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January 05 2012

15:15

The newsonomics of the News Dial-o-Matic

It’s an emerging issue of our time and place. They know too much about us, and we know too little about what they know. We do know that what they know about us is increasingly determining what they choose to give us to read. We wonder: What are we missing? And just who is making those decisions?

Today, in 2012, those questions are more pressing in our age of news deluge. We’re confronted at every turn, at every finger gesture, with more to read or view or listen to. It’s not just the web: It’s also the smartphone and especially the tablet, birthing new aggregator products — Google Currents and Yahoo Livestand have joined Flipboard, Pulse, Zite, and AOL Editions — every month. Compare for a moment the “top stories” you get on each side-by-side, and you’ll be amazed. How did they get there? Why are they so different?

Was it some checkbox I checked (or didn’t?!) at sign-in? Using Facebook to sign in seemed so easy, but how is that affecting what I get? Are all those Twitterees I followed determining my story selection? (Or maybe that’s why I’m getting so many Chinese and German stories?) Did I tell the Times to give the sports section such low priority? The questions are endless, a ball of twine we’ve spun in declaring some preferences in our profiles over the years, wound ever wider by the intended or (or un-) social curation of Facebook and Twitter, and mutliplied by the unseen but all-knowing algorithms that think they know what we really want to read, more than we do. (What if they are right? Hold that thought.)

The “theys” here aren’t just the digital behemoths. Everyone in the media business — think Netflix and The New York Times as much as Pandora and People — wants to do this simple thing better: serve their customers more of what they are likely to consume so that they’ll consume more — perhaps buying digital subscriptions, services, or goods and providing very targetable eyes for advertisers. It’s not a bad goal in and of itself, but sometimes it feels like it is being done to us, rather than for us.

Our concern, and even paranoia, is growing. Take Eli Pariser’s well-viewed (500,000 times, just on YouTube) May 2011 TED presentation on “filter bubbles,” which preceded his June-published book of the same name. In the talk, Pariser talks about the fickle faces of Facebook and Google, making “invisible algorithmic editing of the web” an issue. He tells the story of how a good progressive like himself, a founder of MoveOn.org, likes to keep in touch with conservative voices and included a number in his early Facebook pages.

He then describes how Facebook, as it watched his actual reading patterns — he tended to read his progressive friends more than his conservative ones — began surfacing the conservative posts less and less over time, leaving his main choices (others, of course, are buried deeper down in his datastream, but not easily surfaced on that all-important first screen of his consciousness) those of like-minded people. Over time, he lost the diversity he’d sought.

Citing the 57 unseen filters Google uses to personalize its results for us, Pariser notes that it’s a personalization that doesn’t even seem personalized, or easily comparable: “You can’t see how different your search results are than your friends…We’re seeing a passing of the torch from human gatekeepers to algorithmic ones.”

Pariser’s worries have been echoed by a motley crew we can call algorithmic and social skeptics. Slowly, Fear of Facebook has joined vague grumbles about Google and ruminations about Amazon’s all-knowing recommendations. Ping, we’ve got a new digital problem on our bands. Big Data — now well-advertised in every airport and every business magazine as the new business problem of the digital age to pay someone to solve — has gotten very personal. We are more than the sum of our data, we shout. And why does everyone else know more more about me that I do?

The That’s My Datamine Era has arrived.

So we see Personal.com, a capitalist solution to the uber-capitalist usage of our data. I’ve been waiting for a Personal.com (and the similar Singly.com) to come along. What’s more American than having the marketplace harness the havoc that the marketplace hath wrought? So Personal comes along with the bold-but-simple notion that we should individually decide who should see our own data, own preferences, and our own clickstreams — and be paid for the privilege of granting access (with Personal taking 10 percent of whatever bounty we take in from licensing our stuff).

It’s a big, and sensible, idea in and of itself. Skeptics believe the horse has left the barn, saying that so much data about us is already freely available out there to ad marketers as to make such personal databanks obsolete before they are born. They may be forgetting the power of politics. While the FCC, FTC, and others have flailed at the supposed excesses of digital behemoths, they’ve never figured out how to rein in those excesses. Granting consumers some rights over their own data — a Consumer Data Bill of Rights — would be a populist political issue, for either Republicans or Democrats or both. But, I digress.

I think there’s a way for us to reclaim our reading choices, and I’ll call it the News Dial-o-Matic, achievable with today’s technology.

While Personal.com gives us 121 “gem” lockers — from “Address” to “Women’s Shoes”, with data lockers for golf scores, beer lists, books, house sitters, and lock combinations along the way, we want to focus on news. News, after all, is the currency of democracy. What we read, what she reads, what they read, what I read all matter. We know we have more choice than any generation in history. In this age of plenty, how do we harness it for our own good?

Let’s make it easy, and let’s use technology to solve the problem technology has created. Let’s think of three simple news reading controls that could right the balance of choice, the social whirl and technology. We can even imagine them as three dials, nicely circular ones, that we can adjust with a flick of the finger or of the mouse, changing them at our whim, or time of day.

The three dials control the three converging factors that we’d like to to determine our news diet.

Dial #1: My Sources

This is the traditional title-by-title source list, deciding which titles from global news media to local blogs I want in my news flow.

Dial #2: My Networks

Social curation is one of the coolest ideas to come along. Why should I have to rely only on myself to find what I like (within or in addition to My Sources) when lots of people like me are seeking similar content? My Facebook friends, though, will give me a very different take than those I follow on Twitter. My Gmail contact list would provide another view entirely. In fact, as Google Circles has philosophized, “You share different things with different people. But sharing the right stuff with the right people shouldn’t be a hassle.” The My Networks dial lets me tune my reading of different topics by different social groups. In addition, today’s announced NewsRight — the AP News Registry spin-off intended to market actionable intelligence about news reading in the U.S. — could even play a role here.

