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May 26 2011

14:00

Topolsky and Bankoff on Engadget, SB Nation, and the new tech site that’s bringing them together

There can be a very real “through the looking glass” feel to working on a site that covers technology, especially when you start contemplating the technology of publishing. At least, that’s the situation Joshua Topolsky and his group of Engadget expats are finding themselves in as they ramp up to the fall unveiling of a new technology site that will live under the SB Nation flag.

“What we’re building and what we write about are the same thing in many ways,” Topolsky told me. “And for us that provides an incredibly unique point of observation.”

It says a lot about Topolsky, as well as his fellow Engadget-ites Nilay Patel, Ross Miller, Joanna Stern, Chris Ziegler, and Paul Miller, that while they could have spent the intervening time developing their new site in a bunker, they’ve instead decided to get out front and do what they do best, which is covering tech. They’ve been doing that on This is my next, their placeholder blog.

In migrating away from Engadget — and, in that, from the AOL/Huffington Post empire — the attraction to SB Nation, as Topolsky has written, came from the company’s publishing philosophy as much as its evolving publishing technology. As purveyors, chroniclers, and users of technology, Topolsky and his team are now in a unique position to develop a phenomenal tech site. It’s a scenario with Willy Wonk-ian overtones: They’ve been set loose in a candy store.

And yet, Topolsky told me, their aspirations are more modest than fantastical. If anything, they’re not looking to re-invent the blog or news site as we know them. They just want something that’s more adaptive both to the way stories are written and published, and to how audiences actually read them.

“We’re not trying to be Twitter or Facebook, as in this new thing people are using,” he said. “We want to be something that is just the evolved version of what we have been doing.”

The point, he said, is this: Reading on the web is an ever-changing thing, and publishers need to develop or embrace the technology that can respond to its evolution.

Topolsky isn’t releasing much information about the new site at this point, but in terms of his team’s coverage of the tech industry, he told me, they won’t be straying far from their Engadget roots. In many ways, what their Project X represents is an experiment in publishing and engagement technology, which fits in well with SB Nation’s M.O. One of the things they’re likely to be using on the site, for example, is SB Nation’s story streams, which provide constantly updated information on stories while also offering different access points to readers.

Though the site will also need to be able to accommodate things like multimedia (Topolsky said they it might use something similar to The Engadget Show for that, that that dynamic approach to narrative will work well for covering the latest updates on Google’s Android OS, say, or the tribulations of a phone producer like BlackBerry. “You write the news as seems appropriate and connect it automatically to a larger story, encompassing the narrative,” he said.

But what’s just as important as the tech, Topolsky pointed out, is an understanding between the editorial people and the developers, so when you need a new module or feature on the site both sides understand why — and how — it could work. In some of the more frustrating moments at Engadget, Topolsky said, he found himself having to plead his case to AOL developers in order to get site changes made.

That likely won’t be the case at SB Nation, which, as we’ve written about before, is more than willing to experiment with the blog format. It also helps that they’ve secured a healthy dose of new funding. When I spoke with SB Nation CEO Jim Bankoff, he noted that publishing companies are only as successful as the technology and people that comprise them.

“The foundation of our company is the marriage of editorial talent and technology, — sometimes I say people and platform,” he said. “We really believe that to be a new media-first company you have to be based on people who understand how to craft stories online.”

But other than trying to build inventive publishing systems out of the box, what makes the difference for SB Nation is its habit of addressing regular feedback from readers, Bankoff said. The developers at SB Nation, he noted, constantly update the sites based on comments from readers and contributors. If something’s in the service of making a better product, they’ll try it, he said.

Though the audiences for sports news and tech news have their own vagaries, there are some elements — cast of players, data points, and healthy competition — that they have in common. And those will go a long way towards helping to adapt and grow SB Nation’s publishing platform, Bankoff said. “Just like sports, there is an arc to every tech story — and we’re going to be able to really convey the various milestones across any big news item.”

February 03 2011

15:30

The Newsonomics of apps and HTML5

Editor’s Note: Each week, Ken Doctor — author of Newsonomics and longtime watcher of the business side of digital news — writes about the economics of news for the Lab.

Apps are all the rage, with The Daily’s taking center-stage this week. With tabletmania sweeping the country, you can almost hear the howls of publishers across the country, as they implore their IT chiefs: “Get me an app, pronto!” Consequently, there are many busy hands at companies like Mercury Intermedia, Verve, Mediaspectrum, Bottlerocket, Mercury Intermedia, DoApp, WonderFactory and the New York Times’ Press Engine operation, all of which are meeting the demand.

