieBlue4u) May 2, 2013

@jackieblue4u Closer to gator, and smoking it really did make it taste like bacon, or prosciutto.

— Evan Benn (@EvanBenn) May 2, 2013

Kleinman and others acknowledge that the tweet-to-web traffic conversion isn’t what they’d like it to be. But for them, Twitter is a way to build an audience, establish their continued brand prominence, and carry on a conversation. And while The Miami Herald newsroom might be losing the best view in journalism for a new home by the airport, location might not matter as much as it once did, because their conversation with their audience is virtual.

Those who doubt that a newsroom that is struggling with staff and budget problems can handle putting the time and energy into social media should look at Miami and see a case of what’s going well. And those who think that community conversation is too hard to handle should also pause and consider the possibilities that do exist when a newsroom engages with its community. Especially if it’s about eating python.

Photo of outgoing Miami Herald building by Phillip Pessar used under a Creative Commons license.

May 09 2013

17:24

Diaries, the original social media: How our obsession with documenting (and sharing) our own lives is nothing new

If you’ve ever kept a diary, chances are you probably considered that document private. As in,

MOM I’VE TOLD YOU A MILLION TIMES MY DIARY IS PRIVATE SO DON’T FUCKING READ IT AGAIN PS THANKS FOR CLEANING MY ROOM IT LOOKS NICE

— Luke (@StereotypeLuke) March 24, 2013

But that wasn’t always the case when it came to personal journals. At least, not according to Lee Humphreys, a communications and media researcher at Cornell.

Humphreys led a conversation this week with Microsoft Research’s Social Media Collective on historicizing social media practices. Humphreys argues that, through journals and diaries, people have been recounting their daily activities and reflecting on them for much longer than Twitter and other social media platforms have been around.

But through her research, Humphreys found that it’s only been in the last hundred years that journalling has come to be considered a private practice. In the late 19th century, she says visiting friends and relatives would gather together and read each others diaries as a way of keeping up to date and sharing their lives. Journals were also kept in early American towns to mark and record important events: weddings, births, deaths and other events of community-wide importance.

“You don’t get a real sense of personal, individual self until the end of the 19th century,” Humphreys told the Cornell Chronicle in 2010, “so it makes perfect sense that diaries or journals prior to that time were much more social in nature.”

At Humphreys’ talk on Tuesday, some suggested that the advent of Freudian psychology — or perhaps the mass popularization of the novel — had contributed to this inward turn by America’s diarists. As the profession of journalism began to rise at the beginning of the 20th century, the independent writer was becoming increasingly self-reflective, creating the expectation of privacy that we were familiar with prior to the arrival of the Internet. But Humphrey is arguing that before we had a mass media, there was a system of personal writing that looked like a slower, more loosely networked version of Twitter.

people want to make twitter their diary but isn’t a diary suppose to be private?

— #slick (@rickstayslick) May 7, 2013

The similarities between Twitter and historic trends in diary keeping don’t stop there, according to Humphreys. She points to a surge in the popularity of pocket diaries, which, like Twitter, restricted the number of words you could write due to their small size, but also made them mobile. With 60 percent of tweets now being written on mobile devices, according to Humphreys, as compared to around 14 percent when she conducted the study in 2008, trends in Twitter behavior are in fact reflecting historical trends in self-reporting. So even the practice of making notes about your daily activities as they are happening isn’t a new behavior.

A second study Humphreys conducted revealed even more lessons about our drive to create personal records. Using the diary entires of a soldier in the Civil War, which he dutifully copied and turned into letters home, and the personal blog of an Iraq War soldier, Humphreys explored the reasons people feel compelled to record the events of their lives.

Primarily, she says, people journal as a way of strengthening “kin and friend” relationships. The soldier in Iraq, referred to as DadManly, originally began his blog as a way of keeping in touch with all of his family members at once. Charlie Mac, the Civil War soldier, exhibits a similar desire for communication and relationship maintenance by sending home a faithfully transcribed (we assume) copy of his diary. Both men, Humphreys says, described experiencing profound frustration and anxiety when the medium through which they communicated was disrupted, whether by an Internet blackout or a rainstorm that dissolved parchment and delayed the post.

The writings of Charlie Mac and DadManly shared another important similarity: Although both were writing for ostensibly private audiences, there was an implicit understanding that their words might someday reach a wider audience. When DadManly saw web traffic from strangers, he began to increasingly write about his political views on the war, providing what he believed to be a unique perspective of support at a time when very few journalists in the traditional media felt the same way.

Charlie Mac also had reason to believe his diary letters were being shared with an audience larger than the one he was directly addressing. In fact, he sometimes included parenthetical addresses to specific individuals, should they happen to come across the documents. But there was also a real possibility that his war correspondence would be picked up and reprinted by newspapers. (Or, as it happened, compiled, archived, and read by researchers hundreds of years later.) After the war, he ended up becoming a journalist at The Boston Globe. What more apt analogue to the media of today than a world in which one’s personal commentary on current events is so appreciated that they can be transformed into a lifelong career?

During the course of Charlie Mac’s budding career, he would have observed the budding of what we consider the traditional media hierarchy. Information would increasingly begin to flow from the top down, rather than be gathered voraciously from amateurs in the field. He would see news brands begin to shape and control narratives, and come to exist in an information system with less and less emphasis on personal interactions.

Of course, what we’ve seen in the decades since the dawn of the digital age is just the opposite. Humphreys said one of the early conclusions from her research is the possibility that the mass media of the 20th century was in fact a blip, a historical aberration, and that, through platforms like Twitter, we are gradually returning to a communication network that indulges, without guilt, the individual’s desire to record his existence.

Personal diarists are not only comforted by recording and sharing their experience, Humphreys says, but they are empowered by claiming their own narrative. She suspects it was for this reason that so many 19th-century women kept journals — in the hopes that they and their families would be remembered. Her point takes on contemporary significance when she points out that Twitter is more popular among African-American and Hispanic youths than among whites.

The most powerful argument for Twitter as a force of erosion of the public media is not, as we hear so often lately, that it feeds the fires of rumor and speculation. The argument that Twitter is facile is much more potent — that Twitter users are self-obsessed, that a minute spent tweeting is a minute wasted, that Twitter is the digital embodiment of the general degradation of intellectual society — many of the same arguments made a decade ago about blogging.

This is what I ate for breakfast… Greek potatoes, orzo, Greek salad, dolmades, and OJ. #Hmm yfrog.com/nxfktoej

— Miss Illinois (@StaciJoee) March 28, 2012

I’m going to be a total blogger today. This is what I ate for breakfast. LOL http://yfrog.com/h2tovdrj

— Holly Becker (@decor8) February 20, 2011

What Humphreys has found, instead, is that if we are all navel-gazers, it’s not Twitter that made us that way. And further, that we are tighter-networked, faster-responding, further-reaching navel-gazers, with a richer media experience, than ever before.

Image by Barnaby Dorfman used under a Creative Commons license.

14:54

The newsonomics of influentials, from D.C. to Singapore to Raleigh

singapore-skyline-cc

It’s a season of new product launches, but you have to roam around the country and the world to find them. You have to look for the niches they’re trying to serve. These launches tell us a lot about the emerging digital news economy and the new building blocks that form its foundation.

Our journey takes us from Washington, D.C. to Singapore to Raleigh and back again to D.C. Publishers — and broadcasters — are basing these new businesses on a set of surprisingly similar features.

In D.C., Atlantic Media — in the beehive of activity that is its headquarters in the Watergate Building, overlooking the Potomac — is putting the finishing touches on its latest launch: Defense One. The new digital-just-about-only product will debut this summer, Atlantic Media president Justin Smith told me last week.

Defense One aims to disrupt a set of incumbent defense-oriented publications: Jane’s, Gannett-owned Defense News, and Breaking Defense, among them. Atlantic Media believes it’s found an opening — a wide one — to exploit.

“We saw a gap,” says Tim Hartman, president of the Government Executive Media Group, the Atlantic Media brand under which Defense One will take flight. The company believes It may offer a market as much as three to seven times greater than Government Executive itself, a 40-year-old title that has largely made the transition to digital.

Hartman says the understanding of the opportunity popped out of strategic planning that began two and a half years ago. Quartz, the business site launched last fall (“The Newsonomics of Quartz’ business launch”) was the first new product to come out of the work. Defense One is the second. A third one will likely launch within the next two years, says Hartman.

If analytics derived from Government Executive’s audience and usage provided the notion, in-depth interviews with 40 defense sector players filled in a roadmap. The company conducted initial hours-long interviews with them, and then returned to a number of them for second or third talks as plans solidified.

Over time, Hartman says Defense One’s staff size will be similar to that of Quartz — about 18-20 in content creation and production. While the company is looking for a top editor, Hartman says its editorial mandate is clear: “an orientation for the future.” That’s what industry leaders want, a sense of what is more likely than not to happen tomorrow, and why.

