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May 23 2013

16:33

The newsonomics of value exchange and Google Surveys

whittier-daily-news-google-survey-paywall

What happens when a reader hits the paywall?

Only a small percentage slap their foreheads, say “Why didn’t I subscribe earlier?” and pay up. Most go away; some will come back next month when the meter resets. A few will then subscribe; others just go elsewhere.

So what if there were a way to capture some value from those non-subscribing paywall hitters — people who plainly have some affinity for a certain news site but aren’t willing to pay?

Welcome to the emerging world of value exchange. It’s not a new idea; value exchange has been used in the gaming world for a long time. As the Zyngas have figured out, only a small percentage of people will pay to play games. So they’ve long used interactive ads, quizzes, surveys, and more as ways to wring some revenue out of those non-payers.

It’s a variation on the an old saw that says much of life boils down to two things: money and time. It also brings to mind the classic Jack Benny radio routine, “Your Money or Your Life.” If people won’t pay for media with currency, many are willing to trade their time.

Now the idea is arriving at publishers’ doorsteps. It is being tested mainly, but not exclusively, as a paywall alternative. Yet, as we’ll see it, there may be many other innovative uses of time-based payment.

In part, this is part of the digital generational shift we might call “beyond the banner.” Static, smaller-display advertising is increasingly out of favor, with both prices and clickthrough rates moving deeper into the bargain basement. But marketers want to market, readers want to read, and viewers want to watch, so new methods that combine the marketing of brands and offers and the go-button on media consumption are au courant.

That’s where value exchange fits. Publishers are seeing double-digit, $10-$19 CPM rates from value exchange, and that’s more than many average for their online advertising. Annual revenues in the significant six figures are now flowing in to the companies that have gotten in early on the business.

The big player in publisher-oriented value exchange is Google Consumer Surveys (GCS), a year-old brainchild born out of the Google’s 20-percent-free-time-for-employees program (and first written about here at Nieman Lab). GCS now claims more than 200 publisher partners, including the L.A. Times, Bloomberg, and McClatchy properties. It says it has so far exposed some 500 million survey “prompts” to readers.

GCS will soon have more company in the value exchange game. Companies like Berlin-based SponsorPay, which offers interactive ad experiences in exchange for access mainly to games, is beginning to pursue publisher possibilities, both in Europe and the U.S, where half of its current clients are based. SponsorPay emphasizes mobile and social in its business.

L.A.-based SocialVibe, newly headed by hard-charging CEO Joe Marchese, is an ad tech company. It’s mainly oriented to non-newspaper media, especially TV companies.

How does this value exchange exactly work? Typical is the implementation at one smaller paper, the Whittier Daily News in the L.A. area., one of some 35 Digital First Media papers (both MediaNews and Journal Register brands) that have deployed GCS almost since its inception. Upon reading their 10th, and last, free metered article of the month, readers get a choice: buy a sub for 99 cents for the first month — or take a survey. “Do you own a cat?” for instance.

Publishers get a nickel for each completed response. Response rates tend to fall between 10 and 20 percent. “Completion rates” improve by targeting specific questions to specific audiences. The nickels add up.

For publishers, then, we have a new acronym: PAM, Paywall Alternative Monetization.

Consider the innovation a by-product of the paywall revolution. If you haven’t created a barrier to free access, you have less leverage to force wannabe readers to choose the lesser of two choices to proceed with their reading. Now, publishers can say, pay me for access with money — or with time. The time is short — measured in seconds or maybe minutes, depending on a video’s length or a survey’s questions.

What does the consumer get for answering a question? It varies. Respondents can get as little as a single “free” article, or an hour, or a day of access.

These programs can offer side-by-side offers. For instance, someone like a Press+ (which now powers some 380 newspaper sites) may power a subscription offer in one box, and Google Surveys or a SocialVibe can offer up an alternative in a neighboring one.

Digital First Media, long a public skeptic of paywalls, is using value exchange as an adjunct to its paywalls, many of which were deployed before DFM took over management of the MediaNews papers. While it is using it successfully as a paywall alternative, says Digital First Ventures managing director Arturo Duran, it’s also finding a couple of other ways to wring money out of surveys.

At many of its digital properties, including The Denver Post, its photo- and video-heavy Media Center hub offers Google surveys as speed bumps for continued access. Readers perceive value; enough of them are willing to pay with a few seconds of time to keep getting access to visuals. Similarly, Boston.com’s The Big Picture “news stories in photographs” uses GCS.

This approach, putting up a speed bump — in the form of a survey — instead of paywall explores the nuances of differing consumer valuation of differing parts of news sites. The Texas Tribune has offered a similar approach, having used Google surveys on its extensive data section. How often a survey is deployed can be adjusted by the publisher, working with Google, to maximize both revenue and reduce traffic lost. The search here is for the magic sweet spots.

The Christian Science Monitor is also an earlier surveys adopter. “We don’t have a paywall,” says online director David Clark Scott. “So we tried an experimental speed bump.” Those bumps were installed first on a single section, and now have grown, popping up on much of the site. One CSM twist: If you come to the site directly, you won’t see the surveys. If you come via some search, social, or other referrals, you will.

Digital First is also testing survey deployment for a group notoriously hard for the news industry to monetize: international readers. “We can’t sell [ads] in Kenya, Japan, and India,” says Duran. Instead of fetching bottom-of-the-ad-network prices, as low as 25 cents, surveys can return money in the whole dollars. One lesson so far: “It’s a much better experience than an ad,” for many readers, says Duran.

Publishers are also finding other ways to get readers to “pay.” At the Newton (Iowa) Daily News, the paywall also provides these two alternatives: answer a survey question or a share an article (via Twitter, Facebook, or Google+) in exchange for continued passage.

“It wasn’t about market research at all — it was about trading time for content,” says Paul McDonald, head of Google Consumer Surveys. McDonald, who developed the product along with engineer Brett Slatkin, says they tested out what people would most likely be willing to do, in exchange for some good. They tested a million impressions at The Huffington Post and found that question-answering was the most likable activity. Hence, Google Consumer Surveys.

“Most research is stuck in old ways — paper, email, and phone. It’s a stagnant industry, ” McDonald says. The industry, of course, has responded, offering its own critique of GCS’ rapid-fire — surveys can be commissioned and deployed within a day, with complete results, broken down by customized demographics (at an extra cost to survey buyers) within 48 hours — disruption of the market survey space. Still, industry reaction is more than mixed, with the positives of Google’s new technique winning adherents among bigger brands and smaller businesses. It’s a self-service buying technique, borrowing from Google’s flagship AdWords model.

Interestingly, Google itself is using Surveys to obtain consumer insight. Yes, the company that derives more data from our clicks than anyone still finds asking a human being a question can yield unexpected learning — which, of course, can be combined with clickstream analytics. YouTube is among the many GCS deployers.

It’s a new frontier, and one that I think offers a number of curious potentials.

