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August 27 2012

03:09

Monday Q&A: Josh Miller on Branch, comments as content, and the state of online discourse

Like a lot of tech startups, it’s easier to describe what Branch isn’t than what it is. The newly launched discussion platform — bankrolled in part by Twitter’s co-founders — is not Twitter, because the discussion is linear, longer-form, and invitation-only. It’s not chat, because all are welcome to observe. It’s not a comment platform, such as Disqus, because a Branch conversation is the content, not metadata attached to the content.

Josh MillerJosh Miller, the CEO, often employs the “dinner party” metaphor to describe Branch. A couple of summers ago, he was an intern for Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, his home state. He would read Politico every morning on the subway, then he would get to the comments section, and then, without fail, there was raidersfan27 screaming profanities.

“I started to think about…how do I express my opinions in the real world? And it’s around a dinner table, or at a bar over beers with friends, or in a coffee shop,” Miller told me. He created Branch, then called Roundtable, with co-founders Hursh Agrawal and Cemre Gungor. “We started out to kind of replicate the types of intimate, direct conversations we have in the real world,” he said.

The point of Branch is to start a conversation, usually with a question, and then invite people to respond. What’s the best concert you’ve ever seen? How do blogs need to evolve? ‘Giff’ or ‘Jiff’? There’s a generous 750-character limit. Branch does not want you to fuss over spelling or grammar or getting your point just right. There’s no edit button and no delete button. If you make a mistake, just keep going. It’s a little unsettling, but Miller wants to force a little more thoughtfulness in online dialog. (There’s no undo at the dinner table either, I suppose.)

Miller managed to win the attention of Jonah Peretti, an early mentor, and the Twitter co-founders (turned Obvious Corp. investors), Evan Williams and Biz Stone. Somehow Miller landed on one of those “20 innovative startups” lists on Business Insider, he said, and things took off. The company raised $2 million.

Branch also attracted the attention of Gawker czar Nick Denton, who publicly praised Miller and went on to release a new commenting system that bore some similarities to Branch. (“I wish Denton all the best and I hope it works out, but I don’t see us as being direct competitors,” he told me.)

This year, the 21-year-old Miller dropped out of Princeton to focus on Branch full-time. (He would have been a senior this fall.) Here is an edited and condensed transcript of our conversation.

Phelps: So you dropped out of Princeton.
Miller: Right. And my mom kills me when I say “drop out.” Yes, I dropped out, took a leave of absence, whatever you want to call it, and one part of this story that gets over looked now, because Ev and Biz and Jason are involved, is that the main reason we did that. Someone said, “You gotta meet this guy, Jonah Peretti.” I was like, “Who’s Jonah Peretti? So I Wikipedia him, and I was like, OH MY GOD, yes please. So we kinda stumbled into Jonah’s office, half-understanding who he was or why he was important and showed him the sketches for this idea that was really just a side project. He said, “I think this is really cool, guys. I don’t know what your plan is, or if this is a startup or what, but if you decide to work on this full-time, I want to help. I don’t need money or equity. I think it’s a cool idea. I like your guys’ enthusiasm and would love to be helpful.”
Phelps: What is Branch? It’s really hard when tech companies release products not to describe them as something for something or a combination of something and something. So how would you describe it?
Miller: We still don’t have a great one-liner, and we like that. I think the best way to explain it or describe it is kind of explain where it came from. I found comment sections very chaotic and unwelcoming and, you know, MySpace Tom was my Justin Hall. I’ve only grown up in an Internet where I knew who I was talking to, so it was weird for me to go to this place where raidersfan27 is yelling profanity. And even when there quality commentaries, it was really hard to kind of follow the discussion because there were usually like 10 going on at once. It was a mess.

I think [social media] are amazing, powerful platforms. But for me to express my opinions, it was this weird notion where you kind of are talking, but not to anyone in particular. It’s like, Here’s my opinion, world. I’m going to stand up and tell it to you, and it’s so great, what do you think? Go comment down there.

And I don’t think any of the people that I’m friends with on Facebook want to talk to me about politics. They don’t want to talk about politics. I mean, once I posted a Daily Show clip and my old college counselor went on a rant about the Tea Party and it was just, like, the most awkward thing ever.

Phelps: Oh, that is awkward.
Miller: There’s so much you get out of sharing your opinion online and in an open way that could be shared and viewed and other people can jump in. But I think there’s also something to be said for knowing exactly who you’re talking to. And you know, part of the thing, too, is that a lot of people think, “Oh, you know, well, comments can be great.” They were great, back in the day. But I felt like the Internet is a different place than it used to be. Some of the old classic blog comment sections did have amazing conversations, but there weren’t that many people on the Internet at the time. The people that knew about a certain blog were kind of self-selected already.

So part of what’s wrong with comments is that what’s valuable about a conversation is the back and forth, and that if you think about the real world — if you sit around a dinner table, once you get to a certain number of people, it fractures off into two separate conversations, because there can only be so many people talking at once.

There’s a need for a platform that’s built around a conversation, because when you think about all the platforms online, they’re all built around monologue. And we just think that online there should be a place where you go to have dialog, to have conversations, and we think that’s complementary.

Phelps: It reinforces that idea that comments themselves, the conversations, are content, not just metadata.
Miller: By no means do I think Branch is perfect and that everyone’s going to adopt it and it’s going to be great. So I’m very active in soliciting feedback from people that have used it. And I was talking to Choire [Sicha] the other day and he said that the reason that he liked using it is that it kind of bridged the gap for him between the reader and the writer.

Because that’s another big thing with me about comment sections, that I feel like a second-class citizen. It’s like, “All right, well, that guy up there is the big man and the hot shot that shares his opinion. And I’m less down here in the dungeon section trying to duke it out with this raiderfan27.”

Phelps: You use this “dinner party” metaphor a lot. I remember you had asked me a while back what I thought about the experience after we used it for a Nieman Lab conversation, and I wrote:

I found myself wishing more than once that I could edit the original question. I kind of hated the way I framed it to begin with and wished I could tweak, especially before the conversation really got going…I posted the original question hastily, perhaps because I am accustomed to a world in which things can be edited. Maybe this product will force me to slow down and consider that I can’t undo. Or maybe it will drive me [expletive] crazy.

Miller: The real places that are built for expression of your opinion or ideas impose this feeling that everything needs to be perfect, because if I’m going to write a blog post I need to make sure my punctuation and grammar is correct, and I’ve covered all my counterarguments, and I’m witty and tell a funny joke, and I do my research.

We want the ethos of Branch to be where you go to take your half-baked ideas, and the point is to be imperfect. The whole ethos is “I don’t know enough alone, so I need help from other people and I want to talk to other people to make my half-baked ideas better.” So, you know, we’re quickly learning that we do want to work with publishers, so we’re going to need to have a way to edit posts. But we want to build in a way that’s more about typos than re-writing stuff.

Phelps: Part of the reason it bothered me was because I started the conversation with the expectation that it would work like other products I’m already familiar with. And maybe next time when my expectations are different, it won’t bother me — and maybe even become somewhat liberating.
Miller: You should go see the language I use in my branches. You know, I screw capitalization every once in a while. I won’t go back and correct that comma that shouldn’t have been there, and, like, my sentences will not be complete. And I’m not doing that on purpose, but I’m purposely not correcting it because I want to demonstrate to everyone that it’s okay. We want you to see kind of the evolution of the conversation and how it got there. That’s what bothers us about the other platforms, that it’s like, “Okay, so here’s this question, and here’s the best answer, because the community voted it up.”
Phelps: Of course, one major way that the “dinner party” metaphor breaks down is that at a dinner party the conversation is not recorded word-for-word, and something someone said 20 minutes ago will never be documented — tomorrow or five years from now.
Miller: I think that a lot of the conversations we have online that are private are just private by default, because that’s the way the systems were originally designed, but if you really think about the stuff you care about, and the stuff you can talk about on a daily basis, most of it doesn’t really need to be private, especially if it’s not actively being promoted. So yes, it’s going to be an awkward concept for some, and it’s not great for every conversation, and we’re okay with that. But I do think there’s a lot to gain by having a lot of these conversations in the open.
Phelps: Let’s switch gears and talk to Josh the business man. What is the business model? Is there a business model?
Miller: When we started Roundtable, at the time we had no money. We did not have any funding, so for the first roundtables I actually went and sold sponsorships for a thousand bucks. We used to boast in our pitch meetings that Branch was profitable from Day 1! When we got to work with the Obvious guys, and we were kind of considering who to take money from, one thing they said is that,”Look, we are lucky enough to be in a situation where we have the finances to allow you to not worry about financing. So we want you first and foremost to build a product that’s going to change the world. That should be your No. 1 goal, not worrying about revenue.” I tell this to potential hires, that I personally, as a CEO and one of the cofounders, would much rather build the next Wikipedia than the next Zynga.

