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August 22 2012

20:13

Coming in the side door: The value of homepages is shifting from traffic-driver to brand

Moving on from newspapers, journalism industry soothsayers are now predicting the decline of something much younger: the homepage.

As with newspapers — which haven’t so much disappeared as been pushed off center stage — few are saying that homepages will disappear completely. But as more people enter news sites sideways — via search engines, links they see in emails, or via Facebook and Twitter — newsrooms are finding their homepages aren’t the starting points they once were. And the propulsive growth of mobile devices has accustomed news sites to presenting more than one face to the digital audience, through some mix of mobile-optimized sites, native apps, and responsive design. (You now have news outlets talking about their desktop sites almost as an afterthought to mobile-first development.)

(I’m willing to bet that you got to this very article through some non-homepage channel; less than 7 percent of visits to Nieman Lab start on our homepage.)

At the same time, traffic patterns seem quite divided between those who dive deep into social media and those who still head for news orgs’ front doors. Just 9 percent of Americans reported getting news through Facebook or Twitter “very often,” according to the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism’s 2012 State of the News Media Report.

Earlier this summer, we reached out to a number of news organizations to see what they’ve been seeing in recent months. Take The New York Times, for instance. In early 2011, the Times was typically seeing 50 to 60 percent of its visits come from people starting at the homepage of nytimes.com. More recently, that number had dropped a bit, with 48.6 percent of site visits starting there in March. Search engines drove 17.1 percent of traffic to the newspaper, and social is still just a blip: 3.1 percent of New York Times traffic came from Facebook, and 1 percent from Twitter.

But for brands that don’t have the history of the Times, the side door can be more important. At Buzzfeed, a whopping 37 percent of traffic comes from social networks and 17 percent from search, a spokeswoman told me. Of course, Buzzfeed makes virality a key tenet of news production — even if it means hooking readers with tacky celebrity photos and tags like “interspecies cuddling” — so it makes sense that social would be a significant part of how Buzzfeed distributes content. On the more muted side of the news, ProPublica tells me it gets “a lot more” traffic through search, social, and email than from direct-to-homepage visits.

Google’s Richard Gingras has argued that shifts in audience flow mean that we ought to be reconsidering “the very definition of a website,” and the possibility that it’s time to put “dramatically more focus on the story page” rather than the homepage. In a piece for Folio, Atlantic Digital editor Bob Cohn wrote that the homepage serves an important purpose as the “ultimate brand statement,” but isn’t nearly as important as a place to drive traffic.

In fact, a remarkable 88 percent of traffic to The Atlantic comes in sideways, meaning just 12 percent of site visits begin on the homepage. When I spoke with Cohn, he echoed Gingras on the importance of story pages, and said the homepage is a place to glean “the sensibility and the content areas of the site.”

“The trick is not to worry about where they’re coming from — the trick is what are they doing after they come.”

“The article page is now the principal way that people arrive at The Atlantic,” Cohn said. “The old mantra that every page needs to be a homepage has never been more true. People come for the article, and the goal is to give them a clean and interesting reading experience for the article — elegant, not too crowded, some art, a pull quote if the piece is long enough — and beyond that to make sure that we are giving the reader a sense of what else is on our site.”

Revisiting a series of questions Josh posed back in March 2011, I asked about a dozen news organizations for data detailing the following over the course of a recent 30-day period:

1. What percentage of your traffic comes from search engines?
2. What percentage of your traffic comes from facebook.com?
3. What percentage of your traffic comes from twitter.com?
4. What percentage of your site’s visits begin on your front page?

Only a handful gave me exact figures. But others were willing to speak generally about how traffic habits are changing, and what their organizations are (and should be) doing about it.

Raju Narisetti, managing editor of The Wall Street Journal Digital Network, says the shift away from the homepage is clear but that subscribers and non-subscribers frequent the homepage at different rates. (Narisetti broadly discussed traffic numbers in an interview, but The Wall Street Journal declined to provide specific percentages.)

“Sixty percent of our audience is not coming through the homepage, so already the majority is not experiencing the homepage,” Narisetti told me. “I’m more focused on the behavior of our subs versus our non-subs. Our subs come to the homepage in big numbers because they pay for it — they bookmark it. The non-subs tend to find out about our stories through other ways, so they come in sideways.”

