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August 15 2012

07:20

Eric Goldman: Heavy dose of hyperlinks gets defamation lawsuit against Gizmodo tossed

Ars Technica :: A properly cited article, filled with hyperlinks to original source materials, should be extra-resistant to defamation claims—even if written with typical blogger snark. Readers can easily inspect the source materials themselves and make their own judgments about the article's veracity.

The defamation lawsuit against Gizmodo, a comment by Eric Goldman, arstechnica.com

Blog Post: Using Links as Citations Helps @gizmodo Defeat a Defamation Claim--Redmond v @gawker Media j.mp/OcspfV

— Eric Goldman (@ericgoldman) August 12, 2012

August 06 2012

18:59

Breach of Mat Honan's iCloud account: Hard truths about the consumer cloud

Washington Post :: The story of the breach of former Gizmodo staffer Mat Honan’s iCloud account took an interesting turn Sunday with news that the attacker was able to call Apple and convince a customer service employee that he was Honan. While hardly the breach of the century, the situation does highlight a couple hard truths about cloud security when it comes to consumer applications.

A report by Derrick Harris, www.washingtonpost.com

Tags: Apple Gizmodo

August 04 2012

13:48

Former Gizmodo writer Mat Honan's hacked iCloud password leads to nightmare

TUAW The Unofficial Apple Weblog :: Former Gizmodo writer Mat Honan is having a pretty bad day. As you can read on his Tumblr post (not to mention elsewhere), hackers compromised his iCloud account. They used that access to reset his iCloud password, reset his Gmail password, gain control of his Twitter account (which in turn gave them access to Gizmodo's Twitter feed and 400K followers) and generally wreak mayhem.

A report by Michael Rose, www.tuaw.com

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.

January 14 2011

17:00

Gizmodo taps illustrators to give stories more punch, pop, pow!

When Gizmodo editorial director Brian Lam was planning for this week’s coverage of the Verizon iPhone, he didn’t think in words. He visualized it entirely in images, daydreaming about how much more emotive pictures and sounds can be than straight-laced text: A Ken Burns-style montage of past newspaper stories predicting iPhone’s migration; a video of AT&T’s greatest failures; customers expressing frustration layered with soulful, gut-wrenching music.

On Tuesday, the editorial package still featured a lot of text — Gizmodo ran a series of traditional news and service pieces plus a one-minute rant — but Gizmodo did have some original art: a Verizon-red light dawning over the shiny iPhone (“At Last”) and a projectile phone crashing through the telecom’s Manhattan headquarters (“Will the iPhone Crush Verizon’s Network?”).

Most online journalism privileges text over all else. But to help Gizmodo differentiate itself from the countless other technology sites around, since early summer, contributing illustrators and guest artists have been whipping up hundreds of visual pieces for Gizmodo. And the response has only made Lam’s love of the visual grow stronger. “If I needed to, I would have napkin sketches done,” he says. Cartoons, illustrations, and drawings can add a nice touch in the Internet environment where text stories are aggregated, chopped up, syndicated or simply re-skinned and re-written without giving credit. Art, on the other hand, is treated as a more proprietary piece of intellectual property and can catch a reader’s eye, build a brand’s signature style, and help tell the story. Plus it can also be a cheaper, more flexible alternative to original photography.

At the recent Consumer Electronics Show, Gizmodo wrote about Lady Gaga’s Polaroid glasses, but there was no picture of her with them. “How much would [a photo shoot] cost? Thousands of dollars, weeks to set up?” Lam asks rhetorically. Perhaps, but Lam didn’t have to go that route. Instead, Sam Spratt, a 22-year-old contributing illustrator, drew the Gaga image above in half an hour.

Spratt has been working with Gawker since July and was onsite at CES, but he typically creates from a home studio, another advantage of hand-drawn art. Like journalists who can gather information, sources, and anecdotes with just a phone and computer, illustrators don’t always have to be on location to create original, entertaining, and informative content. Wendy MacNaughton, a San Francisco-based cartoonist who spent a month working with Gawker, drew the clever Fission vs. Fusion sidebar (left, click for the full image), which for many will be light years more engaging than a string of quotes from a CERN scientist. “They’re the shiny objects that hook people in enough to see the real meat of the package: the article,” Spratt says of his drawings. (Readers simply ignore stock images.)

