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August 16 2012

21:57

Come have a drink with Nieman Lab Monday

Astronomically speaking, there’s still more than a month left of summer. But especially for those of us who work at, attend, or send kids to schools, summer’s bound at least as much by academic calendars as the tilt of Earth’s axis. That means time is short, and that means that it’s time to raise a glass to the future of journalism while it’s still nice out.

So I’m happy to report the return, after some months’ hiatus, of the Nieman Lab happy hour. For our Boston/Cambridge-area readers, it’s a chance to have a beer or two and hang out with us Nieman Labbers, some ink-stained wretches, a few journonerds aspirant and existent, ramen-fueled grad students, the faces behind a few public radio voices, freelancers, bloggers, thinkers, doers, beard-strokers, Action Jacksons, and maybe even a few Nieman Fellows. Be there or see your Googlejuice slowly, inexorably dissipate.

This is happening Monday, August 20, starting around 6 p.m. As before, we’ll be gathering at The Field in Central Square. It’s maybe 20 steps from the Central Square Red Line T stop, so if you can get on a subway in Boston, you’re all set. Here’s a map.

The Field has a nice open-air patio in the back — if there’s room, we might be back there. If not, look for reporter’s notebooks. No agenda, just conversation.

I will personally buy a beer for the first 10 people to find me and repeat the nonsense phrase “Jürgen Habermas” three times.

August 14 2012

22:14

OpenCourt wins another legal challenge to online streaming in the courtroom

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has again ruled in favor of allowing OpenCourt to continue broadcasting online.

Since May 2011, OpenCourt — a judicial transparency project (and Knight News Challenge winner) that provides videostreams of court cases — has been broadcasting from Quincy District Court, offering online viewers a look at things like arraignments, traffic infractions, and drug cases. Last month, a local district attorney sued the court hosting OpenCourt to halt plans to begin streaming jury trials from the Quincy courthouse. In today’s ruling, the judge in that lawsuit said OpenCourt should be allowed to go forward and must be subject to the same rules that govern other news media, writing: “There is no reason to single OpenCourt out and impose on it a variety of restrictions that do not apply to other media organizations.”

This is not the first time the project faced a legal threat aimed at stopping the streaming. In March, the Supreme Judicial Court reinforced OpenCourt’s right to broadcast after the state sued to stop the project from recording and archiving court cases.

“There is a presumption that Massachusetts courts are open to media access and this ruling today clarified OpenCourt’s contention all along it should not be singled out as anything different from any other broadcast media,” said John Davidow, executive producer of OpenCourt and executive editor of new media at WBUR, the Boston public radio station where OpenCourt is a project. Davidow said he’s pleased with the ruling because it not only strengthens OpenCourt’s position but also furthers the project’s goals of transparency. “This isn’t about OpenCourt,” Davidow said. “This is really about the public’s access to what goes on in their courtrooms.”

In July, OpenCourt was scheduled to begin broadcasting jury trials in Quincy. Norfolk County DA Michael Morrissey sued the Quincy District Court justices, arguing that OpenCourt needed concrete guidelines from a special judiciary committee for broadcasting within the court that would protect victims, witnesses, and minors.

Davidow said Tuesday’s ruling would allow OpenCourt to move forward with plans to stream those cases from courtroom A at Quincy District Court. Davidow said the cameras and other preparations were set for recording in the jury room prior to the lawsuit — meaning OpenCourt will be ready to livestream once jury cases are scheduled. Davidow said streaming jury trials is important because those are the cases most of the public is familiar with. “The public, outside perspective of the court is trials,” Davidow said. “It’s the essence of what the public thinks takes place in courthouses across the commonwealth.”

In denying Morissey’s request, Justice Margot Botsford said the project can operate under preliminary guidelines that were put in place as a result of the decision in the earlier OpenCourt case. In that case, Commonwealth v. Barnes, the court said a special committee must create guidelines for OpenCourt to broadcast and archive court cases. In June, a preliminary set of guidelines for OpenCourt was released by the Quincy District Court. The final rules from the judiciary media committee are expected to be drafted by October.

In a statement, Morrissey said his office may seek to stop OpenCourt from recording on a case-by-case basis in order to protect victims and witnesses. From the statement:

The judiciary media committee is currently meeting and presumably working on the guidelines that this injunction asked the court to wait for before adding a second session to the live streaming. We hope that committee will expedite that process, and that the rules will provide appropriate protections so that violations of victim privacy, as occurred so many times in the Barnes case, do not occur.

May 03 2012

17:30

When a stream is just a trickle: Last Great Thing is one item a day, no archives

Smoking robot at 1939 New York World's Fair

Ever wish you could reduce the fire hose to a stream? The stream to a trickle?

Last Great Thing logoEvery day for a month, the News.me team is asking someone smart or interesting or Internet-famous to share the Last Great Thing he or she saw, a video or an article or whatever, something truly lovable. There are no archives, no permalinks, nothing to read later — which is both maddening and sort of the point.

On Monday, Clay Shirky shared a video; I forgot to grab the link, so you can’t watch it. On Tuesday, Hilary Mason shared this video of a smoking robot at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Yesterday, Khoi Vinh shares an article about “impostor syndrome,” whereby creative types often feel like frauds waiting to be exposed. Today, a Ry Cooder performance from The Old Grey Whistle Test, from Craig Mod. (Ex-Nieman Labber Zach Seward’s up tomorrow.) The site is inspired in part by Robin Sloan’s Fish app, which urges us to love, not just like, and in part by The Listserve, a giant mailing list that accepts one submission per day.

“We criticize Twitter for not having any memories and for failing at being a place where you can find things after they’ve rushed past you,” said Jake Levine, the general manager of News.me. “If we don’t want to be that, then we might want to include an archive, but as soon as we include an archive, we make this less about everyone experiencing this in the moment.”

Last Great Thing is itself a contradiction, a comment on the ephemeral nature of social networks and a study of our info-anxiety.

Levine hacked up the site with designer Justin Van Slembrouck. (They are proud to have made it without help from a developer.) They hope to observe usage patterns that might inform changes to their products (iPad app, iPhone app, and daily newsletter). Levine and Van Slembrouck are technologists, not journalists, and the project forces them to think editorially.

There are no algorithms here. News.me proper (which we’ve covered before) uses algorithms to help surface the most interesting content in users’ social streams.

“People in the same breath will tell us there’s too much stuff and not enough stuff coming through their News.me stream,” Levine told me. “They’re kind of unsatisfied with the volume of content — but they’re feeling overwhelmed. That’s at the core of our challenge over the next six to 12 months.”

Last Great Thing, like Twitter, is ephemeral. Unlike Twitter, it’s slow. Real slow.

Tweet.

Tweet.

“We’re trying to see what’s the minimum presentation that we can do here to make something compelling. We’ve been kind of wrestling with this archive thing. We’ll see how long we can withstand the pressure,” Van Slembrouck said. (Don’t give in, I say.)