Much of Atlantic Media’s sales, marketing, analytics and financial functions can be leveraged to support the new product, minimizing what would be similar expense for a one-off start-up. Also like Quartz, it is going free, looking to marketers to make it profitable. It isn’t just an ad play. Rather, it looks to an emerging model of higher-end sponsorship and content marketing — with the important adjunct of events marketing — to propel it forward.

Its offer to marketers will follow the playbook of what Atlantic Media’s half-dozen other publications (The Atlantic, The Atlantic Wire, The Atlantic Cities, Quartz, National Journal, Government Executive) now offers. It’s on-site sponsorship/share-of-voice placement, content marketing, and marketing services aid and placements and sponsorship of physical events.

That events business rides right alongside inclusion on its websites, providing marketers with a brand association that fluidly moves from online to off and back. It’s a strategy now well-employed in D.C. — also exploited by Politico and The Washington Post — and among events leaders like The Texas Tribune. Atlantic Media has turned events into a potent, higher-margin revenue source, now accounting for around 16 percent of revenues.

Even before Defense One’s product launch, it is well along in lining up speakers for its first event in November.

Atlantic Media targets influentials. It is a term you hear often in conversation with the company’s president, Justin Smith. Quartz targets business influentials. Government Executive and National Journal target government influentials. Now Defense One targets national security influentials. It’s a spin on the Meredith marketing positioning I noted a couple of weeks ago, as that company morphed from a women’s magazine company to a company expert at marketing to women.

“It’s really a B2B model,” says Smith, explaining in a few words much of Atlantic Media owner and chairman David Bradley’s plan to double company revenues and profits within five years. The best B2B companies deeply know their audiences and then plan numerous touchpoints to yield revenue. If they are number one in their field, they reap the benefits.

There are a lot of influentials in this world. The trick is in picking the right targets.

Seeking influentials across Asia

That’s who HT Media, publisher of a leading national Indian daily (the Hindustan Times) is targeting in Singapore. Mint is HT Media’s business newspaper, now six years old and published in eight Indian cities. The paper was cofounded by Raju Narisetti, who has since done stints at The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal and was recently named senior vice president and deputy head of strategy for the emerging, separate News Corp.

For Mint and its digital Livemint, a highly readable, authoritative business news source, finding growth included finding influentials abroad and expanding upon its mission to be “a fair and clear-minded chronicler of the Indian dream.”

One month ago, it launched MintAsia in Singapore. Its targets: the large Indian expat business community. There are 4,500 Indian-owned companies in Singapore, which is fast becoming the multinational business center for its region. MintAsia is also aimed at those multinationals, for whom better knowledge of India, its economy, and its policies are central to their own growth plans.

The new MintAsia is both a weekly newspaper published on Fridays and a website. About a quarter of the weekly content is originated for the Singapore market — largely produced by Mint’s India-based staff of 140, with stories like “Top 10 Indian Health Startups” targeted for the strong health care business sector of Singapore. The rest of MintAsia’s content is chosen from Mint’s stream of web-first and daily print content. HT is sending a former head of ad sales to head up the MintAsia operation, and has employed a handful of Singapore locals to deal with circulation and logistics.

“The whole idea is to leverage our strength,” Sukumar Ranganathan, Mint’s editor, told me in Delhi. “For Singapore, it’s marginal costing.”

So, its costs are small, and its potential gain — in revenue, in branding, and in influence — is large.

Its business model is au courant. MintAsia is an all-access, print + digital product. It’s printing 3,000 copies to start, with a goal of reaching 10,000 within a few years. By branching out of its home market, it is not only testing a pay strategy; it’s a pay strategy that greatly exceeds what it can charge in its home market. India is just about the only major nation not suffering from the worldwide newspaper turndown. Advertising is growing robustly, and circulation is holding as well. That’s what adding millions of literate, better educated, striving-into-the-middle-class citizens a year will do for you.

But Indian dailies are among the cheapest in the world. Mint daily costs four rupees per copy — seven cents American! An annual subscription will set you back 500 rupees, or about $9.26.

In Singapore, Mint Asia costs six Singapore dollars, or US$4.87. Buy a year of print with access to the LiveMintAsia, and the price is 180 Singapore dollars or US$146. (Its paywall is now a hard one, but will go metered, powered by Press+, next month).

So we see minimal costs, good ramping all-access circulation money, and two other familiar streams of revenue: advertising targeting the financial and other needs of Singapore-based Indian influentials and events. MintAsia’s formal launch comes on May 28, when it hosts a conference in Singapore that includes the head of the Indian equivalent of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. That event already has two paying sponsors; more sponsored events are in the works.

As with Atlantic Media, the niche strategy is more than a one-off. Hong Kong may be the next logical market, with other Asian markets farther down the list. If Mint moves into those markets, it will likely proceed much as it has in Singapore — checking its data for critical masses of likely readers and then following up with in-person visits to new cities, talking to to the influentials about influential publication potential.

Seeking influentials in North Carolina

Back in Raleigh, North Carolina, the WRAL’s TechWire product isn’t new, but its paywall is. It is certainly one of the first paywalls put up by a broadcaster, though in this case, Research Triangle (Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill) digital market leader WRAL isn’t putting one up on its main site — it erected its paywall on its technology vertical about a month ago. It follows the paywall paradigm, with a couple of twists.

TechWire charges $24.99 for an Insider annual membership, which includes numerous industry events and other discounts. Until May 16, the annual price is discounted by half. It also offers monthly passes for $2.49 and day passes for 99 cents.

So far, WRAL general manager John Conway says he happy with the early results. Most subscribers are opting for the annual plan; unique visitor and pageview loss has been minimal for the site that’s recently averaged 125,000 unique visitors a month, the majority of whom are local. His goal: get 5-10 percent of those uniques paying for something.

The paywall is powered by Amsterdam-based Cleeng, a paywall provider whose clients include Epicurious, DailyMotion, and now, TEDMED, and which offers an architecture that works well with video content access control.

TechWire offers a hard paywall, with first paragraph offering for free on staff-written stories. (AP, Bloomberg and other non-local content makes up 50-60 percent of the site, and that remains accessible.)

Seeking influentials in D.C. politics

Up the road and back in D.C., Politico continues to build on its impressive Pro line of products (“Politico Pro grows into 1,000 organizations, moves into print”) — following the influential methodology. Roy Schwartz, the company’s chief revenue officer, now counts seven Pro products. Three of these — finance, tax and, interestingly, defense — debuted last September. They followed energy, health care, and technology, all launched in February, 2011, and transportation, which followed a year later.

These Pro products, too, borrow from the same marketplace understandings that drive Atlantic Media and Mint. In Politico’s case, it’s working richer veins of revenue. Politico Pro now claims more than 7,000 users, across more than 1,000 organizations.

Politico sells institutional subscriptions, on a largely per-seat basis, to groups within each niche that want an insider’s time and knowledgable view. Politico takes in mid-four digits a year for each subscriber, with pricing variable by niche and what the market will bear. It also sells sponsorships into the Pro products, the same kinds of marketing that funds its free Politico site. Then those sponsors’ reach is further extended — at an additional price, of course — into events. Last year, Politico hosted 90 events. On its roadmap, it makes sure that each of the Pro verticals will host an event a quarter. It’s sponsorship-fueled, value-added-to-membership relationship marketing.

Schwartz says the events are free to attendees and strive to match the allure of the Pro coverage. “It’s about convening thought leadership. What we find interesting, our audience finds interesting.”

So what do you do when you’ve bound together targetable groups of influentials? You put together an Influencer Upfront. On Wednesday, Politico hosted its first Influencer Upfront.

The upfront was a day of presentations, editorial and advertising, to significant advertisers. Politico is borrowing a page from the long-standing TV network upfronts, events held to showcase shows and sell fall ad campaigns in the spring. Digital upfronts are becoming all the rage, as this spring saw several in New York City’s, including one sponsored by Digiday.

Lessons learned

It’s no accident that each of these four newer products all touch business audiences and markets. The truism hold: It’s easiest to make money where money is changing hands. Make yourself an effective intermediary, and you can grab a little of it as it moves. It’s easiest to see these opportunities, clearly, in and around business. It’s an in-the-know kind of market, and it’s one — because of scale — that national publishers are now tending to exploit first.

Can it work regionally? Can regional newspapers find big enough niches to replicate this model? If I were a regional publisher, I’d be doing a whiteboard exercise bouncing off these emerging influentials models.

