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August 12 2010

15:15

July 28 2010

09:39

News sites based on social media content in Latin America

I have to admit I didn’t see this one coming… traditional media corporations in Latin America are launching news sites based exclusively on content originated in social media.

First of all, we have 140 – news of Twitter, a new web site lunched by Perfil in Argentina, intended as a site for “people who don’t have a Twitter account but want to find out what’s happening” in the microblogging world.

Twitter has had a tremendous growth in the country in 2010, thanks mainly to TV shows that sudenly began using Twitter as a live interactive tool with the audience.

Then local celebrities and world-cup football players joined the conversation, finishing the job of popularizing the social network, and now even politicians replace their traditional press releases with fugaceos 140 character messages that sometimes end up in front pages.

140 was created by Darío Gallo, executive editor of Perfil.com and former Director of Noticias (the most popular political magazine of the country), one of the early adopters of Twitter in Argentina. He assured me the new project is receiving good reactions and traffic.

The website feeds itself with Twitpics from celebrities, political “debates” or any piece of news that transcends Twitter.

Meanwhile, one of Gallo’s former colleagues in Perfil, Pablo Mancini, has just created a website named ReporTube as a new project from El Comercio of Peru: “A gateway to the portion of the audience that is interested in producing content”.

They already have more than a thousand video reporters in dozens of countries; but it’s not a merely citizen journalism initiative since they see ReporTube more as an aggregation site of audiovisual testimonies.

The creators say that ReporTube is an online news site, under the umbrella of elcomercio.pe, 100% made with YouTube content with a productive model in permanent construction.

“The massive amount of content available led us to believe that remixing and aggregation are concepts that complement participation and quality content that is not necessarily synonymous of original content”, Mancini explains.

Especial thanks to Facundo for helping me with my lousy English.

July 16 2010

18:35

Google News revamps its revamped design

Late last month, Google News launched a redesign of its site. The basic idea was to make the news platform — and the news itself — more easily customizable for users: Google added a “news for you” section (a personally tailored headline stream), and the ability to indicate preferred news sources “to give you more control over the news that you see.”

In theory, the changes were useful: a way to empower users to personalize their news experience while — through the platform’s Spotlight and Top Stories sections — still preserving a bit of serendipity. In practice, though…it was a different story. At least on our site, users’ reactions to the redesign were rather negative pretty scathing. Some of the feedback we received on our post:

It sucks. I used to have customized sections, with a specific layout and number of news items in each section.
The new layout throws everything up in random order, in one very very long column, without any sections.

And it forces me to read a very very very long list of Spotlight items that don’t interest me. I can’t seem to change the number of items in Spotlight, nor the location of it (very prominent on the right hand side column).

I hate the new Google News. I really really really hate it.

[...]

I hate it too. Google, please put it back the way it was!

[...]

I also do not like the new layout. I like being able to scan various topics and not have my sports, world news, tech, medical, EVERYTHING mixed in together. Sometimes I feel like looking at the top entertainment stories first, sometimes I want to look at medical news first. Everything now is just jumbled together and I am suddenly forced to read headlines that maybe I am not all that interested in this moment in time.

[...]

The new format is terrible. Where to start: Way too busy, can’t find anyting, visually unappealing.
Yuck! bring back the old one, I am already looking for alternatives!

[...]

I have had to find new source for my news because:

*1* The new page is a jumble of information, it’s impossible to find anything.

*2* My carefully constructed page disappeared overnight replaced by this jumble.

*3* Personalization results in stories from Los Angeles being featured even though LA is over 700 miles from where I live and has no relevance to us here at all.

*4* I could care less about sports, but the World Cup dominated the page for days.

Watch my stats, google. I’m done with your jumbled-up mess of what was the best news aggragator in the world. So, from the comments above, are many other of your loyal followers and we’re only the ones who care enough to try to stop your leap off the cliff.

There’s much more in that vein. And while our commenters, in number, don’t make for a scientific sample, it seems that those who shared reactions weren’t alone in their dislike of Google News’ new interface. Last night, in a blog post titled “Google changes reflect your feedback,” Google News product manager Chris Beckmann announced the rollout of updates in the platform’s appearance and, therefore, its usability. While pointing out that “hundreds of thousands of you have already customized your Google News homepages,” Beckmann also noted that “some of you wrote in to say you missed certain aspects of the previous design, such as the ability to see results grouped by section (U.S., Business, etc.) in two columns.”

At Google, we’re all about launching and iterating, so we’ve been making improvements to the design in response to your feedback. For example, we’re now showing the entire cluster of articles for each story, rather than expanding the cluster when you hover your mouse over it. We’ve given you the ability to hide the weather forecast from your local news section. We made the option to switch between List view and Section view more obvious. And today we’re adding a third option in “News for you”: Two-column view, which shows the three top stories from each section…

Here’s what it looks like:

The changes, in all, are fairly minor; the average user, having not read Beckmann’s post, might not even notice the updates. (Since, when it comes to online interfaces, users tend to like things the way they’re used to, that’s a smart way to roll out changes: incrementally and, for the most part, unobtrusively.) But the subtle revamp indicates Google’s willingness — a willingness that’s part of its organizational DNA — to tweak its news platform according to the feedback it receives. Guiding users while also being receptive to them: seems a pretty good balance to me.

July 13 2010

16:00

Spotery’s relaunch: some lessons in crowd curation

This morning, the social news aggregator formerly known as Ispotastory relaunched with a new name and a modified approach to social news. The site — now rechristened and re-URLed Spotery.com — builds on Ispotastory’s basic infrastructure: crowd-curated content overseen by human editors. (Think Digg with more editorial oversight.)

The original Ispotastory launched in 2009, and the changes it’s implementing today reflect the knowledge the site’s editors have gained — about balancing crowd curation and external oversight, about balancing social sensibilities and editorial — since then. I spoke with Spotery’s CEO, Limor Elkayam, about those changes; here are some of the most instructive shifts:

Old: emphasis on the algorithm
New: emphasis on human curation

Ispotastory, in its first form, “was always going to be a user-generated site,” Elkayam told me — one complemented by human editorial oversight. But when the staff simplified the site’s UI after is launch, so that users could more easily submit stories, submissions increased — and the site’s content experienced what Digg and similar sites have: curation of the open web on the one hand, but self-promotion and clever system-gaming on the other.

The site’s editors, Elkayam says, realized that the free-for-all element of content promotion was undermining the overall experience — and, to some extent, defeating the site’s initial purpose: to filter the web in a way that’s useful, and comprehensible, to users. So the question became: “How do we please people by giving them a place to share news without it diluting the content on the site?”

The answer, Elkayam says, was a more rigorous role for Spotery’s human editors by way of mitigating the influence of the algorithm. (This is similar to the Techmeme model that combines algorithmic and editorial authority in curating stories.) While individual users’ profile pages will feature all the stories they’ve “spotted,” unfiltered and without editorial intervention…on the communal homepage, “nothing makes the site unless an editor promotes it.”

In other words: “We don’t let our users dictate the content that’s going to be on the site. We filter and monitor what’s submitted and then we decide what to promote up and down.” As a result: “There’s really no gaming the system.”

Old: lots of narrow content categories
New: a few broad content categories

Initially, Ispotastory had around 40 categories for classifying the stories it curated, Elkayam told me. Which led to…some confusion. Would the LeBron James move to Miami be a “sports” story? A “business” one? An “entertainment” one?

The relaunched site features, instead, broader, familiar verticals — “Lifestyle,” “Entertainment,” “Technology,” etc. — along with verticals appropriate to a social news site (there are sections for both “Funny” and “Offbeat”). As Elkayam explains of the shift: “We just figured that people have been used to seeing those categories for a long time. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel here.”

Under the simplified categories, it’s actually difficult for editors to make a mistake in classification, Elkayam points out. With the former lots-of-categories infrastructure, the Lindsay Lohan jail-sentencing, for example, might have been filed under “movies” or “gossip” or even “law”; now, it simply gets filed under “entertainment.”

That category-broadening makes sense from a workflow perspective, as well, Elkayam notes. The site’s four editors focus on particular verticals, with everyone splitting the “Offbeat” and “Funny” oversights — encouraging “everyone to own their categories,” she says. A streamlining that’s “better than too many people working on too many categories.”

Old: “friend” framework of social news
New: “follow” framework of social news

Ispotastory launched as a social news site — complete with profile pages with Facebook-like friending capabilities. Spotery, though, has updated the infrastructure of the social relationships it’s built into its site, shifting from a “friend” framework to a “follow” one. “We realized that, with news, you don’t really have to be friends with the person; you just have to be interested in the stories that they’re spotting,” Elkayam says. Now, the site operates under a Twitter-like follow functionality — prioritizing one-way relationships among users versus two-way. “I can follow you,” Elkayam says; “you don’t have to follow me back.”

In other words, the shift in site functionality is a recognition that social news isn’t just about user interaction; it’s about user curation more generally. The old conventional wisdom — that people want to interact over the news — is slowly giving way to a broader assumption: that people simply want to share the news, in whatever form the “sharing” may take.

July 05 2010

08:40

#Tip of the day from Journalism.co.uk – human aggregation for your beat

Research: youedit.info is a useful aggregation service that groups links shared by its editors into topics. Promote yourself by becoming an editor of its journalism channel or follow another topic to find out what's being discussed on your beat. Tipster: Judith Townend. To submit a tip to Journalism.co.uk, use this link - we will pay a fiver for the best ones published.


June 16 2010

12:43

Can Financial Firms Use 'Hot News Doctrine' to Stifle Aggregators?

Traditional print newspapers and magazines are experiencing upheaval thanks to the rise of the Internet, but they are not the only information providers facing serious challenges. Even before the tumult created by the recent recession, major financial firms were struggling with the effects of competition from online financial news aggregation services aimed at investors. In some cases, these online services have obtained and disseminated the firms' most closely held, time-sensitive and valuable information product: The daily stock recommendations generated by their financial analysts.

The battles fought by several of those firms (Barclays Capital, Mogan Stanley and Merrill Lynch) are detailed in the recent federal district court ruling in Barclays Capital, Inc., v. Theflyonthewall.com (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 18, 2010). The firms won a big victory when federal judge Denise Cote, relying on the "hot news" misappropriation doctrine recognized under New York state law, issued an order limiting the republication of the firms' stock recommendations by the defendant, financial news aggregator theflyonthewall.com ("Fly").