Dial #3: The Borg

The all-knowing, ever-smarter algorithm isn’t going away — and we don’t want it to. We just want to control it — dial it down sometimes. I like thinking of it in sci-fi terms, and The Borg from “Star Trek” well illustrates its potential maniacal drive. (I love the Wikipedia Borg definition: “The Borg manifest as cybernetically-enhanced humanoid drones of multiple species, organized as an interconnected collective, the decisions of which are made by a hive mind, linked by subspace radio frequencies. The Borg inhabit a vast region of space in the Delta Quadrant of the galaxy, possessing millions of vessels and having conquered thousands of systems. They operate solely toward the fulfilling of one purpose: to “add the biological and technological distinctiveness of other species to [their] own” in pursuit of their view of perfection“.) The Borg knows more about our habits than we’d like and we can use it well, but let’s have us be the ones doing the dialing up and down.

Three simple round dials. They could harness the power of our minds, our relationships, and our technologies. They could utilize the smarts of human gatekeepers and of algorithmic ones. And they would return power to where it belongs, to us.

Where are the dials? Who powers them? Facebook, the new home page of our time, would love to, but so would Google, Amazon, and Apple, among a legion of others. Personal.com would love to be that center, as it would any major news site (The New York Times, Zite-powered CNN, Yahoo News). We’ll leave that question to the marketplace.

Lastly, what are the newsonomics of the News Dial-o-Matic? As we perfect what we want to read, the data capturing it becomes even more valuable to anyone wanting to sell us stuff. Whether that gets monetized by us directly (through the emerging Personals of the world), or a mix of publishers, aggregators, or ad networks would be a next battleground. And then: What about the fourth wheel, as we dial up and down what we’re in the marketplace to buy right now? Wouldn’t that be worth a tidy sum?

October 06 2011

16:00

The Newsonomics of f8

Editor’s Note: Each week, Ken Doctor — author of Newsonomics and longtime watcher of the business side of digital news — writes about the economics of news for the Lab.

Is it declaration of war, or of peace, or is Mark Zuckerberg saying he just really Likes us all very, very much?

“No activity is too big or too small to share,” the 27-year-old proclaimed at the recent f8 announcement. “All your stories, all your life…. This is going to make it easy to share orders of magnitude more things than before.” (f8 sounds, oddly, like FATE, but I think my paranoia is kicking in.)

“Excuse me, have we met?” is one response.

Another response to Facebook’s Ticket, Timeline, and News Feed initiatives is to go dating. Some quite influential publishers are road-testing the new features, while others ponder a light commitment.

In 2011, U.S. dailies’ digital ad take will be about $3 billion and Facebook’s $2 billion.

They should be aware that Facebook is bent on world domination — having targeted businesses now run by Amazon, Apple, Google, LinkedIn, Wikipedia, Flipboard, Pulse, Pandora, Last.fm, and Flickr, as well as legacy news and information providers — in the latest move. (Forget debating Google’s “do no evil” mantra; Google’s sin may have been that it thought too small.) That’s audience, though not business, domination, as Facebook’s EMEA platform partnerships director, Christian Hernandez, told PaidContent. “[f8] is not a commercial decision.” Got it. And Google just wants to help us better organize our info.

Facebook’s f8 signals a next round of digital disruption. Remember Microsoft’s decade-old bid to become the hub of our entertainment lives, as evidenced by its futuristic Consumer Electronics Show displays? Facebook has taken that metaphor — and updated and socialized it.

This unabashed push to remake the digital world in its own image would seem like laughable megalomania coming from many other sources in the world. But it’s not megalomania if others act like you’re not crazy. In fact, our story takes strange turns as this megalomania, so far, seems quite magnanimous to publishers, as Facebook looks to some like the best available date, compared to the other ascendant audience resellers (Apple, Amazon, and Google).

As leading-edge publishers move away from destination-only strategies, they seek to colonize other habitable web environments; Facebook now looks like the friendliest clime, allowing publishers to keep all the revenue from ads they are selling within their Facebook apps. In addition, Facebook is providing aggregated data on user engagement — active users, likes, comments, post views, and post feedback.

Buy-in from such brands as the Washington Post, The Economist, the Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, and Yahoo helps to place Facebook’s push into the “normal” scale of corporate behavior.

Why are news players playing along? What do they think is in it for them?

Let’s look at the newsonomics of f8 and of the new social whirl.

“Rather than incorporate Facebook features into our site, we’ve looked at incorporating our content into Facebook.”

Let’s start with the stark, Willie Sutton reason: you work with Facebook because that’s where the audience is. In the U.S., Facebook claims more as much as seven hours of average monthly usage; globally, that number is four hours plus. It’s where would-be readers hang out.

Worldwide, it claims an audience of 800 million.

If Facebook is the hang-out mall, newspaper and magazine sites are grocery stores. People go there when they need something — to find out what’s new — and then leave. The comparative average monthly usage of news sites runs five to 20 minutes per month.

So exposure to audience is the no-brainer, here. The question is: to what end?

Step back from the flurry of news company announcements, or from the behind-the-scenes 2012 strategies-in-the-making, and publishers cite three top goals:

  • Lower-cost development of audience, especially audience that may become core customers.
  • Digital advertising revenue growth.
  • Establishing a robust, growing stream of digital reader revenue.

So how might f8 innovations help those?