  • At scale, if there is scale to the business, it’s about significant new sources of revenue.
  • As a paywall alternative, it may be a detour that leads back to the road to subscription. If a reader is engaged enough with a news brand over time — kept engaged in part through value exchange — maybe he or she will eventually subscribe. Does a value exchange-using customer have a higher likelihood of subscribing in the future? It’s too early to know, but we may have soon have sufficient data to see.
  • Value exchange could expand the ability to gain customer data. Each time someone trades some time for reading, she or he could be asked for an additional piece of profiling information. Essentially “registered,” that new customer becomes more targetable for subscription offers or advertising.
  • We can start to widen the idea of trading time for access. Remember the idea of the “reverse paywall,” espoused by then-Washington Post managing editor Raju Narisetti and Jeff Jarvis? Spend enough time with a news product, and get rewarded, they proposed. Value exchange begins to structure that kind of relationship, providing value both to readers and publishers. Rough equalization of value would be a painful process, but it may be doable through much experimentation.
  • Let’s combine two things: the rise of mobile traffic and value exchange. Mobile may not be ad-friendly, but customers might be far more willing to watch a video or touch through a quick questionnaire on a cell phone — and that can ring a different key on the digital cash register. “Mobile is already more diversified,” says SponsorPay CEO Andreas Bodczek, explaining that it is moving beyond gaming companies for value exchange and will soon include publishers.
  • GCS is an easily deployable tool for small- and medium-sized businesses. As such, it could be an interesting add-on for publishers’ emerging marketing services businesses (“The newsonomics of selling Main Street”). That’s a line Google could allow newspaper companies to resell, just as many resell Google paid search.

March 28 2013

12:52

April 12 2012

17:15

Google’s Richard Gingras: 8 questions that will help define the future of journalism

Editor’s note: At TechRaking 2012 today — a conference at the Googleplex in Mountain View, sponsored by Google and the Center for Investigative Reporting — a group of journalism doers and thinkers will be talking about how news and technology can evolve together.

Opening the gathering was Google’s head of news products, Richard Gingras, a man with longstanding experience in the space where news and tech meet, who provoked discussion by raising eight areas of inquiry that might prove fruitful for the day. Here are those eight, in the form of his prepared remarks.

These are extraordinary times. These are exciting times. There has been tremendous disruption, but let’s consider the huge positives that underly that disruption. There are no longer the same barriers to publishing: everyone has a printing press, and there are no gatekeepers. There are new ways for people to both consume and share news. There are powerful new technologies that can change what journalists do and how they do it. In my view, the future of journalism can and will be better than its past.

While technology holds great promise, it’s important to recognize that while technology has value it has no “values.” Technology, in and of itself, is not the solution. Yes, it can provide the means for solutions, but it is up to us to determine how to make it so.

We need to rethink every facet of the journalism model in light of the dramatic changes in the architecture of the news ecosystem. I’m not suggesting that everything must change, but a comprehensive rethinking is a necessary and valuable intellectual process.

I would therefore like to start out today by proposing several themes and questions to guide us at TechRaking and more broadly.

1. Addressing content architecture

The architecture of news content has barely changed. It continues to mirror the edition-oriented nature of the prior media forms — streams of articles that appear one day and drop into the archive the next. Can we better explore and adopt new approaches that, like Google’s earlier experiments with “the living story,” maintain the full expression of a reporter’s efforts in one place behind a persistent URL?

2. Evolving the narrative form

As McCluhan said, “Every new medium begins as a container for the old.” While early radio news began with readings from the newspaper, that model was quickly superseded by a shorter crisper style and form appropriate to the radio medium. In an evolving culture dominated by updates, posts, and bullet points, are there approaches to conveying in-depth journalism that extend beyond 5,000-10,000 word articles?

3. Creating the Reporter’s Notebook 2.0

We now have, effectively, no limit on publishing capacity and no technical barriers to realtime publishing. Since our medium can accommodate the full expression of the reporter’s work, is there not significant value in developing new tools to support a reporter’s day-to-day efforts?

4. Rethinking organizational workflow

Given current and future advances in how news is gathered, organized and presented, that also suggests a rethinking of editorial roles and organizational workflow? Are there new approaches that let news organizations leverage the assistance of the trusted crowd (e.g., Josh Marshall)? Might we benefit from systems that allow smaller news organizations to work together?

5. Exploring computational journalism

One major technological impact is the opportunity to use computer science to assist with reporting efforts, to parse massive data sets, to monitor public sources of data. Can investigative journalism aggressively leverage computational journalism to not only help with stories but eventually become persistent, automated investigative reports?

6. Leveraging search and social

Search continues to be a central source of news discovery, and social sources are quickly becoming important drivers of incoming traffic to news. Are there better ways to use search and social to not only drive audience engagement but inform them? Can we learn from the approach of sites like ProPublica that create a series of social posts, each disclosing an additional nugget of journalistic knowledge and wisdom?

7. Rethinking site design

Four years ago, many news sites saw half their traffic come to the homepage. Today, due to continued growth in traffic from search and social, homepage traffic is typically 25 percent of inbound audience. That means 75 percent of inbound traffic is going directly to story pages. How do changes in audience flows impact site design? Indeed, how do they cause reconsideration of the very definition of a website? Should we not flip the model and put dramatically more focus on the story page rather than the home page? Or, for that matter, that corpus of content and media we call a “story”?

8. Shifting to a culture of constant product innovation

The pace of technological change will not abate. If anything, it will continue to increase. To think of this as a period of transition from one state to another is unwise. This might not be easy to address but it needs to be addressed. How do we staff news organizations with the appropriate kinds of resources and the appropriate mindset such that constant innovation is imbued into an organization’s DNA and into the role of every participant?

With great technological change comes great opportunity, and with great opportunity comes greater responsibility. Our society’s need for credible journalistic knowledge and wisdom has never been greater. While the evolution of the web has been primarily beneficial, it also raises the bar. Among its many powers, the Internet has the ability to provide support for any opinion, belief or fear and give it greater volume. Sadly, political entities, interest groups, and media companies appear to know all too well that affirmation often sells better than information. The future of journalism can and, I believe, will be better than its past, but this will only be the case to the extent that all of us work to make it so.

January 12 2012

19:30

What would a Google News Plus Your World look like?

How soon until we get a Google News “Plus Your World?”

With the introduction of the oddly extraterrestrial-sounding Google “Search Plus Your World”, the company proclaimed their latest experiment is “transforming Google into a search engine that understands not only content, but also people and relationships.” The world of search gets split up and re-filtered through the things Google knows you like and information from the people around you.

Now, since the announcement there’s been much controversy over how “the things Google knows you like” seems to be driven almost entirely by Google+, not larger competitors Facebook and Twitter, which has led to cries for an antitrust inquiry. But let’s set that aside for a moment and think about what the underlying idea of Search Plus Your World could mean for Google News.

Here’s what we know of how Search Plus Your World works:

1. Personal Results, which enable you to find information just for you, such as Google+ photos and posts—both your own and those shared specifically with you, that only you will be able to see on your results page;

2. Profiles in Search, both in autocomplete and results, which enable you to immediately find people you’re close to or might be interested in following; and,

3. People and Pages, which help you find people profiles and Google+ pages related to a specific topic or area of interest, and enable you to follow them with just a few clicks. Because behind most every query is a community.

