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March 29 2011

14:00

The Geico Gecko meets The AOL Way: Are display advertisers too obsessed with click-through rates?

Late last year, AOL announced it would be revamping its ad platform, shrinking the number of ads it serves and expanding the sizes of those ads. In some cases the ad units would be four times larger than they were before. The move was seen by many as AOL’s attempt to address the abysmally-low click-through rates on display advertising, and senior executives admitted that they would see an immediate drop in revenue as a result of it; their hope was that in the long run advertisers would flock to the new platform and pay higher rates for these more successful ads.

According to several studies, click-through rates — the number of people who actually click on an ad — run well below 1 percent on most sites, and each year these rates get lower and lower. Some industry analysts have said this is a result of “banner blindness,” the idea that we inadvertently train our eyes to ignore certain parts of a web page, including sidebar and banner ads.

Depending on which side of the aisle you are on, these metrics are either a blessing or a curse. On the one hand, the Internet allows us to measure ad success like never before. In the past, advertising agencies would have to employ arcane formulas using Nielsen or circulation numbers to guess how many eyeballs saw a 30-second spot on television or a full-page ad in The New York Times. Now, we can open up Google Analytics or click-tracking software to determine exactly how many users engaged with an ad. We can even in some cases determine conversion rates, measuring not only how many people clicked on an ad, but also how many actually purchased a product after making the click. These metrics are a welcome relief to the client who famously said, “I know I am wasting half my advertising budget; I just don’t know which half.”

But many publishers and advertising agencies have expressed frustration that their industry is beholden to such confined measurement. By focusing so much on direct response, they argue, advertisers are missing out on the larger branding opportunities afforded by creative advertising. The Geico Gecko is not successful because he inspires people to jump up from their couches and purchase car insurance; he’s successful because when a person decides months later to shop around for car insurance, his image springs to mind.

Earlier this month, a company called MediaMind released a comprehensive study on the performance of financial services display ads. MediaMind specializes in hosting ads and collecting a variety of performance metrics for advertisers. If Goldman Sachs wanted to advertise on NYTimes.com, for example, MediaMind would host the ad on its own servers and give the NYT a link to pull the ad onto its site. The company would then measure how many times the ad is loaded, how many people click on it, and even how many hover their mouse over the ad without clicking — what MediaMind refers to as “dwell.”

For this particular study, MediaMind analyzed 28 billion ad impressions and terabytes of data to determine what kinds of financial service ads — whether for banks, credit cards, or insurance companies — performed best. The average click-through rate on such ads is .09 percent, with an even lower post-click conversion rate of .03 percent. Perhaps more encouragingly, though, the “dwell” rate for these ads was 4.26 percent, meaning that nearly one in every 20 users hovered his or her mouse over an ad — an indication, MediaMind said, that the ad carried influence even if it didn’t lead to a click. The study claimed financial service ads had an overall conversion rate higher than their click-through conversion rate — .16 percent vs .03 percent — because some of the users who didn’t actually click on the ad still visited the advertiser later. One of the biggest takeaways from the study was that a user’s engagement with an ad sharply falls after the first time he has seen it, meaning that if he sees an ad on NYTimes.com and then later on WashingtonPost.com, he’s much less likely to click on the Post’s ad than a reader who is seeing it there for the first time.

To understand the click-through rate dilemma many advertisers face, one merely has to dive into MediaMind’s findings about which kinds of ads perform best: The highest click-through rates were for credit cards, while the lowest were for car and home-owners’ insurance. Ariel Geifman, MediaMind’s principal research analyst, explained to me in a phone interview that the credit card ads perform better because many people are almost always willing to try a new credit card with a better rate. But why did the insurance ads perform so poorly? “We think it’s because users only need a policy once a year, so you only need to get people at the point when they’re thinking about it — which is really hard,” Geifman said. “Unlike credit cards, users are not actively shopping for better insurance offers all the time, only once a year. You have to tempt them with an offer exactly at that point in order to get them to consider it.”