“We got an email from one of our friends saying, ‘What the hell? Where’s Clay Shirky’s video? I didn’t have a chance to watch it yesterday, and now it’s gone!’” Levine said. “We’re trying to figure out: Okay, do we solve his quote-unquote problem by adding an archive? Or do we kind of let those anxieties surface a bit more so we can understand them better?”

(By the way, you can kind of cheat by subscribing to the Last Great Thing daily email.)

April 27 2012

14:34

Who or what exactly is The New York Times’ R&D Ventures?

The New York TImes Co. took the lid off a new advertising product Thursday with the introduction of Ricochet, which lets companies fuse their brand messages onto sharable NYT Co. content. Using the service, companies can create custom links to New York Times stories they select; the links take readers to a version of the story where the ads on the page are all for the company. It’s a new kind of targeted advertising: Companies select which stories they want to be associated with, then figure out the ways they want to deliver it: tweet, Facebook post, newsletter, or more.

Ricochet will be available on a handful of sites within the Times Company’s stable of properties including NYTimes.com, BostonGlobe.com, Boston.com, and About.com. The first advertiser to use the program is SAP, and you can get a sense of what Ricochet does here (compare it with the same page without the customized link). Pricing for the product will depend on the duration of a campaign and will be sold through the sales staffs at the respective NYT Co. brands.

But beyond an interesting advertising idea, Ricochet is being run out of an interesting new structural idea at NYT HQ. It’s part of a newly formed unit called R&D Ventures, a spin-off from the Times Company’s R&D Lab, a unit we’ve written a lot about. Michael Zimbalist, vice president of research and development operations for the Times Co., told me the new group is a more commercially minded extension of the R&D Lab that focuses on “how to scale and monetize, instead of what does a new user experience look like, or how does content evolve into new spaces.” In other words, the R&D Lab thinks of something new; R&D Ventures works to turn it into a product.

It’s a small group — a handful of people, Zimbalist says — with experience in product development, sales, business development, and other areas. While Ricochet’s been in development since last year, the Ventures group was formed more recently. Zimbalist told me the R&D Lab and R&D Ventures would work almost like a relay team: If an idea from the lab seems like it could find a broader audience (and make money), the baton will be handed off to Team Ventures to bring it to market. “When we contemplate the future of media and marketing, we actually build examples of what we’re thinking about,” Zimbalist said. But the R&D Lab’s work still focuses a bit more on the theoretical — thinking about ideas that might be two years out, not that might be shipped as a new service or feature within months.

That’s basically the story of how Ricochet, and R&D Ventures came to life. Ricochet is rooted in Project Cascade, a time-based visualization of how Times stories move across Twitter. Cascade shows how a story rises and falls, the people who drive pick-up of certain links, the time it takes for a story to come down to earth, all plotted across a graph that makes the social media universe look a bit like an actual universe.

By studying the life of Times stories they discovered something interesting: Companies and consumer brands were tweeting a lot of their work. That’s how they identified the opportunity to transform Cascade into a marketing tool. As part of running Ricochet, companies also get access to a version of Cascade for their own analytics so they can assess their campaigns. With many companies producing content directly for consumers, outlets like the Times can help by providing relevant, authoritative content that doesn’t feel overtly marketing-y, ZImbalist said. “Brands are becoming publishers and developing their own content strategies,” he said.

The story of Ricochet should sound somewhat familiar. Around two years ago, the Times was developing a prototype for social news reader that it eventually moved over to Betaworks. Working in conjunction with ex-Times staff, Betaworks later launched News.me. Zimbalist said they learned from that experience that there are costs and benefits to developing in-house versus outside the company that depend on what’s being built. While ZImbalist wouldn’t discuss any future projects coming out of the R&D Ventures pipeline, he said it’s important that they’re ready to iterate new products when the time comes.

“I think we learned from [News.me] that in order to bring a new product to market, it needed a focused team of entrepreneurially inclined people who were both technically inclined and business inclined,” Zimbalist said.

April 25 2012

21:21

As news shifts toward mobile, will text alerts get left behind?

In a blast text message to subscribers on Tuesday afternoon, The Washington Post announced that it’s…ending blast text messages to subscribers, on April 30. So don’t expect to get SMS headlines like “Mitt Romney sweeps GOP primaries in five states” for much longer. The newspaper’s mobile team was reluctant to detail how this fits into a larger mobile strategy but Beth Jacobs, the Washington Post’s mobile general manager, provided this statement:

We found that more of our readers want to receive news alerts from e-mail. And because so few of our readers were signing up for text alerts, it made more sense to dedicate our resources to push alerts through our mobile apps.

The Post wouldn’t quantify what “so few” meant. News consumption is growing more mobile, but with the number of smartphone and tablet users on the rise, it might make sense for newsrooms to abandon text alerts — which can cost money for both sender and receiver — and shift to push notifications and that old standby, email.

People are still text messaging like crazy — averaging 40 messages sent and received each day — but texting leveled off between 2010 and 2011, according to a 2011 Pew study. That’s in part due to a rise in alternatives to texting, like Facebook chat and Twitter direct messages, and because smartphone apps can generate on-time notifications without the cost of SMS. Last year, Apple introduced iMessage, a protocol that allows iOS users to bypass carriers to reach one another with what look and act like texts; BlackBerry’s BBM has been around for several years.

It wasn’t so long ago that newsrooms delivering text alerts were providing a cutting edge service for an on-demand audience. People still appear to want news and information on-demand — if text messaging is tapering off, it likely illustrates that distribution preferences are evolving.

That being said, there was only a small smattering of Twitter-expressed disappointment about the Washington Post announcement:

Washington Post is doing away with text alerts at the end of the month. That stinks. How I keep up with news half the time.

— Ron Miller (@ron_miller) April 24, 2012

Washington post is canceling text alerts?? Great now whos gonna text me.

— Karin Beswick(@KarinBeswick) April 24, 2012

The Washington Post isn’t alone. The Los Angeles Times doesn’t offer text alerts, nor does The Wall Street Journal, though a spokeswoman says it once did. (It reported last June that text messaging in the United States was “slowing sharply.”)

Large-circulation U.S. dailies that will still text you include The New York Times, which offers text alerts about severe weather, real estate, sports and more. USA Today says on its website that it will text subscribers with updates on sports, weather, stock quotes, and celebrity gossip.

Photo by Yutaka Tsutano used under a Creative Commons license.

April 24 2012

20:50

MinnPost reaches five years of fundraising with MinnRoast

The secret to having a successful nonprofit journalism site? Comedy. Also, a CEO who’s willing to dance. This Friday MinnPost is holding MinnRoast, an event that mixes fundraiser and summer camp talent show.

It’s the fifth straight year for the Minnesota nonprofit news site’s version of the Gridiron Club Dinner. This year, the celebrity will be supplied by Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton, Senator Al Franken, the mayor of St. Paul, two former candidates for governor, the majority leader of the Minnesota State Senate, and local news personalities.

“I’m in the show. This year I’m in three dance numbers,” MinnPost CEO Joel Kramer told me. “I never danced before I got involved in MinnRoast.”

