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April 25 2012

15:43

Worldcrunch wants to be the Internet’s Rosetta Stone for news

As the translation-based news service Worldcrunch approaches the one-year anniversary of their launch, it’s also tweaking its business approach in three key ways that co-founders Jeff Israely and Irène Toporkoff hope will help it thrive.

Worldcrunch’s central goal is to find news that wouldn’t otherwise appear in English-speaking news sources at a time when U.S. news organizations have slashed their budgets for international coverage. You may recognize Israely, a former Time correspondent, from his regular column for Nieman Lab about the process of launching a news startup. A year in, he’s getting a better sense of what it takes to keep one going.

First, Worldcrunch has plans to increase its output. The most straightforward way to do this, as many news organizations have found, is to aggregate from other sources. But Worldcrunch will do so with a twist: Call it translaggregating — translating what you aggregate.

“That’s going to allow us to really be more dynamic, more reactive, and expand the kind of stories we can produce, and how we can produce them, and when we can produce them,” Israely told me from Paris, where Worldcrunch is based.

One way the site aims to bump up the volume of aggregated material is through a crowdsourced initiative it’s calling “Crunch It.” For now, Worldcrunch is calling on volunteers to nominate articles for translation, “English-ize” them, and vote for the best finished pieces. But Israely said the Worldcrunch team is still figuring out exactly how process will work. He calls the initative “in the neighborhood of crowdsourcing,” but he also wants to put certain quality safeguards in place. Making sure a story is right for Worldcrunch isn’t simply about impeccable multilingual skills — it has to be a story that doesn’t already appear in English.

“They think that content is self-generating, and you just need the tools to filter it, to aggregate it, to monetize it. We don’t agree with that.”

“In addition, the original story itself has to stand up,” Israely said. “It has to be a well written story. It has to be a story that has enough background material that allows it to travel. If Le Monde is writing a story about French schools, and if the story has too many references to things that only French people know, we’d have to transform the story and put in all kinds of context — our partners allow us to adapt the story and add in context when necessary — but if the whole process becomes rewriting and adding in context, it’s probably not a good story for us.”

The second key change Worldcrunch is making: it’s putting up “some kind of metered model” paywall “before summer.”

But even as the paywall goes up, Worldcrunch is shifting away from the idea that its website will be the sole hub for its readers. Arguably the most important development to the Worldcrunch business model is that it’s forging partnerships with English-language publications that will pay for translated content. Worldcrunch is already selling content to the Toronto Star, and is in talks with a U.S. publication about a similar deal.

Here’s how it works: A non-English news organization gives Worldcrunch permission to translate its content. Worldcrunch then posts the translated content to its website, and offers to sell it to English-language news organizations. Those organizations pay Worldcrunch an undisclosed amount, and Worldcrunch gives the original content producer a 40 percent cut.

Israely and Toporkoff see this distribution model as a win-win-win: The original publication gets a much wider audience for its stories (plus some extra revenue); English-language publications provide valuable international news to their readers; Worldcrunch can pay its bills and keep the cycle going.

With the slogan “all news is global,” the site operates with three editors and about a dozen freelance translators. Working with media partners across Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America, Worldcrunch translates about 30 articles per week into English from German, Turkish, French, Italian, Russian, Portuguese, Chinese, Arabic, and Spanish. Worldcrunch aims to do what even the old network of foreign bureaus had trouble doing: providing original, domestically produced coverage for an international audience.

Some examples that stand out for Israely and Torpokoff include diverse viewpoints about the economic situation in Turkey, coverage of tensions in the Middle East, an interview with maligned Italian former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi about his plans to resign, Russian election coverage by and for Russians, and a French-authored article about why French people reacted differently to the Dominique Strauss-Kahn scandal than residents of other countries. (Israely also points out the benefit of getting original French perspective about more lighthearted topics like perfume and food.)

