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January 13 2012

15:00

Boston.com adds tweets to news feed for Your Town sites

The Boston Globe is quietly testing a redesign of its Your Town product on Boston.com to give the locally focused sites a more engaged, real-time feel. And “real-time feel” is short for a blog-like, Twitter-like stream of stories and information.

Your Town is a network of 50 sites dedicated to local news in the towns surrounding Boston proper, places like Cambridge (home of the Lab), Quincy, Salem, and Brookline. It’s the Brookline site where the Globe is testing out a new two column look — change from the three-column layout before — with a main well dedicated to aggregating local news and a left rail that’s home to ads, local services, an events calendar and links for SeeClickFix.

It’s a clean, open kind of design, which, on first glance is very bloggy and a little Twitter-esque. Jim Bodor, director of product development for Boston.com, said that’s exactly the idea. Over email Bodor told me they wanted to create a “dashboard for a reader’s community.”

“The design changes are aimed at giving the Your Town home pages a more social and real-time feel,” he said.

The Your Town sites, which are staffed by an editor and a writer, are by and large aggregators, combining regional town coverage from the Globe, but also incorporating local blogs and other community news sites (like the blog of the local police department). But the new look also aggregates individual tweets hand-plucked from locals on Twitter, displaying them inline with other news in the feed. A tweet earns the same visual rank as a Globe story, each its own solo news item.

It’s common for news sites to include Twitter widgets displaying their own tweets or those from trusted sources, but it’s rare to see tweets themselves — particularly non-staff-produced tweets — displayed as a unit of news. Bodor said what’s happening on Twitter is part of the broader news discussion in a community, one that a segment of readers already knows about. This amplifies that to a larger audience and creates a richer site, he said.

“Before we launched the new site, we identified prominent tweeters in Brookline who we know tweet regularly about local topics, and are automatically incorporating those tweets into the stream,” he said.

Employing Twitter makes for a good two-for-one opportunity. By sourcing and prominently featuring tweets from the community Your Town not only can add to the amount of content on sites but also extend a hand to readers and create a more engaged audience. That’s important because the Your Town sites are in a competitive local-news space that includes Patch sites as well as the Wicked Local network competing on school coverage, traffic and road updates, and sports from Pop Warner on up.

And now with the recent split between Boston.com and BostonGlobe.com, readers, especially those in the ring around the bay, have a stark choice to make between free and paid, not just regional and local news. A redesign, and the inclusion of Twitter, while not exactly earth shattering moves, could help move readers in the direction of Boston.com and Your Town sites.

It’s been three years since the Your Town sites launched and, aside from the usual town-by-town fluctuations, they maintain steady traffic. While not going into specifics, Bodor said Your Town “is driving significant, material traffic throughout Boston.com,” and is consistently among the 10 best performing parts of Boston.com.

Since the Brookline site went live a few weeks ago, Bodor and his team have been monitoring readers responses as well as any bugs or issues that pop up. They’re calling the Brookline site a beta, but plan to rollout the same design scheme across the rest of the sites in the next few months.

June 17 2011

05:47

Report finds a “surprisingly small audience for local news traffic”. What about Patch?

Niemanlab :: Local news outlets get less than one half of one percent of all pageviews in a typical market, according to a new report (free pdf download) called “Less of the Same: The Lack of Local News on the Internet.” Nikki Usher points out: "Patch makes almost no appearance in the data at all, suggesting that local and commercial online-only news enterprises aren’t reaching significant traffic numbers."

The report, commissioned as part of the FCC’s quadrennial mandated review of broadcast ownership regulations, was intended as a comprehensive look to evaluate just what the rough times in the news industry have meant for local news, according to Matthew Hindman, the author George Washington University professor who authored the report.

Continue to read Nikki Usher, www.niemanlab.org

March 25 2011

14:00

This Week in Review: The New York Times’ fees and free-riders, and tying community to local data

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

Debating the Times’ pricing structure: There was really only one big news story in the media world this week: The New York Times’ paid-content plan, which is live in Canada now and coming to everyone else on Monday. I divided the issue into two sections — the first on general commentary on the plan, and the second specifically about efforts to get around the paywall.

We learned a bit more about the Times’ thinking behind the plan, with a story in the Times about the road from its last paid-content system, TimesSelect, to this one, and an All Things Digital interview with Times digital chief Martin Nisenholtz, in which he said, among other things, that the Times didn’t consider print prices when setting their online price levels. Former Times designer Khoi Vinh also looked at the last couple of years, lamenting the lost opportunity for innovation and the legacy of TimesSelect.

There were a couple pieces written supporting the Times’ proposal: Former CBS digital head Larry Kramer said he’d be more likely to pay for the Times than for the tablet publication The Daily, even though it’s far more expensive. The reason? The Times’ content has consistently proven to be valuable over the years. (Tech blogger John Gruber also said the Times’ content is much more valuable than The Daily’s, but wondered if it was really worth more than five times more money.) Nate Silver of Times blog FiveThirtyEight used some data to argue for the Times’ value.

The Times’ own David Carr offered the most full-throated defense of the pay plan, arguing that most of the objection to it is based on the “theology” of open networks and the free flow of information, rather than the practical concerns involved with running a news organization. Reuters’ Felix Salmon countered that the Times has its own theology — that news orgs should charge for content because they can, and that it will ensure their success. Later, though, Salmon ran a few numbers and posited that the paywall could be a success if everything breaks right.

There were more objections voiced, too: Both Mathew Ingram of GigaOM and former newspaper journalist Janet Coats both called it backward-looking, with Ingram saying it “seems fundamentally reactionary, and displays a disappointing lack of imagination.” TechDirt’s Mike Masnick ripped the idea that people might have felt guilty about getting the Times for free online.

One of the biggest complaints revolved around the Times’ pricing system itself, which French media analyst Frederic Filloux described as “expensive, utterly complicated, disconnected from the reality and designed to be bypassed.” Others, including Ken Doctor, venture capitalist Jean-Louis Gassee, and John Gruber, made similar points about the proposal’s complexity, and Michael DeGusta said the prices are just too high. Poynter’s Damon Kiesow disagreed about the plan structure, arguing that it’s well-designed as an attack on Apple’s mobile paid-content dominance.

