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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.

December 20 2010

17:00

Maybe not much will change at all: 2011 journalism predictions from Malik, Gillmor, Golis, Grimm, more

Editor’s Note: We’re wrapping up 2010 by asking some of the smartest people in journalism what the new year will bring.

Below are predictions from Andrew Golis, Dan Gillmor, Joe Grimm, Om Malik, Jim Brady, Seth Lewis, David Cohn, Jeff Israely, Barry Sussman, Evan Smith, and Joe Bergantino. Plus, to round things off, a few not-so-serious predictions from Dan Kennedy and Bob Garfield.

Seth C. Lewis, assistant professor of new media journalism, U. of Minnesota

So, the question is: how much will journalism and media change in 2011? My answer: not much, actually. I know that’s a contrarian view, at a time when so much seems to be in flux, so let me try to explain.

I think we tend to overestimate the volume of change that actually occurs in a given year, and at the same time underestimate the obduracy of individual and societal habits, routines, values, and bureaucratic systems. This doesn’t mean change doesn’t occur — of course it does! — but rather that it tends to be more incremental, more subtle, and even more glacial than we sometimes like to imagine. And I’m not trying to be a kill-joy here, for I love tracking the exciting future of journalism as much as anyone and have no particular fondness for the past. Rather, I’m coming at this question as a former journalist and present academic who studies the extent to which (professional) journalism’s core identity — its ethics, worldview, fundamental practices, etc. — is evolving in the digital age. The research out there suggests that change does come, yes, but not without considerable resistance and reluctance on the part of professions and institutions.

So, what does this mean for 2011? Well, that we’re more likely to see change occurring by degree rather than by kind. There will be more iPad news apps; more journalism crafted to take advantage of the social, viral, and “spreadable” nature of networked media; and more newsrooms experimenting with Big Data, both of the WikiLeaks and less sensational variety. There may even be some business-model breakthroughs as newspapers figure out a Groupon-like strategy for local advertising. But to see truly significant changes in kind — changes to the very DNA of journalism and how it gets accomplished — we may have to look beyond 2011, toward something like a five-year or even a ten-year time horizon. Just as we can see rather significant changes in news work as we look back over the past decade, it may be a long while yet before we appreciate what’s really happening under our feet, and its impact (or lack thereof), in any particular year.

When I sit down and think about the future of media, I see two core problems with the media business at large. Most media entities tend to define themselves by features — magazines, newspapers, television and radio — while the audience aka the customers see media entities as “information” resources.

I think we are going to see the continuous destruction of value in the media industry because folks refuse to look beyond what is obvious and comfortable. That is precisely why we are going to see media industry lose a shirt on ill-conceived mobile applications, mostly because publishers want to replicate what they know best — an ambiguous, non-measurable advertising paradigm — on digital devices.

Similarly, the media entities will all come to a realization that chasing pageviews is a zero-sum game, and they are playing with a losing hand against zero-cost pageview-generation megafarms like Facebook, especially at a time when the modes of content consumption and discovery are changing. Content farms like Demand Media and Associated Content are commoditizing the value of banner ads and pageviews.

In 2011, I expect following to happen:

Bloomberg will continue its march and become one of the most powerful media entities in the U.S. It has television assets to go along with web, print offerings (Bloomberg BusinessWeek), and data terminals — making it a company in the business of selling information.

— We will see continued implosion of large-scale media barring a handful of national/transnational brands such as The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. 2011 is going to be particularly hard for companies that have cut back on their core competency — journalism.

— MSNBC make a serious bid to acquire The Huffington Post.

— The Discovery Group will become one of the major media groups. The company has done a good job of merging its cable television and web businesses with a thriving e-commerce business, making it less reliant on pure advertising revenues. In 2011, Oprah joins the Discover family. What’s good for Oprah is good for Om!

Andrew Golis, blogging czar, Yahoo News

2011 will be the year online journalistic innovation reaches scale.

For the first time, a critical mass of journalists — not just a handful of early-adopters — have moved beyond learning the core skill set or figuring out the inherent incentives of the web. They’ve mastered the craft and the medium and are primed to push boundaries and innovate.

At the same time, those who have been experimenting — be it startup, nonprofit, amateur, or otherwise — are coming away from their projects with lessons learned. Now their ambitions and ideas are less abstract, more tangible and ready to be implemented.