He says social media traffic to the site accounts for anywhere from 6 to 10 percent. On the day after President Barack Obama announced his support for same-sex marriage, for example, social traffic was on the high end. (Narisetti attributes that spike in part to a Wall Street Journal Storify detailing Twitter reaction to the news.) But even as social grows, and people find their way to Journal stories without ever laying eyes on the homepage, Narisetti says it remains a critical area for editors to convey their news judgement.

“Ultimately, the curated aspect of the homepage brings people to big brands, right?” he said. “The trick is not to worry about where they’re coming from — the trick is what are they doing after they come. If they come sideways, can I get them to actually go to the homepage? That won’t happen if I diminish the value of homepage internally. I still need to make sure the homepage is engaging — just not get too hung up on people coming there first…It’s more of an engagement play than a front-door-audience play these days.”

“Anything we can do besides just words is something I’m thinking a lot about, and I think matters. We’re probably not doing it as fast as we should.”

Narisetti says the Wall Street Journal’s numbers are comparable with other big papers like The New York Times. His previous employer, The Washington Post, declined to share their traffic percentages. Its Beltway rival Politico would only provide wide ranges of traffic percentages. It said between 35 percent and 50 percent of its traffic begins at the homepage, for example. The Los Angeles Times was similarly cagey.

At a smaller outfit, ProPublica news apps editor Scott Klein, says publishing frequency affects readers’ traffic habits.

“ProPublica’s kind of the Galápagos Islands of news organizations,” he said. “We have very different species here. For most news websites, the homepage — because it changes so often throughout the news day and because so much of what they do is about what’s happening at this very moment — their homepages are where users tend to start. At ProPublica, we get a lot more traffic from social, search, links, and our email than we do through the homepage. But the homepage provides a crucial function, which is that it expresses the editor’s vision of the organization. And for somebody who doesn’t know who we are, it explains who we are, what we do, and how we do it.”

Klein said he wasn’t able to determine how many ProPublica readers start at the homepage, but that about 24 percent of traffic comes through search engines, 9 percent through Facebook and Twitter, and 8 percent via links in ProPublica’s email newsletters.

Everyone I interviewed agreed: The homepage can and should stay. But what needs to be done about story pages now that more and more readers are starting there? The Atlantic’s Cohn says one key is to bring in more photos and images.

“Less text and more visuals are going to help on most of our pages,” he said. “We’re not the text-heaviest site out there, but larger photos, better photos, more energetic ways of teasing other content. Headline fonts that convey the sensibility and the energy of the site. Anything we can do besides just words is something I’m thinking a lot about and I think matters. We’re probably not doing it as fast as we should.”

So when’s the redesign? “Calling it a redesign is too formal, too print-like,” Cohn said. “We’re constantly tweaking.”

Note: Data is from a variety of periods, varying by news site, in the first half of 2012. ProPublica couldn’t provide traffic data related to visits that begin on the homepage.

We’d love to know about traffic patterns to your site. If you’re willing to share, please leave answers to our four questions in the comments section. For some more guidance, check out this earlier post.

August 02 2011

05:33

TPM, Talking Points Memo, ad sales revenue up +88pc

Talking Points Memo | Press Release :: TPM Media LLC, publisher of the digital news outlet Talking Points Memo (TPM), closed out a strong second quarter with the biggest ad sales month in the site's history in June. In the first half of 2011, ad sales revenue grew +88% over the same period in 2010.

[Josh Marshall, editor, publisher:] We've had strong sales growth since we started our direct ad sales program in the spring of 2009. And it's based on a really compelling story. We have this very loyal, highly engaged, influential, affluent and educated audience.

Megan Garber, Niemanlab, discusses the reason-why TPM was able to increase its (direct) ad sales, while the whole news industry is still suffering.

Continue to read talkingpointsmemo.com

Discussed here Megan Garber, www.niemanlab.org

August 01 2011

20:00

“A great story to tell to advertisers”: How TPM increased its ad sales revenue 88 percent from last year

This June, Talking Points Memo had the biggest ad sales month in its eleven-year history, closing out a half-year period that saw ad sales revenue grow 88 percent over the same period in 2010.