Fly countered with a plea [PDF] to the the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit that the enforcement of the injunction would force it out of business. In a dramatic turn, on May 19 the appeals court granted a stay [PDF] of the injunction and a rare expedited appeal, calling for briefs to be filed by July 26.

This case about the hot news doctrine has now itself become "hot news."

The Hot News Doctrine

As previously written on MediaShift, the "hot news" misappropriation doctrine is a legal principle first recognized in the early twentieth century when the Associated Press news service sued a rival service for paying off AP employees to pass on early versions of stories that were intended for West Coast newspapers. The rival service rewrote the stories to avoid claims of copyright infringement, and then sold them to West Coast news outlets.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1918 in International News Service v. Associated Press, that the AP had a right in the news content that it gathered that was distinct from its rights under copyright law: "the peculiar value of news is in the spreading of it while it is fresh," the Court famously commented.

With a bow to the First Amendment, the Court distinguished an individual's right to disseminate information contained in a newspaper once published from a business competitor's act of appropriation of material that had been acquired through expenditure of labor, skill and money. The Court concluded that the AP could sue on the theory that the rival's conduct constituted "unfair competition in business." Although the ruling was later criticized and challenged, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reaffirmed its viability in 1997 in National Basketball Association v. Motorola, Inc., a case involving transmission of basketball scores.

The Barclays case is the first time that the Second Circuit has had an opportunity to consider the hot news doctrine in the context of the Internet age, which began picking up steam just after the ruling in NBA v. Motorola.

Current views on the viability of the hot news doctrine are mixed. The doctrine exists in tension with First Amendment values that protect the right to freely disseminate facts, and with the limits of copyright law, which do not extend to mere facts but only to the expression of facts. Nevertheless, the federalization of the hot news doctrine (which currently has been recognized only in a handful of states) has been proposed as a tool to support the efforts of traditional media to protect their content from online competition. That and other proposals to support traditional journalism made it into a recently released FTC Staff Discussion Draft [PDF] that summarized the discussions at the FTC workshops on the future of journalism.

The Value of Timely Financial Information

The Barclays opinion demonstrates the value of hot financial news, and the effects that unauthorized dissemination of that news can have on the financial firms that prepare and market it.

barclays_logo.gifAt issue in Barclays is the information contained in reports prepared by the financial firms for their largest and most lucrative customers and disseminated as "actionable recommendations" -- recommendations to buy, sell or hold a stock. As the district court explained, the firms' recommendations are not casually made; they are the product of the efforts of a large staff of analysts and related functionaries who acquire, sift and compile information on an ongoing basis, at great cost and expense.

The recommendations yield value for the financial firms primarily in the form of fees on the trades made by customers who frequently use the trading arm of the financial firm to make a trade on that recommendation. The value of the recommendations to the customers is the timeliness of the information: It is typically disseminated to them between midnight and 7 a.m., before the opening of the New York Stock Exchange. And it is significant as well that the reputation of the big firm analysts is such that their recommendations are themselves news and may move the market price of a stock significantly and in a very short period of time once widely known. Having those recommendations before market opening can provide the firms' clients with "an early informational advantage," as the court commented. The value of the recommendations derive not just from the quality of the information, but the "exclusivity and timeliness" of it.

To protect the value of this "informational advantage," the firms have implemented elaborate systems aimed at limiting access to the recommendations, including the use of password-protected proprietary Internet platforms, and licensing provisions that narrowly limit the right to disseminate the reports and forbid their redistribution to unauthorized parties. The district court described other technologies that are used to control access and dissemination, including blocking access to the firms' proprietary systems from certain websites and social networking platforms, and the use of personalized, encrypted URLs to deliver information to clients. (This makes it easier to track down the source of leaked reports.)

Despite these efforts, online financial news aggregators have been able to gain access to recommendations in advance of their public release. Fly, the district court found, was one of the first online financial news subscription services to engage in the practice of systematically obtaining and disseminating the actionable recommendations of traditional financial firms. Until the institution of the Barclays lawsuit in 2005, Fly's source of these recommendations was employees of the financial firms, who provided them despite the fact that they were not authorized to do so. After the litigation commenced, Fly changed its tactics; but it was still able frequently to obtain those recommendations, often from licensees of the information, and disseminate the recommendations to its subscribers before the financial markets' opening bell.

The Impact on Financial Firms

According to the district court opinion, the aggregators' activities have had an impact on the financial firms' business model and revenue generation, a finding critical to the analysis of one of the key elements of the hot news doctrine: Whether the "free riding" by Fly and the other online services on the financial firm's efforts in generating their actionable recommendations "would so reduce the incentive to produce the product or service that its existence or quality would be substantially threatened." This element of the hot news doctrine, the court found, implicates the public interest in protecting "socially valuable products or services in danger of being under-produced."

The court ruled resoundingly in the financial firms' favor on this point, crediting the firms' evidence that they had cut their analyst staff and budgets significantly because, in addition to other factors, the analysts' reports were no longer the driving force behind the generation of commission revenue to the extent that they had been previously.

"With clients able to review the Firms' recommendations and even research reports through other sources, the research department have been handicapped in their ability to argue for their historical share of the Firms' overall budgets," the court found, resulting in cuts of from 20 percent to half or more over the past decade.

The conduct of Fly and the other online news aggregators, the court concluded, threatens the ability of the firms' to monetize their research and continue to produce it. In evaluating the appropriateness of an injunction, the court further commented that this activity "is a valuable social good," and "plays a vital role in modern capital markets by helping to disclose information material to the market, to price stocks more fairly and, as a result, to produce a more efficient allocation of capital."

The Injunction

The injunction crafted by Judge Cote was carefully aimed at the time period that the financial firms identified as most critical to maintaining the value of its recommendations. Fly was enjoined from disseminating the firms' pre-opening recommendations in most cases before one-half hour after the opening of the New York Stock Exchange. The court also provided for a re-evaluation of the injunction after a one-year period, to determine whether the financial firms have taken action against other news aggregators. It would be inequitable, the court found, to enjoin Fly from publication of the firms' recommendations if the firms fail to take action against others engaged in the same conduct.

Conclusion

The result in Barclays v. Theflyonthewall.com is likely to be important not only for financial firms seeking to protect analysts' recommendations, but for general news outlets as well. A reaffirmation of the viability of the "hot news" doctrine by the Second Circuit could spur additional lawsuits and would probably bolster the position of advocates for enacting the doctrine on a nationwide basis. If the ruling is overturned, the legal avenues available to content owners seeking to protect their content from aggregation services will have been further narrowed.

Jeffrey D. Neuburger is a partner in the New York office of Proskauer Rose LLP, and co-chair of the Technology, Media and Communications Practice Group. His practice focuses on technology and media-related business transactions and counseling of clients in the utilization of new media. He is an adjunct professor at Fordham University School of Law teaching E-Commerce Law and the co-author of two books, "Doing Business on the Internet" and "Emerging Technologies and the Law." He also co-writes the New Media & Technology Law Blog.

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June 11 2010

15:51

June 10 2010

12:00

June 01 2010

17:00

Aggregators, curators, and indexers: There’s a difference, and it matters

Aggregation. Curation. Indexing. They’re all the same, aren’t they? Ask any serious online journalist or new media entrepreneur, and the answer will be quick and obvious: of course not! But in the public debate over the future of journalism — especially the debate as framed by legal analysts and public officials — the words often get thrown around as if they are identical. Ordinarily, such word quibbling would seem a little sad. But in the current context, where every aspect of journalism is up for grabs and concepts like “the hot news doctrine” are discussed in serious tones, words and definitions mean a great deal. So I thought it might be worth a little time thinking about what we mean by aggregation, by curation, and by indexing. In other words: if you’re an “aggregator,” what is it, exactly, that you do?

To get a sense of how I thought these terms were being increasingly lumped together, and some of the problems this might cause, I wanted to highlight the first couple paragraphs from the written materials distributed at the Online Media Legal Network’sJournalism’s Digital Transition,” which was a conference I attended at Harvard a few weeks ago. The conference, by the way, was great, and I don’t mean to pick on the OLMN. But I did think that the discussion of aggregation included in their CLE (Continuing Legal Education) materials really summed up the issues that I wanted to get at in this post. In the document “News Aggregation and Copyright Fair Use,” conference attendees read:

One of the hottest topics in copyright law these days is the rise of the news aggregator, from Google News to the Huffington Post … debate arises when third-parties get into the act [of] reselling and profiting from information generated by traditional media organizations.

Of course, building a business model around monetizing another’s website content isn’t novel, and methods for doing so have been around for almost as long as the Internet has been considered a viable commercial entity. Consider the practice of framing, or superimposing ads, onto linked websites … News aggregators, which take information from multiple websites and display it on a single page, providing a convenient one-stop resource for readers, are merely the latest flavor-of-the-week.

Though Google News may be the most well known commercial news aggregator, there are many others, such as the Huffington Post and Newser.com. Some use only headlines and links, others copy full (or nearly full) articles and photos. Nearly all receive ad revenue, many based on page views that, copyright owners allege, are being diverted from websites that originate the content.

Are Google News, Huffington Post, and Newser.com the same? How about the other online organizations traditionally tossed into the mix, such as Gawker? If you view the online news ecosystem as basically bifurcated into two categories — content originators and content reusers — than this view of the world might make sense. In the above model, the primary issue isn’t what these sites actually do all day, but the fact that they “receive ad revenue, many based on page views that, copyright owners allege, are being diverted from websites that originate the content.” And yet, as soon as you start to conceptually differentiate between Google News and the Huffington Post, it becomes clear that there’s a much more complex news ecosystem out there.

So what’s actually going on online? I thought it might be interesting to take one of our very own Lab posts, Mark Coddington’s all around smashing This Week in Review, and parse out how the ways that Mark engages in both what I’d call “aggregation” and “curation.” In essence, I think the upper sections of This Week in Review are fundamentally different from the bottom, concluding section, and the differences between the two sections point to different ways of doing online newswork.

