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April 26 2012

13:59

Gawker: We want to elevate the discourse about frogs who sit like humans [CHART]

Most news organizations would kill for Gawker’s commenters, but Nick Denton is messing with them again.

Denton describes the failure of comments like an economist. It’s a tragedy of the commons, he told Anil Dash at SXSW, or rather, “a tragedy of the comments.”

The idea that without fences, without any delineated rights and responsibilities, that a discussion area gets overtaken. And the larger the sites, the more it will get overtaken, overused. No one really feels ownership, particularly as you get lots of participants and the quality of the environment deteriorates to the point at which it becomes a complete wasteland.

Gawker Media’s smallest site attracts more than 2 million unique visitors a month. It’s a problem of scale. You can switch to Facebook Comments or outsource moderation or encourage journalists to jump into the threads, but at the end of the day Gawker (and plenty of larger newspapers) just can’t scale.

New data we got from Gawker CTO Tom Plunkett demonstrates that scale, though you might be surprised to see how much smaller it has gotten. Comments, like traffic, dropped dramatically with Gawker’s controversial two-pane redesign in early 2011. Plunkett said 40 percent of that drop was in Gawker’s forums, which were de-emphasized in the new design.

Comment volume for all Gawker sites, 2005 to present

So far in April, Gawker’s network of eight sites has attracted 1 million comments on 7,500 posts from 130,000 active commenters. Their database contains almost 50 million comments.

The company has reinvented its commenting system again and again, never satisfied. The latest approach — a proprietary system they’re calling Powwow — was just rolled out this morning on Gawker.com. Gone are the elite cliques who ruled the threads with star badges; now every individual has a role to play.

Commenters are supposed to own their own threads. A new inbox focuses attention on all replies to a user’s comments, and the original commenter must explicitly approve a reply to allow it into the conversation. Ignored or rejected replies are cast away to their own islands, split off into new threads.

And now, instead of depending on humans to promote comments to “Featured,” a computer will do it. Powwow’s secret algorithm parses comment text for length and quality and automatically tries to push the good stuff to the front, the part most everyone sees. (Human editors can intervene, too.) A new URL structure also makes it easier for individual comments or subthreads to be shared on social networks.

Also new: Commenters can sign in with temporary and anonymous Burner accounts, a reference to the throwaway cellphones drug dealers use (greetings, fans of “The Wire”). To create a Burner account, select a user name and system generates a long password — once. Lose the password, lose the account; it can’t be recovered because it doesn’t exist on Gawker’s servers. Burner accounts are Gawker’s way of saying it takes security seriously, after hackers compromised the company’s database of user names in passwords in December 2010 and published the list.

Denton believes strongly that anonymous comments add to, not detract from, online conversations, but there is no system in existence that lets those comments rise to the top. That’s where the Powwow algorithm comes in. Said Denton to Dash: “The most interesting comments, they don’t come from people with Klout scores, they don’t come from people who actually have a long history of commenting on our sites or any sites. Often it’s a first-timer. Often it’s anonymous. Sometimes they’re moved, they’re so outraged by what you just wrote, that they want to set the record straight.”

Gawker editor A.J. Daulerio warned of the change last week and announced, to much outrage, that Gawker would disable comments sitewide during the upgrade.

Denton himself got involved. Needless to say, the comment thread inevitably devolved into a battle over the merits of Gawker itself, an ironic caricature of a Gawker comment thread. Half of people think Gawker is diluting its high-quality material with Chinese goats; the other half think Gawker should stick to Chinese goats and stop trying to do real journalism. Gawker’s best days are always behind it, if you believe the commenters, and Richard Lawson (a former commenter turned writer) should always be re-hired at once.

Daulerio told me he wants comments to be seen as DVD extras, footnotes, an important part of the work itself. He wants the conversations to be about the stories, not about what people hate about Gawker. (“It’s our party; we get to decide who comes,” Denton once said.)

“The hope is over time…people will soon realize, yeah, it’s going to take a little bit more than just seniority in order to have comments be part of the featured discussion,” he said.

“It’s going to take on different forms each post, obviously. It’s going to be tough to really add some high-brow commentary to a video of a frog sitting on a stoop. Let’s be realistic here,” Daulerio said.

For his part, Daulerio has described Gawker comments as “a tar pit of hell.” I asked him if the last several days’ peace and quiet made him secretly want to turn comments off forever. He said no. “In some ways, of course, it’s freeing,” he said. Daulerio has not really read the comments for a long time, he admits, because he said he would just get consumed by flame wars.

“I always felt like that wasn’t the best use of my time. I think in this case it’s obviously going to become more and a part of my day for it to actually work. So I have to change my attitude a little bit.”

Daulerio’s own experience at Deadspin, the Gawker Media site he used to edit, perfectly sums up the “tragedy of the commons” conundrum:

They absolutely built up a strong army of readers who absolutely added to those posts. They were hilarious. And they were very, very loyal. I think they got the tone of the site…There was an outgrowth of another bunch of people who were just trying to mimic these people. The more and more it grew, it became a lot more watered down. It also became, it’s almost like they became stockholders of the company. There was this sense of entitlement that these commenters had. It became a little bit strange to come in — I mean, I’m basically coming into this new situation at Deadspin and I have these people saying, Oh, you’re doing it wrong. Oh, this is not how it used to be. Oh, people aren’t going to like this. Blah, blah, blah. The handful or the 50 people that were used to having Deadspin their way were very upset.

At Gawker, the editorial conversation about how to fix comments is one in the same with the technical conversation. Maybe the only way to do commenting right is to build it yourself. “[Denton is] trying to change the culture of comments not just on Gawker but to have it kind of impact the way other editorial organizations handle their online comments,” Delaurio told me. Powwow will be deployed to the other Gawker sites after some public tire-kicking; the company is pondering whether to make the tech available to other organizations.

January 11 2012

14:45

Responsive design from another angle: Gizmodo goes widescreen

Gizmodo, the popular gadget site and pageview king of Gawker Media, debuted a new look last night that they’re calling HD view, and it’s big. Not big in the grand scheme of things — big in the number of pixels it takes up. Whereas most websites top out at around 1000 pixels in width, Gizmodo HD stretches like Plastic Man, with photos and videos stretching wider and wider as the browser window does too. On my 1900-pixel-wide monitor, pages like this one (photo-dominant) and this one (video-dominant) both resize all the way to blowout width. Call it the doublewide approach.

(The screenshot above is obviously less than full size; to see its full, 1920-by-1200-pixel glory, click here.)

This is the flip side of responsive design, the web-design idea that BostonGlobe.com’s recent launch brought to the attention of lots of news execs. In the case of the Globe (and in most other responsive efforts), the primary appeal is the ability to get small — to build a website that can look good both on your laptop and on your smartphone without having to build a separate mobile site. (The Globe’s website expands up to 1230 pixels, but not beyond that.) But responsive design works in the other direction too, and Gizmodo’s new look is an attempt to play with that — to give more space to the big photos and big videos that Gawker Media’s been trying to push over the past year.