Among these four newer products, we can see the emerging new rules of publishing creation. Among them:

  • Critical mass enables growth. Niche product creation that builds on existing company infrastructure, knowledge and marketplace learnings is the cost-effective way to go. Each of these companies adapted what they learned to these new launches. Politico’s seven Pro products illustrate this most clearly; Atlantic Media’s cousin-by-cousin launches put a parallel spin on the notion. (Intriguing side note: Politico owner Robert Allbritton put his once-core TV station holdings on the market last week, saying he wanted to further invest in and around Politico. The “around” could include replicating the Politico business model in a new coverage niche.) This is a new power of incumbency. It’s not the ownership of a printing press, as it was for newspaper publishers in the old days.
  • Analytics leads the way; in-person follow-up seal the deal. You may have an intuition about a new market, but checking it out — doubly — is essential.
  • Help your audience deal with future and present shock. Covering a sector is one thing; covering in a way that embraces — and tries bring a bit of order to — the multiple change issues of any audience is another. That’s an aspirational and competitive editorial positioning, but we can see ongoing examples of it in the work that Mint, Quartz, and Politico already produce.
  • Events are emerging as both a vital new revenue source and an almost counterintuitive high-touch part of the mostly digital business mix. HuffPost Live, Google Hangouts, and assorted other ways to assemble online community are great experiments and promising tools, but old-fashioned in-person events are gaining strength as we all go more digital. That’s an important learning about the value of relationship, and how to reinforce it, even in the age of MOOCs.
  • It’s not print or digital. It’s digital and print, suited to audience reading habits — which of course are a moving target. Influentials, like all of us, toggle between the two.

Photo of Singapore skyline by Thibault Houspic used under a Creative Commons license.

April 08 2013

16:55

Emerging spaces for storytelling: Journalistic lessons from social media in the Delhi gang rape case

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DELHI — In December, the brutal rape and subsequent death of a 23-year-old female student quickly gained attention in Indian and foreign media. In the days immediately following the woman’s death, protesters staged large demonstrations at Delhi’s India Gate and outside government buildings, including Rashtrapati Bhavan, the official residence of India’s President.

During the protests, activists and journalists used social media to follow the protests and to discuss India’s problem of violence against women. This discourse highlighted how social media offer an emerging space for storytelling — remarkable in a country where social media hasn’t had the same impact it has elsewhere. To explore this case, we interviewed Indian and foreign correspondents who covered the protests in Delhi. They told us how journalists used social media during the protests, giving us insight into how a new medium is contributing to hard news coverage.

India’s digital divide and the challenge of representation

Social media hasn’t played anything near the role in Indian journalism that it does in, say, the United States. Supporters of social media often point to their inclusive and democratizing aspects — but in India, social media usage remains confined to a small percentage of the population. Nearly 80 percent of Indians now have a mobile phone, but only 11 percent have Internet access, and fewer than 5 percent use social media. In rural areas, these percentages are significantly lower. Information gathered from social media tends to come from a rarified segment of the population: the affluent, educated, English-speaking youth of India’s major cities.

When we asked journalists to what extent they use social media for news-gathering, some complained that social media discussions are narrow. As an India-based journalist for the Swiss Neue Zürcher Zeitung told us:

They don’t really represent the majority of the people. For example, if you read social media, you would think everyone was extremely shocked and devastated. But if you talked to people on the streets or in slums, you get the idea that many Indians have extremely backward and conservative idea about women and how they had to behave. Social media can not replace doing research on the ground, in slums and villages. That’s the most important thing for working in India.

The digital divide thus represents a sociocultural divide: In India, those who use social media are more likely to live in cities, hold a passport, and share values with social media users in the West. By relying too heavily on social media, journalists may find that their coverage skews toward a narrow readership. One Australian journalist told us that the rape protests gained prominence on Twitter “because [social media] is city-based and at the center of the life of the middle class, university students, and mobile professionals.” The journalist from Neue Zürcher Zeitung told us “it is easy to share ideas and read articles of colleagues or see what intellectuals think.” What’s more difficult is to get beyond that narrow demographic and understand the views of Indians whose voices are not heard on social media.

According to Rohan Venkataramakrishnan, senior reporter at the Mail Today, social media presents a challenge for nuanced debate: “If I wanted to write about how Indian society needs to change or how patriarchy needs to be dealt with, I cannot say it in 140 characters.”

While journalists may have personal affinity with social media users, several of them told us that to get a more representative understanding of issues, they pay attention to television and newspapers. Here’s the journalist from Neue Zürcher Zeitung: “Television, newspapers, and talking to people on the streets were much more important [in newsgathering]. Only a very small part of society has access to social media, but everyone watches television.”

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In addition to questions of representation, journalists have another reason to discount social media reporting. As we discussed in an earlier piece, India’s newspaper industry is thriving. With healthy growth in newspaper circulation and advertising, many journalists are skeptical about what social media can do for Indian journalism right now. When we conducted interviews with journalists at The Hindu, we encountered a widespread belief that social media is mostly for soft news. But that was before the Delhi gang rape and protests. The question now is: Will this event change the role of social media in Indian journalism?

New spaces, new beats for storytelling

In the past, television networks have been the largest players in Indian news coverage. Social media haven’t changed that, but have instead provided new avenues for news-gathering and story distribution. In the months preceding the events, Indian newspapers and television had covered a number of rape cases. But the December Delhi gang rape proved to be different. The brutality of the attack and the scale of the protests brought international attention to India’s problem of violence against women. Some journalists we spoke to highlighted the role of protest in democratizing India’s media.

The Delhi gang rape case prompted many journalists to use Twitter for updates on events and immediate responses from activists. To a greater extent than in previous protests, social media helped journalists keep a finger on the pulse of middle class India and get their immediate feedback on important issues. An Australian reporter said that “Twitter was really helpful to get a sense of the public sentiment and developments.” He followed the #delhigangrape hashtag, the official Twitter account of the Indian government, women’s groups, pressure groups, and Indian media on the subject.

Venkataramakrishnan, the journalist who found 140 characters limiting, nonetheless said that the protests have been incubators for social media sophistication in India. “Following the Anna Hazare case and the Delhi gang rape case, social media began to achieve a critical mass,” he told us.

Many journalists cited the importance of social media for background information. A journalist from The Hindu told us “I look at tweets by our own editor, editors from other newspapers, well known journalists such as Pritish Nandy [a columnist with The Times of India and the Hindi newspaper Dainik Bhaskar], Abhijit Majumder [editor of the Delhi edition of the Hindustan Times], and Saikat Dutta [a Delhi-based editor of the newspaper DNA]. I also look up tweets by television journalists such as Shiv Aroor [deputy editor at Headlines Today]. You get a mix of opinions from their tweets. Knowing these people’s perspectives helps me during coverage — but only indirectly…I rely on what I see when I am on the ground.”

Here we see the emergence of new storytelling beats. Many journalists and activists discussed how they used Twitter to stay informed about the locations of the protests. In this sense, social media has allowed for a new type of beat as well as a new element in storytelling. A foreign correspondent told us: “Last week, one of the accused rapists died in his prison cell, I found out about it on social media. I logged on Twitter, found students, and from there, the media picked up in India and our news organization called sources and confirmed.” Social media also helped journalists learn what coverage audiences wanted to read and see. Zoe Daniel, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Southeast Asia correspondent, told us that in response to demand from members of India’s social media-savvy diaspora, she’s made plans for a documentary on the Delhi gang rape case.

A common theme with journalists we spoke to is that social media have enabled wider conversations with audiences. Ruchira Singh, social media editor at Network 18, told us that during the protests

Our editors and reporter were tweeting individually — we had very hectic social media activity during the case. We were inviting opinions on the goings on in the case; we were asking questions, we were asking people what they think are the solutions to the problems. We were interacting with people, asking them if they are joining a protest and how they are reaching the protest grounds. We promoted certain petitions by change.org. We asked people if they felt certain provisions should be incorporated in these petitions. I tweeted on the organizational account. I also tweeted on my individual account, especially when the girl died.

These interactions reveal new interest in social media by both Indian and foreign journalists covering the protests. In India, social media is a nascent enterprise still finding its place in journalism. But in time, we may see the the 2012 Delhi gang rape protests as a watershed moment for social media in news gathering and distribution. This case demonstrates how journalists respond to social media and how social media allows for new spaces for storytelling in India.

The future of India’s public sphere

Social media has allowed a small but growing part of the Indian public to join in discussions of soft and hard news. To date, online storytelling has catered to certain demographic groups: the middle and upper classes, the intellectuals, activists, and journalists. Middle class discontent found a place on social media, but marginalized and subaltern groups had minimal representation or participation in social media discussions.

The Delhi gang rape case gives us insight into ongoing changes in India’s public sphere. Jürgen Habermas defined the public sphere as “a realm of social life in which something approaching public opinion can be formed.” But what kind of public sphere? Today, social media offer (at best) limited access to marginalized groups. Journalists who want to know about those groups cannot rely on social networking sites; they must visit often-remote towns, villages, and slums where most residents remain disconnected from social media. In the Delhi gang rape case and many other stories affecting India, social media is essential in research and reporting. At the same time, perhaps the greatest lesson is the limitation of social media: They offer starting points for news-gathering and distribution, but they haven’t replaced traditional journalism.