First of all: Yowza. Second of all, though: That number, while big, isn’t entirely out of left field. “We’ve been growing at double-digit — sometimes approaching triple-digit — growth ever since we started our direct-sales ad program,” TPM’s founder/editor/publisher, Josh Marshall, told me. So while the 88 percent stat is a record, and “we love that number,” he notes, it’s also “not dramatically different from what we’ve had in previous years.”

Still, though, it’s worth a moment of pause. Because here is a web-native news organization that started as, you know, Some Guy’s Blog and that is now able to sustain itself — actually, grow itself — based on digital ad revenue. At a time when many news publishers are struggling in a sea of digital dimes, TPM, it seems, is finding a way to turn those dimes into dollars.

Marshall attributes the success largely to TPM’s organizational double-down on direct ad sales. In 2009, as it expanded its presence in D.C., the site — which had previously relied on networks like Blogads to support its operations — began investing in in-house advertising efforts, bringing on a sales VP and taking advantage of TPM’s famously loyal user base to make a compelling pitch to advertisers. And at higher CPMs.

“The big thing is really talented people doing the sales,” Marshall says.

And another thing is time: Ad sales are about relationships, and cultivating them can’t happen overnight. The real growth of TPM’s ad sales numbers really “started to kick in after we’d had some time to tell the advertisers about the site, about the value proposition of advertising with us,” Marshall notes.

And a big part of that proposition is the thing that advertisers are actually buying when they sign on with TPM: the TPM audience, the collective of dedicated (and also, generally: affluent, educated, influential) people whose eyeballs advertisers generally want to reach. Advertisers so far have included big national brands like Toyota, BP, HBO, Goldman Sachs, and CVS; media outlets like Current TV, The New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal; and organizations like Harvard Business School, America’s Natural Gas Alliance, the Association of American Railroads, the American Council of Life Insurers, and the Obama 2012 Re-Election Campaign. (That last group is a big part of TPM’s ad strategy, particularly for its D.C.-based audience. The advocacy market tends to have deep pockets — and “everybody wants to have their story told to the people who are calling the shots, who live in D.C.,” Marshall points out.)

But TPM’s readership isn’t limited to the District (indeed, this has been a pretty good month to remind us that Washington news is national news), and part of TPM’s pitch is that its audience nationwide is particularly engaged with its content and mission. (And also, again: affluent, educated, influential.)

And that’s evidenced in part by an annual reader survey that TPM conducts, consisting of over 30 questions, asking readers to send TPM data about themselves and their reading habits. TPM’s 2011 survey was introduced with a quick request for completion from Marshall; it was live for 24 hours; and it received, Marshall told me, some 26,000 completed results.

Again: Yowza.

So TPM offers not just a quality audience, in terms of the demographics advertisers like, but also a highly — even hyper- — engaged one. Readers often visit TPM multiple times a day. They trust it. They consider themselves, often quite literally, to be a part of it. Because of all that, Marshall says, “we have a great story to tell to advertisers.”

It’s a story, sure, that’s a fairly unique one in today’s news environment. Political coverage of the depth and intensity TPM offers may lend itself to reader engagement; it’s also hard to duplicate, though, especially at more general-interest publications. But as news outlets big and small, general-interest and niche, consider their futures, TPM’s experience can be instructive — not only editorially, but also financially. There are basically two TPMs: There’s TPM, the new media visionary and crowdsourcing pioneer and Polk Award winner and “prototype of what the successful Web-based news organization is likely to be in the future“; and then there’s TPM, the scrappy startup that is trying to make a viable business of web-native political reporting. TPM’s ad-sales success suggests the tantalizing possibility that, even in today’s murky media environment, TPM 1 and TPM 2 can actually be the same thing.

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

November 15 2010

15:00

Josh Marshall on Talking Points Memo’s growth over the last decade: Moving from solo blog to news org

It’s funny to think back to the Talking Points Memo of ten years ago, just a strip of text down a single blue page. (It also had a red-background phase before settling in on the beige color scheme it still has today.)