The first dozen paragraphs of TWIR are usually broken down into three or four “hot topics” that are big in the future of journalism world that week. As Mark told me when I emailed him and asked him to explain his thinking behind This Week in Review, the upper sections

explore a discussion — a news development with commentary surrounding it, or ideas that spark responses and thus launch (or, usually, continue) a conversation. With those sections, I see myself as mapping out a discussion — explaining who’s on what side, what each person is saying and where that places them in relation to everyone else…If I see some substantive discourse coalescing around an article, that’s more likely to merit its own section because there are several connections I feel I need to explain (i.e. Person A said this, Person B responded with this, and Person C and D reminded both A and B of this and this).

Let’s take one recent TWIR as an example. The hot topics picked by Mark involved (1) the continuing controversy over Facebook, (2) a discussion of iPad apps, (3) New York Times and Wall Street Journal paywalls, and (4) finally, a good overview of recent pieces on new digital news experiments. I’d call this first, lengthiest section of the Week in Review “content aggregation and analysis.” In the old days I would have just called it “blogging.”

  • The topics Mark discusses in This Week in Review emerge from a deep immersion in the conversation about the future of journalism, and a lengthy period of active listening to what people are saying. I follow future-of-journalism news pretty closely, and I’ve almost never disagreed with Mark’s analysis about what the important topics of the week are. In short, I trust his judgment. But it’s a judgment that stems from deep, active engagement in the topic at hand.
  • The way Mark highlights the contours of the debate is through linking back to his original sources. The discussion of Facebook contains 17 links in four paragraphs.
  • Mark occasionally (but not often) weighs in on one of the debates, but he does it pretty subtly, and the bulk of This Week in Review is definitely taken up with summarizing and translating what others are saying.

The second part of TWIR — and it’s usually just a few paragraphs — is called “Reading Roundup.” I’d call this part of This Week in Review “curation,” and it strikes me as pretty different from the rest of the piece. It’s not as centered around debates, and the links tend to go to online content which is more “think-piecey.” In this section, Mark seems to be listening a little bit less, and exercising a bit more personal judgment. I hear him telling me: “Hey! You’ve followed the piece to the end, which tells me you really care about this issue. Since I think we share similar interests, you might like these pieces too!” Or as Mark put it when I quizzed him about the difference:

You’re right — there is a difference between the “reading roundup” and the rest of the weekly review posts…with the reading roundups, I’m merely pointing the reader toward an interesting link without substantively explaining its connection to the rest of the journalism-in-transition world. Essentially, the reading roundup is like me inviting you to a party, while the main sections are like me walking you through a room at that party, introducing you to people, explaining who’s who, and giving you a sense of who you might enjoy talking to.

Finally, compare both of these forms of writing to something like Google News, which uses complex algorithms to determine what the hot topics of the minute are, what counts as a spotlight story, and how to rank stories in order of originality and importance. If Google News looks like anything, it’s a phone book — or one of those yearly news indexes in the big green binders you used to encounter in libraries, just more up to date. There isn’t the same sense of “listening,” the process of judgment seems different, and most importantly, there isn’t the same kind of interstitial commentary surrounding the links. For me, what Google News and other sites do might productively be called “indexing.”

Because this blog post is already over 1,300 words, I’m not going to get into the question posed by Ken Doctor: Can’t we just call all this stuff “content arbitrage“? Maybe that’s the subject for another post, but the short answer is I don’t think you can. I think we need to begin to compare the new forms of journalistic work that exist online, not just to some imaginary ideal of “content creation” versus an evil “repurposing,” but to each other.

Ultimately, why does all this matter? Is there an ultimate upshot of all this linguistic parsing?

For me, the lesson is simple. Anytime you hear someone talk about Google News, The Huffington Post, Gawker, blogging, aggregating, curation, and indexing as if they are the same phenomenon, ignore them. And if they attach that discussion to a set of policy recommendations, without acknowledging the full complexity of what it is people actually do when they aggregate, curate, and index information — well, then you should put your fingers in your ears and run in the other direction.

May 19 2010

14:00

Huffington talks convergence, and “monetizeable free”

We wrote yesterday about The Washington Post taking a page from The Huffington Post in building blog networks on the content-for-exposure-not-cash model. But the borrowing isn’t all going in one direction. In this conversation with Texas Tribune boss Evan Smith, HuffPo founder Arianna Huffington says she sees a broader narrative of convergence, where “legacy media” (her term) and the startups are moving in similar directions. The Washington Post might be looking to leverage free content, but she’s hired reporters and launched a non-profit investigative unit — decisions that look more traditional than new.

Smith interviewed Huffington in honor of the political site’s fifth anniversary last week. The site recently hit 13 million monthly unique visitors, pushing it ahead of The Washington Post and USA Today and within shouting distance of The New York Times. Here’s what Huffington had to say about changes in media, particularly the difference between mainstream media and bloggers in the last five years:

Well, first of all, I think what’s happening now is more of a convergence. When we launched The Huffington Post, we were worlds apart. There was the legacy media that were very, very skeptical about blogging, or the future of online media. And there were the startups like The Huffington Post. Now The New York Times is doing a lot online. They’re doing a lot of great things online. And we are hiring more and more reporters. And we have launched The Huffington Post Investigative Fund, which is a not-for-profit operation that does many of the long-form, more traditional journalistic investigative pieces. So I think we’re moving toward a hybrid model, where those who recognize we are living in a brave new world — it’s about the link economy, it’s not about paywalls — are going to actually survive and thrive. And those of us who recognize that the traditional tenets of journalism — fairness, accuracy, fact checking — need to prevail and be supplemented by all the new technical tools and the new citizen engagement are also going to survive and thrive.

The Huffington Post has a clear interest in making sure the link economy thrives and paywalls aren’t erected. Aside from its countless bloggers, the biggest draw of her site is the aggregation the site’s editors do on each vertical, which have expanded from a single front page to more than 20.

Smith also quizzed Huffington on keeping HuffPo a free site. She was quick to point out that “the culture of free” is “monetizable free.” The site is expected to become profitable this year.

We are, as I said, paying all our reporters and all our editors. People who want to write, in the same way you would write an op-ed for The New York Times or The Washington Post, do it whenever they want. They are not our employees. They have no obligation to us. We have no expectations. It’s they who want to post, because they want to disseminate what they’re thinking. Whether it’s on politics or food, we have thousands of requests to post, thousands more than we have the opportunity and ability to process — beyond the 6,000 bloggers who have a password and can post whenever they want. And then our editors decide what they’re going to feature on the home section or the other sections…

We pay them in visibility. We pay them in that we provide the infrastructure, the community, the civil environment into which their work appears. The traffic. And then also the fact that many in the media have the site bookmarked means that they’re going to be seen, not just by many people, but many of the people they may want to reach to go on TV, to get a book contract. We love it. We all love it on the site when we get a call from an agent saying “Can you get us in touch with so-and-so blogger?” In many ways, it becomes like an addition platform.

May 18 2010

16:00

Mediagazer: From zero to big traffic driver in just two short months

Last week we were perusing our Google Analytics report here at the Lab and one data point stood out: A site barely two months old had inched into our top 10 referring sites for the previous month. Checking today, it’s up into our top five, passing up many more traditional traffic drivers.

The site is Mediagazer, the media-focused offshoot of the popular technology site Techmeme, and like its sibling it combines editors and an algorithm to gather the best stories on its subject from around the web. On Monday, Mediagazer debuted a feature called Leaderboard (it came first to Techmeme) which ranks news-about-news sources in terms of their prominence on Mediagazer. (We fare well on it, but I swear that’s not why we’re interested.)

I spoke with the site’s editor Megan McCarthy about how the site became a traffic-driver so quickly. McCarthy credits the site’s addictive quality: People arrive via the online equivalent of word of mouth, like social media, and once they’re there, a hefty (though undisclosed) percentage keep coming back. The site already has a core readership that checks in every day, McCarthy said. Mediagazer refreshes every five minutes, thanks to the algorithm searching the web for new content getting linked by other sites; meanwhile, McCarthy is trolling the web for links the algorithm might not have seen yet and prioritizing the ones it has. On a typical day, Mediagazer links to about 40 stories. (McCarthy would not disclose monthly traffic statistics.)

Mediagazer isn’t entering an empty space; from Romenesko to our own Twitter feed, there are plenty of people sorting through the media news of the day. Mediagazer’s scope is broader than, say, ours, including things like new TV lineups and media criticism we wouldn’t cover. Mediagazer joins the other sites run by Techmeme: political news at Memeorandum, celebrity gossip at WeSmirch, and baseball at BallBug, although those three sites are purely automated with no human intervention.

The site is also active on Twitter, sending out the links it posts, with the tweak of including the personal Twitter handle of the author who wrote the post, as you can see above. (The tweet attribution is automated, but requires a one-time setup process with the help of the human.) McCarthy said they want to let journalists know about Mediagazer — I certainly noticed the @ mentions showing up in my Twitter feed — and they want to give readers another opportunity to drill down into a subject area of interest.

“I want anyone who looks at the site to know, not only what’s going on [in the media industry], but what’s going to happen,” McCarthy said.

The combination of links, frequent updates, and obsessive readers seems to create the kind of place that active tweeters and bloggers would stop by. That target audience is clear in the kind of advertisements Mediagazer serves — they seem to be primarily from companies that provide software services to bloggers. It also probably explains why we’re seeing so many Mediagazer readers coming our way.

May 04 2010

16:00

Why does the BBC want to send its readers away? The value of linking

The BBC aims to double the number outbound clicks from its site by 2013. That’s double the number of people sent away from the BBC site — intentionally. In a recent BBC blog post, BBC News website editor Steve Herrmann cites a BBC strategy review document which lays out the goal of

Turning the site into a window on the web by providing at least one external link on every page and doubling monthly ‘click-throughs’ to external sites.

One external link per page will seem laughably low to any seasoned blogger, but intentionally increasing outbound traffic is positively radical for a mainstream newsroom. It’s a goal that might baffle proponents of the walled garden approach to web sites, or raise howls of protest among those who feel that aggregators are parasites, but Herrmann wrote that the BBC sees it as a service to its readers:

Related links matter: They are part of the value you add to your story — take them seriously and do them well; always provide the link to the source of your story when you can; if you mention or quote other publications, newspapers, websites — link to them.

