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May 26 2011

14:00

Topolsky and Bankoff on Engadget, SB Nation, and the new tech site that’s bringing them together

There can be a very real “through the looking glass” feel to working on a site that covers technology, especially when you start contemplating the technology of publishing. At least, that’s the situation Joshua Topolsky and his group of Engadget expats are finding themselves in as they ramp up to the fall unveiling of a new technology site that will live under the SB Nation flag.

“What we’re building and what we write about are the same thing in many ways,” Topolsky told me. “And for us that provides an incredibly unique point of observation.”

It says a lot about Topolsky, as well as his fellow Engadget-ites Nilay Patel, Ross Miller, Joanna Stern, Chris Ziegler, and Paul Miller, that while they could have spent the intervening time developing their new site in a bunker, they’ve instead decided to get out front and do what they do best, which is covering tech. They’ve been doing that on This is my next, their placeholder blog.

In migrating away from Engadget — and, in that, from the AOL/Huffington Post empire — the attraction to SB Nation, as Topolsky has written, came from the company’s publishing philosophy as much as its evolving publishing technology. As purveyors, chroniclers, and users of technology, Topolsky and his team are now in a unique position to develop a phenomenal tech site. It’s a scenario with Willy Wonk-ian overtones: They’ve been set loose in a candy store.

And yet, Topolsky told me, their aspirations are more modest than fantastical. If anything, they’re not looking to re-invent the blog or news site as we know them. They just want something that’s more adaptive both to the way stories are written and published, and to how audiences actually read them.

“We’re not trying to be Twitter or Facebook, as in this new thing people are using,” he said. “We want to be something that is just the evolved version of what we have been doing.”

The point, he said, is this: Reading on the web is an ever-changing thing, and publishers need to develop or embrace the technology that can respond to its evolution.

Topolsky isn’t releasing much information about the new site at this point, but in terms of his team’s coverage of the tech industry, he told me, they won’t be straying far from their Engadget roots. In many ways, what their Project X represents is an experiment in publishing and engagement technology, which fits in well with SB Nation’s M.O. One of the things they’re likely to be using on the site, for example, is SB Nation’s story streams, which provide constantly updated information on stories while also offering different access points to readers.

Though the site will also need to be able to accommodate things like multimedia (Topolsky said they it might use something similar to The Engadget Show for that, that that dynamic approach to narrative will work well for covering the latest updates on Google’s Android OS, say, or the tribulations of a phone producer like BlackBerry. “You write the news as seems appropriate and connect it automatically to a larger story, encompassing the narrative,” he said.

But what’s just as important as the tech, Topolsky pointed out, is an understanding between the editorial people and the developers, so when you need a new module or feature on the site both sides understand why — and how — it could work. In some of the more frustrating moments at Engadget, Topolsky said, he found himself having to plead his case to AOL developers in order to get site changes made.

That likely won’t be the case at SB Nation, which, as we’ve written about before, is more than willing to experiment with the blog format. It also helps that they’ve secured a healthy dose of new funding. When I spoke with SB Nation CEO Jim Bankoff, he noted that publishing companies are only as successful as the technology and people that comprise them.

“The foundation of our company is the marriage of editorial talent and technology, — sometimes I say people and platform,” he said. “We really believe that to be a new media-first company you have to be based on people who understand how to craft stories online.”

But other than trying to build inventive publishing systems out of the box, what makes the difference for SB Nation is its habit of addressing regular feedback from readers, Bankoff said. The developers at SB Nation, he noted, constantly update the sites based on comments from readers and contributors. If something’s in the service of making a better product, they’ll try it, he said.

Though the audiences for sports news and tech news have their own vagaries, there are some elements — cast of players, data points, and healthy competition — that they have in common. And those will go a long way towards helping to adapt and grow SB Nation’s publishing platform, Bankoff said. “Just like sports, there is an arc to every tech story — and we’re going to be able to really convey the various milestones across any big news item.”

June 09 2010

14:21

SB Nation CEO on how we’re fans of teams, not sports, T.V. shows, not T.V., and what that means for news

SB Nation — short for Sports Blog Nation — just announced it’s launching 20 new regional sports sites, with Houston and Dallas launching tomorrow aimed at competing with local newspapers’ sports sections and the new wave of local sports competitors like the ESPN local sites. SB Nation is a network of over 250 sites, most of them written by fans now paid on a contract basis. The vast majority of those writers have day jobs outside blogging. (Most common: lawyer.) Individual member blogs focus on one team or one sport, while the flagship site covers news of national interest.

SB Nation CEO Jim Bankoff is a former AOL executive with big plans for the site; at AOL, he was involved in the growth of prominent sites like TMZ and Engadget. I spoke with Bankoff this week about SB Nation’s expansion in the context of what news organizations can learn from the success of his project. “I actually think there is a bigger media story here,” Bankoff told me; he sees an opportunity for media companies to borrow some of SB Nation’s ideas. Here are a few.

Voice and perspective

SB Nation tosses aside the idea of objectivity. The premise of the site is to get sports fans hooked on their blogs written by sports fans. “We actually embrace fan bias and fan perspective,” Bankoff told me, adding that doesn’t mean they’re always cheerleaders: “Fans can be the most vocal critics of a team.” Writing with a point of view is still contentious in traditional newsrooms. It also helps that SB Nation sites focus on aggregation of and commentary on other people’s reporting than its own original work.

Focused content

Think of a typical newspaper sports section. It covers everything sports. Football, baseball, soccer, gymnastics — whatever season it is, that’s what you get. There’s a regional emphasis, but still, golf and ice skating live on the same pages. Bankoff’s approach is to think about people’s habits, rather than a broad topic. “We’re not fans of sports — we’re fans of teams,” Bankoff says. “We’re not fans of television. We’re fans of shows.” Are we interested in health? Perhaps, but we’re definitely interested in a disease, when we have one. Creating a community around a topic online needs to be sharply focused and relevant to readers.

Leverage repeat visitors

The potential to update a story in realtime is one of the great promises of the web. SB Nation has developed a good way to present updates, not unlike a tag page but with a sharper design. “One of our key innovations is the ’story stream,’” Bankoff told me, urging me to browse to the front page of his flagship. There I noticed several ongoing stories noting the number of updates posted, plus some links with time stamps. Clicking the update bar takes the reader to a stream of posts, organized by time stamp. An individual update provides the reader a link to the stream. Bankoff said it’s particularly handy for users following a story on a mobile device. (And repeat readers who keep hitting “Reload” for the latest updates are obviously appealing from an advertising perspective.)

“It was a little bit of an experiment,” Bankoff said. He wanted to improve on the various ways bloggers have updated stories in the past: the long single post with many updates pasted on top of each other, the tag (that is not immediately obvious to users), the disconnected posts that might appear in a “related posts” section. Those models have their merits but can be “clunky” and difficult for the user to navigate, he said. Bankoff said user feedback to the format has been positive.

Scalability

SB Nation has another advantage: It’s designed to expand. It’s the same instinct behind AOL’s hyperlocal project Patch (which hopes to launch “hundreds” of sites by the end of the year) and, on a smaller scale, the Gothamist or Gawker sites: Leverage the cost of the overhead of one site by running many. This is particularly important when you’ve invested in technology. SB Nation has a team of half a dozen developers who’ve built a shared platform that allows hundreds of users to contribute to the network sites at once, plus tools like the story stream and mobile products. With the technology in place, expansion becomes much less expensive. “We can expand in many directions,” Bankoff said.

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