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October 13 2010

17:30

Revamped Forbes Pushes Advertorials, Social Media, Conflict

Earlier this year Kevin Gentzel, the chief revenue officer of Forbes, took a look at what the chief marketing officers in the Forbes CMO Network were doing with their companies. He realized they were becoming content creators -- and that this had big implications for his magazine and other traditional media.

Gentzel said this underscored the massive shift that was taking place in media and publishing.

"It was almost a monologue that existed in media up until five or six years ago," Gentzel said. Now, after helping make some major changes at Forbes, he says his organization is "embracing that and not running from it."

Gentzel said his realization led him and his Forbes colleagues to start paying close attention to True/Slant, a website Forbes alum Lewis DVorkin started that featured "entrepreneurial journalism," in which writers received part of the ad revenue their pages produced. It also offered a product called "AdSlant," which offered marketers a paid blogging platform.

In a much talked about purchase, Forbes bought out True/Slant earlier this year. DVorkin, whose journalistic pedigree includes the Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, the New York Times, AOL and TMZ, re-joined Forbes as chief product officer, responsible for all editorial areas of the company including the print publications and Forbes.com.

Advoice Crossing the Line?

Now Forbes has an offering called Advoice, which, like AdSlant, offers paid blog space to advertisers. "In this case the marketer or advertiser is part of the Forbes environment, the news environment," DVorkin told Ad Age. "Marketers need to reach the audience. This is where publishing is headed."

Some marketers praised the idea, but many journalists did not. Mathew Ingram of GigaOm questioned whether Forbes was selling its journalistic soul.

Advertorials -- special advertising sections in print publications that evoke an editorial tone and design -- remain a source of controversy, said Rick Edmonds, the Poynter Institute's media business analyst and leader of news transformation. Reporters, he said, don't want readers to confuse objective reporting with advertising.

"As a reader of [Forbes.com] I would have a reasonable comfort level if it's labeled as advertising but not so much if it isn't," he said. He also noted that many blogs and websites currently fail to disclose when content is sponsored or produced in exchange for free products.

Gentzel said advertisers will hold no sway over Forbes' writers. And if the Advoice bloggers need coaching or help, assistance would come from the business, not editorial, side.

"We are not out to ever try to confuse a reader or user," Gentzel said. "It's the exact opposite of that. This will only work -- and will work -- by the clear and transparent labeling of the voices. The last thing we'd ever do is confuse a reader about what they're reading."

lewis-dvorkin.jpgDVorkin has written that Forbes wants to provide opportunities for the voices of content creators, the audience and marketers to all engage in print and online.

"The bold steps that Forbes is taking to evolve its products will help lead journalism to its future," he wrote. "Our goal is clear: to put news and the journalist at the center of social media. If we can accomplish that, we will go a long way to providing our audiences with the information they want -- and enabling the three vital voices of the media business to be active participants in the larger conversation."

Gentzel said that while there's no firm launch date, the "larger conversation" could start very soon.

"As a content creator who's listening to marketing partners, we think marketing partners can provide amazing expertise to our readers and users," Gentzel said.

Tempest Over Obama Critique

At the same time Forbes is pursuing its new Advoice product and strategy, it's also investing heavily in social media. DVorkin has said this is part of a process of "opening up" Forbes.

Active Twitter accounts include @forbes, @ForbesWoman, @ForbesLife and @ForbesAsia. Reporters and editors regularly interact with readers online. In August Forbes.com launched new blogs written by both staffers and outside contributors. (Disclosure: I offered to become a blogger for Forbes and sometimes pitch stories about clients to Forbes.) In September, a new web platform for the Forbes 400 debuted, letting readers "follow" the richest Americans, receive email alerts and converse about them.

"I've been impressed with their aggressive rethinking of what qualifies as content," said consultant and CNN veteran David Clinch, president of Clinch Media Consultancy. He's helping Forbes utilize high definition Skype cameras to conduct instant video interviews with newsmakers and contributors. "They have moved far beyond just the idea of an article and a picture and byline and moved to real-time content, and they've done a good job of coordinating that and getting writers and contributors familiar with social media."

how-obama-thinks.jpgBloggers write what they like, even criticizing Forbes itself. Dinesh D'Souza's Sept. 27 cover story opened with the unattributed statement that "Barack Obama is the most anti-business president in a generation, perhaps in American history." The former Reagan policy analyst's essay suggests that people should examine the views of Obama's Kenyan father to understand the president's "hostility to private enterprise."

In response, Forbes' Craig Silver wrote: "I hope that the powers that be at Forbes will see that promoting such offal can't help but damage the brand, keeping serious journalists from wanting to appear in our pages and maybe even advertisers." Columnist "Shikha Dalmia:http://blogs.forbes.com/shikhadalmia/, a senior analyst at Reason Foundation, described D'Souza's story as a pathetic rant of unsubstantiated ideological accusations.