On November 13, 2000, Joshua Micah Marshall launched the site as a place to blog the presidential election recount in Florida. The tone was different then, much chattier; witness how often Marshall referred to himself as “Talking Points” in the third person, as in “Talking Points heard….” But over the next decade, of course, Marshall not only kept his blog going but grew it into one of the most cited models for online journalism, winning prizes, innovating with the crowd, attracting capital, and growing to a staff of almost 20. (Disclosure: TPM’s growth employed me at one point.)

In honor of TPM’s tenth anniversary, we emailed Marshall some questions about the growth of TPM and the direction it’s headed. He’s been dropping hints about future plans on Twitter, and he’s thinking a lot about what mobile devices will mean for news. And he says TPM is getting ready to experiment with a paid membership model early next year — but not a paywall.

There are some valuable lessons for anyone in the midst of, or considering launching a startup. Here’s the full transcript.

LKM: TPM is turning ten. Are you where you even close to where you thought you would be when you started? Are you where you thought you would be even five years ago?

JMM: Ten years ago, in November 2000, I don’t think I don’t think I gave any thought to where it was going. So I didn’t have any sense of where it would be. But five years ago was when I made the decision to build TPM into a multi-person news organization. Basically in the early spring of 2005. And on balance I’d say, yeah, this is about where I thought we’d be. Certain things are different. At the outset I thought more in terms of launching a series of basically distinct sites. But over time, I saw the logic of taking a more consolidated approach, making TPMMuckraker, for instance, more of a section within a TPM news site than a site in itself. But in terms of scale, topics I wanted us to cover, the move toward paid advertising as the core funding model, it’s about where I was shooting to be at this point.

LKM: You’ve tweeted about your disappointment in outlets repurposing content for the iPad rather than imagining something new. How did you think about TPM and the iPad or tablets? Do you think tablets will create a totally new form in the next few years, the way blogging emerged as its own form?

JMM: We’re focusing a huge amount of resources and thinking on mobile devices. Just to give an example, the percentage of visits to TPM that come from mobile devices is currently rising at almost 1 percentage point a month. So our first priority in 2011 is to make sure TPM is clean, fast and easy to use on all the key devices — iPhones, iPad, Android, etc. But my general sense is that while every digital publication thinks it has a “mobile strategy,” most actually don’t. They think they do, but they don’t. That’s because mobile devices will significantly change the mode of reporting and presentation, just like the web did a decade ago. If you go back to the mid-late 1990s, all the news organizations had websites. But it was basically print slapped onto the web. It was only in the beginning of this decade that you started to see presentational forms that were really native to the web and worked in the context of its strengths and weaknesses. I think mobile is about where web journalism was in maybe 1996-97. So we’re trying to keep in mind that the medium is still quite primitive and that we want to come up with some genuinely new, innovative uses of it.

I think it’s going to grow quickly, with two segments: one that’s basically tablets, things that look something like the iPad now does and then much smaller devices that people will carry with them/on them at all times. In the former category, I think you’ll have versions that look something like full-function websites, albeit designed very differently and around touch. It’s with the smaller devices that we’ll really be challenged to figure out ways to operate within much smaller screen sizes and interact with readers in fundamentally different ways. But as I said before, I don’t think anyone’s really come up with the break-out ideas for mobile yet.

LKM: A while back, you teased the idea of a membership model, where paid TPM members might get extra content or access. Do you imagine that model coming to fruition in the next year or two?

JMM: We’re hoping to do that in the first half of 2011. But to be clear, we’re never moving to a paywall model.

LKM: TPM’s expansion has been steady in the last few years. How do you balance maintaining quality with growth?

JMM: It’s a constant struggle. I knew something about journalism when I started doing this. And I actually knew a decent amount about the technology that powers a website. But I didn’t know anything about growing a company or an organization. So I’ve learned on the job. There are a lot of particular details about management and stuff like that. But I think the key is keeping in place a critical mass of people whose integrity and judgment I can trust. Building TPM taught me to be a businessman, and I enjoy that part of it. But really that’s what it comes to: a core of people who you trust.

LKM: What do you wish you knew ten years ago when you first started blogging?