This comes in the wake of £600 million in cuts to the BBC budget, about 15 percent of the huge organization’s spending. That includes a 25-percent cut to the BBC website’s budget, which will halve the number of top-level sections by 2013. The BBC has also delayed its iPad/iPhone news reading application in the U.K. after industry complaints that it is crowding private newsrooms out of the market. (American users can already use the iPad app.)

Is the BBC’s plan to increase external links an enlightened editorial policy, or is this just spin on a downsizing announcement? Are they aiming to provide a valuable curation service to their readers, have they been forced by regulators to reduce the scope of their work, or is this really a cash-strapped move towards a cheaper, aggregator-style news organization? I asked Herrmann to explain.

He told me by email that

The strategy envisages the BBC as a cultural and public space, one that isn’t trying to sell anything and can be trusted. It sets out the aim of building this broader public space by working with other public cultural organisations to share and promote a wider range of content.

So the principle for BBC Online, which covers news, weather, sport and programme content, is that it should be “a window on the web”, guiding audiences to the best of the internet as well as partnering with external providers — and that is why we want to increase the click-throughs.

Nonetheless, he acknowledged that competitive concerns played some role in the decision. “We do need to leave space for others,” he wrote.

The move is also about transparency. In an age where many source documents are available in electronic form online, there’s often little reason that readers shouldn’t have access to the same material that reporters use to write their stories. Yet the practice of showing your sources is still less then common among many news organizations. I asked Herrmann if the BBC had a specific policy on source linking.

This is something else I have raised in the blog. There should be a principle that we do link to the most relevant and useful information, including the source documents, wherever we can. That’s not something new — we’ve always had huge interest from users in the source documents we make available for government budget announcements, for example — but it is a restatement of the principle, and a signal of our intent to try to do this as well as we possibly can. Also, as I have started to discuss in the blog post, there is some devil in the detail — for example sometimes the source document isn’t online at time of writing, or it is behind a paywall, or requires subscription — so we are thinking these things through. I’m interested in trying to formulate and develop the best policy with the help of the detailed feedback we are getting from our users.

There is a lively discussion around the details of an ideal source linking policy in the comments to Herrmann’s post, especially as regards academic journals and other non-free sources. It’s also worth mentioning the DocumentCloud project, a serious attempt to build a journalistic document repository which solves some of these problems, such as keeping documents private before publication.

But does the courtesy of linking extend to your competition? “Do what you do best and link to the rest” has become a new-media maxim, but mainstream news organizations are still loathe to send readers to someone else’s reporting. So does the BBC intend to link more often to stories produced by other news sources?

Yes, news organisations and other sources. That is the focus of my recent blog post. We are in the process of working out what this means for our day-to-day working practices on the newsdesk, how to link more but also better. We’ve had links on stories since we started, and we have long had an automated module that pulls in related stories from other news sites, but how can technology help us to do this even better, and what does the journalist working on a story need to change in the way they approach what they do?

Aggregators flourish because users find them useful. The weekly link roundup and the top-ten list remain perennial blogging forms. And while every statement in news writing is supposed be attributed, in practice Wikipedia articles link to their sources far more reliably than news stories. The BBC may be on to something here.

April 15 2010

15:26

The Newsonomics of content arbitrage

[Each week, our friend Ken Doctor — author of Newsonomics and longtime watcher of the business side of digital news — writes about the economics of the news business for the Lab.]

We’re into a new age of digital news content. Every conceivable kind of company is starting to produce it and find homes for it. Smarter advertising strategies are matching up against the new content. Mix and match exploding content creation with ahead-of-the-curve ad targeting, and you’ve got a new math.

Presto: Content arbitrage. Forget “curators”; an accurate but museum-musty term for judgment. As news sites have branched out, bringing in community bloggers and sites, “hiring” top-end bloggers, we’ve come up with the genteel “curation,” a popular term at this week’s ASNE conference, a hot (well, warming) bed of such forward-reaching ideas.

So if want to move beyond “editors,” with its old-world connotations, to get at a reaching out, an aggregation of more content, what’s the proper word? Well, aggregator is technically correct, but it’s Terminator-like. News people don’t like to think of themselves copying the the first, big aggregators like Yahoo, Google, MSN and Huffington Post. (Each of which, not incidentally, sees great next-stage opportunity in content brokerage and are competitors to news companies in this area going forward.)

So let me suggest a title that fits what is going on, though it will make “editors” uneasy: “Content brokers.” I’m not suggested that anyone change a job title to “content broker,” but rather to recognize that’s a huge role going forward. (And even backwards, for us veteran features editors who understood that buying content from diverse syndicates, wires and freelancers was an essential part of the business.)

Let’s go to the newsonomics of content brokering.

Demand Media, fairly and not, has become the poster child of the content-and-ad arbitrage. It’s both been derided as an amoral, slave-wage content farm and marveled at for its absolute smarts about the value of content, and its creation. Just last week, Demand announced a deal to power a “Travel Tips” section for USAToday.com; earlier it had done a lower-profile deal with AJC.com, in Atlanta

It’s just one example of news companies starting to get it about content brokering. The principle is simple: Obtain the highest quality content you can (or at least sufficient to what the market of readers and advertisers demand) at the lowest possible cost. Then, make sure you can make a profit over each set of obtained content. We all understand the idea: Buy low, sell high.

Demand will pay, say, $35 for an article of new treatments for spring allergies, knowing how many pageviews its distribution networks can generate and what cost-per-thousand rates it can get. Maybe it makes $100 or $300 on that article. Maybe it makes a lot more. You can do lots more arithmetic here, with thousands of stories, higher-priced ones and even “free” user-gen ones. The principle, though, is the same.

Newspapers understand that principle. For decades, they employed large newsroom staffs, paid them what they had to, sold advertising, at expectable and rising rates, and took in margins of 20-percent-plus. That’s content-and-ad arbitrage, though it moved at glacial speed and seemed more like a constitutional principle than an evolving business, subject to change.

Now, the arbitrage business is moving at warp speed. Consider just a few of many brokerage initiatives:

  • The New York Times is “buying” content from the Chicago News Cooperative to power its local Chicago edition. It will soon do the same with the emerging Bay Citizen in California. The economics are key here: The Times can’t afford to add full-time staffers at $100k a pop; it can afford something less to get its standard of journalism from other sources.
  • Seattle is hosting the battle royale to aggregate local bloggers. The now-online-only Seattle P-I, led by Michelle Nicolosi, has been signing up bloggers for years, and hosts more than 200 of them, who use the P-I’s publishing system. Across town, Bob Payne, communities director of The Seattle Times, is working with 22 hyperlocal sites in the region. That’s a J-Lab-funded project, which the Miami Herald and Charlotte Observer are also trying. All the newspaper sites get more content, as blogs and bloggers get more notice and traffic.
  • Hearst recently signed up Bleacher Report to provide fan-generated sports content for its sites.
  • Demand’s growing list of competitors to provide brokered content to news companies (and others) includes Associated Content, Helium, Seed, and Examiner, although there are signal differences among them. Outside.In and FWIX both offer pointers to local content of interest and have done deals with news websites.
  • Poynter Institute is even putting a finer point of the business of getting cheaper content, hosting a “Stretching Your News Budget with User Content” seminar in May.

Some of this content brokering brings in community-oriented “user-gen.” Some of it brings in useful content in niche areas, like sports, travel, family, religion and much more. Some does both.

Is there a danger in content arbitrage? It’s value-neutral; it’s all in how you do it. Let’s remember that journalism is essentially a manufacturing process, with as much or as little value added as we want.

On a brand- and content-integrity level, it’s all in exercising good judgment — but against a much wider array of choices. On a business level, it’s making sure you are buying low and selling high. Ironically, many news companies are starting to bring in more content — mostly from local bloggers and sites — but few are seeing ad departments monetize it well. That’s buying cheaply, but if you don’t sell it, it’s not really much of a business advance. That should be temporary, if news publishers and editors take content brokering to heart.

Photo by Petra Sell used under a Creative Commons license.

April 01 2010

23:23

Magazines Require Innovation, Experiments in Digital and Print

Some magazine fans may feel like their favorite publications are dissolving into fragments of their former selves: fractured content distributed throughout the web, social media, digital editions and the surviving print versions.

But something unique to magazines does still hold at the center, and a new report on the future of magazines suggests that the future for both print and digital magazines will be strong.

The Innovations in Magazines 2010 World Report, prepared by Innovation Media Consulting in conjunction with the International Federation of the Periodical Press, was released March 1 and contains 100 pages of ideas gathered from around the world that could change the magazine industry.

Within the report are 30 short profiles of creative methods of making magazines fresh and new in an increasingly competitive media environment. The entire report can be purchased online in printed format for 100 euros or as a PDF for 75 euros.

For example, one chapter describes the integration of small video screens into the September 2009 print edition of Entertainment Weekly that played previews of CBS shows, engaging more of the reader's senses in a "hybrid" medium. Another chapter details how magazines have developed online games that entice readers to engage with their brands in new ways. National Geographic's game "Herod's Lost Tomb" alone has been downloaded 15 million times.

FIPP, a London-based industry organization whose 800-plus members represent over 6,000 magazine titles, co-sponsored the report with Innovation, whose international group of researchers gathered creative approaches to magazine content, advertising and sales being tested around the world. The report mimics a similar yearly publication on new ideas in the newspaper business that Innovation has been creating for the last 11 years.

Finding Magazines' Future

The co-editors of the report, Juan Señor and John Wilpers of Innovation Media Consulting, both come from traditional media backgrounds. Señor, a partner at Innovation, has worked for Wall Street Journal TV, CNBC Europe and the International Herald Tribune Television, and was nominated for an Emmy for his work as a reporter at PBS' NewsHour. Wilpers, who is a consultant for Innovation, worked for a variety of U.S. newspapers and most recently has consulted with newsrooms including The Christian Science Monitor and the Los Angeles Times on the integration of blogging into their content.

juan senor.jpg

Though the innovations contained in the report come from around the world, Señor notes that many "came from more innovative markets in Europe, London and New York -- not accidentally, but coincidentally, because a lot of titles are in trouble" in those places.

Señor and Wilpers together formed their researchers' collected ideas into a cohesive and provocative report on the remarkable variety of ways magazine publishers are experimenting with content, advertising and sales, both in digital and print forms.