At this point, HD view is very much a beta (it won’t work in all browsers, for instance, and there’s no place for comments), and seems more like a parlor trick than a feature. But why might a news organization be interested in a doublewide view? What might be the use cases for an HD view?

  • There’s still a class of user who (a) uses a desktop computer, where monitor sizes once outlandish (24-inch, 27-inch, 30-inch) are becoming more affordable and common, and (b), particularly on Windows, runs browser windows full screen. Those folks are used to seeing a bunch of whitespace to the left and right of their favorite websites, and this could fill them up and build something more immersive. With Gawker Media making bigger investments in video and art, it makes sense to play those as big as the browser will allow.
  • A theme running throughout Gawker’s controversial redesign last year was that it viewed television as both an important competitor and a production-value bar that Gawker Media felt it was approaching. “[W]e increasingly have the scale and production values of — say — cable television,” Nick Denton told us at the time: “[W]e’ll compete for audiences with cable groups such as NBC Universal.” Well, Gizmodo HD fits perfectly into a world where screens are shifting and the television might move from the-place-where-you-watch-Mad-Men to, simply, the biggest and best content-agnostic screen in the house. To be fair, previous attempts to bring the web to big-screen television haven’t borne much fruit. But with everyone expecting an new TV push from Apple in 2012 — and with companies like The Wall Street Journal moving from web video to TV sets — it makes sense for a big online brand like Gawker Media to prepare for that eventuality.
  • Advertisers are always looking for new ways to draw attention, having soured at least a bit on the efficacy of the banner ads. Gawker’s long been willing to push the boundaries with things like sponsored posts and site takeovers. Imagine the greater impact that a site takeover could have when there’s twice as much space to take over?

It’ll probably be a while before the doublewide becomes much more than a novelty, but it’s worth thinking about how a news site might look different if, instead of thinking small (that is, mobile), it thought big.

March 10 2011

17:00

“Journalists have lost control of the story”: Twitter, tech bubbles, and the nostalgia of the technology press

Editor’s Note: I’m very happy to welcome Tim Carmody — who you may know from Snarkmarket, kottke.org, Wired.com, Twitter, or elsewhere — as a contributor to the Lab. Here he looks at how the increasing speed of media opens us to manipulation — and false nostalgia.

There’s nothing new about speculation bubbles, especially in the technology industry. It’s nearly impossible to be certain which new ideas or products will be able to do what they’re supposed to be able to — let alone whether they’ll be able to do so at cost or scale, if they’ll be adopted by the market, or if a competitor will get there first and better. And when everything’s happening quickly and everything seems exciting, it’s nearly impossible to tell a bubble from a real boom.

The only sure strategy for an investor or inventor is to get in early, push the company as hard as you can to attract attention and investment, and try to sell high, neither too late or too soon. When the economics of money and attention move too far past the economics of the underlying value, you get a bubble. When the money and attention slow, then stop, then rush in the opposite direction, the bubble bursts. The boom is over, if it ever existed at all.

There’s also nothing new about the press’s role in helping to inflate bubbles, worrying over them, and watching them burst. What is new, according to Federated Media’s John Battelle and Thomson Reuters’ Connie Loizos, is how the accelerated news cycle of blogs, Twitter, and other digital media forces the technology press to work at the same speed as the investors they cover — with the same worries about getting in early and beating competitors trumping the real value of the product. In this case, though, the product is their own journalism.

“For several years now,” writes Loizos, “savvy investors have been effectively gaming Twitter and mastering the ability to trumpet their investments in 140-word sound bites.” The credibility (in both senses) of the technology press, when mixed with Twitter’s easy ability to quickly pass on information without comment, gives those trumpet bursts an amplifier. “Journalists have lost control of the story. In rushing to retweet the latest auction results from SharesPost, we’re not thinking about what we’re writing or questioning what we’ve been told.”

Loizos elaborated on her argument in an email. “Thanks to Twitter and, to a lesser extent, other social media like Quora, information about startups and financings has become much more porous,” spreading good and bad information equally quickly, and in volume. “The first story out wins. For example, that first ‘scoop’ is what gets the most real estate by powerful aggregators like Techmeme, while every other story gets scuttled underneath it.” It also changes the relationship between a reporter’s sources and her audience. “[Now] we’re not just competing against one another as journalists but also against savvy investors and entrepreneurs who know they can reach just as broad an audience by delivering their news themselves via Twitter and their blogs.”

Loizos is a veteran of the last tech valuation boom and bust, reporting for the first-generation tech magazine The Industry Standard, founded by Battelle. Battelle’s Federated Media has since gone on to partner with a who’s who of current tech culture and business sites, from Boing Boing and TechCrunch to Business Insider and GigaOm. He sees a problem too, possibly bigger than VCs driving their investments.

The real bubble, or at least the more troubling one, is the “Internet interest bubble.” Here the press is not peripheral but central to the story.

In the new media landscape, “we have migrated to a more free-wheeling discourse driven by any number of interested parties,” Battelle writes. In addition to investors, we see “bankers trying to influence any number of outcomes, and sources within all manners of companies pushing their own agenda on Twitter, Quora, or in private conversations with bloggers and other media outlets…The tweets, conference utterances, and blog posts of these sources are instantly turned into ‘news stories’ by the post-cambrian publishing explosion of sites covering the narrative that was once the province of first-generation Internet magazines” like Battelle’s Standard.

Churnalism, in other words, is a much bigger problem than just press releases and wire stories. It’s everywhere — and creating an echo chamber unprecedented in its size and reach.

“Millions upon millions of people visit these tech news sites, because the narrative they chronicle is more important than it’s ever been,” Battelle writes. “Our industry impacts a huge swatch of society and culture, and increasingly is understood to be the core driver of pretty much all of business today.” And apart from contributing to a tech bubble, Battelle and Loizos think that the echo chamber crowds out better analysis and better stories in our news sources:

But where’s the bigger picture? Where’s the hold-on-a-minute-let’s-think-this-through-and make-a-few-phone-calls-and-see-how-it-develops approach? Where’s the conceptual scoop? The second-day (or even second week) analysis?

“There are stories about healthcare startups that are transforming lives that no one is reading,” Loizos told me. “I think behind-the-scenes profiles of employees who truly make Valley companies valuable are fascinating, but people don’t make time to write them because there’s still this unquenchable thirst for the same stories being written again and again: about the hottest new startup, the hottest new venture capital firm, the hottest new valuation, the hottest new application.” There’s also the comfort of the familiar: “in the tech universe, people could read about Twitter and Facebook” — or Apple and Google, etc. — “all day long and journalists — saddled with driving eyeballs — are giving them what they want.”

“It’s an exciting time, but it’s also pretty screwed up,” she adds.

Both Loizos and Battelle show some nostalgia for the tech coverage produced by magazines like the Standard in the 1990s — partly for the quality of the reporting or at least the relative sanity of print’s slower pace. But Owen Youngman, Knight Professor of Digital Media Strategy at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, is skeptical that things were any better a decade ago.