Valérie Bélair-Gagnon is a Ph.D. candidate at City University London. Her research interests include new media, social media, journalism, public speech, sociology of news, sociology of work and organizations, ethnography and interviews, history of the media and ecology of communication.

Smeeta Mishra is an assistant professor at the Centre for Culture, Media & Governance at Jamia Millia Islamia University in New Delhi. Her research interests include new media, research methods, Muslim studies, and gender issues.

Colin Agur is a Ph.D. candidate in communications at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and a visiting fellow at Yale Law School’s Information Society Project. He is interested in cultural and sociological aspects of mobile phone use in developing countries, and his dissertation research is based on ethnographic fieldwork in India.

Photos by Ramesh Lalwani and Biswarup Ganguly used under a Creative Commons license.

April 03 2013

18:50

The newsonomics of the Orange County Register’s contrarian paywall

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Get your hot dogs. Get your beer. Get your newspaper. Step right up.

As Opening Day comes to the Big A in Anaheim on Tuesday, you can now expect to hear that barker’s call in Orange County. In what is fast becoming one of the most-watched experiments in newspapering (to use a quaint term), the Orange County Register innovates in a new way, aligning one hallowed American pastime with another.

Hundreds of newspapers have announced paywalls, as the Register is doing and a smaller subset is embracing “membership” as a way of redefining subscription. The Register, though, is making membership more meaningful with a just-completed deal with the many-named Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Starting tomorrow, “Register Connect” members — that is, seven-day subscribers — get a perk unlike any other in the newspaper world: free tickets to Angels games. That may be an actual game-changer — giving new meaning to the idea of “all-access.”

The new offer is just part of the Register’s aggressive, contrarian approach to paywalls, which is a central piece of its readers-first, invest-in-content staffing strategy (“The newsonomics of Aaron Kushner’s virtuous circles”). It’s a strategy that reaches beyond the groupthink that has long characterized much of the industry. Let’s look at its approach, including the ticket giveaway — its pros and the cons, its potential brilliance and what could dull the strategy. Let’s look at the newsonomics of the Register’s new paywall, one run by younger, sure-of-themselves non-newspaper people. Let’s also consider how much the Register’s new approach reminds us how first-generation, how 1.0 the current pay systems in fact are. Over 2013, we’ll see twists, turns, and nuances, as even paywall stalwarts like the Columbus Dispatch and Dallas Morning News tell us about previously unannounced changes in their own paywalls.

Aaron Kushner and Eric Spitz, CEO and president respectively of Freedom Communications, which they bought out of bankruptcy last year, have diverse business backgrounds. You’ll find a smattering of greeting cards, beer, unfast food, horse-racing technology, and moving services on their resumes, and they bring that experience to the problems and opportunities of the modern newspaper company. You get the sense that they love to zag when others are zigging — which helps explain their pride in announcing their paywall.

“We’re doing four things that are totally unique,” Spitz told me this week. Those four are interesting, certainly, but they bury the Register paywall lead. The Register is doing two things that others have done, but are doing differently — putting up a hard paywall and making much more of the membership idea than peer pioneers have yet done with it. First, though, a quick run-through of Spitz’s four unique forays:

1. A paywall without discounted digital access

The Register will charge one price — a dollar a day or $365 a year. Get digital or print or both. “We are truly agnostic. It’s our job to get you the content anyway you want. It’s kind of like HBO GO.” Why one price? “You are not paying for the paper — you are paying for the content.”

Most papers charge less for digital-only access, often 50 to 70 percent of the print price. Many have found that non-print readers won’t pay print-like prices for digital-only; some, like The Dallas Morning News, have actually lowered their digital-only prices, as they’ve found low incidence of fully paid print readers “trading down” to digital-only.

In the abstract, the Register’s reasoning makes sense. In practice, expect that few non-print readers will fork over that much money, initially, for tablet and smartphone reading. In the long term, of course, publishers want readers to pay for the content, not the package. In the long term — with production, printing, and distribution costs largely gone and subscription rates close to what they were in print — news publishers would be greatly more profitable. That’s the long term, though, and the path there is foggy. Yes, The Wall Street Journal can charge 83 percent of its print price for digital, and the Financial Times 87 percent (or 113 percent), but those are business-specific anomalies in the print trade.

2. Time-based digital access

If you pay $2.40 for Sunday print only, you get digital access only on Sundays. The Register, true to its agnosticism, is literally matching print and digital access. (You can also buy Thursday-Sunday for $5.60 a week, with matching digital access.) It’s agnostic — and it’s literal. One could argue that The New York Times’ scheme — cheaper for Sunday print + digital access seven days a week — better meets its business needs and consumer psychology. But the Register’s approach is a great test to watch.

3. Day passes

For any 24-hour period, you can pay $2 for access — access that gets you, in effect, two days worth of Register stories. The daypass idea is one that hasn’t much been tested in the U.S., with the Memphis Commercial Appeal trying but apparently dropping it. TinyPass, the company powering Andrew Sullivan’s Dish paywall, says daily access is more popular overseas and for video, selling live events and sports videos. The idea: sampling. Potential upside: day-passers move to full subscriptions. Potential downside: Comparing a $365 commitment to a $2 commitment, many readers opt into day passes.

4. All archives open to the public

The last 90 days of the Register’s content is considered current and covered by the paywall. Any content older than that is open to the full public. Why? “It’s the current content that readers most value,” says Spitz. Undoubtedly true, but it seems to me that archives — a continually undervalued asset by most news companies — have more value that can be exploited.

But it’s the membership program — one that’s not unique in the industry — that will catch the headlines.

Most newspaper membership programs offer free ebooks (The Boston Globe), coupons (The Day in New London, CT) and retail discounts (Los Angeles Times). Some invite members to community events or to visit the editorial staff. The Register wants to go bigger. It approached the Angels, located 10 minutes away, with the idea of better using the empty seats the Angels couldn’t sell. The Angels found themselves sitting on almost 600,000 empty seats last year over 81 games. Put another 7,000 butts in those seats each night, even without getting paid for the ticket, and the club is pulling in another 10 bucks or so on Chronic Tacos, garlic fries, and overpriced Corona.

The perk is available on a first-signed-up, first-served basis to the Register’s 124,000 seven-day subscribers, beginning 72 hours before each game. Forty-eight hours before the game, the Angels, through Ticketmaster, release available seats. Register Connect buyers can nab four tickets, for a service charge of $5. Within a year — subject to going to the end of the electronic queue after landing some tickets — fans can claim as many as 96 tickets a season.

“We’re looking to execute at scale,” Spitz explains, noting that lots of membership perks are good, but few are likely to move the needle of buying and retention. The Angels’ ticket program is that touch of likely brilliance. It is a scale play — and one I’ve been looking for as I’ve heard about the various membership initiatives rolled out over the last two years.

Further, it acts on the power of media. The Register, though shrunken in circulation like the rest of its metro brethren, still throws a lot of weight around town. It retains the power to pull off a big deal with the local baseball franchise — and one that comes at relatively low cost to the newspaper. (The high value/low cost here parallels the Register’s precedent-setting “golden envelope” program, in which it gave those same seven-day subscribers a $100 “check” for “free advertising,” a check they could endorse over to their favorite charity. That program will now be offered “at least twice a year” as well.) A couple of decades after airlines embraced variable pricing — selling off commodities whose value was destroyed by time — the practice is getting to be standard in lots of industries. Newspapers, with their market power, then are well positioned to create a variable pricing marketplace — with their member-subscribers at the center — and the Angels deal leads the way there.

“For your $400 a year, we’re going to deliver you far more than $400 in value,” says Spitz, underlining the allure of “membership.” To make membership more than a card-in-the-wallet afterthought, Spitz says Register Connect will include a key fob — a literal “key to the city” — to facilitate greater use.

Finally, there’s that hard paywall. It’s the biggest enigma of the Register plan. Come to the Register site, and you can get any non-staff-written story — wires and syndicated content, which makes up 40 percent of the content overall — but you won’t get more than “a headline and a sentence” of local stories.

It’s been the meter — with its flexibility and open site sensibility — that has fueled the paywall movement. Yet the Register, two years into modern paywall history, is going with the hard wall. Why?

Spitz says the Register wants to be clear that paying customers get everything — all access on all devices — and that others don’t. You are a customer — or you’re not. You’re on the Register bus, or you’re off it. There’s a certain purity to the thinking; it certainly slams shut that loophole we’ll come to see as plain weird — readers paying several hundred dollars for print or nothing for online. The metered model has largely closed off that stark choice for real readers of any publication. The Register, though, wants to make it even clearer: Pay your $365 a year — either for print or digital or both — and you get the content. It wants to reinforce its buyers’ smart choice.