JMMIt’s funny. I’m glad I didn’t know any of it. The pleasure for me has been exploring, learning, coming up with ideas or more often finding half-formed ideas and wrestling with them until I find some way to use them to improve what we do. I wouldn’t want to rob myself of that.

LKM: What does TPM look like ten years from now?

JMM: Stay tuned.

November 10 2010

18:30

Talking Points Memo’s first developer talks startup life, jumping to ProPublica and data journalism

What’s it like being the only in-house techie at a news startup? Talking Points Memo’s first developer Al Shaw says “it’s kind of like being a reporter….you have to be a generalist,” doing everything from ad-side work to election-night interactives.

Shaw was the primary technical force behind most of the bells and whistles that cropped up at TPM over the past two years, including a redesign that lets producers switch up the layout of the homepage, and an array of slick interactives like the real-time election results tracker that made TPM look a lot less like a scrappy startup and more like an establishment outlet on Election Night earlier this month. (Shaw is quick to explain he had some help on the election map from Erik Hinton, TPM’s technical fellow.) He’s also been good about blogging about his technical endeavors in ways that could be useful to his peers at other news organizations.

Shaw announced last month he is leaving TPM to start a new gig at ProPublica, where he’ll keep working on data-driven journalism. On one of his few days off between jobs, I talked with him about what it’s like working for a news startup, what he hopes to accomplish at ProPublica, and where he thinks data journalism is headed. Below is a lightly edited transcript. (Disclosure: I used to work at TPM, before Al started there.)

Laura K. McGann: How did you approach your job at TPM? What did you see as your mission there?

Al Shaw: When I started, I came on as an intern right before the ’08 election. At that point, they didn’t have anyone in house who really knew much about programming or design or software. I came on and I saw an opportunity there because TPM is such a breaking-news site, and their whole goal is to do stuff really fast, that they needed someone to do that, but on the technology side, too.

I had a big role in how we covered the 2008 election. We became able to shift the homepage, rearrange stuff. Being able to really elevate what you can do in blogging software. That was kind of the first foray. Then I started redesigning some of the other sections. But the biggest impact I had was redesigning the homepage. That was about a year ago. I had the same goal of being able to empower the editors and nontechnical types to have a bigger palette of what they can do on the site. I created this kind of meta-CMS on top of the CMS that allowed them to rearrange where columns were and make different sections bigger and smaller without having to get into the code. That really changed the way the homepage works.

There is still Movable Type at the core, but there’s a lot of stuff built up around the sides. When we started to build bigger apps, like the Poll Tracker and election apps, we kind of moved off Movable Type all together and started building in Ruby on Rails and Sinatra. They’re hosted on Amazon EC2, which is a cloud provider.

LKM: What have you built that you’re the most proud of?

AS: Probably the Poll Tracker. It was my first project in Rails. It just had enormous success; it now has 14,000 polls in it. Daily Kos and Andrew Sullivan were using it regularly to embed examples of races they wanted to follow and it really has become a central part of TPM and the biggest poll aggregator on the web now. I worked with an amazing Flash developer, Michiko Swiggs, she did the visual parts of the graph in Flash. I think a lot of it was really new in the way you could manipulate the graph — if you wanted to take out certain pollsters, certain candidates, methods, like telephone or Internet, and then you could see the way the trend lines move. You can embed those custom versions.

I think the election tool was also a huge success [too], both technologically and on the design and journalism side. We got linked to from Daring Fireball. We also got linked to from ReadWriteWeb and a lot of more newsy sites. Andrew Sullivan said it was the best place to watch the elections. Because we took that leap and said we’re not going to use Flash, we got a lot of attention from the technology community. And we got a lot of attention from kind of the more political community because of how useable and engaging the site was. It was kind of a double whammy on that.

LKM: What was your experience working with reporters in the newsroom? TPM is turning ten years old, but it’s still got more of a startup feel than a traditional newspaper.

AS: It’s definitely a startup. I would fade in and out of the newsroom. Sometimes I’d be working on infrastructure projects that dealt with the greater site design or something with the ad side, or something beyond the day-to-day news. But then I’d work with the reporters and editors quite a bit when there was a special project that involved breaking news.