Let’s say you were interested in Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney. Taking the normal route through Google News, you’d most likely try searching for “mitt romney” or click on the newly added Elections header and get links to stories from usual suspects like USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and more.

If you dropped a “Search Plus” layer to that, what might you expect? If your Google+ friends are sharing stories about Romney, they might get shoved to the top. That would likely mean they’d be more closely aligned to your friends’ political perspectives; your liberal friends are probably sharing anti-Romney pieces, your conservative ones pro-Romney ones. (Well, unless they’re conservatives who don’t like Romney, but that’s another issue.) You might also see individual Google+ pages from Romney, other G.O.P. candidates — and maybe even the G+ pages of individual reporters who are covering the campaign and writing some of the stories you’re being shown.

That probably sounds a little familiar to what we’ve come accustom to seeing on Twitter and Facebook. But neither of those sites is fueled by the same combination of search and network. Twitter search looks at everybody’s tweets; Facebook’s news feed just flows on by, driven by Facebook’s algorithms rather than your search interests. Google has the search DNA, the news-crawling infrastructure, and at least the start of the network knowledge that could combine to make something new.

Those are pretty powerful assets and remain the reason Google still inspires animosity in some news executives and antitrust lawyers. A Google News Plus Your World (let’s call it “Google News+” for the sake of brevity) could in theory provide users a social news service that (whether they like it or not) knows about their browsing habits and social graph while also filtering “news” product out of the larger mass of the web.

Google News already provides tools for customization, but most (though not all) rely on users’ being interested in fiddling — yes to business, no to entertainment, more Wall Street Journal, less Cat Fancy. The genius of the social news feed is that it bases those decisions off of network data. You just need to build a network.

But let’s stretch the speculation just a bit further: the toggle. One of the more clever aspects of Search Plus is the ability to shift back and forth between normal and personalized search with one little switch. The toggle is a way to dodge the backlash that comes when any product is seemingly irreversibly redesigned (and built on seemingly self-serving decisions of the sort that gets lawyers involved).

For a notional Google News+, that little switch would be a dividing line for readers between the fire hose and a curated feed. It could also be, as Steven Levy points out over at Wired, the pin that pops Eli Pariser’s Filter Bubble. That kind of freedom, to jump back and forth between the personalized feed and the raw stream, is not common on news sites. The toggle is a promise of serendipity, but also the comfort of your favorite, trusted news service, which, if you are someone still mourning the transformation of Google Reader, could harken back to glory days of the RSS service.

One bit of groundwork is already laid for something like Google News+: the integration of journalists Google+ profiles into Google News. Connecting authorship to identity is an ongoing Google interest, beginning with the authorship markup language that spotlighted writers in search results. As Google tries to integrate social into every corner of their business, a fully social-fied Google News would seem like a logical next step.

December 01 2011

21:54

Amit Singhal: 9/11 led to the birth of Google News

Amit Singhal tells the story of how the idea of Google News was born: “When September 11th happened, we as Google were failing our users. Our users were searching for ‘New York Twin Towers,’ and our results had nothing relevant, nothing related to the sad events of the day. ..."

Watch the video on YouTube www.youtube.com

September 14 2011

09:24

PR disaster - Central Basin Municipal Water District paid $200,000 for positive "Google News" stories

Los Angeles Times :: Officials at Google News on Tuesday removed a website from its search index that had contracted with a local water district to produce promotional pieces “written in the image of real news.” The move came in response to a Times story on an unusual agreement between the Central Basin Municipal Water District and a consultant affiliated with the news website, News Hawks Review. Under the deal the water district, a public agency based in Southeast L.A. County, paid nearly $200,000 to a consultant to publish positive stories that appeared as articles on Google News.

Continue to read latimesblogs.latimes.com

July 25 2011

04:57

July 16 2011

06:30

June 30 2011

19:00

A year after its big redesign, how Google News is thinking about the best ways to present news stories

It’s been a year since Google News launched its big redesign, the first major update of the Google News interface since it launched in 2002. The revamp put a new emphasis on customized news content, focusing in particular on the social elements of news: personalization and, then, sharing.

The design you’ll see on the site today isn’t too far off from what was introduced last year. It still strikes a balance between personalization and serendipity, with a design that is dominated by a Top Stories stream, and filled out by customized stories, locally relevant articles, Spotlight-ed items, most-shared pieces, and other content.

But there have been tweaks, too, many of them aimed at writing into the service a happy medium within the polar aspects of news consumption: something between total personalization and total universality; between breadth and depth; between pre-existing interests and discovery; between want to know and need to know; between expectation and serendipity.

I recently spoke with Andre Rohe, the product’s lead engineer, to learn a bit more about the way he and his colleagues are thinking about news presentation as they continue to build out Google News.

News content: breadth and depth

One thing Rohe highlighted: Google News’ desire to help users indulge their curiosity about particular news events. Last month, Google News tweaked its interface to make it easier for users both to scan for stories that might interest them and to dig deeper once they’ve found them. The Top Story on Google News at any given moment is now expanded — which is to say, visually contextualized, with clustered links and multimedia offerings — by default.

The expansion-default UI emphasizes the diversity of coverage surrounding a given news event, Rohe notes. Links included in an expanded cluster (just like a regular cluster) might include opinion pieces, local and international news, in-depth articles, satire pieces, and, intriguingly, highly cited pieces. (Relevant Wikipedia articles are also included — since, Rohe notes, Wikipedia can often offer great context for news stories, and occasionally even offer news coverage itself.) Multimedia — videos, images, etc. — makes it into the mix through a slider mechanism at the bottom of the expanded entry.

The updated UI lets people “get into the breadth of the story,” Rohe notes — and breadth, in this case, can actually equate to its own kind of depth. Some big stories will generate something in the neighborhood of 20,000 news articles, Rohe notes. “The idea is, how can we get a good summary of all the aspects that are inside of these 20,000?” The even broader goal is to make it easier for users to dig into the stories that interest them, and to benefit, in the process, from the diversity of news coverage that has been Google News’ driving goal since Krishna Bharat founded it. (And Google News’ quite-logical-but-also-significant default expansion to the top Top Story, I’d add — a story that is ostensibly, if not always, one of some kind of civic import — provides users with a nice nudge of encouragement to explore the stories that are not only curiosity-inducing, but also just important to know about.)

Personalization: explicit and implicit

Google News is also doing a lot of thinking about the best ways to personalize news content for its users. The product currently makes use of two main types of customization, Rohe notes: the explicit and the implicit. Explicit personalization is the kind Google News emphasized in last year’s redesign, the kind that asks users to tell Google their interests so their news results can be appropriately tailored.

But you don’t always know what you like. So, starting this April, signed-in Google News users in the U.S. began seeing stories in their “News for You” feeds that were based not on their stated preferences, but on their behavior: their news-related web histories. (For example, within Google search and its other services, if you click on a lot of articles about Lady Gaga, Google News will serve you up breaking news about Lady Gaga.) “We found in testing that more users clicked on more stories when we added this automatic personalization,” software engineer Lucian Cionca explained, “sending more traffic to publishers.”