"We asked publishers, what are you doing that other magazine publishers should know about? Really it was just doing the kind of research that a good reporter would do," says Wilpers, who had a group of 25 freelance researchers working with him on the project. The focus of the report, according to Wilpers, was "initially supposed to be digital innovations, but print still drives so much of our revenue that we wanted to include that."

Whether for digital or print, each innovation described in the report is individually fascinating. Perhaps more compelling, however, is the realization that taken together, these innovations will result in nothing less than the transformation of the magazine industry -- and of the concept of the magazine itself.

Magazine Experimentation

Both Señor and Wilpers were impressed by magazine professionals' willingness to experiment with new storytelling styles, platforms, formats and revenue streams.

"In the newspaper industry, for so long, we saw paralyzing fear," says Wilpers. "And so people, out of fear, did nothing. They hoped that things would get better by going away."

The magazine industry, though, has embraced digital formats and played with creative opportunities, without forgetting its print roots. "Digital is fun, it's exciting, it's sexy, and it's one of the many answers to publishing going forward. But print's going to be around for a while. We just need to figure out how to make it work," Wilpers says.

That isn't a clear-cut process. Today's magazine transformation will never be complete, and shouldn't be, says Señor.

"To be successful, you should be in a constant state of beta," explains Señor. "If you're not, it's very difficult to move things forward."

Aggregation and Curation

Magazines have experimented with both social media and user-generated content. Yet although magazines should engage with social media, Señor says, social media are "the platform, not the message."

"Very few people out there are producing quality stuff," he says. "For spot reporting, [social media are] fantastic, but still somebody has to quiet the noise and tell me what's happening. There's nothing like the role of a journalist to do the editing and selection for you."

Señor and Wilpers believe this editing and selecting process will increasingly be the role of magazines in the future.

John Wilpers headshot.JPG

"You'll see magazines like The Nation curating the best political content, even if they didn't write it," says Wilpers. He notes that a magazine's reputation for quality carries over to other content editors choose for readers, and that as magazine staffs shrink, editors can selectively draw upon a wide variety of skilled outside authors and curate the best of their work for the magazine's audience.

"There's such a blog fog out there, so many people producing rubbish," Señor says. "Just tell me what I should be listening to. Tell it to me with the independence and credibility of journalists. That's the importance of an editor as a curator."

The Magazine as 'Content Proposition'

As magazines differentiate their content for multiple platforms, include a variety of content from their staff and other external sources, and use creative new approaches to their content, there is still a center that holds to define magazines.

Señor argues that today's magazines each have their own "content propositions" that define their subjects and styles.

"The magazine doesn't become a paper product, but a brand of journalism," he says. "The magazine can still have a digital destination. It has a design. It has a masthead. It's a brand proposition as opposed to a platform proposition, but it's still doing a specific kind of storytelling."

Each magazine expresses its content proposition in its own unique way, across multiple media and even through different business models.

"Every publication will have a quiver of opportunities, and no two quivers will be the same," says Wilpers. "Everyone's going to have lots and lots of different tools."

Saving Paper

Paper can still be one of those tools. However, paper editions of magazines may no longer be a mass medium. Instead, they could become a special experience distinctive from what digital magazines provide.

Señor compares paper and digital editions to the levels of clothing in the fashion world. Today's digital magazine editions, he says, are like the expensive, rare, high-end haute couture offered by fashion designers to generate public interest in their brands. Print editions are like the cheap, widespread, lower-status prêt-à-porter clothing they offer for a mass market. However, this analogy, Señor says, is about to be reversed.

"[Print] circulation is definitely going to go down, but if you make the magazine a quality product on paper, a premium product, you can charge much more. I see easily charging $10 for the paper version," he says. "In time, the prêt-à-porter will become digital, and paper will become haute couture. But you have to make the paper experience have tremendous quality, not something you offer in other platforms."

As magazines innovate, then, it's not about leaving paper behind. It's about experimenting with the best ways to gather a defined, branded set of content and to distribute it in the most fitting platform. Though all these simultaneous innovations may feel to observers like fragmentation and weakness, it may be the case that some essential quality of magazines will help them survive and even flourish through their transformation.

Susan Currie Sivek, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Mass Communication and Journalism Department at California State University, Fresno. Her research focuses on magazines and media communities. She also blogs at sivekmedia.com, and is the magazine correspondent for MediaShift.

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March 26 2010

14:00

This Week in Review: Anonymous news comments, two big media law cases, and a health coverage critique

[Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week’s top stories about the future of news and the debates that grew up around them. —Josh]

Anonymity, community and commenting: We saw an unusually lively conversation over the weekend on an issue that virtually every news organization has dealt with over the past few years: anonymous comments. It started with the news that Peer News, a new Hawaii-based news organization edited by former Rocky Mountain News chief John Temple, would not allow comments. His rationale was that commenting anonymity fosters a lack of responsibility, which leads to “racism, hate and ugliness.”

That touched off a spirited Twitter debate between two former newspaper guys, Mathew Ingram (Globe and Mail, now with GigaOm) and Howard Owens (GateHouse, now runs The Batavian). Afterward, Ingram wrote a fair summary of the discussion — he was pro-anonymous comments, Owens was opposed — and elaborated on his position.

Essentially, Owens argued that it’s unethical for news sites (particularly community-based ones) to allow anonymous comments because “readers and participants have a fundamental right to know who is posting what.” And Ingram makes two main points in his blog post: That many online communities have anonymous comments and very healthy community, and that it’s virtually impossible to pin down someone’s real identity online, so pretty much all commenting online is anonymous anyway.

Several other folks chimed in with various ideas for news commenting. Steve Buttry, who’s working on a fledgling as-yet-unnamed Washington news site wondered whether news orgs could find ways to create two tiers of commenting — one for ID’d, the other for anonymous. Steve Yelvington, who dipped into Ingram and Owens’ debate, extolled the values of leadership, as opposed to management, in fostering great commenting community. The Cincinnati Enquirer’s Mandy Jenkins offered similar thoughts, saying that anonymity doesn’t matter nearly as much as an active, personable moderator.

J-prof and news futurist Jeff Jarvis and French journalist Bruno Boutot zoom out on the issue a bit, with Jarvis arguing that commenting is an insulting, inferior form of communication for news organizations to offer, and they should instead initiate more interactive, empowering communication earlier in the journalistic process. Boutot builds on that to say that newspapers need to invite readers into the process to build trust and survive, and outlines a limited place for anonymity in that goal. Finally, if you’re interested in going deeper down the rabbit hole of anonymous commenting, Jack Lail has an amazingly comprehensive list of links on the subject.

The iPad and magazines: The iPad will be officially released next Saturday, so expect to see the steady stream of articles and posts about it will or won’t save publishers and journalism to swell over the next couple of weeks. This week, a comScore survey found that 34 percent of their respondents would be likely to read newspapers or magazines if they owned an iPad — not nearly the percentage of people who said they’d browse the internet or check email with it, but actually more than I had expected. PaidContent takes a look at 15 magazines’ plans for adapting to tablets like the iPad, and The Wall Street Journal examines the tacks they’re taking with tablet advertising.

At least two people aren’t impressed with some of those proposals. Blogger and media critic Jason Fry says he expects many publishers to embrace a closed, controlled iPad format, which he argues is wearing thin because it doesn’t mesh well with the web. “With Web content, publishers aren’t going to be able to exercise the control that print gave them and they hope iPad will return to them,” he writes. And British j-prof Paul Bradshaw calls last week’s VIV Mag demo “lovely but pointless.” Meanwhile, Wired’s Steven Levy looks at whether the iPad or Google’s Chrome OS will be instrumental in shaping the future of computing.

Aggregation and media ownership in the courts: In the past week or so, we’ve seen developments in two relatively outside-the-spotlight court cases, both of which were good news for larger, traditional media outlets. First, a New York judge ruled that a web-based financial news site can’t report on the stock recommendations of analysts from major Wall Street firms until after each day’s opening bell. The Citizen Media Law Project’s Sam Bayard has a fantastic analysis of the case, explaining why the ruling is a blow to online news aggregators: It’s an affirmation of the “hot news” principle, which gives the reporting of certain facts similar protections to intellectual property, despite the fact that facts are in the public domain.

Meanwhile, the Lab’s C.W. Anderson analyzed the statements of several news orgs’ counsel at an FTC hearing earlier this month, finding in them a blueprint for how they plan to protect (or control) their content online. Some of those arguments include the hot news doctrine, as well as a concept of aggregation as an opt-in system. Both Anderson’s and Bayard’s pieces are lucid explanations of what’s sure to be a critical area of media law over the next couple of years.

And in another case, a federal appeals judge at least temporarily lifted the FCC’s cross-ownership ban that prevents media companies from owning a newspaper and TV station in the same outlet. Here’s the AP story on the ruling, and just in time, we got a great summary by Molly Kaplan of the New America Foundation of the “what” and “so what” of media concentration based on a Columbia University panel earlier this month.

Health care coverage taken to task: Health care reform, arguably the American news media’s biggest story of the past year, culminated this week with the passage of a reform bill. Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz was among the first to take a crack at a postmortem on the media’s performance on the story, chiding the press in a generally critical column for focusing too much (as usual) on the political and procedural aspects of health care reform, rather than the substance of the proposals. The news media produced enough data and analysis to satisfy policy junkies, Kurtz said, but “in the end, the subject may simply have been too dense for the media to fully digest…For a busy electrician who plugs in and out of the news, the jousting and the jargon may have seemed bewildering.”

Kurtz was sympathetic, though, to what he saw as the reasons for that failure: The story was complicated, long, bewildering, and at times tedious, and the press was driven by the constant need to produce new copy and fill airtime. Those excuses didn’t fly with C.W. Anderson, who contended that Kurtz “is basically admitting the press has no meaningful role in our democracy.” If the press can’t handle meaningful stuff like health care reform, he asked, what good is it? And Rex Hammock used Kurtz’s critique as an example of why we need another form of context-oriented journalism to complement the day-to-day grind of information.

Google pulls an end-around on China: This isn’t particularly journalism-related, so I won’t dwell on it much, but it’s huge news for the global web, so it deserves a quick summary. Google announced this week that it’s stopping its censorship of Chinese search by using its servers in nearby Hong Kong, and two days later, a Google exec also told Congress that the United States needs to take online censorship seriously elsewhere in the world, too.