Let’s start with brand awareness. It’s a digital din out there, a survival-of-the-feistiest time. Consumers will come to rely on a handful or two of news brands, goes the theory. So best to be high in their consciousness, and Facebook omnipresence in people’s lives offers that possibility.

Adam Freeman, executive director of Commercial for Guardian News and Media, explains Guardian’s digital-first strategy here this way:

Our digital audience has grown to a phenomenal 50m+, but, with the best will in the world, chances are we are never going to outpace and outstrip Facebook’s audience size. So we see an opportunity in that — rather than incorporate Facebook features into our site, we’ve looked at incorporating our content into Facebook. There is an untapped audience within Facebook who may not be regularly encountering Guardian and Observer content, and we think our app increases the the visibility of our content in that space.

Of course that brand consciousness needs to be acted on, which leads us to…

Lower-cost traffic acquisition. Online, publishers have invested in search engine optimization and search engine marketing. SEO makes them more findable in organic search; SEM pays for high-level brand placement. In addition, they’ve done deals with portals over the years; the current Yahoo deals of swapping news stories for links is a major one for many.

Against, though, Facebook is simply social media optimization (“The newsonomics of social media optimization”).

It’s another route to pouring newer customers into the top end of news publishers’ audience funnel, hoping a few tumble out the bottom as paying, regular readers. And any readers can be monetized with advertising.

SMO’s relative economics are better than SEO or SEM. Not only is SMO cheaper than SEM, some publishers say it “performs” better. That performance is best measured by conversions (registrations, more pages read, digital sub buying), while for others the jury is still out. And, at best, audience development multiplies off these new relationships.

“These new Facebook users aren’t necessarily finding the brand in traditional ways, nor do they necessarily hold longstanding brand affinity,” says Jed Williams, analyst at BIA/Kelsey.

Their social graphs, curators/editors, recommendations, etc. are doing the pointing for them. So they do arrive at the very top of the proverbial funnel. And, as they interact with the publisher, with them in turn comes their social network. Potentially, the exponential network effects take off, and new audience continues to breed even more new audience. Original audience targets emerge, and the funnel continually expands. At least in the best case scenario, it does.

Sale of paid products: If you are now selling digital subscriptions, you’re doubly interested in customer acquisition. Now publishers can discover the percentage of new audience they can convert to paying customers, though that’s not an easy proposition to figure out. That percentage will be tiny, but it may be meaningful.

Out of the chute, digital circulation efforts have focused strongly on longstanding customers. Publishers have wanted to keep their print customers paying. They want to reduce print churn by taking away customers’ ability to get the news they get in the paper for free online. They want to change the psychology of long-term readers, giving them a new understanding: You pay for news, in print or digitally.

Facebook looks like it may become a top media-selling marketplace, along with Amazon and Apple.

That’s round one, 2011-2012, of the digital circulation wars. Round two necessitates bringing in new customers, especially younger ones who don’t have print habits and may not have much news brand loyalty.

That’s a key place Facebook fits in. It’s a potential hothouse of new, younger customers.

“It isn’t obvious that we can be successful with premium content on social,” notes Alisa Bowen, general manager of WSJ Digital Network. The Journal, while not participating in the f8 launch, already has a significant trial in place. The same holds true of the spate of other recent WSJ innovations, like WSJ Live and its iPad apps. “WSJ Everywhere,” Bowen says, “tests what we’re doing for people who never come to the website.”

As publishers create more one-off tablet and smartphone products (“The newsonomics of Kindle Singles”), Facebook looks like it may become a top media-selling marketplace, along with Amazon and Apple.

Advertising revenue: Facebook is still so bent on building audience that it is providing publishers their best ad deals. Publishers can sell ads for display within their Facebook apps — and keep all the revenue. No revenue share, thank you. (At least for now.)

Data: “In addition to serving adverts from our own partners in the app, we have highly detailed but anonymized data from Facebook covering demographics and usage,” says Freeman. “We also have our own analytics embedded in the pages on the app, which will help us understand how our content is used and shared within the Facebook Open Graph.”

Learning about social curation. Social filtering will be a standard feature of all news (unless we opt out) by 2015. It’s not hard to see why. It’s old village world-of-mouth, jet-propelled by technology. How social curation will work is a huge question; how can it best co-exist with editorial curation, for instance? That kind of learning is one other benefit f8 partners tell me they hope to gain.

The Facebook dance is a cautious one. News publishers’ experiences with web wunderkinds have not, in general, been great ones. Witness the ongoing battles over revenue share percentages, customer relationships, and customer data access that have characterized the soap-opera-like Apple/publisher public spats. Amazon’s new Kindle tablet re-lights the question of publisher/Amazon rev share and data sharing.

September 16 2011

18:57

Google's social push - Kara Swisher: "It's called Propeller"

AllThingsD :: According to numerous sources close to the situation, Google is indeed working on rolling out a new product, which is currently called Propeller. Sources said Propeller is apparently one of a number of new socially focused announcements Google is prepping, including new apps. Propeller is a souped-up version of similar reader apps such as Flipboard, AOL's Editions, Yahoo's Livestand, and Pulse.
Facebook is also making social versions of publications available within its site.

Continue to read Kara Swisher, allthingsd.com

August 03 2011

16:32

How AOL’s Editions iPad app aims to be anything to anyone

Poynter :: AOL unveiled a centerpiece of its mobile content strategy this week — a new iPad app called Editions that blends some of the most-successful features of other popular news-browsing apps with its own new ideas. Editions is another attempt at a mass-market iPad news app, like Flipboard, Pulse or Zite, that bring you news not just from one source or niche, but from the entire Web. They aim to be anything to anyone.

