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January 05 2012

15:15

The newsonomics of the News Dial-o-Matic

It’s an emerging issue of our time and place. They know too much about us, and we know too little about what they know. We do know that what they know about us is increasingly determining what they choose to give us to read. We wonder: What are we missing? And just who is making those decisions?

Today, in 2012, those questions are more pressing in our age of news deluge. We’re confronted at every turn, at every finger gesture, with more to read or view or listen to. It’s not just the web: It’s also the smartphone and especially the tablet, birthing new aggregator products — Google Currents and Yahoo Livestand have joined Flipboard, Pulse, Zite, and AOL Editions — every month. Compare for a moment the “top stories” you get on each side-by-side, and you’ll be amazed. How did they get there? Why are they so different?

Was it some checkbox I checked (or didn’t?!) at sign-in? Using Facebook to sign in seemed so easy, but how is that affecting what I get? Are all those Twitterees I followed determining my story selection? (Or maybe that’s why I’m getting so many Chinese and German stories?) Did I tell the Times to give the sports section such low priority? The questions are endless, a ball of twine we’ve spun in declaring some preferences in our profiles over the years, wound ever wider by the intended or (or un-) social curation of Facebook and Twitter, and mutliplied by the unseen but all-knowing algorithms that think they know what we really want to read, more than we do. (What if they are right? Hold that thought.)

The “theys” here aren’t just the digital behemoths. Everyone in the media business — think Netflix and The New York Times as much as Pandora and People — wants to do this simple thing better: serve their customers more of what they are likely to consume so that they’ll consume more — perhaps buying digital subscriptions, services, or goods and providing very targetable eyes for advertisers. It’s not a bad goal in and of itself, but sometimes it feels like it is being done to us, rather than for us.

Our concern, and even paranoia, is growing. Take Eli Pariser’s well-viewed (500,000 times, just on YouTube) May 2011 TED presentation on “filter bubbles,” which preceded his June-published book of the same name. In the talk, Pariser talks about the fickle faces of Facebook and Google, making “invisible algorithmic editing of the web” an issue. He tells the story of how a good progressive like himself, a founder of MoveOn.org, likes to keep in touch with conservative voices and included a number in his early Facebook pages.

He then describes how Facebook, as it watched his actual reading patterns — he tended to read his progressive friends more than his conservative ones — began surfacing the conservative posts less and less over time, leaving his main choices (others, of course, are buried deeper down in his datastream, but not easily surfaced on that all-important first screen of his consciousness) those of like-minded people. Over time, he lost the diversity he’d sought.

Citing the 57 unseen filters Google uses to personalize its results for us, Pariser notes that it’s a personalization that doesn’t even seem personalized, or easily comparable: “You can’t see how different your search results are than your friends…We’re seeing a passing of the torch from human gatekeepers to algorithmic ones.”

Pariser’s worries have been echoed by a motley crew we can call algorithmic and social skeptics. Slowly, Fear of Facebook has joined vague grumbles about Google and ruminations about Amazon’s all-knowing recommendations. Ping, we’ve got a new digital problem on our bands. Big Data — now well-advertised in every airport and every business magazine as the new business problem of the digital age to pay someone to solve — has gotten very personal. We are more than the sum of our data, we shout. And why does everyone else know more more about me that I do?

The That’s My Datamine Era has arrived.

So we see Personal.com, a capitalist solution to the uber-capitalist usage of our data. I’ve been waiting for a Personal.com (and the similar Singly.com) to come along. What’s more American than having the marketplace harness the havoc that the marketplace hath wrought? So Personal comes along with the bold-but-simple notion that we should individually decide who should see our own data, own preferences, and our own clickstreams — and be paid for the privilege of granting access (with Personal taking 10 percent of whatever bounty we take in from licensing our stuff).

It’s a big, and sensible, idea in and of itself. Skeptics believe the horse has left the barn, saying that so much data about us is already freely available out there to ad marketers as to make such personal databanks obsolete before they are born. They may be forgetting the power of politics. While the FCC, FTC, and others have flailed at the supposed excesses of digital behemoths, they’ve never figured out how to rein in those excesses. Granting consumers some rights over their own data — a Consumer Data Bill of Rights — would be a populist political issue, for either Republicans or Democrats or both. But, I digress.

I think there’s a way for us to reclaim our reading choices, and I’ll call it the News Dial-o-Matic, achievable with today’s technology.