Are paywall loopholes a bug or feature?: Of course, any barrier online is also a giant, flashing invitation to get around said barrier, and someplace as influential as the Times was not going to be an exception. Several ways to bypass the Times’ pay system popped up in the last week: There was @FreeNYT, the Twitter account that will aggregate Times content shared on Twitter, and NYTClean, a browser bookmarklet that strips the Times’ paywall coding, allowing you to read the Times just like normal. The Lab’s Josh Benton noted how easy the hack was to come up with (four lines of code!) and speculated that the Times might actually want nerds to game their system, “because they (a) are unlikely to pay, (b) generate ad revenue, and (c) are more likely to share your content than most.”

So how has the Times responded to all this? A bit schizophrenically. Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. said the people who would find ways around the system would be “mostly high-school kids and people who are out of work.” And the Times asked Twitter to shut down the aggregating Twitter accounts (for a trademark violation) and extended its limit on daily search-engine referrals beyond Google. But the Times is also widening some pathways of its own, making it so you can’t hit the wall directly from a blog link, and offering 200,000 regular readers free online access for the rest of the year through an advertiser.

Search Engine Land’s Danny Sullivan mocked the Times’ behavior toward wall-jumpers as an effort to have its paid-content cake and eat it too: “This wall is designed, as best I can tell, only to be a barrier to your most loyal — and most stupid — readers.” Slate’s Jack Shafer made a similar argument to Benton’s, pointing out that online free-riders aren’t keeping paying customers from reading the Times (like, say, someone who steals a paper edition, as Sulzberger analogized) and are actually help the paper continue its influence and reach.

Adding community to local data: EveryBlock, a three-year-old site owned by MSNBC.com that specializes in hyperlocal news data, unveiled its first major redesign this week, which includes a shift in focus toward community and location-based conversation, rather than just data. All place pages now allow users to post messages to those nearby, using what founder Adrian Holovaty called the “geo graph,” rather than the “social graph.” Mashable added a few valuable details (notably, the site will bring in revenue from location-based Groupon displays and Google ads).

Holovaty answered a lot of questions about the redesign in a Poynter chat, saying that the site’s mission has changed from making people informed about their area as an end in itself to facilitating communication between neighbors in order to improve their communities. GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram applauded the shift in thinking, arguing that the main value in local news sites is in the people they connect, not in the data they collect. At 10,000 Words, Jessica Roy noted that the change was a signal that hyperlocal sites should focus not just on the online realm, but on fostering offline connections as well.

NPR on the defense: Two weeks on, the hidden-camera attack on NPR continues to keep it in the middle of the news conversation. Following last week’s vote by the House to cut off NPR’s limited federal funding, several media folks made cases to keep NPR’s federal funding alive, including the Washington Post’s Len Downie and Robert Kaiser and Poynter’s Roy Peter Clark. NPR host Steve Inskeep argued that NPR’s most important work has nothing to do with any liberal/conservative bias. “Think again of my colleagues in Libya, going forward to bear witness amid exploding shells. Is that liberal or conservative?” he asked.

Elsewhere, James O’Keefe, the producer of the gotcha video, and Bob Garfield of NPR’s On The Media had it out on the air, and DailyFinance gave a picture of NPR’s financial situation. Howard Kurtz of Newsweek and The Daily Beast wrote that some NPR journalists think that NPR management’s passive, reactionary defense of their organization is damaging it almost as much as the attacks themselves.

Reading roundup: Not too busy of a week in the media world outside of Timesmania. A few things to take note of:

— A quick news item: Journalism Online, Steve Brill’s initiative to help media companies charge for their content online, is being snatched up by the Fortune 500 printer RR Donnelley, reportedly for at least $35 million. PaidContent broke the story, and Ken Doctor wrote about the unexpected difficulties the startup encountered.

— At the New York Review of Books, Steve Coll wrote a thoughtful piece on the competing claims regarding technology’s role in social change.

— For the stat nerds: The Lab’s Josh Benton looked at the latest of the continual stream of depressing graphs flowing from the newspaper industry, and Peter Kafka of All Things Digital analyzed the source of traffic for some major sites across the web, comparing the influence of Facebook and Google.

— For the academic nerds: Here at the Lab, USC Ph.D. candidate Nikki Usher talked to media sociology rock star Herbert Gans about targeted and multiperspectival news, and Michigan Ph.D. candidates William Youmans and Katie Brown shared a fascinating study about Al Jazeera and bias perception.

March 11 2011

15:00

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 04 2011

16:00

February 25 2011

15:00

This Week in Review: TBD gets the axe, deciphering Apple’s new rules, and empowering more news sources

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

The short, happy-ish life of TBD: Just six months after it launched and two weeks after a reorganization was announced, the Washington, D.C., local news site was effectively shuttered this week, when its corporate parent, Allbritton Communications (it’s owned by Robert Allbritton and includes Politico), cut most of its jobs, leaving only an arts and entertainment operation within the website of Allbritton’s WJLA-TV.

TBD had been seen many as a bellwether in online-only local news, as Poynter’s Mallary Jean Tenore documented in her historical roundup of links about the site, so it was quite a shock and a disappointment to many future-of-newsies that it was closed so quickly. The response — aptly compiled by TBDer Jeff Sonderman — was largely sympathetic to TBD’s staff (former TBD manager Jim Brady even wrote a pitch to prospective employers on behalf of the newly laid off community engagement team). Many observers on Twitter (and Terry Heaton on his blogpointed squarely at Allbritton for the site’s demise, with The Batavian’s Howard Owens drawing out a short, thoughtful lesson: “Legacy managers will nearly always sabotage innovation. Wall of separation necessary between innovators and legacy.”

Blogger Mike Clark pointed out that TBD’s traffic was beating each of the other D.C. TV news sites and growing as well. The Washington Post reported that while traffic wasn’t a problem, turning it into revenue was — though the fact that TBD’s ads were handled by WJLA staffers might have contributed to that.