Display advertising, in other words, is lacking a Geico Gecko strategy.

Geifman told me that despite pushes for advertisers to take a much more “holistic” view, they’re still measuring their success on click-through and conversion metrics. “People try to focus more on the tangible rather than the intangible metrics,” he said. “In the furture, display advertising is going to be a lot more focused on branding.”

But will it? John Battelle, founder of Federated Media and a board member of the Interactive Advertising Bureau, has spent a lot of time contemplating this question. Federated Media is an ad network that provides advertising for hundreds of publishers, seeing more than a billion ad impressions a month. (I’ve written for some outlets that use FM advertising.) “No matter what, we have to live in a world where the question, ‘Does the consumer click on my ad?’ is the fundamental and only consistent signal in display advertising that is universally understood,” Battelle said in a phone conversation. “That impulse has a lot of implications. When people optimize click-through rates, it changes all sorts of decisions that can inevitablly lead down a path towards, in essence, the direct-response approach to advertising. Which is to say, if you optimize your creative — your media buy, your placement, everything — to this one signal, and you tell your agencies and your publishing partners that’s what’s most important, you’re going to get behaviors that drive clicks. And that sort of ignores a very large percentage of the value of advertising, which has to do with changing the perception, awareness, and potentially other important signals of value in the ecosystem. Unfortunately, it’s something we’ve had to live with because it’s the only standard that’s easily measured.”

To show the short-sightedness of such metrics, Battelle cited a comScore study that found in 2009 that 4 percent of Internet users drive a whopping 67 percent of all advertising clicks. Do we really want to target our ads, he asked rhetorically, to such a small user base — the online equivalent to those who respond to late-night infomercials?

Though the display advertising industry has been slow to battle this trend, it has taken steps to ameliorate it. Part of the problem, as the recent AOL ad revamp indicated, is that display ads are small. It’s very difficult to replicate the full-page ad of a print newspaper or magazine, and there’s only so much you can convey in a tiny box on a website’s sidebar. In 2009, Federated Media launched a product called an Ad STAMP that allows an advertiser to purchase multiple ad slots and effectively take over an entire page. The same year, Daily Kos hosted a “skin” advertising platform for a then-upcoming Frontline program called “Obama’s War.” The skin wrapped around all the Kos content, effectively bombarding the reader with the brand (while not intruding on the actual blog posts). BlogAds, a North Carolina-based ad network that serves ads to Daily Kos and hundreds of other blogs, has also experimented with including social content from sites like Twitter directly into the ads themselves.

In an interview last year, I asked BlogAds founder Henry Copeland which industries should rely less on click-through rates and more on long-term brand influence. He pointed to the entertainment industry as one example. “For instance, with TV shows or with a movie, very few people buy the ticket online,” he said. “So the real measure is you spent X amount in advertising and then you put this many seats in movie theaters.”

In the AOL Way, leaked to the Business Insider last year, the company indicated that an individual blog post needs about 7,000 pageviews to generate a profitable amount of advertising revenue. With the average cost per piece of content pegged at $84 and a target of an average gross margin of 50 percent, that puts AOL’s CPM at $18. In other words, it hopes to generate $18 for every thousand pageviews it generates. At a .09 percent click-through rate, we’re looking at about $18 per click. Given that you can get much better rates on advertising platforms like Google Adwords and Facebook’s targeted display advertising, it isn’t hard to see why a publisher would want to steer an advertiser’s focus away from raw clicks alone.

“You don’t build brands by optimizing for clicks,” Battelle told me. “There needs to be other measurments as to whether your audience is aware of and gaining value from the messaging you’re doing on these sites through display advertising.”

Of course, some would accuse these publishers of trying to put the new clothes back on the emperor. But as AOL shifts further away from its declining subscription revenue and more toward an ad-based model, it’s not surprising that it wants to convince advertisers that there is, in fact, value in a banner and sidebar ad. How much value is there will determine whether Tim Armstrong’s quest to build a content-based company will result in success or dismal failure.

