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June 18 2011

17:22

Panic attacks, auditory hallucinations, writing for a content mill. No, not this one, it's AOL

The Faster Times An experience report: "I was given eight to ten article assignments a night, writing about television shows that I had never seen before. AOL would send me short video clips, ranging from one-to-two minutes in length — clips from “Law & Order,” “Family Guy,” “Dancing With the Stars,” the Grammys, and so on and so forth… My job was then to write about them in twenty-five minutes. But really, my job was to lie. ... I had panic attacks; we all did."

AOL has a plan. The plan involves the future; and the future, oddly enough, involves writing. But what does it mean to write without freedom?

Continue to read Oliver Miller, thefastertimes.com

AOL's Master plan - a leaked Powerpoint presentation www.businessinsider.com

June 02 2011

16:04

Donald Mahoney: Internet journalism after content farms or "What time does the Super Bowl start?"

Some Blind Alleys :: On February 6, 2011, the Huffington Post published what has become one of the most infamous and emblematic stories of the internet journalism age. The story concerned the starting time of Super Bowl XLV. Its headline was: “What Time Does The Super Bowl Start?” and it still owns the top Google ranking for the query.

Consider this overly obvious, if oddly formal intro sentence: “Super Bowl 2011 takes place on Sunday, Feb. 6, 2011, at 6:30 p.m. Eastern Time and 3:30 p.m. Pacific Time.”

The sentence defies the perception that news in the digital era must be as direct and succinct as possible.

"What time does the Super Bowl start? Or, internet journalism after content farms" - continue to read Donald Mahoney, someblindalleys.com

April 22 2011

14:00

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 24 2011

17:32

Can eHow Get More Respect with Push for Quality Content?

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Business content on MediaShift is sponsored by the weekend MA in Public Communication at American University. Designed for working professionals, the program is suited to career changers and public relations or social marketing professionals seeking career advancement. Learn more here.

Content farms. Content mills. Robo-content.

Demand Media and its huge how-to site eHow have been called snarky names for years, largely because they pay low rates for quickly produced content based on popular search queries. So it's no surprise that a search for "how to grill fish" on Google produces this eHow article up near the top of the results.

Last year, MediaShift ran a week-long special report, Beyond Content Farms and one report by Corbin Hiar included a Demand Media writer saying that her haphazard report on "How to Make Gin at Home" could poison someone. Now, eHow execs tell me that they're taking steps to improve quality.

greg boudewijn.jpg

"I know there was so much conversation out on the web about low quality content," said Greg Boudewijn, eHow's senior vice president and general manager, in a recent interview. "We realize we're human and there's going to be pieces of content that slip through that aren't great. Whatever we can do to provide means to continue to improve the processes and the content that exists on our site, that's something we take to heart. We applaud Google for their changes, and applaud any site that focuses on quality."

A recent redesign of eHow created colorful channel pages for Family, Food, Health, Home, Money, and Style. The cleaner look is being augmented with longer form feature stories, a video webisode series about the popularity of food trucks, and a content deal with Rachael Ray in the Food section. More importantly, eHow added new "Helpful?" buttons at the end of each article so people could provide direct feedback on whether articles are useful -- which will lead to more oversight of writers.

Despite a recent change in Google's algorithm to filter out poor quality content, eHow actually benefited from the change, according to both comScore and Sistrix. I spoke to both Boudewijn and Jeremy Reed, the senior vice president of content and editorial at Demand Media, in a wide-ranging interview. While they admitted they weren't on a path to match the New York Times, they were frank about their push into service journalism -- especially with the number one most trafficked home and garden site. Below is an edited transcript, with audio clips, from that phone interview.

Q&A

What were the main improvements with the redesign of eHow?

Greg Boudewijn: We were looking at this site as the next evolution of our site and user experience. It was a little more than four years since we touched it, it was 2007. Demand Media acquired eHow in 2006, so you can imagine that four years on the web is like 30 in real life. In that time, eHow had grown phenomenally based on our unique content model. It was time to re-architect the back end to handle the scale of innovation and development faster, and we wanted to launch more sites internationally.

We introduced a new eHow logo and color palette to introduce a more consumer brand. We wanted to create more of an emotional connection for them, and the best way we did that was the introduction of six core channels at the top of the header. Each channel has its own color palette and own look and feel. If you look back 10 years to the AOLs and Yahoos of the world, doing portal hubs -- a little bit of an antiquated term -- they had huge amounts of traffic coming through their front doors. And they could funnel that traffic to core verticals like news, finance and entertainment.

ehow large grab.jpg

Our model is very different. We made each individual content page as an entry point to our site. Over time, we saw audiences growing in certain core verticals and those are the ones we chose to use for our channels. People were coming repeatedly to certain topics so when we created the channel pages, we used them to create new content types. Everything from long-form video webisodes to blogs and posts from experts. We partnered with Rachael Ray for our food category. The experts can be personalities or brands.

In the home channel, we have Home Depot to help users fulfill what they're looking for. It's about simplification. You have the steps to do something and can go out and buy it. The new site is a springboard to expand the media company to cater to more than how-to articles.

You were thinking of every story as an entry point but now you have vertical sections. Why? Because of traffic patterns you saw?

Boudewijn: We still view articles and videos as entry points whether people get there from search or social networks. What we saw was that we were amassing audiences of a scale that was much larger than sites on the web that only focused on that specific topic. That was evident with the home category, where for more than the past year, we've been the number one home and garden site on the web. We felt it was our responsibility to make a front door for that and program it daily with a rich experience.

Tell me more about the new longer form stories and features.

Jeremy Reed.jpg

Jeremy Reed: One of the things we've always focused on is the idea of utility. But there's also the opportunity to entertain them or take them to the next step or direct them to another place. We have 15,000 active people in our community [of contributors] throughout the U.S. -- we have filmmakers, copy editors, writers. They were very good at creating this specific kind of content, but they also have experience writing feature content, or filmmakers had experience doing longer form content. We had a talent base in our community, so it made sense on the business side and an opportunity for that community so they could grow their career.

Was the business reason for doing longer stories so that you could improve the time spent on your site?

Reed: When we look at content, we look at many signals. We look at content that could hold its weight next to branded advertisers, and content that people would want to share. In the last month, we had 100,000 articles shared through Facebook. So it's trying to figure out compelling content based on the signals coming to our site.

Boudewijn: It's about completing the user experience. We've done a really good job doing articles of a certain length and type. So what happens now is, because we've created these channels, the content we create in one channel can be fundamentally different than in others. We're providing something with an expert voice, and something they can follow daily. It has more of a personality and engagement factor.

How has pay for writers evolved at eHow, and will you change compensation with this redesign?

Reed: We've always had a range in compensation. We've paid anything from $7.50 for a short-form tip to more than $100 for feature articles. Different ranges for filmmakers. I think the price that we pay has certainly gone up. We pay our writers twice a week, so if they turn in an article on a Sunday, we pay them on Tuesday. If they turn an article in on Wednesday, we pay them on Friday, regardless of the amount paid.

Reed explains how eHow is transparent to writers about how much they'll get paid and let writers of similar content see how much everyone in that subject gets paid:

ehow1.mp3

Does pay vary according to topic or length of story?

Reed: We look at different factors like subject area expertise and how much time it takes to write it and other factors like that.

How is this redesign targeted at advertisers? You mentioned there would be more "touch points" for them in your press release about the redesign.

Boudewijn: We were very good at providing a utility, and there was content programmed on the home page focused on how-to, but not differentiated by category. When we acquired eHow in 2006, branded sales wasn't a big part of our business. We relied primarily on third party relationships with advertising affiliates. Over time, with the hiring of Joanne Bradford [from Yahoo to be chief revenue officer of Demand Media], branded advertising has become a bigger part of our business. Those advertisers want to own the consumer experience. They want to see their placement on the page and see the integration. They want to know the boundaries around where that exists.

So when we did the redesign, we looked at aesthetics of the site but also looked at places where advertisers could come in and buy sponsorships or packages. One thing that's unique about what we do is our content is all intent-driven. We're not an entertainment site or news site where people come to the front door and say, "entertain me." But eHow is intent-driven; people come with a specific mission and we want to help fulfill that. That's a very meaningful experience and a funnel that advertisers want to be a part of.