Mallary Jean Tenore wrote an insightful article talking to some TBD folks about whether their company gave them a chance to fail. Lehigh j-prof Jeremy Littau was unequivocal on the subject: “Some of us have been talking today on Twitter about whether TBD failed. Nonsense. TBD wasn’t given enough time to fail.”

While CUNY j-prof Jeff Jarvis lamented that “TBD will be painted as a failure of local news online when it’s a failure of its company, nothing more,” others saw some larger implications for other online local news projects. Media analyst Alan Mutter concluded that TBD’s plight is “further evidence that hyperlocal journalism is more hype than hope for the news business,” and Poynter’s Rick Edmonds gave six business lessons for similar projects from TBD’s struggles. Journal Register Co. CEO John Paton ripped Edmonds’ analysis, arguing that Allbritton “can’t pretend to have seriously tried the hyperlocal business space after a six-month experiment it derailed half-way in.”

Applying Apple’s new rules: Publishers’ consternation over Apple’s new subscription plan for mobile devices continued this week, with Frederic Filloux at Monday Note laying out many publishers’ frustrations with Apple’s proposal. The New York Times’ David Carr and The Guardian’s Josh Halliday both covered publishers’ Apple subscription conundrum, and one expert told Carr, “If you are a publisher, it puts things into a tailspin: The business model you have been working with for many years just lost 30 percent off the top.”

At paidContent, James McQuivey made the case for a lower revenue share for Apple, and Dan Gillmor wondered whether publishers will stand up to Apple. The company may also be facing scrutiny from the U.S. Justice Department and Federal Trade Commission for possible antitrust violations, The Wall Street Journal reported.

The fresh issue regarding Apple’s subscription policy this week, though, was the distinction between publishing apps and more service-oriented apps. The topic came to the fore when the folks from Readability, an app that allows users to read articles in an advertising-free environment, wrote an open letter ripping Apple for rejecting their app, saying their new policy “smacks of greed.” Ars Technica’s Chris Foresman and Apple blogger John Gruber noted, though, that Readability’s 30%-off-the-top business model is a lot like Apple’s.

Then Apple’s Steve Jobs sent a short, cryptic email to a developer saying that Apple’s new policy applies only to publishing apps, not service apps. This, of course, raised the question, in TechCrunch’s words, ”What’s a publishing app?” That’s a very complex question, and as Instapaper founder Marco Arment wrote, one that will be difficult for Apple to answer consistently. Arment also briefly noted that Jobs’ statement seems to contradict the language of Apple’s new guidelines.

Giving voice to new sources of news: This month’s Carnival of Journalism, posted late last week, focused on ways to increase the number of news sources. It’s a broad question, and it drew a broad variety of answers, which were ably summarized by Courtney Shove. I’m not going to try to duplicate her work here, but I do want to highlight a few of the themes that showed up.

David Cohn, the Carnival’s organizer, gave a great big-picture perspective to the issue, putting it in the context of power and the web. Kim Bui and Dan Fenster defended the community-driven vision for news, with Bui calling journalists to go further: “Let’s admit it, we’ve never trusted the public.” There were several calls for journalists to include more underrepresented voices, with reports and ideas like a refugee news initiative, digital news bus, youth journalism projects, and initiatives for youth in foreign-language families.

The J-Lab’s Jan Schaffer gave 10 good ideas to the cause, and Drury j-prof Jonathan Groves and Gannett’s Ryan Sholin shared their ideas for local citizen news projects, while TheUpTake’s Jason Barnett endorsed a new citizen-journalism app called iBreakNews.

Three bloggers, however, objected to the Carnival’s premise in the first place. Daniel Bachhuber of CUNY argued that improving journalism doesn’t necessarily mean adding more sources, recommending instead that “Instead of increasing the number of news sources, we should focus on producing durable data and the equivalent tools for remixing it.” Lauren Rabaino warned against news oversaturation, and the University of Colorado’s Steve Outing said that more than new sources, we need better filters and hubs for them.

Blogging’s continued evolution: The “blogging is dead” argument has popped up from time to time, and it was revived again this week in the form of a New York Times story about how young people are leaving blogs for social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. Several people countered the argument, led by GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram, who said that blogging isn’t declining, but is instead evolving into more of a continuum that includes microblogging services like Twitter, traditional blog formats like Wordpress, and the hybrid that is Tumblr. He and Wordpress founding developer Matt Mullenweg shared the same view — that “people of all ages are becoming more and more comfortable publishing online,” no matter the form.

Scott Rosenberg, who’s written a history of blogging, looked at statistics to make the point, noting that 14 percent of online adults keep a blog, a number he called astounding, even if it starts to decline. “As the online population becomes closer to universal, that is an extraordinary thing: One in ten people writing in public. Our civilization has never seen anything like it.” In addition, Reuters’ Anthony DeRosa argued that longer-form blogging has always been a pursuit of older Internet users.

Reading roundup: I’ve got a few ongoing stories to update you on, and a sampling of an unusually rich week in thoughtful pieces.

— A couple of sites took a peek at Gawker’s traffic statistics to try to determine the effectiveness of its recent redesign. TechCrunch saw an ugly picture; Business Insider was cautiously optimistic based on the same data. Gawker disputed TechCrunch’s numbers, and Terry Heaton tried to sort through the claims.

— A couple of Middle East/North Africa protest notes: The New York Times told us about the response to Egypt’s Internet blackout and the role of mobile technology in documenting the protests. And Amy Gahran of the Knight Digital Media Center gave some lessons from the incredible Twitter journalism of NPR’s Andy Carvin.

— The Daily is coming to Android tablets this spring, and its free trial run has been extended beyond the initial two weeks.

— Matt DeRienzo of the Journal Register Co. wrote about an intriguing idea for a news org/j-school merger.

— Alan Mutter made the case for ending federal funding for public journalism.

— At 10,000 Words, Lauren Rabaino had some awesome things news organizations can learn from tech startups, including thinking of news as software and embracing transparency.

— And here at the Lab, Northwestern prof Pablo Boczkowski gave some quick thoughts on how we tend to associate online news with work, and what that means. He sheds some light about an under-considered aspect of news — the social environments in which we consume it.