Of course, at one point, Kramer probably didn’t have much experience running a nonprofit news site either, but he seems to be adapting to both well. As funny as MinnRoast is, it’s serious business for MinnPost: Kramer said each year the fundraiser has contributed more to the nonprofit’s bottom line. “Revenue from MinnRoast this year will be in the neighborhood of 10 percent of our overall revenue.” That would be up slightly from 9 percent in 2011, according to MinnPost’s most recent year end report.

MinnPost is often pointed to as a bright spot in the nonprofit journalism landscape (it ended last year in the black), so it’s worth looking at what makes their fundraising efforts work. Events are a big part of that. Like a lot of nonprofit news sites (and increasing number of for-profit outlets), events are part of business for MinnPost, which counts its annual birthday party and book blast among its regular events. This year, they expect more than 900 people will attend. With tickets ranging from $35 to $175 and sponsorships starting at $800, you can figure out how that math adds up.

For nonprofit news sites — and nonprofits in general — it’s all about finding as many ways as possible for people to give you money. In a way, MinnPost is extending the idea of its membership model. If you’re already a donor, you’re likely to check out the show, but MinnPost hopes their audience brings a friend to have a good time. Kramer told me one of the benefits of the show is the sponsors’ use of their tickets to bring people unfamiliar with the site. That introduction can be valuable if it creates an impression, even if it is during a night of silliness. “People go to lots of fundraising events, and unfortunately most of them can be a drag,” Kramer said. “We just put the emphasis on a tremendous amount of fun and minimal amount of time raising money at the event.”

In that way, the event also serves as a tool of community engagement, bringing together readers, journalists, and public officials. MinnPost gets to act as a kind of convener and help generate money for their work. MinnRoast would already be noteworthy because it brings leaders in Minnesota’s political parties together for a night where the talk is less partisan than normal. Kramer said it’s a fairly polarizing time in state and national politics and taking a break from that can be healthy. “I think it’s a good idea to break the tension for people that are fighting with each other or in adversarial relationships to have a night off to have fun and be reminded we’re in the same community,” he said. It’s worth noting that because of the annual show, MinnPost has been criticized for having a seemingly cozy relationship with people in power — or at the least, singing and dancing in silly costumes with them.

MinnRoast will likely continue to grow. They expected only 200 people in the first year and saw 400. This year they’re close to selling out the theater where the event is held, which could mean a bigger venue in the future. More specifically, Kramer said MinnPost needs MinnRoast, as well as the other events the site hosts, to continue to grow as they try to adjust how the site makes money. In 2011, about 21 percent of MinnPost revenue came from foundations, a percentage Kramer knows will change whether MinnPost is proactive in finding new dollars or not. Kramer said one of their goals for 2012 is to increase advertising as well as donations through memberships. “Our goal is to keep building the other sources of revenue,” he said.

March 30 2012

15:30

CNN.com goes magazine for “Slavery’s Last Stronghold”

CNN’s special report Slavery’s Last Stronghold isn’t just unusual because of its topic — the remarkable fact that more than 1 in 10 residents of the west African nation of Mauritania is a slave:

An estimated 10% to 20% of Mauritania’s 3.4 million people are enslaved — in “real slavery,” according to the United Nations’ special rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, Gulnara Shahinian. If that’s not unbelievable enough, consider that Mauritania was the last country in the world to abolish slavery. That happened in 1981, nearly 120 years after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in the United States. It wasn’t until five years ago, in 2007, that Mauritania passed a law that criminalized the act of owning another person. So far, only one case has been successfully prosecuted.

It’s also unusual because of its look. Breaking out of standard CNN.com templates, the story — by John D. Sutter and Edythe McNamee — is laid out more like a magazine piece: big photos, big, full-width text, type treatments, dropcaps, integrated slideshows and video, and a general design depth that indicates this isn’t just another CNN.com story.

“We knew very early on we needed to do something above and beyond our normal templates on the site,” Meredith Artley, the vice president and managing editor of CNN.com, told me. And it apparently has worked: The story’s had more than 2 million pageviews since being posted last week, Artley said.

The layout is a clear departure from most news sites, the text gets a healthy amount of breathing room, which in turn allows photos to run wide, while also incorporating maps and sidebars. For a website it feels like someone pushed the XL button (or maybe that “View in Zen Mode” button in the sidebar) — everything just feels wider, more open, and definitely a little iPad-y.

Indeed, the Apple tablet was one of the inspirations for the layout for the the piece, as were publications on the iPad like Katachi, as well as print magazines, said Marisa Gallagher, the executive creative director for CNN Digital. Gallagher said the team of designers wanted to put the focus squarely on the reading experience. She told me the design “gets rid of the competition in a lot of ways. It literally does, in that you don’t have a right rail competing for your attention.” (Also not competing for your attention: ads, of which there aren’t any on the page.)

One interesting step they took in producing the page was assembling a preliminary layout in Adobe InDesign to get a kind of physical sense of the various components of the story and how they would interact. “Sometimes you want to escape and be immersed in (a story), like a movie type experience, or you are seeking meaning so there is nothing else distracting you,” Gallagher said.

As CNN has pushed into different devices and types of reporting, they’ve tried experimenting with different types of design, Gallagher told me. But for the bulk of what is produced on CNN.com, they stick to standard news templates, ones that, while functional most of the time, don’t work for all types of storytelling. “Our article pages feel a little constricting — it’s like a little tiny world you live in and the rest of your world is full-screen,” she said.

Both Gallagher and Artley say more news sites will embrace the idea of varying design based on story types, especially as publishers play with the how stories are read on different devices.

Since CNN is active in some many places —smartphone apps, tablet apps, web, mobile web, and oh-by-the-way television — they enjoy some freedom to experiment in how they deliver their journalism, Artley said. While video remains one of CNN’s greatest strengths, Artley said series like Slavery’s Last Stronghold show the depth of investigative reporting — not to mention international reporting — at the company. That’s why she’s certain we’ll see continue to see similar projects, and non-traditional designs, in the future. “I will probably have a line of a zillion people who want to use this [template] tomorrow and I’ll have to hold them back,” Artley joked. “But we want to save this for special occasions.”

February 27 2012

22:09

New Knight News Challenge puts emphasis on pragmatists and builders

Now that the first new round of the Knight News Challenge is up and running there are a couple of things that seem to stand out, the biggest being the emphasis on speed and simplicity.

The speed part is not a surprise, given the fact that the $5 million innovation contest now takes place three times a year, with a gestation period of a little more than three months. (The application period runs from now till St. Patrick’s day. Winners are announced in June.) No, the interesting thing in today’s announcement was the dead simplicity of it all: A finished application will round out to about 450 words. And you can send it via Tumblr. (And, as you can see above, they’re also back with MOAR Michael Maness on the Internets. Also, a bewildered chihuahua.)

It seems like less of a start-up pitch session and more like a call for bids for a general contractor. And that may not be a bad thing.

