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July 14 2011

15:24

Yes, aggregation has journalistic and can create business value

Poynter :: As Romenesko has taught us through the years, a leading, respected aggregator has the power to influence an audience by proposing what matters, by guiding readers to reliable sources, and by keeping them company as they travel through the newsosphere.

[Julie Moos, Poynter] (The power of an aggregator) is derived from originality.

No one needs a map to travel familiar roads. We need one — or a tour guide — to lead us into unfamiliar terrain. And as the familiar has been overtaken by the foreign during journalism’s remapping, aggregation has continued to play an important role.

Continue to read Julie Moos, www.poynter.org

November 01 2010

14:00

Jim Hopkins’ Gannett Blog: a useful watchblog finds its niche; should others emulate its “water cooler”?

Last year in this space, I took a swipe at Gannett Blog, a “watchblog” published by ex-Gannett journalist Jim Hopkins of San Francisco in which he had been keeping an eye on the country’s largest newspaper company. At the time, Hopkins had announced the impending shutdown of the blog, so that he could regain his health, and was engaging in a self-indulgent countdown to oblivion. “Jumped the shark” was my judgment. I’ll stand by it, and I think Hopkins might agree.

But today, Gannett Blog is back in action, without the nonsense. Hopkins is running a tight ship, running a lively blog that’s serving useful niche both for Gannett employees and Gannett watchers. It’s a niche filled for few other U.S. newspaper publishers, and certainly none do it as well as Hopkins.

Hopkins spent 20 years with Gannett, beginning with now-defunct Arkansas Gazette, and ending as business reporter for USA Today, from which he took a buyout in 2008. He had started Gannett Blog anonymously in mid-2006, and only added his name to it after leaving the company. A few months before that, he was writing “for maybe eight readers — on a good day.” But then he posted a breaking news piece on a major investment in Gannett by Brandes Investment Partners; Poynter’s Jim Romenesko linked to that post; and Gannett Blog’s traffic soared.

Hopkins’ July 2009 retirement from blogging was short-lived. After catching his breath, he engaged in an unsuccessful job search, during which, he says, “I kept being reminded of how much I missed traditional journalism.” At some point, he took a look at his blog’s Google Analytics, and was surprised to find that it was still drawing thousands of page views every month, even though nothing new was being posted. He posted a question: “Why did you come to this blog today?” Gannettoid, which Hopkins had endorsed as Gannett Blog’s replacement, mentioned the query; others posted it on Facebook and Twitter. Ultimately it drew 53 responses such as: “Because I never deleted Gannett Blog from my RSS reader, hoping that maybe, some magical day (like today), it would come back to life! Good to hear from you, Jim.”

And so, on Dec. 9, Hopkins resumed publication. Mindful of his yearning for a return to traditional journalism, this time he stuck to straight news, without the contentious tone of its earlier period. By setting a different tone on the news side, he felt that he could “dial down the volume of the anger” in the comments, and he has largely succeeded in this goal.

He has more actively monitored the comments, entering the threads himself to keep it focused, correct misinformation and prevent flame wars. “When people try to pick a fight, I don’t engage them. it’s tempting sometimes, but I think once, twice, and three times.” His personal life stays out of the blog these days. (You can find him on Facebook for that angle.)

Gannett, with its 80 dailies and 23 TV stations, “is like a small city,” Hopkins says, “and I’m a beat reporter. I can find things going on on a daily basis.” It’s a lively, engaging mix: In one recent stretch, there are posts on growth in Sunday home delivery being reported by Gannett (along with a report that the Detroit Free Press lost 9 percent in circulation), tips for employees on accessing a new health benefits site, a few public radio-type pitches for reader contributions, and a reproduction of a USA Today front page filled with content that would most appeal to a younger audience, topped by the question “Is this a front page for older readers?” — shortly after publisher David Hunke said the paper’s printed edition would be aimed for an older demographic.