“In my memory,” Youngman told Loizos, “a lot of glossy magazines back then were by and for the same people that are running up valuations today, and they could make even the wispiest of ideas seemed substantial.” In an email, he added that “the nostalgia is more about the former number of high-gloss, high-profile, high-paying outlets for tech journalism, not necessarily for the journalism itself.”

In a recent article for The Atlantic, James Fallows voices a similar skepticism about our ability to accurately measure journalism’s present against its past.

“When I recently talked to people in the news business, historians, political scientists, and others about the current predicament of the news, every previous era looks innocent,” Fallows writes. Flux in journalism isn’t the exception, but the rule; and what seem to us like venerable staples like Time, Nightline, or NPR are both younger and were more radical than we typically remember. Ultimately, even that is the wrong question: “While it’s interesting and even useful to know whether today’s journalism marks a descent from past standards, what matters more is how it suits today’s needs.”

At the same time, even VCs themselves are balking at the speed of the market and how social media are disrupting their own practices. AngelList plays a similar role for investors and entrepreneurs that TechMeme plays for journalists and readers, using aggregation, filtering, and social media to manage the flow of information and create new opportunities for both. In “Why I Deleted My AngelList Account,” influential VC Bryce Roberts detailed how this approach conflicted with his own investment strategy and style:

At the earliest stages, it’s nearly impossible to pick the next Google so throw a lot of darts in the dark and hope you hit it. That high velocity, light touch style is certainly a viable approach to investing. It’s just not my style.

I tend towards a more concentrated approach to seed investing where we make fewer, larger, investments and take an active role in working with the companies we fund. Frankly, I just don’t buy the notion that making an investment is akin to throwing a dart in the dark. Worse, I think it’s a dangerous idea to promote…

Real or perceived, organic or manufactured, AngelList is in the business of generating heat. As I’ve said here and elsewhere, I tend to be interested in ideas and companies that most investors aren’t, so heat is generally a false signal for me.

Johnson’s post quickly drew a sharp response from Internet entrepreneur/provocateur Jason Calacanis. “Let’s be honest and just say what’s happening here: you’re pissed that you now have hundreds of angels swarming on deals that you used to be able to snap up at half the price…There are now *hundreds* of qualified and unqualified angels who are driven by sport and not return! They are betting with their own money — not some LP’s” — limited partners who invest in a venture capitalist’s aggregated fund rather than make individual investments — “and [they're] more excited by private companies than 4% muni bonds.”

The language is very different, but it’s not dissimilar to Youngman’s critique of journalistic nostalgia — or for that matter, Nick Denton’s defense of Gawker’s approach to web journalism to Fallows. People want what they want — and what they want is low-opportunity-cost fun. Nobody wants “to eat their vegetables,” to use Denton’s phrase for high-substance, high-prestige investigative journalism. These outlets need the support of institutions or nonprofits, not advertising and eyeballs alone.

It’s clear that both technology companies and technology journalism are on the cusp of something. Whether it’s a bubble or a boom, we can’t know. In the meantime, we have all of the problems of indeterminacy: practices and standards held over from an earlier period jostling against emerging conventions which offer something new.

Blogs and social media offer both entrepreneurs and journalists new modes of engagement with each other and a different kind of conversation with their readers. At the same time, the demands of traditional news formats can actually push us into stories that privilege new forms of manipulation. Reporters seeking a news peg for an analysis-driven story about a popular company can find quotes from blogs, Twitter, or Quora as easily as they can from a company’s press release, putting the same texts and voices into circulation.

Finally, news outlets have to recognize that a big part of their readership is driven by popular speculation, particularly if their coverage focuses on hot startups, big IPOs, and new deals. If a valuation bubble bursts, those eyeballs vanish too. Investing in deep analysis, conceptual scoops, alternative content, experimental storytelling — and the reporters who can produce those stories — is a terrific hedge against that dangerous future.

February 07 2011

15:00

“It just feels inevitable”: Nick Denton on Gawker Media sites’ long-in-the-works new layout

This morning, “the biggest event in Gawker Media history” took place: The nine sites of the group officially launched their redesigns. Go to gawker.com — or jezebel.com or deadspin.com or lifehacker.com or the five other sites that make up Gawker Media at the moment — and you’ll see the new page layout that’s been on display in beta-dot form for the past couple of months, brought to life on the properties’ home URLs.

The new look, overall, is a move beyond the blog — a move most aptly described, in a November Lifehacker post, by Nick Denton himself. And, in true blog style, the post-blogization of Gawker is something that’s been described and discussed on blogs long before today’s official drop date. The utter unsurprisingness of Gawker’s new look is probably a good thing for a web property, given how indignantly resistant to design change we web users tend to be.

“It just feels inevitable,” Denton says. “We have a crying need to showcase both exclusives and visual posts. The visual posts are now at least half of our top-performing stories. And audience growth on sites like Deadspin and Gawker has been driven by our most sensational scoops.”

The biggest change to note is the two-panel layout, which makes for a front page that, as Gawker editor Remy Stern put it this morning, is “dominated by one big story (or a roundup of several different stories), and a list of headlines appear in a column down the right side of the page.”

For that, “the antecedents are software products, however, rather than web sites,” Denton told me over Gchat. “We’ve definitely been influenced by two-pane email and news reading apps.” One of the keys to the redesign is the new emphasis on visuals — most strikingly embodied in the huge slot As Denton noted in his Lifehacker post, “This visual slot will be 640×360 pixels in size — that’s 64 percent larger than in the current design — and be in the most prominent location on every page, above even the headline itself. Viewers will be able to toggle to a high-definition 960×540 version — a full 3.7 times larger than the current video standard.” Gizmodo, notably, has been investing in bigger and better visuals as a way to make stories stand out.

The redesign is a kind of convergence in action: blog, magazine, and television, all collapsing into each other.  Though “outside observers will note that this layout represents some convergence of blog, magazine and television,” Denton notes — yup — and though “that’s true in the abstract but it’s more of a description than an argument” — fair enough — when it comes to marketing, the redesign is a kind of argument. A big one.

Online, increasingly, the ad-sales choice boils down to two general strategies: build ad revenues directly, or build audience (which in turn accrues to revenue). The new layout is a double-down on the latter. With the design’s increased emphasis on engagement/the lean-back experience/etc., Gawker properties will ostensibly beef up their time-on-site stats while — for the short term, at least — taking a cut on pageviews as readers engage with and lean back into their content. It’s an app-like approach being realized, intriguingly, on the open web. And, in it, Gawker’s taking a TV-like approach to ad sales: one that’s more about nebulous mass consumption — zeitgeist, if you will — than about simple CPMs. Essentially, as Salmon noted: Gawker is selling time, not space. It’s not selling reader eyeballs so much as reader attention.