Google News is also experimenting with ways to combine explicit and implicit personalization — through an article recommendation process that surfaces stories users have exhibited an implicit interest in, and giving them the option to convert that into stated interest. (Have your web searches revealed a hidden passion for all news Gaga-related? Google will give you the option to make it official on your Google News feed — or to, you know, not.) Ultimately, Rohe notes, “it’s about making it easy for the users to say what they have an interest in.”

Mobile: updates beyond design

Google News, like so many other products at Google, is increasingly thinking in terms of mobile. In last year’s redesign, Google News launched an auto-local section, “News Near You,” that serves up geo-targeted news items. And this April, Google released a mobile version of Google News designed especially for low-end phones. The implications of news consumption’s shift to mobile platforms are, to repeat the obvious, huge; it’ll be interesting to see how Rohe and his colleagues address them — and how consumers adjust to the changes.

June 15 2011

14:31

Google News now has “expandable stories”

Google News recently introduced ”expandable stories.” Each story box is collapsed down to one headline, except for the top story. When a headline grabs your attention, click to expand and view related videos and photos as well as related articles marked according to genre, like “Opinion” or “In Depth.”


May 20 2011

14:30

This Week in Review: What Twitter does to us, Google News gets more local, and making links routine

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

Twitter on the brain: Last week, New York Times executive editor Bill Keller got a rise out of a lot of folks online with one of the shortest of his 21 career tweets: “#TwitterMakesYouStupid. Discuss.” Keller revealed the purpose of his social experiment this week in a column arguing, in so many words, that Twitter may be dulling your humanity, and probably making you stupid, too. Here’s the money quote: “But my inner worrywart wonders whether the new technologies overtaking us may be eroding characteristics that are essentially human: our ability to reflect, our pursuit of meaning, genuine empathy, a sense of community connected by something deeper than snark or political affinity.”

This, as you might imagine, did not go over particularly well online. There were a couple strains of reaction: Business Insider’s Henry Blodget and All Twitter’s Lauren Dugan argued that Twitter may indeed be changing us, but for the good, by helping make previously impossible connections.

Alexia Tsotsis of TechCrunch and Mike Masnick of Techdirt countered Keller by saying that while Twitter isn’t built for deep conversations, it is quite good at providing an entry point for such discussion: “What you see publicly posted on Twitter and Facebook is just the tip of the conversation iceberg,” Tsotsis said. GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram, meanwhile, defended Twitter’s true social nature, and sociologist Zeynep Tufekci gave a fantastic breakdown of what Twitter does and doesn’t do culturally and socially.

Two of the most eloquent responses were provided by Nick Bilton, one of Keller’s own employees, and by Gizmodo’s Mat Honan. Bilton pointed out that our brains have shown a remarkable ability to adapt quickly to new technologies without sacrificing old capacities. (Be sure to check out Keller’s response afterward.)

Honan made a similar argument: Keller, he said, is confusing the medium with the message, and Twitter, like any technology, is what you make it. “If you choose to do superficial things there, you will have superficial experiences. If you use it to communicate with others on a deeper level, you can have more meaningful experiences that make you smarter, build lasting relationships, and generally enhance your life,” Honan wrote.

Google gets more local with news: Google News unveiled a few interesting changes in the past week, starting with the launch of “News near you.” Google has sorted news by location for a while now, but this feature will allow smartphone users to automatically get local news wherever they are. ReadWriteWeb’s Dan Rowinski explained why newspapers should be worried about Google moving further onto their local-news turf, and GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram criticized newspapers for not coming up with like this themselves.

Poynter’s Jeff Sonderman, on the other hand, said Google’s feature is still in need of some human curation to go with its algorithmic aggregation. That’s an area in which local newspapers can still dominate, he said, but it’ll require some technological catchup, as well as a willingness to get over fears about linking to competitors.

Another change, not publicized by Google News but spotted by the folks at Search Engine Land, was the addition of an option to allow users to filter out blogs and press releases from their results. This raised the question, what exactly does Google consider a blog? Google told Search Engine Land it relies on a variety of factors to make that decision, especially self-identification. Mathew Ingram ripped this classification, and urged Google to put everything that contains news together in Google News and let readers sort it out. (Former Lab writer Zach Seward wrote about the problems with Google News’ blog label back in 2009.)

Fitting linking into news’ workflow: A discussion about linking has been simmering on Twitter on and off over the past few weeks, and it began to come together into something useful this week. This round of the conversation started with a post by web thinker and scholar Doc Searls, who wondered why news organizations don’t link out more often. In the comments, the Chicago Tribune’s Brian Boyer suggested that one reason is that many newspapers’ CMS’s and workflows are print-centric, making linking logistically difficult.

CUNY j-prof C.W. Anderson responded that the workflow issue isn’t much of an excuse, saying, as he put it on Twitter: “At this point ‘linking’ has been around for twenty years. The fact that this is STILL a workflow issue is almost worse than not caring.” This kicked off a sprawling debate on Twitter, aptly chronicled via Storify by Mathew Ingram and Alex Byers. Ingram also wrote a post responding to a few of the themes of resistance of links, particularly the notion that information on the web is inferior to information gained by old-fashioned reporting.

British journalist Kevin Anderson took on the workflow issue in particular, noting how outdated many newspaper CMS’s are and challenging them to catch up technologically: “It’s an industrial workflow operating in a digital age. It’s really only down to ‘that’s the way we’ve always done it’ thinking that allows such a patently inefficient process to persist.” Publish2′s Scott Karp gave an idea for a solution to the CMS mess.

AOL’s continued makeover: Another week, another slew of personnel moves at AOL. PaidContent’s David Kaplan reported that AOL is hiring “a bunch” of new (paid) editors and shuffling some current employees around after its layoff of hundreds this spring. Overall, Kaplan wrote, this is part of the continued effort to put the Huffington Post’s stamp on AOL’s editorial products.

One of the AOL entities most affected by the shifts is Seed, which had been a freelance network, but will now fall under AOL’s advertising area as a business-to-business product. Saul Hansell, who was hired in 2009 to run Seed, is moving to HuffPo to edit its new “Big News” features. In a blog post, Hansell talked about what this means for HuffPo and for Seed.

Meanwhile, the company is also rolling out AOL Industry, a set of B2B sites covering energy, defense, and government. But wait, that’s not all: AOL’s Patch is launching 33 new sites in states targeting the 2012 election. The hyperlocal news site Street Fight also reported that Patch is urging its editors to post more often, and a group of independent local news sites is banding together to tell the world that they are not Patch, nor anything like it.

Reading roundup: As always, plenty of other stuff to get to this week.

— We mentioned a Pew report’s reference to the Drudge Report’s influence in last week’s review, and this week The New York Times’ David Carr marveled at Drudge’s continued success without many new-media bells and whistles. Poynter’s Julie Moos looked at Drudge’s traffic over the years, while the Washington Post disputed Pew’s numbers. ZDNet’s David Gewirtz had five lessons Drudge can teach the rest of the media world.

— A few paid-content items: A Nielsen survey on what people are willing to pay for various mobile services, Poynter’s Rick Edmonds on The New York Times’ events marketing for its pay plan, and the Lab’s Justin Ellis on paid-content lessons from small newspapers.