The New York Times‘ and the Guardian’s interviews with Sergey Brin and James Fallows’ interview with David Drummond give us more insight into the details of the decision and Google’s rationale, and Mathew Ingram has a good backgrounder on Google-China relations. Not surprisingly, not everyone’s wowed by Google’s move: Search Engine Land’s Danny Sullivan says it’s curiously late for Google to start caring about Chinese censorship. Finally, China- and media-watcher Rebecca MacKinnon explains why the ball is now in China’s court.

Reading roundup: I’ve got a bunch of cool bits and pieces for you this week. We’ll try to run through them quickly.

— Jacob Weisberg, chairman of the Slate Group, gives a brief but illuminating interview with paidContent’s Staci Kramer that’s largely about, well, paid content. Weisberg explains why Slate’s early experiment with a paywall was a disaster, but says media outlets need to charge for mobile news, since that’s a charge not for content, but for a convenient form of delivery.

— Since we’ve highlighted the launch and open-sourcing of Google’s Living Stories, it’s only fair to note an obvious downside: Florida j-prof Mindy McAdams points out that it’s been a month since it was updated. Google has acknowledged that fact with a note, and Joey Baker notes that he guessed last month that Google was open-sourcing the project because the Washington Post and New York Times weren’t using it well.

— Like ships passing in the night: USC j-prof Robert Hernandez argues that for many young or minority communities in cities, their local paper isn’t just dying; it’s long been dead because it’s consciously ignored them. Meanwhile, Gawker’s Ravi Somaiya notes that with the rise of Twitter and Facebook, big-time blogging is becoming more fact-driven, professionally written and definitive — in other words, more like those dead and dying newspapers.

— Colin Schultz has some great tips for current and aspiring science journalists, though several of them are transferable to just about any form of journalism.

— Finally, I haven’t read it yet, but I’m willing to bet that this spring’s issue of Nieman Reports on visual journalism is chock full of great stuff. Photojournalism prof Ken Kobre gives you a few good places to start.

Mask photo by Thirteen of Clubs used under a Creative Commons license.

March 25 2010

15:00

The Barclays case: Will “hot news” limit the right to aggregate news?

[Sam Bayard, one of our friends down the street at the Citizen Media Law Project, has written the most detailed analysis I've seen of the Barclays v. TheFlyOnTheWall.com case. While focused on the work of financial analysts, the case could have serious impact on the ability of websites to aggregate and curate content. It also invokes the "hot news" doctrine that some news organizations have argued limits the kinds of linking other sites can do to their content. We're reprinting Sam's piece below; it's worth a read for anyone interested in how the new news ecosystem is evolving. —Josh]

In 2003, prolific legal scholar and 7th Circuit Judge Richard Posner published a law review article entitled "Misappropriation: A Dirge," which discussed — among other things — the continued viability of "hot news" misappropriation, a theory of unfair competition that dates back to the Supreme Court’s 1918 case, International News Service v. Associated Press, 248 U.S. 215 (1918), which involved unauthorized re-publication of wire service reports. Contrary to what Posner’s title might suggest, the article didn’t outright announce the death of the hot news doctrine, but it did paint a picture of a legal doctrine on the ropes — disdained by noted jurists, unwise as a matter of policy, and limited in practical significance. For better or worse, a decision issued last Thursday shows the doctrine to be very much alive and relevant. In fact, the case raises some disturbing prospects for news aggregation and sharing of information on the Internet more generally.

In Barclays Capital Inc. v. TheFlyOnTheWall.com, 06 Civ. 4908 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 18, 2010), Judge Denise Cote of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York issued a permanent injunction requiring the Internet-based financial news site FlyOnTheWall.com ("Fly") to delay its reporting of the stock recommendations of research analysts from three prominent Wall Street firms, Barclays Capital Inc., Merrill Lynch, and Morgan Stanley. The injunction requires Fly to wait until 10 a.m. E.S.T. before publishing the facts associated with analyst research released before the market opens, and to postpone publication for at least two hours for research issued after the opening bell.

The injunction is based on Judge Cote’s finding, after a bench trial, that Fly engaged in hot news misappropriation, "free-riding activity that is directly competitive with the Firms’ production of time-sensitive information, thereby substantially threatening their incentive to continue in the business." Barclays, slip op., at 87. Morgan Stanley and Barclays also succeeded on copyright infringement claims relating to Fly’s unauthorized copying and distribution of excerpts from their research reports for a few weeks in 2005, but the court awarded relatively minor damages on these claims and this doesn’t impact Fly’s current business practices, which no longer involve verbatim reproductions or close paraphrases of analyst research.

Background

Like other Wall Street firms, Barclays, Merrill Lynch, and Morgan Stanley produce analyst research reports on stocks. The firms distribute these reports for a fee to their clients, usually large institutional investors. The firms often release these reports before the NYSE opens for the day, and the reports contain recommendations (buy/sell/hold) that, according to the firms, often spur investors into making trades, usually through the firm that issued the report. As a result, the release of a report often has a significant impact on the market price for the stock in question.

The firms’ paying clients gain access to the reports through several means, including the firms’ password-protected websites, licensed third-party distributors like Bloomberg and Thomson Reuters (presumably also using some sort of password protection), and email messages. In addition, the firms host private conference calls or webcasts in which their analysts discuss their research reports and recommendations with clients. Access to these calls and webcasts is restricted to those with the required passcode or login.

The firms take various precautions to ensure that the reports go only to paying clients. For example, they forbid employees from sharing the reports, their licensing agreements purport to forbid the clients from redistributing the research content, and licensed distributors like Bloomberg and Reuters contractually agree to maintain a "firewall" so that their media arms can’t obtain information from their research arms.

Inevitably, though, the research reports and the recommendations contained in them leak out, and Fly pioneered the business model of publishing this information for its own clients on a newsfeed over the Internet. The model has caught on, and, according to the court, presently "there is a crowded marketplace with small internet companies and major news organizations reporting the Firms’ Recommendations before and after the market opens." Barclays, slip op. at 35.

According to Judge Cote’s opinion, it looks like Fly’s operations have changed significantly over the last few years, largely in response to the firms’ lawsuit. Before 2005, Fly relied primarily on employees at the firms who emailed research reports to Fly after they were released to clients (this was pretty clearly a violation of the employees’ duties of loyalty and confidentiality to the firms). At that time, Fly staff would type the recommendation as a headline, sometimes accompanied by a verbatim reproduction or close paraphrase of a passage from the report explaining the basis for the recommendation. Id. at 32. Hence the copyright claims for Fly’s conduct in 2005.

As a result of the lawsuit, however, Fly apparently changed its information-gathering process. According to testimony from Ron Etergino, Fly’s president and majority owner, he "no longer feels free to look at the research reports, even if someone should send them to him," id. at 33, and he now gathers information about the firms’ reports from other sources:

According to Etergino, he checks first to see what Recommendations have been reported on Bloomberg Market News. Then he checks Dow Jones, Thomson Reuters, and Fly’s competitors such as TTN, StreetAcount.com, and Briefing.com. Next, he visits chat rooms to which he has been invited to participate by the moderator. . . . Etergino also receives "blast IMs" through the Bloomberg, Thomson Reuters, or IMTrader messaging services that may go to dozens or hundreds of individuals. Finally, Etergino exchanges IMs, emails, and more rarely telephone calls with individual traders at hedge funds, money managers, and other contacts on Wall Street.

Id. at 34. In other words, Fly acquires information about the reports through a process that looks a whole lot like good-old fashioned journalism. And it largely relies on information that is publicly available through mainstream and Internet media reports, IM blasts, and what appear to be open chat rooms. The result is a headline like this: "EQIX: Equinox initiated with a Buy at FofA/Merrill. Target $110." Id. at 27.

Hot News and Copyright Law

As noted, the main dispute in the Barclays case was not about verbatim copying, but about Fly publishing time-sensitive facts from the firms’ research reports — essentially, the buy/sell recommendations. Facts are not protected by copyright law. Feist Publ’ns, Inc. v. Rural Telephone Service Co., Inc., 499 U.S. 340, 345 (1991). While the firms’ recommendations aren’t exactly facts in the same way as "hard news," the firms appeared to concede that they couldn’t stop Fly’s current reporting practices through resort to copyright law. Enter the hot news misappropriation doctrine, which is controversial precisely because it provides IP-like protection to facts despite copyright law’s bedrock policy that facts are in the public domain.

In International News Service v. Associated Press, 248 U.S. 215 (1918), the Supreme Court created the hot news misappropriation doctrine as a matter of federal common law, and some state courts, like those in New York, adopted it as part of state unfair competition law. The INS case arose after British and French censors barred INS from sending war dispatches to the United States because Hearst had offended the British and French by siding with Germany at the outset of WWI. See Posner, at 627. INS employees got around this problem by paraphrasing AP dispatches published in east coast newspapers and sending them by telegraph to the west coast for publication in Hearst newspapers. See INS, 248 U.S. at 231-32 (at issue was INS’ practice of "copying news from bulletin boards and from early editions of complainant’s newspapers and selling this, either bodily or after rewriting it, to defendant’s customers"); id. at 259-60 (Brandeis, J., dissenting) ("The means by which the International News Service obtains news gathered by the Associated Press is also clearly unobjectionable. It is taken from papers bought in the open market or from bulletins publicly posted.").

The INS Court acknowledged that AP had no copyright claim because it had failed to register and/or place notice on its news reports (no longer a requirement under U.S. copyright law), and because copyright law did not extend to the facts in the reports. But, the Court nonetheless enjoined INS from using AP’s news reports in direct competition with the news service, finding that the INS’s free riding "speaks for itself and a court of equity ought not to hesitate long in characterizing it as unfair competition in business." Id. at 240. Justices Holmes and Brandeis wrote powerful dissents, decrying the majority’s opinion as unprecedented, unnecessary, and unwise.

The main policy justification advanced by the majority, which remains the motivating principle behind hot news doctrine today, is that protecting hot-news-type information is necessary to preserve the incentives that drive economic actors to make the substantial investment required to produce a socially valuable product or service in the first place. Posner characterizes this policy impulse as protecting against the danger of "killing the goose that laid the golden eggs." Posner, at 628.

