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April 25 2012

15:43

Worldcrunch wants to be the Internet’s Rosetta Stone for news

As the translation-based news service Worldcrunch approaches the one-year anniversary of their launch, it’s also tweaking its business approach in three key ways that co-founders Jeff Israely and Irène Toporkoff hope will help it thrive.

Worldcrunch’s central goal is to find news that wouldn’t otherwise appear in English-speaking news sources at a time when U.S. news organizations have slashed their budgets for international coverage. You may recognize Israely, a former Time correspondent, from his regular column for Nieman Lab about the process of launching a news startup. A year in, he’s getting a better sense of what it takes to keep one going.

First, Worldcrunch has plans to increase its output. The most straightforward way to do this, as many news organizations have found, is to aggregate from other sources. But Worldcrunch will do so with a twist: Call it translaggregating — translating what you aggregate.

“That’s going to allow us to really be more dynamic, more reactive, and expand the kind of stories we can produce, and how we can produce them, and when we can produce them,” Israely told me from Paris, where Worldcrunch is based.

One way the site aims to bump up the volume of aggregated material is through a crowdsourced initiative it’s calling “Crunch It.” For now, Worldcrunch is calling on volunteers to nominate articles for translation, “English-ize” them, and vote for the best finished pieces. But Israely said the Worldcrunch team is still figuring out exactly how process will work. He calls the initative “in the neighborhood of crowdsourcing,” but he also wants to put certain quality safeguards in place. Making sure a story is right for Worldcrunch isn’t simply about impeccable multilingual skills — it has to be a story that doesn’t already appear in English.

“They think that content is self-generating, and you just need the tools to filter it, to aggregate it, to monetize it. We don’t agree with that.”

“In addition, the original story itself has to stand up,” Israely said. “It has to be a well written story. It has to be a story that has enough background material that allows it to travel. If Le Monde is writing a story about French schools, and if the story has too many references to things that only French people know, we’d have to transform the story and put in all kinds of context — our partners allow us to adapt the story and add in context when necessary — but if the whole process becomes rewriting and adding in context, it’s probably not a good story for us.”

The second key change Worldcrunch is making: it’s putting up “some kind of metered model” paywall “before summer.”

But even as the paywall goes up, Worldcrunch is shifting away from the idea that its website will be the sole hub for its readers. Arguably the most important development to the Worldcrunch business model is that it’s forging partnerships with English-language publications that will pay for translated content. Worldcrunch is already selling content to the Toronto Star, and is in talks with a U.S. publication about a similar deal.

Here’s how it works: A non-English news organization gives Worldcrunch permission to translate its content. Worldcrunch then posts the translated content to its website, and offers to sell it to English-language news organizations. Those organizations pay Worldcrunch an undisclosed amount, and Worldcrunch gives the original content producer a 40 percent cut.

Israely and Toporkoff see this distribution model as a win-win-win: The original publication gets a much wider audience for its stories (plus some extra revenue); English-language publications provide valuable international news to their readers; Worldcrunch can pay its bills and keep the cycle going.

With the slogan “all news is global,” the site operates with three editors and about a dozen freelance translators. Working with media partners across Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America, Worldcrunch translates about 30 articles per week into English from German, Turkish, French, Italian, Russian, Portuguese, Chinese, Arabic, and Spanish. Worldcrunch aims to do what even the old network of foreign bureaus had trouble doing: providing original, domestically produced coverage for an international audience.

Some examples that stand out for Israely and Torpokoff include diverse viewpoints about the economic situation in Turkey, coverage of tensions in the Middle East, an interview with maligned Italian former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi about his plans to resign, Russian election coverage by and for Russians, and a French-authored article about why French people reacted differently to the Dominique Strauss-Kahn scandal than residents of other countries. (Israely also points out the benefit of getting original French perspective about more lighthearted topics like perfume and food.)

Press freedom as a moving target

Earlier this month, German-language newspaper Die Welt published a column about a controversial poem penned by Nobel Prize winner and former Nazi Günter Grass (the poem was published in another German newspaper, Süddeutsche Zeitung), and Worldcrunch translated it.