October 08 2010

14:00

This Week in Review: A surprisingly sensible move online, two ugly falls, and questioning hyperlocal news

[Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week's top stories about the future of news and the debates that grew up around them. —Josh]

Another old-media stalwart goes online: This week’s biggest story is a lot more interesting for media geeks than for those more on the tech side, but I think it does have some value as a sort of symbolic moment. Howard Kurtz, who’s been The Washington Post’s media writer for pretty much all of its recent history, jumped this week to The Daily Beast, the aggregation and news site run by former magazine star Tina Brown and media mogul Barry Diller. Kurtz will head the site’s D.C. bureau and write about media and politics. He’s about as traditional/insider Washington media as they come (he also hosts CNN’s Reliable Sources), so seeing him move to an online-only operation that has little Beltway presence was surprising to a lot of media watchers.

So why’d he do it? In the announcement story at The Daily Beast, Kurtz said it was “the challenge of fast-paced online journalism” that drew him in. In interviews with TBD, Yahoo News and The New York Times, Kurtz referred to himself as an “online entrepreneur” who hopes to find it easier to innovate at a two-year-old web publication than within a hulking institution like the Post. “If you want to get out there and invent something new, maybe it is better to try to do that at a young place that’s still growing,” he told TBD.

Kurtz has his critics, and while there are some (like the American Journalism Review’s Rem Rieder) who saw this as a benchmark event for web journalism, several others didn’t see The Daily Beast as the plucky, outsider startup Kurtz made it out to be. PaidContent’s David Kaplan said that with folks like Brown and Diller involved, The Daily Beast has a lot of old media in its blood. (It may merge with Newsweek soon.) Salon’s Alex Pareene made the point more sharply, saying he was going to work for his “rich friend’s cheap-content farm” for a “fat check and a fancy title.” As Rachel Sklar told Politico (in a much kinder take), for Kurtz, this is “risk, but padded risk.”

Maybe the fact that this move isn’t nearly as shockingly risky as it used to be is the main cultural shift we’re seeing, argued Poynter’s Steve Myers in the most thoughtful piece on this issue. Kurtz is following a trail already blazed by innovators who have helped web journalism become financially mature enough to make this decision easy, Myers said. “Kurtz’s move isn’t risky or edgy; it’s well-reasoned and practical — which says more about the state of online media than it does about his own career path,” Myers wrote. For his part, Kurtz said that his departure from the Post doesn’t symbolize the death of print, but it does say something about the energy and excitement on the web.

Of course, people immediately started drawing up lists of who should replace Kurtz at the Post, but the most worthwhile item on that front is the advice for Howard Kurtz’s replacement by Clint Hendler of the Columbia Journalism Review. Hendler argued we’d be better off with a media critic than with another studiously balanced media writer. According to Hendler, that requires “someone who is willing to, as the case warrants, state opinions, poke fun, call sides, and make enemies.”

A reporter and a newspaper chain’s sad scandals: Two media scandals dominated the news about the news this week. First, Rick Sanchez up and got himself fired by CNN last Friday for a radio rant in which he called Jon Stewart a bigot and suggested that Jews run the news media. Sanchez apologized a few days later, and The Huffington Post’s Chez Pazienza mined the incident for clues of what CNN/Rick Sanchez relations were like behind the scenes.

There are a couple of minor angles to this that might interest future-of-news folks: Joe Gandelman at The Moderate Voice used the situation to point out that those in the news media are being targeted more severely by partisans on both sides. (We got better examples of this with the Dave Weigel, Octavia Nasr and Helen Thomas snafus this summer.) Also, Sanchez was one of the news industry’s most popular figures on Twitter, and his account, @RickSanchezCNN, may die. Lost Remote said it’s a reminder for journalists to create Twitter accounts in their own names, not just in their employers’.

Second, The New York Times’ David Carr detailed a litany of examples of a frat-boy, shock-jock culture that’s taken over the Tribune Co. since Sam Zell bought it in 2007. (Gawker and New York gave us punchy summaries of the revelations.) The Tribune is possibly the biggest and clearest example of the newspaper industry’s disastrous decline over the past few years, and this article simply adds more fuel to the fire. The Columbia Journalism Review’s Ryan Chittum noted that the article also contains the first report of Zell directly intervening in news coverage to advance his own business interests. Meanwhile, the Tribune is slogging through bankruptcy, as mediation has broken down.

New media analyst Dan Conover saw the Tribune fiasco as evidence that the news business doesn’t just need to be reformed, it needs to be blown up. “We are past the point of happy endings, beyond the hope of half measures, and we know too much now to keep accepting the smugly reasonable advice of the Old Order’s deeply conflicted spokespeople,” he wrote. It’s quite the righteous-anger-fueled rant.

The hyperlocal business model questioned: We talked a bit about hyperlocal news last week, and that conversation bled over into this week, as Alan Mutter talked to J-Lab’s Jan Schaffer about her fantastic analysis of local news startups. Mutter quoted Schaffer as saying that community news sites are not a business, then went on to make the point that like many startups, many new news organizations go under within a few years. The money just isn’t there, Mutter said. (The Wall also has 10 takeaways from Schaffer’s study.)

For those in the local news business themselves, the Reynolds Journalism Institute’s Joy Mayer provided some helpful tips and anecdotes from West Seattle Blog’s Tracy Record, and the Online Journalism Review’s Robert Niles put together an online news startup checklist. Meanwhile, the hyperlocal giant du jour, AOL’s Patch, continued its expansion with a launch in Seattle, and dropped hints of a plan to get into newspapers. TBD’s Steve Buttry assured local news orgs that they can compete and collaborate with Patch and other competitors at the same time.

The iPad’s explosive growth: It’s been a little while since we heard too much about the iPad, but we got some interesting pieces about it this week. CNBC informed us that the iPad has blown past the DVD player as the fastest-adopted non-phone product in U.S. history with 3 million units sold in its first 80 days and 4.5 million per quarter, well more than even the iPhone’s 1 million in its first quarter. It’s on pace to pass the entire industries of gaming hardware and non-smart cellphones in terms of sales by next year. The NPD Group also released a survey of iPad owners that found that early adopters are using their iPads for an average of 18 hours a week, and for a third of them, that number is increasing.