And that’s an idea that’s been in the works for a while. Last spring, Gawker’s head of marketing and advertising operations, Erin Pettigrew, wrote a post about Gawker’s new emphasis on branded traffic via an attempt to measure “recurring reader affection.” I chatted with her about that post; here’s what she told me at the time:

First, for so long we concerned ourselves with reach and becoming a significant enough web population such that advertisers would move us into their consideration set for marketing spend. Now that we have attained a certain level of reach and that spend consideration, we’re looking for additional ways to differentiate ourselves against other publisher populations. So branded traffic helps to illuminate our readership’s quality over its quantity, a nuanced benefit over many of the more broadly reaching sites on the web.

Secondly, there’s a myth, especially in advertising, that frequency of visitation is wasteful to ad spend. As far as premium content sites and brand marketers go, however, that myth is untrue. So, the ‘branded traffic’ measure is part of a larger case we’re making that advertising to a core audience (who visits repeatedly) is extremely effective.

That’s a magazine model; Gawker has simply been translating it to the web. (“If you’re going to working with the most storied brands,” Denton puts it, “the appeal has to go beyond the numbers. Conde Nast — at its peak — sold the magic.”) And Gawker certainly hasn’t been alone in doing that: See Slate, Salon, and their peer group, who go out of their way to emphasize the smartness (more cynically: the affluence) of their readers to advertisers. And yet Gawker seems to have reached a critical mass (or, to use the language of a writer from one of those Conde Nast titles, a tipping point): It’s moved, it seems, beyond simply selling its readers to advertisers. Now, it is simply selling itself. The readers are implied. They can be, in the best sense, taken for granted.

Check out, for example, the Advertising page on Gawker; in place of a traditional media kit (replete with demographic data about readers and the like), you’ll find a slickly produced video detailing Gawker’s (literally) storied history. The thing has the feel of an Oscar clip real, complete with a strings-heavy sidetrack; you’re compelled, almost in spite of yourself. And the video presents Gawker through the prism of a kind of epic inevitability, noting, accurately, how much the site and its sisters have done to change things. The message is, implicitly and essentially: Gawker is the future. Be part of it.

Which doesn’t mean that Gawker isn’t also selling readers to advertisers in the traditional magazine (and, for that matter, newspaper) model; it still is, definitely. It’s just doing it more indirectly. The advertising videos are “about the stories,” Denton says. “And the stories define the readers — and the readers define the stories.” The delivering-readers-you-want-to-reach aspect is only one part of Gawker’s marketing argument. “The pitch to advertisers is twofold,” Denton says. “One — and this is the constant — that our audience consists of the young and upscale people who have disappeared from newspapers and other traditional media. And, second, that we increasingly have the scale and production values of — say — cable television.”

It’s that second one that the redesign is trying to capture. And it’s the resonance, and competition, with cable that will be fascinating to see as the new Gawker layout becomes, simply, the Gawker layout. (Readers have the option of continuing with the blog format, if they prefer, which won’t serve the 640×360 ads; see the cola-nostalgic Deadspin Classic, for instance. But “I doubt it will represent any more than 10 percent of impressions, anyway,” Denton notes.) Denton sees his competition, he told me, not only as sites like TMZ and The Hollywood Reporter, but also — and more so — AOL. (A rivalry that, around midnight last night, suddenly got much more interesting.) “And — in the long term — we’ll compete for audiences with cable groups such as NBC Universal,” Denton says.

It’s a big experiment — and a big gamble. One that, like so many similarly grand experiments being made by the big media companies out there — the Times’ paywall will rise any day now — will be fascinating, and instructive, to watch. History’s on Denton’s side — he’s been right about a lot so far — but it’s far from certain that the redesign, and the marketing logic that goes with it, will pay off.

Yesterday, after former Gawker editor Gabriel Snyder observed that, since the redesign, pageviews were down at the beta sites of Jalopnik and i09, Rex Sorgatz issued a bet: “I’m on the record that I think the redesigns will fail. And I’m now officially opening the betting pool. I think Denton is going to be forced to pull back on this. If anyone wants to wager that the redesign don’t get yanked back (or greatly modified) by, let’s say, June 1… I’ll take your bet.”

Denton himself took the bet. (“Money where your mouth is,” he told me.) The measure is October pageviews on Quantcast. The market’s at 510 million pageviews at the moment — so “for every million over that, he pays me $10,” Denton says. And “for every million under, I pay him.”

“I’m going to clean him out.”

December 06 2010

15:00

“An art brand”: Gawker Artists looks at the image beyond the display ad

Five years ago, Chris Batty, until this week Gawker’s vice president of sales and marketing, was looking to fill un-purchased ad space on the site. He wanted to forgo the “horrendous creative” of ad networks that litter sites with penny stocks and would keep his sales teams pushing buttons instead of building relationships. Batty sought something prettier, more intimate, more unique for the company’s growing real estate. At the time, he was living with a woman who worked for Christie’s art house, and he prodded her to find artists to fill the empty space. She didn’t act on Batty’s inspiration, but he did — bringing images of artists’ work to stand alongside Gawker’s blog posts.

The result was a workaround that gave Gawker full control over its pages’ aesthetics. Born as a stopgap to complement blog posts, Gawker Artists is now taking on an unexpected life of its own — it became a standalone site in 2006 — in large part by thinking of art not merely as a pretty placeholder for text but as something that could survive on its own. Something that could be modeled and monetized. “Gawker Artists is an art brand rather than an editorial brand,” Gawker Media’s director of marketing, Erin Pettigrew, points out. That’s a major distinction in an industry that uses the word “art” as shorthand for photos, infographics, cartoons, and any other visual.

G.A. curators — working with more than 1,400 artists with 35,000 images — tailor and export work to media partners like Elle, Curbed, and The Atlantic. They hang pieces at Gawker’s notoriously bit-focused office, and are in talks to curate work for the headquarters of another high-profile startup. G.A. organizes sponsored exhibitions and events and collaborates with brands on creative projects. Soon, it will launch an art shop that sells limited-edition prints.

It’s an experiment that suggests the power of looking beyond text in journalism’s business models. As Ivan Askwith, director of strategy at Big Spaceship and a founding member of MIT’s Convergence Culture Consortium, puts it: “Let go of the idea that content needs to be created in a certain medium.”

“A good karma project” is a good business proposition

In hindsight, Batty says he would have found a simpler solution for the ad space. Networks are more versatile now, and Gawker can collapse un-purchased space, folding the pixels away and making them disappear. That would have been a shame, though, for Jonathan Fasulo, a photographer who shows on artists.gawker.com. A company that builds websites for photogs found Fasulo there, liked his work, and is giving him a free site for two years. Berlin-based Winston Torr started exhibiting on G.A. earlier in 2010 — and within a week of signing on, his Facebook fan page jumped from 175 to 275 followers. That was followed up with a phone call from the curator of a new Berlin gallery, who wants Torr for a show.

Gawker doesn’t represent artists, but it provides free profiles and exposure. “We both want to communicate with as big an audience as possible,” says Liz Dimmitt, drawing a comparison between artists and journalism companies. Liz and her 24-year-old sister, Genevieve, curate Gawker Artists, visiting studios and taking submissions.