So for example, for the Colbert-Stewart rallies we put up a special Twitter wire where our reporters go out to the rallies and send in tweets and the tweets would get piped into a special wire and they’d go right onto the homepage. I worked with editors on how that wire should feel and how it should work and how reporters should interact with it. I remember one concern was, what if someone accidentally tweets somethng and it ends up on the homepage. How do we delete that? I came up with this system with command hashtags, so a reporter could send in a tweet with a special code on it which would delete a certain tweet and no one else would know about that, except for the reporter.

A lot of the job was figuring out what reporters and editors wanted to do and figuring out how to enable that with the technology we had and with the resources we had.

LKM: I remember an instance in my old newsroom where we had a tweet go up on the front page of another site and the frantic emails trying to get it taken down.

AS: Twitter is such an interesting medium because it’s so immediate, but it’s also permanent. We’re having a lot of fun with it, but we’re still learning how best to do it. We did this thing called multi-wire during the midterms, which was a combination of tweets and blog posts in one stream. There was a lot of experimentation with: When do we tweet as compared to a blog post? Should we restrict it to certain hours? That was a really interesting experiment.

LKM: What emerging trends do you see going on in data-driven or interactive journalism?

AS: It’s really good that a lot of sites are starting to experiment more with data-driven journalism, especially as web frameworks and cheap cloud hosting become more prevalent and you can learn Rails and Django, it’s really easy to get a site up that’s based around data you can collect. I do see two kind of disturbing trends that are also happening. One is the rise of infographics. They may not be as useful as they are pretty. You see that a lot just all over the place now. The other problem you see is the complete opposite of that where you’ll get just a table of data filling up your whole screen. The solution is somewhere in between that. You have a better way of getting into it.

It’s really great that there’s kind of a community forming around people that are both journalists and programmers. There’s this great group called Hacks/Hackers that brings those two cohorts together and lets them learn from each other.

LKM: How about at ProPublica? You mentioned you aren’t sure entirely what you’re going to do, but broadly, what do you hope to accomplish there?

AS: I’m most excited about working more closely with journalists on data sets and finding the best ways of presenting those and turning them into applications. That was one thing I was able to do with Poll Tracker, but it didn’t seem like TPM had as big of a commitment to individual stories that could have side applications. Poll Tracker was more of a long-running project. ProPublica is really into delving deeply onto one subject and finding data that can be turned into an application so the story isn’t just a block of text, there’s another way of getting at it.

One of the other things they’re working on is more tools for crowdsourcing and cultivating sources. I know that they want to start building an app or a series of apps around that. And they’re doing some cool stuff with Amazon Mechanical Turk for kind of normalizing and collecting data. I’m sure there’s going to be a lot more fun stuff to do like that.

November 02 2010

16:00

It’s election night: Here’s what some news orgs (old & new) have planned

It’s election day in the United States, and with election day comes election day coverage. With more media players than ever aiming for their own slice of the audience, here are a few highlights of what they’ve got planned to help you sort through the abundance:

The Washington Post is now the first news organization to purchase a “promoted trend” on Twitter, sponsoring the term #Election. The “promoted trend” will appear at the top of the list of current trends on Twitter with a yellow label clearly marking it as “promoted.” In addition, anyone who does a search for the hashtag will find a tweet from the Post attached to the top of the stream. This is an intriguing and aggressive move for a news organization and it’ll certainly be interesting to see if they can take advantage of the increased election conversation on Twitter to drive traffic.

Twitter is also encouraging its users to report their experience at the polls by using the hashtag #votereport or #NYCvotes for those in New York City. NYC had a lot of trouble in September with the new voting system they unveiled for the primary election. Twitter is pulling together all of this information at TwitterVoteReport.com.

In addition to using Twitter the news startup TBD.com is encouraging its users to help map voting problems by using a piece of software called Crowdmap, as well as through email or submitting a tip directly to their website.

Increasingly social networking sites are creating ways for users to make the act of voting a social activity. Foursquare is offering up an “I Voted” badge for those who check in at their polling place or “shout” that they voted. Foursquare is then visualizing the data in order to “encourage civic participation, increase transparency in the voting process and develop a replicable system for the 2012 Presidential Election.” Twitter is encouraging its users to use the hashtag #ivoted to remind their peers to vote.