When the iPad first came out, many people saw its users spending that time primarily consuming media, rather than creating it. But in an attempt to refute that idea, Business Insider put together an interesting list of 10 ways people are using the iPad to create content. And marketer Hutch Carpenter looked at the quality of various uses for the iPad and predicted that as Apple and app developers improve the user’s experience, it will become a truly disruptive technology.

More defenses of social media’s social activism: Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker piece questioning Twitter’s capability of producing social change drew no shortage of criticism last week, and it continued to come in this week. Harvard scholar David Weinberger made several of the common critiques of the article, focusing on the idea that Gladwell is tearing down a straw man who believes that the web can topple tyrannies by itself. Other takes: Change Observer’s Maria Popova argued Gladwell is defining activism too narrowly, and that online communities broaden our scope of empathy, which bridges the gap between awareness and action; The Guardian’s Leo Mirani said that social media can quickly spread information from alternative viewpoints we might never see otherwise; and Clay Shirky, the target of much of Gladwell’s broadside, seemed kind of amused by Gladwell’s whole point.

The sharpest rebuttal this week (along with Weinberger’s) came from Shea Bennett of Twittercism, who argued that change starts small and takes time, even with social media involved, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. “As we all continue to refine and improve our online social communities, this shift in power away from a privileged few to an increasingly organised collective that can be called at a moment’s notice [presents] a real threat to the status quo,” he wrote.

Reading roundup: A few more nifty things to check out this weekend:

— A few cool resources on data journalism were published this week: British j-prof Paul Bradshaw wrote an invaluable guide to data journalism at The Guardian, taking you through everything from data collection to sorting to contextualizing to visualization. ReadWriteCloud’s Alex Williams followed that post up with two posts making the case for data journalism and giving an overview of five data visualization tools. And if you needed some inspiration, PBS’ MediaShift highlighted six incredible data visualization projects.

— The offline reading app Instapaper has become pretty popular with web/media geeks, and its founder, Marco Arment, just rolled out a paid subscription service. The Lab’s Joshua Benton examined what this plan might mean for future web paywalls.

— Several mobile journalism tidbits: TBD’s Steve Buttry made a case for the urgency of developing a mobile journalism plan in newsrooms, The Guardian reported on a survey looking at mobile device use and newspaper/magazine readership, and the Ryerson Review of Journalism gave an overview of Canadian news orgs’ forays into mobile news.

— Northwestern j-prof Pablo Boczkowski gave a fascinating interview to the Lab’s C.W. Anderson on conformity in online news. Must-reading for news nerds.

— The real hot topic of the past week in the news/tech world was not any particular social network, but The Social Network, the movie about Facebook’s founding released last weekend. I couldn’t bring myself to dedicate a section of this week’s review to a movie, but the Lab’s Megan Garber did find a way to relate it to the future of news. Enjoy.

October 01 2010

14:00

This Week in Review: AOL snaps up TechCrunch, effecting social change online, and hyperlocal minds meet

[Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week's top stories about the future of news and the debates that grew up around them. —Josh]

AOL continues moving into media: The Internet giant of the ’90s, AOL, has been aggressively trying to remake itself as a media company for the 2010s, and it made one of its biggest moves this week when it bought the influential tech blog TechCrunch. The deal was first reported by GigaOM and announced on stage Tuesday at TechCrunch’s Disrupt conference. AOL also scooped up the web video company 5Min and Thing Labs, maker of the social media reader Brizzly on the same day, though it couldn’t snatch the popular All Things Digital blogging crew away from The Wall Street Journal.

Given how central TechCrunch’s founder, Michael Arrington, is to the blog’s success, the first questions were twofold: Will Arrington be able to continue exercising his iconoclastic editorial voice with AOL, and can the blog remain strong if he leaves? Salon’s Dan Gillmor was skeptical about the latter, and Fast Company and The Atlantic gave reason for similar doubts about the former, with a list of Arrington’s past criticism of AOL and statements by the founder of Engadget, another blog purchased by AOL, that too many layers of management made the company difficult to work at. (He said things have changed at AOL since then.) For his part, Arrington gave assurances to tech blogger Robert Scoble and TechCrunch’s readers that he’ll have complete editorial independence and has agreed to stay on for at least three years.

The bigger media issue, of course, is that this purchase signals AOL’s deepening transformation into a full-on web media company. As a marketing exec told the New York Post’s Keith Kelly, “Nobody gives AOL enough credit for the massive transformation that the brand has undertaken.” AOL CEO Tim Armstrong explained the rationale behind the deal to Advertising Age and Bloomberg: TechCrunch’s insider, consumer audience can garner premium ad rates, and the TechCrunch brand can give AOL some cred it couldn’t necessarily get on its own. He also told GigaOM’s Om Malik that he wants to begin developing platforms in communication, content and advertising for other companies to build on, though he wouldn’t go into details.

The Wall Street Journal threw a little bit of cold water on the AOL hype, noting that more than 40 percent of the company’s revenue still comes from dial-up Internet service and related subscriptions. Advertisers haven’t totally bought into the change yet either, the Journal said. AOL might have come a long way, but it still has a long way to go, too.

Can social media produce real social change?: In a piece in this week’s New Yorker, cultural critic Malcolm Gladwell challenged the idea that social media is an effective tool of social change and revolution, comparing it with the civil rights movement and other pre-social media large-scale social reform efforts. Gladwell argued that social media is built on weak social ties, which are good for encountering new information and amassing followers of a cause, but bad at inspiring collective action. “The evangelists of social media don’t understand this distinction; they seem to believe that a Facebook friend is the same as a real friend and that signing up for a donor registry in Silicon Valley today is activism in the same sense as sitting at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro in 1960,” Gladwell wrote.

Gladwell expounded helpfully on his points in a chat on the New Yorker website, in which he said, among other things, that he holds up the 2008 Obama presidential campaign as the “gold standard” for social media-fueled civic engagement. His piece generated some thoughtful disagreement: The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal said he liked the article overall but took issue with Gladwell’s assertion that online networks don’t have leadership or organization.