Separately, I think just like in the early days, when we had Samsung and G.E. reach out to us about sponsoring roundtables about the future of energy and the future of smartphones, I think there are really easy sponsorship opportunities with brands. I mean, if you just look at The Economist today, they make, from my understanding, a really good amount of money selling sponsorships to Intel and Exxon and whoever else, because these brands want to be associated with conversations with experts in domains that their companies operate within. I think sponsorship — not necessarily display advertising is one huge opportunity.

One example is: I was in a branch the other night, “What movie should I see this weekend?” And there’s a great pop where if we knew you were talking about movies, or that “Bourne Identity” movie that just came out, we could display showtimes or modules for you to buy tickets. Or, for example, I was just in a branch about “I’m going to Berlin, where should I go in Berlin?” There was a great opportunity where we might display ads or modules for you to book a hostel in Berlin or restaurants in Berlin or whatever else. So in the same way that you go to Google to seek out information or you go to Twitter to seek out information, you’re going to go to Branch to talk about something you need answers to.

January 11 2012

14:45

Responsive design from another angle: Gizmodo goes widescreen

Gizmodo, the popular gadget site and pageview king of Gawker Media, debuted a new look last night that they’re calling HD view, and it’s big. Not big in the grand scheme of things — big in the number of pixels it takes up. Whereas most websites top out at around 1000 pixels in width, Gizmodo HD stretches like Plastic Man, with photos and videos stretching wider and wider as the browser window does too. On my 1900-pixel-wide monitor, pages like this one (photo-dominant) and this one (video-dominant) both resize all the way to blowout width. Call it the doublewide approach.

(The screenshot above is obviously less than full size; to see its full, 1920-by-1200-pixel glory, click here.)

This is the flip side of responsive design, the web-design idea that BostonGlobe.com’s recent launch brought to the attention of lots of news execs. In the case of the Globe (and in most other responsive efforts), the primary appeal is the ability to get small — to build a website that can look good both on your laptop and on your smartphone without having to build a separate mobile site. (The Globe’s website expands up to 1230 pixels, but not beyond that.) But responsive design works in the other direction too, and Gizmodo’s new look is an attempt to play with that — to give more space to the big photos and big videos that Gawker Media’s been trying to push over the past year.

At this point, HD view is very much a beta (it won’t work in all browsers, for instance, and there’s no place for comments), and seems more like a parlor trick than a feature. But why might a news organization be interested in a doublewide view? What might be the use cases for an HD view?

  • There’s still a class of user who (a) uses a desktop computer, where monitor sizes once outlandish (24-inch, 27-inch, 30-inch) are becoming more affordable and common, and (b), particularly on Windows, runs browser windows full screen. Those folks are used to seeing a bunch of whitespace to the left and right of their favorite websites, and this could fill them up and build something more immersive. With Gawker Media making bigger investments in video and art, it makes sense to play those as big as the browser will allow.
  • A theme running throughout Gawker’s controversial redesign last year was that it viewed television as both an important competitor and a production-value bar that Gawker Media felt it was approaching. “[W]e increasingly have the scale and production values of — say — cable television,” Nick Denton told us at the time: “[W]e’ll compete for audiences with cable groups such as NBC Universal.” Well, Gizmodo HD fits perfectly into a world where screens are shifting and the television might move from the-place-where-you-watch-Mad-Men to, simply, the biggest and best content-agnostic screen in the house. To be fair, previous attempts to bring the web to big-screen television haven’t borne much fruit. But with everyone expecting an new TV push from Apple in 2012 — and with companies like The Wall Street Journal moving from web video to TV sets — it makes sense for a big online brand like Gawker Media to prepare for that eventuality.
  • Advertisers are always looking for new ways to draw attention, having soured at least a bit on the efficacy of the banner ads. Gawker’s long been willing to push the boundaries with things like sponsored posts and site takeovers. Imagine the greater impact that a site takeover could have when there’s twice as much space to take over?

It’ll probably be a while before the doublewide becomes much more than a novelty, but it’s worth thinking about how a news site might look different if, instead of thinking small (that is, mobile), it thought big.

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.

February 07 2011

15:00

“It just feels inevitable”: Nick Denton on Gawker Media sites’ long-in-the-works new layout

This morning, “the biggest event in Gawker Media history” took place: The nine sites of the group officially launched their redesigns. Go to gawker.com — or jezebel.com or deadspin.com or lifehacker.com or the five other sites that make up Gawker Media at the moment — and you’ll see the new page layout that’s been on display in beta-dot form for the past couple of months, brought to life on the properties’ home URLs.

The new look, overall, is a move beyond the blog — a move most aptly described, in a November Lifehacker post, by Nick Denton himself. And, in true blog style, the post-blogization of Gawker is something that’s been described and discussed on blogs long before today’s official drop date. The utter unsurprisingness of Gawker’s new look is probably a good thing for a web property, given how indignantly resistant to design change we web users tend to be.

“It just feels inevitable,” Denton says. “We have a crying need to showcase both exclusives and visual posts. The visual posts are now at least half of our top-performing stories. And audience growth on sites like Deadspin and Gawker has been driven by our most sensational scoops.”

The biggest change to note is the two-panel layout, which makes for a front page that, as Gawker editor Remy Stern put it this morning, is “dominated by one big story (or a roundup of several different stories), and a list of headlines appear in a column down the right side of the page.”

For that, “the antecedents are software products, however, rather than web sites,” Denton told me over Gchat. “We’ve definitely been influenced by two-pane email and news reading apps.” One of the keys to the redesign is the new emphasis on visuals — most strikingly embodied in the huge slot As Denton noted in his Lifehacker post, “This visual slot will be 640×360 pixels in size — that’s 64 percent larger than in the current design — and be in the most prominent location on every page, above even the headline itself. Viewers will be able to toggle to a high-definition 960×540 version — a full 3.7 times larger than the current video standard.” Gizmodo, notably, has been investing in bigger and better visuals as a way to make stories stand out.

The redesign is a kind of convergence in action: blog, magazine, and television, all collapsing into each other.  Though “outside observers will note that this layout represents some convergence of blog, magazine and television,” Denton notes — yup — and though “that’s true in the abstract but it’s more of a description than an argument” — fair enough — when it comes to marketing, the redesign is a kind of argument. A big one.

Online, increasingly, the ad-sales choice boils down to two general strategies: build ad revenues directly, or build audience (which in turn accrues to revenue). The new layout is a double-down on the latter. With the design’s increased emphasis on engagement/the lean-back experience/etc., Gawker properties will ostensibly beef up their time-on-site stats while — for the short term, at least — taking a cut on pageviews as readers engage with and lean back into their content. It’s an app-like approach being realized, intriguingly, on the open web. And, in it, Gawker’s taking a TV-like approach to ad sales: one that’s more about nebulous mass consumption — zeitgeist, if you will — than about simple CPMs. Essentially, as Salmon noted: Gawker is selling time, not space. It’s not selling reader eyeballs so much as reader attention.

And that’s an idea that’s been in the works for a while. Last spring, Gawker’s head of marketing and advertising operations, Erin Pettigrew, wrote a post about Gawker’s new emphasis on branded traffic via an attempt to measure “recurring reader affection.” I chatted with her about that post; here’s what she told me at the time:

First, for so long we concerned ourselves with reach and becoming a significant enough web population such that advertisers would move us into their consideration set for marketing spend. Now that we have attained a certain level of reach and that spend consideration, we’re looking for additional ways to differentiate ourselves against other publisher populations. So branded traffic helps to illuminate our readership’s quality over its quantity, a nuanced benefit over many of the more broadly reaching sites on the web.