In the Barclays case, the idea is that Wall Street research reports are a social good — they help disseminate information important to the proper functioning of the securities markets that otherwise would not be produced. This may be a disputable proposition, but it’s one the court accepted. And, the theory goes, Wall Street firms like Barclays and Merrill Lynch won’t go to the expense of producing these socially valuable reports if companies like Fly can free ride off of them and undermine the money-making potential of the practice. Again, it’s disputable whether Fly’s conduct rather than other economic factors (like international economic meltdown) has hurt demand for the firms’ reports, but Judge Cote found as a matter of fact that Fly’s activities did create a substantial disincentive.

I’ll leave to the economists the question of whether or not all this is wise economic policy. But from a legal perspective, the hot news doctrine creates an obvious tension with copyright law because, as noted above, it creates a pseudo property right in facts that copyright law says are in the public domain. This raises the specter of preemption: that is, a situation where federal law displaces inconsistent state law under the Supremacy Clause. Judge Cote’s opinion in Barclays does a very thorough job on this issue and determines — rightly, in my view — that federal copyright law does not preempt hot news misappropriation, or at least a narrow version of it. This result was a foregone conclusion for Judge Cote because the Second Circuit Court of Appeals had already said as much in National Basketball Association v. Motorola, Inc., 105 F.3d 841 (2d Cir. 1997), which is controlling precedent in the Southern District of New York.

Under NBA, the narrow version of hot news misappropriation that survives copyright preemption has the following elements:

(i) a plaintiff generates or gathers information at a cost; (ii) the information is time-sensitive; (iii) a defendant’s use of the information constitutes free riding on the plaintiff’s efforts; (iv) the defendant is in direct competition with a product or service offered by the plaintiffs; and (v) the ability of other parties to free-ride on the efforts of the plaintiff or others would so reduce the incentive to produce the product or service that its existence or quality would be substantially threatened.

Barclays, slip op. at 55 (quoting NBA, 105 F.3d at 845). Posner says that the "meat" of the test is in element (v), with (i) through (iv) describing a situation where (v) is likely to be satisfied. Posner, at 632. Therefore, "[t]he criterion appears to mean that states can protect fact gathering without running afoul of the preemption provision in the federal copyright statute only when unauthorized copying of the facts is likely to deter the plaintiff or others similarly situated from gathering and disseminating the facts that the defendant has copied." Id. The test is "alarmingly fuzzy once the extreme position of creating a legal right against all free riding is rejected, as it must be." Id. at 638.

In other words, hot news doctrine presents an inherently subjective and necessarily fact-specific standard, and one would expect courts to be cautious in finding it met, if for no other reason than to avoid the potential conflict with copyright law and to promote the public’s access to information. In Barclays, the firms convinced Judge Cote at trial that each element was satisfied, showing that, while it may take a unique set of facts, it’s not an impossible task.

What About the First Amendment?

Notably lacking from Judge Cote’s very thorough opinion is any discussion of how hot news misappropriation interacts with the First Amendment. This could be because Fly didn’t argue the point, at least not directly. While this post suggests that Fly’s lawyers "played the free speech card," it is hard for me to believe that Judge Cote would fail to address such an important argument if it were raised directly in the briefs. We have a student looking through the documents on PACER, which are pretty extensive, but so far we haven’t turned up any direct invocation of the First Amendment, except for an affirmative defense in the answer. As we’ll see below, though, Fly undoubtedly raised factual arguments that bear on the question.

The First Amendment issue is an important one because the Supreme Court didn’t address it in INS. Justice Brandeis’s dissent gives us a First Amendment tingle in his famous statement, "[t]he general rule of law is, that the noblest of human productions — knowledge, truths ascertained, conceptions, and ideas — become, after voluntary communication to others, free as the air to common use," 248 U.S. at 250 (Brandeis, J., dissenting), but even he didn’t seem to appreciate the constitutional implications of the case. It’s also an important question because First Amendment doctrine has developed considerably since 1918, and free speech concerns of which the Justices had only a vague inkling now have become an accepted part of the constitutional landscape.

The First Amendment issue raised by the case is one I’ve addressed before. A long line of Supreme Court cases hold that the First Amendment protects truthful speech on matters of public concern. See, e.g., Bartnicki v. Vopper, 532 U.S. 514, 527-28, 533-35 (2001) (First Amendment barred imposition of civil damages under wiretapping law for publishing contents of conversation relevant to matter of public concern); Florida Star v. B.J.F., 491 U.S. 524, 534 (1989) (First Amendment barred imposition of civil damages on newspaper for publishing rape victim’s name); Smith v. Daily Mail Publ’g Co., 443 U.S. 97, 103-06 (1979) (First Amendment barred prosecution under state statute for publishing names of juvenile offenders without permission of court); Landmark Communications, Inc. v. Virginia, 435 U.S. 829, 841-42 (1978) (First Amendment barred criminal prosecution for disclosing information from a confidential judicial discipline proceeding). Therefore, “if a newspaper lawfully obtains truthful information about a matter of public significance then state officials may not constitutionally punish publication of the information, absent a need to further a state interest of the highest order.” Smith, 443 U.S. at 103; accord Bartnicki, 532 U.S. at 527-28.

In Bartnicki v. Vopper, members of a teachers union sued a radio announcer under state and federal wiretapping laws after he played an unlawfully recorded telephone conversation on the air. The radio show host had received the recording from a third party who himself had received the tape in the mail from an anonymous source. The Supreme Court held that the First Amendment prohibited the recovery of damages against the radio show host for publishing the tape, explaining that “a stranger’s illegal conduct does not suffice to remove the First Amendment shield from speech about a matter of public concern.” Id. at 535. The constitutional principle in Bartnicki and other Supreme Court cases is not limited to traditional forms of media like newspapers and radio broadcasters. See Mary T. Jean v. Massachusetts State Police, 492 F.3d 24 (1st Cir. 2007) (First Amendment barred criminal prosecution for posting illegally recorded video online when recording made by third party, even if knowing receipt of the recording constituted a crime under Massachusetts law).

In Barclays, Judge Cote considered it unimportant that Fly obtained the information it published from other news services that were publishing the firms’ recommendations on the Internet in advance of Fly’s own publication. The court said that "the conduct of third parties is simply of no moment in finding Fly liable for hot-news misappropriation," and "it is not a defense to misappropriation that a Recommendation is already in the public domain by the time Fly reports it." Barclay, slip op. at 61. This may be a faithful application of the INS case itself — recall that INS involved taking facts from publicly available bulletin boards and published newspaper accounts — but INS never considered the First Amendment, so it can’t resolve the issue.

Under Bartnicki and the cases mentioned above, if Fly obtained the information in question through lawful means, then the First Amendment protects its right to publish that information. There is nothing inherently unlawful about Fly reading about a stock recommendation on a newsfeed provided by another news service or participating in a public chat room where Wall Street "rumors" are discussed (accessing a passcode-protected conference call would be another matter). The court says that Fly has engaged in "illegal conduct" by publishing the information it did, Barclays, slip op. at 61, but this label begs the question — that is, whether the state may constitutionally penalize publication of truthful information relating to a matter of public concern that was not obtained in violation of any other applicable laws.

To be sure, the person who originally leaks a firm research report to a news service or chat room participant may violate a legal duty owed to one of the firms, but "a stranger’s illegal conduct" is not sufficient to remove First Amendment protection under Bartnicki. The question is closer for Fly’s pre-lawsuit-era publication of reports received directly from firm employees who violated a duty of loyalty and confidentiality. It might be independently "unlawful" in the constitutional sense to knowingly induce a breach of these duties, but even in the trade secrets sphere this question has not been resolved with any clarity. Furthermore, I’m not aware on anything that would make it "unlawful" for Fly to communicate by email or telephone with firm clients who are willing to convey the substance of the recommendations, though this probably violates the client’s license agreement. Regrettably, the court did not differentiate between Fly’s different information-gathering tactics, and it enjoined publication of information obtained through at least some practices that clearly aren’t "unlawful" in any meaningful sense.

The court might well respond to all this by arguing that the firms’ reports are not facts related to a matter of public concern like ordinary news, but rather "subjective judgments based on complex and imperfect evidence." Id. at 78. There may well be a constitutionally significant distinction between reporting the subjective recommendations generated by these Wall Street firms and objective, external facts that are discovered "out there" in the world. On the other hand, these subjective judgments have objective, real-world consequences, and the announcement of a recommendation is itself a newsworthy event because it may cause a change in a stock’s price. It strikes me as difficult, and potentially hazardous, to try to distinguish between reporting the "subjective" recommendations versus reporting the "objective" fact that they were made, especially when the publication in question looks like this: "EQIX: Equinox initiated with a Buy at FofA/Merrill. Target $110."

The court may have ameliorated some of the First Amendment concerns by clarifying that the scope of its injunction, like the scope of hot news misappropriation, is narrow:

[T]o the extent Fly alters its business and begins to engage in actual analysis of market movements, and refers on occasion after the market opens in New York to one of the Firms’ Recommendations in the context of independent analytical reporting on a significant market movement that has already occurred that same day, such conduct will not run afoul of the injunction.

Id. at 87-88. But, this description of speech activity (the court doesn’t frame it in terms of speech) that won’t be enjoined displays an obvious preference for original/sweat of the brow/"analytical" content-creation over the free transmission of facts and information, which is a lot of what happens on the Internet. This is a preference that hot news doctrine’s anti-free-riding purpose surely calls for, but I don’t believe the First Amendment shares this ideal. (Copyright sure doesn’t. See Feist, 499 U.S. at 359-60.) As I’ll touch on more below, the court’s logic here also has foreboding connotations for news aggregators and others who supposedly "free ride" by transmitting information to others over the Internet without engaging in "independent analytical reporting."

News Aggregators, Bloggers, and the Like

The $75,000 question is what the Barclays case means for other online news aggregators, as well as social media more generally. Will the major newspapers be able to use this case to revive a robust hot news misappropriation doctrine that will kill the news aggregators and lock down facts on the Internet? I have no doubt that AP lawyers are smiling to themselves this week, but I don’t think this decision spells doom for the Internet as we know it.