Right now, G.A. is a corporate art program: It’s not charged with generating revenue, producing traffic, or breaking news. The site is an endearingly calm space among Gawker’s tumultuous, often cheeky media properties. “We are sort of a good karma project,” says Liz, who interned with JP Morgan Chase’s corporate art program seven years ago and joined G.A. in 2006. Genevieve, fresh out of Savannah College of Art and Design, says, “I didn’t really know what Gawker was,” but adds that it’s “kind of genius for them to be placing art in their ad space.”

That genius is not just about G.A.’s use of ad space; it’s also about their construction of an entirely new community (in this case, artists) that builds an entirely new resource (in this case, art) that is entirely monetizable: exhibits, art-based events, prints, etc. Some of the most promising media organizations are bringing their business models offline: Mashable inaugurated Social Media Day; Vice invited its merry band of hipsters to watch Eastbound and Down; the Economist holds business summits; Vogue brings out the fashionistas; GQ opened a restaurant division; Wired pops up its SoHo store; Tyler Brule’s traveling journalism operation, Monocle, has an office that publishes in the back and sells products in the front. What makes G.A.’s model work is that they move offline by harnessing community-generated content online.

Gawker Media (and Art House)

Since Gawker differentiates between a Torr painting and, say, a picture of Putin, the company can use each resources in different ways. One way they do that is to spread their new resources to visually-based websites. Each month, the Dimmitt sisters cycle new content through Gawker Media properties, and G.A. offers to share the code with anyone who wants it (simply fill out a form with preferred display sizes). More than 200 sites — many of them those of Gawker Artists — feature Gawker’s art on their blogs and Flickr and Etsy profiles. Digital Americana, a literary and culture mag made strictly for the iPad, exhibits Gawker Artists as a footer banner on its site.

For bigger journalism outfits (like Curbed, Elle, and The Atlantic), the Dimmitts hand-curate. Curbed, a real estate-focused network, features art from thematically-related artists in the top-right corner of its site and as banner ads to break up blog posts. General Manager Josh Albertson trusts the Dimmitts to pick images that fit, and if you check out Curbed, there’s a pleasant mix of architectural work co-branded as the “Gawker Artists Curbed collection.” Even though Albertson looks forward to the day when Gawker Artists content is replaced by paying clients, “we’d rather be running this than 25-cent weight-loss CPM ads,” he says. Gawker curates these collections for free, but along the way, they’re building their second brand — and curators are getting to know their community for the time when bigger projects come along.

Gawker Artists also brings a three-dimensional sensibility to Gawker Media sites. Not Avatar 3D, but events, exhibitions, community. “I think Gawker has been somewhat of a pioneer in that respect,” says Erin Smolinski, media planning manager for Diesel USA. As part of Diesel’s Be Stupid campaign earlier this year, she spent $30,000 with Gawker Media, a buy that included run-of-site banners, custom roadblocks, co-branded posts, and a contest moderated by James Frey. Click-throughs were through the roof — 3.8 percent on custom builds, almost five times the industry average — and Diesel’s first-ever online campaign garnered Gawker up to $7 CPMs.

Simultaneously, Gawker Artists was curating its NSFW (“Not Safe For Work”) show featuring artist Justine Lai’s “presidents” series (somewhat SFW). Account exec Meredith Katz told Smolinski about the event, and Diesel put $5,000 of the buy to sponsor NSFW. “I liked the way it made our plan robust,” she says. Smolinski, who partnered with Gawker for its Silent Rave — a dance party with headphones (really) — says NSFW was “a little more intimate and brave” than the rave. It made the campaign resonate more, and Diesel got to wrap party guests in a room full of branded information.

This summer, the Dimmitts helped build an event with $10,000 from smartwater, a Glaceau (Coca-Cola) brand. Artist Ryan Brennan created a multimedia installation that synchronized with music and played well against the setting sun. Infinitely more engaging than a display ad, “the event creates a lot of value, no doubt about that,” says Clotaire Rapaille, author of Culture Code. He likes the fluid nature of Gawker’s creation. “Water is only good when it is in movement. Smartwater is ‘being’ movement, being alive and being in the moment. That reinforces your brand in people’s mind.” Not bad for community-generated content. “I’m actually shocked that more people haven’t done what we’re doing,” Liz says.

Image courtesy Gawker Artists.

November 18 2010

17:30

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Doing the pageview math

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reaching new audiences

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

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

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

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

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

Fungible content strategies

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 14 2010

20:00

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 08 2010

14:30

July 14 2010

14:00

“Smart editorial, smart readers, and smart ad solutions”: Slate makes a case for long-form on the web

Via blogs, or, more likely, Twitter, you might have come across the breezy term “tl;dr.” Which is short — appropriately — for “too long; didn’t read.”

Yes. You know the conventional wisdom: long-form journalism doesn’t do well on the web. Our attention spans are too short and sentences are too long and and we’re too easily distrac — oooh, Macy’s is having a sale! — and, anyway, complex narratives are inefficient for a culture that wants its information short, sweet, and yesterday. Long, carefully wrought articles are tasty, sure; online, though, the news we consume is best served up quick-n-easy. The web isn’t Chez Panisse so much as a series of Sizzlers.

Whether or not that kind of thinking is valid from the psychological perspective, a more relevant question, for our purposes, is whether it’s valid from the financial one. What kind of value proposition does long-form journalism represent in the digital world? Can it be monetized? Or, as behavioral economists might put it: Does long-form, you know, work?

One piece of good news — good news, that is, if you’re a fan of the genre — comes courtesy of Slate.

The right readers

You may recall the online magazine’s Fresca initiative — so named for editor David Plotz’s passionate and non-ironic obsession with the grapefruity beverage — which launched last year to give Slate writers and editors the opportunity to focus on long-form work. Essentially, the fellowship program requires that every editorial staff member at Slate (Plotz recently added copy editors to the Fresca pool) take four to six weeks off from their normal jobs — and use that time to produce one in-depth piece (or, often, a series of in-depth pieces) on a subject that compels them. So far, the project has netted such praiseworthy specimens of long-form as, among others, Tim Noah’s analysis of why the U.S. hasn’t endured another successfully executed terror attack since 9/11 and Julia Turner’s look at the fascinating complexities of signage and June Thomas’ examination of American dentistry and Dahlia Lithwick’s crowd-sourced foray into chick-lit authorship and John Dickerson’s reclamation of risk-taking after the financial crash gave that quintessential American practice a bad name.

The other thing the initiative has netted? Pageviews. They’ve been in the millions, a Slate rep told me: over 4 million for Noah’s piece, over 3.5 million for Thomas’, nearly 3 million for Turner’s. That’s especially significant considering the length of the pieces, which often run in the tens of thousands of words. Combine that with New York Times Magazine editor Gerry Marzorati’s claim, last year, that “contrary to conventional wisdom, it’s our longest pieces that attract the most online traffic” — and, come to think of it, with tablet computing’s promise of portable, pleasurable reading experiences — and “tl;dr”: you are on watch.