Plus, we wanted to position experts. Brands want to be associated with the Rachael Rays of the world and expert knowledge that's honest and genuine. That's a great opportunity for advertisers to wrap around eHow Food. And there's also an opportunity for brands as experts. So for the Home Depots of the world ... a user coming to the site recognizes an advertiser that adds value to the experience, and it helps them.

Boudewijn explains how Home Depot will help users as an "advertiser presence" that will help users complete tasks.

ehow2.mp3

You've added this "Helpful?" button to get feedback from readers. How does that work?

Boudewijn: We've been very good at listening to signals out on the web, whether through search or social to understand what content we should create. eHow has a massive audience, and it's one thing to be in the studio evaluating writers on a number of metrics -- their grammar, their quality, their experience. That's an academic way. But we want to know how our content resonates with people who are using it in on an everyday basis. So these buttons are the first step of a curation layer to understand how helpful our content is in the real world.

helpful choice.jpg

Right now we let people tell us if it's helpful, and they can "like" it or share it on Facebook and Twitter. If they don't think it's helpful, then we're gathering reasons on why it might not be helpful for them, and funnel that information back to our editorial team to help enrich our content and inform our guidelines on what to produce. That's just our first step, there will be other hooks on the page to solicit feedback in the coming months.

Reed: One of the things we've done from the beginning is make sure we understand the quality of the content by the people who use it. We've let people make comments and ratings on stories, but we wanted to go back to ask the specific question: Was this helpful or not? Like Greg was saying, we can take that information and go back to the writer and decide if we want to give them more work, or are they better in one subject than another. It's a constant, targeted feedback loop from someone who's engaging with that content.

I noticed on Compete.com that the traffic for eHow went down about 7 percent in visits and 4percent in unique visitors for February 2011. Was that related to what happened with Google changing its search algorithm?

Boudewijn: February is naturally a shorter month. Most businesses on the web, going from a 31-day month to a 28-day month, especially with the two holidays for Valentine's Day and President's Day, you have a lot of events that make businesses fluctuate. We're now Top 10 in the U.S., according to comScore. I don't rely heavily on third-party analytics that we don't have direct influence over, so I can't necessarily comment on Compete's numbers.

Google makes algorithm changes all the time, but when they make it public, people seem to gravitate to them. We've seen them make a number of changes, and we see ups and downs. Our business continues to grow and we haven't seen any material effect from [Google's algorithm changes].

(Editor's Note: In a follow-up query to comScore, the research firm also found a slight drop in traffic to eHow in February, but attributed it to the shorter month as well, and noted that the Google-referred percentage of traffic to eHow is actually slightly higher in February than January.)

Are there other things you're doing to improve the quality of content?

Boudewijn: If you look at the way we produced content two years ago, it's fundamentally different than the way we do today. One of the unique things we're doing is creating these channels and aligning writers in Demand Studios with those channels. We're also vetting the talent to make sure they're qualified to write for us. Content quality is such a broad term. You could take the New York Times' content and put it on someone's blog and put 15 AdSense ads around it and show it to 100 people and they'd say it's terrible.

Content quality comes down to the process by which it's created, and we stand behind our editorial process. At eHow, we want to make sure it's a quality experience for users and for brands and advertisers.

Reed: We did make a make a conscious effort to stay within what we could do responsibly within our model, within our community, within our scale. We didn't go after investigative reporting like the New York Times does because we didn't feel in the current equation that we could do it successfully. We went after this very service journalism, the utility kind of content. We started to see the value of subject matter expertise, and an editorial process. We wanted people to come through the door with years of experience, so that it makes sense for them as part of their career.

Our editorial rigor includes plagiarism checks, citing references, going through a copy editor so we felt good about that content. We have a very large taxonomy, so we've tried to cut that up so everyone has subject matter expertise, including the people who write the titles, who edit the copy, who select the photo, all the way down to the people editing it and giving it the final OK.

Boudewijn says they realize there will be some pieces of content that slip through 'that aren't great,' but they're trying to improve:

ehow3.mp3

How do you vet the people that you hire?

Reed: It's on two levels. We qualify people who come in. If you're a writer, you submit a resume and multiple clips and we have an in-house editor who vets that. If you're a copy editor, it's the same process but if you're accepted there's a copy editing test. So if you're going to edit a section on automobiles, you get a test based on that subject. That's one part of our approach. And then on each piece of content, every writer gets edited by a copy editor and has a possible re-write before it's sent through. The copy editor then rates the writer on a 1 to 5 scale on grammar and on subject matter expertise.

We look at every single person and qualify them, and look at every single piece of content.

Do you own all rights to the content or can writers or videographers re-use the material?

Reed: We made the decision that if we would pay up front and pay for that piece of content that we would own it.

Boudewijn: That was one of our learnings over time, that ensures our editorial process and integrity. Early on, in 2006, we did allow people to come directly to eHow.com and submit content. We dropped that program last April because it didn't make sense to put all the time and energy into producing content with a rigorous editorial process, and then have people submit things without any process. So today we stand behind our content because it's completely owned by us.

*****

What do you think about eHow's redesign and push for higher quality content? Do you use the site regularly or avoid it? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit.

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Business content on MediaShift is sponsored by the weekend MA in Public Communication at American University. Designed for working professionals, the program is suited to career changers and public relations or social marketing professionals seeking career advancement. Learn more here.

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March 11 2011

15:00

This Week in Review: NPR at a crossroads, hyperlocal’s personal issue, and keeping comments real

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

A bad week for NPR execs named Schiller: For the second time in five months, NPR has found itself in the middle of a controversy that’s forced it to wrestle with issues of objectivity, bias, and its own federal funding. This one started when the conservative prankster James O’Keefe orchestrated a hidden-camera video of a NPR fundraising exec bashing Tea Partiers and generally straying from the NPR party line while meeting with people pretending to represent a Muslim charity. (The “donors” also met with PBS, but their people didn’t take the bait.)

Reaction was mixed: The right, of course, was outraged, though others like Slate’s Jack Shafer and Gawker’s John Cook downplayed the significance of the video. NPR was outraged, too — “appalled,” actually, with 21 journalists condemning the remarks. CEO Vivian Schiller said she was upset and that the two execs had put on administrative leave, but within about 12 hours, however, Schiller herself had been forced out by NPR’s board. The New York Times has good background on the shocking turn of events, and Poynter summarized the six months of controversy that led up to this, stretching back to Juan Williams’ firing (the American Journalism Review’s Rem Rieder called Schiller’s ouster “Williams’ revenge”).

Reaction to NPR’s handling of the situation was decidedly less mixed — and a lot more scathing. In a chat and column, NPR ombudsman Alicia Shepard ripped just about all parties involved, and the online response from media-watchers was just as harsh. NYU j-prof Jay Rosen called it “profoundly unjust,” and several others blasted NPR’s leadership.

The Awl’s Choire Sicha called NPR’s management “wusses,” CUNY j-prof Jeff Jarvis called the NPR board “ballless” and said the episode exposes the difference between NPR and the stations who run it, ex-Saloner Scott Rosenberg lamented NPR’s allowing the O’Keefes of the world to take over public discourse, and Rosen and Northeastern j-prof Dan Kennedy told NPR to start fighting back. The Columbia Journalism Review’s Joel Meares put it best, saying the fiasco “exposes them as an organization that is fundamentally weak — too concerned about its image to realize that ‘surrender’ is not always the best option.”

The episode also stoked the fires of the perpetual debate over whether public radio should keep its federal funding. The Atlantic’s Chris Good looked at the political aspects of the issue, and The Christian Science Monitor examined whether public radio stations would survive without federal money. A few calls to defund public radio came from outside the traditional (i.e. conservative) places, with Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan and media analyst Alan Mutter arguing that NPR will be in an untenable situation as a political football as long as they’re getting federal funds. Meanwhile, here at the Lab, USC’s Nikki Usher did give some encouraging information from the whole situation, looking at Schiller’s legacy of digital and local innovation during her NPR tenure.

Making hyperlocal news personal: AOL continued its move into local news late last week, as it bought the hyperlocal news aggregator Outside.in. In an excellent analysis at the Lab, Ken Doctor argued that the purchase is a way for AOL to get bigger quickly, particularly by bulking up Patch’s pageviews through cheap local aggregation tools. ReadWriteWeb’s Marshall Kirkpatrick took the opportunity to ask why hyperlocal news technology services like Outside.in, Everyblock, and Fwix haven’t been as useful as we had hoped.