While you could have read about the scandal in The New York Times, that story — published three days after the Worldcrunch piece — didn’t provide the same direct cultural perspective (the Times coverage has a joint byline from Israel- and Berlin-based correspondents). The Times reports that Grass’ views “are relatively common among European intellectuals,” though “strung together” in a way that incited outrage. But Henryk Broder’s column for Die Welt actually articulates those views in the context of the Grass imbroglio.

“The fact that [Grass] is accused of being anti-semitic and here you have the German press — this German writer in the German press — saying he is anti-semitic, and it’s not normal — I think that makes it interesting,” Toporkoff said. “Within Germany, there is debate. We have chosen to publish something that we found very interesting that says a lot about what’s happening in Germany, but also what happened in general.”

Then there is the “meta-example” that Israely gives of an article — from China’s Economic Observer — highlighting the global scarcity of press freedom.

“This was the Beijing paper reporting on this almost over-the-top sort of rabid, gossipy Hong Kong press right before the elections there,” Israely said. “Sort of explaining to Chinese readers how this is what a free press looks like with all its warts, and the beauty of being truly free and going after a candidate and sticking cameras into his backyard.”

Along those same lines, working with a (relatively) independent newspaper out of China can be unpredictable. Though there are certain boundaries he says The Economic Observer won’t cross (they won’t write about Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei, for instance), he has been surprised by how provocative, lively, and sometimes irreverent the paper can be.

“It’s a moving target, because it’s changing before our eyes,” Israely said. “The Economic Observer in Beijing actually does get shut down now and again. The site does get shut down, and our contact there says they’re in the penalty box essentially.”

Israely says that establishing partnerships in the first place is the hardest part. His job is to convince them of a principle that he says was best summed up in a recent TechCrunch article: Whoever creates the best content at the lowest cost possible will create the most value over time.

“It’s a very simple formula, but I think a lot of energy has been spent over the past few years where people — particularly on the tech side, thinking about the news business — they think that content isn’t an issue,” Israely said. “They think that there’s no shortage of content. They think that content is self-generating, and you just need the tools to filter it, to aggregate it, to monetize it. We don’t agree with that. We don’t think that news content just produces itself. It has to be produces and I don’t care about the labels — whether it’s journalists producing it, or in our case translators. But there needs to be a layer of journalism, or layers of journalism, to make it quality content.”

Photo of Earth by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center used under a Creative Commons license.

February 22 2011

19:00

Jeff Israely: Building a news org in order to support good journalists

Editor’s Note: Jeff Israely, a Time magazine foreign correspondent in Europe, is in the early stages of a news startup called Worldcrunch. He occasionally describes and comments on his startup process here at the Lab. Read his past installments here.

Via bank wires and PayPal emails, sent to accounts in Philadelphia, New York, the U.K., Spain, Germany, Italy, Brazil, and here in France, Worldcrunch is sending out its first payments to the men and women (mostly women so far) who select, translate, and shape the stories we are producing for our site and the sites of our partners.

It is a significant occasion for any startup when it begins to make its wares with the sweat and smarts of real people, beyond its founders and first investors. I would add that it is even more significant — in 2011 — if those people are professional journalists, getting paid for their work.

But this post is not about self-congratulation, or even necessarily optimism for the news business or the profession of journalism as a whole. One of the rationales for our decision in December to go live with our online work-in-progress/pre-beta “garage” was to be able to take the first step in seeing how we might build a team of journalists — with a range of experience, backgrounds and foreign-language skills — to make our daily (top-quality!) supply of global donuts.

In financial terms, the good news for our project is bad news for the only line of work I’ve known for the past 18 years: smart, qualified, multilingual professionals are ready to work at a rate that is indeed lower than the very modest money I was making when I began 18 years ago.

In the short/medium term, this works in our favor, allowing Worldcrunch to showcase our stuff without burning through the first bit of seed investment we have raised. Whether it is good news in the longer term is a much more complicated question that touches on what we might call the labor economics of the transformation of the news business.

I am not an economist, and have exactly 14 months of business experience…so the best point of entry I can offer is the economics of my own transformation in the news business.

Time, where I’d been a correspondent since 2001, has progressively been moving to a freelance-stringer model, and has cut staff positions every year since 2005. My turn came in May 2009. I had the possibility to continue contributing with a solid pay rate, which — if I supplemented with another string or two — could allow me to earn a living and keep calling myself a Time correspondent. And indeed, that is what I did for a while.