And add to that the fact that major news organizations have stopped playing defense and are pivoting to invest in things that will excite their fickle, fragmenting audiences.

2011, then, will be the year millions of Americans see the kind of experimentation and innovation Nieman Lab readers have been following.

The “woe is us” crowd, which dominated the conversation for the past several years, will be largely supplanted by the “wow, let’s try new things” multitudes who are experimenting with a huge variety of journalism and business models. We’ll also stop looking for magic solutions to the “problem” of replacing monopoly and oligopoly profits, recognizing that the emerging media ecosystem will be diverse and, in the end, more robust. The outlines of tomorrow’s ecosystem will begin to emerge as a small percentage of the experiments show signs of financial sustainability.

As we are flooded with more and more information, much of which is garbage, we’ll see a strong move toward trusted sources. This will take many forms. One will be a classic retreat to quality, as the best news providers retain or earn positions of trust. Another will be progress toward increasingly sophisticated combinations of human and machine intelligence, where aggregation and curation are melded so that people and communities can sort out what they need and want based on quality, popularity and reputation. But we’re also in the early days of this shift, so it won’t happen in a mere 12 months.

Overhanging all this will be who controls the ecosystem. Will it be us, the users, or will it be powerful interests that clamp down on what we can do? I fear that 2011 will be more of the latter, as media and communications incumbents, aided by a government that increasingly wants to control what we can see and do online, erect more and more barriers to innovation. The people who favor a diverse and robust media ecosystem will realize they need to become more political — and as they do they’ll help the public understand what’s at stake.

Jim Brady, former general manager, TBD

Local will be the next hot thing. The continued rise of mobile and location-based services will be major factors in that emergence, and will help drive major innovations in local journalism. I predict a steady rise in locally based startups.

You’ll see more longtime digital types abandoning their legacy roots and either going to web-only companies or starting their own things.

Social media will establish itself firmly as something that every media company will need to have a strategy and staff for. This isn’t a fad.

Partnerships will be a strong theme. Companies that once would never have considered even talking to each other will begin forming partnerships in order to allow each to focus on its strengths. As a result, news sites will continue to become more niche.

The number of niche news startups employing fewer than 20 people will begin to increase, and begin to cause grief for larger, more general-interest news sites.

The paywall debate will drone on for another year, and at the end of it, there will still be equally dug-in camps on both extremes of the issue. (That’s the prediction I feel most comfortable about).

Joe Grimm, Poynter blogger and recruiter, Patch.com

In 2011, I expect to see some shakeout of traditional and innovative newsrooms. Some of the new ones will have hit the wall that tells them they don’t have the right model to go forward. Legacy newsrooms seem to gaining traction with digital advertising and are feeling some traditional advertisers come back, but they have been substantially weakened and devalued. With the amount of cash that is sitting idle, I expect we will see some acquisitions among traditional media companies. The prize in those deals will be the content parts of the operations, of course.

I would not surprised if some traditional newsrooms are absorbed by digital companies looking to build credibly news-oriented footprints fast. Watch Yahoo! and Facebook in 2011 to see how they try to grow their reputations as news sources.

Mobile and tablets will continue to boom, with some shakeout among devices and a real gold rush to build apps, backed up by original news and news aggregation. Individualized services or services curated by friends will grow.

The WikiLeaks phenomenon will continue. As Julian Assange has recently said, he’ll move out of military leaks and into Wall Street. Instead of being unpatriotic, there will be new legal claims blasted at them (copyright, IP, privacy). The ongoing drama of Julian Assange will come to a head in some way shape or form (arrested, killed, stepping down), but WikiLeaks or another organization with the same ethos will remain. Somehow it must move beyond Julian Assange and just be WikiLeaks, or another leak-esque organization that doesn’t have a cult of personality.

The New York Times pay ramp will launch. It will neither be a huge success or a huge failure. The nature of the pay ramp means that the vast majority of people will still get free content from the Times. They’ll only be able to ask people who come to the site regularly to pony up some money. And that amount of money will have to be high enough to compensate for the loss in advertising dollars (when X percent of readers leave) and low enough that the X percent is as low as possible.

As a result, it’ll work. It might even make them some money. But the margin of error is so small here — if they charge too early or too much — that it won’t really solve the problem of print dollars to digital dimes.