Press freedom as a moving target

Earlier this month, German-language newspaper Die Welt published a column about a controversial poem penned by Nobel Prize winner and former Nazi Günter Grass (the poem was published in another German newspaper, Süddeutsche Zeitung), and Worldcrunch translated it.

While you could have read about the scandal in The New York Times, that story — published three days after the Worldcrunch piece — didn’t provide the same direct cultural perspective (the Times coverage has a joint byline from Israel- and Berlin-based correspondents). The Times reports that Grass’ views “are relatively common among European intellectuals,” though “strung together” in a way that incited outrage. But Henryk Broder’s column for Die Welt actually articulates those views in the context of the Grass imbroglio.

“The fact that [Grass] is accused of being anti-semitic and here you have the German press — this German writer in the German press — saying he is anti-semitic, and it’s not normal — I think that makes it interesting,” Toporkoff said. “Within Germany, there is debate. We have chosen to publish something that we found very interesting that says a lot about what’s happening in Germany, but also what happened in general.”

Then there is the “meta-example” that Israely gives of an article — from China’s Economic Observer — highlighting the global scarcity of press freedom.

“This was the Beijing paper reporting on this almost over-the-top sort of rabid, gossipy Hong Kong press right before the elections there,” Israely said. “Sort of explaining to Chinese readers how this is what a free press looks like with all its warts, and the beauty of being truly free and going after a candidate and sticking cameras into his backyard.”

Along those same lines, working with a (relatively) independent newspaper out of China can be unpredictable. Though there are certain boundaries he says The Economic Observer won’t cross (they won’t write about Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei, for instance), he has been surprised by how provocative, lively, and sometimes irreverent the paper can be.

“It’s a moving target, because it’s changing before our eyes,” Israely said. “The Economic Observer in Beijing actually does get shut down now and again. The site does get shut down, and our contact there says they’re in the penalty box essentially.”

Israely says that establishing partnerships in the first place is the hardest part. His job is to convince them of a principle that he says was best summed up in a recent TechCrunch article: Whoever creates the best content at the lowest cost possible will create the most value over time.

“It’s a very simple formula, but I think a lot of energy has been spent over the past few years where people — particularly on the tech side, thinking about the news business — they think that content isn’t an issue,” Israely said. “They think that there’s no shortage of content. They think that content is self-generating, and you just need the tools to filter it, to aggregate it, to monetize it. We don’t agree with that. We don’t think that news content just produces itself. It has to be produces and I don’t care about the labels — whether it’s journalists producing it, or in our case translators. But there needs to be a layer of journalism, or layers of journalism, to make it quality content.”

Photo of Earth by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center used under a Creative Commons license.

July 13 2010

14:00

Jeff Israely: With partners found, figuring out how best to link up

[Jeff Israely, a Time magazine foreign correspondent in Europe, is in the planning stages of a news startup — a "new global news website." He details his experience as a new news entrepreneur at his site, but he'll occasionally be describing the startup process here at the Lab. Read his first, second, third, and fourth installments. —Josh]

Dating-but-eager-to-marry is the metaphor I’ve used before to describe the search for a partner for my world news startup. Save a few cultural or religious contexts, said metaphor works less well once there is more than one potential partner. And I now have two, which adds new requirements of proper symmetry, good chemistry…and, yes, good lawyers.

Like plenty of other big and small things that have happened over the past year, it wasn’t a matter of seeking out this particular set of circumstances, but rather the result of a more general seeking fundamental to trying to launch something from scratch. So here we are: Irene, Jed, and Jeff…already facing a long list of hard questions about the future of digital news — from story selection and crowdsourcing to content management and business models — to which we must add another eternal question: Is three a crowd….or the magic number?

On paper, we three create excellent symmetry: Irene Toporkoff is a successful internet executive who knows what moves eyeballs and balance sheets online. She brings a global perspective and a strategic mind. Jed Micka is a computer engineer and project manager who knows how to turn digital concepts into concrete solutions. He too brings a global perspective and a strategic mind. My 12 years as a foreign correspondent provide the journalistic chops for our world news brand, and yes, some more global perspective. And the best proof of my strategic mind is that I found Irene and Jed!