But all along, this project was staring down at me from the shelf, saying “now or never.” And so, on the side, I got the ball rolling on what would become Worldcrunch.

But my story is the exception that proves the rule. For starters, I have a wife with a good job (that’s grist alone for a whole other post!), and a net of security from the French social system (ditto!) that colleagues in the U.S. and elsewhere don’t necessarily enjoy. But more to the point, I had Worldcrunch, a bona fide business concept, a would-be company to build, that went beyond the sum total of the journalism I could produce with my own two feet and 10 fingers.

And so, this post contains a conspicuously paradoxical polemic: an entrepreneurial journalist taking issue with all the huffing and puffing about the “rise of the entrepreneurial journalist.”

First, though, to try to limit the amount of hyperventilating on Twitter, let it be clear that the concept that Jarvis and others champion largely reflects what is in fact a new reality for both individual journalists and the news business as a whole: We all must market our work better, we must look for creative ways to generate revenue (for ourselves, and others), we must innovate, adapt, evolve, and take the occasional calculated professional risk that all successful people do to strike forth into new territory.

My gripe is that this misses a basic reality that most journalists face, that they know right well what territory they want to conquer: It’s called journalism, y’know, like doing stories, shooting videos, covering beats. Notwithstanding the power of Twitter/Facebook/liveblogging/extreme aggregation or any combination thereof, the self-contained “piece” of journalism remains the form the vast majority of people still rely on to get informed, educated, entertained. And by far, the most likely way to get paid for your journalistic work continues to be selling the sweat of your labors to a media outlet, either by the piece or by way of a salaried position. (For the record, having a fixed job doesn’t in itself make you fat or lazy or unethical. Indeed, it remains the most efficient path to the kind of honest/investigative/experimental work we used to call enterprise journalism, a term that both pre-dates and, a priori, produces more civic value than entrepreneurial journalism.)

Some like to celebrate the cases of those who have used the tools of new technology to carve out their own space and make major career leaps, unhindered by the conventions of traditional news business economics. But these exceptions continue to prove the rule: The vast majority of wannabe, would-be, once-were full-time journos — who work hard, have ideas and talent, and are willing to adapt to new platforms and technologies — are simply sliding down into that ever widening pool of underpaid piece workers, hired-gun press releasers, content-farm sharecroppers.

What may look like the golden new age of entrepreneurial journalism for the lucky few cannot hide the dark realities of bad-old freelancing for a growing proportion of those actually delivering the goods.

The cause, we all know well: The Internet-era business model for the industry just ain’t there yet, and probably won’t be for a good while. The risk, of course, is that the new landscape being tilled with the received wisdom that “anyone can do journalism” will wind up barren of anyone who can pay the bills doing journalism, the kind where news is gathered and sense is made of events in the places where they happen. We are in serious self-fulfilling prophecy territory.

Still, I would be a fool, on a number of levels, if I spent my energy trying to preserve or bring back the old labor model. But being flat in the middle of a do-or-die startup, I also have no choice but to think clearly about the way things are, rather than some idealized/demonized ideological view of where the industry is coming from, or going.

And that brings me back to those ever modest initial Worldcrunch payments. Yes, we have big plans to capture the proverbial “energy of the crowd.” But this particular project will not work without the steady/reliable/available labor of professionals. And so we must hope there is a model by which the talented and hungry (not starving!) will be able to stay in this line of work. Naturally, it will be different from the old labor model dominated by large staffs of fixed professionals. But it also cannot have “free” (or dirt cheap) as its baseline. This tweet was how it crystalized in my head just a week or two after we began paying journos: “Building a News company means having a vision for how journalists will earn a fair wage working for you.”

In just these first two months, when the early reality can’t match that “vision,” I am seeing how the journalists react (each, slightly differently!) to the work and the pay and the betting on our project’s future success. In the back-and-forth, we are coming up with new ideas about what and how stuff gets produced — and I see how it relates to renumeration. The shifting labor economics, indeed, will actually be part of how we shape both the business model and even the substance of the journalism we are producing. We must balance the need to bring great people into the fold with our own bootstrapped finances and future cost/revenue projections. We must be viable, in other words, or we will be providing no work for anyone.