Bang for the buck

Visuals are already a Gawker signature — its editorial teams mine the Web for colorful images to fill image-heavy layout. Still, Lam, who came to Gizmodo from Wired in 2006, pushed founder Nick Denton to fund original art. “Every year, we discuss budgets, and I said, ‘You really think another writer on top of a ten-person staff is going to make a difference?’” Lam recalls. In 2007, Gizmodo brought on Jesus Diaz, a writer and editor with a background in visual and graphic arts. He frequently built images in Photoshop, created unique infographics and timelines. “There was a lot of punch in those posts,” Lam says of Diaz’ work. “You just start to dream visually from that point on.”

To fulfill that dream, Gawker started adding creative personnel. MacNaughton came on for a month last summer, painting 15 water colors including a biting take on the iPhone 4 and the classic infographic for No Sleep ‘Til Fusion. Chris McVeigh, who worked with Gizmodo for a couple of months, built and photographer Lego dioramas. Both artists add beautiful visual originality to text, a complement that’ll only get more vital as we move toward tablets and Internet TV.

The difference between another writer and an illustrator is most apparent with Spratt, though, who has done more than 400 pieces since July. There’s pure editorial work (like Verizon and Gaga), but he also helps make Gawker Media’s community-engagement more robust. For a Halloween contest, he painted an eerie father-and-son piece, and last month, Spratt rewarded Facebook fans by painting 14 of their profile pictures. The recent Savannah College of Art & Design grad maintains his own Facebook page — 4,300+ fans — and a formspring that attracts aspiring artists, supporters, and a more than a handful of swooning women.

The takeaway: Illustration matters

As with Gawker Artists, the company’s use of visuals makes the site more vibrant, engaging, interesting, and unique. It also allows for more flexible editorial modeling and attracts a wider audience than, in the case of Gizmodo, gadget writing alone. There is nothing to fear by bringing on illustrators. If we’re wary of mixing cartoons with traditional journalism, we shouldn’t be — just look at The New Yorker’s fantastic work, their extensive lines of mugs, diaries, prints, umbrellas, postcards, and calendars. We already know our audience loves illustrations — Avatar is the highest-grossing film of all time, and The Simpsons is the longest-running show on TV. “The longer I work at Gawker, it really encourages you to go with your gut,” says Lam. “I think that everyone should try to do this.”

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 23 2010

18:00

Peter Rojas on how a move away from blogging is a return to its roots

When Peter Rojas deleted his Facebook account a few months ago, it wasn’t because he hates social networks. The evidence? Rojas sees media sites heading in a social direction. At a talk on the future of blogging at Emerson College yesterday, he said that we’re headed for a return to connectivity, civil discussion and a bottom-up approach — the kind of things he says marked the early days of blogging.

Rojas founded the Gawker gadget site Gizmodo and went on to start its rival Engadget. In all, the half dozen properties he’s started since the early 2000s attract about 30 million unique visitors each month. That success at driving traffic is, in part, what inspired his most recent project, a networked gadgets site called gdgt.

Rojas thinks it will be increasingly difficult to build an online content business in an environment where quantity is the primary goal. The constant urge to publish more content and drive pageviews is not doing much for the reader. “[The web] is always trying to drive more clicks,” he said. “When everyone is doing it, it becomes a zero sum game.” When ads are sold on a CPM basis that requires huge pageview numbers to make money, publishers start pushing out more and more content. “It’s sort of a tragedy of the commons where the tragedy is our attention,” he said.

Rojas hopes his latest project will offer a better user experience that sidesteps those pageview demands. Gdgt is a discussion site that connects people to each other via gadgets — the ones they own, the ones they want, the ones they’ve left behind. Users contribute most of the content, in the form of reviews, ratings, and discussions. The site will eventually role out new tools that will let users build reputations. For an example of what the site is like, check out Rojas’ Gdgt profile. It’s not a news site in the way Gizmodo and Engadget are, and the founders hope that opens up more opportunities for innovative revenue streams.

Cofounder of the site Ryan Block pointed out that news sites have often rejected the use of affiliate programs like Amazon Associates, which give a small cut to sites that refer purchasers, because they believe they’d create a perverse incentive to write positive reviews. Gdgt is already experimenting with sponsored gadgets, like this Panasonic TV, where the site gets a cut each time a reader clicks through and purchases. Rojas said he can also envision relationships with companies as another source of revenue, along with pro accounts or even a research service.