Secondly, there’s a myth, especially in advertising, that frequency of visitation is wasteful to ad spend. As far as premium content sites and brand marketers go, however, that myth is untrue. So, the ‘branded traffic’ measure is part of a larger case we’re making that advertising to a core audience (who visits repeatedly) is extremely effective.

That’s a magazine model; Gawker has simply been translating it to the web. (“If you’re going to working with the most storied brands,” Denton puts it, “the appeal has to go beyond the numbers. Conde Nast — at its peak — sold the magic.”) And Gawker certainly hasn’t been alone in doing that: See Slate, Salon, and their peer group, who go out of their way to emphasize the smartness (more cynically: the affluence) of their readers to advertisers. And yet Gawker seems to have reached a critical mass (or, to use the language of a writer from one of those Conde Nast titles, a tipping point): It’s moved, it seems, beyond simply selling its readers to advertisers. Now, it is simply selling itself. The readers are implied. They can be, in the best sense, taken for granted.

Check out, for example, the Advertising page on Gawker; in place of a traditional media kit (replete with demographic data about readers and the like), you’ll find a slickly produced video detailing Gawker’s (literally) storied history. The thing has the feel of an Oscar clip real, complete with a strings-heavy sidetrack; you’re compelled, almost in spite of yourself. And the video presents Gawker through the prism of a kind of epic inevitability, noting, accurately, how much the site and its sisters have done to change things. The message is, implicitly and essentially: Gawker is the future. Be part of it.

Which doesn’t mean that Gawker isn’t also selling readers to advertisers in the traditional magazine (and, for that matter, newspaper) model; it still is, definitely. It’s just doing it more indirectly. The advertising videos are “about the stories,” Denton says. “And the stories define the readers — and the readers define the stories.” The delivering-readers-you-want-to-reach aspect is only one part of Gawker’s marketing argument. “The pitch to advertisers is twofold,” Denton says. “One — and this is the constant — that our audience consists of the young and upscale people who have disappeared from newspapers and other traditional media. And, second, that we increasingly have the scale and production values of — say — cable television.”

It’s that second one that the redesign is trying to capture. And it’s the resonance, and competition, with cable that will be fascinating to see as the new Gawker layout becomes, simply, the Gawker layout. (Readers have the option of continuing with the blog format, if they prefer, which won’t serve the 640×360 ads; see the cola-nostalgic Deadspin Classic, for instance. But “I doubt it will represent any more than 10 percent of impressions, anyway,” Denton notes.) Denton sees his competition, he told me, not only as sites like TMZ and The Hollywood Reporter, but also — and more so — AOL. (A rivalry that, around midnight last night, suddenly got much more interesting.) “And — in the long term — we’ll compete for audiences with cable groups such as NBC Universal,” Denton says.

It’s a big experiment — and a big gamble. One that, like so many similarly grand experiments being made by the big media companies out there — the Times’ paywall will rise any day now — will be fascinating, and instructive, to watch. History’s on Denton’s side — he’s been right about a lot so far — but it’s far from certain that the redesign, and the marketing logic that goes with it, will pay off.

Yesterday, after former Gawker editor Gabriel Snyder observed that, since the redesign, pageviews were down at the beta sites of Jalopnik and i09, Rex Sorgatz issued a bet: “I’m on the record that I think the redesigns will fail. And I’m now officially opening the betting pool. I think Denton is going to be forced to pull back on this. If anyone wants to wager that the redesign don’t get yanked back (or greatly modified) by, let’s say, June 1… I’ll take your bet.”

Denton himself took the bet. (“Money where your mouth is,” he told me.) The measure is October pageviews on Quantcast. The market’s at 510 million pageviews at the moment — so “for every million over that, he pays me $10,” Denton says. And “for every million under, I pay him.”

“I’m going to clean him out.”

January 14 2011

17:00

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bang for the buck

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

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

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

The takeaway: Illustration matters

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

December 03 2010

15:00

This Week in Review: Making sense of WikiLeaks, a Daily tablet paper, and Gawker leaves blogging behind

[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]

We’re covering two weeks instead of the usual one in this review, so there’s a ton to pack in here. I’ll try to zip through it a little more quickly than usual.

What to make of WikiLeaks: WikiLeaks made its third big document drop since this summer this week, releasing about 250,000 confidential diplomatic cables. Here’s coverage by The New York TimesThe GuardianDer Spiegel, and a roundup by The Columbia Journalism Review. Time talked to WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange about the leak, and Forbes published an interview and long piece about Assange’s next target — corporate America.

As for the leak itself, The Guardian detailed the documents’ path from the alleged leaker, U.S. soldier Bradley Manning, to Assange, to a Guardian reporter. Yahoo’s Michael Calderone looked at The Times’ editorial process with the cables, including the revelation that they got them from The Guardian, not WikiLeaks. The Wall Street Journal and CNN both declined to sign agreements with WikiLeaks to see the documents in advance, and The Journal examined news orgs’ decisions on whether or not to publish. The Times explained its own publishing decision, then (quite eloquently) responded to readers’ objections.

The reaction against WikiLeaks was quicker and harsher than those following each of its last two leaks. Before the documents were released, its site was hacked, the U.S. and British governments issued pre-emptive condemnations, and senators called for WikiLeaks to be prosecuted. After the release, the Obama administration said it was indeed pursuing a criminal investigation, Interpol revealed it has put out a call for Assange’s arrest (ostensibly for his rape accusations), and Amazon booted WikiLeaks from its servers under pressure from U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman.

WikiLeaks’ actions left many journalists and media observers divided: An Economist blogger accused WikiLeaks of degenerating into gossip, and Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger called them enemies of the American people. Assange and WikiLeaks had their defenders, too: Slate’s Jack Shafer praised them for puncturing “the prerogative of secrecy,” and another Economist blogger made a similar argument. The Guardian’s Simon Jenkins noted that “the job of the media is not to protect power from embarrassment.” Meanwhile, Northeastern j-prof Dan Kennedy wrestled with the balance between transparency and secrecy.

Others’ primary concern was not value judgments, but classification. Is WikiLeaks espionage? Journalism? Radically open government? Or, as Lab contributor C.W. Anderson argued, is it a facilitator of real-time history documentation? NYU j-prof Jay Rosen hashed out his thoughts on WikiLeaks as a stateless news organization on video, concluding, “The watchdog press died, and what we have is WikiLeaks instead.” Paul Balcerak wondered why WikiLeaks gets so much more attention than the press’s own reporting.

If you really want to spend the weekend pondering the meaning of WikiLeaks, it’s best to start with two posts: Some incisive questions by Salon’s Dan Gillmor, and a brilliant post by Aaron Bady sifting through Assange’s own words to determine his motivations behind WikiLeaks’ radical transparency.

Rupert’s big tablet splash: We’ve heard bits and pieces about Rupert Murdoch’s planned tablet-based national news publication, but we got the first substantive report on the subject two weeks ago from Women’s Wear Daily. Among the key details: It’s going by The Daily, it has a staff of 100, it’ll cost 99 cents a week, and it’ll come out once a day. The New York Observer gave us some more information about the publication’s design (it’s text-first and will be published overnight, but apparently looks pretty cool). Other tidbits: John Gruber at Daring Fireball heard that it’ll pioneer a new app subscription API from Apple, and New York’s Gabriel Snyder said it will have a centrist editorial outlook.

The reasons why this project is getting so much pre-launch attention seem pretty readily evident: Murdoch, original tablet news org, iPad news subscriptions, you know the rest. As The Columbia Journalism Review noted, what’s new about this publication is that it won’t even have a website. The initial response from the media-watching world was predominantly negative, with skepticism coming from The New York Times’ David Carr, Gawker’s Ryan Tate, Scott Rosenberg, Sam Diaz of ZDNet, GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram, Fast Company’s Kit Eaton, The Guardian’s Emily Bell, and paidContent’s Andrew Wallenstein.