— A couple of tablet-related items: Next Issue Media, a joint effort of five publishers to sell magazines on tablets, released its first set of magazines on Google Android-powered Samsung Galaxy. And here at the Lab, Ken Doctor expounded on the iPad as the “missing link” in news’ digital evolution.

— Columbia University announced it will launch a local news site this summer focusing on accountability journalism, and the Lab’s Megan Garber gave some more details about what Columbia’s doing with it.

— The Columbia Journalism Review’s Lauren Kirchner had an interesting conversation with Slate’s David Plotz about Slate’s aggregation efforts, and in response, Reuters’ Felix Salmon made the case for valuing aggregation skills in journalists.

— This weekend’s think piece is a musing by Maria Bustillos at The Awl on Wikipedia, Marshall McLuhan, communal knowledge-making, and the fate of the expert. Enjoy.

May 13 2011

14:00

This Week in Review: New business models and traffic drivers in online news, and wrangling over app ads

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

Leaving the old ad model behind: Much of the commentary about digital news this week was generated by two big reports, one on the business of digital journalism and the other on its consumption. We’ll start on the business side, with the Columbia j-school’s study on what we know so far about the viability of various digital journalism business models. As Poynter’s Bill Mitchell suggested, the best entry point into the 146-page report might be the nine recommendations that form its conclusion.

Mitchell summed the report up in three themes: The audience for journalism is growing, though translating that into revenue is a challenge; the old model of banner ads isn’t cutting it, and news orgs need to look for new forms of advertising; and news orgs need to play better with aggregators and sharpen their own aggregation skills. In his response to the study, Reuters’ Felix Salmon focused on the advertising angle, arguing that journalism and advertising have too long been linked by mere adjacency and that “when you move away from the ad-adjacency model, however, things get a lot more interesting and exciting.”

The New York Times’ story on the report centered on advertising, too, particularly the growing need for journalists to learn about the business side of their products. (That was media consultant Mark Potts’ main takeaway, too.) Emily Bell, a scholar at the center that released the study, said that while journalists need to understand the business of their industry, integrating news and sales staffs isn’t necessarily the way to go.

The J-Lab’s Jan Schaffer recommended that news orgs respond to their business problems by learning from smaller startups and incorporating them more thoroughly into the journalism ecosystem. And paidContent’s Staci Kramer advised news orgs to focus on regular audiences rather than fly-by visitors: “Outwardly we like to complain about content farms; in reality, a lot of what news outlets are doing to the side of those front-page stories isn’t very different.”

Facebook’s growth as news driver: The other major report was released by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism and looked at how people access news on the web. This study, too, found that despite a small core of frequent users, news sites are dependent on casual users who visit sites infrequently and don’t stay long when they’re there. Poynter’s Rick Edmonds conveniently distilled the study into five big takeaways.

The study also found that while Google is still the top referrer to major news sites, Facebook is quickly emerging as a significant news driver, too. University of British Columbia j-prof Alfred Hermida said this lines up with recent research he’s done among Canadians, and GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram said it showed that while Google is a dominant source for online news now, Facebook is primed to succeed it.

Meanwhile, the study also found that surprisingly little traffic to news sites is driven by Twitter. Lauren Dugan of All Twitter said this finding casts some doubt on the idea that Twitter is “a huge link-sharing playground,” though the Wall Street Journal’s Zach Seward said the study misses that Twitter referrals are undercounted.

The Twitter undercounting was one of several problems that TBD’s Steve Buttry had about the study, including inconsistent language to characterize findings and a bias toward large news organizations. “This study probably has some helpful data. But it has too many huge holes and indications of bias to have much value,” Buttry wrote.

Pricing ads and subscriptions on tablets: Condé Nast became the third major magazine publisher to reach an agreement with Apple on app subscriptions, and one of the first to offer an in-app subscription, with The New Yorker available now. (Wired subscriptions are coming next month.) Time Inc., which reached a deal with Apple last week, clarified that it won’t include in-app subscriptions, which would be where Apple takes that now-infamous 30% cut. The Financial Times, meanwhile, is still negotiating with Apple.

Forbes’ Jeff Bercovici explained why publishers may be warming to Apple’s deal: Turns out, more people are willing to share their personal data with publishers feared. Still, Mathew Ingram of GigaOM used iFlowReader’s bad Apple experience as a warning to other companies about the dangers of getting into bed with Apple.

Now that Apple-publisher relations have thawed, the New York Times’ David Carr moved to the next issue: Negotiations between publishers and advertisers over how valuable in-app ads are, and how much those ads should cost. Time.com’s Chris Gayomali wondered why magazines are more than giving away app subscriptions with print subscriptions, and concluded that it’s about getting more eyeballs on the print product, not the app, in order to maintain the all-important ad rate base.

In other words, Carr said in another post, publishers are following the old magazine model, where the product is priced below cost and the money is made off advertising instead. He questioned the wisdom of applying that strategy to tablets: “the rich advertising opportunity that will produce may be a less durable and less stable business than grinding out highly profitable circulation over the long haul.”

A postmortem on Bin Laden coverage: It’s now been close to two weeks since the news of Osama bin Laden’s death broke on Twitter, but plenty of folks were still discussing how the story was broken and covered. Gilad Lotan and Devin Gaffney of SocialFlow put together some fascinating visualizations of how the news spread on Twitter, especially the central roles of Donald Rumsfeld staffer Keith Urbahn and New York Times reporter Brian Stelter. Mashable’s Chris Taylor concluded from the data that trustworthiness and having active followers (as opposed to just lots of followers) are more important than ever on Twitter.

Media consultant Frederic Filloux was mostly reassured by the way the traditional news outlets handled the story online: “For once, editorial seems to evolve at a faster pace than the business side.” There were still folks cautioning against going overboard on Twitter-as-news hype, while the Telegraph’s Emma Barnett wondered why pundits are still so surprised at the significant role Twitter and Facebook play in breaking news. (“It’s exactly what they were designed for.”)

New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane gave the blow-by-blow of how his paper responded to the story, highlighting a few tweets by Times reporters and editors. Reuters’ Felix Salmon chastised Brisbane for not including Brian Stelter’s tweets, which were posted a good 15 minutes before the ones he included. The exclusion, Salmon surmised, might indicate that the Times doesn’t see what Stelter did on Twitter as reporting.

Google News founder Krishna Bharat compared the way Google handled 9/11 and Bin Laden’s death, marveling at how much more breaking-news coverage is available on the web now. The Lab’s Megan Garber used the occasion to glean some insights from Bharat about trusting the authority of the algorithm to provide a rich palette of news, but at Search Engine Land, Danny Sullivan used the Bin Laden coverage to point out some flaws in Google News’ algorithm.

Reading roundup: Lots of interesting little rabbit trails to choose from this week. Here are a few:

— ComScore’s April traffic numbers are out, and there were a number of storylines flowing out of them: Cable news sources are beating print ones in web traffic, the New York Times’ numbers are down (as expected) after implementation of its paywall, and Gawker’s numbers are starting to come back after dropping last year with its redesign.

— Last week, ESPN columnist Rick Reilly told graduating students at the University of Colorado’s j-school to never write for free. That prompted Jason Fry of the National Sports Journalism Center and Craig Calcaterra of MSNBC.com’s Hardball Talk to expound on the virtues of writing for free, though Slate’s Tom Scocca took Reilly’s side.