Dalmia told PBS MediaShift that Forbes insiders responded positively to her comments. "On the whole, I think they were fair in how they handled my response," she wrote in an email. "[They] didn't try and water it down or in any way soften my criticism of D'Souza or Forbes, which is unusual to say the least."

The Poynter Institute's Edmonds said such public disagreements can be healthy. "I'm a bit more disturbed by publications taking the party line or essentially sticking to a business agenda," he said.

Staff Changes

While several journalists, including editors Paul Maidment and Carl Lavin have indeed left, others have recently jumped to Forbes Media. They include AOL DailyFinance.com media reporter Jeff Bercovici, who covered Dalmia and Silver's criticisms of the controversial cover. (His article noted that DVorkin encouraged public conflict at True/Slant, where Bercovici was a paid contributor.)

Other recent additions include Kashmir Hill, an editor at the irreverent online legal blog Above the Law, Huffington Post world editor Nicholas Sabloff, and Halah Touryalai, who covered Wall Street for Registered Rep. Former staffer Zack O'Malley Greenburg returned after taking time off to write a book about rapper and businessman Jay-Z.

Long-time Forbes reader Michael Shmarak, a principal with Sidney Maxwell Public Relations, says Forbes' re-do "is like putting some Dolce & Gabanna clothes in a closet full of Brooks Brothers power suits.

"Forbes now has to treat itself just like many of the companies it has covered," he said. "All of these policies won't mean anything unless the staff believes in it, and readers embrace the change."

Terri Thornton, a former investigative reporter and TV news producer, owns Thornton Communications, an award-winning PR and social media firm. She is also a freelance editor for Strategic Finance and Management Accounting Quarterly.

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September 17 2010

15:00

Network effects: The Houston Chronicle’s Eric Berger on newspapers and blog networks

Last week, I wrote about the Guardian’s new network of science blogs, which — in a first for the paper — is allowing its (growing) cadre of bloggers to publish directly to the Guardian’s site. The effort, though new for the Guardian, isn’t necessarily new for media organizations in general. In 2008, Eric Berger, a science reporter at the Houston Chronicle — and author of the paper’s SciGuy blog — assembled a team of scientists to contribute to a network of blogs whose topics include climate change, the environment, astronomy, and more. The goal: “to provide a neutral space for scientists and the general public to meet and speak on the issues of the day.”

The “.sphere” experiment — the blogs had titles like Atmo.sphere, Cosmo.sphere, and Evo.sphere — “had some successes and failures,” Berger noted in a later blog post. Some of the blogs fizzled; new ones were born. And one of the biggest determinants of success was, unsurprisingly, the dynamics of authorship: the people at the blogs’ helm. As the project evolved, the focus went from group contributions — several scientists, and some volunteer lay people, writing the content and guiding discussions — to blogs that are written “mostly by individuals.”

I spoke with Berger about that shift. We focused on science blogs; the lessons, though, are relevant to any news organization looking to extend its reach through tapping the talents and expertise of independent bloggers.

Personal interest leads to quality blogging

Blogging requires passion — about the subject matter and about communication itself. Dave Winer’s notion of a “natural born blogger” is instructive not just for amateur bloggers, but for those networked with professional sites, as well. ”People have to want to do it; they have to be interested in it,” Berger says. “And if they like doing it, then they’ll do it more, and they’ll do it better. Because if you’re writing about stuff that you’re interested in and enjoying what you’re doing, it’s going to come through in your writing. It’s going to show your readers that you’re engaged — and going to make them more prone to be engaged, as well.”

Conversation is key

The common conception of the scientist locked in academia’s ivory tower is one held not only by many members of the public, but by some scientists, as well. There’s an occasional tendency, Berger points out, for scientists to see themselves and their work as isolated from the rest of the world. (That’s a tendency, I’d add, that can afflict journalism, as well.) Success in blogging, though, requires getting down to solid ground. “You’ve got to have someone who wants to have a conversation with the public about topics that the public is interested in,” Berger says. And, when it comes to guiding a blog, “a big part of it is convincing the scientists that it’s worth their time not only to write blog entries, but also to interact with people in the comments.” Many scientists have no interest in that, he notes — so the trick is finding the ones who are willing to join the fray.

“You’ve got to find the right scientist” – someone who understands the public with whom they’re conversing. Scientists in particular are used to communicating with peers, Berger notes. But “it’s different with a newspaper — it’s an audience of lay people. A lot of people are looking at the website when they’re at work – and so they’re looking to amuse and to educate themselves.” A good blog network will be populated by writers who strike a balance between those two goals.