As we’ve written before, Knight has a clear interest in improving the funding process for these projects. It has as much to do with their desire to get a social — or monetary — return in the investments they are making, as well as their mission to help transform journalism. What Knight is doing now is trying to shake out the best way to do that, and concise and complimentary are the guide words. Here’s John Bracken on the Knight blog:

We’re looking for ideas that build on the rise of these existing network events and tools — that deliver news and information and extend our understanding of the phenomenon. Anyone — businesses, nonprofits, individuals — can apply.

That’s why I come back to the contractor idea (that, or too much HGTV). What Knight is saying, especially with the networks theme, is don’t design us a house, just make a better kitchen. We don’t need architects and entrepreneurs, we want plumbers and engineers. I may be reading too much into the word “build,” but the application seem to emphasize clarity, skill and a focused knowledge, rather than a grand vision for saving journalism.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with entrepreneurs or visionaries, and by no stretch will the eventual winners not be big thinkers. But in streamlining their funding process, diversifying the funding mechanisms (grants, loans or investment capital are now on the table), and hanging the first challenge on the concept of networks, Knight is saying journalism needs people whose creative vision is critical and tempered with pragmatism. There’s no shortage of dreamers and thinkers wanting to tackle the big problems in journalism — and there probably never will be — but Knight appears to be designing a contest that can get builders working on the basics today.

Clock’s ticking. Make sure to read more about the application process before the March 17 deadline.

Disclaimer: The Knight Foundation is a funder of the Nieman Journalism Lab

February 09 2012

20:30

The Wall Street Journal covers Fashion Week fashionably, finding uses for Pinterest and Instagram

Aisha Tyler in Badgley Mischka

The incredible growth of Pinterest — the (invitation-only) social bulletin board dominated by young and female users — hasn’t gone unnoticed by news organizations. Like Tumblr before it, Pinterest offers the chance to reach massive, sharing-oriented new audiences — but also requires a different, more visual kind of editorial thinking. The Wall Street Journal is giving it an early try by looping in another booming young social app.

The Journal has deployed nine journalists to cover Fashion Week in New York, all armed with iPhones and Instagram accounts. They are encouraged to file constantly. (For fashion reporters, capturing photos is a form of note-taking.) Their tweets and images are automatically pulled into the Fashion Week section of the Journal’s website. The best ones are featured on Pinterest and re-posted on the Journal’s main Instagram account. The two social networks are perfect companions.

Wall Street Journal Instagram notePinterest is a “really fast-growing social network that a lot of people are super-excited about,” said WSJ social-media editor Emily Steel, who used to cover digital advertising and marketing for the paper — “a lot of people both in the digital media/marketing/tech world, but also consumers who are really into fashion and arts and crafts and food.” In other words, people who may not be big Journal readers.

I was embarrassed to tell Steel I didn’t know the Journal even covered fashion.

“One of the fashion reporters, Elizabeth Holmes — she’s super active on Twitter and Instagram and social media — and what she said is that she’s always gotten a really big boost in followers during Fashion Week, and that people will tell her that they didn’t realize that the Journal covered fashion,” Steel told me. “That’s also kind of the idea with Pinterest…It’s a cool way to expose the Journal’s content to some people who might not know about it.”

The Journal’s Fashion Week pinboard has attracted about 900 followers so far. The Instagram account, a few weeks old, is approaching 8,000 followers.

Steel said she took notice of Pinterest users sharing WSJ content among themselves. A few weeks ago the Journal started building out its own Pinterest boards — a board for hedcuts, those famous dot drawings of newsmakers; a board for historic WSJ front pages; a board for WSJ Magazine covers.

Sometimes it feels like social media moves as fast as fashion. At this time a year ago, Instagram was almost brand new but had already signed up more than a million users. Pinterest didn’t exist yet.

Today Instagram has 15 million users and signs up a new user every second, according to the company. This month Pinterest reached 11.7 million unique monthly U.S. visitors, according to data obtained by TechCrunch, “crossing the 10 million mark faster than any other standalone site in history.” Visitors spend an average of 98 minutes per month browsing that site.

Jeff Sonderman said “it’s time for journalists to pay attention to Pinterest,” with its loyal, distinct audience. Time, LIFE, Newsweek, PBS NewsHour, and Mashable are among the other news outlets dipping their toes in the water.

February 03 2012

16:30

Pew data: Facebook has room for passives as well as actives

If it’s so much better to give than receive, why are some Facebook users sitting on their hands?

The Pew Internet and American Life Project released a new report today that suggests Facebook users are not a uniformly active bunch. According to the study, the typical Facebook user gets more friend requests than she sends, is tagged in photos more than she tags, and has posts Liked more often than she Likes herself.

But wait — shouldn’t it all even out? After all, every friend request has a requester and a requestee. If a typical user is skews passive on Facebook, where’s all the action coming from?

The answer: a collection of “power users” who, according to the report, are becoming specialists of a sort. You know that friend who only posts tons of photos, or the one who goes on a Liking spree, or the one who seems to rack up an inordinate amount of friends? Yup, they’re doing the work for the rest of us. Even on a flat platform, behavior still moves toward a division of labor:

A proportion of Facebook participants — ranging between 20% and 30% of users depending on the type of activity — were power users who performed these same activities at a much higher rate; daily or more than weekly.

Essentially, in the funny parlance you could only get in a report about Facebook: “People are liked more than they like.” Some data:

Facebook users in our sample on average contributed about four comments for every status update that they made. On average, users make nine status updates per month and contribute 21 comments. Some 33% of Facebook users here updated their status at least once per week. Still, half of our sample made no status updates in the month of our analysis.

Discussion of social media circles around the word “engagement” — but even for many users of social networks, the experience is more about taking-it-all-in than about response and conversation. For a news industry with a long history of one-way communication, that might be a little…comforting? Facebook’s value, at least to media and other companies looking to tap into audiences, is that it’s a super-broad platform built for content and transactional activity. A link is posted; it’s rewarded with a like. A question is asked; it elicits comments. The Pew survey paints a picture where that action is less than reliable:

A third of our sample (33%) used the like button at least once per week during this month, and 37% had content they contributed liked by a friend at least once per week. However, the majority of Facebook users neither liked content, nor was their content liked by others, in our month of observation.

If Facebook activity disproportionately relies on a subset of power users with busy hands, that’s an opening for news outlets or individual journalists to fill that need. The conversation is far more distributed than it was pre-Internet, but it’s still not evenly distributed.

Pew says that Facebook comment-leaving is a bit more reciprocal than some other kinds of Facebook behavior:

More than half our sample (55%) commented on a friend’s content at least once in the month, and 51% received comments from a friend. A large segment of users, a little over 20%, contributed or received a comment every day. The average of 21 comments given on friends’ content was nearly identical to the average of 20 that were received. Again, there are some extreme users as well, about 5% of our sample contributed and received over 100 comments in the month of our observation.

Pew’s data is based on a sample of 269 Facebook users, initially identified through a random phone survey, but who then allowed Pew to track their trails on the site. While its findings may give a (slight) challenge to the idea that Facebook is a heavily engaged network where everyone’s sharing all the time, the report still found big, enticing numbers for any publishing looking to reach a big audience: The median user in their sample is within two degrees of separation (friends of friends) of 31,170 people on Facebook. (For one uber-connected user, that number was 7,821,772.) We already know Facebook is growing as a top referrer to many news sites, so what’s clear from this report is that they need to keep it up. If power users are the straw that stirs the drink on Facebook, then it’s more important than ever journalists and media companies play an active role.