Portrait of the Geico Gecko by Thomas23 used under a Creative Commons license.

March 10 2011

17:00

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 03 2010

21:59

April 16 2010

13:20

This Week in Review: News talk and tips at ASNE, iPad’s ‘walled garden,’ and news execs look for revenue

[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]

Schmidt and Huffington’s advice for news execs: This week wasn’t a terribly eventful one in the future-of-journalism world, but a decent amount of the interesting stuff that was said came out of Washington D.C., site of the annual American Society of News Editors conference. The most talked-about session there was Sunday night’s keynote address by Google CEO Eric Schmidt, who told the news execs there that their industry is in trouble because it hasn’t found a way to sustain itself financially, not because its way of producing or delivering news is broken. “We have a business-model problem, we don’t have a news problem,” Schmidt said.

After buttering the crowd up a bit, Schmidt urged them to produce news for an environment that’s driven largely by mobile devices, immediacy, and personalization, and he gave them a glimpse of what those priorities look like at Google. Politico and the Lab’s Megan Garber have summaries of the talk, and paidContent has video.

There were bunches more sessions and panels (American Journalism Review’s Rem Rieder really liked them), but two I want to highlight in particular. One was a panel with New York Times media critic David Carr, new-media titan Ariana Huffington and the Orlando Sentinel’s Mark Russell on the “24/7 news cycle.” The Lab’s report on the session focused on four themes, with one emerging most prominently — the need for context to make sense out of the modern stream of news. St. Petersburg Times media critic Eric Deggans and University of Maryland student Adam Kerlin also zeroed in on the panelists’ call to develop deeper trust and participation among readers.

The second was a presentation by Allbritton’s Steve Buttry that provides a perfect fleshing-out of the mobile-centric vision Schmidt gave in his keynote. Poynter’s Damon Kiesow had a short preview, and Buttry has a longer one that includes a good list of practical suggestions for newsrooms to start a mobile transformation. (He also has slides from his talk, and he posted a comprehensive mobile strategy for news orgs back in November, if you want to dive in deep.)

There was plenty of other food for thought, too: Joel Kramer of the Twin Cities nonprofit news org MinnPost shared his experiences with building community, and one “where do we go from here?” panel seemed to capture news execs’ ambivalence about the future of their industry. Students from local universities also put together a blog on the conference with a Twitter stream and short recaps of just about every session, and it’s worth a look-through. Two panels of particular interest: One on government subsidies for news and another with Kelly McBride of Poynter’s thoughts on the “fifth estate” of citizen journalists, bloggers, nonprofits and others.

Is a closed iPad bad for news?: In the second week after the iPad’s release, much of the commentary centered once again on Apple’s control over the device. In a long, thoughtful post, Media watcher Dan Gillmor focused on Apple’s close relationship with The New York Times, posing a couple of arresting questions for news orgs creating iPad apps: Does Apple have the unilateral right to remove your app for any reason it wants, and why are you OK with that kind of control?

On Thursday he got a perfect example, when the Lab’s Laura McGann reported that Pulitzer-winning cartoonist Mark Fiore’s iPhone app was rejected in December because it “contains content that ridicules public figures.” Several other folks echoed Gillmor’s alarm, with pomo blogger Terry Heaton asserting that the iPad is a move by the status quo to retake what it believes is its rightful place in the culture. O’Reilly Radar’s Jim Stogdill says that if you bought an iPad, you aren’t really getting a computer so much as “a 16GB Walmart store shelf that fits on your lap … and Apple got you to pay for the building.” And blogging/RSS/podcasting pioneer Dave Winer says the iPad doesn’t change much for news because it’s so difficult to create media with.

But in a column for The New York Times, web thinker Steven Johnson adds an important caveat: While he’s long been an advocate of open systems, he notes that the iPhone software platform has been the most innovative in the history in computing, despite being closed. He attributes that to simpler use for its consumers, as well as simpler tasks for developers. While Johnson still has serious misgivings about the Apple’s closed policy from a control standpoint, he concludes that “sometimes, if you get the conditions right, a walled garden can turn into a rain forest.”

