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July 09 2011

04:48

Salon - is there a future for long-form journalism or only for quick, sharp blog style?

paidContent :: David Kaplan, paidContent, wrote a piece about "Salon CEO Gingras Resigns; Site Faces An Uncertain Future" - but as it looks like he rose the more interesting question later in the text - unfortunately without answering it. Where lies the future? In quick, sharp blog (HuffPo model) or long-form style? Here's what he wrote.

Although traffic has generally improved over the years, Salon has struggled where early rivals like Huffington Post, Slate and the still independent Talking Points Memo have thrived in terms of both traffic and revenue. 

One of the key differences between Salon and its close competitors was that Salon tended to model itself on longer, narrative newspaper and magazine style of reporting, as opposed to the quick, sharp blog formats of HuffPo, Slate, TPM and others. Salon expended into content areas such as food and the introduction of more e-commerce. They cut costs. But it is and will always hard to figure out how to balance the cuts without losing its value to readers.

[Richard Gingras in reply to NYT:] Scale matters. Salon is not there yet with that scale, but I expect it will be.

Really? Easier said than done. What strategy will work for Salon?

Continue to read the interesting piece here David Kaplan, paidcontent.org

December 01 2010

17:50

'Report an Error' Button Should Be Standard on News Sites

The web is a two-way medium. But when it comes to reporting errors on news sites, too often, it might as well be broadcast or print.

It's time to change that. That's why, yesterday, we announced the launch of the Report an Error Alliance -- an ad hoc coalition of news organizations and individuals who believe that every news page on the web ought to have a clearly labeled button for reporting errors.

Today's articles come with their own array of buttons for sharing -- and print and email and so on. We believe that opening a channel for readers to report errors is at least as important as any of those functions.

We aim to make the "report an error" button a new web standard. Toward that end, we're releasing a set of icons that anyone can use for this purpose. It's up to each publisher what to do with them -- link them to a form or an email address, use a dedicated error-reporting service like MediaBugs, or choose any other option that suits your needs. What's important is that the button be handy, right by the story, not buried deep in a sea of footer links or three layers down a page hierarchy.

We've got a handful of forward-thinking web news outfits signed on already -- including the Toronto Star, TBD.com, Salon.com, Poynter.org, and NewsTrust.net. We hope to see this roster grow. We also encourage individuals to add their names to our alliance as an indication of your support for this new standard.

Kathy English, public editor at the Toronto Star, which already has its own "report an error" button, said, "I'm pleased that the Star is a founding member of this important initiative to help assure greater accuracy in digital journalism. The Star has long encouraged readers to report errors for correction, in print and online, where the 'Report an Error' function in effect turns every reader into a fact checker. This is a strong step forward in establishing industry best practices for online accuracy and corrections."

Not a Magic Solution

Report an Error is intended to be a focused effort toward a simple goal. Too many news sites still make it hard for you to tell them they made a mistake. Such reports get buried in voice-mail boxes and lost in flame-infested comment threads. Yet journalists still need to hear them, and readers deserve to know that they've been heard.

Implementing a "report an error" button isn't by itself a magic solution to the problem of accuracy and the erosion of confidence in the media. But it's a good start at repairing the growing rift between the press and the public. It's like putting a badge on everything you publish that says, "If you see a problem, we really want to know about it!"

So visit our Report an Error site, join the Alliance yourself, and grab some of our icons to use on your news pages and posts.

The Report an Error Alliance project is a collaboration between Craig Silverman of Regret The Error (and managing editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab) and myself. Though it grows out of my work on MediaBugs, it's a separate effort, intended to distill the simplest, easiest, and most important step in this area that every news website can take.

March 10 2010

15:00

The rise of open source: Thoughts on TEDxNYED

The first article mentioning the phrase “open source journalism” was apparently published in Salon magazine in 1999, describing an experiment that had been run by Jane’s Intelligence Review, a U.K. military journal. The journal asked readers of Slashdot to provide feedback on an article about cyber-terrorism, and they responded so enthusiastically — “slicing and dicing” the story “into tiny little pieces,” Salon had it — that “the editor, Johan J Ingles-le Nobel, declared that he would write a new article incorporating the Slashdot comments, and would compensate Slashdot participants whose words made it into the final copy.”