Many of those critics made similar points, so here’s a roundup of the main ones: 1) It’s trying to impose slow print-think onto the speed-oriented world of mobile media (this is Rosenberg’s main point); 2) The fact that it won’t have inbound or outbound links means it can’t share in the virality that makes news on the Web work; 3) The folks on board don’t exactly seem like the tech revolutionaries they might need to be (Wallenstein’s main point); and 4) How many people are actually going to pay for this, and can it really cover The Daily’s costs? (Carr’s main objection)

Several of those people also noted a few factors in Murdoch’s favor: Carr argued that people will be more likely to pay for news in an app world than on the web, and both Tate and Eaton noted that Apple’s Steve Jobs (who is reported to be tied to the project) is a pretty powerful guy with a history of success in ventures like these. We got a few good suggestions for Murdoch’s project, too: TechCrunch’s Erick Schonfeld said to make it local, real-time, and social; Frederic Filloux wanted it speedy, simple, beyond Apple, and with adjustable pricing; and at paidContent, Nic Newman wanted to see a mixture of free and paid content.

Designing apps for tablets and mobile media: Murdoch isn’t the only one with a big new tablet app to unveil: Yahoo’s Joe Pompeo summarized two others — mini-magazines called Nomad Editions and a new iPad magazine by Virgin called Project. Of those, Project, announced Tuesday, got a bit more attention. PaidContent had some details about its video cover and “living magazine” mindset, and All Things Digital’s Peter Kafka pointed out the magazine’s rather intimidating instruction page, though David Carr told NPR it’s still pretty magazine-like.

Also in the process of launching: Next Issue Media, a joint venture by several magazine magnates, will launch its digital newsstand early next year and gave some details to MediaWeek, and Swedish publisher Bonnier, whose Mag+ everyone loved, is expanding into News+. Meanwhile, the Financial Times’ iPad app is doing well, but The Guardian’s Dan Sabbagh remained skeptical that most newspapers’ iPad apps will be able to stand out among the sea of more enjoyable apps.

A couple more smart thoughts on mobile media: PaidContent founder Rafat Ali talked about designing for touchscreens, and Poynter’s Damon Kiesow argued that smartphones are fundamentally a mobile device, while the iPad is a leisure device, so their apps can’t be imposed onto each other: “To fully serve and engage an audience, an app needs to target one distinctive strength — either location or leisure — and make the content and experience fit that use.”

Gawker grows beyond the blog: In advance of its coming overhaul early next year, Gawker head Nick Denton wrote a manifesto explaining why the network of sites is going beyond the blog format (his post at the previous link is in the sites’ new design). Denton said he’s discovered the new formula for online media success: Not so much Gawker’s former trademark snarky meta-analysis, but a few huge juicy scoops accompanied by a steady stream of aggregation, all with a visual bent. He extended the model to include advertising and branding as well.

Reuters’ Felix Salmon responded with a meticulous analysis of Gawker’s new direction, noting that while Denton was the first person to make blogging into “a large-scale commercial venture,” he’s now aggressively dumping blogging’s defining reverse-chronological format. Ron Mwangaguhunga of eMedia Vitals compared Gawker’s new model with a TV business model, and Anil Dash said that while Gawker is still a blog, it’s borrowing Twitter’s design that emphasizes both content and the stream of news. “By allowing that flow to continue regardless of which particular piece of embedded content has caught your eye, Gawker and Twitter are just showing the vibrancy and resilience of the format.” Terry Heaton didn’t like the change, arguing that it’s a statement that Denton doesn’t trust his readers enough to find their way to the best material.

Why Twitter matters: Speaking of Twitter, Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger offered a stirring defense of Twitter’s meaning for journalism as part of a lecture on the state of the Fourth Estate. His list of 15 reasons Twitter matters covers most everything: Reporting, conversation, aggregation, search, marketing, authority, writing. Likewise, GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram argued that Twitter’s real cultural power “could well be that it is the simplest, the easiest and arguably one of the most efficient forms of mass publishing — or at least micro-publishing — ever invented.”

Later, Ingram took Twitter co-founder Biz Stone’s apparently off-the-cuff statement that Twitter could develop a news network as an opportunity to think about how news orgs could filter Twitter into a usable crowdsourced newswire. And MediaBistro talked with Canada’s National Post to get a sense of how one major newspaper uses Twitter.

Business-model developments and discussion: A few notes on the ever-evolving paid-content front: At least two more news organizations are using the Press+ system of Steve Brill’s Journalism Online for their online revenue goals — ProPublica, which is using it to solicit donations online, and Oklahoma State’s Daily O’Collegian, which will charge outside-the-area readers. Over at The Guardian, Cory Doctorow examined The Times of London’s paywall numbers, and CrunchGear’s Devin Coldewey thought out loud about a possible online paid-content system.

Meanwhile, British journalist Kevin Anderson wrote a post arguing that value-added journalism has to be developed with specific revenue streams in mind. Howard Owens of The Batavian countered that would-be entrepreneurial journalists need to focus more on basic local events journalism than “adding value” or analytical journalism, and TBD’s Steve Buttry tried to bring the two perspectives together.

Reading roundup: Here’s what else you should see this week, in the quickest-hit form I can give it to you:

— A British court upheld a stipulation that news organizations can charge paid online news monitoring agencies for using their content. The Telegraph, TechCrunch Europe, and the Press Gazette explain why it’s bad news for aggregators.

— No less an authority than World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee joined the chorus of people extolling the value of data journalism during a panel. A somewhat related debate broke out when Mark Luckie opined on the myths about digital journalism skills. Journalist Andy Boyle disputed Luckie’s claims about what new-media skills journalists need (and don’t need) to know, and j-prof Mindy McAdams and journalist Brian Manzullo chimed in. Anthony DeBarros and Robert Hernandez turned the discussion toward data journalism, with Hernandez asserting that programming doesn’t replace the story. That got Michelle Minkoff kind of riled up.

— The New York Times ran an article looking at the ways technology is creating increased distractions for young people, which was met by smart rebuttals by Duke prof Cathy Davidson and the Lab’s own Megan Garber.

— Also at the Lab: USC prof Henry Jenkins on his concept of “spreadable” media.

— Mashable’s Vadim Lavrusik wrote a great roundup of what’s going on at the intersection of investigative journalism and social media.

— Finally, if you’re looking for a single document to answer the question, “How should newspapers adapt to this new media environment?” you can’t do much better than John Paton’s presentation on how he’s turned around the Journal Register Co. It’s brilliant.

November 18 2010

17:30

Crunching Denton’s Ratio: What’s the return on paying sources?

There was a lot of buzz on Twitter yesterday about Paul Farhi’s piece in The Washington Post on checkbook journalism — in particular the way a mishmash of websites, tabloids, and TV news operations put money in the hands of the people they want to interview. (With TV, the money-moving is a little less direct, usually filtered through payments for photos or videos.)

But, just for a moment, let’s set aside the traditional moral issues journalists have with paying sources. (Just for a moment!) Does paying sources make business sense? Financially speaking, the justification given for paying sources is to generate stories that generate an audience — with the hope that the audience can then be monetized. Does it work?

There’s not nearly enough data to draw any real conclusions, but let’s try a little thought experiment with the (rough) data points we do have, because I think it might provide some insight into other means of paying for content. Nick Denton, the head man at Gawker Media and the chief new-media proponent of paying sources, provides some helpful financial context:

With the ability to determine instantly how much traffic an online story is generating, Gawker’s Denton has the pay scale almost down to a science: “Our rule of thumb,” he writes, “is $10 per thousand new visitors,” or $10,000 per million.

What strikes me about those numbers is how low they are. $10K for a million new visitors? There aren’t very many websites out there that wouldn’t consider that an extremely good deal.

Let’s compare Denton’s Ratio to the numbers generated by another money-for-audience scheme in use on the Internet: online advertising. After all, lots of ads are sold using roughly the same language Denton uses: the M in CPM stands for thousand. Except it’s cost per thousand impressions (a.k.a. pageviews), not cost per thousand new visitors, which would be much more valuable. What Denton’s talking about is more like CPC — cost per click, which sells at a much higher rate. (Those new visitors aren’t just looking at an ad for a story; they’re actually reading it, or at least on the web page.) Except it’s even more valuable than that, since there’s no guarantee that the person clicking a CPC ad is actually a “new” visitor. Let’s call what Denton’s talking about CPMNV: cost per thousand new visitors.

CPC rates vary wildly. When I did a little experiment last year running Google AdWords ads for the Lab, I ended up paying 63 cents per click. I ran a similar experiment a few months later with Facebook ads for the Lab, and the rate ended up being 26 cents per click.