Pageviews, though, are only part of the picture. “The raw traffic numbers matter to me — I like them, they’re good, and they’re certainly good for advertisers,” Plotz says. But the Fresca pieces are about more than, say, Huffingtonian eyeball-harnessing and traffic-baiting (PHOTOS! SLIDESHOWS! CLICKCLICKPLEASECLICK!); they’re also about brand-building. Plotz got the idea for the fellowships, he told me, through his earlier experience as a general-assignment reporter at Slate, under Michael Kinsley and, later, Jacob Weisberg. As part of that position, he got to do longer pieces of the Fresca variety; and not only did those stories “make me enthusiastic about coming to work,” he says, but they also “clearly contributed to building the brand of Slate as a place you go for excellent journalism.”

And when Plotz took over the magazine’s editorship — in 2008, at pretty much the height of Media’s Existential Crisis — he realized that “in order to really thrive, in order to have the kind of committed, excellent, well-educated, media-engaged audience that we’ve always had — and to build that audience — we had to do something more than just 1,500 word pieces, and more than just explainers.

In other words, for Slate, long-form’s value proposition is also reputational, rather than strictly financial. The Fresca pieces are community and commodity ratifiers — subtle indications, to advertisers and audiences alike, that the magazine cares as much about informing users as attracting them. “Our job is not necessarily to build Slate into a magazine that has 100 million readers,” Plotz points out. “It’s to make sure we have 2 million or 5 million or 8 million of the right readers — readers who are the smartest, most engaged, most influential, most media-literate people around. That’s more attractive to advertisers, it makes the community of readers around the site more energetic and more lively, and it’s a way to distinguish ourselves from some of the more aggregation-heavy sites, or some of the single-person blog sites, or some of the commodity news sites.”

That wide-angle view of the reader/marketer relationship is one that permeates the outlet, from its editorial content to its business-side messaging. Take, for example, the magazine’s pitch to advertisers (entitled “Slate: The Online Magazine for the Smartest Generation”), which uses the term “smart” eight times on a single, short page, by my count — four of them in the declaration that “Slate is unrivaled at combining smart editorial, smart readers, and smart ad solutions to produce the smartest possible media buy.” It’s an approach similar to the Gawker Media strategy of leveraging “recurring reader affection,” rather than relying on the blunter instrument of simple traffic metrics — and one that emphasizes the holistic quality of the audience, as a commercial entity, over its simple quantity. It’s not the size of the boat, and all that.

Engaging readers and writers

The reputation-based approach is of a piece with Slate’s broader strategy of engagement: user affection is advertiser affection. And both of those are bolstered by staff affection — a smart, engaged audience being in large part the result of work produced by a smart, engaged staff. “As a reporting and writing process, this is what had attracted me to journalism almost twenty years ago,” John Dickerson says of his Fresca-enabled series. And “it was wonderful,” he says, to translate that process to the web — to harness the multimedia power of the web to produce “that long, narrative, long-fiction storytelling that’s always been so interesting to me in the course of my career.”

As fellow Fresc-er Tim Noah puts it: “I can’t speak highly enough about the project. I think it’s probably the most exciting thing that’s been going on at Slate for the last couple years.”

Leveraging the personal passions of journalists — as opposed to their skills and talents alone — is an idea that’s getting more and more traction in a media world where standing out from the crowd is a business-side mandate as well as an editorial one. There’s Google’s famous 20-percent time — which has led to personal-interest-fueled innovations like, for example, Google News — and, in journalism proper, the Journal Register Company’s implementation of an innovation team that will devote 25 percent of its workweek to stepping back from the much-maligned vagaries of the Daily Grind. One of the challenges journalism is facing, Noah points out, is in matching ambition to ability in reporting. And though “money is a big obstacle,” in general, he points out, “none of the Fresca pieces have really been terribly extravagant in terms of their cost.” They’ve been extravagant instead with the one resource that, in journalism, is even more precious than money: time. The Fresca stories are a declaration, Dickerson says, that “this is the kind of commitment we have to storytelling: being in-depth in a world of tiny little bites of information.”

Photo by Dave Winer used under a Creative Commons license..

July 01 2010

09:12

WikiLeaks, iPhone Incidents Show that U.S. Needs Shield Law

The United States' global reputation as a champion of free speech is at stake. This is partly because the legal framework has not kept pace with the evolution of free speech, and also because the Freedom of Information Act is not being applied correctly. Today, the U.S. is in danger of losing its place as the bastion of free speech because other countries are stepping up and creating new ways to protect freedom of expression.

Issues With FOIA and Protecting Sources

As many people are now aware, a secret military video featuring a deadly U.S. air strike in Afghanistan that killed several civilians was published on WikiLeaks on April 5, 2010. Among the dead were Reuters photographer Namir Noor-Eldeen, 22, and his driver, Saeed Chmagh, 40.

The release of the video caused a scandal and made major news. But the truth is that it should have been made public long ago. Reuters had filed a FOIA request in for the video back in 2007, but the footage was never released. According to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), it should have been. Under FOIA, all U.S. government agencies are required to disclose records upon receiving a written request, except those records that are protected from disclosure as a result of nine exemptions and three exclusions.

WikiLeaks specializes in securing confidential information from whistleblowers in return for guarantees of anonymity. This work has led its founder, Julian Assange, to fear for his freedom in the U.S.

julian_assange_250px.jpg

"[U.S.] public statements have all been reasonable. But some statements made in private are a bit more questionable," Assange told the Guardian last week. "Politically it would be a great error for them to act. I feel perfectly safe ... but I have been advised by my lawyers not to travel to the U.S. during this period."

The lack of access to government information is one problem in the U.S. Another significant issue for bloggers and reporters is the ability, or lack thereof, to protect their sources. The WikiLeaks case also has implications for protecting sources.

It recently came to light that a 22-year-old U.S. intelligence specialist in Baghdad named Bradley Manning contacted a former hacker named Adrian Lamo via IM and "confessed" that he was the one who leaked the controversial video. Lamo had told Manning that he was a journalist and subsequently turned him in to the authorities.

After Manning was arrested, the story was published in Wired magazine. The bottom line was that Manning's so-called confession could not be protected by a shield law even though he thought he was speaking to a reporter. Admittedly, this is a rare situation. Usually, government officials request that journalists reveal their sources, rather than having a journalist turn someone in.

In those situations, a shield law should help with the protection of sources. But another recent incident is testing the limits of a shield law in California.

The iPhone Incident

On April 23, police carried out a raid on the California home of blogger Jason Chen, the editor of gadget blog Gizmodo. The site had obtained -- in a questionable way -- a prototype of the next-generation iPhone and published an exclusive about it, together with photos and videos, without Apple's agreement.

