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June 13 2011

15:00

Eli Pariser: How do we recreate a front-page ethos for a digital world?

At the top of my summer reading list is The Filter Bubble, Eli Pariser’s new book that argues that the filters we rely on to make sense of the online world can do us as much harm as good.

While the book relies on familiar notions about the perils of the echo chamber, it uses those ideas as a starting point, rather than an ending, focusing on the algorithmic implications of all the echoing. One of the most intriguing aspects of Pariser’s argument is his exploration of the automation of preference — through the increasing influence of the Like button, through Google’s desire to make its results “relevant,” through various news orgs’ recommendation engines, and, ultimately, through media companies’ economic mandate to please, rather than provoke, their audiences.

That last one isn’t new, of course; news organizations have always navigated a tension between the need to know and the want to know when it comes to the information they serve to their readers. What is new, though, is the fact that audiences’ wants now have data to back them up; they can be analyzed and tailored and otherwise manipulated with a precision that is only increasing. Audiences’ needs, on the other hand, are generally as nebulous as they’ve ever been. But they are, of course, no less urgent.

So if we’re to truly gain from what the web offers us, Pariser argues, what we need is something like the kind of thinking that guided journalism through most of the 20th century: a notion that media companies serve more than, in every sense, pure interest. A conviction that news editors (and, more broadly, the fabled gatekeepers who exert power, even on the “democratized” web, over people’s access to information) have a responsibility to give people as full and nuanced a picture of the world as they can.

As much as we need filters, Pariser says, a web experience that is based on filters alone won’t give us that wide-angle view. And now, he argues, while online media remains in its infancy, is the time to do something to change that.

To learn more about Pariser’s thinking — and especially about how that thinking applies to news producers — I spoke with him when he came to Cambridge for a recent reading at the Harvard Book Store. Below is a transcript of our talk. (And apologies for the shaky camera work in the video above, which was shot in a bookstore office; apparently, I had a case of the Austeros that day.)

To begin with, I asked Pariser about a key aspect of this argument: the notion that the filter bubble phenomenon affects not only what the information we consume, but also our ability to put that information to use within a functional democracy. Here’s what we told me:

EP: What people care about politically, and what they’re motivated to do something about, is a function of what they know about and what they see in their media. We’ve known this for a while — that, for example, if you chop up television broadcast news, and show different sets of news to different groups of people, and then you poll them about what their preferences are, you get very different results. People see something about the deficit on the news, and they say, ‘Oh, the deficit is the big problem.’ If they see something about the environment, they say the environment is a big problem.

This creates this kind of a feedback loop in which your media influences your preferences and your choices; your choices influence your media; and you really can go down a long and narrow path, rather than actually seeing the whole set of issues in front of us.

MG: Interesting. So what should news organizations be doing, and how should they be thinking about this problem when they’re thinking about how they build their websites, and build their news experience?

EP: Well, I think, right now, it’s a little polarized. You actually have the old-school editors who say, ‘Only humans can do this.’ The New York Times, at least until recently, didn’t let even blog authors see how people were using or sharing their links; you had no sense of how you were doing online. That’s sort of one extreme. On the other extreme is this ‘if people click it, then it must be good’ mentality. And I think we need people who are smart about journalism to be thinking about how we import a lot of the implicit things that a front page does, or that a well-edited newspaper does — how do we import that into these algorithms that are going to affect how a lot of people experience the world? Whether — we might prefer that they not, but that’s sort of the way that this is going. So how do we do that? That seems like the big, exciting project right now.

March 02 2011

15:00

Dennis Mortensen: Are news orgs worrying too much about search and not enough about the front page?

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post from Dennis R. Mortensen, former director of data insights at Yahoo and founder of Visual Revenue, a New York firm that sells its predictive-analytics services to news organizations.

Dennis saw my talk at the Canadian Journalism Foundation in January and wanted to comment on the role of a news site’s front page in its success in assembling an audience. He argues that paying too much attention to SEO on current articles could backfire on news orgs.

In Josh’s talk in Toronto, he hypothesized that:

[The front page is] still an enormously powerful engine of traffic. I would say actually that for most American newspapers…it’s probably 70 percent in a lot of cases.