The move means that the Register will surely lose more pageviews than if it went with a meter. Figure that it will lose 20-30 percent of them, where new metered paywalls lose about half as much. “We don’t care about monetizing eyeballs,” says Spitz, talking about the small incremental ad value newspaper sites get from marginal readers.

I asked Spitz if he had talked with The Dallas Morning News, one of the few U.S. sites to go hard paywall, and he said he had. “The number one thing we take away from them is the most significant value of the paywall is that if someone signs up — a print subscriber who signs up for the paywall — they become 50 percent less likely to attrite [drop their subscription]. The most important value of a paywall as it turns out is you are telling your customer that they are not stupid for buying something their neighbor is getting for free.”

Ironically, publisher Jim Moroney of the Dallas Morning News tells me that his paper is likely moving to a metered model: “We’re pretty certain that’s part of our strategy. How do it is the question.” Today, the Morning News does what the Register is about to do, offering for free access all the non-staff content, but making local stuff inaccessible to non-payers. Why the likely change? In a word, sampling. Moroney believes that he’s secured his core readers — at a high price of $36.95 a month for seven-day print + digital — but knows he needs to crack a code to bring in new, and younger, readers. The hard paywall is a barrier to sampling.

Phil Pikelny, the Columbus Dispatch’s CMO (“The newsonomics of pressing innovation”) is even blunter about the need for a meter:

Pre-2006, we had a hard wall at Dispatch.com. “It was an unmitigated disaster. While other news sites offered all free content, we [who only offered a free home page, free classifieds and free obits] were only able to attract 6,000 paying subs at the height of our ‘success.’ I’d say that thinking retarded our digital growth by three years. No matter what ‘we wish would happen,’ the simple fact is that people only pay for the value they perceive in a product. A website visitor looking at eight pages a month obviously derives little value from the site visited that infrequently. Obviously no pay scheme will win them over. I personally think a hard wall is so restrictive that the website immediately falls into the no-perceived value pile for too many people in the market.

Pikelny, like Moroney, is among those now looking at second-gen paywall notions: “We’re working on a dynamic paywall. Our thought is to eventually move to five free pages a month [from 10]. However, on those webpages where we have the heaviest revenue from advertising (and some of our most robust traffic) we are considering dropping the paywall altogether during certain dayparts. In other words, our home page and OSU sports pages might be without metering from 8 a.m.-10 a.m. and again from noon-2 p.m. The rest of the website would stay metered at all times. When we lower the meter to five pages a month, we might not lose those who don’t see ‘value’ in paying for our site since they will turn to us for headline or breaking stories without hitting a paywall.”

(At the Newspaper Association of America’s April 15 “Strength of Digital Subscriptions” session, Pikelny, the Star Tribune’s Mike Klingensmith, Gannett’s Laura Hollingsworth, and Press+’s Gordon Crovitz will join me for a session I’m moderating.)

Spitz says he, too, believes, in sampling, and that the Register will do that three ways: (1) the $2 day pass; (2) by providing seven days of free access with any fresh email signup; and (3) by pushing five to ten local stories in front of the wall at any one time.

Maybe, that will work. I’m dubious. Hard paywalls, no matter their intent, create a psychological barrier for readers, as The New York Times’ TimesSelect proved years ago. It doesn’t matter how clever you are; readers don’t like running into walls. That’s going to be especially true as news publishers confront the next challenge of paid digital readership. Properly, they’ve focused on their core print readers, extending them into higher-priced all-access.

That makes sense, but doesn’t provide enough growth, and those readers are averaging almost 60 years old. How are they going to convince younger, not-habituated-to-paying readers to join the paywall revolution?

For the Register, that’s a huge question. It’s down to 124,000 seven-day subscribers, with its official audited reporting pointing to 160,000 daily circulation. On Sunday, that number is 280,000, but it’s unclear how many of those are fully paid. Kushner and Spitz inherited a crazy-quilt of pricing when they took over the Register in June 2012. Their ability to weave a new rational pricing structure will make or break their out-of-the-box strategies.

Their all-in approach is refreshing, and as long as they’re prepared to quickly fix the moving parts that squeak, their model has a chance of success.

Photo of Angel Stadium by socaltimes used under a Creative Commons license.

14:00

Douglas Rushkoff wants you to quit TweetDeck and just read a book (preferably his)

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present-shock-douglas-rushkoff“If the end of the twentieth century can be characterized by futurism,” media theorist Douglas Rushkoff writes in his new book Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now, “the twenty-first can be defined by presentism.” For Rushkoff, we’ve ceased being a “future-focused culture” and instead morphed into one that can’t look past “the now.” The result, he says, is “present shock” — our panicky retort to an always-on, real-time society.

In the book, Rushkoff zeroes in on five principal ways present shock allegedly rears its head: narrative collapse, how storytellers are reacting to no longer having “the time required to tell a linear story”; digiphrenia, the uneasy ways “our media and technologies encourage us to be in more than one place at the same time”; overwinding, the “effort to make the passing moment responsible for the sorts of effects that actually take real time to occur”; fractalnoia, the “attempt to draw connections from one thing to another in the frozen moment, even when such connections are forced or imaginary”; and apocalypto, “the way a seemingly infinite present makes us long for endings, by almost any means necessary.”

I recently spoke with Rushkoff about how he sees present shock affecting the media, why he thinks we should refocus on what people are doing to others through technology, and whether writing books still matters in the Internet age. Here’s our conversation, lightly edited and condensed.

Eric Allen Been: You’ve said that “present shock” is in some sense a lens — a way of looking at the digital world and our condition in it. Could you describe what the current state of journalism looks like to you through that lens?
Douglas Rushkoff: Present shock is basically the human response to living in a world where everything happens at once. Where we can no longer think about the future, because this moment is everything. And it’s to some extent our anxious reactions to the pings of the digital media environment and its static quality.

In regards to legacy journalism, a lot of people are disconnected from it partly because of present shock. When they’re living on digital platforms that emphasize choice over any kind of prescriptive pathways, they tend to lose any sense of value in pretty much anything professional or authoritative. They sort of descent into a very relativistic view of things — where anybody who can blog or get on the net is pretty much as valuable as anybody else, so there’s no authoritative opinion.

It’s become hard for people to justify why to pay attention to one thing instead of another. So you end up with people — and this is young and old — wondering why we have professional journalists at all. There are reasons why I don’t like this situation. Governments and corporations spend hundreds of millions of dollars creating false truths and there’s this society that’s not willing to spend a few hundred bucks so that reporters can find out the real story. To apply some professional skill at following and deconstructing what’s going on.

Been: Yet you’re pretty critical of the media in the book — for instance, writing that “media events tend to matter less for whatever they are purportedly about than for the space they fill.”
Rushkoff: Critical of some forms of it. Current events really only matter to the extent that they can fill this cultural standing wave that’s looking for a particular kind of content to fill it. It means that what’s driving our fascination is more primal or emotional or cultural than it is actual.

Why do we get fascinated with the Casey Anthony trial, as opposed to anything else that happened on the same day? Because it got picked. I’ve thought long and hard about that Deepwater Horizon oil spill video that was sitting in the top of the CNN news screen for so long. It was present and interminable at the same time. That weird kind of frozen, continuous, anxious presence that I’m talking about in Present Shock.

Been: Speaking of CNN, you recently announced in a column on its site that you quit Facebook. Yet you kept your Twitter account and have a pretty active one. As a writer, why does Twitter still have value for you but Facebook no longer does?
Rushkoff: I think that they both have value — it’s just that Facebook actively misrepresents me to other people, to people who choose to “like me” on it and so on. I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to be inviting them to make themselves vulnerable to all these kinds of misrepresentations — things like whether their image will be put in an ad that I may not condone myself. It’s a case in point of what I call in my book “digiphrenia” — namely, an instance of you doing something online you’re completely unaware of. On Twitter, I get the ability to broadcast ideas and links and messages to other people, but with far fewer strings attached. Twitter is much more about spreading and exchanging links — 140 characters are not where the real content lies.
Been: So you do think there are some media outlets that aren’t determined by presentism?
Rushkoff: Yes, I think some are recognizing that they’re better off explaining the news than driving it or trying to keep up with it. To some extent, even the evening newscast is realizing now that it’s not about the exclusive, up-to-the-second thing that no one can digest, but it is about making sense of the day, or making sense of what’s just happened. The ability to which they can anchor the day or a particular moment of the day. Just think about it: 6:30 p.m., you come to the TV, you get to watch someone explain what we already know about. That’s something they really shouldn’t lose touch with the power of. The cycle of it, the time of the day, the sun’s going down, and here we are gathering. It’s so powerful, especially compared to this world where everything’s streaming, the non-stop news crawls, the feeds.

The Wall Street Journal has held onto a lot of what the nightly newscast provides, shockingly even with Murdoch at the helm. There’s this sense that they understand. There’s a periodicity to what they’re doing, so they stay anchored in time. The New York Times, on the other hand, it’s so hard to even comment on them, because there are so many New York Timeses happening simultaneously. It’s schizophrenic. I don’t even know how to consume it anymore.