What Denton is getting for his $10 CPMNV is one cent per click, one cent per new visitor. It’s just that the click isn’t coming from the most traditional attention-generating tool, an ad — it’s coming from a friend’s tweet, or a blogger’s link, or a mention on ESPN.com that sends someone to Google to search “Brett Favre Jenn Sterger.”

Doing the pageview math

And that $10 CPMNV that Denton’s willing to pay is actually less than the return he gets for at least some of his source-paid stories. Take the four Gawker Media pieces that the Post story talks about: the original photo of singer Faith Hill from a Redbook cover, to show how doctored the image was for publication; photos and a narrative from a man who hooked up with Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell; the “lost” early version of the iPhone 4 found in a California bar; and voice mails and pictures that allegedly show quarterback Brett Favre flirting with a woman named Jenn Sterger, who is not his wife. Gawker publishes its pageview data alongside each post, so we can start to judge whether Denton’s deals made financial sense. (Again, we’re talking financial sense here, not ethical sense, which is a different question.)

Faith Hill Redbook cover: 1.46 million pageviews on the main story, and about 730,000 pageviews on a number of quick folos in the days after posting. Total: around 2.2 million pageviews, not to mention an ongoing Jezebel franchise. Payment: $10,000.

Christine O’Donnell hookup: 1.26 million pageviews on the main story, 617,000 on the accompanying photo page, 203,000 on O’Donnell’s response to the piece, 274,000 on Gawker’s defense of the piece. Total: around 2.35 million pageviews. Payment: $4,000.

“Lost” iPhone: 13.05 million pageviews on the original story; 6.1 million pageviews on a series of folos. Total: around 19.15 million pageviews. Payment: $5,000.

Brett Favre/Jenn Sterger: 1.73 million pageviews on the first story, 4.82 million on the big reveal, 3.99 million pageviews on a long line of folos. Total: around 10.54 million pageviews. Payment: $12,000.

Let’s say, as a working assumption, that half of all these pageviews came from people new to Gawker Media, people brought in by the stories in question. (That’s just a guess, and I suspect it’s a low one — I’d bet it’s something more like 70-80 percent. But let’s be conservative.)

Expected under the Denton formula:
Faith Hill: 1 million new visitors
O’Donnell: 400,000 new visitors
iPhone: 500,000 new visitors
Favre: 1.2 million new visitors

Guesstimated real numbers:
Faith Hill: 1.1 million new visitors
O’Donnell: 1.17 million new visitors
iPhone: 9.56 million new visitors
Favre: 5.27 million new visitors

Again, these are all ham-fisted estimates, but they seem to indicate at least three of the four stories significantly overperformed Denton’s Ratio.

Reaching new audiences

The primary revenue input for Gawker is advertising. They don’t publish a rate card any more, but the last version I could find had most of their ad slots listed at a $10 CPM. Who knows what they’re actually selling at — ad slots get discounted or go unsold all the time, many pages have multiple ads, and lots of online ads get sold on the basis of metrics other than CPM. But with one $10 CPM ad per pageview, the 2.2 million pageviews on the Faith Hill story would drum up $22,000 in ad revenue. (Again, total guesstimate — Denton’s mileage will vary.)

Aside: Denton has said that these paid-for stories are “always money-losers,” and it’s true that pictures of Brett Favre’s manhood can be difficult to sell ads next to. Most (but not all) of those 10.54 million Brett Favre pageviews were served without ads on them. But that has more to do with, er, private parts than the model of paying sources.

But even setting aside the immediate advertising revenue — the most difficult task facing any website is getting noticed. Assuming there are lots of people who would enjoy reading Website X, the question becomes how those people will ever hear of Website X. Having ESPN talk about a Deadspin story during Sportscenter is one way. Having that Redbook cover emailed around to endless lists of friends is another. Gawker wants to create loyal readers, but you can only do that from the raw material of casual readers. Some fraction of each new flood of visitors will, ideally, see they like the place and want to stick around.

Denton publishes up-to-date traffic stats for his sites, and here’s what the four in question look like:

It’s impossible to draw any iron-clad conclusions from these squiggles, but in the case of Jezebel and Deadspin, the initial spike in traffic appears to have been followed by a new, higher plateau of traffic. (The same seems true, but to a lesser extent, for Gizmodo — perhaps in part because it was already much more prominent within the gadget-loving community when the story broke than, for example, 2007-era Jezebel or 2010-era Deadspin were within their target audiences. With Gawker, the O’Donnell story is too recent to see any real trends, and in any event, the impact will probably be lost within the remarkable overall traffic gains the site has seen.)

Fungible content strategies

I’ve purposefully set aside the (very real!) ethics issue here because, when looked at strictly from a business perspective, paying sources can be a marker for paying for content more generally. From Denton’s perspective, there isn’t much difference between paying a source $10,000 for a story and paying a reporter $10,000 for a story. They’re both cost outputs to be balanced against revenue inputs. No matter what one thinks of, say, Demand Media, the way they judge content’s value — how much money can I make off this piece? — isn’t going away.

Let’s put it another way. Let’s say a freelance reporter has written a blockbuster piece, one she’s confident will generate huge traffic numbers. She shops it around to Gawker and says it’ll cost them $10,000 to publish it. That’s a lot of money for an online story, and Denton would probably do some mental calculations: How much attention will this story get? How many new visitors will it bring to the site? What’s it worth? I’m sure there are some stories where the financial return isn’t the top factor — stories an editor just really loves and wants to publish. But just as the Internet has turned advertising into an engine for instantaneous price matching and shopping into an engine for instantaneous price comparison, it breaks down at least some of the financial barrier between journalist-as-cost and source-as-cost.

And that’s why, even beyond the very real ethical issues, it’s worth crunching the numbers on paying sources. Because in the event that Denton’s Ratio spreads and $10 CPMNV becomes a going rate for journalists as well as sources, that means for a writer to “deserve” a $50,000 salary, he’d have to generate 5 million new visitors a year. Five million is a lot of new visitors.

There’s one other line Denton had in the WaPo piece that stood out to me:

“I’m content for the old journalists not to pay for information. It keeps the price down,” Denton writes in an exchange of electronic messages. “So I’m a big supporter of that journalistic commandment – as it applies to other organizations.”

When we think of the effects of new price competition online, we often think of it driving prices down. When there are only a few people competing for an advertising dollar, they can charge higher rates; when there are lots of new competitors in the market, prices go down. But Denton’s basically arguing the equally logical flipside: I can afford to pay so little because there aren’t enough other news orgs competing for what sources have to offer. Let’s hope we don’t get to that same point with journalists.

October 15 2010

15:00

This Week in Review: The iPad’s pay potential, Chile miner over-coverage, and another Murdoch paywall

[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]

Advances for paid content on the iPad: We start this week with a whole bunch of data points regarding journalism and mobile devices; I’ll try to tie them together for you the best I can. Conde Nast, one of the world’s largest magazine publishers, has done the most thorough iPad research we’ve seen so far, with more than 100 hours of in-person interviews and in-app surveys with more than 5,000 respondents. Conde Nast released some of its findings this week, which included five pieces of advice for mobile advertisers that were heavy on interactivity and clear navigation. They also discovered some good news for mobile advertisers: The iPad’s early users aren’t simply the typical tech-geek early adopter set, and about four-fifths of them were happy with their experiences with Conde Nast’s apps.

MocoNews had the most detailed look at Conde Nast’s study, arguing that the fact that iPads are shared extensively means they’re not being treated as a mobile device. Users also seemed to spend much more time with the mobile versions of the magazines than the print versions, though that data’s a little cloudy. NPR has also done some research on its users via Twitter and Facebook, and the Lab’s Justin Ellis reported that they’ve found that those listeners are generally younger, hardcore listeners. Together, Facebook and Twitter account for 7 to 8 percent of NPR’s web traffic, though Facebook generates six times as much as Twitter.