Mathew Ingram of GigaOM posited an answer: Hyperlocal journalism only works if it’s deeply connected with the community it serves, and those technologies aren’t. Without that level of community, “AOL is pouring money into a bottomless pit,” he wrote. The Knight Digital Media Center’s Amy Gahran said that might be where local news organizations can step in, focusing less on creating news articles and more on using their community trust to make local information useful, relevant and findable.

Elsewhere on the cheap-content front: All Things Digital reported that AOL is laying off hundreds of employees (including the widely expected gutting of several of its news sites), and Business Insider snagged the memo. Wired talked to two Google engineers about its anti-content farm changes, and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales said good content is created either by passionate fans or by proper journalists being paid a fair amount. But, he said, “paying people a very low amount of money to write about stuff they don’t care about — that doesn’t work.” And Dan Conover at Xark warned against turning content — especially hyperlocal — into a franchise formula.

Accountability and authenticity in online comments: TechCrunch was one of the first companies to try out Facebook’s new commenting system, and after about a week, MG Siegler noted that the number of the site’s comments had decreased, and they’d also gone from nasty to warm and fuzzy. Entrepreneur Steve Cheney proposed a reason why the comments were so “sterile and neutered”: Facebook kills online authenticity, because everyone is self-censoring their statements to make sure their grandmas, ex-girlfriends, and entire social network won’t be offended.

Tech guru Robert Scoble disagreed, arguing that TechCrunch’s comments have improved, and people know real change and credibility only comes from using their real identities. Slate’s Farhad Manjoo made a somewhat similar argument, eloquently making the case for the elimination of anonymous commenting. GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram weighed in by saying that Facebook can’t make or break comments — it all depends on being involved in an actual conversation with users. He pointed to a brilliant post by NPR’s Matt Thompson, who gave numerous tips on cultivating community in comments; much it went back to the idea that “The very best filter is an empowered, engaged adult.”

Meanwhile, Joy Mayer of the Reynolds Journalism Institute got some advice on cultivating online reader engagement from the Wall Street Journal’s (and formerly the Lab’s) Zach Seward, and the Lab’s Megan Garber reported on the results of some research into which stories are the most liked and shared on Facebook.

More paywall test cases: Newspapers continue to pound the paywall drumbeat, with the CEO of newspaper chain Gannett saying the company is experimenting with various pay models in anticipation of a potential one-time company-wide rollout and the Dallas Morning News rolling out its own paywall this week. Ken Doctor crunched the numbers to try to gauge the initiative’s chances, and media consultant Mike Orren disagreed with the News’ idea of how much a metro newspaper’s operation should cost.

Elsewhere, Reuters’ Felix Salmon made the case that Britain’s Financial Times’ paywall strategy has contributed to its decline, writing, “the FT strategy is exactly the strategy I would choose if I was faced with an industry in terminal decline, and wanted to extract as much money as possible from it before it died.” Meanwhile, The New York Times’ public editor, Arthur Brisbane, chided the Times for not aggressively covering news of its own paywall, and Mathew Ingram of GigaOM called paywalls a futile attempt to hold back the tide of free online content.

Reading roundup: Some things to read in between SXSW Interactive panels:

— New York Times executive editor Bill Keller wrote a rather odd little column taking shots at news and opinion aggregators, especially Arianna Huffington. Everyone then took shots at his column, including Huffington, TechDirt’s Mike Masnick, GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram, and Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan.

— Newsweek published its first redesigned issue under The Daily Beast’s Tina Brown this week. The Society of Publication Designers had a look at the issue, which Slate’s Jack Shafer panned. The New York Times noted the issue’s familiar bylines.

— A few Apple-related notes: At MediaShift, Susan Currie Sivek looked at the impact of Apple’s 30-percent app subscription cut on small magazines, and Poynter’s Damon Kiesow urged Apple-fighting publishers to move to the open web, not Android-powered tablets. GigaOM’s Om Malik joined the chorus of people calling for iPad apps to be reimagined.

— Two great posts at the Lab on search engine optimization: Richard J. Tofel on why the web will be better off with the decline of SEO, and Martin Langeveld on the SEO consequences of including paid links on sites.

— Former Guardian digital chief Emily Bell gave a fantastic interview to CBC Radio about various future-of-news issues, and Mathew Ingram summarized a talk she gave on newspapers and the web.

— Finally, two must-reads: The Atlantic’s James Fallows wrote a thoughtful essay arguing that we should take the contemporary journalism environment on its own terms, rather than unfairly comparing it to earlier eras. And at the Lab, former St. Pete Times journalist and current Nebraska j-prof Matt Waite called news developers to let the old systems go and “hack at the very core of the whole product.”

March 04 2011

16:00

January 28 2011

15:30

December 17 2010

18:00

Jason Fry: A blow to content farms, Facebook’s continued growth, and the continued pull of the open web

Editor’s Note: We’re wrapping up 2010 by asking some of the smartest people in journalism what the new year will bring. Today, our predictor is Jason Fry, a familiar byline at the Lab. Jason also prognosticated earlier this week about the potential success of  the NYT paywall.

Hyperlocal will remain stubbornly small scale. Large-scale efforts at cracking hyperlocal will seed more news organizations with content, but that content will remain mostly aggregation and data and still feel robotic and cold. Meanwhile, small-scale hyperlocal efforts will continue to win reader loyalty, but struggle to monetize those audiences. By the end of 2011, the most promising developments in hyperlocal will come from social media. Promising efforts to identify and leverage localized news and conversation in social media will be the buzz of late 2011, and we’ll be excited to think that social media is proving an excellent stepping stone to greater involvement in our physical communities.

Google will deal the content farms a big blow by tweaking its algorithms to drive down their search rankings. But the company will be opaque to the point of catatonia about exactly what it did and why it did it, reflecting its reluctance to be drawn into qualitative judgments about content. There will be talk of lawsuits by the spurned content farms and no small amount of jawing about Google’s power, lack of transparency, and whether or not it’s being evil. But even those worried about Google’s actions will admit that search is a much better experience now that results are less cluttered with horribly written crap.

Tablets will carve out a number of interesting niches, from favored input device of various specialists to device you like to curl up with on the couch. But these will be niches: The open web will remain as robust as ever, and be the killer app of the tablet just like it is everywhere else. News organizations’ walled-garden apps will win some converts, and apps in general will continue to point to promising new directions in digital design, but there will be no massive inflows of app revenue to news organizations. This will be seen as a failure by folks who got too excited in the first place.

Facebook will further cement its dominance by beginning to focus on ways to extract and preserve moments that matter to us from the ceaseless flow of the news feed, building on its photo-archiving role to also become a personal archive of beloved status updates, exchanges, links, and other material. The most promising startups and efforts from established social media companies will center around creating quiet water that draws from the river of news without leaving us overwhelmed by the current.

November 19 2010

15:00

October 13 2010

11:41

August 27 2010

14:30

This Week in Review: ‘Mosques’ and SEO, Google’s search and social troubles, and a stateless WikiLeaks

[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]

Maintaining accuracy in an SEO-driven world: Apparently the future-of-news world isn’t immune to the inevitable dog days of August, because this week was one of the slowest in this corner of the web in the past year. There were still some interesting discussions simmering, so let’s take a look, starting with the political controversy du jour: The proposed construction of a Muslim community center in downtown Manhattan near the site of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center. I’m not going to delve into the politics of the issue, or even the complaints that this story is symptomatic of a shallow news media more concerned about drummed-up controversy than substantive issues. Instead, I want to focus on the decisions that news organizations have been making about what to call the project.

It has predominantly been called the “ground zero mosque,” though beginning about two weeks ago, some attention began being trained on news organizations — led most vocally by The New York Times and The Associated Press, which changed its internal label for the story — that wouldn’t use that phrase out of a concern for accuracy. The Village Voice used some Google searches to find that while there’s been an uptick in news sources’ use of the project’s proper names (Park51 and the Cordoba Center), “ground zero mosque” is still far and away the most common designation.

What’s most interesting about this discussion are the ideas about why a factually inaccurate term has taken such a deep root in coverage of the issue, despite efforts to refute it: The Village Voice pointed a finger at cable news, which has devoted the most time to the story, while the Online Journalism Review’s Brian McDermott pinpointed our news consumption patterns driven by “warp-speed skimming” and smart-phone headlines that make easy labels more natural for readers and editors.” Watery qualifiers like ‘near’ or ’so-called’ don’t stick in our brains as much, nor do they help a website climb the SEO ladder.”