Apps are a wonder, a come-out-of-nowhere phenomenon that Apple invented for the iPhone and has been perfecting ever since. Apple just passed the threshold of 10 billion app downloads, and has spawned an entire new industry of entrepreneurs and rival (Android, Blackberry and Amazon) stores.

And yet, if you talk to tech people at the tops of news companies, they don’t focus mainly on apps. They talk about HTML5. If apps are the popular phenomenon of 2011, publishers’ on-ramp to digital reader payment, HTML5 is the future, they’ll say. And they are rapidly building the foundation for that future now.

I’m far from a tech expert, but I have talked with enough people to know that the unfolding behind-the-scenes drama of app and HTML5 development is an important one, vital to the future prospects of the news industry as it forages for new sustainable business models and forges new digital products for the mobile age. So let’s take a peek at the interplay between native apps (those we know from iPhone and iPad  innovation) and HTML5 apps (those quietly being developed in great number). Most importantly, let’s begin to explore the newsonomics of these technological changes.

Beyond Apple vs. Adobe

Most of us non-tech people first heard of HTML5 when Steve Jobs told the world last April why he wouldn’t allow Adobe’s Flash in his apps. The announcement was played by much of the press as an Apple vs. Adobe power struggle, but technologists tell me that Flash had had its issues for awhile. It made Google search engine optimization, key to everyone, difficult — and then Apple’s very public non-support gave a strong push to the alternative of HTML5. Yet the handwriting was on the wall. “We are abandoning Flash as a way to solve problems — with its coding and weight issues — for HTML, Javascript and CSS [cascading style sheets],” says Rob Covey, senior vice president of content and design of National Geographic Digital Media.

Now companies, from The New York Times to NPR to National Geographic, are rapidly building out both staffs and products based on HTML5, “rethinking interactivity,” Covey puts it. They’re also determining how that new, expected, pervasive interactivity — witness The Daily’s debut — will be accomplished most efficiently. The technology, they say, is the essential foundation for next-generation products, web and mobile, more elegant and faster than previous HTML in its presentation and more flexible in its implementation.

One big benefit: the browser-delivered HTML5 app experience is remarkably like our gee-whiz experience of Apple’s native apps. “The big deal here is is that there is no latency,” says Guy Tasaka, a New York Times Company and NewsStand alum, who now heads Tasaka Digital, a tech consultancy to news companies. That means that the fluidity we’ve all come to love about apps is built into emerging browser-based applications. It also means, as Tasaka emphasizes, “the sense of a beginning and an end…. HTML5 apps give the user a sense of a package.”

For a good tour of these apps, check out Paul Miller’s recent Engadget piece, which both describes the phenomenon and provides screenshots of HTML 5-based sites from Flixster and Amazon to the Huffington Post, USA Today (even with one for Google iTV) and the New York Times’ Times Skimmer, updated from an earlier version produced two years ago. Use these pages and you get a similar sensation to that of Flipboard’s on the iPad. (Flipboard CEO Mike McCue talks with Om Malik about HTML5+ here.)

So, in effect, the coolness of apps can be replicated, more or less, through the browser-based apps.

The app conundrum

The impact of an app-like browser experience is a big, and multi-edged, one.

On the tech level, it means a major re-training of staff in HTML5, a process that began more than a year ago at The New York Times, says Times CTO for digital operations, Marc Frons. (The Lab talked with Frons earlier this week about the paper’s new article recommendation engine.) “I knew HTML5 would have a major impact, but it has happened faster than I thought,” he tells me. Frons says much of that training, a reskilling really, is done — and that the company is well on the way to using HTML5 as the basis for most of its digital development. Rob Covey says that the retraining issue is a nuanced one, a smaller challenge with savvy developers ramping up their skills, and larger one for website producers used to using more basic coding to create pages.

On a business level, it creates a conundrum.

Steve Jobs not only created an unexpected revolution with apps. He also proved that people would pay for them. Indeed. Analysts say this new (native) app industry generated $5.2 billion in 2010 and could hit $15 billion this year. The great majority of that revenue is non-News, of course, but news publishers have begun to build their “paid content” hopes on apps nonetheless. The Guardian, The Washington Post  and CNN are among those charging small subscription prices for smartphone apps, but the big expected payoff is coming this year, as many news publishers see tablet apps as the route to cementing paying digital relationships.