Review - continue to read Jeff Sondnerman, www.poynter.org

July 28 2011

21:36

Win-win? Why The Atlantic agreed to partner with Pulse. A story for data-hungry publishers

Niemalab :: Let’s face some facts: Media companies aren’t entirely sure what to do with the new crop of news reading apps that are springing up at the moment. Technology like Flipboard, Zite, or Pulse could either be a thief, a new revenue stream, or an inexpensive test bed for finding new ways to get your content in front of people.

Why should media companies partner with startups like Pulse?

One reason ...

[M. Scott Havens:] Since we don’t spend money on advertising and let the editorial be our branding arm, we’d like to get out to these applications where other readers are, who aren’t familiar with our brand.

A closer look - continue to read Justin Ellis, www.niemanlab.org

16:30

Why The Atlantic joined up with Pulse — and what the app’s usage stats can tell data-hungry publishers

Let’s face some facts: Media companies aren’t entirely sure what to do with the new crop of news reading apps that are springing up at the moment. Technology like Flipboard, Zite, or Pulse could either be a thief, a new revenue stream, or an inexpensive test bed for finding new ways to get your content in front of people. For the moment, these deals, if they are drawn up between a publisher and an app maker, typically get thrown into the category of “partnerships,” like the kind of reading app Pulse has been brokering with media companies like CNN, the Wall Street Journal, Vanity Fair, Time, and MSNBC.

Just last week Pulse struck a new partnership agreement, adding The Atlantic, The Atlantic Wire, and The National Journal to its list of featured content providers. So far, the deals between Pulse and news organizations haven’t been monetary; if anything, they’re more exploratory in nature, determining whether a third party can deliver substantial traffic to news sites (and eyes to their ads). But it can also be instructive on how audiences’ appetites for reading has changed, and give us an idea why places like The Atlantic want in with Pulse.

M. Scott Havens, vice president of digital strategy and operations for The Atlantic, told me the new wave of display apps are offering experiments in how the reading experience has changed, which is of no small interest to publishers. “Hopefully people will find us, discover us on Pulse, and might actually become a subscriber to our brands,” Havens said. The Atlantic can reach new audiences while also studying how users read, Havens said.

Essentially it’s a win-win for the moment: “Since we don’t spend money on advertising and let the editorial be our branding arm, we’d like to get out to these applications where other readers are, who aren’t familiar with our brand,” he said.

This all works perfectly for Pulse, says Akshay Kothari, the company’s CEO, because their broad goal at the moment is gathering more content to spotlight within the app and developing fruitful relationships with publishers. One of the critical bits of information Pulse holds is data on usage patterns for readers within the app, both on the iPad and iPhone.

Though Kothari would not offer up specific data, he told me one clear trend is the difference in the reading patterns on the iPhone vs. the iPad. On any given week, Pulse users on smartphones open the app twice as often as people on the tablet version. But all told, tablet users spend more time on Pulse, and their sessions are twice as long as those of iPhone users. What’s also interesting is that in some cases one platform feeds into another: “If you look at usage patterns, [users] will come in small bursts to look at news, and if they like it — long-form articles or something from The Economist — they’ll save them and read them on other devices,” he said.

So in a typical day a Pulse reader may drop in more than 3 times to check the news, but only spend 5-10 minutes scanning, Kothari said. From what they’re seeing, a good chunk of Pulse’s audience falls somewhere into this category of heavy-ish users who subscribe to multiple sources, as opposed to those who scan stories and headlines on Pulse with less frequency.

It probably shouldn’t be a surprise that Pulse tracks with patterns we’ve been seeing emerge in the ways people read on new devices. In terms of the iPad, Pulse seems to mirror similar evidence we’ve seen suggesting that people look for a comfy spot to do serious reading on their tablets. “The consumption pattern on the tablet is slightly different, spending longer time,” Kothari said. “The use-case is kind of like sitting in home, maybe lounging with the iPad and consuming lots of time and news stories.”

Another trend they saw was an increase in delayed reading. Not long after launching, it became clear readers were using Pulse to dip into and out of the day’s news and emailing stories to themselves. “We realized that a good majority of people want something to save (stories) and go back to it later, simple functionality to save from Pulse and synch with other devices,” he said. (They’ve since added Instapaper and Read It Later buttons.)

Pulse uses all this information in refining its product, adding features when necessary and responding to feedback from users. But it’s clear that this is also intel that could be of interest to news organizations trying to reconcile their digital media plans with those of third-party app companies. As part of the partnership, news organizations will get their hands on data from Pulse on how many users subscribe to their content, as well as social sharing stats and click-through rates, Kothari said.

Pulse can be an app for news discovery as much as presentation, meaning it can be a gateway for introducing people to news sources they would otherwise not know. Which is one of the reasons they’re eager to buddy-up with media companies like The Atlantic, Kothari said. One of the things they learned early was that there’s no predicting what readers will find interesting. Of all the pre-loaded news sources they had at launch, which included RSS feeds from mainstream organizations, one that was apparently most interesting to readers was from Cool Hunting, the design and culture blog. One of Pulse’s goals going forward, Kothari said, is to create an opportunity for a “Cool Hunting moment” for more publishers.

“We’re very, very excited to work on this,” he said. “The team assembled are all great developers and designers, but also people who want to see great journalism survive.”

July 13 2011

12:54

Sobees debuts a more social, browser-based version of NewsMix, a news aggregator

TechCrunch :: Earlier this year, social media client Sobees launched NewsMix, an iPad app which presents news and content shared by your social circle in a magazine format on the device. It’s similar in functionality to Flipboard, Summify or Pulse. Today the company is launching a browser-based, more social news aggregator.