An innovation on Gannett Blog, inspired by the fact that comments were getting more pageviews than anything else on the blog, is the open-ended “realtime comments” post that’s always at the top of the page. It simply says, “Can’t find the right spot for your comment? Post it here, in this open forum.” Hopkins refreshes that post once a week; it often garners more than 100 comments — far more than his typical posts do.

Hopkins calls this the “water cooler” — a place to “come and see what other people are thinking about.” Sometimes he kicks it off with a question (“How’s your week looking so far?”), sometimes not. Virtually all the comments are anonymous posts — most of them clearly from Gannett employees — that provide a window to at least a part of the company’s zeitgeist, and sometimes give Hopkins good leads. Despite the anonymity, and probably because of the collegiality, the tone is constructive and there are often useful discussions.

I can’t think of other blogs that have created this kind of open-ended forum within the blog, at least not within a simple Blogspot format. Is a “water cooler” spot something that other bloggers should try out?

Blogging not a lucrative proposition for Hopkins — between Google ads (the display format brings in much more than the AdWords did, he says) and reader contributions, he aims to make $4,000 per quarter, but in actuality he “might make” $10,000 this year. So Hopkins is to be commended for carrying on a useful labor of love.

But as I asked last year, where are the rest of the watchblogs (or watchdog blogs)? When he relaunched Gannett Blog, Hopkins also started up similar blogs focused on News Corp. and the New York Times Company. They’re still online, but Hopkins gave up on them when they failed to gain traction. (Both have “water cooler” threads, but nobody stops by, apparently.) Hopkins thinks the explanation lies in the fact that such a large fraction of the New York Times Company employees are based in New York and can trade information in the workplace, while News Corp. is such a diversified operation that its various film, television, publishing and other media enterprises have little in common.

Here’s a rundown on some other newspaper company watchblogs, current and former:

Toasted Posties: Perhaps the original watchblog, launched in 1995 (before the word “weblog” was invented) by the employees left out in the cold when MediaNews Group shut down the Houston Post. The original Toasted Posties was, simultaneously, a sort of Facebook for the Posties to keep in touch with each other and coordinate reunions, and a gatherer of news and gossip about MediaNews and particularly about its CEO Dean Singleton (to whom I had the pleasure of demonstrating the site in 1996). The site (which has not preserved its archival content, except for a nice photo collection worth visiting) now refers readers to a Toasted Posties blog, launched in 2005, which fizzled out in 2007.

The NYTPicker — Operated since 2008 by “a team of journalists who prefer to work in anonymity, the NYTPicker reports on the internal workings of the nation’s top newspaper, and comments on its content.” The “nyts” it picks are mostly concerned with with content — its first post, for example, quibbled with the use of “disgraced” in reference to Elliott Spitzer — and there’s actually not much about the “internal workings” of the paper and rarely anything about the company that owns it.

Hartford Courant Alumni Association and Refugee Camp — Run by 22-year Courant veteran Paul Stern, more as a networking site for Courant alums then as a source of news about the paper.

Gannettoid — Still posting an occasional Gannett news item, but nothing like the reborn Gannett Blog.

MediaNews Monitor — maintained by the Newspaper Guild for its members in several MediaNews clusters; has a mix of industry news, Guild news, and MediaNews updates, but no comments or discussions.

Lee Watch — an anonymously operated, reasonably active blog focused on Lee Enterprises.

McClatchy Watch — formerly CancelTheBee and still using that URL, but defunct as of December 2009.

TheLedgerisBurning — defunct since 2008; focused on Advance’s Star Ledger.

Tribune Watch — another Guild site, focused on the Tribune Company. It contains a link to Tribune Employees Talk, which has been defunct since December 2008. Also inactive in the Tribune space is Maria Padilla’s Sentinel Watch, which reported on Orlando Sentinel doings until May 2009. Ditto, The Amazing Shrinking Orlando Sentinel, and Tell Zell (What You Really Think).

Know of any others?

September 30 2010

17:00

The Newsonomics of journalistic star power

[Each week, our friend Ken Doctor — author of Newsonomics and longtime watcher of the business side of digital news — writes about the economics of the news business for the Lab.]