Been: So, to put into context with your book, you think The Wall Street Journal can still provide a traditional narrative, which you view as being by and large collapsed in our digital world, whereas the Times no longer does?
Rushkoff: Yes! But that’s because the Times hasn’t quite sussed out what’s leading what. There’s too many different ways to consume it. I just feel like they haven’t distinguished between that which is fit to print and that which is part of the stream of whatever they have to keep up with.
Been: This makes me think about how you differentiate in the book between “stored information” and “flowing information.” That is, stored information being something that can be fully consumed, like a physical copy of The New York Times, whereas flowing is something that can’t be, like the @nytimes Twitter feed. You write: “When we attempt to pack the requirements of storage into media or flow, or to reap the benefits of flow from media that locks things into storage, we end up in present shock.” That seems to be a good description of what newspapers are currently grappling with.
Rushkoff: For sure. You just can’t use the newspaper to keep up in society any longer. And you can’t use live blogging to make sense of anything. This is digressing a bit, but I was just talking with my friend about rock concerts. And I said, “Why can’t I just be at the show and experience this thing? Why am I supposed to be recording it? Tweeting about it? Why am I assuming that responsibility? Is it even more fun?” No, we don’t all have to do that. And when you put your phone on your arm and have it vibrate every time something’s coming through, what are you? Are we air traffic controllers? Are we Associated Press emergency journalists? Why do we live at that heightened level of expectation and readiness? We don’t need to be there.
Been: You’re pretty hard on futurists who emerged in the 1990s, saying they “became less about predicting the future than pandering to those who sought to maintain an expired past.” Can you talk about what you mean there?
Rushkoff: When the digital renaissance first started to occur, it looked as if we were going to have a break from corporate capitalism. I then thought people are now going to exchange value directly and create value in decentralized ways. It looked like a true disruption. But the futurists who got in the headlines were ones who didn’t want to disrupt corporate capitalism, but ones who made predictions that would be the salvation for corporate capitalism. And a lot of this is what led to us using digital technology in a way where we’re trying to maximize the efficiency of humans rather than give us some slack.
Been: You write that you’re “much less concerned with whatever it is technology may be doing to people than what people are choosing to do to one another through technology.” Yet some media seems to fixate on the former. I have The Atlantic’s most recent issue in front of me and the cover story is about what tablets are “doing to toddler’s brains.” Why, in your mind, should we refocus on the latter?
Rushkoff: When we blame technology, it makes it seem as if we’re powerless to do anything and as if we’re not responsible. Your email is not doing anything to you. It’s a bunch of people who are doing something to you. They’re sending you all that damned email. Email doesn’t expect you to respond to it — the people who’ve sent you the email expect you to respond to it.

What I’m trying to do is replace the blame where the blame goes. Once we accept responsibility, we’re empowered to do something about it, to change the level of expectation that we have of our employees. There are employees who are supposed to sit there and live tweet and respond to everything for eight hours straight, and you wonder why that person’s fried. That person needs to be given the same kind of breaks that an air traffic controller gets. It’s unreasonable.

But no, it’s almost never the technology. Different technologies are biased to particular things — for example, guns are biased towards killing more than pillows are. But it’s still people — at the gun companies, shareholders of the gun companies, still human beings — that are responsible for the unnecessary proliferation of weapons into our society. The more we focus on the object, the less we can do as humans to change any of this.

Been: You conclude Present Shock by calling books “anachronistic.” But a lot of statistics show that reading books is not declining but rising. And people seem to still really care for longform journalism.
Rushkoff: There’s a fascination with books, the same way there’s a fascination with mid-century furniture that’s made in the United States by craftspeople or designed by Heywood-Wakefield or something, as opposed to just going to Ikea or Walmart and getting something that was made in China.

So there is a reading or a word fetish, but today, longform is not a book. Today, longform is a 1,500-word article. Evan Williams has this online publishing platform called Medium, which is these little essays, but it’s longform compared to tweets or Facebook updates. In reality, if I write an 800-word piece on CNN, it goes up the day I wrote it and I reach a couple million people. With a book, it takes me two years to get it together and it takes a year for them to publish it. I’ve got to work like hell to even get 20,000 people to read the thing — or buy the thing, and half of them actually read it.

It does feel like I’m writing opera when people are buying singles or MP3s. And yeah, opera is on the rise too, people are going, but it doesn’t feel like a central cultural force. Especially books as “books.” There are more books today than ever, but most of them are kind of calling cards from startup consultants more than they are meant as books.

Been: Why write books, then?
Rushkoff: It’s partly how I was raised. But it’s also that there are certain kinds of arguments you can make in them that you can’t make in an article. Most books today aren’t even books, they’re these series of articles. People don’t have the stamina to write a real book anymore. I wanted to do two things. One, I wanted to say something that couldn’t be said in a list of bullet points. And second, it’s kind of a radical act in saying: “I’m giving two years of my human life to put together a single text artifact, and I’m going to request that you seize authority of five or six hours of your life so you can read it.” So a gateway to understanding present shock is to somehow figure out a way that you have five hours. Just in getting people to take that stand — five hours against the torrent of distractions — is itself an act against present shock.

April 02 2013

14:28

Dan Gillmor says journalists are uninformed about who controls the platforms they publish on

Dan Gillmor is writing a book (maybe), and he has a lot of questions. The project, which will probably be self published, will probably be called Permission Taken. Gillmor already owns that domain, so why not, he said in a talk at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society last week. (Also, his agent likes the title.)

Gillmor says he’s been thinking about the project for about a year, and he’s come up with a list of questions that he wants academics and practitioners around the country to help him answer. When Gillmor looks at the technologies, services, and platforms most of us use everyday and take for granted, he asks, in slide lingo,

KVESTIONS

The answers are not always clear.

Gillmor’s goal with the new book is a pedagogical one — he said he considers his students (at Arizona State University) to be his primary audience. He intends for the first few chapters to be a primer for the digitally barely literate on how to protect privacy and shore up digital security in day-to-day life. Some of the later chapters, however, will delve deeper into the nitty gritty.

Some of the ideas that will become a part of the new book Gillmor shared back in October at a symposium on digital ethics hosted by Poynter. Gillmor and other presenters also contributed essays to a book, The New Ethics of Journalism: A Guide for the 21st Century, to be published in July.

Generally, Gillmor doesn’t think anyone is fully aware of how vulnerable they are, technologically speaking. Build a back door into every new technology so the FBI can keep an eye on things, he says, “and I promise you it’s going to be used by criminals. The more you unharden the fences, the more room there is for really bad actors.”

Gillmor is especially concerned about how little he says journalists know about security and the extent to which they retain control over their content once it’s published online. “I ask, why are you pouring your journalism into Facebook where you don’t control it anymore? Why are you putting it on other people’s platforms?” In his slide deck, Gillmor gives the example of a New Yorker cartoon that caused Facebook to temporarily ban the magazine from their site — thereby claiming an unprecedented level of control over what is and isn’t acceptable in publishing.

Facebook is a particular concern of Gillmor’s, and he points to a tweet in his slideshow in which Loic le Meur quotes a friend employed by Facebook as saying “we’re like electricity.” “Is Facebook a utility?” asks Gillmor. “What do we do with utilities? We regulate them. Monopolies need regulation. I’m not a fan of regulation, but we have to think about that.”

Gillmor expressed similar concerns in his October talk about the level of control held by payment processors. Whether because of pressure from the government or an internal decision, Gillmor says, if the processor deems your content unacceptable, “then you won’t get paid.” But what journalists really don’t like, Gillmor told me, is when he asks them why they insist on building iOS apps that cede control of what is and isn’t journalism to Apple. In terms of distribution, they say they have no other option — and even journalists who have considered other options say the risk is worth it.

But some risks are never worth it. “Journalists need to learn more about security right away,” says Gillmor. “They are threatening the lives of their sources if they don’t.” In a recent column about the Harvard cheating scandal, in which the university admitted to scanning portions of employee emails, Gillmor showed exactly what can happen when a news outlet doesn’t know enough about how to protect their sources.

It’s not just employees and others who want to blow whistles who need to be more careful — such as using external accounts, encryption and a lot of other tools to be safer. (Note: I didn’t say “safe”, because absolute safety is exceedingly hard to achieve, if it’s even possible.)

Journalists, too, need better tradecraft when it comes to their dealings with sources. My impression of the typical newsroom’s precautions is that there aren’t many.

For six years as a columnist, Gillmor used a PGP at the bottom of each page — a safe, encrypted method by which sources could contact him. He said in six years, it was used twice — once by someone just checking to see if it worked.