While Personal.com gives us 121 “gem” lockers — from “Address” to “Women’s Shoes”, with data lockers for golf scores, beer lists, books, house sitters, and lock combinations along the way, we want to focus on news. News, after all, is the currency of democracy. What we read, what she reads, what they read, what I read all matter. We know we have more choice than any generation in history. In this age of plenty, how do we harness it for our own good?

Let’s make it easy, and let’s use technology to solve the problem technology has created. Let’s think of three simple news reading controls that could right the balance of choice, the social whirl and technology. We can even imagine them as three dials, nicely circular ones, that we can adjust with a flick of the finger or of the mouse, changing them at our whim, or time of day.

The three dials control the three converging factors that we’d like to to determine our news diet.

Dial #1: My Sources

This is the traditional title-by-title source list, deciding which titles from global news media to local blogs I want in my news flow.

Dial #2: My Networks

Social curation is one of the coolest ideas to come along. Why should I have to rely only on myself to find what I like (within or in addition to My Sources) when lots of people like me are seeking similar content? My Facebook friends, though, will give me a very different take than those I follow on Twitter. My Gmail contact list would provide another view entirely. In fact, as Google Circles has philosophized, “You share different things with different people. But sharing the right stuff with the right people shouldn’t be a hassle.” The My Networks dial lets me tune my reading of different topics by different social groups. In addition, today’s announced NewsRight — the AP News Registry spin-off intended to market actionable intelligence about news reading in the U.S. — could even play a role here.

Dial #3: The Borg

The all-knowing, ever-smarter algorithm isn’t going away — and we don’t want it to. We just want to control it — dial it down sometimes. I like thinking of it in sci-fi terms, and The Borg from “Star Trek” well illustrates its potential maniacal drive. (I love the Wikipedia Borg definition: “The Borg manifest as cybernetically-enhanced humanoid drones of multiple species, organized as an interconnected collective, the decisions of which are made by a hive mind, linked by subspace radio frequencies. The Borg inhabit a vast region of space in the Delta Quadrant of the galaxy, possessing millions of vessels and having conquered thousands of systems. They operate solely toward the fulfilling of one purpose: to “add the biological and technological distinctiveness of other species to [their] own” in pursuit of their view of perfection“.) The Borg knows more about our habits than we’d like and we can use it well, but let’s have us be the ones doing the dialing up and down.

Three simple round dials. They could harness the power of our minds, our relationships, and our technologies. They could utilize the smarts of human gatekeepers and of algorithmic ones. And they would return power to where it belongs, to us.

Where are the dials? Who powers them? Facebook, the new home page of our time, would love to, but so would Google, Amazon, and Apple, among a legion of others. Personal.com would love to be that center, as it would any major news site (The New York Times, Zite-powered CNN, Yahoo News). We’ll leave that question to the marketplace.

Lastly, what are the newsonomics of the News Dial-o-Matic? As we perfect what we want to read, the data capturing it becomes even more valuable to anyone wanting to sell us stuff. Whether that gets monetized by us directly (through the emerging Personals of the world), or a mix of publishers, aggregators, or ad networks would be a next battleground. And then: What about the fourth wheel, as we dial up and down what we’re in the marketplace to buy right now? Wouldn’t that be worth a tidy sum?

August 03 2011

16:32

How AOL’s Editions iPad app aims to be anything to anyone

Poynter :: AOL unveiled a centerpiece of its mobile content strategy this week — a new iPad app called Editions that blends some of the most-successful features of other popular news-browsing apps with its own new ideas. Editions is another attempt at a mass-market iPad news app, like Flipboard, Pulse or Zite, that bring you news not just from one source or niche, but from the entire Web. They aim to be anything to anyone.

Review - continue to read Jeff Sondnerman, www.poynter.org

July 28 2011

21:36

Win-win? Why The Atlantic agreed to partner with Pulse. A story for data-hungry publishers

Niemalab :: Let’s face some facts: Media companies aren’t entirely sure what to do with the new crop of news reading apps that are springing up at the moment. Technology like Flipboard, Zite, or Pulse could either be a thief, a new revenue stream, or an inexpensive test bed for finding new ways to get your content in front of people.

Why should media companies partner with startups like Pulse?

One reason ...

[M. Scott Havens:] Since we don’t spend money on advertising and let the editorial be our branding arm, we’d like to get out to these applications where other readers are, who aren’t familiar with our brand.