Others weren’t quite so complimentary: In a video conversation, politics professor Henry Farrell and the Cato Institute’s Julian Sanchez agreed that social media’s weak ties could make it easier to form the strong social ties that lead to significant action. A quasi-anonymous Economist correspondent made a similar arguments to both those points, saying that social media strengthens all social ties, and that networks’ bottom-up nature make them particularly subversive. Jeff Sonderman made similar points as well and pointed out that online and offline social networks tend to overlap, so they can’t be treated as discrete entities.

There were plenty of other avenues (thoughtful and somewhat less so) down which critics took this debate — see this New York Times feature for six of them — but the most cogent points may have come from Expert Labs director Anil Dash, who argued that Gladwell is limited by his outmoded idea that the only type of revolutions that produce change are those that come in the form of chanting, sign-wielding masses. “There are revolutions, actual political and legal revolutions, that are being led online,” Dash wrote. “They’re just happening in new ways, and taking subtle forms unrecognizable to those who still want a revolution to look like they did in 1965.”

Helping hyperlocal news thrive: Many of the U.S.’ hyperlocal-news pioneers gathered in Chicago late last week for the Block By Block Community News Summit hosted by the Knight Digital Media Center’s Michele McLellan and NYU j-prof Jay Rosen. A variety of ideas, tips, anecdotes flew back and forth at the event, which was ably summarized by the Lab’s Megan Garber as well as Lauren Kirchner of The Columbia Journalism Review and Polly Kreisman of the local-news blog Lost Remote. You can also check out videos of several of the sessions at the Reynolds Journalism Institute.

Garber listed several of the main themes of the gathering: Developing an intimate connection with a community (something of a throwback role for the news media, Garber said), building advertising and branding, and finding ways to share ideas with each other. Kirchner noted the common strain among the participants’ description of their own situations: “I’ve figured out how to do this, but I don’t know how to make it last.” She also noted the general tension in the room caused by the presence of representatives from AOL and Yahoo, two media companies with large-scale hyperlocal news aspirations. (Elsewhere this week, AOL’s hyperlocal Patch initiative was called the WalMart of news and a potential steamroller of hyperlocal startups, though The Batavian’s Howard Owens gave some tips on beating Patch in your own neighborhood.) Afterward, McLellan took stock of what hyperlocal journalists need next.

That wasn’t the only hyperlocal news resource to emerge this week. J-Lab released a report detailing what’s worked and what hasn’t in the the five years it’s been funding community-news startups. One major conclusion in the report is that hyperlocal news sites didn’t replace the journalism of traditional news sources; they added something that hadn’t been there before. (Some other key takeaways: Engagement, not just content; sweat equity is big; and the business model isn’t there yet.) At Lost Remote, Cory Bergman of Seattle’s Next Door Media offered an endorsement of the report, adding that for his startup, “the biggest critical success factor for a neighborhood news site is a passionate editor.” And at PBS Idea Lab, Martin Moore made the case for a bottom-up structure in local news sites.

Media trust hits a new low: Gallup released its annual poll on Americans’ trust in the news media, and in what’s become a fairly regular occurrence, that trust is at an all-time low. MinnPost’s David Brauer tried to square that finding with Pew’s finding two weeks ago that people are spending more time with the news. (My guess: Gallup’s survey measures feelings about the traditional news media, while Pew’s finding of increased news consumption is attributable largely to new media sources.)

The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson asked why trust is so low, and came up with an interesting hypothesis: The news media is telling us not to trust the news media. Citing Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck and Jon Stewart as examples, he concludes, “to consume opinion journalism … is to consume a product that exists to tell you that the product is inherently rotten.” As if on cue, the Los Angeles Times’ Andrew Malcolm rattled off a sarcastic litany of things the media has done to confirm people’s belief that it’s biased.

Reading roundup: Before we get the miscellany, there were a few smaller news developments that I want to highlight this week:

— The Boston Globe announced that it’s planning on splitting its websites into free and paid versions late next year. The Globe is owned by The New York Times Co., and The Times is also planning to charge for its website next year, and the Lab’s Megan Garber saw the plan as a logical extension of the Times’ paywall — a sort of steppingstone into the tablet-news world. Media analyst Ken Doctor wrote a smart analysis on the Globe’s strategy, calling it a plan to retain its print readers in the short run and convert them to (paid) tablet reading in the long run. The alt-weekly Boston Phoenix, meanwhile, didn’t waste time in writing Boston.com’s obituary.

— Mayhill Fowler, who gave The Huffington Post one of its biggest-ever scoops in 2008 as a reporter for the Off the Bus citizen-journalism project, wrote a kiss-off post on her personal blog announcing she was leaving the site, essentially, because she was tired of writing for nothing. The Post fired back, and Politico’s Ben Smith used the incident to wonder if the opinion-oriented blogosphere is moving toward news judgment as the mainstream media makes the opposite transition.

— After Forbes bought his freelance blogging network True/Slant, Lewis D’Vorkin is planning on selling blog space to advertisers alongside the company’s news blogs, Advertising Age reported. Reuters’ Felix Salmon predicted the plan would spur a uprising along the lines of ScienceBlogs’ PepsiGate this summer.

Now the three stray pieces you need to take a look at:

— The Awl’s Nick Douglas wrote a great post explaining why online forums are so underrated as online culture-drivers, and why Reddit is becoming more important within that subculture.

— Stanford scholar Geoff McGhee produced a fantastic set of videos on data journalism. Regardless of whether you’re familiar with data journalism, this is a must-see.

— And possibly the most essential piece of the week: Jonathan Stray’s case for designing journalism from the user’s perspective. “The news experience needs to become intensely personal,” Stray wrote. “It must be easy for users to find and follow exactly their interests, no matter how arcane. Journalists need to get proficient at finding and engaging the audience for each story.” A quote doesn’t do it justice; go read the whole thing.