Why? There seems to be some mental toggle that consumers do, swapping their demand for “free online” for a willingness to pay for mobile apps. Maybe it’s the perceived freedom of mobile. Maybe it’s the sense that we are buying something tangible — an app, a product — and making it our own on the smartphone or the tablet. Maybe it will last; maybe it won’t.

A balancing act

Yet if news technologists are right that browser-based HTML5-powered apps can deliver great experiences, then why do we need native apps? Some will tell you that apps are just a front, a way of productizing something that their new browsing experiences can deliver just as well. The power is in the code, not the app. But will readers pay for something they don’t own? Maybe apps will just become shells for delivering HTML5.

Which brings us back to the tablet. On the iPad, we can both consume news through an app and through a browser. Publishers report, among early adopters, a range of experience as to how much access comes via one or the other. As various paid tablet models go forth, this question may become a big one.

Publishers have to wonder: Is it the romance with discrete, ownable apps that consumers are willing to pay for, or is it the wider experience? We can see, in the makings of Apple’s evolving publisher subscription policies, an understanding of this dilemma. That may be why Apple is forcing news publishers to restrict browser access to news if they want to retain their direct customer relationships with readers — and continue to offer enabling apps through iTunes. There’s a balancing act here, in the uncertain interplay between native apps and HTML5 apps, as both publishers and Apple try to hedge their bets.

“Give it a year”

For now, it’s a twin development path. Apps are still a big news rage in 2011 — most would pay the price of admission to both the tablet and the paid reader content games — so the app creation companies are doing land-office business, and big news companies are creating apps even as they focus increasing peoplepower on HTML5.

Yet the promise of next-generation (later 2011-2013+) user experience seems solidly rooted in HTML5. That twin development is costly, a headache for smaller publishers, and still another factor separating out the big news boys — the Digital Dozen I identified in the Newsonomics book — from the rest of more local, smaller, more struggling news companies. Further, it’s just one more example of how the future of the business of news is rooted in technologies, from HTML5 to vastly improved analytics, which, among industry leaders, are now starting to drive strategy and execution.

In the end, we’ll see technological possibility and business heft mix and match in unpredictable ways. One technologist suggests that “application of the web using HTML5 is just a phase. Websites will eventually surpass apps in readability and usability as designers and technologists combine the best features of an app with the immediacy and depth of the Web.”

It’s hard to know at this point what that quite looks like, but, as he says, “Give it a year.” Then, though, business realities will determine how stuff gets built and sold. Remember those 10 billion downloads? The new app store ecosystem — not just Apple’s, but Google’s, Amazon’s, Palm’s and Blackberry’s — will drive some of that decision-making, as well.

[Image by Justinsomnia used under a Creative Commons license.]

September 23 2010

18:00

Peter Rojas on how a move away from blogging is a return to its roots

When Peter Rojas deleted his Facebook account a few months ago, it wasn’t because he hates social networks. The evidence? Rojas sees media sites heading in a social direction. At a talk on the future of blogging at Emerson College yesterday, he said that we’re headed for a return to connectivity, civil discussion and a bottom-up approach — the kind of things he says marked the early days of blogging.

Rojas founded the Gawker gadget site Gizmodo and went on to start its rival Engadget. In all, the half dozen properties he’s started since the early 2000s attract about 30 million unique visitors each month. That success at driving traffic is, in part, what inspired his most recent project, a networked gadgets site called gdgt.

Rojas thinks it will be increasingly difficult to build an online content business in an environment where quantity is the primary goal. The constant urge to publish more content and drive pageviews is not doing much for the reader. “[The web] is always trying to drive more clicks,” he said. “When everyone is doing it, it becomes a zero sum game.” When ads are sold on a CPM basis that requires huge pageview numbers to make money, publishers start pushing out more and more content. “It’s sort of a tragedy of the commons where the tragedy is our attention,” he said.

Rojas hopes his latest project will offer a better user experience that sidesteps those pageview demands. Gdgt is a discussion site that connects people to each other via gadgets — the ones they own, the ones they want, the ones they’ve left behind. Users contribute most of the content, in the form of reviews, ratings, and discussions. The site will eventually role out new tools that will let users build reputations. For an example of what the site is like, check out Rojas’ Gdgt profile. It’s not a news site in the way Gizmodo and Engadget are, and the founders hope that opens up more opportunities for innovative revenue streams.

Cofounder of the site Ryan Block pointed out that news sites have often rejected the use of affiliate programs like Amazon Associates, which give a small cut to sites that refer purchasers, because they believe they’d create a perverse incentive to write positive reviews. Gdgt is already experimenting with sponsored gadgets, like this Panasonic TV, where the site gets a cut each time a reader clicks through and purchases. Rojas said he can also envision relationships with companies as another source of revenue, along with pro accounts or even a research service.