Facebook is joining in on the fun as well, reminding users 18 and older to vote today by posting a note in their news feeds and offering a polling place locator.

As usual, The New York Times is going big: Its election maps and charts are elegant, intuitive, and work on the iPad. The Times has also created a neat visualization for exploring election traffic on Twitter. The addition of Nate Silver and his blog FiveThirtyEight to the Times’ politics coverage is sure to be an additional draw to those interested in making sense of all the polling data. Talking Points Memo also has an excellent election results app that’s also not dependent on Flash. This is fitting given that the number of TPM readers on mobile devices is growing.

The Los Angeles Times has an intriguing news application that lets you explore the campaign contributions affiliated with Proposition 19, an initiative in California that would legalize possession and cultivation of marijuana. The app lets you explore the over $4 million in donations and figure out where it all came from.

The Huffington Post is trying to make the midterms even more fun with a “Predict the News” challenge where users can make predictions race by race and then earn points for those they get correct. You can of course challenge your friends through Facebook and Twitter and compare results.

In addition to their homepage, The Wall Street Journal is offering six hours of live video coverage on election night starting at 8 p.m. EST. The coverage will include “real-time news and analysis, live reports from key race locations, interactive maps, and features” and integrate with their iPad app.

And as always there are a wealth of options for election night viewers, especially with many big cable channels and networks supplementing their broadcast coverage with online streaming.

What else is out there? If your news organization has something exciting planned for tonight, let us know about it in the comments.

Photo by John C. Abell used under a Creative Commons license.

May 05 2010

12:00

Media Consortium offers members cash for collaboration

The Media Consortium, a network of about 45 progressive-leaning independent media organizations wants to get its members to do some real-world testing of the future-of-news ideas we all talk about. The best way to get their members on board: Pony up some cash.

The consortium is taking applications to sign on to three separate collaborative projects that cover exploring new revenue streams (members are both non- and for-profit), moving into mobile, and community engagement. Outlets will work in cross-organizational teams to come up with testable projects, which the consortium will then support with at least $5,000-$12,000 in seed money to get projects off the ground. The consortium will also provide some administrative and logistical support as needed. When all is said and done, the wrapup findings will be made public.

I asked Tracy Van Slyke, the project director at the consortium, which outlets are on board so far. She laughed and said the deadline to apply is May 12, and she is expecting the bulk of applications to land that day. The consortium has been in one-on-one talks with members, who Van Slyke said seem interested — which is not surprising as the the three research areas came out of discussions at their annual meeting, and a consortium report, The Big Thaw, which looked at trends in independent media, including its member organizations. Van Slyke also noted that they’re only inviting member organizations to apply, but perhaps they’d be open to the right partner signing on. (That is: If you’re interested, it can’t hurt to contact her).

Most consortium members are relatively small operations. For example, my last two employers, the nonprofit Washington Independent, with a staff of about ten people, and Talking Points Memo, now up to 20 or so, both belong. All news organizations are struggling to innovate, but smaller shops face an even higher hurdle. When a swamped staff is busy with day-to-day operations, and the technical development team is one person — or nonexistent — collaboration offers huge potential.

“The point is that usually, these organizations wouldn’t necessarily have the money or the staff time, or the resources in terms of brainstorming to do it on their own,” Van Slyke told me. “So we want to do it collectively and be able to put the money in to actually experiment. It’s not enough to talk about it. You have to actually experiment.”

The mission of the consortium is wrapped up in the project. Van Slyke wants to see organizations thinking strategically about revenue, mobile, and audience engagement to amplify their work as media organizations. “How is it going to help them, a, build their audiences, b, identify new revenue generating opportunities, and, c, ultimately build out their impact.”

March 22 2010

17:49

Lauren Victoria Burke’s WDCPIX: A photojournalist builds business by aiming at sites that can’t afford wires

Lauren Victoria Burke’s strategy for success in the world of political photography is simple: undercut the Associated Press.