Jay Rosen recalls reading the piece and being blown away by the concept. “I read this article,” he says, “and I thought, ‘Wow, that’s amazing.’”

The open-source movement has, since then, evolved from “amazing” to “amazingly common” — so much so, in fact, that the concept became the unofficial theme of a conference held Saturday, one whose official theme was education: TEDxNYED, an independently organized TED confab held in New York City. As media-and-information experts — Rosen was joined by, among others, Jeff Jarvis, Lawrence Lessig, NPR social-media guru Andy Carvin, YouTube anthropologist Mike Wesch, and Ning cofounder Gina Bianchini — discussed the future of education in an increasingly digitized world, the idea that emerged was open source’s broad application to life beyond the media and even beyond education: to social interactions, to economic relationships, and to learning as a lifelong, rather than formal, pursuit.

“One of the things that’s changing our world and disrupting our industry,” Rosen noted during his talk, is “the falling cost for like-minded people to locate each other, share information, pool what they know, collaborate, and publish the results back to the world. This is what makes open-source culture possible.” It’s also what makes possible Rosen’s notion of ‘audience atomization overcome‘: the connective and collaborative power of the Web trumping people’s geographical and psychic separation. At the conference, Jarvis applied that idea to education when he decried the top-down information structures of the past (“one-way, one-size-fits-all”) and advocated for a kind of open-source approach to teaching and learning: one that trades instruction for collaboration, rote memorization for more dynamic discourse.

“We must stop looking at education as a product — in which we turn out every student giving the same answer — to a process, in which every student looks for new answers,” Jarvis said. “Life is a beta.”

This is an echo, of course, of the argument Jarvis makes about journalism: journalism-as-a-process-not-a-product is an idea that is quickly solidifying into conventional wisdom among the meta-media set. But it also represents a tension — and a deep one — in contemporary journalism: How do you sell a process? How do you commodify community? This weekend alone, as the TEDx conference convened on the Upper West Side, The New York Times published a Public Editor column that suggested, as Felix Salmon points out, a deep discomfort with the external link in blogging — much of that discomfort rooted in newspapers’ assumption that information is, indeed, a proprietary thing.

Life may be a beta, but journalism, after all, is a business. It has, along with obligations to audiences/truth/democracy/etc., obligations to sell its products so that it might stay around to keep its other promises. It’s this reality that notions of open-source culture — information, education, the notion of process in general — will have to contend with.

In the meantime, the TEDxNYED presentations will soon be available for viewing on the conference’s YouTube channel. Highly recommended.

February 02 2010

15:00

Media’s next top business model: survey suggests hybrids

It’s not just newspapers struggling to find their way in the digital era. Many content companies — broadcasting, film, music, publishing, and gaming — are grappling with the same business model uncertainty.

In a recent survey (pdf), the consulting firm Accenture asked 102 content-industry leaders to pick the biggest hurdle they face. Overwhelmingly, executives pointed to the hunt for a viable business model. And since they’ve asked the same question (sort of — see below) for three years, we can look at how execs’ thoughts have shifted over time.

First, the data shows a clear decline in what Accenture calls the “pay-for-play” concept — something like what we in the news context would term micropayments or “the iTunes model.” In 2007, 23 percent of respondents were banking on micropayments as the next top business model. In 2008, that number dropped to 11 percent. In 2009, it fell to just 8 percent.

But beyond that, the changing nature of the options Accenture gave respondents muddies the waters a bit. In 2009, the survey included two new options: “freemium” (some content remains free, users can pay for extra content) and “hybrid” (a combination of different models, like ads plus a subscription). One could easily argue that freemium is a type of hybrid, and for the chart above, Accenture chose to combine the hybrid responses with advertising ones. (The 60 percent you see above is actually 39 percent advertising, 21 percent hybrid.)

I spoke with David Wolf from Accenture’s media division about what we should take away from the findings. He said that the clear takeaway here is that “hybrid” models are the next big thing. “The only thing we can discern as we get through our research and look at it is there is no business model clearly emerging as ‘the one,’” Wolf explained.