Emphasize the news hook

In addition to looking for Winer’s “natural born bloggers,” you want scientists who are able to marry the expertise of their fields with the ability to connect with the public. “Generally, it’s the people who write more to a general level” who are most successful at blogging, Berger says. “People are not going to read a blog that is primarily educational,” he notes. And “most people aren’t spending their free time on the web to get astronomy lectures, I hate to say.” Instead, in general, “people want stuff either that’s related to the news of what’s happening or that has some kind of popular hook. It’s difficult for science as a topic to compete with things like sports or religion — or politics, of course — which are some of the most popular blog subjects here and elsewhere.” To make it compete, you need writers who are able to refashion science from a niche topic into one of general interest — by moderating content and by writing with, for lack of a better word, flair.

Good source = good blogger

Since communication is so important to the blogging equation (see point one), experts who make good sources might also make good bloggers, Berger notes. “If I’ve interviewed someone in the past, and they’ve been really helpful, or have explained things in a good way, or been willing to return calls quickly, then that person would be a good candidate – or at least someone to suggest” as a blogger, Berger says. Often, he points out, the PR people at universities have a good sense of their faculty’s comfort with external communication; they can be a great resource in finding academics who’d have both the interest and the ability to become good bloggers.

Don’t try to control (too much)

A good blog network, Berger says, depends in large part on a willingness to experiment — not only on the part of the bloggers themselves, but of the network leaders, as well. Perhaps the primary principle is trial-and-error. “I had some hits and I had some misses,” he notes of his two years of network-ing, but by being open to trying out different bloggers and formats and content areas, the network is also open to unexpected successes.

“You kind of have to let people do what they do, when they can,” Berger says. “Different people are going to write different things. Some people are doing it because they want to write, and they’re interested in saying their piece on things; other people are interested in educating. You just kind of let people do what’s to their strength.”

August 13 2010

14:00

This Week in Review: TBD takes off, Demand Media’s profit-less past, and Google’s open-web backlash

[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]

A high-profile entry into the local news scene: One of the most anticipated new news organizations in journalism’s recent history launched this week in the form of TBD, a site owned by Allbritton Communications (the folks behind Politico) covering local news in Washington, D.C. As The Huffington Post’s Jack Mirkinson wrote, TBD is “something of a canary in the coal mine” of the future of journalism, being the protoype of a locally focused, community-driven, online-only news model whose effectiveness everyone’s eager to gauge. For the basics of the project, here are two local profiles from DCist and the more skeptical Washington Post, a paidContent interview with Robert Allbritton, a Poynter chat with TBD’s Jim Brady and Steve Buttry, and an Online Journalism Review interview with Buttry.

After TBD gave its media preview last Friday, quite a few people listed plenty of reasons to keep an eye on the site: Ken Doctor liked the “out of the box” nature of TBD’s pro-am/social/mobile/multimedia efforts; Jeff Jarvis liked the collaborative, link-centric philosophy; the Lab’s Laura McGann called attention to TBD’s interactivity and collaboration through local blogs and social media; and Kevin Anderson was impressed by the project’s commitment to profitability.

Several TBD analyses focused particularly on TBD’s interactive and collaborative news efforts, with Journalism Lives, Mashable, and Poynter providing good area-by-area breakdowns. Mark Potts, who’s starting up a similar blog-network effort, Growthspur, wrote a thoughtful piece about the importance of TBD’s own network of local blogs: “TBD is without doubt the biggest, most ambitious effort yet to create a new paradigm for local news coverage of a major metropolitan area,” he wrote.

Poynter’s Steve Myers also touched on an distinct aspect of TBD’s operation — it also includes an Allbritton-owned all-news local cable channel that will be branded TBD TV. He examined how a web-TV converged newsroom operates, and Cory Bergman of Lost Remote (a local TV and hyperlocal news veteran himself) wondered if we might see more TV-local online news partnerships. Here at the Lab, Ken Doctor took a detailed look at the economics of TBD’s web-TV synergy, centering on its pioneering broadcast and online advertising hybrid. Meanwhile, David Rothman had some detailed advice for TBD’s competitors.

The site officially launched Monday, and the initial reviews were mostly positive. Rothman and Suzanne Yada had the most detailed ones; both were impressed by the site’s presentation and several of its features, though both were concerned about how much local news content the site would actually be able to produce. PaidContent’s Staci Kramer liked the smooth design, too, but wanted to see more out of the site’s locally personalized features. Jack Shafer of Slate loved the way the site was mobile, direct and useful, especially its focus on those local-TV staples of weather, traffic, and sports.

The New York Times’ David Carr (“extremely functional…kind of ugly”) and Mediaite’s Michael Triplett (“off to a good start,” despite “thin and D.C.-centric” content) also offered quicker reviews. The most thoughtful review belongs to Lost Remote’s Bergman, who noted that while many of the ideas are old, their implementation is new. “This is the first time that a local media group — especially in the TV space — has wrapped these ideas together and aggressively launched them with an investment to back it up,” he wrote.