In related iPad issues, DigitalBeat’s Subrahmanyam KVJ takes a step back and looks at control issues with Apple, Facebook, Twitter and Google. Florida j-prof Mindy McAdams has a detailed examination of the future of HTML5 and Flash in light of Adobe’s battle with Adobe over the iPad. Oh yeah, and to the surprise of no one, a bunch of companies, including Google, are developing iPad competitors.

News editors’ pessimism: A survey released Monday by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism presented a striking glimpse into the minds of America’s news executives. Perhaps most arresting (and depressing) was the finding that nearly half of the editors surveyed said that without a significant new revenue stream, their news orgs would go under within a decade, and nearly a third gave their org five years or less.

While some editors are looking at putting up paywalls online as that new revenue source, the nation’s news execs aren’t exactly overwhelmed at that prospect: 10 percent are actively working on building paywalls, and 32 percent are considering it. Much higher percentages of execs are working on online advertising, non-news products, local search and niche products as revenue sources.

One form of revenue that most news heads are definitely not crazy about is government subsidy: Three quarters of them, including nearly 90 percent of newspaper editors, had “serious reservations” about that kind of funding (the highest level of concern they could choose). The numbers were lower for tax subsidies, but even then, only 19 percent said they’d be open to it.

The report itself makes for a pretty fascinating read, and The New York Times has a good summary, too. The St. Pete Times’ Eric Deggans wonders how bad things would have to get before execs would be willing to accept government subsidies (pretty bad), and the Knight Digital Media Center’s Amy Gahran highlights the statistics on editors’ thoughts on what went wrong in their industry.

Twitter rolls out paid search: This week was a big one for Twitter: We finally found out some of the key stats about the microblogging service, including how many users it has (105,779,710), and the U.S. Library of Congress announced it’s archiving all of everyone’s tweets, ever.

But the biggest news was Twitter’s announcement that it will implement what it calls Promoted Tweets — its first major step toward its long-anticipated sustainable revenue plan. As The New York Times explains, Promoted Tweets are paid advertisements that will show up first when you search on Twitter and, down the road, as part of your regular stream if they’re contextually relevant. Or, in Search Engine Land’s words, it’s paid search, at least initially.

Search blogger John Battelle has some initial thoughts on the move: He thinks Twitter seems to be going about things the right way, but the key shift is that this “will mark the first time, ever, that users of the service will see a tweet from someone they have not explicitly decided to follow.Alex Wilhelm of The Next Web gives us a helpful roadmap of where Twitter’s heading with all of its developments.

Anonymity and comments: A quick addendum to last month’s discussion about anonymous comments on news sites (which really has been ongoing since then, just very slowly): The New York Times’ Richard Perez-Pena wrote about many news organizations’ debates over whether to allow anonymous comments, and The Guardian’s Nigel Willmott explained why his paper’s site will still include anonymous commenting.

Meanwhile, former Salon-er Scott Rosenberg told media companies that they’d better treat it like a valuable conversation if they want it to be one (that means managing and directing it), rather than wondering what the heck’s the problem with those crazy commenters. And here at The Lab, Joshua Benton found that when the blogging empire Gawker made its comments a tiered system, their quality and quantity improved.

Reading roundup: This week I have three handy resources, three ideas worth pondering, and one final thought.

Three resources: If you’re looking for a zoomed-out perspective on the last year or two in journalism in transition, Daniel Bachhuber’s “canonical” reading list is a fine place to start. PaidContent has a nifty list of local newspapers that charge for news online, and Twitter went public with Twitter Media, a new blog to help media folks use Twitter to its fullest.