Poynter ethicist Kelly McBride zeroed in on that idea of search-engine optimization, noting that the AP is being punished for their stand against the term “ground zero mosque” by not appearing very highly on the all-important news searches for that phrase. In order to stay relevant to search engines, news organizations have to continue using an inaccurate term once it’s taken hold, she concluded. In response, McBride suggested pre-emptively using factchecking resources to nip misconceptions in the bud. “Now that Google makes it impossible to move beyond our distortions — even when we know better — we should be prepared,” she said.

Google’s search and social takes shots: Google takes more than few potshots every week on any number of subjects, but this week, several of them were related to some intriguing future-of-news issues we’ve been talking about regularly here at the Lab, so I thought I’d highlight them a bit. Ex-Salon editor Scott Rosenberg took Google News to task for its placement of an Associated Content article at the top of search results on last week’s Dr. Laura Schlessinger controversy. Associated Content is the giant “content farm” bought earlier this year by Yahoo, and its Dr. Laura article appears to be a particularly mediocre constructed article cynically designed solely to top Google’s ranking for “Dr. Laura n-word.”

Rosenberg takes the incident as a sign that reliability of Google News’ search results has begun to be eclipsed by content producers’ guile: “When Google tells me that this drivel is the most relevant result, I can’t help thinking, the game’s up.” The Lab’s Jim Barnett also questioned Google CEO Eric Schmidt’s recent articulation of the company’s idea of automating online serendipity, wondering how a “serendipity algorithm” might shape or limit our worldviews as Google prefers.

Google’s social-media efforts also took a few more hits, with Slate’s Farhad Manjoo conducting a postmortem on Google Wave, homing in on its ill-defined purpose and unnecessary complexity. Google should have positioned Wave as an advanced tool for sophisticated users, Manjoo argued, but the company instead clumsily billed it as the possible widespread successor to email and instant messenging. Meanwhile, Adam Rifkin of GigaOM criticized the company’s acquisition of the social app company Slide (and its social-media attempts in general), advising Google to buy companies whose products fit well into its current offerings, rather than chasing after the social-gaming industry — which he said “feels like it’s about to collapse on itself.”

WikiLeaks, stateless news and transparency: The saga of the open-source leaking website WikiLeaks took a very brief, bizarre turn this weekend, when reports emerged early Saturday that founder Julian Assange was wanted by Swedish authorities for rape, then later that day prosecutors announced he was no longer a suspect. The New York Times provided some great background on Assange’s cat-and-mouse games with various world governments, including the United States, which is reportedly considering charging him under the Espionage Act for WikiLeaks’ release last month of 92,000 pages of documents regarding the war in Afghanistan.

No one really had any idea what to make of this episode, and few were bold enough to make any strong speculations publicly. Two bloggers explored the (possible) inner workings of the situation, with Nicholas Mead using it to argue that catching Assange isn’t exactly going to stop WikiLeaks — as NYU professor Jay Rosen noted last month, WikiLeaks is the first truly stateless news organization, something only permitted by the structure of the web.

That slippery, stateless nature extends to WikiLeaks’ funding, which The Wall Street Journal focused on this week in a fine feature. Unlike the wide majority of news organizations, there is virtually no transparency to WikiLeaks’ funding, though the Journal did piece together a few bits of information: The site has raised $1 million this year, much of its financial network is tied to Germany’s Wau Holland Foundation, and two unnamed American nonprofits serve as fronts for the site.

Hyperlocal news and notes: A few hyperlocal news-related ideas and developments worth passing along: Sarah Hartley, who works on The Guardian’s hyperlocal news efforts, wrote a thoughtful post attempting to define “hyperlocal” in 10 characteristics. Hyperlocal, she argues, is no longer defined by a tight geographical area, but by an attitude. She follows with a list of defining aspects, such as obsessiveness, fact/opinion blending, linking and community participation. It’s a great list, though it seems Hartley may be describing the overarching blogging ethos more so than hyperlocal news per se. (Steve Yelvington, for one, says the term is meaningless.)

Brad Flora at PBS MediaShift provided a helpful list of blogs for hyperlocal newsies to follow. (Disclosure: The Lab is one of them.) And two online media giants made concrete steps in long-expected moves toward hyperlocal news: Microsoft’s Bing launched its first hyperlocal product with a restaurant guide in Portland, and Yahoo began recruiting writers for a local news site in the San Francisco area.

Reading roundup: Despite the slow news week, there’s no shortage of thoughtful pieces on stray subjects that are worth your time. Here’s a quick rundown:

— Spot.Us founder David Cohn wrote an illuminating post comparing journalists’ (particularly young ones’) current search for a way forward in journalism to the ancient Israelites’ 40 years of wandering in the desert. TBD’s Steve Buttry, a self-described “old guy,” responded that it may not take a generation to find the next iteration of journalism but said his generation has been responsible for holding innovation back: “We might make it out of the desert, but I think our generation has blown our chance to lead the way.”

— A couple of interesting looks at developing stories online: Terry Heaton posited that one reason for declining trust in news organizations is their focus on their own editorial voice to the detriment of the public’s understanding (something audiences see in stark relief when comparing coverage of developing news), and Poynter’s Steve Myers used the Steven Slater story to examine how news spreads online.

— At The Atlantic, Tim Carmody wrote a fantastic overview of the pre-web history of reading.

— In an argument that mirrors the discussions about the values of the new news ecosystem, former ESPN.com writer Dan Shanoff gave a case for optimism about the current diffused, democratized state of sports media.

— Another glass-half-full post: Mike Mandel broke down journalism job statistics and was encouraged by what he found.

— Finally, for all the students headed back to class right now, the Online Journalism Review’s Robert Niles has some of the best journalism-related advice you’ll read all year.

August 24 2010

10:50

July 30 2010

14:15

This Week in Review: WikiLeaks’ new journalism order, a paywall’s purpose, and a future for Flipboard

[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]

WikiLeaks, data journalism and radical transparency: I’ll be covering two weeks in this review because of the Lab’s time off last week, but there really was only one story this week: WikiLeaks’ release of The War Logs, a set of 90,000 documents on the war in Afghanistan. There are about 32 angles to this story and I’ll try to hit most of them, but if you’re pressed for time, the essential reads on the situation are Steve Myers, C.W. Anderson, Clint Hendler, and Janine Wedel and Linda Keenan.

WikiLeaks released the documents on its site on Sunday, cooperating with three news organizations — The New York Times, The Guardian, and Der Spiegel — to allow them to produce special reports on the documents as they were released. The Nation’s Greg Mitchell ably rounded up commentary on the documents’ political implications (one tidbit from the documents for newsies: evidence of the U.S. military paying Afghan journalists to write favorable stories), as the White House slammed the leaks and the Times for running them, and the Times defended its decision in the press and to its readers.

The comparison that immediately came to many people’s minds was the publication of the Pentagon Papers on the Vietnam War in 1971, and two Washington Post articles examined the connection. (The Wall Street Journal took a look at both casesFirst Amendment angles, too.) But several people, most notably ProPublica’s Richard Tofel and Slate’s Fred Kaplan, quickly countered that the War Logs don’t come close to the Pentagon Papers’ historical impact. They led a collective yawn that emerged from numerous political observers after the documents’ publication, with ho-hums coming from Foreign Policy, Mother Jones, the Washington Post, and even the op-ed page of the Times itself. Slate media critic Jack Shafer suggested ways WikiLeaks could have planned its leak better to avoid such ennui.

But plenty of other folks found a lot that was interesting about the entire situation. (That, of course, is why I’m writing about it.) The Columbia Journalism Review’s Joel Meares argued that the military pundits dismissing the War Logs as old news are forgetting that this information is still putting an often-forgotten war back squarely in the public’s consciousness. But the most fascinating angle of this story to many of us future-of-news nerds was that this leak represents the entry of an entirely new kind of editorial process into mainstream news. That’s what The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal sensed early on, and several others sussed out as the week moved along. The Times’ David Carr called WikiLeaks’ quasi-publisher role both a new kind of hybrid journalism and an affirmation of the need for traditional reporting to provide context. Poynter’s Steve Myers made some astute observations about this new kind of journalism, including the rise of the source advocate and WikiLeaks’ trading information for credibility. NYU j-prof Jay Rosen noted that WikiLeaks is the first “stateless news organization,” able to shed light on the secrets of the powerful because of freedom provided not by law, but by the web.