— Late last week, Google lost an appeal to a 2007 Belgian ruling forcing it to pay newspapers for gaining revenue for linking to their stories on Google News.

— Finally, two thoughtful pieces on brands and journalism: Jason Fry at Poynter on assessing the value of organizational and personal brands, and Vadim Lavrusik at the Lab on journalists building their brands via Facebook.

March 23 2011

22:54

Google News de-indexing Berkleyside: Bug, not snub!

You may have seen a blog post making its way around Twitter today: Lance Knobel, publisher of the respected local news site Berkeleyside (and past Lab contributor), noting the fact that Google News had suddenly stopped indexing Berkleyside articles. Headlined “Local news: we’re at Google’s mercy,” the post observed that Google News had stopped indexing Berkeleyside’s stories last Saturday.

Knobel wasn’t the only one who’d noticed an indexing problem. Over at Google’s troubleshooting forum for Google News publishers, complaints like nextgeneric‘s (“Google News refuses to tell me what I can do to get picked up again“) and jwuerfel‘s (“Up Articles not posting now“) were common, particularly over the last few days. Some speculated that their articles weren’t showing up in Google News because, in one of its periodic reviews of its news sites, Google had purged them from its database. As the speculation moved from the discussion board to Twitter, some simply expressed indignation at Berkleyside’s fall from Google grace. As Dan Gillmor put it: “Google News de-indexes local Berkeley site (founders include several former pro journalists), and no one knows why.”

Well, now we know why. A Google representative gave us the short — and, relative to the conspiracy theories, boring — answer: Not a purge, just a bug. Yes, Google News had indeed stopped indexing some local sites, but it was a glitch in the system, not a conscious choice. As Google’s Jeannie Hornung told me in an email:

Google News experienced technical difficulties that may have prevented the indexing of recent articles from some news sources. We believe all issues have been resolved. We apologize to our users and the sites affected.

So, case closed. It’s interesting to note, though, the passion with which people reacted to the notional axing of Berkleyside. (On Twitter alone, Knobel’s post got attention from the likes of David Carr, Felix Salmon, and Dave Winer.) More to the point, it’s understandable: Local news publishers often have odds, financial and otherwise, stacked against them. For many, a presence on Google News is a valuable — even invaluable — way for their work to get exposure and traction. (Many of them are competing, after all, with Patch sites, which have AOL’s mighty infrastructure to back them up.)

“Fortunately,” Knobel noted in his post, “there are many ways for people to find their way to Berkeleyside — the Chronicle is a firehose for traffic, Google search still indexes us, Twitter is wonderful, a nice number of people use our iPhone app, and we have a loyal following. But we’re a news site, damn it, and we want and expect to be indexed as such.”

November 19 2010

15:00

November 18 2010

18:06

Google News Meta Tags Fail to Give Credit Where Credit Is Due

Far be it for me to question the brilliance of Google, but in the case of its new news meta tagging scheme, I'm struggling to work out why it is brilliant or how it will be successful.

First, we should applaud the sentiment. Most of us would agree that it is a Good Thing that we should be able to distinguish between syndicated and non-syndicated content, and that we should be able to link back to original sources. So it is important to recognize that both of these are -- in theory -- important steps forward both from the perspective of news and the public.

But there are a number of problems with the meta tag scheme that Google proposes.

Problems With Google's Approach

Meta tags are clunky and likely to be gamed. They are clunky because they cover the whole page, not just the article. As such, if the page contains more than one article or, more likely, contains lots of other content besides the article (e.g. links, promos, ads), the meta tag will not distinguish between them. More important is that meta tags are, traditionally, what many people have used to game the web. Put in lots of meta tags about your content, the theory goes, and you will get bumped up the search engine results. Rather than address this problem, the new Google system is likely to make it worse, since there will be assumed to be a material value to adding the "original source" meta tag.

Though there is a clear value in being able to identify sources, distinguishing between an "original source" as opposed to a source is fraught with complications. This is something that those of us working on hNews, a microformat for news, have found when talking with news organizations. For example, if a journalist attends a press conference then writes up that press conference, is that the original source? Or is it the press release from the conference with a transcript of what was said? Or is it the report written by another journalist in the room published the following day? Google appears to suggest they could all be "original sources"; if this extends too far then it is hard to see what use it is.

Even when there is an obvious original source, like a scientific paper, news organizations rarely link back to it (even though it's easy to use a hyperlink). The BBC -- which is generally more willing to source than most -- has historically tended to link to the front page of a scientific publication or website rather than to the scientific paper itself (something the Corporation has sought to address in its more recent editorial guidelines). It is not even clear, in the Google meta-tagging scheme, whether a scientific paper is an original source, or the news article based on it is an original source.

And what about original additions to existing news stories? As Tom Krazit wrote on CNET:

The notion of 'original source' doesn't take into account incremental advances in news reporting, such as when one publication advances a story originally broken by another publication with new important details. In other words, if one publication broke the news of Prince William's engagement while another (hypothetically) later revealed exactly how he proposed, who is the "original source" for stories related to "Prince William engagement," a hot search term on Google today?

Differences with hNews

Something else Google's scheme does not acknowledge is that there are already methodologies out there that do much of what it is proposing, and are in widespread use (ironic given Google's blog post title "Credit where credit is due"). For example, our News Challenge-funded project, hNews already addresses the question of syndicated/non-syndicated, and in a much simpler and more effective way. Google's meta tags do not clash with hNews (both conventions can be used together), but neither do they build on its elements or work in concert with them.

One of the key elements of hNews is "source-org" or the source organization from which the article came. Not only does this go part-way toward the "original source" second tag Google suggests, it also cleverly avoids the difficult question of how to credit a news article that may be based on wire copy but has been adapted since -- a frequent occurence in journalism. The Google syndication method does not capture this important difference. hNews is also already the standard used by the largest American syndicator of content, the Associated Press, and is also used by more than 500 professional U.S. news organizations.

It's also not clear if Google has thought about how this will fit into the workflow of journalists. Every journalist we spoke to when developing hNews said they did not want to have to do things that would add time and effort to what they already do to gather, write up, edit and publish a story. It was partly for this reason that hNews was made easy to integrate into publishing systems; it's also why hNews marks information up automatically.

Finally, the new Google tags only give certain aspects of credit. They give credit to the news agency and the original source but not to the author, or to when the piece was first published, or how it was changed and updated. As such, they are a poor cousin to methodologies like hNews and linked data/RDFa.

Ways to Improve

In theory Google's initiative could be, as this post started by saying, a good thing. But there are a number of things Google should do if it is serious about encouraging better sourcing and wants to create a system that works and is sustainable. It should:

  • Work out how to link its scheme to existing methodologies -- not just hNews but linked data and other meta tagging methods.
  • Start a dialogue with news organizations about sourcing information in a more consistent and helpful way.
  • Clarify what it means by original source and how it will deal with different types of sources.
  • Explain how it will prevent its meta-tagging system from being misused such that the term "original source" becomes useless.
  • Use its enormous power to encourage news organizations to include sources, authors, etc. by ranking properly marked-up news items over plain-text ones.