Going hand-in-hand with a hybrid business model is an aggressive transition to a multi-platform delivery strategy. “What we conclude [from the survey] is that the platforms and the growth need to be viewed as integrated,” Wolf explained. “How do we create offerings that span the screens?” About 65 percent of respondents said new platforms or method of delivery is where they’ll find business growth next year, compared to 25 percent by creating new content, and 10 percent by expanding to new geographic areas. Those are all roughly similar to previous years.

Another trend to watch is the media industry moving toward a more personalized use of data. Rather than thinking about audience in broad terms, Wolf predicts media companies will get better at tailoring to individuals the way a hotel chain attracts customers with loyalty programs. Where companies once went after a demographic group like tweens, Wolf mentioned, “we’re changing that mindset” to something much more individualized.

November 12 2009

20:20

Can Salon's Revamp Help it Stop Bleeding Money?

Salon.com was a pioneering website launched in 1995 by former editors of the San Francisco Examiner, mixing opinion and investigative reporting with a sharply progressive slant. Although the company went public at the height of the dot-com boom in 1999, it had lost more than $80 million by 2003, and lost $4.6 million in the fiscal year ending March 31, 2009. Its stock trades at just 12 cents a share on the over-the-counter stock market.

This year, Salon hired a new CEO, Richard Gingras, who previously worked as a media advisor to Google and at startups such as @Home. Gingras had his work cut out for him. The recession hit the site's bread-and-butter ad revenues hard, it cut staff by 20 percent, and paid memberships have declined.

Salon recently unveiled a redesign to provide more context to stories, include related material from around the web, and give advertisers a more creative platform. It's also planning a new store that will sell third-party products (and provide Salon with a cut of e-commerce sales), as well as a new food section.

I visited the Salon headquarters in Rincon Center in downtown San Francisco, and spoke to Gingras about the redesign, the future of investigative journalism, and his thoughts on competing with Huffington Post. He greeted me by saying "welcome to the oldest new media company." The following is an edited transcript, along with video clips of our discussion.

Q&A

What is Salon's greatest asset?

Richard Gingras: Salon has been around now 15 years and I think its greatest asset is the quality of its writing. I think it's particularly true today, when there's more information than ever, but there's also more bad information than ever. We have these ongoing arguments about where Obama was born, so I think separating the wheat from the chaff is more important than ever; figuring out what really matters is more important than ever. And that's what Salon is about, so that's its key asset. And it's doing it with a friendly, witty personality that a lot of folks find appealing.

Gingras explains what Salon will be offering advertisers with the redesign.

On a lot of publishers' sites, there's a balance between short and long content. To me, Salon is known for giving more depth. But online you're almost punished for doing longer stories versus lots of shorter ones. How do you balance those?

Gingras: It's an interesting point. I don't think the web punishes you for depth. I think it suggests there might be new ways of going deep that doesn't necessarily mean a 3,000 word article. Salon does both. We do long pieces and short pieces, and the short ones might end up having depth, they're just done with a different periodicity. I'm reminded about something [Marshall] McLuhan said about "every new medium starts as a container for the old."

That's as true for the web as any medium. Radio started out with people reading the newspaper, and they figured out that didn't work. So the narrative form will evolve on the web. It's true that short stuff works really well, blogging works really well. It doesn't mean it's any less thoughtful. It doesn't mean it's any less comprehensive.

Gingras talks about how he sees Huffington Post differing from Salon by succeeding with SEO and traffic, but not with original in-depth reporting.

With all the talk around Web 2.0, people think of Salon as being part of the first wave. Do you feel like Salon needs to be reinvented for Web 2.0?

Gingras: Interestingly, Salon was named for the notion of engaging in discussion. Salon has always been very much about engaging in discussions with its audience. Our comments and letters sections are both extremely prolific and interesting. The WELL, the pioneering discussion site, is part of Salon Media. In one dimension, it's in our bones; in another, technology is changing. We didn't talk about social media three years ago because Twitter and Facebook were barely there. Now it's a key part of the landscape.