Three ideas worth pondering: Scott Lewis of the nonprofit news org Voice of San Diego talks to the Lab about how “explainers” for concepts and big news stories could be part of their business model, analysts Frederic Filloux and Alan Mutter take a close look at online news audiences and advertising, and Journal Register Co. head John Paton details his company’s plan to have one newspaper produce one day’s paper with only free web tools. (Jeff Jarvis, an adviser, shows how it might work and why he’s excited.)

One final thought: British j-prof Paul Bradshaw decries the “zero-sum game” attitude by professional journalists toward user-generated content that views any gain for UGC as a loss for the pros. He concludes with a wonderful piece of advice: “If you think the web is useless, make it useful. … Along the way, you might just find that there are hundreds of thousands of people doing exactly the same thing.”

March 05 2010

16:00

This Week in Review: Surveying the online news scene, web-first mags, and Facebook patents its feed

[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]

The online news landscape defined: Much of the discussion about journalism this week revolved around two survey-based studies. I’ll give you an overview on both and the conversation that surrounded them.

The first was a behemoth of a study by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project and Project for Excellence in Journalism. (Here’s Pew’s overview and the full report.) The report, called “Understanding the Participatory News Consumer,” is a treasure trove of fascinating statistics and thought-provoking nuggets on a variety of aspects of the world of online news. It breaks down into five basic parts: 1) The news environment in America; 2) How people use and feel about news; 3) news and the Internet; 4) Wireless news access; and 5) Personal, social and participatory news.

I’d suggest taking some time to browse a few of those sections to see what tidbits interest you, but to whet your appetite, the Lab’s Laura McGann has a few that jumped out at her — few people exclusively rely on the Internet for news, only half prefer “objective” news, and so on.

Several of the sections spurred their own discussions, led by the one focusing on the social nature of online news. GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram has a good summary of the study’s social-news findings, and Micah Sifry of techPresident highlights the sociological angle of news participation. Tech startup guy Dave Pell calls us “Curation Nation” and notes that for all our sharing, we don’t do much of the things going on in our own backyards. And Steve Yelvington has a short but smart take, noting that the sociality of news online is actually a return to normalcy, and the broadcast age was the weird intermission: “The one-way flow that is characteristic of print and electronic broadcasting is at odds with our nature. The Internet ends that directional tyranny.”

The other section of the study to get significant attention was the one on mobile news. PBS’ Idea Lab has the summary, and Poynter’s Mobile Media blog notes that an FCC study found similar results not long ago. Finally, Jason Fry has some hints for news organizations based on the study (people love weather news, and curation and social media have some value), and Ed Cafasso has some implications for marketing and PR folks.

A web-first philosophy for magazine sites: The Columbia Journalism Review also released another comprehensive, if not quite so sprawling, study on magazines and the web. (Here’s the full report and the CJR feature based on it.) The feature is a great overview of the study’s findings on such subjects on magazines’ missions on the web, their decision-making, their business models, editing, and use of social media and blogs. It’s a long read, but quite engaging for an article on an academic survey.

One of the more surprising (and encouraging) findings of the study is that magazine execs have a truly web-centric view of their online operation. Instead of just using the Internet as an extension of their print product, many execs are seeing the web as a valuable arena in itself. As one respondent put it, “We migrated from a print publication supplemented with online articles to an online publication supplemented with print editions.” That’s a seriously seismic shift in philosophy.

CJR also put up another brief post highlighting the finding that magazine websites on which the print editor makes most of the decisions tend to be less profitable. The New York Times’ report on the study centers on the far lower editing standards that magazines exercise online, and the editing-and-corrections guru Craig Silverman gives a few thoughts on the study’s editing and fact-checking findings.

Facebook patents the news feed: One significant story left over from last week: Facebook was granted a patent for its news feed. All Facebook broke the news, and included the key parts of Facebook’s description of what about the feed it’s patenting. As the tech blog ReadWriteWeb notes, this news could be huge — the news feed is a central concept within the social web and particularly Twitter, which is a news feed. But both blogs came to the tentative conclusion that the patent covers a stream of user activity updates within a social network, not status updates, leaving Twitter unaffected. (ReadWriteWeb’s summary is the best description of the situation.)