It is not clear whether the Google scheme -- as currently designed -- is more focused on helping Google with some of its own problems sorting news or with nurturing a broader ecology of good practice.

One cheer for intention, none yet for collaboration or execution.

November 16 2010

19:30

Google News experiments with metatags for publishers to give “credit where credit is due”

One of the biggest challenges Google News faces is one that seems navel-gazingly philosophical, but is in fact completely practical: how to determine authorship. In the glut of information on the web, much of it is, if not completely duplicative, then at least derivative of a primary source. Google is trying to build a way to bake an article’s originality into its no-humans-used algorithm.

Today, it’s rolling out an experiment that hopes to tackle the “original authorship” problem: two new metatags, syndication-source and original-source, intended to attribute authorship, via URLs, into the back end of news on the web. Though the tags will work in slightly different ways, Googlers Eric Weigle and Abe Epton note in a blog post, “for both the aim is to allow publishers to take credit for their work and give credit to other journalists.”

Metatags are just one of the many tools Google uses to determine which articles most deserve news consumers’ attention. They work, essentially, by including data about articles within webpages, data that help inform Google’s search algorithms. Google itself already relies on such tagging to help its main search engine read and contextualize the web. (Remember Rupert Murdoch’s so-far-unrealized threats to opt out of Google searches? He would have done it with a noindex tag.)

The tags are simple lines of HTML:

<meta name="syndication-source" content="http://www.example.com/wire_story_1.html">

<meta name="original-source" content="http://www.example.com/scoop_article_2.html">

And they’ll work, Weigle and Epton explain, like this:

syndication-source indicates the preferred URL for a syndicated article. If two versions of an article are exactly the same, or only very slightly modified, we’re asking publishers to use syndication-source to point us to the one they would like Google News to use. For example, if Publisher X syndicates stories to Publisher Y, both should put the following metatag on those articles:

original-source indicates the URL of the first article to report on a story. We encourage publishers to use this metatag to give credit to the source that broke the story. We recognize that this can sometimes be tough to determine. But the intent of this tag is to reward hard work and journalistic enterprise.

(This latter, original-source, is similar to Google’s canonical tag — but original-source will be specific to Google News rather than all of Google’s crawlers.)

Google News is asking publishers to use the new tags under the broad logic that “credit where credit is due” will benefit everyone: users, publishers, and Google. A karma-via-code kind of thing. So, yep: Google News, in its latest attempt to work directly with news publishers, is trusting competing news organizations to credit each other. And it’s also, interestingly, relying on publishers to take an active role in developing its own news search algorithms. In some sense, this is an experiment in crowdsourcing — with news publishers being the crowd.

At the moment, there are no ready-made tools for publishers to use these tags in their webpages — although one presumes, if they get any traction at all, there’ll be a plugins for many of the various content management systems in use at news organizations.

The tags, for any would-be Google Gamers out there, won’t affect articles’ ranking in Google News — at least not yet. (Sorry, folks!) What it will do, however, is provide Google with some valuable data — not just about how its new tags work, but also about how willing news publishers prove to be when it comes to the still-touchy process of credit-giving. That’s a question Google News has been trying to tackle for some time. “We think it is a promising method for detecting originality among a diverse set of news articles,” the tags’ explanation page notes, “but we won’t know for sure until we’ve seen a lot of data. By releasing this tag, we’re asking publishers to participate in an experiment that we hope will improve Google News and, ultimately, online journalism.”

November 08 2010

17:00

Energy-efficient journalism, urban planning for news

I came across a great story in The Economist last night — a look at emerging systems of urbanism, part of the magazine’s “Special Report on Smart Systems.” In cities large and small, eastern and western, established and nascent, planners are attempting to bring some of the systematized logic of the world of digital design — strategic centralization coupled with strategic individualization — to bear on the urban landscape.

Take PlanIT Valley, an area just outside Porto, Portugal — which, borrowing the “service-oriented architecture” concept from the design world, is attempting to build itself into “the world’s smartest city.”

Much of the city, which is to cost about $10 billion, will rely on prefabricated parts; its foundation, for instance, will be made of concrete blocks that come with all the gear for smart infrastructures pre-installed. Eventually the entire city and its buildings will be run by an “urban operating system” that integrates all parts and combines them into all kinds of services, such as traffic management and better use of energy.

It’s a neat idea, for informational infrastructure as much as architectural: an urban operating system. Energy-efficient, generally efficient. An approach to civic space that is strategically comprehensive — the product not merely of collective efforts, but of collaborative ones.

We often talk about news as a collective endeavor, as an “ecosystem.” (In fact, if you’re in NYC tomorrow evening, in fact, you can attend Columbia’s 2010 installment of its “Changing Media Landscape” panel, an event whose title is as apparently unironic as it is permanent.) Culturally, though, and viscerally, we tend to understand journalism as a fundamentally individualistic enterprise: A world of beats and brands, of information that is bought and sold — an epistemology built upon ownership. And we tend to see ourselves within that structure as a system only in the broadest sense: small pieces, loosely joined. Very loosely. Individual news organizations — among them, increasingly, actual individuals — decide for ourselves the scope of our coverage, the way of our coverage, the details of our coverage. Because it is our coverage. While, sure, the market rewards niche-finding and, with it, comprehension — and while, sure, we’re certainly in conversation with other outlets as we go along — still, with notable exceptions, most of the discourse we have with our peers in newsgathering plays out via the calculation of competition. In general, we’re all Darwinists. Which is to say, we’re all capitalists — even when we’re not.

Ironically, though, the net result of that core individuality, for all the obvious good that comes from it, is often some form of redundancy. “Designs are often used only once, most buildings are not energy-efficient, the industry produces a lot of waste, and many materials are simply thrown away,” The Economist notes of industrial-age planning strategies, going on to cite a Harvard Business School case study finding that the waste in question accounts for a whopping 30 percent of construction costs. The architectural impulse toward ownership — in this case, the idea that urban spaces’ constituent structures should be singular rather than systematized — is both a means to beauty and artistry…and an inefficiency that’s quite literally built into the system of production.

A similar thing happens in news: In attempting to apply the aesthetic of individualism to a pragmatic public good, to put our stamp on it in a craftsmens’ guild kind of way, we often produce work that is unintentionally, but necessarily, wasteful — because it is unintentionally, but necessarily, duplicative. (Forty reporters covering a single press conference; 2,000 covering the Chilean miners’ rescue, etc.) Just as there are only so many ways to design an office building, or a parking structure, or a green space, there are only so many ways to structure a single news story. But structure that story we do, each of us outlets, because our individual missions are just that: individual. So we repeat ourselves. Repeatedly. And we resign ourselves to the repetition. (Google “Obama + coconuts” today and you’ll get over 2 million hits. Make of that what you will.) And then, because we need some way to control the crowded content of our own creation, we rely on external engineers — Twitter, Facebook, The Huffington Post, Google News — to impose order on the chaos. The coders become the curators become the arbiters. The news, as a civic space, ends up outsourcing the design of its own traffic flow.

