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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.

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"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 04 2011

16:00

December 18 2009

14:13

KNC 2010: 101 Source wants your questions and the wisdom of experts

[EDITOR'S NOTE: We're highlighting a few of the entries in this year's Knight News Challenge, which just closed Tuesday night. Did you know of an entry worth looking at? Email Mac or leave a brief comment on this post. —Josh]

Jackie Hai traces the idea for 101 Source back to two projects she worked on while at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Market Meltdown 101 and Economic Stimulus 101 were video-driven websites that featured economic experts explaining complicated ideas in plain language:

With 101 Source, Hai wants to apply a similar model to a variety of topics. If it receives funding, 101 Source would be a hybrid product that’s one part video platform (a la YouTube), one part “answer” service (like eHow or KGB), and one part editorial information source.

Here’s how it would work: A user submits a question; the 101 Source staff tracks down an expert, asks the question and films the answer; the resulting video clip is then posted and categorized on the website.

The most intriguing aspect of 101 Source is its commitment to information gathering. There are plenty of sites where random questions can be posed to a community. Heck, Twitter is great for that. But few (active) sites feed questions to a staff whose sole purpose is to track down reliable answers. The Wilmington Star-News’ MyReporter.com is an analog, but that is more journalist-driven than expert-driven.

Hai said 101 Source videos could be made available to news outlets. “We’re leaning toward running it as a nonprofit service,” she wrote in an email. “Ideally, I’d like to see something like the ProPublica model take shape, where we focus on producing useful content that can be distributed widely.”

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