The site is also running in-person events modeled after trade shows that usually only journalists and buyers get to attend. Despite a lengthy list of event sponsors, Block said he doesn’t see the events as a moneymaker, even in the long run, but an interesting way for the site to offer an “extension of the metaphor” they’re creating online — and another way to make the experience more social.

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 01 2010

14:41

The Awl gets a sister site, Splitsider, which will be its “newsy-voicey” compliment in covering comedy

It sometimes feels like all the good topics are taken online — it’s uncommon to find a promising but untrampled niche for a new website. The folks behind The Awl hope they’ve found one in a new site up in beta today called Splitsider. It’ll cover the comedy industry for a ready audience of comedy nerds/lovers, and it’s the first evidence of the Awl expansion plans we wrote about in June.

Last week Adam Frucci, who is going to head up Splitsider, said goodbye to his readers at the Gawker Media site Gizmodo. Reflecting on his four years there, he asked: “What other job pays you to test drug paraphernalia and sex toys, to create goofy videos and unscientific quizzes? No other job, that’s what.” But there is still plenty in store for him at his new gig, where his colleagues will include Gawker veterans Choire Sicha and Alex Balk.

I spoke with Frucci about why moving on to Splitsidder was so appealing, considering his success at Gizmodo. “I’ve been at Gizmodo for four years,” he told me, “but I was never going to run Gizmodo.”

He’s in the process of sorting out what kinds of posts he wants to write himself and which contributors he plans to tap for regular features. “It’s been a lot of back and forth with writers,” he says. “I want people to be excited about what they write about.” Contributors will be unpaid, at least at first. (When I asked if he can guarantee book deals, like the kind Awl contributor Chris Lehmann landed for his unpaid column called Rich People Things, Frucci deadpanned, “I promise 100 percent if you contribute, you’ll get a book deal.”) He says the core of the site will be a running stream of newsy posts from him about things like which shows and writers getting deals, plus columns on specific topics.

Sibling sites

The site will compliment The Awl, posting content that at least some Awl readers should find interesting. That cross-promotion will help push early readers to the new site. But it’ll have a slightly different tone: Publisher David Cho told me that if The Awl is all about voice, Splitsider will be all about showing they can do “newsy voicey.”

Cho told me that the combination of content opportunity and voice is what made this an appealing prospect. “To have a great writer and a topic that no one else owned, that’s a huge opportunity,” he said. “I think from a content perspective, it might even have more potential than the Awl.” This spring, The Awl was up to about 400,000 pageviews per day. The bread and butter of Splitsider will be the die-hard comedy nerd (“they have nowhere to congregate now,” Cho says), plus the casual reader.

Risk

Frucci and Cho are optimistic, but there’s obviously risk involved. Frucci’s contract offers him the perks of getting to build and shape the site, plus a share of site revenue. But, if the site doesn’t take off, there’s no base salary for him to rely on. His old job at Gizmodo paid him a base plus bonuses for big traffic.

Cho agreed there’s a risk, but said he wouldn’t push him into something he thought would definitely fail. He added that you pretty much need a sink-or-swim personality to make this kind of project work. If you’re looking for stability, “I don’t think that’s the type of person we’d want for a job like this,” Cho said. “That’s the type of person whose going to get burn out.”

Frucci mentioned his idea for the site to Cho, who had his eye out for talented writers and good ideas for sites. Why launch with Cho and share revenue rather than go it alone? “I have no experience launching a site or selling ads,” he told me. “Basically, it makes it possible to do.” Cho says he “can get him a significantly higher CPM than if he were trying to do it on his own.”

Cho told me back in June that he hopes to launch several new sites this year. He’s keeping his eye out for interesting ideas and great writers to lead them. The details on the other sites are under wraps, but Cho did say “in a lot of ways, this site is a pilot.”

May 19 2010

17:18

The iPad as a writing coach’s dream

The tech writer Joel Johnson has a piece on Gizmodo about how he’s shifted to using an iPad when traveling instead of a full laptop. His experience matches my own (I love my iPad more than even I’d expected; it’s taken over 90+ percent of my casual web browsing), but what I was interested in was this paragraph. He’s talking about using an external Bluetooth keyboard with the iPad:

For long typing sessions, I found myself putting the keyboard on my lap while placing the iPad off to the side — sometimes not even in direct eyeshot. For longer writing, there’s a sort of freedom that comes from not even looking at the screen while you type. (My friend Quinn Norton said that on longer writing jags, she sometimes uses her wireless keyboard in a completely different room from her computer, a sort of modern twist on the big-keyboard-tiny-screen experience of early laptops like the Epson HX-20, which were for years favored by some journalists even as laptops with larger screens were commonplace.)