Continue to read Leena Rao, techcrunch.com

May 19 2011

16:00

The newsonomics of the missing link

Picture Pre-Tablet Man (or Woman). Let’s go back to the time before Palm Pilots, at the dawn of consumer digital civilization itself, a time of AOL, Prodigy, and Compuserve. Hunched heavily by the analog world on his shoulders, Pre-Tablet Man has slowly begun to raise his head, through successive innovations of laptops (!), pocket-sized cellphones, smartphones, smarter phones and early e-readers. Now, as we enter Year 2 of the iPad era, it seems like our digital man is almost standing up straight. The digital world has moved from geek chic to consumer commonplace. Our digital devices have become on/off appliances, no manual necessary.

In this evolution, the iPad is so far our human pinnacle, though it will be followed by wonders to come. It also marks a signal change in digital usage, and especially in digital news consumption. I think of it as the likely missing link in the digital news evolution. It’s a link that, out of the blue — or maybe out of the darkness — has offered news companies, old and new, the unlikely (last?) chance to get a new sustainable business model.

We’re now approaching the second half of this highly transitional year, with its multiplying paid circulation tests, continuing print revenue declines, and greater re-focusing on digital ad sales. As we do, let’s look at the newsonomics of the tablet as the missing link. Let’s do that in light of what I think are the six major realities confronting news companies at mid-year.

1. Reality: Print is in permanent decline.

That’s what 21 consecutive quarters of decline (year over year) in U.S. newspaper print ad revenue tells us (“The newsonomics of oblivion“). Consumer magazine revenue has moved barely positive, but is still substantially below pre-recession levels. Print is there to be milked, as long as it can, in the digital transition. Fewer newspapers are being sold, and they are thinner and thinner.

The tablet link: The tablet is a print-like replacement for newspapers and magazines. Publishers privately report (and an increasing spate of reports from Instapaper to RJI to Yudu) that tablet readers read the tablet much more like the newspaper than the way they read news websites. Longer session times. Longer stories. Early morning and evening reading. Pre-tablet, publishers had no potential replacement. Yes, smartphones have been a great check-in short-form reader, but that’s more of a traditional online-like behavior. Now they’ve been given a gift by the technology gods.

Caveat: The tablet is print-like, but it’s not print. It’s a new medium, first inviting — and soon demanding — that publishers make use of its interactive, video-forward, and smooth-as-silk social sharing capabilities. If publishers persist in “going slow,” sticking with cheaper-to-produce replica tablet products, they’ll squander the tablet replacement-for-print opportunity, as new market entrants from the AOLs (including flag-in-the-local-sand Patch) to the Bay Citizens surpass them.

2. Reality: Online engagement is inadequate.

The tablet link: The tablet offers a way to re-engage readers, a corollary to the tablet’s replacement potential. The biggest problem for news publishers isn’t (a) that the digital ad world only produces pennies on the old ad dollar, (b) the low share of digital ad revenue they get, or (c) a changing cabal of digital startups from Yahoo to Google to Apple that are stealing their business. Their biggest problem is online engagement.

News producers work in a world of massive cost, funding well-paid newsrooms and all the legacy supports from advertising to finance to circulation. That investment made a lot of sense when readers really engaged with their products. Consider that in the heyday, your average newspaper would command 270 minutes (4.5 hours) of attention per household per month. Consider that online, the average engagement time is five to 15 minutes per month.

So, if early tablet reading patterns persist, publishers could find themselves on the road to re-engagement. The possibility: short-form, headline-and-blurb desktop/laptop reading may have been the news industry’s nuclear winter, with a greener spring on the horizon.

Caveat: It’s still way early to know whether more engaged reading patterns will last. I believe they largely will, but that publishers will soon find themselves fighting for engaged minutes with whatever successful aggregators emerge from new crowds of Flipboard, Pulse, Zite, Trove, Ongo, and News.me, just to name a few. Ventures like Next Issue Media address may address destination buying, but not product aggregation in ways that consumers have shown they love. Aggregation won Round One of the web, as individual publishers lost. We may be seeing history repeating.

3. Reality: Google juice is wearing thin.

The tablet link: The tablet is driven more by direct traffic, by apps, and by direct browsing than by search; early publishers results show a healthy majority of tablet news visitors coming direct, unlike the online experience. Search isn’t over, but it’s being pushed aside as the beginning and the center of our online news activity. Publishers never found Google juice all that nourishing; it provided lots of calories, but too little muscle tone in new direct revenue created.

Caveat: Again, this is early behavior. While Google juice may stay thin, Facebook and Twitter juice are getting tastier, and will, in part, replace Google as important referrer of potential new customer traffic.

4. Reality: The only big growth is digital.

The tablet link: The tablet may be the path to getting print-like ad revenues.

News publishers have one story to tell, and that’s what we hear in quarterly reports and increasingly infrequent interviews: the growth in digital ad sales. The New York Times touts that 24 percent of its ad revenue is now digital, with McClatchy and Gannett just below 20 percent. Journal Register CEO John Paton talks about the digtital EBITDA his company will be able to throw off by 2014. At the same time, digital ad growth isn’t coming close to making up for print ad decline at most companies.

With current high ad rates, approaching print ones, high national advertiser and ad agency focus, tablets may be a great ad platform, unlike online or smartphone.

Caveat: Newspapers current earn more than $500 a year in Sunday revenue from print subscribers. Can tablets, if they replace print, ever come near that number?