Meh button by Ken Murphy used under a Creative Commons license.

January 18 2012

16:30

Why Boston.com got into the sports tickets business

When BostonGlobe.com was split off from Boston.com last fall, the most obvious new revenue source was the newspaper site’s new paywall. BostonGlobe.com, the new, handsome, straight-laced sibling, got all the attention and the accolades not just because of its design, but also because it promised to bring in new money.

Well, though perhaps to less fanfare, so will Boston.com. With its new distance from the newspaper brand, Boston.com is investing in e-commerce as a money driver, notably with its recently launched Boston.com Tickets, which sells tickets to Boston sporting events, even directly from a game preview story. From reading about Sunday’s Patriots-Ravens game to buying a ticket is now just a click. (Two seats on the 30-yard line, just $595 a piece!) The actual ticket vending is handled by Ace Ticket; Boston.com will get a cut of the sales.

The arrangement might cause moderate-to-intense eyebrow-raising among some journalists, who’d argue that a news site shouldn’t be helping sell tickets to games they cover. A number of other newspaper sites have a similar arrangement — here’s the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel selling Brewers tickets, and here’s the San Francisco Chronicle selling Warriors tickets. But many papers link out to a ticket-vending partner rather than sell them under their own brand.

But what’s interesting about Boston.com’s approach is that it’s enabled in part by the separation of the newspaper brand. Making BostonGlobe.com the primary home for newspaper-style journalism and reporting has left Boston.com to further explore its role as a pageview-hungry website — one that can try out revenue ideas that some newspaper brands might not be okay with, just as it presents a mix of content that wouldn’t be a perfect fit for the more serious BostonGlobe.com.

When I talked to Jeff Moriarty, vice president of digital products for the Globe, he said the bifurcation of the sites has created two new, distinct properties. “Boston.com is more about fun, practical information. Finding a car, finding a home, finding something to do,” he told me. “The Globe is journalism and what is going on in Boston from a journalistic perspective.”

Which is not to say that Boston.com is going to drop its ethics off in a dumpster. Moriarty told me one of the areas they struggled with was the placement and branding of the ticket service. While they didn’t want it to blur the line between commerce and journalism, the goal, he said, was to make it clear to people they could buy tickets they’re reading about. “It’s really about surfacing tickets that are valuable tonight, or the game that you’re looking at,” he said.

Even before the spin-off last fall, Boston.com was a prime example of the idea of news site as information portal, a place where newspaper stories mingled with entertainment listings, local services, and other information. Now Boston.com is doubling down on that idea, not just through the tickets service, but also through their Groupon-esque offering Boston Deals, as well as an integration with Open Table to make restaurant reservations (see page bottom).

Chris Rattey, Boston.com’s director of product development, said creating the ticketing feature was a collaborative effort, not just with Ace, but within the Globe, as the editorial, advertising, and digital side all played a part in developing it. In order to figure out how they could best implement a ticket system, Rattey’s team got access to an API from Ace that allowed them to query different types of data from the ticket broker. That was important, he said, because in order for the system to be valuable to readers, they had to figure out what the most important information to display. Moriarty said they’re still experimenting with the system to see what people respond to, including A/B testing to see what drives clicks to the tickets feature and what actually converts sales.

But that may just be finesse to a certain degree, since selling sports tickets in Boston isn’t exactly tricky. In the last 10 years, the city’s seen a Stanley Cup, a Larry O’Brien trophy, a couple World Series wins, three Super Bowl victories, and a current run at another Lombardi trophy. The obsessive fan base here eats up sports coverage and snaps up tickets as soon as they go on sale. (I’ve seen the lines when Sox tickets go on sale. The word interminable comes to mind.) Coverage of the local teams drives consistent traffic to Boston.com, so it makes sense to add tickets to the site, Moriarty said. Sports is just a part of life, and, naturally, so are tickets. “It’s like the currency of Boston,” Moriarty joked.

January 13 2012

15:00

Boston.com adds tweets to news feed for Your Town sites

The Boston Globe is quietly testing a redesign of its Your Town product on Boston.com to give the locally focused sites a more engaged, real-time feel. And “real-time feel” is short for a blog-like, Twitter-like stream of stories and information.

Your Town is a network of 50 sites dedicated to local news in the towns surrounding Boston proper, places like Cambridge (home of the Lab), Quincy, Salem, and Brookline. It’s the Brookline site where the Globe is testing out a new two column look — change from the three-column layout before — with a main well dedicated to aggregating local news and a left rail that’s home to ads, local services, an events calendar and links for SeeClickFix.

It’s a clean, open kind of design, which, on first glance is very bloggy and a little Twitter-esque. Jim Bodor, director of product development for Boston.com, said that’s exactly the idea. Over email Bodor told me they wanted to create a “dashboard for a reader’s community.”

“The design changes are aimed at giving the Your Town home pages a more social and real-time feel,” he said.

The Your Town sites, which are staffed by an editor and a writer, are by and large aggregators, combining regional town coverage from the Globe, but also incorporating local blogs and other community news sites (like the blog of the local police department). But the new look also aggregates individual tweets hand-plucked from locals on Twitter, displaying them inline with other news in the feed. A tweet earns the same visual rank as a Globe story, each its own solo news item.

It’s common for news sites to include Twitter widgets displaying their own tweets or those from trusted sources, but it’s rare to see tweets themselves — particularly non-staff-produced tweets — displayed as a unit of news. Bodor said what’s happening on Twitter is part of the broader news discussion in a community, one that a segment of readers already knows about. This amplifies that to a larger audience and creates a richer site, he said.

“Before we launched the new site, we identified prominent tweeters in Brookline who we know tweet regularly about local topics, and are automatically incorporating those tweets into the stream,” he said.

Employing Twitter makes for a good two-for-one opportunity. By sourcing and prominently featuring tweets from the community Your Town not only can add to the amount of content on sites but also extend a hand to readers and create a more engaged audience. That’s important because the Your Town sites are in a competitive local-news space that includes Patch sites as well as the Wicked Local network competing on school coverage, traffic and road updates, and sports from Pop Warner on up.

And now with the recent split between Boston.com and BostonGlobe.com, readers, especially those in the ring around the bay, have a stark choice to make between free and paid, not just regional and local news. A redesign, and the inclusion of Twitter, while not exactly earth shattering moves, could help move readers in the direction of Boston.com and Your Town sites.

It’s been three years since the Your Town sites launched and, aside from the usual town-by-town fluctuations, they maintain steady traffic. While not going into specifics, Bodor said Your Town “is driving significant, material traffic throughout Boston.com,” and is consistently among the 10 best performing parts of Boston.com.