A closer look - continue to read Justin Ellis, www.niemanlab.org

16:30

Why The Atlantic joined up with Pulse — and what the app’s usage stats can tell data-hungry publishers

Let’s face some facts: Media companies aren’t entirely sure what to do with the new crop of news reading apps that are springing up at the moment. Technology like Flipboard, Zite, or Pulse could either be a thief, a new revenue stream, or an inexpensive test bed for finding new ways to get your content in front of people. For the moment, these deals, if they are drawn up between a publisher and an app maker, typically get thrown into the category of “partnerships,” like the kind of reading app Pulse has been brokering with media companies like CNN, the Wall Street Journal, Vanity Fair, Time, and MSNBC.

Just last week Pulse struck a new partnership agreement, adding The Atlantic, The Atlantic Wire, and The National Journal to its list of featured content providers. So far, the deals between Pulse and news organizations haven’t been monetary; if anything, they’re more exploratory in nature, determining whether a third party can deliver substantial traffic to news sites (and eyes to their ads). But it can also be instructive on how audiences’ appetites for reading has changed, and give us an idea why places like The Atlantic want in with Pulse.

M. Scott Havens, vice president of digital strategy and operations for The Atlantic, told me the new wave of display apps are offering experiments in how the reading experience has changed, which is of no small interest to publishers. “Hopefully people will find us, discover us on Pulse, and might actually become a subscriber to our brands,” Havens said. The Atlantic can reach new audiences while also studying how users read, Havens said.

Essentially it’s a win-win for the moment: “Since we don’t spend money on advertising and let the editorial be our branding arm, we’d like to get out to these applications where other readers are, who aren’t familiar with our brand,” he said.

This all works perfectly for Pulse, says Akshay Kothari, the company’s CEO, because their broad goal at the moment is gathering more content to spotlight within the app and developing fruitful relationships with publishers. One of the critical bits of information Pulse holds is data on usage patterns for readers within the app, both on the iPad and iPhone.

Though Kothari would not offer up specific data, he told me one clear trend is the difference in the reading patterns on the iPhone vs. the iPad. On any given week, Pulse users on smartphones open the app twice as often as people on the tablet version. But all told, tablet users spend more time on Pulse, and their sessions are twice as long as those of iPhone users. What’s also interesting is that in some cases one platform feeds into another: “If you look at usage patterns, [users] will come in small bursts to look at news, and if they like it — long-form articles or something from The Economist — they’ll save them and read them on other devices,” he said.

So in a typical day a Pulse reader may drop in more than 3 times to check the news, but only spend 5-10 minutes scanning, Kothari said. From what they’re seeing, a good chunk of Pulse’s audience falls somewhere into this category of heavy-ish users who subscribe to multiple sources, as opposed to those who scan stories and headlines on Pulse with less frequency.

It probably shouldn’t be a surprise that Pulse tracks with patterns we’ve been seeing emerge in the ways people read on new devices. In terms of the iPad, Pulse seems to mirror similar evidence we’ve seen suggesting that people look for a comfy spot to do serious reading on their tablets. “The consumption pattern on the tablet is slightly different, spending longer time,” Kothari said. “The use-case is kind of like sitting in home, maybe lounging with the iPad and consuming lots of time and news stories.”

Another trend they saw was an increase in delayed reading. Not long after launching, it became clear readers were using Pulse to dip into and out of the day’s news and emailing stories to themselves. “We realized that a good majority of people want something to save (stories) and go back to it later, simple functionality to save from Pulse and synch with other devices,” he said. (They’ve since added Instapaper and Read It Later buttons.)

Pulse uses all this information in refining its product, adding features when necessary and responding to feedback from users. But it’s clear that this is also intel that could be of interest to news organizations trying to reconcile their digital media plans with those of third-party app companies. As part of the partnership, news organizations will get their hands on data from Pulse on how many users subscribe to their content, as well as social sharing stats and click-through rates, Kothari said.

Pulse can be an app for news discovery as much as presentation, meaning it can be a gateway for introducing people to news sources they would otherwise not know. Which is one of the reasons they’re eager to buddy-up with media companies like The Atlantic, Kothari said. One of the things they learned early was that there’s no predicting what readers will find interesting. Of all the pre-loaded news sources they had at launch, which included RSS feeds from mainstream organizations, one that was apparently most interesting to readers was from Cool Hunting, the design and culture blog. One of Pulse’s goals going forward, Kothari said, is to create an opportunity for a “Cool Hunting moment” for more publishers.