5. Reality: Digital circulation revenue essential is essential to a new sustainable business model.

The tablet link: Consumers appear willing to pay for some kinds of tablet content. Imagine the paid proposition today without the tablet. Selling online/print? That’s a tough proposition. Print/smartphone? Well, maybe. The tablet gives publishers a much better value proposition to offer readers. All Access — including tablets — may prove to be a winning proposition.

Caveat: Early paid experiments aren’t producing much digital circulation. Why? In part, the tablet-wow products are in their infancy, and engagement remains too low. If too few readers bump into the pay wall, even fewer will pay up.

6. Reality: The News Anywhere Era is becoming real.

The tablet link: The tablet is a part of this new News Anywhere expectation. Getting news wherever we are has moved from something cool to something expected overnight. News Anywhere has offered a new playing field and a new value propostion that publishers can offer readers. In the era in which Netflix, HBO, and Comcast offer Entertainment Anywhere, news publishers have been presented a model — an All Access model — that readers can easily grasp.

Caveat: Readers grasp the model — and have high expectations. That means news publishers must more quickly satisfy those News Anywhere habits, properly formatting for each device and understanding how consumers are using news differently on their iPhones, their iPads and on their desktops. Most are simply not yet prepared to take advantage of this revolution.

Image by Bryan Wright used under a Creative Commons license.

December 22 2010

15:00

Amy Webb: The IPv4 problem, geofencing, and lots of hyperlocal

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

Here’s digital media consultant Amy Webb of Webbmedia Group, on hyperlocal startups, tablets, geofencing, and more.

Every device that connects to the Internet, from mobile phones to MiFis to computers to TiVOs, needs a unique ID number (also called an IP address) in order to make contact with other devices on the network. The world will run out of addresses by March 2011. This means that for those in developing areas like China and India who finally have access to technology, they won’t be able to get online. But it also means that large-scale U.S. providers such as Comcast won’t be able to support new customers as they have in the past. Why? Our current standard, IPv4, is the Internet Protocol developed in 1981. It’s been 30 years, and we’re out of numbers. The next iteration is IPv6, which is ultimately more secure and is much more extensible. Eventually, ISPs will have to make the switch and migrate all of their customers. However, those people connecting via IPv6 won’t be able to access content that’s being housed on IPv4. The New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, NPR, local blogs — basically any content producer who hopes to continue reaching a worldwide audience — will either have to start migration now or will face losing millions of visitors starting Q3 next year.

Lots of new hyperlocal initiatives will launch before summer 2011 by a vast number of traditional media organizations. Millions and millions of dollars will be spent recreating templated sites based on zip code or geography alone. All of the local ad dollars being counted on will instead shift towards social commerce sites like LivingSocial and Groupon, which have started to include compelling editorial content. Interest among journalists will grow, while consumer interest continues to stagnate. Only the hyper-personal sites that focus on niche content and geography rather than neighborhoods alone will succeed.

2011 will be the year of the tablet. We’ll see close to two dozen tablets come to market, most running some version of Android. Consumers will continue to love the iPad, while publishers will continue developing what is essentially a web-centric experience for a device that does much, much more. Smart entrepreneurs will leapfrog traditional news organizations by focusing on dynamic content curation via algorithm. Think Pulse 2.0, Flipboard, Wavii — but even more engaging.

Geofencing will become an integral part of the checkin experience in 2011. Right now, many mobile social networks use a fuzzy radius to locate members, and it’s easy to game the system. But it’s also harder for retailers and others interested in social commerce to effectively use networks like Foursquare and Gowalla because it’s difficult to verify that a user is actually inside of a store or at a specific location. For news orgs trying to syndicate content, the best many can do now is to leave vague tips around town. Geofencing technology requires very strict location parameters, allowing a number of interesting possibilities. For example, check-ins can be triggered automatically, expiring assets (such as event tickets or breaking news alerts) can be pushed to users, and a moving target — like a parade or car chase — can be tracked or commented on. And with geofencing, someone can’t check into his favorite restaurant repeatedly while driving past it his way to work.

Data-filled firehoses will spring leaks everywhere in 2011. And not just WikiLeaks. Twitter is releasing a personal metrics dashboard soon. Other social networks are discussing how to release data streams about and for their users and the content being discussed. News organizations will soon find a fantastic opportunity to harness all of that data, to parse it, and to develop stories about everything from the U.S. government to our cultural zeitgeist. DocumentCloud is a breakthrough, an essential tool developed by journalists for journalists. I hope to see more of its ilk released in 2011.

December 10 2010

17:00

WaPo’s Justin Ferrell on designing “a user experience that really adds value to people’s lives” on the iPad

We all chuckled at The Washington Post’s commercial for its new iPad app, and why not, with Bob Woodward and Ben Bradlee, two guys who epitomize the best of old-school journalism, playing around on a device that many peg as the future of media. The commercial is slick, well produced and well thought out, not unlike the Post’s app itself.

They’re both the product of lots of planning, which is what Justin Ferrell, the director of digital, mobile & new product design for the Post, talked with me about a few days ago at the INMA Transformation of News Summit that took place here in Cambridge. Ferrell delivered a insightful presentation on the Post’s iPad app, saying the paper avoided rushing an app to market for the iPad because they “wanted to leapfrog, not just put the Washington Post newspaper on the device.”

The app combines a touch-friendly design that also goes farther than other newspaper apps have in incorporating social media, to allow users to share stories as well as see what others are discussing in connection to news. Ferrell said they know the Post’s brand will bring a built in audience to everything they publish, but “over time, that’s only an incremental audience and it’s going to diminish.” Hence the need to reach new readers. I spoke to Ferrell following his talk about developing the iPad app, the competition for design and user-experience talent in journalism, and how they produced that commercial. We started off talking about frustrations in developing an app and reconciling that with what’s “good enough” for the public. Check out the video or read the transcript below. (And let me apologize now for the at times shaky camera work.)