The patent still wasn’t popular. NYU news entrepreneur Cody Brown cautioned that patents like this could move innovation overseas, and New York venture capitalist Fred Wilson called the patent “lunacy,” making the case that software patents almost always reward derivative work. Facebook, Wilson says, dominates the world of social news feeds “because they out executed everyone else. But not because they invented the idea.” Meanwhile, The Big Money’s Caitlin McDevitt points out an interesting fact: When Facebook rolled out its news feed in 2006, it was ripped by its users. Now, the feed is a big part of the foundation of the social web.

What’s j-schools’ role in local news?Last week’s conversation about the newly announced local news partnership between The New York Times and New York University spilled over into a broader discussion about j-schools’ role in preserving local journalism. NYU professor Jay Rosen chatted with the Lab’s Seth Lewis about what the project might mean for other j-schools, and made an interesting connection between journalism education and pragmatism, arguing that “our knowledge develops not when we have the most magnificent theory or the best data but when we have a really, really good problem,” which is where j-schools should start.

An Inside Higher Ed article outlines several of the issues in play in j-school local news partnerships like this one, and Memphis j-prof Carrie Brown-Smith pushes back against the idea that j-schools are exploiting students by keeping enrollment high while the industry contracts. She argues that the skills picked up in a journalism education — thinking critically about information, checking its accuracy, communicating ideas clearly, and so on — are applicable to a wide variety of fields, as well as good old active citizenship itself. News business expert Alan Mutter comes from a similar perspective on the exploitation question, saying that hands-on experience through projects like NYU’s new one is the best thing j-schools can do for their students.

This week in iPad tidbits: Not a heck of a lot happened in the world of the iPad this week, but there’ll be enough regular developments and opinions that I should probably include a short update every week to keep you up to speed. This week, the Associated Press announced plans to create a paid service on the iPad, and the book publisher Penguin gave us a sneak peek at their iPad app and strategy.

Wired editor-in-chief Chris Anderson and tech writer James Kendrick both opined on whether the iPad will save magazines: Anderson said yes, and Kendrick said no. John Battelle, one of Wired’s founders, told us why he doesn’t like the iPad: “It’s an old school, locked in distribution channel that doesn’t want to play by the new rules of search+social.”

Reading roundup: I’ve got an abnormally large amount of miscellaneous journalism reading for you this week. Let’s start with two conversations to keep an eye on: First, in the last month or so, we’ve been seeing a lot of discussion on science journalism, sparked in part by a couple of major science conferences. This is a robust conversation that’s been ongoing, and it’s worth diving into for anyone at the intersection of those two issues. NYU professor Ivan Oransky made his own splash last week by launching a blog about embargoes in science journalism.

Second, the Lab’s resident nonprofit guru Jim Barnett published a set of criteria for determining whether a nonprofit journalism outfit is legitimate. Jay Rosen objected to the professionalism requirement and created his own list. Some great nuts-and-bolts-of-journalism talk here.

Also at the Lab, Martin Langeveld came out with the second part of his analysis on newspapers’ quarterly filings, with info on the Washington Post Co., Scripps, Belo, and Journal Communications. The Columbia Journalism Review’s Ryan Chittum drills a bit deeper into the question of how much of online advertising comes from print “upsells.”

The Online Journalism Review’s Robert Niles has a provocative post contending that the distinction between creation and aggregation of news content is a false one — all journalism is aggregation, he says. I don’t necessarily agree with the assertion, but it’s a valid challenge to the anti-aggregation mentality of many newspaper execs. And I can certainly get behind Niles’ larger point, that news organization can learn a lot from online news aggregation.

Finally, two great guides to Twitter: One, a comprehensive list of Twitter resources for journalists from former newspaper exec Steve Buttry, and two, some great tips on using Twitter effectively even if you have nothing to say, courtesy of The New York Times. Enjoy.

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