Actually, my first thought was to the Tandy 102. I still have one of those in a box somewhere, saved from being tossed out by The Toledo Blade in the late ’90s.

Obviously, writing journalism without seeing what you’re typing is, shall we say, problematic. But what a fascinating way to change up one’s writing rituals. I’m reminded of Nanowrimo, National Novel Writing Month, the annual November ritual where thousands of people try to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days. As I wrote back in 2008, the aggressive word-count requirements and the video-game-like nature of the word-count goal can actually encourage better writing than you think:

In a sense, Nanowrimo has the same appeal as the free writing your newspaper’s writing coach used to recommend (back when your newspaper could afford a writing coach). By releasing yourself from the normal bounds of quality — by killing off your inner editor — you can release yourself from your old habits and really write. Consider it a cleansing ritual for your writing voice.

Needless to say, something like what Quinn Norton is doing wouldn’t work in any but a small portion of journalistic endeavors. I won’t be writing any Lab pieces blind anytime soon. But I can imagine a sort of long essay where an approach like this could be a useful weapon against writer’s block. And I love the idea of acknowledging that our work tools aren’t invisible — that even if we take them for granted, they still influence the work we do with them. I feel like there’s a lesson for news companies that extends far beyond writing tools: being conscious of our tools (and methods, and patterns, and rules), making them visible, and thinking hard about the impact they have on how we do our work.

April 30 2010

14:30

This Week in Review: Gizmodo and the shield law, making sense of social data, and the WSJ’s local push

[Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week’s top stories about the future of news and the debates that grew up around them. —Josh]

Apple and Gizmodo’s shield law test: The biggest tech story of the last couple of weeks has undoubtedly been the gadget blog Gizmodo’s photos of a prototype of Apple’s next iPhone that was allegedly left in a bar by an Apple employee. That story got a lot more interesting for journalism- and media-oriented folks this week, when we found out that police raided a Gizmodo blogger’s apartment based on a search warrant for theft.

What had been a leaked-gadget story turned into a case study on web journalism and the shield law. Mashable and Poynter did a fine job of laying out the facts of the case and the legal principles at stake: Was Gizmodo engaged in acts of journalism when it paid for the lost iPhone and published information about it? Social media consultant Simon Owens has a good roundup of opinions on the issue, including whether the situation would be different if Gizmodo hadn’t bought the iPhone.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group, came out most strongly against the raid, arguing to Wired and Laptop magazine and in its own post that California law is clear that the Gizmodo blogger was acting as a reporter. The Citizen Media Law Project’s Sam Bayard agreed, backing the point up with a bit more case history. Not everyone had Gizmodo’s back, though: In a piece written before the raid, media critic Jeff Bercovici of Daily Finance said that Gizmodo was guilty of straight-up theft, journalistic motives or no.

J-prof Jay Rosen added a helpful clarification to the “are bloggers journalists” debate (it’s actually about whether Gizmodo was engaged in an act of journalism, he says) and ex-Saloner Scott Rosenberg reached back to a piece he wrote five years ago to explain why that debate frustrates him so much. Meanwhile, the Columbia Journalism Review noted that the Gizmodo incident was just one in a long line of examples of Apple’s anti-press behavior.

Bridging the newsroom-academy gap: Texas j-prof Rosental Alves held his annual International Symposium on Online Journalism last weekend, and thanks to a lot of people’s work in documenting the conference, we have access to much of what was presented and discussed there. The conference site and Canadian professor Alfred Hermida devoted about 20 posts each to the event’s sessions and guests, so there’s loads of great stuff to peruse if you have time.

The conference included presentations on all kinds of stuff like Wikipedia, news site design, online comments, micropayments, and news innovation, but I want to highlight two sessions in particular. The first is the keynote by Demand Media’s Steven Kydd, who defended the company’s content and businessmodel from criticism that it’s a harmful “content farm.” Kydd described Demand Media as “service journalism,” providing content on subjects that people want to know about while giving freelancers another market. You can check summaries of his talk at the official site, Hermida’s blog, and in a live blog by Matt Thompson. The conference site also has video of the Q&A session and reflections on Kydd’s charisma and a disappointing audience reaction. The other session worth taking a closer look at was a panel on nonprofit journalism, which, judging from Hermida and the conference’s roundups, seemed especially rich with insight into particular organizations’ approaches.