Demand Media’s filings raise questionsDemand Media, the new-media lightning rod du jour, filed for an IPO last Friday, giving us the first detailed financial look inside the private company. Several sites took cracks at sifting through the numbers for significant bits, but two pieces stood out: One, Demand Media has yet to make a profit, losing $22 million this year; and two, 26 percent of its revenue comes from cost-per-click advertising deals with Yahoo.

That’s a pretty sizable chunk of Demand Media’s income, and GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram examined one of the company’s reported risk factors — that Google could use its own search expertise to create a search-driven content company to compete with Demand. Ingram pointed out that Google already has a patent for a process that identifies “underserved” search content. All Things Digital noted that Demand’s heavy reliance on Google “could torpedo the company” if Google changes its search formula or changes its contract with Demand, but it also countered that every web publisher is dependent on Google.

Then there’s the whole matter of profitability. The Wall Street Journal’s Scott Austin contrasted the numbers in Demand’s filing with its executives’ numerous past descriptions of the company as profitable, as a reminder that “no one outside the company can verify a start-up’s financial claims.” Slate’s James Ledbetter also noticed an inexplicably large and sudden drop in Quantcast traffic to Demand’s sites a few weeks ago and wondered what was behind it. Meanwhile, the Journal also profiled Demand Media’s efforts to court big-time advertisers on the web.

A proposal to carve up the open web: A week after reports emerged that Google and Verizon were near a deal that would more or less mark the end of net neutrality, the two companies came forward this week not with a deal, but with a policy proposal. As for whether that would mark the end of net neutrality, well, it depends on who you ask. Google and Verizon called their plan a “proposal for an open Internet,” and their CEOs co-authored a Washington Post op-ed arguing that their proposal “empowers an informed consumer, ensures the robust growth of the open Internet and provides incentives to strengthen the networks that carry Internet traffic.” The proposal has quite a few moving parts, but it essentially prohibits Internet service providers from discriminating against or prioritizing “lawful Internet content,” while excepting wireless networks and some unspecified future services from that regulation.

The tech blog Engadget broke down the proposal, noting that would set something close to the status quo into formal policy, rendering the U.S. Federal Communications Commission powerless to change policy as the Internet changes. Most of the web was quite a bit harsher in its  judgment, calling it an open attack on net neutrality by excluding its fastest growing part, wireless. CNET and The New York Times put together good summaries of the backlash, but here are some of the most to-the-point examples: Free Press’ Craig Aaron (“one massive loophole that sets the stage for the corporate takeover of the Internet”), the Electronic Freedom Foundation (it limits net neutrality to “lawful” content, leaving “lawful” to be defined) Siva Vaidhyanathan (it gives Verizon control of the most exciting parts of the web) Public Knowledge’s John Bergmayer (it divides the Internet into several public and non-public parts) Ars Technica (its rules “will become meaningless as 4G sweeps the country”) Salon’s Dan Gillmor (“a Trojan Horse for a modern age”) Susan Crawford (future services is “a giant, enormous, science-fiction-quality loophole”) and Harvard professor Jonathan Zittrain (makes way for “an impenetrable web of contracts and fees”).

Noted Google watcher Jeff Jarvis had the most colorful response, illustrating the proposal’s potential danger to the open web by presenting a future scenario with two Internets, the old “Internet” with everything pre-2010 and the new “Schminternet,” with everything mobile and post-2010. “Mobile is the internet,” he wrote. “Mobile will very soon become a meaningless word when — well, if telcos allow it, that is — we are connected everywhere all the time.” Meanwhile, Wired gets credit for the most fun phrase — “carrier-humping, net neutrality surrender monkey” — in its explanation of how Google got to that point.

Google issued a response to the criticism on Thursday, arguing that it’s not actually leaving wireless networks free from net neutrality oversight, though GigaOM’s Stacey Higginbotham picked apart that defense, too.

Reading Roundup: A few final items to send you off for the weekend:

— Mashable’s Vadim Lavrusik has a smart overview of the shift toward personalized, socially driven news distribution, with a suggestion for a credibility and trust index to help sort through it all.

— Facebook has launched a media page and is pushing for more collaboration with media companies. PBS MediaShift’s Mark Glaser has an informative Q&A with Justin Osofsky, head of Facebook’s media partnership team.

— Google engineering intern Lyn Headley has written the first of a series of posts explaining the rationale behind his new Rapid News Awards. It’s a short, thoughtful take on aggregation, accountability and transparency.

— Finally, some (possibly) positive news: Spot.Us’ David Cohn takes a look at the data and notes that the wave of job cuts at America’s newspapers has largely subsided. Cohn wonders if it means newspapers are bouncing back, or if they’ve just cut down to the bone. I fear it’s more of the latter.

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