There were also a few items on newspapers and the iPad: Forbes’ Jeff Bercovici reported that the New York Post will become the first newspaper without a paid website to start selling an iPad app subscription. The subscription is only sold inside the app, a strategy that The Next Web’s Martin Bryant called a psychological trick that ”makes users feel less like they’re paying for news and more like they’re ‘Just buying another app.’” The British newspaper The Financial Times said its iPad app has made about £1 million in advertising revenue since it was launched in May, but as Poynter’s Damon Kiesow noted, local papers have been slow to jump on the iPad train, with only a dozen of launching apps so far.

Meanwhile, GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram ripped most magazine iPad apps for a lack of interactivity, openness or user control, saying, “the biggest flaw for me is the total lack of acknowledgment that the device this content appears on is part of the Internet, and therefore it is possible to connect the content to other places with more information about a topic.” But some news organizations are already busy preparing for the next big thing: According to The Wall Street Journal, some national news orgs have begun developing content for Samsung’s new tablet, the Galaxy, which is scheduled to be released later this year.

Too much of a good story?: Regardless of where you were this week, the huge story was the rescue of 33 Chilean miners who had been trapped underground for more than two months. The fact that it was such an all-encompassing story is, of course, a media story in itself: TV broadcasters planned wall-to-wall coverage beforehand, and that coverage garnered massive ratings in the U.S. and elsewhere. (We followed on the web, too.) With 2,000 journalists at the site, the event became a global media spectacle the likes of which we haven’t seen in a while.

The coverage had plenty of critics, many of them upset about the excessive amount of resources devoted to a story with little long-term impact by news organizations that are making significant cuts to coverage elsewhere. The point couldn’t have been finer in the case of the BBC, which spent more than £100,000 on its rescue coverage, leading it to slash the budget for upcoming stories like the Cancun climate change meetings and Lisbon NATO summit.

The sharpest barbs belonged to NYU prof Jay Rosen and Lehigh prof Jeremy Littau. “The proportion of response to story impact is perhaps the best illustration of the insanity we seen in media business choices today,” Littau wrote, adding, “I see an industry chasing hits and page views by wasting valuable economic and human capital.” Lost Remote’s Steve Safran pointed out that the degree of coverage had much more to do with the fact that coverage could be planned than with its newsworthiness.

Rupert keeps pushing into paywalls: After his Times and Sunday Times went behind a paywall this summer, Rupert Murdoch added another newspaper to his online paid-content empire this week: The British tabloid News of the World. Access to the paper’s site will cost a pound a day or £1.99 for four weeks, and will include some web exclusives, including a new video section. PaidContent gave the new site itself a good review, saying it’s an improvement over the old one.

The business plan behind the paywall didn’t get such kind reviews. As with The Times’ paywall, News of the World’s content will be hidden from Google and other search engines, and while paidContent reported that its videos had been reposted on YouTube before the site even launched, the paper’s digital editor told Journalism.co.uk that it’s working aggressively to keep its content within the site, including calling in the lawyers if need be. The Press Gazette’s Dominic Ponsford argued that the new site formally marks Murdoch’s retreat from the web: “Without any inbound or outbound links, and invisible to Google and other search engines, the NotW, Times and Sunday Times don’t really have internet sites – but digitally delivered editions.” British journalist Kevin Anderson was a little more charitable, saying the strategy just might be an early step toward a frictionless all-app approach to digital news.

As for Murdoch’s other paywall experiment at The Times, two editors gave a recent talk (reported by Editors Weblog) that juxtaposed two interesting ideas: The editors claimed that a subscription-based website makes them more focused on the user, then touted this as an advantage of the iPad: “People consume how you want them to consume.”

News orgs’ kibosh on political expression: NPR created a bit of buzz this week when it sent a memo to employees explaining that they were not allowed to attend the upcoming rallies by comedians Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert (unless they were covering the events), as they constitute unethical participation in a political rally. The rule forbidding journalists to participate in political rallies is an old one in newsrooms, and at least eight of the U.S.’ largest news organizations told The Huffington Post their journalists also wouldn’t be attending the rallies outside of work.

NPR senior VP Dana Davis Rehm explained in a post on its site that NPR issued the memo to clear up any confusion about whether the rallies, which are at least partly satirical in nature, were in fact political. NPR’s fresh implementation prompted a new round of criticism of the longstanding rule, especially from those skeptical of efforts at “objective” journalism: The Wrap’s Dylan Stableford called it “insane,” Northeastern j-prof Dan Kennedy said the prohibition keeps journalists from observing and learning, and CUNY j-prof Jeff Jarvis made a similar point, arguing that “NPR is forbidding its employees to be curious.”

A closer look at Denton and Huffington: In the past week, we’ve gotten long profiles of two new media magnates in a New Yorker piece on Gawker chief Nick Denton and a Forbes story on Arianna Huffington and her Huffington Post. (Huffington also gave a good Q&A to Investor’s Business Daily.) Reaction to the Denton articles was pretty subdued, but former Gawker editor Elizabeth Spiers (who wrote the Huffington piece) had some interesting thoughts about how Gawker has become part of the mainstream, though not everyone agrees whether its success is replicable.

Figures in the pieces prompted Reuters’ Felix Salmon and Forbes’ Jeff Bercovici to break down the sites’ valuation. (Salmon only looks at Gawker, though Bercovici compares the two in traffic value and in their owners’ roles.) The two networks have long been rivals, and Denton noted that thanks to a couple of big sports-related scandals, Gawker’s traffic beat the Post’s for the first time ever this week. Also this week, Huffington announced she’d pay $250,000 to send buses to Jon Stewart’s rally later this month, an idea the Wrap said some of her employees weren’t crazy about.

Reading roundup: Busy, busy week this week. We’ll see how much good stuff I can point you toward before your eyes start glazing over.

— A few follow-ups to last week’s discussion of Howard Kurtz’s move from The Washington Post to The Daily Beast: The New York Times’ David Carr wrote a lyrical column comparing writing for print and for the web, PBS MediaShift’s Mark Glaser interviewed Kurtz on Twitter, and former ESPN.com writer Dan Shanoff pointed out that the move from mainstream media to the web began in the sports world.

— An update on the debate over content farms: MediaWeek ran an article explaining why advertisers like them so much; one of those content farms, Demand Media said in an SEC filing that it plans to spend $50 million to $75 million on investments in content next year; and one hyperlocal operation accused of running on a content-farm model, AOL’s Patch, responded to its critics’ allegations.

— Two interesting discussions between The Guardian and Jeff Jarvis: Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger posted some thoughts about his concept of the Fourth Estate — the traditional press, public media, and the web’s public sphere — and Jarvis responded by calling the classification “correct but temporary.” The Guardian’s Roy Greenslade also wrote about his concern for the news/advertising divide as journalists become entrepreneurs, and Jarvis, an entrepreneurial journalism advocate, defended his cause.

— Three other good reads before we’re done:

GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram told newspapers it’s better to join Groupon than to fight it.

Newspaper analyst Alan Mutter laid out French research that illuminates just how far digital natives’ values are from those of the newspaper industry — and what a hurdle those newspapers have in reaching those consumers.

Scott Rosenberg looked at the closed systems encroaching on the web and asked a thought-provoking question: Is the openness that has defined the web destined to be just a parenthesis in a longer history of control? It’s a big question and, as Rosenberg reminds us, a critical one for the future of news.

August 26 2010

14:00

Project Argo blog is for participants, but an interesting read for outsiders

In the run-up to the launch of the D.C. local site TBD, the editors let future readers peek behind the curtain through a placeholder blog that teased new hires and plans for the project. The blog also did a great job of generating buzz; we tweeted quite a few links to the site.

So when Megan pointed me to a blog from another not-yet-launched project, NPR’s Argo Project, I assumed it would serve a similar marketing end. But this one’s different: The blog’s lead writer, editorial project manager Matt Thompson, is writing directly to the new Argo bloggers at 12 NPR member stations. Argo is a new cross-country network of reported blogs, and many of the journalists hired to run them need some tactical training in how to run a successful Argo site.

Think of it as an in-house blog that just happens to be open to the public; even though the blog is meant for NPR staff, it’s a useful read for anyone interested in the future of news or in best practices for launching a news blog. Here are a few of Thompson’s lessons:

1. You need a plan

One of the best posts on Thompson’s blog is a pre-launch checklist. (He’s since posted a revised version of the checklist on Argo’s impressive and useful docs site.) Thompson lays out a step-by-step guide for Argo participants, but it’s generally useful for anyone about to launch a new site could use (particularly if you’re using WordPress, which Argo is).