At the 10th arrondissement café where we have begun meeting regularly, we also appear strong on chemistry. Ideas flow, we don’t speak over each other, we listen, there’s the kind of energy that convinces all that not only are the big bases covered by our different resumes but that the whole is (even!?) greater than the sum of its parts.

Over the past month, with Irene’s connections in Paris now added on top of my continuous plugging away at contacts in the news business, the pace of the project has picked up notably. We have also continued a general policy I have had from the start to meet with just about anyone who wants to listen: business people, advertising executives, journalism gurus, potential future employees. But as we get closer to our autumn launch, we are zeroing in on finding what we will need to actually be operative. And so the meetings have increasingly been with potential funders, and would-be media partners of our project — both to help provide the content, as well as distribute it to the readers.

I can say with both pride and trepidation that the interest has been quite high, though the questions are not few. One key lesson I’ve learned pitching our project is the difference between what we are currently immersed in — the sweat and strategy for getting the thing up off the ground, i.e., The Launch — and what the thing is going to be, i.e. The Vision. In a certain sense, both funders and partners assume that you are taking care of lining up the ducks: They want to know what it is you will become.

Still, the launch is ever more central now. And high on our agenda right now is solidifying our own partnership. Like questions about where and when to incorporate, copyright, branding…the three-way partnership agreement is part bureaucratic, part strategic, part everything.

It was, in other words, time to find a lawyer. Serge Vatine is a go-to attorney in the French startup world, whose Paris-based firm 11-100-34.com specializes in media and intellectual property law. Last week, the three of us were seated around a large rectangular table in Serge’s sunny sixth-floor office trying to hash out the framework for incorporation and the pacte d’actionnaires.

From my point of view, especially after having had some false starts from potential partners, I have some issues of well, er, commitment. Before divvying up the shares of a project that for many reasons is my baby, I want to see if there’s a way to more or less lock the others in for at least the next 12 months. Jed and Irene have each in their own way assured me of their allegiance to the project, but they know “I’m committed, just trust me!” is not enough in this kind of circumstance. Things change. Tides turn. Other offers arrive. Serge has suggested different possibilities, including setting certain objectives in each of our spheres of competence that must be met by a fixed date. Still, at a certain point, the startup lawyer turns would-be marriage counselor. “There’s a certain amount of trust and loyalty that goes into it,” Serge says. “There’s no way to guarantee everything.”

Indeed, Jed said after the meeting: “This is the pre-nup.” It means having a legal framework in place if the marriage fails. (Or, in the case of business, succeeds!) Indeed, 98 percent of the time my energy is focused on creating the conditions for things to go well. It’s looking lately that I am not the only one. More and more other optimists seem to be out there in the scrum that is reshaping of the news. Not that anyone thinks a lasting, society-wide solution is either easy or close. Not that there isn’t major foot-dragging and pessimism in some corners of the established media. But maybe the industry as a whole has turned a corner, and opportunities are appearing.

One sign is how much energy there is for an endeavor supposedly in such crisis from non-journalists, which prompted me to ask the two non-journalists in this project why they’re committed to it. No one as smart and strategic -– and grownup -– as Jed and Irene is going to be doing this for kicks. Each would have all kinds of professional opportunities that steered clear of the uncertainty reigning over the future of news. Of course, much of attraction of this particular project is the product itself, which will be unveiled this autumn. In the meantime, though, I wanted to share their thoughts about both why they want to join me in trying to build a new world news site, and where they think the digital media is heading:

Irene: When you called I thought, Oh no, not another Internet startup! But working on something that is editorial at its heart is different. I believe there are new ways for the Internet to add value, and also economic value, to the way information circulates. Branded news is struggling, but it will not disappear. The value these organizations have is too often underestimated. But we need to look for innovative ways to rethink the way they do business, to build bridges between the old and the new. People in the traditional media are starting to understand that many of us who work in the digital space are actually on their side. We are business people who can help make their activities sustainable. I have worked in the U.S., Brazil, Germany, France, and I know certain differences exist in the international media, from country to country. But there are two central questions that all should be asking: How do we get the most out of technology? How do we define what is news?