Both John McQuaid and Slate’s Anne Applebaum emphasized the need for data to be, as McQuaid put it, “marshaled in service to a story, an argument,” with McQuaid citing that as reason for excitement about journalism and Applebaum calling it a case for traditional reporting. Here at the Lab, CUNY j-prof C.W. Anderson put a lot this discussion into perspective with two perceptive posts on WikiLeaks as the coming-out party for data journalism. He described its value well: “In these recent stories, its not the presence of something new, but the ability to tease a pattern out of a lot of little things we already know that’s the big deal.”

As for WikiLeaks itself, the Columbia Journalism Review’s Clint Hendler provided a fascinating account of how its scoop ended up in three of the world’s major newspapers, including differences in WikiLeaks’ and the papers’ characterization of WikiLeaks’ involvement, which might help explain its public post-publication falling-out with the Times. The Times profiled WikiLeaks and its enigmatic founder, Julian Assange, and several others trained their criticism on WikiLeaks itself — specifically, on the group’s insistence on radical transparency from others but extreme secrecy from itself. The Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz said WikiLeaks is “a global power unto itself,” not subject to any checks and balances, and former military reporter Jamie McIntyre called WikiLeaks “anti-privacy terrorists.”

Several others were skeptical of Assange’s motives and secrecy, and Slate’s Farhad Manjoo wondered how we could square public trust with such a commitment to anonymity. In a smart Huffington Post analysis of that issue, Janine Wedel and Linda Keenan presented this new type of news organization as a natural consequence of the new cultural architecture (the “adhocracy,” as they call it) of the web: “These technologies lend themselves to new forms of power and influence that are neither bureaucratic nor centralized in traditional ways, nor are they generally responsive to traditional means of accountability.”

Keeping readers out with a paywall: The Times and Sunday Times of London put up their online paywall earlier this month, the first of Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers to set off on his paid-content mission (though some other properties, like The Wall Street Journal, have long charged for online access). Last week, we got some preliminary figures indicating how life behind the wall is going so far: Former Times media reporter Dan Sabbagh said that 150,000 of the Times’ online readers (12 percent of its pre-wall visitors) had registered for free trials during the paywall’s first two weeks, with 15,000 signing on as paying subscribers and 12,500 subscribing to the iPad app. PaidContent also noted that the Times’ overall web traffic is down about 67 percent, adding that the Times will probably tout these types of numbers as a success.

The Guardian did its own math and found that the Times’ online readership is actually down about 90 percent — exactly in line with what the paper’s leaders and industry analysts were expecting. Everyone noted that this is exactly what Murdoch and the Times wanted out of their paywall — to cut down on drive-by readers and wring more revenue out of the core of loyal ones. GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram explained that rationale well, then ripped it apart, calling it “fundamentally a resignation from the open web” because it keeps readers from sharing (or marketing) it with others. SEOmoz’s Tom Critchlow looked at the Times’ paywall interface and gave it a tepid review.

Meanwhile, another British newspaper that charges for online access, the Financial Times, is boasting strong growth in online revenue. The FT’s CEO, John Ridding, credited the paper’s metered paid-content system and offered a moral argument for paid access online, drawing on Time founder Henry Luce’s idea that an exclusively advertising-reliant model weakens the bond between a publication and its readers.

Flipboard and the future of mobile media: In just four months, we’ve already seen many attention-grabbing iPad apps, but few have gotten techies’ hearts racing quite like Flipboard, which was launched last week amid an ocean of hype. As Mashable explained, Flipboard combines social media and news sources of the user’s choosing to create what’s essentially a socially edited magazine for the iPad. The app got rave reviews from tech titans like Robert Scoble and ReadWriteWeb, which helped build up enough demand that it spent most of its first few post-release days crashed from being over capacity.

Jen McFadden marveled at Flipboard’s potential for mobile advertising, given its ability to merge the rich advertising experience of the iPad with the targeted advertising possibilities through social media, though Martin Belam wondered whether the app might end up being “yet another layer of disintermediation that took away some of my abilities to understand how and when my content was being used, or to monetise my work.” Tech pioneer Dave Winer saw Flipboard as one half of a brilliant innovation for mobile media and challenged Flipboard to encourage developers to create the other half.

At the tech blog Gizmodo, Joel Johnson broke in to ask a pertinent question: Is Flipboard legal? The app scrapes content directly from other sites, rather than through RSS, like the Pulse Reader. Flipboard’s defense is that it only offers previews (if you want to read the whole thing, you have to click on “Read on Web”), but Johnson delved into some of the less black-and-white scenarios and legal issues, too. (Flipboard, for example, takes full images, and though it is free for now, its executives plan to sell their own ads around the content under revenue-sharing agreements.) Stowe Boyd took those questions a step further and looked at possible challenges down the road from social media providers like Facebook.

A new perspective on content farms: Few people had heard of the term “content farms” about a year ago, but by now there are few issues that get blood boiling in future-of-journalism circles quite like that one. PBS MediaShift’s eight-part series on content farms, published starting last week, is an ideal resource to catch you up on what those companies are, why people are so worked up about them, and what they might mean for journalism. (MediaShift defines “content farm” as a company that produces online content on a massive scale; I, like Jay Rosen, would define it more narrowly, based on algorithm- and revenue-driven editing.)

The series includes an overview of some of the major players on the online content scene, pictures of what writing for and training at a content farm is like, and two posts on the world of large-scale hyperlocal news. It also features an interesting defense of content farms by Dorian Benkoil, who argues that large-scale online content creators are merely disrupting an inefficient, expensive industry (traditional media) that was ripe for a kick in the pants.

Demand Media’s Jeremy Reed responded to the series with a note to the company’s writers that “You are not a nameless, faceless, soul-less group of people on a ‘farm.’ We are not a robotic organization that’s only concerned about numbers and data. We are a media company. We work together to tell stories,” and Yahoo Media’s Jimmy Pitaro defended the algorithm-as-editor model in an interview with Forbes. Outspoken content-farm critic Jason Fry softened his views, too, urging news organizations to learn from their algorithm-driven approach and let their audiences play a greater role in determining their coverage.

Reading roundup: A few developments and ideas to take a look at before the weekend:

— We’ve written about the FTC’s upcoming report on journalism and public policy earlier this summer, and Google added its own comments to the public record last week, urging the FTC to move away from “protectionist barriers.” Google-watcher Jeff Jarvis gave the statement a hearty amen, and The Boston Globe’s Jeff Jacoby chimed in against a government subsidy for journalism.

— Former equity analyst Henry Blodget celebrated The Business Insider’s third birthday with a very pessimistic forecast of The New York Times’ future, and, by extension, the traditional media’s as well. Meanwhile, Judy Sims targeted a failure to focus on ROI as a cause of newspapers’ demise.

— The Columbia Journalism Review devoted a feature to the rise of private news, in which news organizations are devoted to a niche topic for an intentionally limited audience.

— Finally, a post to either get you thinking or, judging from the comments, foaming at the mouth: Penn professor Eric Clemons argues on TechCrunch that advertising cannot be our savior online: “Online advertising cannot deliver all that is asked of it.  It is going to be smaller, not larger, than it is today.  It cannot support all the applications and all the content we want on the internet. And don’t worry. There are other things that can be done that will work well.”

July 29 2010

14:55

Need a great story? New online database claims to have it

Poynter.org introduces the latest resource for editors short on news - iNeedaGreatStory.com, claiming it offers “well-reported, well-told, well-illustrated content”.

The site sells stories, infographics and videos which claim to be “100-percent original”, pitching themselves as providing value journalism as opposed to a “content mill”.

In a world flooded with “free” stories optimized to fit marketers’ commercial agendas, it’s difficult for editors to find content they can rely on. But with iNeedaGreatStory.com, editors now have access to a searchable database of thousands of reliable, high-quality stories, infographics and videos. Simply put, iNeedaGreatStory.com makes life easier for editors everywhere – editors at newspapers and websites, editors of company newsletters, editors who don’t even know they’re editors but are charged with finding content for a specific purpose. That’s value they can’t get from a content mill.

The stories are written by an editorial team from Content That Works.