Some of the best: Do a “photowalk” for your beat (“try to capture images of things you’ll be posting about frequently”); build our your metadata beforehand (defining tags and categories before launch to straighten up your taxonomy); and reaching out to the best Creative Commons photographers on your beat (to ensure a happy group of free content providers).

2. Follow by example, steal from others

Blogging isn’t new, and Argo isn’t pretending it’s creating a new format. In fact, Thompson is urging bloggers to follow the examples of their best predecessors. He points readers to the work of trailblazers like Marc Ambinder, Nick Denton, and Andrew Sullivan. Ambinder gets a nod for his thoughts on journalism as an industry. A Nick Denton memo pushes for context (one of Thompson’s longstanding interests). And Andrew Sullivan gets praise for his pacing. The three writers certainly have different styles, different content focuses, and different missions, but Thompson has plucked out valuable advice for all of his bloggers.

3. Tactics are teachable

Thompson has a running series of posts called “dark secrets” that offer insight into how successful blogs engage an audience. Use photos. Watch your headlines. Where should you place that hyperlink? He’s got a good post on that. They’re the kinds of insights newspapers, magazines, and radio stations have compiled about their own media over time. But for this new-to-many platform, they make for helpful tips.

4. Blogging is a craft

The category Thompson posts to most frequently is “blogging technique.” His points are great: Find your morning routine, your rhythms, and your pace. Check out his post on “The blogger’s first month.” Blogging isn’t journalism for dummies — it’s a craft with its own set of practices and ways to excel.

August 13 2010

16:00

Knight Foundation’s new biz consultant thinks news startups can learn from outside of journalism

When Nick Denton sent out an email to his Gawker empire in April 2008 announcing the sale of the popular political site Wonkette, it came as a shock to those of us who so closely identified Wonkette with the Gawker brand. Not to mention that the 2008 presidential campaign season was in full swing and traffic on political sites was way up. Denton, the founder and owner of Gawker Media, explained that Wonkette (along with two other properties, a travel site called Gridskipper, and a music site called Idolator) “each had their editorial successes; but someone else will have better luck selling the advertising than we did.”

It was a moment when Denton showed his cards: If a site, even one clearly identified with his brand, was a threat to the broader organization, he’ll cut it loose. Here’s the crux of his thinking, in the run-up to the economic meltdown:

Everybody says that the internet is special; that advertising is still moving away from print and TV; and Gawker sites are still growing in traffic by about 90% a year, way faster than the web as a whole. But it would be naive to think that we can merely power through an advertising recession. We need to concentrate our energies, and the time of Chris Batty’s sales group, on the sites with the greatest potential for audience and advertising.

I was reminded of this moment recently after a conversation with a new hire at the Knight Foundation, Benoit Wirz. Knight brought Wirz on board to serve as director of business consulting, where he’ll work with “Knight Foundation staff to develop programs based on realistic business plans.” He’ll also work with individual grantees, including the crop of Knight News Challenge winners. The goal is to get Knight grantees thinking along the lines of Denton: How will my project survive for the long term?

“There are organizations that are struggling with that issue,” Wirz told me. “It would be good to give the organizations we’re working with the best chance to be sustainable.”

Wirz joined Knight from the Florida investment firm USGlobal, where he was vice president for strategic planning and worked with companies ranging from an architectural glass manufacturer to energy firms. I asked Wirz what spurred his interest in working for Knight, particularly on news projects. He said the challenges faced by a news startup are similar to their counterparts in other fields. “My sense is that startups in general face a lot of the same problems, whether they’re journalism or not,” he told me. The solutions aren’t cookie-cutter, but the strategies to get there can work across industries.

The Knight News Challenge, in particular, has always looked for projects that are scaleable, replicable, and in general sustainable, Gary Kebbel, the former journalism program director for Knight and now journalism dean at the University of Nebraska, told me. The new position is an investment in that ideal. “The Knight News Challenge has been used to find and fund new, exciting projects,” he said. “In doing that, it’s made some bets on great ideas.” But, of course, not everyone with a great idea is also an experienced project manager. Kebbel noted that Knight has always offered grantees technical help with basic business functions, like payroll.

More broadly, Knight is looking to make sure its projects and specific grantees take market factors into account. The foundation’s CFO Juan Martinez told me “what he’s really supposed to do is help us evolve our thinking.”

Don’t go Cadillac

Wirz is still new on the job, but we did talk about his broad thoughts on how to get news startups thinking. One of his rare universal points: Forget the Cadillac launch. Journalism might be the first draft of history, but most journalists see their work as something more polished than a sloppy copy. The journalistic process — report, check your facts, edit, copy edit and deliver a product as close-to-perfect as possible — doesn’t always line up with the best mindset in the startup world, Wirz says. Spending too much time and money planning the perfect prototype isn’t necessarily the way to go.

“You want to spend as little amount of money on a product as possible, put it out there, and then get as much feedback as you can,” Wirz said. “I think that model is something that can be useful for journalism startups, in particular, to keep in mind.”

Take the much talked-about new local startup in Washington, TBD. They embraced the attitude that their project is “to be determined,” which is where the probably-too-cute name comes from. The new site launched this week with some nice bells and whistles, like a homepage that can tailor your content via geo-tagging, but the organization fully expects their product to evolve as their audience interacts with them. The site’s general manager Jim Brady told paidContent that in the run up to the launch “we finally just had to say we’ve got to stop throwing new things in here and just get this thing out the door and freeze where we are.” Will the strategy work? Well, that’s TBD.

Pick the right risk

Another broad theme Wirz plans to focus on is managing risk. “The moment you make a business plan, you know it’s wrong,” he said. “You know that it’s wrong. It may be wrong in a good way; it may be wrong in a bad way.” Wirz wants to help startups make sure that the risk of what will go wrong centers on their innovative idea, not the myriad other, more predictable business problems. “There are certain risks that are just inherent in being in a business model. There are portions of business models based on risks. Why I’m here is to mitigate some of the risks that you don’t have to take.”

Friend of the Lab Jeff Israely, who is working on launching his own news startup and writing about it for us, is grappling with this very issue. Israely is a seasoned journalist, not an entrepreneur, who recently described himself as “a well-meaning but lonely 40ish hack with little technical knowledge and scant business experience.”

One of the ways to mitigate risk is to think about sustainability from the get-go, even during the grant application process or the early business-plan development phase. Wirz plans to work with Knight to make sure that groups are already thinking about their long-term plans long before they see any money. And that planning can come from unfamiliar territory. “My hope is certainly to share outside of the journalism world with the journalism community as much as possible,” he said.

April 14 2010

08:06

Nieman Journalism Lab: Barriers to entry can improve quality and quantity of reader comments, says Gawker

In 2009, blog network Gawker Media introduced a new, stricter commenting system in an attempt to free the site from certain readers who were dominating comment threads. Nieman Journalism Lab has the full rundown of how the system now works, which includes trusted commenters having greater access to discussions and most recent comments placed at the top rather than bottom of threads to steer discussion.

“We’ll be able to encourage the kind of discussion that *we* want – not one that is dominated merely by the most prolific of our commenters. It’s our party; we get to decide who comes,” wrote founder Nick Denton at the time.

A graph on the blog of Gawker Media chief technology officer Tom Plunkett shows an initial dip in comment volume when the changes were first made, followed by a steep incline:

Though there were some calls to do so, purging commenter accounts is not a solution for the out-of-control commenter community. Nor is a large moderation staff. We believe pruning, and a commenting platform as we have implemented, will lead to increased participation, while at the same time encouraging quality. This data, and the subjective opinion of many, seem to back this assertion.

Full Nieman Journalism Lab report at this link…

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April 13 2010

17:22

Tough love: Gawker finds making it harder for comments to be seen leads to more (and better) comments

That chart is, for news organizations seeking to tame their commenters, perhaps the best evidence yet that adding a few obstacles for those seeking the leave their mark on a web page can actually lead to more comments. And better ones, too.