Next year will mark the end of the pay vs. free debate as we’ve known it. In 2011, those on either side of the question who speak about it in ideological/philosophical/historical terms will begin to sound, like, so 2000s. We can all now agree that information neither “wants to be free” nor is a consumer good like any other. The confluence of more and cheaper tablets on the market, the Times’ metered-model rollout and Murdoch’s continued (and intentional) overplaying of his hand with thick paywalls will combine to help close the black-or-white era of this debate.

This doesn’t mean that next to the barrel-chested Murdoch, The New York Times will not look a bit, er, wimpy in its halting moves to charge for some of its content. But even if it has trouble finding the sweet spot on the meter (or communicating its intentions), it will become clear rather quickly in 2011 that for a quality/global news gathering organization like The New York Times, there is no turning back to the days of all free access. This is also does not mean that the Guardian or Des Moines Register or Twitter for that matter can’t have another approach. But from now on, they’ll always have to explain their choice in strategic terms.

Meanwhile, Julian Assange has shown that there are still plenty of religious battle lines to be drawn around the Internet and information, without having to debate whether it is right or wrong to charge people (who can afford it) for news and let those who would rather spend their money elsewhere find the free stuff.

Stories by nonprofit, online news organizations already have a foothold in elite national newspapers — but nothing like the prominence they’ll have in 2011. They will produce strong watchdog reporting and, as a result, they’ll draw sharply increased funding from individual large donors.

Evan Smith, editor-in-chief and CEO, Texas Tribune

More meaningful collaborations between nonprofits and for-profits!

Public TV and public radio will take a much more proactive role in helping fill the investigative reporting void that’s resulted from cutbacks at commercial media outlets.

Many more newspapers will attempt to monetize their websites with paywalls for “exclusive” content.

The experiments to pool, among local TV stations, more types of news coverage, will accelerate over the next year —leading eventually to the end of an era in which most major cities have at least three or four TV stations airing several newscasts.

Dan Kennedy, journalism professor, Northeastern U.

AOL executives, despairing at the dearth of advertising on their hyperlocal Patch.com sites will hit upon a bold new strategy: print. “We believe that publishing weekly community newspapers will prove to be the hottest new media idea since Twitter,” AOL chief executive Tim Armstrong will say. “A study we conducted shows that local businesses such as hardware stores, funeral homes, and nail salons are far more likely to advertise in a newspaper than online. Our goal is nothing less than to revolutionize local journalism and the business model that supports it.” Kirk Davis, president of GateHouse Media, which publishes nearly 400 weekly and daily community newspapers across the United States, will not be reachable for comment.

Time magazine will name Google’s ruling troika its Persons of the Year for 2011. In singling out chairman Eric Schmidt and co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page, the magazine will explain: “In a digital media world in which most consumers are all too willing to live under Apple’s semi-benign dictatorship, Google has kept the flame of openness alive, selling tablet computers and smartphones for which anyone can write applications without fear of censorship. The spirit of the garage-based startup lives.” In response, Apple CEO Steve Jobs will order Time’s iPad app to be removed from the App Store.

Rupert Murdoch’s “The Daily” debuts. Both subscribers are extremely satisfied.

In August, after months of crushing losses, The Daily Beast/Newsweek folds. In November, Howard Kurtz stops filing stories.

Glenn Beck shoots at two black helicopters hovering near his home, killing a Medevac pilot and a Fox 5 traffic babe.

Katie Couric steps down as anchor of CBS Evening News to join 60 Minutes, lowering the average correspondent age by 28 years. Kim Kardashian assumes Couric’s role reading the news.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, on trial in Sweden, is asked by prosecutor where he pays taxes. “None of your beeswax,” Assange replies.

On March 1, Steve Jobs introduces the iPatch, a tablet designed for content piracy. More than 30 million units sold on first day.

On April 1, 100 million iPatches explode, maiming the entire US population between 15 and 29.

Fearing revenue declines at its Kaplan Education subsidiary, the Washington Post Co. buys 49 percent of the Mafia.

Comcast, under FCC scrutiny for first time, sells NBC Universal to Barry Diller. Tina Brown brought in to run it.

Paul Krugman loses his sense of outrage. Universe contracts.

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