See the full post here…Similar Posts:



July 27 2010

22:47

5Across: Beyond Content Farms

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5Across is sponsored by Carnegie-Knight News21, an alliance of 12 journalism schools in which top students tell complex stories in inventive ways. See tips for spurring innovation and digital learning at Learn.News21.com.

What are content farms? If you've been reading our special series at MediaShift on the subject, you'd know that content farms or mills churn out massive amounts of content tailored to Google searches. But the approach to churning out that content varies from how-to articles (Demand Media), vertical topics (High Gear Media), hyper-local (Patch.com) and sports (Bleacher Report, SB Nation). And at some sites, writers get paid a small amount, while at others they toil for free.

content farms logo small.jpg

We convened a group of people to discuss the highs and lows of content farms, how they are changing journalism, bringing down pay rates for writers and possibly polluting Google searches with poor quality content. Is there harm in sites like eHow creating huge amounts of content at low pay? Some panel members believe Demand Media is simply fulfilling a need, while others believe there are possibly dangerous repercussions from the proliferation of these low-cost articles across the web. Check it out!

5Across: Beyond Content Farms

contentfarms.mp4

>>> Subscribe to 5Across video podcast <<<

>>> Subscribe to 5Across via iTunes <<<

Guest Biographies

Andrew Brining is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report and has been writing on the site for two years. During this time, he has been credentialed by Strikeforce, the UFC, the Oakland Athletics, and the Laureus World Sports Academy to cover its award ceremony in Abu Dhabi. Additionally, his work has appeared on SportsIllustrated.com, FOXSports.com, CBSSports.com, AskMen.com, and the San Francisco Chronicle's website. His homepage at B/R can be found here and you can follow him via Facebook or Twitter.

Shelley Frost writes about dogs for San Francisco Examiner.com and about animal issues for AnimalBeat.org. She is the author of two books, "Throw Like a Girl" (Beyond Words Publishing, 2000) and "Your Adopted Dog," co-authored with Katerina Lorenzatos Makris (The Lyons Press, 2007). Shelley has been a guest on Oprah, Dateline NBC, Evening Magazine, The Tammy Faye Show, Crook & Chase, Caryl & Marilyn (The Mommies), and The Gayle King Show. People Magazine did a feature story on Shelley and her best selling children's video, Babymugs.

Matt Heist is responsible for day-to-day operations as well as general
corporate strategy at High Gear Media. Prior to joining High Gear Media, Heist was senior vice president and general manager of Sidestep.com, where he was responsible for the company's core vertical search product. Sidestep was acquired by Kayak in December 2007. Prior to Sidestep, Heist was vice president of business operations at Yahoo, responsible for driving strategy and operations for Yahoo's vertical search and commerce listings properties, including Yahoo Autos, Shopping, Travel, Real Estate and Local.

Ari Soglin is Northern California regional editor for Patch.com and is responsible for a cluster of sites in the East Bay. Before joining Patch in December 2009, he was assistant managing editor for online content for the Bay Area News Group-East Bay. He is an award-winning journalist with 27 years of experience, much of it focused on community news and the last 10 on the online side of the business. He was the founding editor of GetLocalNews.com, one of the first online community news and citizen journalism networks. He also wrote the blog Citizen Paine on citizen journalism.

Andrew Susman co-founded Studio One Networks in 1998 with Bob Blackmore, and is the active CEO. He is in charge of the organization's quality, productivity, and competitive position. Previously, Susman was an executive at Time Warner and Young & Rubicam. Susman is the founding chairman of the Internet Content Syndication Council, which functions as the central resource for the industry on a variety of issues including quality standards in online content. Susman also serves on the board of the Advertising Educational Foundation and Business for Diplomatic Action.

If you'd prefer to watch sections of the show rather than the entire show, I've broken them down by topic below.

Pay Rates Sinking

An Issue of Quality

Push and Pull Content

Generating Story Ideas

The Local Angle

Credits

vegaproject-pbs-mediashift.png

Mark Glaser, executive producer and host
Corbin Hiar, research assistant

Charlotte Buchen, camera

Julie Caine, audio

Location: Vega Project & Kennerly Architecture office space in San Francisco

Special thanks to: PBS and the Knight Foundation

Music by AJ the DJ

*****

What do you think? Are content farms a danger to the public trust? What do you think about sites like Bleacher Report and High Gear Media that depend on contributions from amateur writers? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit.

news21 small.jpg

5Across is sponsored by Carnegie-Knight News21, an alliance of 12 journalism schools in which top students tell complex stories in inventive ways. See tips for spurring innovation and digital learning at Learn.News21.com.

This is a summary. Visit our site for the full post ».

July 23 2010

23:05

4 Minute Roundup: The Problem with Content Farms

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4MR is sponsored by Carnegie-Knight News21, an alliance of 12 journalism schools in which top students tell complex stories in inventive ways. See tips for spurring innovation and digital learning at Learn.News21.com.

In this week's 4MR podcast I give an overview of "content farms," sites such as those from Demand Media, Yahoo's Associated Content and AOL Seed that produce massive amounts of content for low pay. While there have been issues with the quality of content from these sites, they often provide "good enough" how-to information for people searching for it online. Blogger/journalist Jason Fry has been a critic of content farms in the past, but now takes a more nuanced view of them, saying he's more worried about how they affect readers and searchers than the journalism business.

Check it out:

4mrbareaudio72310.mp3

>>> Subscribe to 4MR <<<

>>> Subscribe to 4MR via iTunes <<<

Listen to my entire interview with Jason Fry:

fry full.mp3

Background music is "What the World Needs" by the The Ukelele Hipster Kings via PodSafe Music Network.

Here are some links to related sites and stories mentioned in the podcast:

Writers Explain What It's Like Toiling on the Content Farms at MediaShift

Your Guide to Next Generation 'Content Farms' at MediaShift

Beyond Content Farms series at MediaShift

Hey, Demand Media! Get Off My Lawn! at Reinventing the Newsroom

Comment by Demand Media writer about getting $100 per day at MediaShift

The 'Craigslist Effect' Spreads to Content as Free Work Fills Supply at AdAge


Content 'Farms' - Killing Journalism, While Making a Killing at The Wrap

Also, be sure to vote in our poll about what you think about content farms:




What do you think about "content farms"?Market Research

Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit.

news21 small.jpg

4MR is sponsored by Carnegie-Knight News21, an alliance of 12 journalism schools in which top students tell complex stories in inventive ways. See tips for spurring innovation and digital learning at Learn.News21.com.

This is a summary. Visit our site for the full post ».

July 22 2010

17:37

How Content Farms Train Their Writers to Write for the Web

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Education content on MediaShift is sponsored by Carnegie-Knight News21, an alliance of 12 journalism schools in which top students tell complex stories in inventive ways. See tips for spurring innovation and digital learning at Learn.News21.com.

At the core of every content farm's success is an ability to rapidly recruit and integrate new writers. Publishers like Demand Media, Examiner.com, Suite 101 and others are always hiring, always looking to expand their ranks and replace talent that churns out.

These operations rely on abundance: of contributors, of content, of traffic. More contributors means more content, which means more traffic -- but the constant influx of new people means their product could vary widely in terms of the quality of writing, and the ability of the writers to promote their work and drive traffic, among other key factors.

content farms logo small.jpg

Examiner.com has proven adept at bringing new writers into the fold. The site, which is in 250 cities in Canada and the U.S., has over 42,000 "Examiners" -- what the site calls its writers -- and is adding over 3,500 new ones each month. (Read our post from earlier this week to get an overview of what Examiner.com does.)

That's a huge amount of people to integrate, especially considering the fact that Examiners range from experienced writers to relative newbies who may have an area of interest but no writing experience. In other cases, an experienced writer may have little or no knowledge about search engine optimization and the best ways to promote their work online. Examiner.com deals with this by offering a variety of training and support resources to get people producing quickly, and within a set of guidelines.

Forums, Guides, Feedback

Sites such as Associated Content and Demand offer discussion forums where writers can exchange information and search for previously answered questions. They also provide access to editors or support staff. For its copy editors, Demand offers "forums, blogs, newsletters and other channels for you to communicate with and learn from your fellow editors." These editors, in turn, help ensure that all written materials adhere to the very specific guidelines established for each Demand property or client.

Suite101 offers a range of resources, including text-based tutorials, on-on-one coaching, and discussion forums. "We have created concise tutorials to help writers better understand how to implement white hat SEO strategies and to better understand the overall process of web writing," said Lima Al-Azzeh, the site's associate editor.