“We’re very, very excited to work on this,” he said. “The team assembled are all great developers and designers, but also people who want to see great journalism survive.”

May 19 2011

16:00

The newsonomics of the missing link

Picture Pre-Tablet Man (or Woman). Let’s go back to the time before Palm Pilots, at the dawn of consumer digital civilization itself, a time of AOL, Prodigy, and Compuserve. Hunched heavily by the analog world on his shoulders, Pre-Tablet Man has slowly begun to raise his head, through successive innovations of laptops (!), pocket-sized cellphones, smartphones, smarter phones and early e-readers. Now, as we enter Year 2 of the iPad era, it seems like our digital man is almost standing up straight. The digital world has moved from geek chic to consumer commonplace. Our digital devices have become on/off appliances, no manual necessary.

In this evolution, the iPad is so far our human pinnacle, though it will be followed by wonders to come. It also marks a signal change in digital usage, and especially in digital news consumption. I think of it as the likely missing link in the digital news evolution. It’s a link that, out of the blue — or maybe out of the darkness — has offered news companies, old and new, the unlikely (last?) chance to get a new sustainable business model.

We’re now approaching the second half of this highly transitional year, with its multiplying paid circulation tests, continuing print revenue declines, and greater re-focusing on digital ad sales. As we do, let’s look at the newsonomics of the tablet as the missing link. Let’s do that in light of what I think are the six major realities confronting news companies at mid-year.

1. Reality: Print is in permanent decline.

That’s what 21 consecutive quarters of decline (year over year) in U.S. newspaper print ad revenue tells us (“The newsonomics of oblivion“). Consumer magazine revenue has moved barely positive, but is still substantially below pre-recession levels. Print is there to be milked, as long as it can, in the digital transition. Fewer newspapers are being sold, and they are thinner and thinner.

The tablet link: The tablet is a print-like replacement for newspapers and magazines. Publishers privately report (and an increasing spate of reports from Instapaper to RJI to Yudu) that tablet readers read the tablet much more like the newspaper than the way they read news websites. Longer session times. Longer stories. Early morning and evening reading. Pre-tablet, publishers had no potential replacement. Yes, smartphones have been a great check-in short-form reader, but that’s more of a traditional online-like behavior. Now they’ve been given a gift by the technology gods.

Caveat: The tablet is print-like, but it’s not print. It’s a new medium, first inviting — and soon demanding — that publishers make use of its interactive, video-forward, and smooth-as-silk social sharing capabilities. If publishers persist in “going slow,” sticking with cheaper-to-produce replica tablet products, they’ll squander the tablet replacement-for-print opportunity, as new market entrants from the AOLs (including flag-in-the-local-sand Patch) to the Bay Citizens surpass them.

2. Reality: Online engagement is inadequate.

The tablet link: The tablet offers a way to re-engage readers, a corollary to the tablet’s replacement potential. The biggest problem for news publishers isn’t (a) that the digital ad world only produces pennies on the old ad dollar, (b) the low share of digital ad revenue they get, or (c) a changing cabal of digital startups from Yahoo to Google to Apple that are stealing their business. Their biggest problem is online engagement.

News producers work in a world of massive cost, funding well-paid newsrooms and all the legacy supports from advertising to finance to circulation. That investment made a lot of sense when readers really engaged with their products. Consider that in the heyday, your average newspaper would command 270 minutes (4.5 hours) of attention per household per month. Consider that online, the average engagement time is five to 15 minutes per month.

So, if early tablet reading patterns persist, publishers could find themselves on the road to re-engagement. The possibility: short-form, headline-and-blurb desktop/laptop reading may have been the news industry’s nuclear winter, with a greener spring on the horizon.

Caveat: It’s still way early to know whether more engaged reading patterns will last. I believe they largely will, but that publishers will soon find themselves fighting for engaged minutes with whatever successful aggregators emerge from new crowds of Flipboard, Pulse, Zite, Trove, Ongo, and News.me, just to name a few. Ventures like Next Issue Media address may address destination buying, but not product aggregation in ways that consumers have shown they love. Aggregation won Round One of the web, as individual publishers lost. We may be seeing history repeating.

3. Reality: Google juice is wearing thin.

The tablet link: The tablet is driven more by direct traffic, by apps, and by direct browsing than by search; early publishers results show a healthy majority of tablet news visitors coming direct, unlike the online experience. Search isn’t over, but it’s being pushed aside as the beginning and the center of our online news activity. Publishers never found Google juice all that nourishing; it provided lots of calories, but too little muscle tone in new direct revenue created.