The bad news for aggregators, bloggers, and those who like to share news is that this is a detailed, thoroughly reasoned (with the First Amendment exception noted above) decision from a respected judge in one of the most prestigious federal district courts in the nation. And, the decision is the product of a full-blown trial, giving it a concreteness and specificity that other, Internet-related hot news decisions, like Associated Press v. All Headline News, 608 F. Supp. 2d 454, 458-61 (S.D.N.Y. 2009), lack. This will give the decision credibility and make it useful in the hands of future judges looking for direction.

Worse, there are moments when reading the opinion where one feels like Judge Cote might as well be talking about news aggregators or bloggers free riding on "original reporting" instead of equity research. The court’s concept of free riding (element iii of the NBA test) certainly sounds like it would apply to news aggregation or acts of curation more generally:

To the extent that Fly adds value through its collection and aggregation of information, however, the value reflected in that act of aggregation does not controvert the fact that Fly expends no effort to produce the Recommendations and does not contribute to the underlying research and analysis process.

Barclays, slip op. at 60. It’s not a huge logical jump to say that all news aggregators are "free-riding" because they "expend no effort" to produce original reporting, and therefore "do not contribute to the underlying [journalistic] process." But this logic vastly understates the social benefit contributed by news aggregators, as well as bloggers who curate and comment on the news without expending effort to create it, and it automatically tilts the scales in favor of content producers at the expense of informational services and commentary, without any real justification.

Also potentially troubling is the court’s willingness to attribute the firms’ disincentive to produce equity research to Fly’s online activities as opposed to global financial meltdown, a willingness we can only hope won’t be reproduced when it comes to evaluating the alleged contribution of news aggregators and social media to newspapers’ current financial plight. Courts need to take a very close look at what is causing newspapers to suffer hard times; increased competition and loss of monopoly advertising rents explain a lot more than headlines and ledes with a link back, but that’s a topic for another day.

In any event, on the all-important fifth element (killing the golden goose), the Barclays case is easily distinguishable because the firms made a good (if not bullet-proof) case that production of high-quality equity research implicates a special need for time-sensitive exclusivity so that firm clients can feel they uniquely benefit from the recommendations and so that these clients can place trades with the firms based on them. Most regular news doesn’t share this rivalrous character, and it may be extremely difficult for newspapers to show that news aggregation or blog commentary ultimately hurts their bottom lines.

As for blogs, Twitter, and other types of social media, Barclays is further distinguishable because of the direct and obvious competition between Fly and the firms, which will be lacking in all but the most unusual cases. When it comes to Google News, which may be a real competitor, the ability of news organizations to opt out using robots.txt makes it extremely difficult to argue that Google is free riding, much less that it is destroying all incentive to engage in original reporting.

Finally, I suspect that the move from the financial sector to the general news sector will brighten and clarify the First Amendment issue discussed above, making it harder for courts to ignore that hot news doctrine plainly contemplates restricting the publication of truthful information on matters of public concern, regardless of how that information is required.

March 22 2010

14:00

March 19 2010

13:45

March 16 2010

16:00

Jeff Israely: Transatlantic nightblogging, the hunt for a partner, and other startup lessons

[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 first installment here. —Josh]

I am running late. My prototype should have been live and locked on its URL by now. March was supposed to be the month I began meeting with potential partners and investors, refining the project’s design and business model, and going public with the name and exact nature of the website. But the past four weeks have decidedly not brought me from my planned Point A to Point B. It has also been an incredibly busy and potentially very fruitful phase for my project. Credit and blame can both be pinned on that rock’n'roll tech startup concept: iteration.

I don’t think I’d ever said out the I-word out loud in my life before six months ago, though any hack worth his salt and barstool is used to iterating on a regular basis. It happens when you’re just about to wrap your daily story, and a big break in the news suddenly arrives; or when your month-long in-depth piece is just coming together, and the big interview you’d long since given up on finally comes through. In such a moment, a major reset is in order on something that had been going perfectly well, thank you very much. And so you curse through the hard work of integrating/revamping the best of the old with the fresher (better) material. In the end, however, the kick-ass hack is always thankful because she knows her article will necessarily be much richer in its new, updated form. And responding to events is, after all, a big part of what this nutty job is about.

As a first-time (would-be?) entrepreneur, iterating doesn’t come quite so naturally. That create-destroy-repeat ethos suddenly feels radical, a well-executed pivot being always harder to pull off when you’re still getting your bearings. With that said, you’d have to be more than a bit dim not to see that the lightning pace of change in media and technology right now means that the only straight line from Point A to Point B is where B is failure.

The iterating for me lately has mostly been around the question of audience, both how to identify it and how to grow it. Let’s start with the latter.

Building an audience and the birth of a one-man news bundler

I’m still finding my tweetin’ voice, but we MSM folk are starting to grasp what the real-time feed may mean for the news business. Based in Europe, and with most of my followed-and-followers in the U.S., I’d started to see how my geography and language skills position me to get some breaking news into the Twitter stream ahead of the crowd. Still, I’d been content to treat it like an ongoing mini-exercise in improving my speed and range and eye for news that would be useful when launch time arrived.

Yet, there I was one morning last month about to retweet some bit of French burqua-ban news when another interesting story popped up from Germany, and I thought: Hmmm? Let me try to squeeze these two world news items together into one tweet. But with 140 characters to work with…well, good luck. So I put the two links aside into a Word document. And then it hit me: Why not expand the two links into five…and bundle them into a “Top Headlines From Jeff” post? I could post it on my blog, and link to it once a day. But then it hit me again: If timing is everything, that’s doubly true on the real-time web, which is bound to create new niches in the ways and whens of how we consume information. With my time-zone advantage and news biz experience, I could bundle and deliver a story list early, like at 7 a.m. Eastern, composed solely of news that has broken since 11 p.m. Like Slatest, but more time-specific, and aimed specifically at helping to sort through the endless stream of news flashes coming across your Facebook and Twitter feeds. I would take the established practice of aggregating from everywhere, and combine it with what seemed the novelty of a bundled selection of the news that has broken since Americans logged off last night. Exactly three weeks old, this has become whileUslept.

Unfortunately, coming up with an idea — half or fully baked — is no more than one-third of the battle in building an audience. You gotta get it to them, spread the word, go viral…and keep it going. I began posting the daily link on my own personal accounts, and in the last few days set up While U Slept pages of their own on Twitter and Facebook. It definitely did not catch on like wildfire. After two weeks, I had exactly three email subscribers, and a best-day grand total of a whopping 56 pageviews. (The daily average was 23.) Still, the webbiness of the web means that you are potentially always just one Link or Recommendation or Follow away from exponential growth. A private boost from one new-media guru, and then a retweet from another with the word “useful,” and my daily hit count suddenly spiked to 400-plus. Then a couple days later, it topped 600 after a link from a former colleague who has since transformed himself into the epitome of the 2.0 one-man news brand.

At such peaks, you sit there watching the views come in and start to dream that you too can build an audience all by yer lonesome? But the numbers that really count are still a long ways off from major mojo: 38 Twitter followers, 109 Facebook fans, 16 email subscribers. Perhaps I will need to hop on the shoulders of a major website? Iterate the iteration, making whileUslept richer and/or feed it at multiple points in the day. It will have to grow (and sustain) exponentially if I want to reach the kind of audience that actually helps me both pitch and execute the bigger project I am aiming for. Still, what started as an exercise on Twitter to prep myself for the big launch has actually become the beginning of the soft launch itself.

Perhaps just as important is the fact that some new ideas are flowing into my old media brain. This one I will dub the Baby Moses approach to aggregate realtime news: bundle the best content and drop it in the moving river of information at the right time and place.

The crowd and the core audience

The immediate collateral damage of this mini-project are the brakes it’s put on short-term progress of the Big Project. While I have essentially begun the “link to the rest” half of the famous Jarvis formula, I’m no closer than I was a month ago to actually establishing the “what you do best” part. And what will I do? Here too there is iteration to report. Without going into details — both because I still prefer to speak here in general terms about the product, and because the details of the new feature simply don’t yet exist — I will just describe it as crowd-source related. Though I do not plan on changing the entire product around this idea, as this very smart fellow startup dude vigorously suggested, I still think there is much room to integrate it in a way that could give the project some extra watts of glow in the eyes of potential investors. Crowdsourcing addresses two key questions that arise at different stages of the startup: identifying our core audience at launch, and giving the enterprise a vision of how to scale it up.

But before that, all this iterating risks sapping some of the vital big ‘mo from the Big Project. On the prototype (which I keep saying is just a week or two away), we are now rejiggering all the current pages and adding a brand new page or two. Meanwhile, the business plan will have to be overhauled. Completely. Again. Blessed be the iterationists, I and I: In creation where one’s nature neither honors nor forgives.

Looking for Mr. Right

All of this upheaval is further reminder that what I am missing most right now: more than audience, more than money: a partner. He or she would have the tech and business background that I lack, while having a natural interest in the news business. Last week, through a mutual friend in Paris, I set up a rendezvous with Mister X, whose resume features all what I am missing and more. But looking for a partner truly is like dating: “On paper” means nothing. We met at the Mabillon Metro stop in the Latin Quarter and found a nice café to chat over a beer. Though it was a relaxed conversation, a back and forth, I was also effectively pitching him my project as best I could. Talking to a potential partner is different than pitching other people. It starts out much more casually. But you are all too aware that if it goes well, really well, the project becomes his as much as mine. So in some ways, you must actually tread a bit more lightly on your first encounter. He needs to like me as much as my project.

As with the search for a life partner, timing is key. In this case, I am single, and looking, but I couldn’t know for sure what his status was. A couple of times in the past few months, I’d met people who might have fit the partner profile, who had the right skill set, and even interest in the project, but simply were not at a place in their life/work to commit to me. Though Mister X seemed to react positively to the project, and explained that he was finishing up a master’s degree this spring, he wasn’t giving any indication of his plans for the future. And then, about 40 minutes in, I finally said: “I don’t know if you might be interested…??”

He paused about two seconds, and said: “Hey, so long as I can be running a business, I’m open to anything.” My heart skipped a beat. Later, as we walked toward the metro, and I told him I’d send him all the working docs, we even talked for a moment about what the first steps together might actually look like. Then we shook hands, and said we’d be in touch when he got back from a long planned two-week hiking trip to Morocco. Perhaps for my next update here, I will have something (good) to report from our second date…

06:51
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