September 03 2010

14:00

August 27 2010

14:30

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

[Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week’s top stories about the future of news and the debates that grew up around them. —Josh]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

August 20 2010

14:00

This Week in Review: Patch’s local news play, Facebook takes location mainstream, and the undead web

[Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week’s top stories about the future of news and the debates that grew up around them. —Josh]

Patch blows up the hyperlocal model: AOL’s hyperlocal news project, Patch, launched a site in Morristown, New Jersey, this week — not a big story by itself, but Morristown’s site was also the 100th in Patch’s network, part of the Internet giant’s plan to expand to 500 hyperlocal news sites by the end of the year. Newark’s Star-Ledger and NPR both profiled AOL’s hyperlocal efforts, with The Star-Ledger focusing on its extensive New Jersey experiment and NPR looking more at the broader picture of hyperlocal news.

PaidContent added some fascinating details from Patch president Warren Webster, such as the tidbit that Patch determines what communities to enter by using a 59-variable algorithm that takes into account factors like income, voter turnout, and local school rankings. And Advertising Age’s Edmund Lee compared Patch with several of its large-scale-content rivals, finding it most closely comparable to Philip Anschutz’s Examiner.com.

patchAs Steve Safran of the local-news blog Lost Remote noted, Patch is hiring 500 journalists to run those sites and is touting itself as the nation’s largest hirer of journalists right now. That, of course, is good news for people who care about journalism, but the far bigger issue is whether Patch will be financially sustainable. Safran was skeptical, arguing that Patch needs relevant local advertising, which requires not just reach but relationships. The Boston Phoenix found several other people who also wonder about Patch’s long-term prospects. Ken Doctor asked some good questions about Patch’s implications for local news, including whether it will disrupt the handcrafted local ad networks that have been the domain of non-templated startup local news blogs.

Facebook is going Places: Facebook made a long-anticipated announcement Wednesday, rolling out its new location-based service, Facebook Places. It’s all the tech blogs have been talking about since then, so there’s plenty to wade through if you’re interested in all the details, but Search Engine Land did a good job of discussing the basics of the service and its implications. It made one particularly salient point, given that Facebook has partnered with all of the leading location-based services (FoursquareGowallaBooyah, and Yelp): Location check-ins have officially become a commodity, and location services need to expand beyond it. (It also means, to borrow Clay Shirky’s point, that location-based technology is about to get socially interesting, since it’s quickly becoming technologically boring.)

Facebook isn’t yet doing anything to drive revenue from Places, but Lost Remote’s Cory Bergman noted that Places’ inevitable widespread acceptance could “usher in a new era of local advertising” when Facebook incorporates proximity-based advertising. Facebook is already paving the way for that shift, asking advertisers to help fill out its directory of places. Fast Company’s Kit Eaton took a deeper look at how Facebook Places will change location-based advertising, though Terry Heaton called Facebook Places’ revenue potential a missed opportunity for local news organizations.

Despite Facebook’s preemptive privacy defense with Places — by default, check-ins are visible only to friends and can be limited further than that — it still faced some privacy pushback. Several privacy advocates argued that people are going to have a difficult time finding ways to control their privacy on sharing locations, and the ACLU said that, once again, Facebook is making it much easier to say “yes” to Places than “no.” One of those advocates, dotRights, provided a guide to Facebook Places’ privacy settings.

Is the web really dead?: In its most recent cover story, Wired magazine declared the web dead, with its editor, Chris Anderson, arguing that in our quest for portability and ease of use, we’ve moved into an app-centered world led by Apple, Facebook, Twitter, RSS, Netflix, and Pandora. The result, Anderson said, is that we now prefer “semiclosed platforms that use the Internet for transport but not the browser for display,” a universe not ruled by Google or HTML.

Not surprisingly, such a sweeping statement was met with quite a bit of resistance. Web luminaries Tim O’Reilly and John Battelle dived into the arcane in their lengthy debate with Anderson, while plenty of others across the web also had problems with his decree of death. Boing Boing’s Rob Beschizza provided the most cogent statistical argument, showing that while Anderson depicts the web as decreasing in the percentage of Internet use, its total use is still exploding. Terry Heaton and TechCrunch’s Michael Arrington argued that the web still functions well and serves as the basis for many of the “apps” Anderson makes his argument from, with Heaton positing that Wired (and Apple) are still operating on a set of scarcity-based presumptions in a world now defined by abundance. Gawker’s Ryan Tate noted that Wired first released its article on its profitable website, while sales of its iPad app are down.

Quite a few others took issue with the idea of declaring things dead in the first place. ReadWriteWeb and Technologizer tallied lists of very-much-alive things that were long ago declared dead, and The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal criticized Anderson’s view that tech is “just a series of increasingly awesomer things that successively displace each other” as long ago proven wrong. Here at the Lab, Jason Fry made a similar point, writng that “the web isn’t dying but being joined by a lot of other contact points between the user and the sea of digital information, with points emerging for different settings, situations, and times of day.”

Murdoch’s tablet newspaper plan: The Los Angeles Times reported late last week that Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. is developing a new national U.S. “digital newspaper” to be distributed solely as a paid app on tablets like the iPad. The publication would feature short, easily digestible stories for a general audience, and would compete with papers like USA Today and The New York Times. Its newsroom would be run under the New York Post. Murdoch said he sees this as a “game changer” in the news industry’s efforts to reach younger audiences, but news industry vet Alan Mutter was skeptical: “Newspaper content tends to attract — whether on print or on an iPad or however — mostly the same kind of readers,” Mutter told the Times. “Not necessarily younger readers.”

Mutter wasn’t the only dubious one. Murdoch biographer/gadfly Michael Wolff ripped the idea, and TechCrunch’s Paul Carr noted that News Corp. tried a similar idea in Britain in 2006 for free, which bombed. The idea this time around, Carr argued, “reflects less a bold strategy to convince a new generation of readers that good journalism is worth paying for and more the 79-year News Corp proprietor’s desperation to keep the cash flow coming until the company’s profitability becomes someone else’s problem.”

Drawing on a survey of iPad users, Mario Garcia said that Murdoch’s plan for quick, snappy stories doesn’t fit well with the iPad’s primary role as a relaxing device. At least one person was encouraged by Murdoch’s idea, though: Missouri j-prof Clyde Bentley called it the cannon shot that will scare the herd of newspaper executives into seriously pursuing mobile media.