It is clear that news and journalism are a different beast than just generic “content.” As a global news source, we have launched in this trial-by-fire moment of the rolling revolutions in the Arab world. We aren’t yet working directly with Arabic publications, but have gotten some great on-the ground stories and analysis translated from of our top European launch partners. We were also lucky enough to hook up with Kristen Gillespie, an Arabic (and French!) speaker, with 10 years of on-the-ground experience in the Middle East for the likes of CBS Radio, NPR and The Nation. With events unfolding fast, and the region’s media/information transforming before us, Kristen and I came up with this regular feature, Arabica, to give our readers a quick daily tour of what is being said/shared in Arabic. These items, like the pieces we are selecting/translating from the mainstream foreign-language media, must be accurate, reliable, accessible, interesting. They must also be timely. It is work for professionals. (The rubrique is also the kind of germ of an idea that comes in working/brainstorming in a team, rather than in isolation.)

I don’t know yet how we’re going to keep Kristen — or whether Kristen herself will even be able to continue to make a living in the news business. Don’t let the (temporary) influx into Cairo fool you: Kristen’s gigs from her base in Amman were gradually reduced and eliminated over the past few years, with one editor telling her “don’t call us unless Americans are killed.” In her desire to continue in this line of work, I am starting to get an idea how I might gauge my own entrepreneurial foray into the journalism business: We can consider Worldcrunch a success if we can build something that allows others to spend more and more of their time and energy focused on the business of producing the journalism itself.

December 14 2010

18:00

Jeff Israely: Speeding up a startup, but slowing down at the same time

Editor’s Note: Jeff Israely, a Time magazine foreign correspondent in Europe, is in the early stages of a news startup called Worldcrunch. He details his experience as a new news entrepreneur at his site, but he’ll occasionally be describing the startup process here at the Lab. Read his past installments here.

Okay, here’s my shot at a new law of physics to apply to our news startup: Q. When does speeding up help you to slow down? A. At the exact moment that slowing down will help you speed up. Experienced entrepreneurs (and basketball players) will recognize this quantum bit of gobbledygook as the art of the pivot. Here’s how this particular apple fell on my head.

A month ago, when we unveiled Worldcrunch in this space, with a signup page and basic description of what we’ll be doing, it was part of a fairly straightforward plan and timetable for getting our site launched. Step 1: Announce the thing and open Facebook and Twitter accounts. Step 2: Complete the back office and site development. Step 3: Revamp the design and refine the functionality. Step 4: Solidify the core crew of multilingual journalists to begin building the editorial structure. (Note: Fundraising, partnerships, and legal issues are always at the top of the list…but their timetables have a logic all their own.)

Once steps 2, 3, and 4 began to fall into place, we’d start. Gradually. Privately. Our homepage/signup page would be a placeholder, while the various pieces came together behind the scenes. Through December, we’d use a special password for access to begin to show what we were doing (design, functionality…and the articles themselves) to our friends and colleagues, potential partners and investors, and those interested enough to sign up. Then, by the first week of January, shazzam: Launch!

But in the span of 72 hours in mid-November, two things happened that convinced us it was time to, er, slow-down-and-speed-up. First, we were presented with the chance to create an innovative front end for the website, which also held the possibility to integrate iPhone and iPad apps more rapidly down the road. This new front end would slow us down. Around the same time, one of our news partners, top French business daily Les Echos, told us they were extra eager to have us begin producing their stories to post on their website. Well, we thought, after we saw the first few Worldcrunch-produced stories on lesechos.fr, we realized we should (as is foreseen in the partnership agreement) also start posting them on ours. This would speed us up.

Putting these two equal but opposite forces on some kind of pulley system attached to a pair of fisherman’s sinkers (10th-grade physics don’t fail me now!) created the perfect conditions for our startup to make that famous pivot.

So as of two weeks ago, we are live, sort of — for anyone to see. It is not our beta, or even alpha, version. Yet it’s not quite a blog either, since we are not just publishing stuff about what we’ll be doing, but actually starting to do it. We have chosen to call our temporary public home The Garage.