Maybe it’s a trend, or maybe it’s a bubble, but Jim Romenesko’s blog is chockablock with high-level journalist movement. The Newsweek Six are on the auction block, sought by eager bidders, as Time Warner solidifies its relationship with Fareed Zakaria, making him a wholly owned, cross-platform phenomenon, and Howard Fineman gets tapped on the shoulder by The Huffington Post, soon after it hired away The New York Times’ Peter Goodman.

Daniel Gross jumps from his long-time Slate home to Yahoo Finance. The National Journal makes acquisition after acquisition, this week reeling in Dave Beard, the well-respected editor of Boston.com, where he joins numerous other veterans (AP’s Ron Fournier, Newsweek’s Michael Hirsh, The Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder, Fox’s Major Garrett, among them) who’ve recently made a switch. After an apparent flirtation with AOL, Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg stay safely in the News Corp bosom, while AOL spends its bonus dough on TechCrunch, buying a brand and an established news operation.

Other well known journalists are also suddenly fielding calls of interest — and often moving on to new adventures. Bloomberg’s been hiring pedigreed journalists by the dozens, for Bloomberg Government and other initiatives. Patch is snatching many of its regional editors from daily newspaper ranks.

What we’re seeing is a market develop. This is market that newly prizes talent, but a certain kind of talent. Most of the hiring is at the minor star level, though the lumens emitted vary. How do you measure — critical to digital success — the light?

First off, the hiring companies believe they know sustainable models of building businesses on higher-quality content. That may seem basic, but when we look at the much of the newspaper, broadcast, and consumer magazine worlds, that belief is flagging. They look at well salaried, professional staffs and see high “cost structures,” which are harder to justify, given current levels of advertising and the lack of successful digital revenue models.

We know that Yahoo and AOL, increasingly competitive with each other, believe they’ve found a working formula to make good content pay profitably. Tim Armstrong, AOL’s CEO, talks about “sparking a content revolution.” His formula, and Yahoo’s, is fairly straightforward, and borrows its commandments from the Demand Media bible. It’s all about the efficient ad monetization of content, with analytics — know the nature of the content, target the reader and align the advertiser — that seem to grow better week by week (see The Newsonomics of content arbitrage).

(AOL, ironically, is milking its online access business — yes, lots of people still think of AOL and Internet service as the same thing — drawing 43 percent of its revenue from it. That’s similar to newspapers milking the print business for as long as possible, as they can make the inevitable digital transition. By that comparison, AOL’s lifeline is much shorter, with a 25-percent 2Q drop in customers paying for that access, while most newspaper companies’ circulation revenue down only in low single digits.)

The newsonomics of the star hires is intriguing. Think of these “star” hires as individual SKUs, “products” whose value can be estimated against the customers they bring in the door. Those conversion customer metrics are evolving. Counting pageviews is the simplest way. Take those views at whatever (premium?) rate you can sell them, and you’ve got a first number. The intangibles are how many new unique visitors the Zakarias, Finemans, and Grosses bring with them from their old haunts. How many of those new customers become regular customers of the outlet? That gets you to some annual and/or lifetime value metrics. As metrics are collected and tested, we’ll see some more science brought to what is now a star-search art form.

There certainly are other intangibles. What is Yahoo News exactly? What is HuffPo? What is AOL? As they define themselves as legitimate news companies, the new stars bring cred — and legitimacy. In addition, they are magnets to other, lesser-known talent, signaling, “it’s okay to come here.” There’s economic value in that, too.

Notably, few established legacy brands are hiring new top-end talent; Time’s Zakaria hire is a smart, though unusual one, enabled by the Newsweek uncertainty and Time/CNN linkage. For the most part, legacy news companies’ growth scenarios are borrowed, curiously, from those now hiring those stars: multiplying the amount of content available under their brands, harnessing amateur and lower-cost stuff from local bloggers, licensing from Demand Media and aggregating content through FWIX, Outside.in, and OneSpot. They’re the ones paying heed, at least indirectly, to Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales’ observation that hiring six-figure columnists in this time is silly: “The best of the political bloggers are easily the equal of the opinion columnists at the New York Times. I don’t see the added value there and question whether a newspaper should be paying large sums of money for that any more.”