Caveat: Again, this is early behavior. While Google juice may stay thin, Facebook and Twitter juice are getting tastier, and will, in part, replace Google as important referrer of potential new customer traffic.

4. Reality: The only big growth is digital.

The tablet link: The tablet may be the path to getting print-like ad revenues.

News publishers have one story to tell, and that’s what we hear in quarterly reports and increasingly infrequent interviews: the growth in digital ad sales. The New York Times touts that 24 percent of its ad revenue is now digital, with McClatchy and Gannett just below 20 percent. Journal Register CEO John Paton talks about the digtital EBITDA his company will be able to throw off by 2014. At the same time, digital ad growth isn’t coming close to making up for print ad decline at most companies.

With current high ad rates, approaching print ones, high national advertiser and ad agency focus, tablets may be a great ad platform, unlike online or smartphone.

Caveat: Newspapers current earn more than $500 a year in Sunday revenue from print subscribers. Can tablets, if they replace print, ever come near that number?

5. Reality: Digital circulation revenue essential is essential to a new sustainable business model.

The tablet link: Consumers appear willing to pay for some kinds of tablet content. Imagine the paid proposition today without the tablet. Selling online/print? That’s a tough proposition. Print/smartphone? Well, maybe. The tablet gives publishers a much better value proposition to offer readers. All Access — including tablets — may prove to be a winning proposition.

Caveat: Early paid experiments aren’t producing much digital circulation. Why? In part, the tablet-wow products are in their infancy, and engagement remains too low. If too few readers bump into the pay wall, even fewer will pay up.

6. Reality: The News Anywhere Era is becoming real.

The tablet link: The tablet is a part of this new News Anywhere expectation. Getting news wherever we are has moved from something cool to something expected overnight. News Anywhere has offered a new playing field and a new value propostion that publishers can offer readers. In the era in which Netflix, HBO, and Comcast offer Entertainment Anywhere, news publishers have been presented a model — an All Access model — that readers can easily grasp.

Caveat: Readers grasp the model — and have high expectations. That means news publishers must more quickly satisfy those News Anywhere habits, properly formatting for each device and understanding how consumers are using news differently on their iPhones, their iPads and on their desktops. Most are simply not yet prepared to take advantage of this revolution.

Image by Bryan Wright used under a Creative Commons license.

April 29 2011

14:30

This Week in Review: WikiLeaks’ forced hand, a Patch recruiting push, and two sets of news maxims

Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week’s top stories about the future of news.

Leaking gets competitive: WikiLeaks made its first major document release in five months — during which time its founder, Julian Assange, was arrested, released on bail, and put under house arrest — this week, publishing 764 files regarding the Guantánamo Bay prison along with 10 media partners. (As always, The Nation’s Greg Mitchell’s WikiLeaks über-blogging is the place to go for every detail you could possibly need to know.)

That’s more media partners than WikiLeaks has worked with previously, and it includes several first-timers, such as the Washington Post and McClatchy. As the Columbia Journalism Review’s Joel Meares noted, the list of partners doesn’t include the New York Times and the Guardian, the two English-language newspapers who worked with WikiLeaks in its first media collaboration last summer. Despite being shut out, those two organizations were still able to force WikiLeaks’ hand in publishing the leak, as the Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone explained.

The Times got their hands on the documents independently, then passed them on to the Guardian and NPR. This meant that, unlike the news orgs that got the info from WikiLeaks, they were operating without an embargo. As they prepared to publish last Sunday, WikiLeaks lifted its embargo early for its own partners (though the first to publish was actually the Telegraph, a WikiLeaks partner).

The New York Times’ Brian Stelter and Noam Cohen said the episode was evidence that WikiLeaks “has become such a large player in journalism that some of its secrets are no longer its own to control.” But, as they reported, WikiLeaks itself didn’t seem particularly perturbed about it.

Patch’s reaches for more bloggers: AOL seems to be undergoing a different overhaul every week since it bought the Huffington Post earlier this year, and this week the changes are at its hyperlocal initiative Patch, which is hoping to add 8,000 community bloggers to its sites over the next week or two in what its editor-in-chief called a “full-on course correction.”