Part of our redesigning and re-architecting of Salon was to put us in a better position to use those technological enhancements as they're rolling out. But the theme is the same. Let's pursue interesting subjects. Let's try to approach it from angles that mainstream media does not, and let's engage our audience and let them engage us as much as we possibly can.

I ask Gingras why Salon has lost so much money, and he says he is confident that will change.

Tell me more about your take on paid content. Salon tried out subscriptions early on, but those have faded somewhat. Now many mainstream media outlets are considering paid content. What do you think about that?

Gingras: I refer to business models not model because online you have to be open to different approaches. We do have a premium subscription for $45 a year that people pay to access Salon without advertising. Others subscribe for $35 a year because they want to support what we do. That's one component of it. But advertising is a very big component of it, and I expect it to be that way as we go forward.

But we're also looking at other possibilities. Around Thanksgiving we're going to launch a Salon Store, we're going to go into e-commerce. Salon as an independent voice represents a set of values, a way of looking at the world. In business-speak, it's not just a content brand, it's a lifestyle brand. Just as we carefully select what to write about and discuss in the content space, [we are examining] what we can do in the product space. The web has allowed so many artisans and merchants to mount businesses virtually on the web. It's an opportunity for us to select products and share in that transaction with the merchants.

And we'll be extending Salon's content into new vertical areas. We'll be launching a food section as well in the next month or so.

I've noticed that your paid subscription numbers have gone down. Is that something you're not going to be emphasizing as much moving forward?

Gingras: I'd like to see the premium subscriptions increase. But keep in mind the way we approach it. We're not gating content, we're not saying you have to pay us to see the content of Salon. I don't think that really can work for us or most mainstream publications. It can work for the Wall Street Journal because that's perceived to be high-value business content that people can subscribe to and write off the expense. We don't play in that world.

Gingras walked me through the redesign of Salon and how stories now live within topic pages.

How has your community blogging area Open Salon gone, and what's the business model for that?

Gingras: Open Salon has been a great success for us, and it's something we're very pleased with. And it's an important component of how we're going to have a successful strategy moving forward. It launched a year ago, and has 35,000 bloggers, an audience of about 1 million unique visitors per month, several million page views. But to me the most interesting thing is, given the nature of the Salon audience, which is probably the most intelligent audience on the web, with many writers among that audience, the participation in Open Salon is of very high quality.

We have novelists, former journalists, New Yorker cartoonists who put up cartoons the New Yorker hasn't used. So there's a lot of very high quality content there, and it's a vibrant community. It's a way for Salon to expand its content depth and range with those that love Salon. We target ads into those pages, and the bloggers can also get some money from Google Ads that run on those pages. Open Salon to us is less about getting more revenues, and more about expanding our philosophical view that the web isn't just about speaking at people -- it's about speaking with people.

Have you considered crowdsourcing, because you have this big community at Open Salon, and you have reporters doing work over here. There's been a lot of talk about combining the two, and using the power of the audience.

Gingras: Absolutely. I don't quite use the term crowdsourcing. I've been spending a lot of time over the past few years trying to figure out how journalism will evolve. I think journalism of the future will be great, and frankly better than the journalism of the past, because so many people can participate. I spent a lot of time working at Google and studying how the web works, and how that might impact journalism moving forward. One conclusion I had was that future successful news organizations, part of their success will be based on their ability to effectively and qualitatively leverage what I call 'the trusted crowd.'

This goes beyond citizen journalists submitting cell phone photos of a tractor-trailer crash. That's fine, I'm not saying that shouldn't be done. But we want to go beyond that. So when we look out at Open Salon and others out there, we do think about how to leverage the efforts of those that want to participate with us [with] their writing, research or their assistance curating what we do. Wikipedia has shown the high quality of what you can get by leveraging the help of folks, done carefully. We don't need 1 million contributors, but can we bring in a couple hundred folks into the editorial process of Salon? Absolutely.

Gingras explains how Salon will fund investigative reporting by increasing soft features including a new Food section.

****

What do you think about Salon's revamp and its prospects for becoming a profitable online media publisher? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Videography and photo by Charlotte Buchen.

Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit.

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