The state of California's shield law is one of the most protective in the country when it comes to sources and the working material of journalists. Gawker Media, which owns Gizmodo, is claiming that the police search warrant was illegal under section 1524(g) of the Californian criminal code. It is also citing O'Grady vs Superior Court, a case in which an appeal court ruled that the shield law applies to online journalists.

Screenshot.jpg

The courts must now decide between those who invoke the shield law's protection in the name of the right to information, and those who accuse Gizmodo of receiving stolen property.

Reporters Without Borders has been advocating for years to obtain a federal shield law when it comes to the protection of sources, but that prospect seems far off at this point.

Maybe the current difficulties in the U.S. come from the fact that the First Amendment rules that no law can be made against free speech. But what about having a specific law protecting it? What would that look like?

Is Iceland a New Model?

On June 15, Iceland's parliament unanimously approved a resolution to draft legislation for the protection of media, journalists and bloggers. It aims to create a single, holistic law to guarantee the protection of free speech.

According to the resolution, "the proposers suggest that changes be made to laws regarding the rights and duties of official employees (no. 70/1996) such that official employees be allowed to break their duty of silence in the case of extreme circumstances of public interest. Similar changes could be made to municipal governance law (no. 45/1996) regarding employees of municipal governments."

The initiative comes partly from the fact that in August 2009 the country's RUV television station was prevented from broadcasting a story about the Kaupthing Bank, which was immersed in a financial crisis. Once again, the story was based on information from WikiLeaks, which had already published information about the bank. An injunction obtained by Kaupthing Bank prevented RUV from broadcasting the item, but the station told its viewers about the injunction itself.

Now it appears as though that won't ever happen again in Iceland. The country will soon be a leader in protecting sources and freedom of speech. This kind of legislation is needed by netizens and journalists the world over. It has to spread to countries far and wide because, as of today, all the jailed reporters in the world are local ones.

Another useful feature of the Icelandic proposal is that the country will likely host websites to ensure their servers are not forcibly shut down. This law would be a legal shelter for the sources and source material of reporters, similar to the one previously set up by Reporters Without Borders.

Clothilde Le Coz has been working for Reporters Without Borders in Paris since 2007. She is now the Washington director for this organization, helping to promote press freedom and free speech around the world. In Paris, she was in charge of the Internet Freedom desk and worked especially on China, Iran, Egypt and Thailand. During the time she spent in Paris, she was also updating the "Handbook for Bloggers and Cyberdissidents," published in 2005. Her role is now to get the message out for readers and politicians to be aware of the constant threat journalists are submitted to in many countries.

This is a summary. Visit our site for the full post ».

April 14 2010

17:22

“Intensely engaged followers”: Joel Kramer on MinnPost’s focused audienced-building strategy

Joel Kramer came right out and said it: He discriminates when it comes to his readers. MinnPost cares more about repeat readers than stray visitors, the site’s editor said during the “Building Online Communities” session at the ASNE NewsNow Ideas Summit this week; it’s chosen depth over breadth in its strategy of audience cultivation.

“What we’re trying to do is build a community of intensely engaged followers,” Kramer said. And while, yes, “user engagement” and its iterations seem to be the unofficial theme of this year’s ASNE event, Kramer wasn’t simply referring to engagement in the most common, “traffic-plus-interaction” sense of the term. For MinnPost, engagement is repetition. It’s commitment. It’s what Gawker Media has termed, simply, “affection.”

The strategy, for MinnPost, is a financial as much as an editorial one: It’s about concentrating impact, but also about monetizing that impact. The outlet’s ultimate goal in developing a core readership, Kramer said, is to “convert that community into enough money to sustain the journalism.”

It’s a more nuanced approach to a pageview-focused perspective on audience cultivation; last year, in a piece for our sister publication Nieman Reports, Kramer noted that “traffic to our web site, MinnPost.com, is critical to our financial success.” That’s still the case, of course; but a work-your-core caveat marks a shift in that traffic-is-traffic sensibility — and, as far as the outlet’s reach-out to advertisers is concerned, a shift in the eyeballs-are-eyeballs sensibility. It’s a commercial truth as well as a journalistic one: Not all readers are created equal.

The intense-engagement strategy makes sense in the context of MinnPost’s particular fusion of funding streams: A nonprofit, the outlet also relies on ad revenue — and on member donations that it hopes, eventually, will increase in number and put MinnPost on a path to sustainability. But: eventually. At this point, “the vast majority of our unique visitors are passers-by,” Kramer noted. The goal is to increase the ratio of repeat visitors to one-time ones.

How to do that is the big question — though engaging people with MinnPost’s journalism via the get-them-where-they-are approach will likely play a big role in it. “Social media, comment, and other forms of engagement with the audience have a tremendous effect on audience-building,” Kramer noted. “Facebook is the number-one referrer to our site not counting search — and we hardly were on it at all eight months ago.”

Comments have also been a boon. The site’s ban of anonymous comments, Kramer said, was “controversial” at its inception — “and it probably depresses the traffic,” he allowed — but it maintains MinnPost’s mission, he said, and leads to a more civil environment on the site. Which is another route to constructive community engagement.

And then there’s getting-readers-where-they-are in the more literal sense. “Probably the number-one builder of intensity is face-to-face contact, not online,” Kramer said. He mentioned the annual MinnRoast — the site’s version of the Gridiron Dinner — and some other in-person events that are targeted, in particular, at reaching readers under 40. The outlet recently polled young people about effective ways to get them excited about MinnPost, its content, and its community, Kramer noted. “The first thing they said was, ‘Hold events at bars.’”

08:06

Nieman Journalism Lab: Barriers to entry can improve quality and quantity of reader comments, says Gawker

In 2009, blog network Gawker Media introduced a new, stricter commenting system in an attempt to free the site from certain readers who were dominating comment threads. Nieman Journalism Lab has the full rundown of how the system now works, which includes trusted commenters having greater access to discussions and most recent comments placed at the top rather than bottom of threads to steer discussion.

“We’ll be able to encourage the kind of discussion that *we* want – not one that is dominated merely by the most prolific of our commenters. It’s our party; we get to decide who comes,” wrote founder Nick Denton at the time.

A graph on the blog of Gawker Media chief technology officer Tom Plunkett shows an initial dip in comment volume when the changes were first made, followed by a steep incline:

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

Full Nieman Journalism Lab report at this link…

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April 13 2010

17:22

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 31 2010

13:56

Nieman Journalism Lab: Gawker’s new traffic metric measures ‘reader affection’

While others pour over pageviews and underscore uniques, Gawker Media has been quietly working on a new metric, one designed to measure so-called “reader affection”. This new metric is called “branded traffic” and is, according to Nieman Journalism Lab, “both more nebulous and more significant” than traditional forms of measurement.

The idea is to measure the number of visitors that arrive at the site via a direct search for its name or variations on its branding, or by typing in the site URL directly, and distinguish them from more incidental traffic.

The metric comes from a simple compound: direct type-in visits plus branded search queries in Google Analytics. In other words, Gawker Media is bifurcating its visitors in its evaluation of them, splitting them into two groups: the occasional audience, you might call it, and the core audience.