The conference got Matt Thompson, a veteran of both the newsroom and the academy who’s currently working for NPR, thinking about what researchers can do to bring the two arenas closer together. “I saw a number of studies this weekend that working journalists would find fascinating and helpful,” he wrote. “Yet they’re not available in forms I’d feel comfortable sending around the newsroom.” He has some practical, doable tips that should be required reading for journalism researchers.

Making sense of social data: Most of the commentary on Facebook’s recent big announcements came out last week, but there’s still been plenty of good stuff since then. The tech blog ReadWriteWeb published the best explanation yet of what these moves mean, questioning whether publishers will be willing to give up ownership of their comments and ratings to Facebook. Writers at ReadWriteWeb and O’Reilly Radar also defended Facebook’s expansion against last week’s privacy concerns.

Three other folks did a little bit of thinking about the social effects of Facebook’s spread across the web: New media prof Jeff Jarvis said Facebook isn’t just identifying us throughout the web, it’s adding a valuable layer of data on places, things, ideas, everything. But, he cautions, that data isn’t worth much if it’s controlled by a company and the crowd isn’t able to create meaning out of it. Columbia grad student Vadim Lavrusik made the case for a “social nut graph” that gives context to this flood of data and allows people to do something more substantive than “like” things. PR blogger Paul Seaman wondered about how much people will trust Facebook with their data while knowing that they’re giving up some of their privacy rights for Facebook’s basic services. And social media researcher danah boyd had some insightful thoughts about the deeper issue of privacy in a world of “big data.”

The Wall Street Journal goes local: The Wall Street Journal made the big move in its war with The New York Times this week, launching its long-expected New York edition. The Times’ media columnist, David Carr, took a pretty thorough look at the first day’s offering and the fight in general, and Columbia j-prof Sree Sreenivasan liked what he saw from the Journal on day one.

Slate media critic Jack Shafer said the struggle between the Journal and the Times is a personal one for the Journal’s owner, Rupert Murdoch — he wants to own Manhattan, and he wants to see the Times go down in flames there. Meanwhile, Jeff Jarvis stifled a yawn, calling it “two dinosaurs fighting over a dodo bird.”

Along with its local edition, the Journal also announced a partnership with the geolocation site Foursquare that gives users news tips or factoids when they check in at certain places around New York — a bit more of a hard-news angle than Foursquare’s other news partnerships so far. Over at GigaOm, Mathew Ingram applauded the Journal’s innovation but questioned whether it would help the paper much.

Apple and app control: The fury over Pulitzer-winning cartoonist Mark Fiore’s proposed iPhone app has largely died down, but there were a few more app-censorship developments this week to note. MSNBC.com cartoonist Daryl Cagle pointed out that despite Apple’s letup in Fiore’s case, they’re not reconsidering their rejection of his “Tiger Woods cartoons” app. Political satirist Daniel Kurtzman had two of his apps rejected, too, and an app of Michael Wolff’s Newser column — which frequently mocks Apple’s Steve Jobs — was nixed as well. Asked about the iPad at the aforementioned International Symposium on Online Journalism, renowned web scholar Ethan Zuckerman said Apple’s control over apps makes him “very nervous.”

The New Yorker’s Ken Auletta also went deep into the iPad’s implications for publishers this week in a piece on the iPad, the Kindle and the book industry. You can hear him delve into those issues in interviews with Charlie Rose and Fresh Air’s Terry Gross.

Reading roundup: We had some great smaller conversations on a handful of news-related topics this week.

— Long-form journalism has been getting a lot of attention lately. Slate’s Jack Shafer wrote about longform.org, an effort to collect and link to the best narrative journalism on the web. Several journalistic heavyweights — Gay Talese, Buzz Bissinger, Bill Keller — sang the praises of narrative journalism during a Boston University conference on the subject.

Nieman Storyboard focused on Keller’s message, in which he expressed optimism that long-form journalism could thrive in the age of the web. Jason Fry agreed with Keller’s main thrust but took issue with the points he made to get there. Meanwhile, Jonathan Stray argued that “the web is more amenable to journalism of different levels of quality and completeness” and urges journalists not to cut on the web what they’re used to leaving out in print.

— FEED co-founder Steven Johnson gave a lecture at Columbia last week about the future of text, especially as it relates to tablets and e-readers. You can check it out here as an essay and here on video. Johnson criticizes the New York Times and Wall Street Journal for creating iPad apps that don’t let users manipulate text. The American Prospect’s Nancy Scola appreciates the argument, but says Johnson ignored the significant cultural impact of a closed app process.