Examiner.com offers support services and discussion forms, but it has also been aggressive, and unique, in creating online, self-directed interactive tutorials. The site has created Examiner University, a standalone section of its site that offers Flash-based classes and other forms of training content that help get Examiners up to speed.

Inside Examiner U

Jason Stone joined Examiner.com six months after the site's April 2008 launch. Initially hired to be a channel manager overseeing writers in a specific topic area, he soon found himself spending time helping his Examiners understand search engine optimization, video embedding, social media and other necessary skills and tools.

"I would write emails to Examiners and it eventually occurred to me that I was spending a lot of time addressing the same issues over and over," Stone said. "I thought that there had to be a more efficient way to do this. So I started making documents and videos and distributing them to Examiners."

His training materials caught on and he was soon asked to take on this work as a full-time job. The result is Examiner University. Part of the core curriculum of Examiner University are its "101"-level courses that offer instruction in four key areas.

"Early on we decided there would be four pillars of types of courses which will be reflected in 101 courses: editorial; marketing to a growing audience; technical skills, because publishing online means putting tools in the writers' hands; and then information that is specific to Examiner.com, such as how our referral program works," Stone said. "If any one of those -- especially the first three -- fail then it's an overall failure."

There are currently 25 courses offered on the site, and the company expects to launch more after a new version of the Exmainer.com website goes live soon. (Examiner University is also home to a video guide to the new website.) The core courses are delivered using a combination of audio, video and text. Other course topics include "grammar considerations," "plagiarism," "finding photos online," "proofreading," "writing locally," and "SEO considerations," to name just a few. The "finding photos" and "writing locally" courses are among the most popular.

examinerlocalcourse.jpg

"Obviously, we have varying degrees of skill sets coming in the door," says Justin Jimenez, Examiner.com's director of marketing and PR. "A seasoned journalist might come in and skip over the editorial section but could be very interested in the marketing and social media component. The large value for us is continuing to enhance that quality and have offerings for different levels of skill sets."

Overall, executives at Examiner.com feel the courses are working, even though the company isn't permitted to require its writers to attend Examiner U. (Examiners are independent contractors and not employees, so the company can't tmake Examiner University a requirement.)

"Measuring success is kind of difficult in that it's not easy to quantify the effect that the courses are having," Stone said. "We look at the metrics and we now average about 4,000 course launches per week, and that number keeps going up."

Stone added that the average Examiner spends roughly seven or eight minutes per course. Though many courses are longer than that, each lesson includes a table of contents that enables people to skip to the parts they find most useful.

Feedback From Examiners

I spoke with a few current Examiners to see what they had to say about both Examiner University and their fellow Examiners. Here's a selection of their responses:

Sharon K. West, current Haunted Places Examiner and American History Examiner and a former writer for Suite101.com and Associated Content:

I've gone completely through the Examiner University, twice. I wanted to make sure that I understood their policies and how to upload articles and pictures.

I was also searching for information on current styles. During the time that I wrote for Suite101.com, the new style of Internet writing started coming into play. Things like SEO, keywords, and putting the most important points at the beginning of the article, rather than the old style of gradually working up to the mighty conclusion at the end. In some cases, in the old way, you told people what you wanted to tell them and then told them at the end what you already told them. Everything has changed for the Internet.

I made it a point to go through Examiner University before I did anything else, and in the process, it finally clicked in my head how to write in chunks, start out with the important things, and get those keywords in lots of times, as well as using headings and lists inside the article.

Brad Sylvester, current Manchester Bird Watching Examiner, Maritime Headlines Examiner, and Manchester Green Living Examiner; a corporate writer and a former writer for Associated Content:

Generally, when I ran into problems I'd go to their site and see the tutorial. As far as the 101s, I did go through all of those maybe two months in to see if there was a better way of doing things.

The most helpful were the ones that walked me through their publishing tool and told you what to expect and how it works. Also, there is a community where you can talk with other Examiners and I found that to be helpful as well. People would share best practices.

There are two camps [of Examiners]. There are some that are very experienced and some that have no experience -- and almost nobody in between.

Angele Sionna, current Early Childhood Parenting Examiner and Western U.S. Travel Examiner; contributor to eHow; former television news producer and a professional journalist for more than 15 years:

Initially, there was a feeling of a "workplace" and you got to "know" co-workers, most of whom were other professional journalists who write for a bunch of media...like myself. They used Examiner.com to write about their passions, whereas at some other jobs they'd write on other topics. I'm much the same way. Many of those journalists are still with Examiner like I am... but unfortunately there are also people with Examiner who really don't know how to write or even what to write about. They've tried to crack down on people who would report things just from other sites just to get page views. I was glad to see that, but some of those folks with no original content are still around and that part is frustrating to me...Though I have seen articles from people that do not have a journalistic background that are very well done, well researched and enjoyable to read. So it is really a mixed bag.

You know, I haven't checked what their current class offerings are lately, as previously I felt there wasn't anything of real benefit for me at the Examiner University. That's fine with me though. It is good they have tools for people who may be experienced writers or experts that need more help figuring out the ways of the web. Not everyone feels comfortable with the web or knows how it works.

To read more stories in the Beyond Content Farms series go here.

Craig Silverman is an award-winning journalist and author, and the managing editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He is founder and editor of Regret the Error, the author of Regret the Error: How Media Mistakes Pollute the Press and Imperil Free Speech, and a weekly columnist for Columbia Journalism Review. He also serves as digital journalism director of OpenFile, a new collaborative news site for Canada. Follow him on Twitter at @CraigSilverman.

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Education content on MediaShift is sponsored by Carnegie-Knight News21, an alliance of 12 journalism schools in which top students tell complex stories in inventive ways. See tips for spurring innovation and digital learning at Learn.News21.com.

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July 21 2010

19:22

How to Gauge Success Using New Metrics

Last week, I met with two people from a non-profit in Phoenix that looks at progressive policies to balance economic development with the environment. Land use and livable communities are two of their key talking points, so it seems logical that they should be aware of a service that encourages and enables people to use light rail to get around the inner city, right? For those unaware, that describes our Knight Foundation-funded project, CityCircles.

As we discussed CityCircles during the meeting, the inevitable question arose: How much traffic are you getting?

The answer, in all honesty, is not much at the moment.

But "hits" -- or page views, or unique visits, or whatever traditional web metric you choose to use here -- is not what we're looking for at CityCircles.

Our project is less about "how many" people are using the service and more about "how" people are using it: How they are interacting with it, with each other, and with the light rail community at-large as a result of our existence. I bring this up because it will inevitably be part of any early discussion you may have about your own startup.

The Battle For the Top of Search Results

Your answer will obviously be critical to how the project is perceived. For us, we do our best to follow how web usage is developing as new startups go live. One particularly interesting development is the mile-wide content creators like Demand Media, Associated Content and other related sites. (See the ongoing feature on these kind of content farms being published this week at MediaShift.)

In general, these companies pay writers of a general skill level to write about almost every topic under the sun for an extremely, ahem, modest fee. They are essentially choosing quantity over quality as their business model. (However, that is in the eye of the beholder, as any piece of content is capable of being high-quality to a particular user if it's exactly what they're looking for at exactly the right time. It just tends to be something that won't win any major journalism accolades.)

A really great story on this topic -- with a really great volley of thoughtful comments -- came out earlier this month on The Wrap.

There's a lot there to contemplate, but what I prefer to ponder is a post written by FoundingDulcinea's Mark Moran in December 2009.

He argues -- successfully, in my mind -- that sites like Associated Content and others will, over time, kill search engines' usefulness (if the search companies don't address this issue). The deluge of content from thousands of writers on multiple topics will come to dominate the top search rankings, thus diminishing the utility each user gets from that search. As some have noted, certain searches require you to wade through posts to get to the deeper results on a topic you are interested in, and this equates to being invisible in search because few users click past the first page or two of search results.

Metrics to Consider

Why do I bring this up for potential startups?

The impact these sort of sites can have may force you to re-think your own metrics. If page views work for you (and you should think beyond that), then that's great. Just remember to follow developments that impact search engines, because that is where validation for your project will come from as you talk to potential stakeholders.