Justin Ellis: You said sort of two things that to me were interesting. One is that it’s okay to be sort of questioning how good it is, but at the same time kind of mindful of the fact that some of these things aren’t considerations that users might have.

Justin Ferrell: Right, right.

Ellis: So how do those two things work when you’re developing something?

Ferrell: So I’ll give you a real live example. You know, our app is based on a lot of feeds. You know, it’s a feed-based app, rather than like the magazine apps that are designed — you know, heavily designed and then put into the device.

So when we were talking about how to get the correct photo feeds for the sizing and everything that we wanted, it was a lot of discussion with our tech group. And there were a lot of things with the way it works currently with the site. So we were trying to take the photos that we used for the site and size and stuff for that, and use it on this smaller device. So we wanted them to be resized in some ways, which adds to the amount of volume of photos that are gonna go through and all that.

And it became apparent during the discussion that, in order to do that, we would need to buy a new server that would be able to host all these images. And short of buying a new server, we could do it the way that we did it currently, but some of the photos would not fill the frame on the app. So there would be some grey space around it or something like that.

So that’s a situation where we basically then, the editorial design team basically said, you know, no one that downloads the app is gonna understand that the reason why there’s grey around those photos is because we don’t have another server, right? They don’t care about that. They care about what do the photos look like. And so in the end, we bought the new server so that we could preserve the experience.

And that’s just like one example of the kind of thing companies go through internally when they’re creating products like this. They’re like all right, here’s the problem. How are we gonna solve the problem? We can do it existing ways. Obviously, we had pressure with — what does it cost for that new server, all those kinds of things. You have to make your choices based on the priorities of what you want the experience to end up being.

But you know, being from the design side, we espouse the user all the time. It’s sort of our job to do that and say look, what’s the experience gonna be? We have to overcome this hurdle because the users aren’t gonna care. All they’re gonna care about is what it looks like to them.

Ellis: One of the things that seems very novel about the app and something you touched on in your presentation was the inclusion of feeds and sort of the piece about engagement. Talk to us about that and why that was important. I mean, obviously you guys have a lot of content that you produce that could’ve been used in a number of ways, but it’s very important for you guys to have that social media piece, not just where people can share things, but also pulling in almost third parties, like experts around stories and topics.

Ferrell: Right. Sure. So I focused today on that part of it, and I mean the app has everything else that we do, the writing, the photography that we do, video plays right there in the app. And all that is very cool. But we’ve made a real commitment to move into what we can do with social media and journalism.

And it’s not my department, but it’s a colleague of mine who runs it, Katharine Zaleski, who I mentioned came from Huffington Post, and has a lot of great ideas about how we can increase engagement using social media.

And so that was the piece of this that we really wanted to push beyond just having Washington Post content be on the app. And so, you know, the idea there is that it’s fun for us to think sort of philosophically — the question we were thinking with the Twitter piece of it was you know, what does a Twitter publication look like? And you know, that’s not a unique question anymore.

I was just reading that article in Fast Company about Chloe Sladden, and they’re doing a lot with TV networks now too. And you know, you’ve seen in big news events with the earthquake in Haiti that people are using social media to give you real-time reporting from the ground from citizens, especially for breaking news.

And so, I think it’s more than that. And what Katharine sort of came up with that really crystalized the concept was that we want to give you all of the Post content — we want to give you the value that that provides — but we also want to give you the conversation that it inspires, and that’s where the social media component comes in, and so that that was the original idea.

Ellis: At this point in terms of tablets and tablet apps for newspapers, do you believe that the focus should be on experimentation, should it be monetization? Where do you think things should be going at this point? What should be the idea?

Ferrell: Yeah so, you know, I have a lot of thoughts about the big picture. I’m kind of a big picture person, and I lead a team of specialists. But that said, you know, I am also very aware that, you know, we’re the design group and our primary focus should be creating novel interesting experiences, right? If the design group is not doing that, which group is going to do that, right? So, you know, what the Post ultimately decides about how you are going to monetize things and all of that is not specifically in my realm. I have opinions about that. But my focus is really on, if we create a user experience that really adds value to people’s lives, surely we’ll be able to sell that in someway, right? And so, you know, my focus is on the front end of that, very much like what the startups do, you know, I mean what the Flipboards and the Pulses do. I mean, Pulse charged when they first came out, but now they don’t and, you know, they’re building a following. And if you have a following, you create a market for what it is that you provide, then you’ll be able to figure out, you know, what you’re going to do with that information.

Ellis: Do you think that there is a race now for talent in finding the people who can help develop these types of apps? That’s one of the things that you talked about obviously trying to find talent from within journalism but also outside of it.

Ferrell: Yeah, you know because it is such a new medium and because most of the decision makers of big media companies have been there for a long time. You know, you’re looking for young people that don’t have a lot of experience but that you can, you know, sort of guide and also trust their ideas, and I think that’s a real culture change for a lot of newsrooms. But yeah, it’s difficult. You know, we have a lot of good relationships with schools, you know — we have a lot of people from Chapel Hill in our design and graphics department because the multimedia program there is so good. So I generally reach out to schools first and then also try to find people who, you know, have already done really interesting work, but maybe that’s the only thing they have in their portfolio and try to see what the potential is.