Jed: The paradox is that right now, with the flood of information readily available on the Internet, there is actually a shortage of quality information. Many people see blogs as the future of journalism, but a blog is merely one person’s effort; it lacks the resources and the structure necessary to ensure the same level of quality as a professionally edited piece. Like in a café discussion, the blogger is never forced to respond to the criticism raised by an independent editorial team. But this makes my job as a reader much more time-consuming because I then have to verify the information and identify the biases myself. You might draw an analogy to the debate about open and closed source software: In open source, developers choose which part of the code they will develop, with a tendency for the most glamorous aspects to be treated in great detail, at the expense of some features that will never showcase their intellectual prowess. MySQL is a great open source database that excels in certain tasks, but falls short compared to Oracle’s flagship database, a product that contains a much more robust feature set precisely because Oracle pays developers to work on the issues that are ignored by the “crowd.” Similarly, journalists must be paid too. The challenge is to find both the methods and business models to allow professional journalism to thrive alongside the voluntary efforts of the blogging community.

June 03 2010

16:00

Jeff Israely: The line between “content” and “journalism,” and deciding which side I want to be on

[Jeff Israely, a Time magazine foreign correspondent in Europe, is in the planning stages of a news startup — a "new global news website." He details his experience as a new news entrepreneur at his site, but he'll occasionally be describing the startup process here at the Lab. Read his first, second, and third installments. —Josh]

The digital information revolution is changing both the meaning and value of words. By now, we know a “friend” isn’t always a friend, and clouds and graphs don’t bring rain and spreadsheets.

After years of resisting, I’ve thrown myself into the new-media verbiage with relative gusto as I attempt to conquer my own modest corner of the digital landscape. Still, my brain/language synapses can sometimes misfire: When I saw Robert Scoble’s link last week to “one of the social services I am using a lot more lately,” I expected to click open details of his favorite new welfare program or rehab center.

The fluidity of what we say and hear when we write and read on the web may prompt an ironic LOL (annoying acronym) or old-fashioned harrumph (cool grandpa). But stopping to listen to ourselves may also help us better understand both what we might want to create in the new realm of information, and how to make it economically viable. As for my efforts, and just for fun, let me start by trying to define this very piece in two sentences or less: “This is an unpaid monthly “public diary” of shared professional experiences and observations and self-promotion (not necessarily in that order), written in fits and starts over two days at my home in Paris, with more attitude and less grammar than the stuff I’m paid to do, sweating (always) every word, inserting links to some though not all of my sources/inspiration, to be edited and distributed — with the press of a “Publish” button in Cambridge, Mass. — as far and long as its tail will carry it via a high-profile nonprofit website founded to help the news industry figure out how to be economically sustainable. While doing good journalism.”

Does the bad grammar — at Harvard, no less!? — and poor pay make this a blog post? My smart-ass hack colleagues would say good pay and good grammar have never been part of the journalist’s profile. The new media gurus would say the distinction is ultimately irrelevant. But rather than directly tackling this running dialectic between the j-word and b-word, let’s cut straight to the c-word: content, which may help us understand where the current meaning and value (economic and otherwise) of words intersect.

I don’t know when I first uttered this term in its internet guise, but I now use it constantly in talking about the media business in general, and in pitching my particular project. There is actually a rather linear linguistic path from its original off-line meaning (something contained — usually used in plural [the jar's contents]; [the drawer's contents]). It is matter that occupies a certain space; its particular characteristics (and value) are left to be (or not to be) defined. In Cyberville, it can be conceived of as the opposite, or complement, of a platform. We’re either building platforms and applications or producing content, or some combination thereof. Declaring that “I provide content” in today’s news business advertises one of two characteristics, or both: (a) I am capable of working in all media, any form or length; or (b) I am focused most of all on speed and technological innovation and maximizing human efficiency, rather than seeking depth and quality. We have seen in just the past few days how much the current market likes this latter approach.