Burke runs a one-woman photography wire service in Washington, D.C. called WDCPIX that allows monthly subscribers to download as many of the hundreds of political photos available as they want. Her shots rival those of staff photographers working on the Hill; she typically covers congressional hearings and major public events in the city. She doesn’t guarantee specific event coverage, but does take requests and tries to accommodate her customers.

As a solo roving photographer in one of the world’s most photographed cities, she’s been able to build a business by targeting clients with budgets that won’t allow big costs for photography. About 25 to 30 of her clients are regulars; most pay a flat $260 monthly fee, although some have special arrangements. Subscribers include sites like Talking Points Memo and The Washington Independent; I became familiar with WDCPIX when I worked at both.

“Basically what you want to do is…create a business model that can undercut the bigger sites,” Burke told me. “There are a lot of news entities out there that can’t afford Associated Press or Getty or any of those guys. So you’re trying to create an environment where the smaller news entities out there, particularly with all these blogs around, they can subscribe to WDCPIX and make it very straightforward.”

For anyone familiar with the story of iStockphoto, the possibility of disruption in the photo business is nothing new. And while WDCPIX isn’t a breakout smash at iStockphoto’s scale, it shares a shift in the basic economics of the industry.

When Burke started out as an independent — she spent time at USA Today and the AP, among others — her focus was on bigger clients like C-SPAN and ABC News. She still does regular work for larger outlets, along with occasional clients in the nonprofit and advocacy sectors, like Defenders of Wildlife, and a few corporate clients like FedEx and Starbucks. (“A lot of times people are doing an annual report or they’re doing a brochure or they’re doing a website and they want to brighten it up with some photos,” she said.)

The business side

Burke runs every aspect of her business, including marketing. One tactic she says worked well in attracting new business is requiring online publications to credit WDCPIX.

“That particularly helped with TPMMuckraker because I got involved with them when they were pretty new. So when other people saw that, the other sites that hoped to become like TPM, would see that and call,” she explained. “It’s sort of a small ad. It works really well.”

She also works the typical marketing strategies like sending out mailers to potential clients, blasting email messages, and word-of-mouth. When she first launched the site, she says connections in her previous jobs at USA Today and The Hill were valuable in reaching clients.

When I asked Burke if she got investment money to start the site, she laughed — heartily. Burke said she kept her startup costs incredibly low and she covered them herself. The site runs on out-of-the-box software from Image Folio. She designed the site herself. She pays about $120 a month for a web server. The site’s billing, which she handles herself, is done almost completely online. She has no physical office; most days, she’ll do the journalism side of things from the press gallery in the Senate. Sometimes she does her business work from her home office or a coffee shop.

Burke decided to leave her job as a photo editor at USA Today and go solo was more the result of her independent streak than her interest in the future of media. “You end up working for a bunch of people and at some point, you want to be in more control of what you’re doing and what you’re covering,” she explained. “So owning a website like that and running your own photo service allows you to do that. It’s truly liberating.”

I asked her if she would have done as well if she’s gone a slightly more traditional route, setting up a portfolio website and working as a freelancer rather than setting up a subscription service.

“No. No way. So many people see it that would not normally have seen my stuff if I just had a typical portfolio website up, that we’ve all seen. Nothing wrong a photo website — but when you have this kind of subscription website, you have the payment tied into the site in a way you would not normally have if you just had a portfolio. The person has to go the extra step to expedite payment, expedite the business end. A lot of people are looking for, “Okay, I paid the money, now I want to download as many pictures as I want,” or whatever. I don’t think my photography would be as successful if I had a non-subscription, non-cash site.”

Advice

When I asked Burke what advice she would give to other photojournalists, she didn’t hesitate.

“I think one of the things is not to get too pigeonholed into one thing because we don’t live in the same universe we used to live in,” she said. “Not too long ago, in the ’80s and ’90s, you could sustain yourself on a staff job some place and do just fine. Now, the more things that you can do, the better. A lot of photographers, for some reason, don’t like writing. I really think the writing thing is huge. Even though people shy away from the idea of being a one-man band because it’s so much work, it does put you in the position where you could potentially be doing your own stuff, by yourself, without a lot of interference and middlemen involved, editors, et cetera. And it can be lucrative. It can be a living.”

All photos courtesy Lauren Victoria Burke.

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