The hirings at the National Journal and Bloomberg point to a different kind of business model. Those companies have found niche models involving significant reader and/or enterprise payment, and now are building out, and around, those businesses. They, too, believe they can make a new business out of superior content.

It’s complicated, and there are more than two phenomena happening here. Yes, some players that have built successful enterprises — think Yahoo, AOL, Huffington Post — on non-professional staff content (through aggregation, pro-am sites, and more) are now adding the pros at the top, to reinforce brands and put faces on them. At the same the high-cost, pro-based enterprises are going the other way.

It’s not an equilibrium, nor will these models meet in some neat middle, but there’s some sense of coming at a similar solution from two ends of the spectrum. It’s a blend of old and new, expensive and cheap, and no one yet knows the best formula.

Arianna Huffington explains it as a maturation, and indicates the hiring of pros was part of the original Huffington Post plan: “From the day we launched, it was our belief that the mission of The Huffington Post should be to bring together the best of the old and the best of the new. Bringing in the best of the old involved more money than we had when we launched. But now that our website is growing, we’re able to bring in the best of the old.”

The likely result of these moves? By 2015, news companies will pay top dollar, and pound, euro and yen, for top-end talent, and they’ll pay as little as possible for good-enough newsy content that fills many topical and local niches. Over the next several years, the most successful media brands will have mastered better the economics of pro-am journalism.

Infrared image of a star cloud courtesy of NASA.

May 18 2010

16:00

Mediagazer: From zero to big traffic driver in just two short months

Last week we were perusing our Google Analytics report here at the Lab and one data point stood out: A site barely two months old had inched into our top 10 referring sites for the previous month. Checking today, it’s up into our top five, passing up many more traditional traffic drivers.

The site is Mediagazer, the media-focused offshoot of the popular technology site Techmeme, and like its sibling it combines editors and an algorithm to gather the best stories on its subject from around the web. On Monday, Mediagazer debuted a feature called Leaderboard (it came first to Techmeme) which ranks news-about-news sources in terms of their prominence on Mediagazer. (We fare well on it, but I swear that’s not why we’re interested.)

I spoke with the site’s editor Megan McCarthy about how the site became a traffic-driver so quickly. McCarthy credits the site’s addictive quality: People arrive via the online equivalent of word of mouth, like social media, and once they’re there, a hefty (though undisclosed) percentage keep coming back. The site already has a core readership that checks in every day, McCarthy said. Mediagazer refreshes every five minutes, thanks to the algorithm searching the web for new content getting linked by other sites; meanwhile, McCarthy is trolling the web for links the algorithm might not have seen yet and prioritizing the ones it has. On a typical day, Mediagazer links to about 40 stories. (McCarthy would not disclose monthly traffic statistics.)

Mediagazer isn’t entering an empty space; from Romenesko to our own Twitter feed, there are plenty of people sorting through the media news of the day. Mediagazer’s scope is broader than, say, ours, including things like new TV lineups and media criticism we wouldn’t cover. Mediagazer joins the other sites run by Techmeme: political news at Memeorandum, celebrity gossip at WeSmirch, and baseball at BallBug, although those three sites are purely automated with no human intervention.

The site is also active on Twitter, sending out the links it posts, with the tweak of including the personal Twitter handle of the author who wrote the post, as you can see above. (The tweet attribution is automated, but requires a one-time setup process with the help of the human.) McCarthy said they want to let journalists know about Mediagazer — I certainly noticed the @ mentions showing up in my Twitter feed — and they want to give readers another opportunity to drill down into a subject area of interest.

“I want anyone who looks at the site to know, not only what’s going on [in the media industry], but what’s going to happen,” McCarthy said.