This was a major decision, strategically and psychologically. As such, it was bound to test the fiber of the team, and again proved that despite our occasional bickering like brother and sister, my co-founder Irene and I are truly in synch. There was a lot riding on the decision to both push back the beta launch, and in the meantime go live with our stories. It would change both how we’d present ourselves to the public, and the mechanics of how the actual site (and company) might evolve. Yet after two brief conversations between us, and consultations with our investors, we agreed on the change of plans as if we were thinking with one brain. This bodes well for other big decisions — and pivots — that are sure to come.

A pivotal meal?

Last week was The Lunch. If some day Worldcrunch ends up realizing its full potential, the cafeteria-chic meal at Gustave in the Eighth Arrondissement will stand as one of the key moments that set us on our way. The occasion was the arrival in Paris (for the LeWeb confererence) of Lili Rodic, our indefatigable Zagreb-based web development team leader. Along with Irene, there was also Frederic Bonelli and Diane Grappin, two of our first investors. Fred has been advising us on key technical and digital publishing strategy. Diane is driving all that is product- and design-related at Worldcrunch.

We were at lunch to talk about refining the Garage, and the next steps for moving closer to the beta launch. But inevitably what we need to do today, particularly in the development of the technology, leads to discussions about the future: about how to build into the technical framework the right tools to allow our editorial and business ambitions to be realized. We brought up ideas that had already been floating around. We factored in budget and timing issues. We ate our nouvelle cuisine off of plastic trays.

But at a certain point, Fred began to lay out his vision for what the architecture of Worldcrunch should be, literally mapping it out for Lili (and the rest of us) on a piece of scrap paper. Something in that moment started to crystallize. We could suddenly see how our editorial and technical potential was naturally intertwined. It was the blueprint for a news enterprise built with new eyes — as I put it a year ago in a blissfully ignorant “about” page for my blog — and legs.

Still, big plans aside, my days now are mostly (and finally!) filled with the nuts and bolts of producing stories. We have the beginnings of a dynamite team on the editorial side. Together, we are using this time in the Garage to begin to create what in some ways is a wholly new editorial process: the selection and production of stories in English from the best of the foreign-language press, in real time. There is much to dissect, much to learn, and it will of course be a topic for future posts. In the meantime, both the day-in, day-out journalism we are doing and the other dot-connecting to come is proof of another theorem: The quality and efficiency of the editorial side improves in direct relation to the quality and efficiency of the business and technical sides. And vice-(vice)-versa. But this is not another new law of physics: just the old, yet ever valid formula for what we still call the news business.

November 10 2010

15:00

Jeff Israely: An idea and a brand come together as Worldcrunch

[Jeff Israely, a Time magazine foreign correspondent in Europe, is in the planning stages of a news startup — a "new global news website." He details his experience as a new news entrepreneur at his site, but he'll occasionally be describing the startup process here at the Lab. Read his past installments here. —Josh]

This is a long overdue introduction: a kind of public christening, a chance to share with you, the reader, our vision for the future of news. Okay, you see where we’re headed: this post is all about marketing. Sixteen months after secretly banging out my first PowerPoint business plan, nine months of blog posts delving into every twist and turn of my digital news startup except what the damn thing was — I am hereby beginning the rollout.

But first, one last hedge. Up until now, the motivations for these pieces for the Lab have varied: trying to figure out where I fit in to this transforming industry; sharing the daily ins and outs/ups and downs of Old Media Guy launching New Media Thing; a public search for my writing voice on new platforms and in the new role of would-be startup business dude. On that final point, I have been keenly aware of the potential benefits afforded by this space — and blogging in general — in the attention it might generate when (and if) my project got off the ground. It is an expression of that sometimes uncomfortable truth about the 21st-century journalist: that we can no longer shy away from the nitty-gritty of promoting, selling, marketing each piece of editorial output we produce and the building of each of our respective personal brands as the best way to increase the chances that we may continue (or begin) doing the actual newsbiz work we originally set out to do.

And so here, just this once, let me set aside the personal exploration and entrepreneurial and journalistic “processes,” and focus solely on product: a mini/soft/pre-launch and presentation of our company’s core concept, our big ambitions, our brand. I won’t go into detail here about our plans for actually executing what we set out to do, though that is perhaps the most difficult and decisive of all topics. Once we’re up and running live, we will see together how that execution is proceeding, both in the back office and on the front page. But first: throat clear….drumroll!….spotlight!!