While talking to paidContent, AOL’s folks played down the degree of change it’s implementing, explaining that these new bloggers (who will be recruited from, among other sources, the sites’ frequent commenters) aren’t disrupting the basic Patch model of one full-time editor per site. In fact, they’ll be unpaid, something that’s been a bit of a headache for AOL and HuffPo lately.

Business Insider’s Nicholas Carlson liked the plan, saying volunteer bloggers can become “extremely effective word-of-mouth marketers” and “excellent pageview machines” with, of course, “manageable” salaries. Others from MediaBistro and Wired were a little more skeptical of the no-pay factor. Lehigh j-prof Jeremy Littau took issue with a more systemic aspect of the new blogs, which will exist both on the writer’s own site and on Patch. Splitting up the conversation with that arrangement won’t be helpful for the individual blogs or for the local blogosphere as a whole, he said: “I see something developing that leads to less population in the local blogosphere and a walled-off system that operates on Patch. At worst, it will lead to parallel and fracture[d] conversations online, which is death when we’re talking about hyperlocal.”

Two new media manifestos: Two New York j-profs — and two of the more prominent future-of-news pundits online these days — both published manifestos of sorts this week, and both are worth a read. Jay Rosen summed up what he’s learned about journalism in 25 years of teaching and thinking about it at NYU, and CUNY’s Jeff Jarvis gave a few dozen bullet points outlining his philosophy of news economics.

Rosen’s post touched on several of the themes that have colored his blog and Twitter feed over the past few years, including the value of increasing participation, the failure of “objectivity,” and the need for usefulness and context in news. But while the ideas weren’t exactly new, the conversation they generated was stimulating. The comments chase down some interesting tangents, and GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram expanded on Rosen’s point about participation, arguing that even if the number of users who want to participate is relatively low, opening up the process can still be immensely important in improving journalism. Rosen also inspired TBD’s Steve Buttry to write his own “what I know about the news business” post.

Like Rosen’s post, Jarvis’ wouldn’t break a whole lot of ground for those already familiar with his ideas, but it summed them up in a helpfully pithy format. He focused heavily on providing real value (“The only thing that matters to the market is value”), the importance of engagement, and finding efficiencies in infrastructure and collaboration. His post contains plenty of pessimism about the current newspaper business model, and Mathew Ingram and FishbowlNY’s Chris O’Shea defended him against the idea that he’s just a doomsayer.

Times paywall bits: The New York Times spent a reported $25 million to develop its paid-content system, and it will be spending another $13 million on the plan this year, mostly for promotion. Women’s Wear Daily detailed those promotional efforts, which include posters around New York as well as TV spots. PaidContent’s Robert Andrews compared the Times’ pay plan to that of the other Times (the one in London, owned by Rupert Murdoch), noting that the New York Times’ plan should allow them to draw more revenue while maintaining their significant online influence, something the Times of London hasn’t done at all (though it’s largely by choice).

Meanwhile, Terry Heaton found another (perhaps more convoluted) way around the Times’ system, tweeting links to Times stories that he can’t access. And elsewhere at the Times, the Lab’s Megan Garber explored the Times’ R&D Lab’s efforts to map the way Times stories are shared online.

And elsewhere in paywalls, the CEO of the McClatchy newspaper chain has reversed his anti-paywall stance and said this week the company is planning paywalls for some of its larger papers, and Business Insider introduced us to another online paid-content company, Tiny Pass.

Apps, news, and pay: In his outgoing post on Poynter’s Mobile Media blog, Damon Kiesow had a familiar critique for news organizations’ forays into mobile media — they’re too much like their print counterparts to be truly called innovative. But he did add a reason for optimism, pointing to the New York Times’ News.me and the Washington Post’s Trove: “Neither is a finished product or a perfect one. But both were created by newspaper companies that put resources into research and development.”

Media analyst Ken Doctor said local news needs to start moving toward mobile media to reach full effectiveness, laying out the model of an aggregated local news app pulling various types of media. For maximum engagement, that app had better include audio, according to some NPR statistics reported by the Lab’s Andrew Phelps.

There may a bigger place for paid apps than we’ve thought: Instapaper’s Marco Arment twice pulled the free version of the app for about a month and found that sales actually increased. He made the case against free apps, saying they bring low conversion rates, little revenue, and unnecessary image problems. Meanwhile, makers of one free app, Zite, said they’re releasing a new version to deal with complaints they’ve been getting from publishers about copyright issues.