“Journalism” instead has the air of something weighty, belabored, and — most of all — expensive to produce. Others talk about “storytelling,” which has a nice sound to it, but apparently leaves optional the integral relationship with breaking news and events — the news cycle — that traditional journalistic outlets (and Twitter!) are expected to provide.

Though I always make sure to slap the adjectives “quality” or “branded” on what our project will offer, I too have tended to opt for the content catch-all word as a way of talking the talk. But to walk the walk — September beta launch!? — forces me to think and speak for myself. And that means listening harder than ever. And that goes not just for language for language’s sake, but also specifically for the purpose of business.

Two conversations I’ve had in the past two weeks have brought clarity to the project’s revenue model: the first was a Skype to Atlanta with veteran CNN producer David Clinch, another traditional-media dude breaking off and doing his own global news thing; the second was a Montmartre coffee with former Orange executive and France director of Ask.com Irene Toporkoff, who I am now busy trying to woo (here too!?) to become a co-founder on the project. Both from what David is aiming to do and from Irene’s most recent experience as director general at Angie Interactive — and considering the nature of our product — it has become clear that the way to launch this project is what is generically known as B2B, that is, selling directly to other businesses, in this case, other major brands or web portals. “B2B,” Irene kept repeating. “It is an interesting project. But it has to be B2B…” In France, they call it an agence, which is an all-encompassing term that includes the wires (AFP), but also smaller and more niche content providers. In the new digital world, it can mean many things.

What we must make clear is that our product’s professionalism, (i.e., the economic exchange and oversight that go with paying for time plus labor) comes at a cost, but offers real value. It also has a name, and “content” just doesn’t cut it. With all the old-world pomposity we can muster, let’s just agree to call it journalism, mes amis. That label will continue to scare off some investors…and even some journalists. But to take on-the-ground, informed reporting and toss it in with the rest of the, er, stuff that’s out there undersells our product, both to the platforms and readers we hope will buy/consume it.

Some digital mavens will find this entire post a conceit, or just wrong-headed. All bets -– I mean all bets -– may in fact be off. Fifteen or 50 years from now, the big media outlets may all be gone, basic journalistic practices might go the way of the Tridentine mass, and people could be getting and giving all their relevant news and data via some sort of solar-powered informatron. Or more modestly, “journalism” will simply and slowly devolve into the mix of “content.” I’m betting that’s not the case, even as I rapidly try to prepare for no less than the revolution that is coming in one form or another.

But enough of my high-falutin’ ramblings. Blogs and journalism and the content of our lives should always make room for some fun, which brings to my most entertaining digital exchange of the past month. Though I’m not apt to pick fights on the web, late one night I gave in to Twitter snark temptation. More tales of Gerald Posner’s alleged plagiarism were popping up, so I fired off the following tweet: Gerald Posner didnt plagiarize…. he AGGREGATED!

About 10 minutes later, I followed that up with a couple of jabby tweets aimed directly at hyper-sly aggregator Newser and flagged the site’s founder-provocateur Michael Wolff.

The truth is that, though I think Newser is basically cheating (though not plagiarizing), and Wolff can be more nasty than snarky, I like watching him call the bluff of big media companies that clearly don’t know which way is up. Most of all, I was engaging him that evening because he’s funny as hell, so why not see him take a snarky swing at me? And right on time came his short and tweet response, showing how much communication can occur well short of the 140-character limit: “you sound so old fart-ish.” Nice! I’m pretty sure that means the same thing on- and offline. And Twitter, regardless of which content prevails, is a platform for the ages.

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