The site is also running in-person events modeled after trade shows that usually only journalists and buyers get to attend. Despite a lengthy list of event sponsors, Block said he doesn’t see the events as a moneymaker, even in the long run, but an interesting way for the site to offer an “extension of the metaphor” they’re creating online — and another way to make the experience more social.

July 22 2010

07:00

The New Online Journalists #6: Conrad Quilty-Harper

As part of an ongoing series on recent graduates who have gone into online journalism, The Telegraph’s new Data Mapping Reporter Conrad Quilty-Harper talks about what got him the job, what it involves, and what skills he feels online journalists need today.

I got my job thanks to Twitter. Chris Brauer, head of online journalism at City University, was impressed by my tweets and my experience, and referred me to the Telegraph when they said they were looking for people to help build the UK Political database.

I spent six weeks working on the database, at first manually creating candidate entries, and later mocking up design elements and cleaning the data using Freebase Gridworks, Excel and Dabble DB. At the time the Telegraph was advertising for a “data juggler” role, and I interviewed for the job and was offered it.

My job involves three elements:

  • Working with reporters to add visualisations to stories based on numbers,
  • Covering the “open data” beat as a reporter, and
  • Creating original stories with visualisations based on data from FOI and other sources.

For my job I need to know how to select and scrape good data, clean it, pick out the stories and visualise it. (P.S. you may have noticed that I’m a “data is singular” kinda guy).

The “data” niche is greatly exciting to me. Feeding into this is the #opendata movement, the new Government’s plan to release more data and the understanding that data driven journalism as practised in the United States has to come here. There’s clearly a hunger for more data driven stories, a point well illustrated by a recent letter to the FT.

The mindset you need to have as an online journalist today is to become familiar with and proficient at using tools that make you better at your job. You have to be an early adopter. Get on the latest online service, get the latest gadget and get it before your colleagues and competitors. Find the value in those tools, integrate it into your work and go and find another tool.

When I blogged for Engadget our team had built an automated picture watermarker for liveblogging. I played with it for a few hours and made a new script that downloaded the pictures from a card, applied the watermark, uploaded the pictures and ejected the SD card. Engadget continues to try out new tools that enable them to do their job faster and better. There are endless innovations being churned out every day from the world of technology. Make time to play with them and make them work for you.

If you know of anyone else who should be featured in this series, let me know in the comments.

February 05 2010

15:35

4 Minute Roundup: Facebook as News Reader; Engadget Comments

This episode of 4MR is brought to you by GoDaddy, helping you set up your own website in a snap with domain name registration, web hosting and 24/7 support. Visit GoDaddy to learn more.

Here's the latest 4MR audio report from MediaShift. In this week's edition, I look at the rise of Facebook as a place to find news. Hitwise found that Facebook was the #4 referrer of traffic to news sites, after Google, Yahoo, and MSN -- and above Google News. Plus, the tech blog Engadget shut down comments after an influx of trolls, before relenting to open them again. And I ask Just One Question to Google News founder Krishna Bharat, who explains how 9/11 inspired him to create the service.

Check it out:

4mrbareaudio2510.mp3

>>> Subscribe to 4MR <<<

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

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:

Facebook Largest News Reader? at Hitwise

Facebook Could Become World's Leading News Reader at ReadWriteWeb

Creating Your Personalized News Channel at Facebook blog

Is Facebook, Not Google, the Real Global Newspaper? at The Atlantic

Facebook helps the news industry, but it's no white knight at VentureBeat

We're turning comments off for a bit in Engadget

Comments getting out of hand, Engadget turns them off at AFP

Engadget editor - Why I turned off comments at VentureBeat

Are Blog Comments Worth It? at Web Worker Daily

How Much Blog Would a Blogger Blog If a Blog Chucked Its Comments? at MediaPost

Commenting on Engadget - a human's guide at Engadget

Google News to Publishers - Let's Make Love Not War at PBS MediaShift

Here's a graphical view of the most recent MediaShift survey results. The question was: "What do you think about Apple's iPad?"

ipad survey grab.jpg

Also, be sure to vote in our poll about where you find news online:


What's your primary source for news discovery online?(polls)

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.

This episode of 4MR is brought to you by GoDaddy, helping you set up your own website in a snap with domain name registration, web hosting and 24/7 support. Visit GoDaddy to learn more.

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