For journalists, Gillmor recommends Tor, “a network of virtual tunnels that allows people and groups to improve their privacy and security on the Internet.” (Committee to Protect Journalists when it comes to educating journalists about the dangers of using certain technologies.

But ultimately, Gillmor says, “It’s a crucial issue — and one that has not gotten enough attention inside the craft.” These issues fall very low on the priority list for an industry that Gillmor described as being in a constant state of desperation. But the dangers are real, Gillmor says, and with his new project, he hopes to find ways of bringing the convenience of private platforms to services that are both free and secure.

For now, though, “increasingly, journalists who really are appropriately paranoid in the right situations are learning not to use technology,” says Gillmor.

If you have a better idea, Gillmor is taking questions — and hopefully, answers.

Photo by f1uffster (Jeanie) used under a Creative Commons license.

March 29 2013

13:30

August 29 2012

18:14

PBS NewsHour’s viewers are translating its videos into 52 languages (and counting)

Ever try watching Sesame Street in Turkish, or Hindi? Big Bird has made his way to 150 countries, and has been translated into more than 50 languages.

Now, PBS NewsHour is working to follow the bird and push some of its newsier content to global audiences. Partnering with the translation platform Amara, the show is crowdsourcing an effort to add subtitles to politics-themed videos, including moments from the U.S. presidential campaigns and short man-on-the-street interviews with American voters.

So, for example, now you can watch a video of President Barack Obama talking about a new immigration policy with subtitles in Vietnamese; or the Ukrainian version of Mitt Romney announcing Paul Ryan as his running mate. (Amara, formerly known as Universal Subtitles, is also involved in projects to crowdsource captioning for Netflix films and TED talks.) Since January, PBS NewsHour has built up a community of hundreds of dedicated volunteer translators across the world, and videos have been translated into 52 languages.

Because translations are done at the whim of volunteers, the outcome is unpredictable for any given video. As of this writing, for example, Ann Romney’s speech at the Republican National Convention was available in English, French, and…Georgian, a language that has millions of speakers but isn’t usually the first that comes up among translation projects in the United States.

Generally, Obama gets more attention from translators than Romney. (It’s understandable that a sitting president would draw more attention than his as-yet-unelected rival.) Some languages are more popular than others. One volunteer in Indonesia is particularly active, which means that many videos have Indonesian subtitles.

“The most frequent languages besides English are Spanish, French, Indonesian, Chinese, and Korean,” Joshua Barajas, a production assistant at PBS NewsHour who handles communications with the volunteer translators, told me. Arabic and Turkish aren’t too far behind.

And what about quality control, a question that comes up in just about any crowdsourced project? It can be particularly difficult — if not downright impossible — to keep tabs on volunteers who are submitting work in a language you don’t understand.

“There has been one incident,” involving a captioner who inserted some foul language, Barajas said. “One troll. We quickly got rid of it. For the most part, it’s been pretty polite.”

And that’s because the volunteers who are involved are really, really involved. If they see something that’s not right — more often a technological bug or minor translation error than inappropriate conduct — they’re quick to notify the team at PBS, Barajas said.

Running parallel to these videos is a translation effort for a series called Listen to Me. PBS NewsHour has been collecting short interviews with people from around the country based on three questions: What’s the most important issue to you during this election? Are you hopeful about the future? Do you think the political system is broken? (For now, PBS affiliates have been shooting and submitting footage, but NewsHour plans to let people submit their own videos, too.)

There have been a few kinks to work out on the production side. A syncing issue with subtitles has since been resolved. Quite a few translations get started but not finished. (The video of Romney introducing Ryan lists 17 languages, but only six are complete; Bengali, Korean, Portuguese, Swahili, and Turkish are all less than 10 percent done.) And PBS NewsHour wants to build a more reliable language mix; they hope to partner with language classes at universities to achieve this.

But the biggest challenge is impact: how to measure it, yes, but mostly how to make a difference in the first place.

The core idea behind the translation project is that “everyone should have access to the political conversation regardless of the language they speak or their ability to hear,” Barajas said. But how do you let people know that these translations are available to them?

This is an issue that all newsrooms confront: What good is a great story — in any language — if you don’t have an audience ready to consume it? But most newsrooms aren’t trying to reach a divided global audience in dozens of languages.

“As of right now, we’re limited in gauging the translations’ reach,” Barajas said in a follow-up email. “We look at YouTube views and the growth of the Amara community for some insight, but these are limiting benchmarks of course.”

Still, NewsHour deserves credit for taking on a translation project of this scope. (Even a newspaper that simply directs its readers to Google Translate is going farther than most English language news outlets in the United States.) Ultimately, it appears what PBS NewsHour is really doing is community building.

“People are just excited because they feel like they want to be a part of something, and they feel like they’re contributing,” Barajas said. “They’re able to catch the nuances that otherwise would have been, well, lost in translation.”

August 23 2012

15:46

The newsonomics of a New York Times + CNN combination

Mark Thompson faces a defining and daunting challenge: Lead The New York Times on that thin tightrope to a new stability, one tethered to the digital world. We’ve seen lots of good ideas already freely offered to the incoming NYT CEO. Let me offer a new one.

Let’s imagine what a New York Times/CNN combination would look like — and what it could do for both companies. Combination? Yes, a purposely squishy word. I’m not talking about a merger of the companies. I’m thinking about what each company offers the other strategically, at this point in media history, and how each could see its business advanced. We’ll leave the messy details of corporate development, of partnership, of joint venture, for a later day.

So why put these two entities closer together? Two big reasons provide some logic.

First, the marketplace is pushing companies toward convergence. The worlds of completely separate TV (video), newspapers/magazines (text), and radio (audio) have simply been overwhelmed by the reality of consumption devices that bring all three together for us — the iPad being the current crown of creation. But the legacy roots of each medium has made it really tough to either (re-)build truly multi-platform companies or forge newspaper/TV alliances (Tampa, Chicago, etc.) that work. Logic compels greater multi-platform creation; inevitably that will mean new combinations of legacy companies, even as legacy companies try to remake themselves internally.

Second, both CNN and The New York Times fill in numerous of the other’s weaknesses. At this digital moment when “mobile” and the tablet are tossing old habits up in the air and forcing consumers to re-form new ones, it’s a great time for both the Times and CNN to double down on their native advantages, and make their products no-brainer top-three places to go in the news everywhere-and-anywhere world.

For CNN, a partnership could be part of a strategy to reclaim its mojo after seeing TV ratings drop to 21-year lows. For the Times, having turned small corners in the last year, it’s a way to increase its sense of momentum, separating itself from the pack of other top news sources.

The timing is near-perfect. Mark Thompson, after all, comes to the Times as a broadcaster. With a 33-year TV career, he knows TV, and he knows the Times is just beginning to escape its print roots. Scaling the wall of video/TV, where huge revenues still exist, is one of his daunting challenges. He is one of the few people who could have taken the job who brings both a broadcast background and one of airtight news credibility, given the BBC’s standards. He is the perfect person to imagine a strong video/TV presence for the next-gen Times. The Times is looking currently at what a major investment in video would look like; how does it climb the incremental mountain with the next generations of TimesCasts?

CNN is searching for recently resigned president Jim Walton’s successor. While the 32-year-old network’s staff debates the realities and fantasies, and CNN-directed truths, of Aaron Sorkin’s “The Newsroom,” the once top-of-the-heap TV news source faces a fundamental identity crisis and big strategic moment. It has wavered along hard/soft news lines and in programming choices, spun into a dither by Fox News’ Roger Ailes and MSNBC’s Phil Griffin.

Now the next CNN president must renew brand purpose and internal pride. Focus on news — especially adding to its forte of who, what, and where the why and how aspects of news as it has been edging into (The Freedom Project, an award-winning series on human trafficking, and Saving Aesha, for example) — or play with more entertainment/personality positioning? Worry about the Foxes and the MSNBCs, or grab the moment of the greatest potential global news reach technology and literacy has ever made possible?

There are smaller plays for both, to be sure. CNN’s been around the block with CBS News, talking news merger, but those talks foundered on issues of control and culture. The Times has tried all manner of tests, from longer-standing ones with Google to newer ones with Flipboard.

What both need is a game changer: a move that will simultaneously do three things:

  • Rocket it ahead of the news competition, as consumers decide those handful of must-go-to news sources they’ll visit each day, across their many screens.
  • Add a large new dimension of content to its current brand. While both the Times and CNN have lots of content, both — as is the case of all news companies — can use more to satisfy insatiable digital reading appetites.
  • Create a strong, new revenue line, as both see traditional lines weakened by market change.