If you'd like to consider other options, here are a few metrics we are tracking under our grant:

  • Number of registered users
  • Number of posts
  • Number of comments on those posts
  • Number of community improvement projects completed
  • Most frequently visited landing pages for light rail stops
  • Length of time spent on our mobile website (train schedules)
  • Interviews with users at our light rail events (anecdotal stories about light rail use)
  • Number and type of merchants participating in our light rail events

Food for thought -- especially at a time when startups have to score millions of page views to attract a whiff of advertising money, if that's your business model. Our model is based on a deeper experience of use, not just information consumption.

Start thinking ahead to answer that inevitable question.

July 09 2010

14:00

This Week in Review: Time’s non-pay paywall, free vs. pay in Britain and what to do with content farms

[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 Time quasi-paywall discovered: Thanks to some collaborative online sleuthing — OK, basically just wandering around on a website and asking some simple questions — we found out that Time magazine is planning an online paywall. Reuters’ Felix Salmon ran into the wall first a few weeks ago, but saw that it had disappeared by the next day. Then on Tuesday, the Lab’s Joshua Benton noticed it again, pointing out that this was an odd kind of paywall — one without any sort of way to pay online (“a paywall without a door,” in his words).

All Things Digital’s Peter Kafka got word the next day that the paywall is part of a company-wide strategy at Time Inc. to separate its print and iPad content from its online material. The Lab found out that Time does indeed have a plan to give that paywall a door and provide a way to purchase articles online, and The New York Times reported that this paywall sans pay is part of a gradual effort to retrain readers to pay for content online and noted that not everything from the magazine is gone from the website.

PaidContent’s Staci Kramer called the move not a paywall, but “the magazine equivalent of a condom” — a way to separate online readers from its print content. She noted that the move limits non-print access to Time to a very select group of people — namely, iPad owners. Essentially, it’s a hardware requirement to read Time magazine, something Publish2’s Scott Karp asked whether we’re going to start to seeing more of.

All Things Digital’s Kafka wondered why Time wouldn’t just offer its print articles for free if the magazine’s print and online audiences were as separate as they’re typically said to be. New York’s Chris Rovsar posited that the new wall is about protecting its $4.99 iPad app: If all your print stuff is available through the iPad browser for free, why buy the app? DailyFinance media critic Jeff Bercovici made the same point and argued that while Time may appear forward-thinking here, this move is really a regression. Newsweek’s Mark Coatney, a former Time staffer, was ruthless in his assessment of the strategy, saying that it all comes back to value, and Time hasn’t articulated why its print content is worth paying for, but its online stuff isn’t.

A paid-content contrast in Britain: Time was far from the only paywall news this past week: Three relatively small Gannett papers put up a $9.95-a-month paywall last Thursday, and the most important new paywall may have been at The Times of London and The Sunday Times, two of Britain’s oldest and most respected publications, which began charging for everything on their site last Friday. That development is particularly important because it’s the first move in the paid-content crusade that Rupert Murdoch has been gearing up for since last summer.

Steve Outing and Poynter’s Bill Mitchell noted that the Times’ paywall is among the most impenetrable we’ve seen yet in newspapers: All non-subscribers can see is the homepage, and even the headlines are blocked from online news aggregators. New York’s Chris Rovsar took stock of what The New York Times (planning its own paid-content system next year) could learn from how the Times rolled out its paywall, and basically, it boils down to, “Whatever they did, just don’t do it.” He and the Press Gazette’s Dominic Ponsford ripped the Times’ paid-content strategy, criticizing it for not being RSS-compatible, not linking, and giving away desperate-looking freebies. (Rovsar and Ponsford do acknowledge that the site is cheap and pretty, respectively.) British journalist Kevin Anderson used the Times’ paywall as an opportunity to light into the thinking that leads newspapers to charge for content online in the first place.

Meanwhile, the Guardian, another prominent British paper that is staunchly in favor of free online content, released a Wordpress plugin that allows blogs and websites to embed the full text of Guardian stories for free. (Steve Outing demonstrated with a post on the iPad.) It’s an unprecedented move, and one that made for a pretty easy contrast with the Times’ protectionist strategy online. Outing did it most explicitly in two posts, arguing that the Guardian’s strategy taps into a worldwide revenue potential, while the Times relies on its brand-loyal British readers. Murdoch “apparently still doesn’t understand that this whole pay-for-news-online thing is not about the needs of publishers like him. It’s about what the audience for news is willing to do and willing to pay for,” he wrote.

Learning from (and fighting with) content farms: Since acquiring the online content provider Associated Content in May, Yahoo has become the latest online media company to begin producing articles based on a calculation of search terms, including for its new news blog, The Upshot. The Wrap’s Dylan Stableford took a look at these “content farms,” focusing on why journalists hate them and what news organizations might be able to learn from them. (On the latter point, Stableford’s sources said content farms’ acute attentiveness to what people are interested in reading could be particularly instructive.)

One of the people Stableford quotes, NYU professor Jay Rosen, gets some extended time on the subject, and another, Jason Fry, posted some additional thoughts, too. Fry, who is quoted in the article as saying, “If you want to know how our profession ends, look at Demand Media,” clarified his stance a bit, saying that what bugs him is not the low pay, but the lack of quality. Still, he acknowledged that because of cost-cutting, many small- and medium-sized newspapers’ content is just as mediocre. Peter Berger, a CEO of Suite101.com, one of those content generators, said the concern from news organizations is a red herring, and his industry really presents the biggest threat to non-fiction books.

Canadian writer Liz Metcalfe voiced some similar thoughts, arguing that the problem with the “demand content” model isn’t the model itself, but the poor quality of what gets produced. Newspapers should find a way to incorporate the model while producing high-quality material, and beat the content farms at their own game, she said. On the other hand, Harvard prof Ethan Zuckerman said dictating content based on search would be a bad way to run a newspaper: “You’d give up the critical ability to push topics and parts of the world that readers might not be interested in, but need to know about to be an engaged, informed citizen.”

A private group called the Internet Content Syndication Council wants to do something about these dastardly villains, and they’re exploring a few options, including drafting a set of content-quality guidelines, licensing content syndicators and asking Google to tweak its search formula. CNET’s Caroline McCarthy wondered what a guideline or licensing system would do with bloggers.

Chronicling an accelerating shift to mobile: The Pew Internet & American Life Project released a couple of fascinating studies in the past week, the first on the future of social relations online and the second a survey of Americans’ mobile use. The latter study in particular turned up a raft of interesting statistics, led by the finding that 59 percent of adults go online wirelessly, including 47 percent of Americans with their laptops and 40 percent with their cell phones.

Poynter’s Mobile Media focused on the rise in “non-voice” uses for cell phones over the past year (Silicon Alley Insider has it in graphical form). The New York Times and Washington Post centered on the survey’s finding that African-Americans, Hispanics, young people and poorer Americans are among the heaviest mobile media users, with the Times stating that “the image of the affluent and white cellphone owner as the prototypical mobile Web user seems to be a mistaken one.”

Here at the Lab, Laura McGann seized on another tidbit from the study indicating that about a fifth of young adults have made a donation via their cell phone. She tied that finding to the public radio station WBUR’s attempt to find a way to allow users to donate via an iPhone app, something Apple doesn’t allow, asking how nonprofit news orgs might be able to find a way to tap into that willingness to give through their cell phones.

Reading roundup: Lots of really thoughtful stuff this week that’s well worth your time (I assume it is, anyway — maybe your time’s much more valuable than mine):

— The debate over objectivity and journalism raged on this week, fueled by the firing of CNN’s Octavia Nasr over a remark she made on Twitter. Many of the arguments circled around to the same ground we’ve covered with the Gen. McChrystal and Dave Weigel flare-ups, but I wanted to highlight three takes that stand out: Salon’s Dan Gillmor on America’s “technically good subservient press,” Jay Rosen on “objectivity as a form of persuasion,” and Mediaite’s Philip Bump on a journalism of individuals.

— Many new media folks have been following the fate of the nonprofit Texas Tribune, and the Columbia Journalism Review has a pretty definitive account of where they stand.

— ReadWriteWeb has a handy resource for zooming out and taking a look at the big picture — a summary of five key web trends so far at 2010’s halfway point.

— Spot.Us’ David Cohn takes a look at the short-lived journalism startup NewsTilt and comes away with some helpful lessons.

— Finally, Google researcher Paul Adams has a presentation on the problems with the way social media is designed that’s been making its way around the web. It’s a whopping 216 slides, but it’s a simple yet insightful glance at what feels just a little bit wrong about our social interactions online and why.

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