But I absolutely think you have to go looking for these people, and then you have to figure out that whatever hire you make, you know, you prioritize the skill set that you are looking for, but there is always something that like you as a manager will have to fill in the gap for. And so I feel pretty confident, because I am the type of manager that can help my people build relationships in the newsroom — put them with the right people in order to create interesting ideas, you know whether they are reporters or editors or photographers or whatever, because that’s the way I always was as a designer, and I have those relationships at the Post, you know, and it can be difficult for someone to come in — it’s a big place — and not know who to talk to and how to get it done. And that’s actually one of the great things about being in a place like The Post is that you can always, you know, if you have a great idea, you can always find experts who can add to that idea, make it better, and help execute it in their particular expertise.

So anyway, yeah, it’s hard to find right people and even trickier than finding like you know, recent graduates or young journalists is — you know, I think we need people who are not in journalism. And I’ll give you an example: We were looking for a UX designer right now. We never had anyone who has expertise in training specifically in UX. We’ve always had, you know sort of generalists as web designers, and a lot of them have created their own sites from scratch when they do freelance or whatever, and so UX is part of that. But I really want someone who has like a master’s degree in human computer interaction. And so I contacted a professor at IU because they have a degree program in that, and it’s well known. And so he’s reaching out to his students. And these are folks that are not journalists by in large, right? And in some of the conversations I’ve had with those people it’s really sort of selling — from my end to get them interested — it’s really sort of selling the public service that we do.

I mean, there’s so much that you can do in web design right now. And you might go to a commercial site that you know, sells clothes or shoes, or whatever it is that they sell, and it’s the coolest site you’ve ever seen. But there are people who don’t want to sell a product, who want to contribute to the public service of journalism. And I think we have an opportunity to bring on people who are interested in that value system. And so that’s one of the things I try to do.

Ellis: Finally, let’s talk quickly about the ad or the commercial I guess, for the iPad app. That made a big splash and seemed to be floating around on the Internet for a while — people were very amused by it. Two things that struck me: one, that it’s funny, and two, that you guys wrapped in a lot of the personalities and people that are known from The Post, and folks that probably might be more known in journalism circles. How do you think those two things helped to sort of guide people, walk them through what the app offers and also what kind of Washington Post content that you get with it?

Ferrell: Yeah. You know, that was another thing that Katherine really managed and got together. And the director of that project, we hired him as a freelancer — Rufus Lusk is a friend of The Post and a really talented guy. He brought in his team and they did it in the newsroom — really from the idea we had, to do it was sort of at the end when we were about to launch, and got the whole thing done in about a week and a half.

She tells a funny story, Katherine, that when she first emailed Bob Woodward about it she said is it possible on Monday that I could have four hours of your time to do this, you know, in the course of their conversation. And he emailed back and said I thought that was a typo — four hours? Because it’s not like he just gives up four hours of time. But what ended up happening was they really got into it and he spent all day there in the end, filming it.

The idea was to show people that yeah, these are the people that you know from the Post because everybody, most people know the Post for Watergate. You know, Bob still works with the Post, Ben still comes to work every day. He’s part of the corporate office now, but he’s still there, he eats in the cafeteria, he’s around. And we wanted to show you that the Post that you know of old can also be new. And that we’re doing this new thing. And we’re on board with it. And it’s not sort of stodgy old media. And so it was funny to have Ben be the one who’s showing Bob how to do it.

And then we were pretty — you know, we went through it scene by scene and figured out what we wanted to say about it in the course of Bob walking through the newsroom. And you’re right, there are some jokes in there that are really funny to us that other people might not know, like when the one that says was that Robert Redford? You know, because of the movie. And those two women who are sitting there who say that are our celebritologists, so they’re the ones who cover celebrity and everyone doesn’t know that, obviously.

And Dana Priest is the one who’s sitting there and says “it’s about bringing them into the newsroom” And of course Dana’s won two Pulitzers, but people outside of journalism don’t know who Dana Priest is necessarily. So yeah, we tried to bring in our big personalities — Chris Cillizza is in it and Dana Milbank, and some of our well-known individual personalities.

But each little scene shows something they can do with it. And even you know, the sports folks who are talking, they’re showing the clarity and the sharpness of what photos look like on there and things like that. So yeah, I thought it ended up really great. It totally accomplished what we wanted it to, which was we wanted people to pick it up, and send it around. And so it was good for saying that our app’s out there. But I think it’s also really good for showing people that hey, you know, the Post is a pretty cool place and it’s not just a big media, big old dinosaur media or whatever people like to say about us, so. It was a lot of fun.

June 11 2010

15:51

June 10 2010

12:00

June 01 2010

09:10

TechCrunch: Pulse launch – are RSS news apps must-haves for the iPad?

TechCrunch reports on the launch of Pulse – the RSS-based news aggregator application created for the iPad by two US university graduate students Akshay Kothari and Ankit Gupta.

On sale for $3.99 [£2.76], the app is aimed to please both hardcore RSS reader users and people who are willing to pay top dollars for single publication apps. Pulse’s home screen renders stories from multiple sources on a dynamic mosaic interface. Swipe up and down to see headlines from various sources, and right and left to browse stories from a particular source.

Full story at this link…

The app gets a favourable review from TechCrunch and adds another point to Patrick Smith’s post last week arguing that RSS feeds beat any branded iPhone or iPad news app:

Of course, the everyday Man On The Clapham Omnibus doesn’t care or want to know about RSS, much less mobile apps that create a mobile version of their OPML file. But Journalism.co.uk readers are media professionals – and I’d wager that most of you are capable of using free or cheap software to create a mobile news experience that no branded premium app can match.

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