The combination of links, frequent updates, and obsessive readers seems to create the kind of place that active tweeters and bloggers would stop by. That target audience is clear in the kind of advertisements Mediagazer serves — they seem to be primarily from companies that provide software services to bloggers. It also probably explains why we’re seeing so many Mediagazer readers coming our way.

May 06 2010

14:30

The Newsonomics of simplicity

[Each week, our friend Ken Doctor — author of Newsonomics and longtime watcher of the business side of digital news — writes about the economics of the news business for the Lab.]

More and more, I’m thinking we’re making this new digital business too complicated. Sure, the technology behind the business is awe-inspiring — but then so was hydropower and electrification. Technology is often complex and developed by only a minority of us, while a majority of us are put to the task, and the fun, of using it.

The digital news business itself can be a blur, followed via Romenesko, Twitter, or the PowerPoint poison of your choosing. Lots there, always on. But business solutions — serving readers and advertisers better — aren’t complicated, and the more complex we make them, the less seems to get done.

Take this well-used quote from Larry Bossidy, once chairman of Honeywell, a prince of another technology era: “If you can’t describe your strategy in 20 minutes, simply and in plain language, you haven’t got a plan. ‘But,’ people may say, ‘I’ve got a complex strategy. It can’t be reduced to a page.’ That’s nonsense. That’s not a complex strategy. It’s a complex thought about the strategy.”

We can parse the differences between complex and complicated in the digital business, but won’t do it here. Probably the better exercise is to see how good a strategy you can express in a single tweet. And, of course, the collective consciousness has that figured out; small business blogger Lora Kolodny talked about the art — and four competitions based on it — recently in her New York Times blog.

Recently, as I look at the latest strategies being deployed, I’ve been using this emerging prism of simplicity. Here the newsonomics are simple: Make it easier to make new revenue; save expenses by adopting simpler solutions. I’ll share a few here, and hope you’ll add to them.

  • People love coupons: That’s at the top of the duh list, but the love is still eye-popping. Nielsen recently reported the explosion of digital coupons, with their redemption up 263 percent year-over-year. According to the report, newspapers are still the main source of coupon distribution, at 89 percent, and newspaper inserts account for the most coupons redeemed, at 53 percent. As Twitter studied commercial patterns, in the run-up to launching Promoted Tweets, what did they notice? Retailers like Whole Foods and Starbucks found their followers (and Facebook fans!) loved coupons. So now the challenge: taking that simple challenge and delivering location-aware, buying-interest-aware coupons, on the right platform, to the right customers, at the right time. Yes, that Wednesday food coupon is less old-fashioned than we think; now the simplicity required is finding the right technology to seamlessly offer digital coupons to news customers — before non-news companies do a better job of it.
  • Flyerboard: I recently talked to Victor Wong, one of the co-founders of Flyerboard, the oh-so-simple digital ad flier product that now finds itself on more than 100 newspaper sites, first adopted by Hearst and most recently by McClatchy. As a Yale undergraduate, he and a couple friends noticed that someone had begun digitizing the printed fliers commonly found on college neighborhood kiosks and walls. They then opened a company — PaperG — moved to commercialize the notion and have found great early uptake, based on an incredibly simple idea. They are now moving forward with PlaceLocal, a potentially far bigger idea: Harvest all the freely available digital information about local busineses, sweep it into templates, create spec ads on the fly and sell those to local retailers. Both ideas simply use already available information, repurporsed by smart technology and a company of a dozen or so people.
  • Outsourced regional editions: Okay, so you are The New York Times, and you want to double down on local engagement. You want to be a great national paper, but also a little regional, aware that such content might increase retention of all-important print subscribers. But you’re The New York Times, and the economics of the business don’t justify paying six-figure salaries to new regional staff. So you ask where can you get high-quality, low-cost journalism supply, and take advantage (in a symbiotic way) of the advent of the Chicago News Cooperative and Bay Citizen. You simply take advantage of the outflow of real talent out of top newsrooms — and stretch your six-figure payments to get lots more content than a single staffer would provide.
  • Content management in a cloud: Emerging from bankruptcy, Freedom Communications just announced an expansion of its relationship with technology provider DTI. It will move what had been its own hosted circulation and marketing management to DTI Cloud. Why hire, train and pay your own full-time tech staff — at each paper, I’d imagine — when a single company can give you a hosted, software-as-a-service solution in the cloud? Simple, in concept, at least: use someone else’s centralized technology to solve a problem that is replicated multiple times across multiple properties. Cloud computing, of course, isn’t new, but the newspaper industry has adopted it unevenly. MediaSpectrum (ads and content management) and Clickability (content management) are among the companies that have worked this cloud landscape in the news industry. Cloud “installations” carry their own support issues, of course; all solutions do. We’d have to believe, though, that the often-complex and costly solutions to production, printing, distribution, finance, and HR used in the news industry can benefit from some more heavenly solutions. Better to slim here and put resources into content creation and ad selling.