That chart (bigger version here) tracks the number of comments left by month on the Gawker Media blog empire, Nick Denton’s collection of themed sites (Gawker, Gizmodo, Deadspin, et al.). It covers September 2005 to the present. See that big dip on the right? That’s when Gawker implemented a new, stricter commenting system, in which trusted commenters get preferred access to readers and the unknown hoi polloi have to audition for an audience. (We wrote about it at the time; in an internal memo, Denton wrote about “taking back the site from some commenters who thought they were in charge” and said “we’ll be able to encourage the kind of discussion that *we* want — not one that is dominated merely by the most prolific of our commenters. It’s our party; we get to decide who comes.”)

In essence, Gawker’s “class system” means unknown commenters get stuck behind a “show all discussions” link few users will click. What most readers will see are only the musings of trusted commenters and the few comments from the riff-raff that either Gawker staff or trusted commenters have decided to promote — the “featured discussions.” (The system also put the most recent comments on top, not on bottom as at most sites. That would seem to reduce the possibility that a dumb early comment would sway the chain of comments that follow it into irrelevance.)

As the chart shows, the shift led to an immediate decline in comment volume. (Interestingly, the biggest drop seems to have been at Jezebel, Gawker’s women-centric site. Attention communications and/or gender studies grad students: There’s a thesis somewhere in there!) But comments quickly rebounded and have since skyrocketed at a much faster slope than before the switch. Some of that is no doubt related to Gawker’s overall increase in traffic, but the scale of the increase is still remarkable.

Gawker Media CTO Tom Plunkett posted the chart on his blog. His interpretation?

Quality *and* growth — it’s possible! We launched tiered commenting mid-year 2009, and introduced a new process to manage comment volume. Note the dramatic drop in volume, and the subsequent rise (double in 9 months). With this increase, Gawker still has the best commenting system/experience out there — and I usually hear the same from people that want to share their opinion…

Though there were some calls to do so, purging commenter accounts is not a solution for the out-of-control commenter community. Nor is a large moderation staff. We believe pruning, and a commenting platform as we have implemented, will lead to increased participation, while at the same time encouraging quality. This data, and the subjective opinion of many, seem to back this assertion.

I’m a regular Gizmodo and Gawker reader (and less regular Lifehacker and Deadspin reader), and I can add to the subjective opinion that average comment quality is higher than before. But “better” isn’t the only scale on which you can measure comments. I think the audition-for-an-audience nature of the new system also makes the comments quippier; Gawker comments can feel like a bunch of wannabe Henny Youngmans spouting one-liners and seeking attention. But that vibe may have more to do with Gawker’s content and tone than the details of its commenting policies.)

In any event, complaining about awful commenters seems to be the first thing any gaggle of journalists does when lamenting the new news reality. The default solution has been to say every commenter should have to use his or her real name — a solution with practical as well as ethical problems. (Although Facebook Connect may be taking away some of the practical concerns.) Still, there’s a whole world of ways a news site can improve the tenor of its comments while keeping itself reasonably open. Gawker Media’s success is one example of how.

March 31 2010

13:56

Nieman Journalism Lab: Gawker’s new traffic metric measures ‘reader affection’

While others pour over pageviews and underscore uniques, Gawker Media has been quietly working on a new metric, one designed to measure so-called “reader affection”. This new metric is called “branded traffic” and is, according to Nieman Journalism Lab, “both more nebulous and more significant” than traditional forms of measurement.

The idea is to measure the number of visitors that arrive at the site via a direct search for its name or variations on its branding, or by typing in the site URL directly, and distinguish them from more incidental traffic.

The metric comes from a simple compound: direct type-in visits plus branded search queries in Google Analytics. In other words, Gawker Media is bifurcating its visitors in its evaluation of them, splitting them into two groups: the occasional audience, you might call it, and the core audience.

The original Gawker release highlights the value the site places on turning the internet passerby into an affectionate reader:

While distributing content across the web is essential for attracting the interest of internet passersby, courting these wanderers, massaging them into occasional visitors, and finally gaining their affection as daily readers is far more important. This core audience – borne of a compounding of word of mouth, search referrals, article recommendations, and successive enjoyed visits that result in regular readership – drives our rich site cultures and premium advertising products.

Full post at this link…

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13:19

Media Beat: Former Gawker managing editor talks niches and revenue streams

Dramatically named blogger and journalism entrepreneur Lockhart Steele has guested on mediabistro’s Media Beat video series in the last two days, with the last episode appearing later this afternoon. Steele began blogging around the beginning of the decade while working in magazines. He was recruited by Nick Denton as Gawker began to pick up traffic and later became managing editor of the site, seeing it expand from just a handful of editorial staff to around 150.

In the second installment of the Media Beat series, below, Steele discusses getting traffic through Twitter and Facebook, diversifying revenue streams online, and “looking for niches where we can be a little bit weird”.

Follow this link for the first installment, in which Steele discusses starting out in blogging and breaking away from Gawker to establish his own blogging network.

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March 30 2010

18:56

A “reader affection” formula: Gawker creates a metric for branded traffic

Influence, engagement, impact: For goals that are, in journalism, kind of the whole point, they’re notoriously difficult to quantify. How do you measure, measure a year, and so on.

Turns out, though, that Gawker Media, over the past few years, has been attempting to do just that. Denton and Crew, we learned in a much-retweeted post this morning, have been “quietly tending” a metric both more nebulous and more significant than pageviews, uniques, and the other more traditional ways of impact-assessment: They’ve been measuring branded traffic — or, as the post in question delightfully puts it, “recurring reader affection.” The metric comes from a simple compound: direct type-in visits plus branded search queries in Google Analytics.

In other words, Gawker Media is bifurcating its visitors in its evaluation of them, splitting them into two groups: the occasional audience, you might call it, and the core audience. And it’s banking on the latter. “New visitors are only really valuable if they become regulars,” Denton pointed out in a tweet this morning. (That lines up with Denton’s recent pushing of unique visits over pageviews as a performance metric.)

The goal — as it is for so many things in journalism these days — is to leverage the depth against the breadth. As the post puts it:

While distributing content across the web is essential for attracting the interest of Internet passersby, courting these wanderers, massaging them into occasional visitors, and finally gaining their affection as daily readers is far more important. This core audience — borne of a compounding of word of mouth, search referrals, article recommendations, and successive enjoyed visits that result in regular readership — drives our rich site cultures and premium advertising products.

I spoke with Erin Pettigrew, Gawker Media’s head of marketing and advertising operations — and the author of the post in question — over gChat to learn more about the outlet’s branded-traffic metric.

“The idea came from a few places,” she told me.

First, for so long we concerned ourselves with reach and becoming a significant enough web population such that advertisers would move us into their consideration set for marketing spend. Now that we have attained a certain level of reach and that spend consideration, we’re looking for additional ways to differentiate ourselves against other publisher populations. So branded traffic helps to illuminate our readership’s quality over its quantity, a nuanced benefit over many of the more broadly reaching sites on the web.

Secondly, there’s a myth, especially in advertising, that frequency of visitation is wasteful to ad spend. As far as premium content sites and brand marketers go, however, that myth is untrue. So, the ‘branded traffic’ measure is part of a larger case we’re making that advertising to a core audience (who visits repeatedly) is extremely effective.

Another aspect of that case, she adds, is challenging assumptions about reader engagement. “The wisdom has been that the higher the frequency of ad exposures to a single visitor, the less effective a marketing message becomes to that visitor. To the contrary, the highly engaged reader is actually far more receptive to the publisher’s marketing messaging than the occasional passerby.

In other words, she says: “Branded traffic is to a free website what a subscriber base is to a paid content site. The psychology behind the intent to visit and engage with the publisher brand in those two instances is very similar.”

The approach’s big x-factor — whether branded traffic will get buy-in, in every sense, from marketers — remains to be determined. “It’s something we’re just beginning to explore,” Pettigrew says. But marketers, she points out, “have always considered front door takeovers or roadblocks as one of the most coveted advertising placements on a publisher website. And they “intuitively understand that the publisher brand’s halo is brightest and strongest for a reader who comes through the front door seeking the publisher’s brand experience” — which is to say, they should realize the value of the core audience. “But we’ve yet to see a metric take hold across the industry that gets at a numerical understanding of this marketer intuition.”

January 07 2010

15:13

To grow, Gawker turns its attention to unique users

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Update: Denton followed up with a clarification:

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

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