Since the Brookline site went live a few weeks ago, Bodor and his team have been monitoring readers responses as well as any bugs or issues that pop up. They’re calling the Brookline site a beta, but plan to rollout the same design scheme across the rest of the sites in the next few months.

January 10 2012

14:00

Piano Media wants national paywalls all over Europe

Liptov, Slovakia

The expansion of Bratislava-based Piano Media into Slovenia is just the beginning of the company’s efforts to bring national paywalls to five European countries by year’s end.

Eight Slovene media outlets have agreed to unite behind a single paywall starting Jan. 16. It’s the cable TV model: Pay a flat monthly fee for unlimited access to everything inside. I caught up with Piano CEO Tomas Bella to hear how it’s going in Slovakia, where the experiment began seven months ago. He’s not yet willing to share subscriber numbers, but he did share observations — mainly, that Slovak readers are not much different from those in the United States or elsewhere.

He said there are different types of readers. The first group “will sign up no matter what you do,” he said. “They just do it in the first week or first weeks. The price can be almost any price. They will pay, and they will pay for a year.” These are people who trust traditional media institutions and are willing to pay to help them survive.

As for everyone else, the barriers to subscribing range from inertia — some people need lots of naggy “here’s what you’re missing” emails — to philosophical opposition. “People were saying, in principle, I will never pay because the Internet should be free,” Bella said. He said he had expected a strong correlation between socioeconomic status and willingness to subscribe, but the divide turned out to be philosophical.

“The number of subscribers is still going up as more and more people are telling us that they were against the concept at first but now they got used to the idea and already feel comfortable with paying,” he said. “Last week I saw one post on Facebook that literally said: ‘You know what, I have woken up one day and realized that I do not know why I was against Piano all the time, and I have paid.’”

For Bella, a former newspaper editor who has tried and failed to get paywalls off the ground, that’s more satisfying than making money. He is out to reset the way people think about the value of news. He said the subscriber numbers were “not so big” at first but that the Slovak paywall generated €40,000 in its first month.

The biggest mistake, Bella said, was trying to charge users for comments. Five of the Slovak publishers wanted a way — any way — to help manage the daily deluge of comments on news articles. But citizens of a former Communist regime don’t want their free speech impinged upon. “This was a very special central European problem,” Bella said. In Slovenia, the paywall will only cover text and video at launch; publishers will be able to add in more kinds of content down the road.

The price for the Slovene package is just under €5 a month, a couple of euros more than in Slovakia. Piano’s market research found that was the most that most Slovenes are willing to pay for news, Bella said.

“It’s still, of course, not as much as publishers would like to have, and it’s still not, I would say, a finite price. But they understood that we need to start at some level of — look at it from the point of view of the reader, not from the point of view of how much the content costs. The research was really very strong. It said that if we go any higher, then we are losing money.”

Pricing for the Slovak paywall, at €2.90 per month, was based more on intuition than research, he said.

The subscription model in Slovenia remains the same: 40 percent of the proceeds goes to the media organization that initially captured the subscriber, 30 percent is distributed to all partners based on how much time the reader spends on their respective sites, the reader’s time spent on their respective sites. So if I sign up for Piano’s paywall at the website of Delo, Slovenia’s national broadsheet, and I spend most of my time at Delo’s website, most of my money goes to Delo. (Tracking time on site has proved to be the most complicated technical challenge, Bella said. That and going after users who avoid the paywall by creating multiple free trials.)

Bella said he hopes to sign up 1 percent of the Slovene population, or about 20,000 people. He said he expects to announce two or three new deals with publishers in Slovakia later this month.

Photo of Liptov, Slovakia by Martin Sojka used under a Creative Commons license.

January 09 2012

19:45

Why media outlets team up in an election year

We’ve reached the point in journalism where we barely bat an eye when two news organizations say they’re joining forces. Anything less than a merger is just not an earth mover these days, when egos, brands, unique audiences — all of the guarded, proprietary stuff that kept news companies at opposite ends of the sword — seem to matter less in the face of an uncertain journalism marketplace.

In that way the new partnership between NBC News and Newsweek/The Daily Beast to cover the 2012 election shouldn’t be too surprising. It’s a classic partnership of two organizations looking for a Doublemint effect: Double the resources, double the coverage, double the audience. The plan calls for campaign trail reporting from NBC (and a healthy dose of video) to appear in the pages of Newsweek and online at The Daily Beast. [UPDATE: See correction below.] Call it NBCWeekBeast. (NBeastCWeek?)

But there’s something about politics in particular that seems to bring out the hugging and sharing in news organizations. A presidential election brings out the heavy news artillery, and that means a flurry of scooplets coming from all directions — from the networks, from newspapers national and local, from blogs, from campaigns, and everywhere else. All that firepower pointed in the same direction makes the urge to team up more tempting than ever. (Take for example The New York Times’ Election 2012 iPhone app, which is built more on linking and aggregation than any Times product before it — this, despite the fact that the Times devotes enormous resources to its own coverage.)

History backs this instinct. After all, for years outlets — like the Times and CBS News or ABC News and The Washington Post — have linked up for the purposes of polling. At the same time debates, from the local legislative races up to the president level, have long been collaborations across media, whether it’s the local newspaper and public media, or CNN, Politico, and The Los Angeles Times.

What’s interesting is how many of these partnerships derive from cross-media competitors. Pre-web, The New York Times and CBS News had reporters chasing the same stories — but a broadcast nightly news show and a morning newspaper could comfortably share an audience without excluding either. With everyone competing on the same platforms these days — the web, your smartphone — the calculus is different. And it’s unclear how far these partnerships will extend beyond election season — a beat that is both extended (the presidential election will last a lot longer than mega-events like the Oscars or the Super Bowl) and predictable (that once-every-four-years scheduling means there’s time to align up multiple outlets’ interests).

As indicated by the number of media outlets launching (or relaunching) their politics offerings, we also know it’s an area that can spike pageviews and draw a reliable audience. (The New Yorker’s the latest, just today.) Readers are on the hunt for their election coverage earlier than ever, be it tracking polls, candidate gaffes, new endorsements, or daily overviews, and news organizations are jockeying for position. And it doesn’t hurt that once you have a politics vertical it’s that much easier to take advantage of the spending on political ads. But that underlying tension between the journalist’s desire for exclusivity and the brand’s desire to aggregate content will be something to keep watching from here to election day.

Correction: This piece originally said the sharing would go both ways, from Newsbeast to NBC and from NBC to Newsbeast. In fact, it’s only the latter — NBC content flowing to Newsweek and The Daily Beast. Sorry.

Image by Jiheffe used under a Creative Commons license.

14:00

Slovakia’s national ‘pay curtain’ expands to Slovenia

Piano Media, the company that introduced a unified paywall for all major media in Slovakia last year, is expanding to Slovenia.

Nine Slovene publishers and 11 online media sites are participating — a group that includes nearly all of the nation’s major daily newspapers, a car magazine, a sports daily, two regional publications, and even a free city newspaper. A subscription to all of the content will cost €4.89 ($6.21) per month, one euro more expensive than the package in Slovakia. Users can opt to pay weekly (€1.99) or yearly (€48.90), but that’s as complex as the pricing gets.