That’s just the top of a list. What else has the news industry done to introduce smart simplicity — or what else should it do?

November 10 2009

15:36

New public relations: Beating back bad press with Google AdWords

The New York Times reported on its front page in September that hoki, an unattractive sea creature best known as the primary ingredient in the Filet-O-Fish, is at risk of depletion. Naturally, the New Zealand companies that farm hoki by the metric ton weren’t pleased by the article, which pointed to “ominous signs of overfishing.”

Time was, the subject of a critical news story could write a letter to the editor, issue a press release, maybe demand a correction. Not content with those options, the New Zealand Seafood Industry Council took an approach I hadn’t seen before: buying Google ads for keywords like new zealand hoki and hoki new york times.

The ads sought to target people discussing or searching for more information about the story. Here’s one that appeared in Gmail atop a message about hoki and the Times:

Now, I don’t really care who’s right in this dispute, though I should note the Times only apologized for using the trade association’s photograph without permission. The ads linked to a page that purports to set the record straight about hoki fishing and includes emails exchanged with Times science editor Laura Chang.

That was itself a feat of public-relations genius: Because the council’s hoki page was originally a straightforward description of the fish and its uses, the Times had linked to it in the third paragraph of the article (at right), and 78,000 people clicked though, according to Sarah Crysell, a spokeswoman for the council. Taking advantage of that incoming traffic, the group transformed its hoki page into a rebuttal of the Times story.

The man behind the effort — and similar campaigns for other clients — was Jim McCarthy of CounterPoint Strategies, a boutique PR firm in New York and Washington. He’s an aggressive guy who will run your ear off about “holding the media accountable for their deliberate falsehoods” and “arrogant reporters who have a one-sided agenda.”

That animus turns out to be a key element of McCarthy’s strategy: In addition to buying Google AdWords for combinations of keywords like new york times, hoki, and new zealand, McCarthy also targeted searches for the story’s author, William Broad.

“When you include their name in the search, it draws attention to it and lets the reporter know that you mean business and you’re going to hold them responsible,” McCarthy told me over the phone. For another seafaring client, the National Fisheries Institute, he bought Google ads against the names three Vogue reporters — and Anna Wintour — who wrote about high levels of mercury in fish. “Someone inside of Condé Nast tried to outbid us for those search terms,” McCarthy said, though I can’t confirm the story. An example of one of the ads is at left.

Targeting reporters where they hang out online is McCarthy’s grating specialty. He went after ABC News, on behalf of the Formaldehyde Council, with ads (like the one at right) on Mediabistro’s TVNewser. “It was virtually a guarantee that they and all their competitors were going to see it,” McCarthy told me with more than a little relish. He has attempted to place similar ads on Romenesko, but the Poynter Institute declined to run them. (Crysell said the council hired McCarthy, in part, because “New Zealanders are far more modest in the way we express ourselves.”)

McCarthy calls his strategy “media accountability.” That’s spin. He’s representing his client’s interests like any other PR firm. But doing it with Google AdWords and links is a novel strategy that feels more effectual than a letter to the editor.

Hoki photo used with the permission of the New Zealand Seafood Industry Council.

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