Before I get to how a game-changer may work, let’s try this as a simplified chart to compare the two companies:

The New York Times CNN Brand Ascendant; mobile apps have now separated NYT from other “newspapers”; digital circulation has newly marked NYT as innovator Ubiquitous in U.S. and worldwide; its image — what it stands for — is unclear Top leadership CEO Mark Thompson begins in November Search on for replacement for President Jim Walton Audience Top-five web site; newspaper circulation flat Top-three web site; TV ratings at 21-year low Revenue Reader revenue, newly revived and growing, with all-access digital circulation programs; online advertising under pricing pressure, and by ad marketplace change; print advertising in 5-10 percent annual decline. Net loss of $39.7 million (2011) Cable/satellite fees, increasingly threatened by low ratings and the potential unbundling of forced consumer packages; advertising, on air and online, both under pricing pressure by ad marketplace change. Profit of $600 million (est. 2012) Global Times moving that way, with ~10 percent of paying digital-only customers outside U.S.; new China site By definition, global and recognized globally. Great worldwide distribution and name recognition TV culture/experience Experimenting, unevenly, with “video” It’s a TV company Text culture/experience It’s a newspaper company Experimenting, unevenly, with “text” Content Deep, authoritative, agenda-setting; fairly good breadth, but the deep web is exposing its areas of weakness Immediate, wide, truly global, largely authoritative; good breadth, and worldwide, though subpar to AP Access to TV platforms Minimal Ubiquitous Revenue sources Readers, advertisers Cable/satellite cos., advertisers Aggregator chops Little developed; a powerful potential for adding breadth to its brand Little developed, but it bought top-three tablet aggregator Zite Community-generated content Fledgling efforts have gone awry CNN’s iReport is a prototype for user-generated reporting; if those CNN/Mashable talks work their way to completion, CNN would have a leg up on social media journalism Wire Longstanding NYT wire and syndicate are mature Newer CNN wire fighting for place in market

There’s clearly a complementarity here that makes sense — on paper. How might it work in reality?

It’s easiest to see how the two might exploit two green fields, areas so new neither has as much ego or business invested.

If we look at the coming five screens of access, it is the emerging two — connected TV and connected car — that are most virgin, while laptop/desktop, smartphone and tablet are already deeply competitive. Both connected TV and connected car offer many new product opportunities and access to new revenue. A partnership could focus on those two, as the least threatening way to combine smarts and assets.

More immediately, we could see a new focus on tablet and smartphone products. For starters:

  • Next-generation news video products for the tablet: The Wall Street Journal has burst out of its word box this year with a major emphasis on video. It has just begun to leverage its deep journalistic expertise, though the presentation is still more talking head than “TV.” Combining the beat expertise of New York Times journalists with CNN TV smarts — and its own formidable behind-the-scenes journalistic workforce — offers breakout potential for tablet video news. CNN’s journalist workforce numbers is a hard number to compare to the Times’ 1,150 journalists; how do you count those who provide the technology to present the journalism? Yet CNN’s journalists often get short shrift in the press, which favors endless Wolf Blitzer and Anderson Cooper stories. Here’s one area where print is superior: In the breadth of The New York Times’ Sunday edition, for instance, you can see the great stretch of its journalistic talent. With the flat screen of the TV or the computer or tablet, you can’t see the rich CNN reporting behind its facade.
  • The leading global news product: Everyone from Bloomberg to the FT and BBC and from the Journal to the Times and the Guardian, is now moving on the vast global opportunity (English-speaking and otherwise). No longer must the Brits be satisfied with their one percent of the world market, or Americans with five percent. Here both CNN and the Times are among the top contenders. With 32 journalists outside the U.S. and 24 foreign bureaus, the Times has maintained a global presence, when most of its print brethren have severely cut back. CNN’s 33 foreign bureaus and vast carriage across the world lay continued claim to its birthright. If you are overseas and watch CNN International, it’s a night-and-day different product than CNN U.S.; adding the Times to the mix would lengthen its international lead.
  • Reinventing the “wire”: CNN’s wire, launched in 2009, marked its emergence from AP. The goal: compete with AP, leveraging its substantial journalistic investment with syndication, selling the same content to many, many others. That wire, like many competitors to AP and Reuters, has found tough going against the incumbents. Meanwhile, The New York Times’ wire and syndicate face the same struggles of most in that niche wire business: maturity at best, holding on to as much of the old, dwindling print world as they can. A combined “wire,” focusing on those next-generation syndicatable digital/mobile products, could harvest joint assets well.

Then, there’s the web in general and TV, the former where both engage in head-to-head combat and the latter in which CNN, though struggling, is the incumbent and NYT the wannabe. The hurdles to cooperation, there, are highest, though the payoff may be the greatest.

For CNN, the questions would be: How could TV people harness the added depth of The New York Times’ report and intelligence? How could it marry its video and text in new state-of-the-art ways?

While CNN is now much more profitable than the Times, the fragmentation and disruption of TV business models is happening quickly (see “The newsonomics of breakthrough digital TV, from Aereo to Dyle and MundoFox to Google Fiber TV”). A Times partnership could help CNN find ways to create new news and information products that consumers will pay for, as the Times has now nimbly done, with its digital circulation initiative.

For The New York Times, the questions would be: How could text-based journalists move into the next generation of multimedia storytelling, bringing over their craft and standards, but learning new skills? How could video be graft onto the Times DNA, make the Times the company it needs to be in the next age?

How could the Times tap into the revenue stream of TV access, either through programming that cable and satellite companies would pay then for, as they pay Time Warner/CNN? It isn’t as if Times reporters haven’t been well-used on broadcast. NPR does a masterful job of that, but the Times gets no revenue out of the relationship. That’s the key: wringing TV money out of a deal.

For both, the tasty intangible: Would a combination of two of the best brands in news world reinforce and heighten each side’s? Of course, there are lots of reasons why it wouldn’t, couldn’t or shouldn’t work. Yet, it if did, it would give real meaning to convergence — finally — as the old demarcations of print and TV fast erode.

It’s easy to tick off the numerous factors that make it difficult: control, valuation and culture top the list. It’s at least, though, a whiteboard exercise that allocates strengths and deficits, opportunities and challenges over a five-year time span. That’s the level of thinking, and timespan, that Mark Thompson will need to bring to the Times, as will CNN’s new chief when she or he arrives in Atlanta.

August 13 2012

14:02

August 02 2012

17:00

You can thank Ralph Lauren for free access to The New York Times’ iPad app (well, some of it)

Good news for Olympics fans and New York Times readers: Much of the Times’ iPad app will be free to access for almost two weeks. For the second year in a row, Ralph Lauren is doing an ad takeover of the app. Just like last time, the free access it provides will be to some of the sections you might imagine the makers of Polo to be interested in: Sports, Fashion, Travel, Home & Garden, and T Magazine. The sponsorship is tied to the Olympics and will feature ads with U.S. Olympians, which will partner well with the Times’ special Olympics section. (Sorry, readers of in-depth national, international, or political news — that’ll still cost you.)

Along with some extra revenue, the deal gives the Times a new way to let readers sample their wares in the hopes of upselling them to a digital subscription. On the web, that sampling takes the form of the 10 free articles readers are allowed each month; in the Times’ iPhone and iPad apps, readers only get to sample an editor-selected group of top stories, with the rest locked behind the paywall. For iPad users, the Ralph Lauren deal gives them a new taste of some of the softer sections they might find appealing.

“It’s an opportunity for us to open up additional sections of content for people who have the app,” said Todd Haskell, group advertising director for the Times. According to a spokeswoman, the Times iPad app, which ranks in the top 5 free iPad apps for news, has seen more than 5 million downloads. The Times’ digital subscribers total only about one-tenth of that number, and many of those don’t have access to the iPad app, which costs more. That suggests there are plenty of people left to upsell.

The trade off for free access, in this case, is a selection of Ralph Lauren ads seeded throughout the app, on section fronts, in between article pages, and whenever the app is opened. But the ads in this case will be more sophisticated than a static image: The package includes video, features on Olympic athletes, and an e-commerce option should you find yourself interested in a $145 Team USA polo (er, Polo).

“When someone is in engaged in our Olympic content, they’ll be able to see our slideshow of the opening ceremonies and go into the Ralph Lauren environment in the app and purchase some of the apparel worn by athletes in the opening ceremonies,” Haskell said. “I think that’s a great advertising experience, I think that’s a great reading experience.”

Haskell said the results of the first ad sponsorship with Ralph Lauren last fall received good feedback from readers. “What we have seen is ads that do have immersive content, whether it’s a gaming element or additional slideshows or videos, they perform very well,” he said.

What the Times wants people to do is get to know the iPad app a little better by spending lots of time with it. The feature-y content in many of the newly free sections fits in well with the iPad’s lean-back environment. And by tying in the Olympics, the Times can also try to get in on some second-screen action as people watch events taking place in London.

The Times produces a lot of work on a daily basis and that leaves lots of entry points for new readers. Haskell said part of the idea behind the promotion is to expose people to parts of the Times they may be less familiar with. “When someone has the opportunity to read more, it emphasizes the fact we produce an enormous amount of content they may be interested in and might be worth their while to access all the time,” he said.

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