The original Gawker release highlights the value the site places on turning the internet passerby into an affectionate reader:

While distributing content across the web is essential for attracting the interest of internet passersby, courting these wanderers, massaging them into occasional visitors, and finally gaining their affection as daily readers is far more important. This core audience – borne of a compounding of word of mouth, search referrals, article recommendations, and successive enjoyed visits that result in regular readership – drives our rich site cultures and premium advertising products.

Full post at this link…

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March 30 2010

18:56

A “reader affection” formula: Gawker creates a metric for branded traffic

Influence, engagement, impact: For goals that are, in journalism, kind of the whole point, they’re notoriously difficult to quantify. How do you measure, measure a year, and so on.

Turns out, though, that Gawker Media, over the past few years, has been attempting to do just that. Denton and Crew, we learned in a much-retweeted post this morning, have been “quietly tending” a metric both more nebulous and more significant than pageviews, uniques, and the other more traditional ways of impact-assessment: They’ve been measuring branded traffic — or, as the post in question delightfully puts it, “recurring reader affection.” The metric comes from a simple compound: direct type-in visits plus branded search queries in Google Analytics.

In other words, Gawker Media is bifurcating its visitors in its evaluation of them, splitting them into two groups: the occasional audience, you might call it, and the core audience. And it’s banking on the latter. “New visitors are only really valuable if they become regulars,” Denton pointed out in a tweet this morning. (That lines up with Denton’s recent pushing of unique visits over pageviews as a performance metric.)

The goal — as it is for so many things in journalism these days — is to leverage the depth against the breadth. As the post puts it:

While distributing content across the web is essential for attracting the interest of Internet passersby, courting these wanderers, massaging them into occasional visitors, and finally gaining their affection as daily readers is far more important. This core audience — borne of a compounding of word of mouth, search referrals, article recommendations, and successive enjoyed visits that result in regular readership — drives our rich site cultures and premium advertising products.

I spoke with Erin Pettigrew, Gawker Media’s head of marketing and advertising operations — and the author of the post in question — over gChat to learn more about the outlet’s branded-traffic metric.

“The idea came from a few places,” she told me.

First, for so long we concerned ourselves with reach and becoming a significant enough web population such that advertisers would move us into their consideration set for marketing spend. Now that we have attained a certain level of reach and that spend consideration, we’re looking for additional ways to differentiate ourselves against other publisher populations. So branded traffic helps to illuminate our readership’s quality over its quantity, a nuanced benefit over many of the more broadly reaching sites on the web.

Secondly, there’s a myth, especially in advertising, that frequency of visitation is wasteful to ad spend. As far as premium content sites and brand marketers go, however, that myth is untrue. So, the ‘branded traffic’ measure is part of a larger case we’re making that advertising to a core audience (who visits repeatedly) is extremely effective.

Another aspect of that case, she adds, is challenging assumptions about reader engagement. “The wisdom has been that the higher the frequency of ad exposures to a single visitor, the less effective a marketing message becomes to that visitor. To the contrary, the highly engaged reader is actually far more receptive to the publisher’s marketing messaging than the occasional passerby.

In other words, she says: “Branded traffic is to a free website what a subscriber base is to a paid content site. The psychology behind the intent to visit and engage with the publisher brand in those two instances is very similar.”

The approach’s big x-factor — whether branded traffic will get buy-in, in every sense, from marketers — remains to be determined. “It’s something we’re just beginning to explore,” Pettigrew says. But marketers, she points out, “have always considered front door takeovers or roadblocks as one of the most coveted advertising placements on a publisher website. And they “intuitively understand that the publisher brand’s halo is brightest and strongest for a reader who comes through the front door seeking the publisher’s brand experience” — which is to say, they should realize the value of the core audience. “But we’ve yet to see a metric take hold across the industry that gets at a numerical understanding of this marketer intuition.”

March 08 2010

16:12

Zooming the news: Is Seadragon a new news interface?

Frédéric Filloux has an interesting piece in this week’s Monday Note (which, if you’re not already reading, you should be). It’s on Microsoft’s work on Seadragon, which is a piece of tech that allows “infinite zooming”:

This is what Seadragon is about: it lets you dive in an image down to the smallest detail. All done seamlessly using the internet. The Seadragon deep-zooming system achieves such fluidity by sending requests to a database of “tiles”, each one holding a fraction of the total image. The required tiles load as we zoom and pan. And because each request is of a modest size, it only needs to cover a fraction of our screen, the process works fine with a basic internet connection.

Filloux argues that something like Seadragon might be a new interface for news:

In a prototype, they used a set of 6400 pages of the final editions of the Seattle Post Intelligencer, the local daily that folded few months ago. Let’s picture this: a one year of a daily newspaper entirely shown on one screen. 365 days x 50 pages of newspaper on average, that is about 17 800 pages to navigate. At first, this collection is represented using a series of thumbnails that are too small to be identified. One click breaks up the stack by month, another click organizes it in a much more manageable set of weeks. Now, I pick up an issue and dive in…Unlike the hyperlink system I use when going from one page to another, in the Seadragon-based interface I’m not leaving my “newspaper”. I’m staying inside the same zoomable set of elements. As I land on a page of interest, again, I can zoom in to a particular story (which, in passing, reconstructs itself in order to avoid the “old-style” jump to the article’s continuation on another page).

I absolutely agree that we’re nowhere near a stable endpoint for how we present news online — there’s a huge need for innovation. (One of the things I admire most about Gawker Media, for example, is that they are willing to rethink basic elements like comments, post styles, and ad placement. And the chance to try new presentation forms is one of the most exciting things about the iPad.)

But I’d push back against the idea of a Seadragon-like interface being the future. Two reasons:

People don’t like immersive environments online as much as some would like to think. Compare the amount of hype Second Life got to the actual amount of use it gets today. (How are all those Second Life “news bureaus” doing today?) I remember back when VRML was the future, and that we would all by 2002 be spending our time walking through news corridors and news caves. Aside from World of Warcraft and other games, users have consistently been less interested in immersive experiences than technologists have. When we’re seeking information, as opposed to play, we’ve defaulted to something closer to flat navigation. I don’t think that’s the endpoint of news, but I think it’s an indicator that “diving deep” into a geographic news landscape might not be the metaphor that wins out.

The main problem with contemporary news navigation is discovery, not depth. Most news consumers are looking for interesting content, stories they’ll enjoy, photos they’ll like to look at, videos they’ll think are worth watching. One reason time-on-site is so low for news sites is that, when a story grabs someone’s interest, news sites do a bad job of showing them other stories that will grab it again. News organizations produce a ton of content, but it’s difficult to present it all well to readers. That, to me, is the big challenge, not the need for the sort of depth that an infinite-zoom metaphor might provide.

But that’s just my quick take. What do you guys think: Is something like Seadragon doing to be a big influence on how we navigate news in the near future?

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