Reading roundup: No big stories this week, but tons of little things to keep up on. Here’s a bit of the basics:

— On social media: Facebook launched a “Send” plugin among a few dozen websites (including a couple of news sites) that allows private content-sharing. The Next Web’s Lauren Fisher argued that journalists should spend more time using Facebook, and Canadian j-prof Alfred Hermida wrote about a study he helped conduct about social media and news consumption.

— The Guardian shut down a local-news project it launched last year, saying the local blogs were “not sustainable.” PaidContent’s Robert Andrews said that while the blogs were useful, there are few examples of sustainable local-news efforts, and Rachel McAthy of Journalism.co.uk rounded up some opinions to try to find the value in the Guardian’s experiment.

— The news filtering program Storify launched in public beta this week, prompting a New York Times profile and pieces by GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram and the Knight Digital Media Center’s Amy Gahran on the journalistic value of curation.

— Thanks to its most recent content-farm-oriented algorithm tweak, Google’s traffic to all Demand Media sites is down 40%, which caused Demand stock to slide this week. Google, meanwhile, added some more automatic personalization features to Google News.

— The Lab’s Andrew Phelps wrote a great piece expounding on the journalistic utility of the humble (well, kind of humble) smartphone.

— And for your deep-thinking weekend-reading piece, Harvard researcher Ethan Zuckerman’s thoughtful take on overcoming polarization by understanding each other’s values, rather than just facts.

April 22 2011

14:00

This Week in Review: The Flipboard dilemma, Trove and News.me arrive, and a paywall number for the NYT

Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week’s top stories about the future of news.

Is Flipboard a competitor or collaborator?: Flipboard has quickly become one of the hottest news apps for the iPad, and it continued its streak last week when it announced it had raised $50 million in funding. Flipboard’s Mike McCue told All Things Digital’s Kara Swisher he’d be using the money to hire more staff and expand onto other devices, including the iPhone and Android platform. But he also talked to TechCrunch about using the money to fend off a rumored competitor in development at Google. (The Houston Chronicle’s Dwight Silverman told Google not to bother, because Zite already does the trick for him.)

All this prompted a fantastic analysis of Flipboard from French media consultant Frederic Filloux, who explained why Flipboard’s distinctive user-directed blend of news media sites, RSS feeds, and social media is so wonderful for users but so threatening to publishers. Filloux argued that every media company should be afraid of Flipboard because they’ve built a superior news-consumption product for users, and they’re doing it on the backs of publishers. But none of those publishers can complain about Flipboard, because any of them could have (and should have) invented it themselves.

GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram advised media companies to be willing to work with Flipboard for a similar “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” reason: Its app has their apps beat in terms of customizability and usability, so they’re better off trying to make money off of it than their own internal options. ReadWriteWeb’s Dan Rowinski wrote about the possibility that Flipboard could be a better alternative partner for publishers than Apple, and Marshall Kirkpatrick wondered why publishers are up in arms about Flipboard in the first place.

Traditional media’s personalized news move: One of the reasons that media companies might be less than willing to work with Flipboard is that some of them are building their own personalized news aggregation apps, two of which launched this week: The Washington Post Co.’s Trove and Betaworks’ News.me, developed with the New York Times. INFOdocket’s Gary Price has the best breakdown of what Trove does: It uses your Facebook account and in-app reading habits to give you personalized “channels” of news, determined by an algorithm and editors’ picks — a bit of the “Pandora for news” idea, as the Post’s Don Graham called it. (It’s free, so it’s got that going for it, which is nice.)

All Things Digital’s Peter Kafka suspected that Trove will be most useful on mobile media, as its web interface won’t be much different from many people’s current personalized home pages, and David Zax of Fast Company emphasized the social aspect of the service.

News.me is different from Trove in a number of ways: It costs 99 cents a week, and it’s based not on your reading history, but on what’s showing up in other people’s Twitter streams. (Not just what they’re tweeting, but what they’re reading — Betaworks’ John Borthwick called it reading “over other people’s shoulders.”) It also pays publishers based on the number of people who read their content through the app. That’s part of the reason it’s gotten the blessing of some media organizations that aren’t typically aggregator friendly, like the Associated Press. [Note: We're one of the publishers licensed in the app. —Ed.]

Since News.me is based so heavily on Twitter, it raises the obvious question of whether you’d be better off just getting your news for free from Twitter itself. That’s what Business Insider’s Ellis Hamburger wondered, and Gizmodo’s Adrian Covert isn’t a fan, though Martin Bryant of The Next Web said it could be helpful in stripping out the chatter of Twitter and adding an algorithmic aspect. GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram looked at both services and concluded that they signal a willingness by some traditional media outlets to adjust their longtime broadcasting role to the modern model of the “Daily Me.”