Josh is saying you should view the front page as a traffic channel unto itself, just as you’d think of Facebook or Google — something I wholeheartedly agree with. If you choose to view your front page as a traffic channel, you’ll also sign up for a different kind of data analysis — analysis that mixes external referrers with internal referrers. In other words, a link from the Drudge Report is no different than a link from your own front page, in the sense that they both should be viewed as channels to optimize.

I argue that the front page is the most important engine of traffic for news media publishers today. I would also argue that this whole notion of news media publishers being held hostage by Google — and the slightly suboptimal idea of optimizing your articles for search to begin with — is somewhat misguided. It certainly seems wrong when we look at the data.

In this analysis, it’s important to distinguish between two core segments: current article views and archived article views. To begin, I’ve chosen a set of very strict and non-favorable definitions to my conclusion. A current article is defined as an item of content that is directly being exposed on the front or section front page right now. Any other content not currently exposed on a front page or section front page is deemed to be an archived article.

We looked at a sample of about 10 billion article views, across a sample of Visual Revenue clients, and found that on any given day, 64 percent of views are on current articles, and 36 percent of views are on archived articles.

So on a typical day, for most if not all news media publishers, the largest portion of article views comes off of their current article segment — stories published today or perhaps yesterday and still being actively promoted. I find this analysis fascinating and almost empowering, for the simple reason that most current news events are initially non-searchable. If a revolution breaks out in Egypt, I won’t know until I’m told about it. Non-searchable translates into a need for the stories to be discoverable by the reader in a different way, such as on a front page, through RSS, or in their social stream — all channels the publisher either owns or can influence.

There is no doubt that search, as a channel, owns the archive. One can discuss the data of why that is and why it is or isn’t optimal — I’ll leave that for a later discussion. But today, let’s focus on the current article segment, by far the bigger of the two. Where do those views come from? Looking at the same dataset from our clients, we get a very clear indication of where one’s focus should lie:

Sources of current article views:

78 percent come from front pages
7 percent come from search
6 percent come from social media
5 percent come from news aggregators
3 percent come from news originators
1 percent come from RSS & email

(We’re defining “news originators” as sites where at least two-thirds of the stories excerpted and promoted on their front page are original pieces generated by the news organization — which includes most traditional media. “News aggregators” are sites where less than two-thirds are original, such as Google News, Techmeme, or Drudge.)

I doubt this front-page dominance is much of a surprise to most editors — but for some reason, it seems like we aren’t taking the appropriate action today. We have 78 percent of all views on current articles coming from the front page — that’s 49 percent of all your article views on any given day — and what do we do to optimize it? And why is it that so many news organizations think immediately of search when we write a new story, when search has minimal initial impact? Even worse, writing an SEO-optimized article excerpt title for your front page probably deoptimizes your results on current articles.

The front page is indeed still an enormously powerful engine of traffic. We now know that about half of your article views can be attributed to the primary front page or the section front pages — and with it a huge chunk of any news organization’s online revenue. The question, then, is what kind of processes and optimization methodologies have you applied to take advantage of this fact?

October 15 2010

12:07

A FRONT PAGE WITH NO REAL NEWS AND EMPTY WORDS: WELCOME TO THE UNNECESSARY NEWSPAPERS!

The King of Spain says some banalities (Education is the future, we need better universities, we need to fix some problems, and work harder) and the empty words become the front page of ABC in Madrid.

Again, “if you don’t play well, at least play louder”

Welcome to the unnecessary newspapers!

October 14 2010

18:49

THE VIRGINIAN PILOT FRONT PAGE PLAYS GLO-CAL

The story from Chile and the story from the Virginia Hampton’s NASA people helping in Chile.

A great “glo-cal” front page.

Bravo!

(Via Charles Apple)

October 05 2010

10:33

ANOTHER GREEN FRONT PAGE FROM DIARIO DE S. PAULO

DSP green cover

MARINA, the “green candidate” becomes the key-player of the second turn of the Brazilian presidential elections.

So Diario de S.Paulo plays again with the “green” issue with another great front page.

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