— Two intriguing sets of ideas for news design online: Belgian designer Stijn Debrouwere has spent the last three weeks writing a thoughtful series of posts exploring a new set of principles for news design, and French media consultant Frederic Filloux argues that most news sites are an ineffective, restrictive funnel that cut users off from their most interesting content. Instead, he proposes a “serendipity test” for news sites.

— Finally, if you have 40 free minutes sometime, I highly recommend watching the Lab editor Joshua Benton’s recent lecture at Harvard’s Berkman Center on aggregation and journalism. Benton makes a compelling argument from history that all journalism is aggregation and says that if journalists don’t like the aggregation they’re seeing online, they need to do it better. It makes for a great introductory piece on journalism practices in transition on the web.

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.

February 02 2010

17:00

CNET and Gizmodo are sharing content, and they don’t seem worried about a “duplicate penalty”

CNET and Gizmodo have been sharing content for the last couple months. I confirmed that a partnership exists, but requests for additional information from either party were not fruitful.

Frankly, the most intriguing aspect of this partnership is already in plain view: The sites are posting the same articles. Take a look at this Gizmodo story then click over to the CNET version. Headlines change and there are subtle formatting differences, but the body copy is essentially the same.

Why is this relevant? If you’ve spent any time in the SEO world, you’ve probably heard of the semi-mythical duplication rule. As far as I can tell, CNET and Gizmodo are in duplication’s gray area.

The duplication penalty, or lack thereof

The cautionary tale of duplication generally goes like this: Google wants its search results to give precedence to the most popular/legitimate/relevant pages, and it’s tough to pull that off if the same articles appear on different domains. So Google uses filters to push copycats to the margins. Some people call this the “duplicate penalty,” but that’s a misnomer. Google isn’t slapping hands.

Here’s how Google describes its policy on cross-site duplication:

If you syndicate your content on other sites, Google will always show the version we think is most appropriate for users in each given search, which may or may not be the version you’d prefer. However, it is helpful to ensure that each site on which your content is syndicated includes a link back to your original article. You can also ask those who use your syndicated material to use the noindex meta tag to prevent search engines from indexing their version of the content.

The noindex meta tag doesn’t appear in the source code of these sample stories from Gizmodo and CNET. However, CNET’s version does link back to Gizmodo’s original. Gizmodo returns the favor when it’s hosting CNET content. (Both show up in a Google search for one of the article’s sentences: Gizmodo’s version is No. 1, CNET’s No. 4.)

Since the noindex tag represents the outer limits of my search engine understanding, I dropped a line to Brent Payne, the Tribune Co.’s head of SEO, to get his take on this type of content share.

Payne said variation between two similar articles could help both pieces rank well in search engines. But achieving this variation requires each story to have its own inbound links, as well as feature different title tags, different headlines, and altered HTML and body text. CNET and Gizmodo customize titles and headlines. The body copy doesn’t really change.

Payne noted that Google supports a “canonical” feature that signals the original version of a story (or the version that’s supposed to get the most attention). The canonical tool doesn’t appear to be in use by CNET or Gizmodo.

Payne also brought up an interesting point about Google News, which doesn’t share its big brother’s hang-ups about duplicate content. He said a duplicate article that cites the original — something CNET and Gizmodo both do — could give the original “extra weight” in Google News.

Why are they sharing?

All of this inside-SEO stuff is interesting, but it doesn’t really answer the big question: What’s the upside to duplication?

I’ve got a couple guesses:

Marketing: It used to be you’d visit a publisher’s site to see their latest content, but readers now discover material in a variety of ways — Twitter, Facebook, Digg, RSS, etc. One analytics firm estimates on-site engagement dropped 50 percent between 2007-2009. Smart publishers are already addressing this by pushing content beyond their own sites. Toward that end, Gawker Media (owner of Gizmodo) could be using the CNET partnership to “find the next million people.”

Money (obviously): An influx of content can theoretically generate page views, unique visitors, and better user-session times. Good metrics lead to better ad rates and more revenue.

Again, these are just guesses. I’m sure we’ve got SEO and marketing wizards in the audience, so please post a comment if you see clearer explanations.

January 07 2010

15:13

To grow, Gawker turns its attention to unique users

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Update: Denton followed up with a clarification:

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

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