A good sign for the Times’ pay plan: The overall news from the New York Times Co.’s quarterly earnings report this week wasn’t good — net income is down 57 percent from a year ago — but there was one silver lining for online paid-content advocates: More than 100,000 people have begun paying for the Times’ website since it began charging for access last month. (That number doesn’t include those who got free subscriptions via Lincoln, but it does include those who are paying though cheaper introductory trials.)

As Advertising Age’s Nat Ives pointed out, there’s a lot that number doesn’t tell us about traffic and revenue (particularly, as paidContent’s Staci Kramer noted, how many people are paying full price for their subscriptions), but several folks, including Glynnis MacNicol of Business Insider, were surprised at how well the Times’ pay plan is doing. (Its goal for the first year was 300,000 subscribers.) Here at the Lab, Josh Benton looked back at the numbers for the Times’ TimesSelect paywall and concluded that an initial influx of subscribers doesn’t guarantee continued growth after launch.

Those numbers are particularly critical for the Times given the difficulty its company has had over the past several years — as Katie Feola of Adweek wrote, many analysts believe the pay plan is crucial for the Times’ financial viability. “But this means the paper’s future rests on an untested model that many experts believe can’t work in the oversaturated news market,” she wrote. “And the Times has to pray the ad market won’t decline faster than analysts predict.”

A few other paid-content tidbits: Nine of Slovakia’s largest news organizations put up a paywall together this week, and the pope is apparently pro-paywall, too. At the Guardian, Cory Doctorow mused about how companies can (and can’t) get people to pay for the content online in an age of piracy.

Google’s hammer falls on eHow: When Google applied its algorithm adjustment last month to crack down on content farms, Demand Media’s eHow actually came out better off (though others didn’t fare so well, like the New York Times Co.’s About.com, as we found out this week). Google made a second round of updates last week, and eHow got nailed this time, losing 66 percent of its Google juice, according to Sistrix.

Search Engine Land’s Matt McGee speculated that Google might have actually been surprised when eHow benefited the first time, and may have made this tweak in part as an effort to “correct” that. Demand Media, meanwhile, called Sistrix’s eHow numbers “significantly overstated,” though the company’s stock hit a new low on Monday. Mathew Ingram said investors have reason to worry, as Demand’s success seems to be at the mercy of Google’s every algorithm tweak.

A Pulitzer first: The Pulitzer Prizes were announced this week, and while the awards were spread pretty broadly among several news organizations, there were a couple of themes to note. As Felix Salmon and others pointed out, an abnormally large share of the awards went to business journalism, a trend the Columbia Journalism Review’s Dean Starkman opined on in a bit more detail.

The biggest prize from a future-of-news perspective may have gone to ProPublica, whose series on some of the machinations that worsened the financial crisis was the first Pulitzer winner to never appear in print. The Lab’s Justin Ellis noted that other winners are including significant multimedia components, perhaps signaling a shift in the emphasis of one of journalism’s most elite institutions. If you were wondering where WikiLeaks was in all this, well, the New York Times apparently didn’t submit its WikiLeaks-based coverage.

Reading roundup: No huge stories this week, but a few little things that are worth noting:

— Your weekly AOL/Huffington Post update: Jonathan Tasini came out swinging again regarding his lawsuit on behalf of unpaid HuffPo bloggers, Business Insider’s Glynnis MacNicol responded in kind, Eric Snider told the story of getting axed from AOL’s now-defunct Cinematical blog, and HuffPo unveiled features allowing readers to follow topics and writers.

— Missouri j-school students are chafing against requirements that they buy an iPad (they previously had to buy an iPod touch, and they called that plan a bust). Meanwhile, Ben LaMothe of 10,000 Words had three ideas of social media skills that j-schools should teach.

— A weird little fake-URL spoof turned into an interesting discussion about the possibility of libel through fake URLs, in thoughtful posts by both the Lab’s Andrew Phelps and TechCrunch’s Paul Carr.

— Two interesting data points on news innovation: A group led by Daniel Bachhuber put together some fascinating figures about and perspectives from Knight News Challenge grant recipients. And journalism researchers Seth Lewis and Tanja Aitamurto wrote at the Lab about news organizations using open API as a sort of external R&D department.

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