What we do

How do you cover the world — the most sprawling and variegated and expensive beat of them all? Where do you turn to find the fresh new stories and voices that break through all the inevitable chattering and cannibalizing around this or that single news event that only the wires or The New York Times have managed to chronicle? Where is the existing, untapped potential for on-the-ground journalism that is more than just a lucky tweet? Might there be a shortcut to quality content? Real, worldwide scoops? Though ours is just one part of the solution to covering the global beat, we believe it is strong on simplicity and economy and immediate impact: The professional (and participatory) selection and translation of the best, most relevant stories in the foreign-language media.

This new idea, of course, is not brand new. There is much interesting already happening now around online translation of news and information: Global Voices’ coverage of international bloggers, Meedan’s innovative Arabic-English online current-events dialogue, Café Babel’s and Presseurope’s multilingual European coverage, Worldmeets.us’s global viewpoints on American policy, Der Spiegel’s English-language website. But the quest for a commercially viable digital formula around the top names in global journalism is indeed something new. And, we think, rich in potential.

The roots of the model can be found in Courrier International, a successful general interest weekly launched 20 years ago in France, and has been taken up by others, including my good friends at Internazionale in Rome, Forum in Warsaw and Courrier Japon in Tokyo. Indeed, we are exploring a range of possibilities in partnering with Courrier, which is just a Paris Métro ride away from our home offices. We have much to learn from what they’ve been doing in print, including questions of selection and translation and copyright. And some day, they may have something to learn about what kind of journalistic and business opportunities we can create by applying this formula digitally, and in the real-time news cycle of the Internet. Indeed, partnerships will be key to executing what we will be doing. More on that in a future post.

Where we are

Unlike Courrier International — or World Press Review, a high-brow New York-based monthly that survives as an online forum for global opinion — we are being born as a live news source in the digital space. This will permeate everything we do. But the technology (like the traditions) must serve the journalism, not be an end in itself. Frédéric Bonelli, one of our first investors, describes the media world right now as being “like Europe after World War II“: a mixed landscape of ruins, reconstruction efforts, old institutions trying to salvage their standing, and ambitious new players, some with true vision, others just looking to exploit the confusion. As a company that is both global and agile, we hope we can fit somewhere in the “vision” camp, aware of the words of Jay Rosen, who declared in a September speech here in Paris that “the struggle for the next press is an international thing.” Mais oui, monsieur!

What’s our name?

Way back in December 2009, when my Danish-born, Rome-based web designer friend Annie Skovgaard Christiansen agreed to create the demo site for the project, she casually said, “Okay — but I can’t start until you tell me the name.” Panic. There was a working name attached to my working biz plan, but it was both mediocre and unavailable as a URL. So the next 48 hours, I spent wracking my brain, harassing friends and colleagues, getting to know goDaddy. It had to be punchy, global…and available as .com for the standard $8.99 rate! The good names were all taken, and those not yet taken, weren’t quite good enough. Until…hmm…that’s not bad…probably not available? Let me see…yes! The feedback ever since — colleagues, friends, potential partners and investors — has been about as positive as you could hope for (though my ownDaddy said it sounded like breakfast cereal). So the URL nabbed back in late December has stuck as our website’s name, our company’s brand. And if we do the rest of our job well, we hope it sticks in your brain as a mark of quality international news: Worldcrunch.

One last bit of bald marketing: Please sign up for updates on our launch, as we continue with our alpha testing and building our team (and continuing our fundraising). We also have Twitter and Facebook pages. And though my business partner Irene is opposed, one day the Worldcrunch coffee mugs will arrive as well!

And finally, the brand needs a slogan, or what I’ve since discovered is referred to as a baseline. It came to me just a few weeks ago, as I swam my laps. Maybe you once heard it in j-school? Or at your first newspaper job? They say “All news is local.” Of course it is. The county hospital’s response to national health care reform, the school board budget deliberations, and the new stop sign installed around the corner must get covered because they affect the lives of you, the reader. But for the same reasons, we must keep up with the latest news from Peshawar or Pyongyang, China, Chile, and Chicago too, to say nothing of this autumn’s harvest in Bordeaux. What happens there matters here. All news indeed is local. We just say it differently here at Worldcrunch: All News is Global.

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