Which may be fine. The whole point of a system, after all, is to overcome fragmentation with collaboration — which is exactly what we’re seeing play out, organically, in our news ecosystem. But what if, at the same time, we were more intentionally systematic about the news we produce? What if we applied the operating-system logic to journalism? While there’s certainly a systemic role for redundancy — duplication in journalism provides a crucial check against error, exaggeration, and the like (and, of course, it’s in nobody’s interest to develop the first one to come over the over-centralized oversight of news) — there’s something to be said, I think, for being more broadly collaborative in our thinking when it comes to the news that we — we, the news system — serve up to consumers. (Who tend to care very little about the proprietary structures — the beats, the brands — that defines journalists’ work.) A do what you do best; link to the rest mentality writ large.

The model we saw on display in outlets’ recent collaborations with WikiLeaks could be instructive; a nice balance of competition and collaboration could be one way to bring an digital-design sensibility to the news. Collaboration is no longer the province of utopians and/or nerds; increasingly, it’s defining the systems that are, in turn, defining us. Just as architecture understands that empty space is its own form of structure, journalism increasingly appreciates that connection — links, relationships, permeable borders — is a kind of content unto itself. Openness is architecture.

In a post earlier this year, Josh advocated for the development of a New Urbanism for news, a system of information delivery that offers “a retrenchment from endless sprawl, the construction of concentrated experiences, a new consciousness of how we obtain and consume.” As abundance edges out scarcity as the defining factor of our news economy, we’ll increasingly need to think about news production as a dialectic between creativity and containment. And as a system that, for the good of its consumers, balances the benefits of competition with the complementary benefits of collaboration.

Image via peterlfrench, used under a Creative Commons license.

November 04 2010

14:00

The Newsonomics of Kindle Singles

[Each week, our friend Ken Doctor — author of Newsonomics and longtime watcher of the business side of digital news — writes about the economics of the news business for the Lab.]

Maybe the newspaper is like the old LP — you know, as in “Long Play.” It may be a 33 1/3, though it seems like it came out of the age of 78s sometimes, a relic of the post-Victorian Victrola age. It is what it is, a wonderful compendium of one day in the life (of a nation, a city, a village), a one-size-fits-all product, the same singular product delivered to mass volumes of readers.

In the short history of Internet disintermediation and disruption of the traditional news business, we’ve heard endless debate of the “the content and the container,” as people have tried to peel back the difference between the physical form of the newspaper — its container — and what it had in it. It’s a been a tough mindset change, and the many disruptors of the world — the Googles, the Newsers, and the Huffington Posts, for instance — have expertly picked apart the confusions and the potentials new technologies have made possible. The news business has been atomized, not by Large Hadron Colliders, but by simple digital technology that has blown up the container and treats each article as a digestible unit. Aggregate those digestible units with some scheme that makes sense to readers (Google: news search; Newser: smart selection and précis; HuffPo: aggregation, personality and passion), and you’ve got a new business, and one with a very low cost basis.

None of this is a revelation. What is new, and why I re-think that context is the advent of Kindle Singles. The Lab covered Amazon’s announcement of less-than-a-book, more-than-as-story Kindle Singles out of the chute a couple of weeks ago. Josh Benton described how the new form could well serve as a new package, a new container, for longer, high-quality investigative pieces, those now being well produced in quantity by ProPublica, the Center for Investigative Reporting (and its California Watch), and the Center for Public Integrity. That’s a great potential usage, I think.

In fact, Kindle Singles may open the door even further to wider news business application, for news companies — old and new, publicly funded and profit-seeking, text-based and video-oriented. It takes the old 78s and 33 1/3s, and opens a world of 45s, mixes, and infinite remixes. It says: You know what a book is, right? Think again. It can also say: You know what a newspaper is, right? Think again. While the Kindle Singles notion itself seems to have its limits — it’s text and fixed in time, not updatable on the fly — it springs loose the wider idea of publishing all kinds of new news and newsy content in new containers. Amazon is trying to define this strange new middle, with the Kindle Singles nomenclature, while some have used the term “chapbook” to describe it. We’ve got to wonder what Apple is thinking in response — what’s an app in Kindle Singles world? What’s a Kindle Single in an apps world? It’s not a book, an article, a newspaper, or a magazine, but something new. We now get to define that something new, both in name, but most importantly in content possibility.

What it may be for news organizations is a variety of news-on-demand. Today, we could be reading tailored and segmented sections on the election, from red and blue perspectives, from historical perspectives, from numerical perspectives. Today, we in the Bay Area could get not just a single triumphant San Francisco Giants celebratory section, but our choice of several, one providing San Francisco Giants history, one providing New York Giants history, one looking at the players themselves; the list goes on and on. More mundane, and more evergreen commercial topics? Job-hunting, job-finding, job-prep guides, tailored to skills, ages, and wants? Neighborhood profile sections for those seeking new housing (pick one or several neighborhoods, some with data, some with resident views, others tapping into neighborhood blogs). It’s endless special sections, on demand, some ad-supported, some not; a marketer’s dream. Some are priced high; some are priced low; some are free and become great lead generators for other digital reader products.

A few recent initiatives in the news business news lend themselves to Singles thinking. Take Politico’s newly announced topical e-newsletters. Take Rupert Murdoch’s notion of a paid-content portal, Alesia, which had within the idea of mixing and matching content differently, until its plug was recently pulled. Take AP’s new rights consortium, a venture that could build on this approach. Again, endless permutations are possible.

Who is going to come up with the ideas for the content? Well, editors themselves should have their shot, though one-size-fits-all thinking has circumscribed the imagination of too many. Still, there are hundreds of editors (and reporters and designers and copy editors) still in traditional ranks and now employed outside of it capable of creating new audience-pleasing packages. Some will work; some won’t. Experiment, and fail quickly. The biggest potential, though? Letting readers take open-sourced news content and create packages themselves, giving them a small revenue share, on sales. (Both the Guardian and the New York Times, among others, have opened themselves up for such potential usage.) Tapping audiences to serve audiences, to mix and match content, makes a lot of sense.

Why might this work when various little experiments have failed to produce much revenue for news companies, thinking of Scribd and HP’s MagCloud? Well, it’s the installed bases and paid-content channels established by the Amazons (and the Apples). They’ve got the customers and the credit cards, and they’ve tapped the willingness to pay. They need stuff to sell.

For newspaper companies, it’s another chance to rewrite the economics of the business. The newsonomics of Kindle Singles may mean that publishers can worry less about cost of content production, for a minute, and more about its supply. Maybe the problem hasn’t been the cost of professional content, but its old-school one-size-fits-all distribution package. That sports story or neighborhood profile could bring in lots more money per unit, if Singles notion takes off.

One big caution here: Singles thinking leads us into a more Darwinian world than ever. In my Newsonomics book, I chose as Law #1: “In the age of Darwinian content, we’re becoming our own and each other’s editors.” Great, useful content will sell; mediocre content will die faster. Repackaging content pushes the new content meritocracy to greater heights. As we approach 2011, news publishers are hoping to hit home runs with new paid content models. Maybe the future is as much small ball, hitting a lot of one-base hits, of striking out as often — and of Singles.

September 23 2010

09:42

September 08 2010

14:30
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