Publishers get to choose what content goes behind the paywall and what remains free. They can also elect to make users pay for premium features, such as commenting, access to archives, or ad-free browsing.

The Slovak paywall generated more than €40,000 in its debut month of May 2011, the company said, which was split with publishers 70/30, Apple-style. We playfully dubbed it “the new Iron Curtain” — and the metaphor seems to hold up now, as Piano expects to reach three more European markets by year’s end. The company says it is negotiating with publishers in 11 countries.

Like Slovakia, Slovenia is a relatively small, monolingual country. The company estimates 1.3 million Slovenes, or 65 percent of the population, are online; about half of those read news on the web. And while the Slovene package includes more publishers than in Slovakia (20 vs. 9), it will be interesting to see how a national paywall might work in much larger European countries with more media choices. Would the non-participating media siphon users who don’t want to pay?

When we talked last year, Piano CEO Tomas Bella told me he hoped to change the attitudes of consumers accustomed to years of free riding. The company offered the simplicity of a single login and a single monthly bill. As he told me then: “We don’t think it’s a problem of people refusing to pay — we don’t think it’s a problem of money. It’s a problem of convenience.”

Photo of Slovenia’s Julian Alps by Christian Mehlführer used under a Creative Commons license.

December 28 2011

16:00

The 20 most popular Nieman Lab posts of 2011

With the final hours of 2011 ticking away, here’s a look back at the 20 most popular posts, in terms of pageviews, here at the Nieman Journalism Lab. One consistent thread: You guys like reading about The New York Times! Enjoy the rest of this year and see you in 2012.

1. That was quick: Four lines of code is all it takes for The New York Times’ paywall to come tumbling down (March 21, Joshua Benton)

2. Image as interest: How the Pepper Spray Cop could change the trajectory of Occupy Wall Street (Nov. 21, Megan Garber)

3. The New York Times imagines the kitchen table of the future (Aug. 30, Garber)

4. Word clouds considered harmful (Oct. 13, Jacob Harris)

5. Bull beware: Truth goggles sniff out suspicious sentences in news (Nov. 22, Andrew Phelps)

6. The New York Times’ R&D Lab has built a tool that explores the life stories take in the social space (Apr. 22, Garber)

7. Mirror, mirror: The New York Times wants to serve you info as you’re brushing your teeth (Aug. 31, Garber)

8. NPR tries something new: A day to let managers step away and developers play (Aug. 23, Phelps)

9. Designing a big news site is about more than beauty (July 26, Benton)

10. Decline, plateau, decline: New data on The Daily suggests a social media decline and a tough road ahead (April 5, Benton)

11. Call it the Frank Rich Discount: The Sunday New York Times moves from premium product to loss leader — and the best deal for digital access (March 17, Benton)

12. Tweet late, email early, and don’t forget about Saturday: Using data to develop a social media strategy (March 29, Phelps)

13. How a photographer generated over $100,000 through Facebook (Nov. 22, Simon Owens)

14. Pablo Boczkowski: The gap between what reporters write and readers read threatens news orgs’ future (March 11, Benton)

15. The Newsonomics of The New York Times’ pay fence (March 17, Ken Doctor)

16. Here’s what the New York Times paywall looks like (to Canadians)” (March 17, Benton)

17. Vadim Lavrusik: How journalists can make use of Facebook Pages (May 12, Vadim Lavrusik)

18. Maria Popova: In a new world of informational abundance, content curation is a new kind of authorship (June 10, Maria Popova)

19. MIT management professor Tom Malone on collective intelligence and the “genetic” structure of groups (May 4, Garber)

20. “It just feels inevitable”: Nick Denton on Gawker Media sites’ long-in-the-works new layout (Feb. 7, Garber)

Calendar photo by Zsolt Halasi used under a Creative Commons license.

December 08 2011

19:45

New Read It Later data: What does engagement look like in a time-shifted world?

This morning, Coco Krumme and Mark Armstrong — newly of Read It Later and always of @Longreads — released a study of Read It Later data examining stories that were saved by Read It Later’s 4 million-and-counting users over a six-month period (from May 1 to October 31, 2011). Together, David Carr put it, the data are part of a broader group of statistics that are emerging in the digital space to lend insight into “what kind of writing and writers are the stickiest.” (More bluntly: “What Writers are Worth Saving?“)

While the findings about overall article saves are pretty fascinating — go, Denton and Co.! — what I’m most interested in are the sample’s return rates, the stats that measure actual engagement rather than one-off story saves. Because, if my own use of Read It Later and Instapaper are any indication, a click on a Read Later button is, more than anything, an act of desperate, blind hope. Why, yes, Foreign Policy, I would love to learn about the evolution of humanitarian intervention! And, certainly, Center for Public Integrity, I’d be really excited to read about the judge who’s been a thorn in the side of Wall Street’s top regulator! I am totally interested, and sincerely fascinated, and brimming with curiosity!

But I am less brimming with time. So, for me, rather than acting like a bookmark for later-on leafing — a straight-up, time-shifted reading experience — a click on a Read Later button is actually, often, a kind of anti-engagement. It provides just enough of a rush of endorphins to give me a little jolt of accomplishment, sans the need for the accomplishment itself. But, then, that click will also, very likely, be the last interaction I will have with these worthy stories of NGOs and jurisprudence.

(“Saving…saved!…gone!”)

It’s when I’m actually looking at my Instapaper or Read It Later queue that things get real. That’s when the Aspirational Read and the Actual Read duke it out for my attention. Do I really want to read about how GOP senators’ positions on Consumer Financial Protection Bureau are aligned with that of the industry? Or would I — alone with my thoughts and my iPhone — really kind of prefer to read something from The Awl?

This is what makes the Read It Later dataset so interesting. There’s precious little overlap between the most-saved authors and the authors with the highest return rates. “Engagement” isn’t really “engagement”; it’s not a static thing. What we think we want in a given moment — life-improvement advice, tech news — may well be quite different from what we want once we’re removed from that moment. (Which is to say: Interest, like everything else, is subject to time.)

What does endure, though, the Read It Later info suggests, is the human connection at the heart of the best journalism. While so much of the most-saved stuff has a unifying theme — life-improvement and gadgets, with Boing Boing’s delights thrown in for good measure — it’s telling, I think, that the returned-to content can’t be so easily categorized. It runs the gamut, from sports to tech, from pop culture to entertainment. What it does have in common, though, is good writing. I don’t read all the folks on the list, but I read a lot of them — and I suspect that what keeps people coming back to them. When I’m looking at my queue and I see Maureen O’Connor’s byline, I’ll probably click — not because I necessarily care about the topic of her post, but because, through her mix of smarts and humor, she’ll make me care. The Read It Later suggests a great thing for writers: Stickiness seems actually to be a function of quality.

Or, as David Carr might put it: The ones worth saving are the ones being saved.

14:00

New York Times Election 2012 iPhone app launches

Big, rapid change can be hard to implement at any organization the size of The New York Times, so I appreciate how the talented journalists, designers, and coders within the Times use offshoot or ancillary projects to try out new features or ways of approaching the news. Its new Election 2012 iPhone app, which launched this morning, features some fresh design elements — most notably, story clusters that tie a Times story to a number of other stories around the web.

For example, the current top story is this one on Democrats seeing the GOP primary as a two-man race. That’s shown as the lead story in a cluster that also includes this Washington Post story, this Business Insider story, and this Washington Examiner story. (Some interesting choices there! I also see links to National Journal, the Los Angeles Times, Talking Points Memo, CNN, and a YouTube video.)

Maybe most interesting of all, one of the current top items in the app isn’t a New York Times story at all. It’s actually a one-sentence summary of a L.A. Times story on Sarah Palin (“Sarah Palin said she would not weight in early on the G.O.P. race, but she did offer praise for Newt Gingrich and the Trump debate”), on top of a link to the LAT story making that exact point.

The glorified link is given the same weight in the app’s UI as a regular Times story. That feels noteworthy to me — I can’t think of anything else as linkbloggy that the Times has ever done. It’s telling this is happening on the national politics beat, which is both a space where the Times invests heavily in coverage and perhaps the space where the Times faces the most vigorous competition, online and off. A true political junkie probably checks in daily with the Times, the Post, Politico, TPM, the Daily Caller, National Journal, the LAT, particular bloggers — so the key to getting the target market to actually launch this app is probably to satisfy the needs of those wandering eyes.

I assume, but don’t know, that these external links generated using tech from Blogrunner, the aggregator the Times Co. bought some time ago — although the promo site says “our editors” pick the stories, so maybe it’s a human-machine hybrid. (Update: The Times’ Fiona Spruill tells me it’s all human: “the links are hand-picked by an editor. Not using Blogrunner.”) The non-NYT articles open in a webview in the app.

The Times has gone through a few iterations of how best to aggregate the rest of the web for its readers (you may remember Times Extra, the green external links on the front page that lasted only a year), but this one hits an interesting mix of Times dominance and reader service.

Maybe more importantly, the app’s full content is only available to digital or print subscribers, which means it ties into the all-access model our own Ken Doctor talks about so much. For existing subscribers, this’ll serve as a nice surprise, a bonus to send home the value of a sub; for non-subscribers, it’s another little incentive, another reason to pony up.

Tags: Wire post

December 07 2011

19:20

Condé Nast: magazine publisher, app inventor

(A Santa clause: Spoilers lie ahead.)

Last week Condé Nast debuted a free web app called Santa’s Hideout, a registry for children’s Christmas gifts. Kids browse a virtual toy store and build a wish list; parents set spending limits and share the list with friends and family. If someone buys a gift, Santa checks it off the list for all elves (but not kids) to see. Kids can even write to Santa, and the reply arrives with spoofed email headers from the North Pole.

Cool app. So why is a magazine publisher building it?

“I guess I would start there and say that we don’t consider ourselves only a magazine publisher,” said Drew Schutte, the chief integration officer at Condé Nast.

“A year or so we took the word ‘publications’ off the building and took it off of our business cards,” he told me. “There was this final commitment to the fact that we are a company that makes quality content…and we’re going to put that on whatever medium it makes sense.”

It’s a startup-like approach that more media companies are taking as they try to diversify revenue.

Santa’s Hideout is the company’s second offshoot app, after Idea Flight. Neither app bears Condé branding; both have a built-in revenue model. Idea Flight, an iPad app for business presentations, is a free download with paid feature upgrades. Santa’s Hideout is powered by Amazon’s API, and as participants in Amazon’s Associates program the company gets a cut of every purchase.

The head elf was Julianna Stock, who manages a small team of digital experimenters at Condé Nast. The idea came when Stock asked her son what he wanted for Christmas and he refused to answer. He had already told Santa, he said. “I was sort of in a quandary and I felt like I needed a solution,” Stock said. And that’s the mission of her team: Solve problems as you encounter them, even if the solution does not have an obvious business application.

“You never know where that’s going to lead,” Schutte said. “This product…may sell on its own right. Maybe the software has applicability across the company. Maybe it’s something that we spin off into another company one day.”

Editor’s Note: You can find more examples of news organizations selling non-news products in our 2011 holiday gift guide.

December 06 2011

22:30

The AP brings a quasi-competitor into the fold

In 2008, eight Ohio newspapers, upset with what they saw as high prices charged by the Associated Press, rebelled against the wire to form their own statewide news-sharing service, the Ohio News Organization. With rare exceptions, stories produced by any of the newspapers could now be published in any other members newspaper — without the AP having to serve as an intermediary.

That inspired Roy Hewitt, longtime sports editor at the Cleveland Plain Dealer, to form a similar organization for sports journalists. The National Sports Content Sharing Network formalized what sports writers and editors have already been doing for years — freely sharing stories and columns with one other. There are now 55 U.S. and Canadian members.

Today, the Associated Press is embracing, not shunning, the network. The NSCSN will begin using the AP’s Marketplace distribution platform to share content.

Hewitt said he made the deal on three conditions: “One of those was that it would be free, which is guaranteed for at least the first year, and it’s not expected to cost after that because AP is not looking at this as a revenue stream. No. 2, that it would be open to people who are not AP members, because you do not have to be a member of AP to be part of [the exchange]. And three, that the material only be available to members of the network,” he said.

The AP software already integrates nicely with most members’ existing content-management systems; it replaces an existing platform that required a lot of copying and pasting. For the NSCSN, it means a dramatically simpler workflow.

“For us,” said Jim Reindl, the AP’s director of sports products, “it’s happier members.” In other words, the AP’s support engenders good will and exposes more would-be customers to its software. Two small U.S. papers that are members of NSCSN — Hewitt wouldn’t say which — do not belong to the AP.

“The historic record is there of the unrest we faced in Ohio a few years back, and it’s no secret that the Cleveland Plain Dealer is one of those newspapers,” Reindl said.

The agreement does not change the way NSCSN works. It is a cooperative; no money changes hands. Papers put content in and they get content out. The network carries the kinds of stories that might not make the AP wire — all of the columns, sidebars, and analyses generated by a big game.

“I certainly saw how OHNO could be helpful to papers with reduced resources, but it’s not something new to us in newspapers,” Hewitt said. He left news for sports 31 years ago and has spent the last 19 at the Plain Dealer. “We’ve always shared with other sports sections around the country. It doesn’t happen for metro, it doesn’t often happen for features…but it’s never been unusual if the Browns were playing the Steelers for me to call up Jerry Micco at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and say, ‘What do you got this week that might be of interest of my readers?’ And offer him the same. We’ve done that forever.”

The AP has a recent history of helping smaller papers cover sports in a time of declining resources. This spring the wire introduced “hometown leads” for Major League Baseball coverage. For news outlets that can’t staff away games, AP reporters file stories about the losing team in addition to the typical winner-focused stories. After hearing very good feedback, the AP expanded the service to NFL, college football, and college basketball this summer.

Image by flickr_lisa used under a Creative Commons license.

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