News Corp. also made news by donating $1 million to the Republican Governors Association. I’ll leave most of the analysis of that move to the politically oriented media critics, though media consultant Ken Doctor outlined a good case for the gift’s importance in the journalism world. We also got a report that Murdoch’s British tabloid, News of the World, will go paid online by October. The Guardian’s Roy Greenslade wasn’t impressed by that initiative’s prospects for success.

Reading roundup: Lots and lots to get to this week. In the spirit of Rupert Murdoch, I’ll keep it short and snappy:

— The fallout from last week’s Google-Verizon proposal continued into the weekend, with both watchdogs and Google allies raising concerns about the future of net neutrality. Harvard Internet law professor Jonathan Zittrain had plenty more thoughtful things to say about the flap, and The Wall Street Journal had a lengthy interview with Google CEO Eric Schmidt about that issue and several others.

— We got some discouraging news from a couple of surveys released this week: Gallup found that Americans’ trust in traditional news organizations remains historically low, while a comScore study found that (surprise!) even young news junkies don’t read newspapers. Each study had a silver lining, though — Gallup found that young people’s trust in newspapers is far higher than any other age group, and comScore showed that many young non-print readers are still consuming lots of news online. Here at the Lab, Christopher Sopher wrote a sharp two-part series on attracting young would-be news consumers.

— Google’s Lyn Headley is continuing his series of articles explaining the new Rapid News Awards, and each one is a smart analysis of the nature of aggregation and authority. They’ve all been worth checking out.

— Two great resources on interesting trends within journalism: the Lab’s series of videos, via the Knight Foundation, of a recent discussion among a who’s-who of nonprofit journalism leaders; and Poynter’s Mallary Jean Tenore’s article on the encouraging resurgence of long-form journalism in its online form.

— Finally, Florida j-prof Mindy McAdams sparked a great discussion about what skills are necessary for today’s reporter. If you’re a college student or a budding reporter (or even a veteran one), give this conversation a close read.

August 09 2010

14:30

GameChanger sees a business model in baseball scores

One of the truisms of the paid-content conversation is that sports information — game scores, analysis, team-specific details — is one of the few types of content that, online as everywhere else, people will happily pay for. And sports sites (ESPN, Scout, Rivals) are putting that truism to work. Which is to say, financial gain.

There’s another platform that wants to be part of that league. GameChanger is trying to monetize not just sports-related content, but sports scoring in general. Via, in particular, a mobile app that coaches and other scorekeepers can use to tabulate the scores of their games. And which they can also use — here’s where we get interested — to automatically distribute those scores to local media.

If you’ve been waiting for the day that the Nieman Journalism Lab discusses the future of news as it relates to Little League…here it is.

GameChanger was designed to solve two problems, the company’s CEO, Ted Sullivan, told me: first, the “archaic” nature of baseball and softball scorekeeping; and second, the challenge fans face in following games remotely, in real time. (Sullivan played baseball in college, and went on to play in the minor leagues — before changing course and getting a degree from the Harvard Business School.) The first problem is an old one, and other apps are attacking it too. To solve the second problem, the platform facilitates targeted — highly targeted — crowdsourcing: via the GameChanger app, baseball and softball scorekeepers use their iPhones or iPads to file the detailed scores of their games, in real time. Those data then get beamed to GameChanger’s central servers, which tally up box scores.

While that means that parents and other interested parties will be able to follow games in real time, online and via text updates, it also means that local news sites have an easy, real-time-accurate piece of sports content that they can embed, via GameChanger’s widget, on their sites. (It works similarly to the Outside.in model of hyperlocal content-sharing.) GameChanger makes money — or, hopes to — though revenue-sharing arrangements with its media partners.

The idea, Sullivan told me, is “to monetize the output side, not the input side.”

GameChanger also markets itself to individuals using a classic freemium model: for free, a fan or follower of a particular team can set up an email alert containing simply the score of the game. If they want SMS updates, though — or updates (hello, parents) having to do with a particular player — they have to pay. The model leverages the classic benefits of sports content: Little League scores, being hyperlocal, are exclusive; they’re also time-sensitive. And there’s also the ostensibly large and committed consumer base: the millions of kids who play Little League every year, their friends, and, of course, their parents. It’s a bit of the old sell-the-Thin-Mints-to-Mom strategy, applied to niche news content.

Sullivan is all too aware of the myriad challenges that come with monetizing information — even, yes, niche information — online. But “we know people will pay for this content,” he says. “I think it’s a rare type of news content that people will pay for.”

Image by Ed Yourdon used under a Creative Commons license.

May 25 2010

18:00

Borrowing from burgers: franchise-model startup wants to make community news sites profitable

Launching a community news site is tough. You’ve got editorial decisions, like putting together a team of reporters and editors, plus technical hurdles like finding the right CMS and hosting service, and then there is the job of setting up and carrying out a successful business model. It’s a complicated set of factors that could defeat even a sharp journalist with a good idea for a local news site. A new startup called Main Street Connect aims to make it easier for entrepreneurial journalists to get their sites off the ground, keep them going, and make money. And it aims to do so via a model familiar to anyone who’s gotten the same McDonald’s burger in California as in Maine: franchising.

Main Street Connect launched this year under Carll Tucker, the founder of Trader Publications, a community news company he sold to Gannett in 1999. In watching the decline of community news in the last few years, Tucker, who is passionate about hyper-local news, wondered if he could come up with a model that would translate the revenue structure he enjoyed in the 1990s-era boom times to the web today. Display advertising doesn’t come close to the kind of money community newspapers once made. Ten years ago, Tucker said, he would pull in $20 to $25 per reader on advertising. If he could come close to the golden days of print in terms of revenue, he thought, he would see profits soar because the costs involved in publishing online are much less than printing news on paper. Tucker now believes he’s come up with something that could make money, and he’s got enough venture capital behind him to help get 3,000 sites off the ground in the next few years to test it out.

“The idea is to provide a local entrepreneur with all the tools he or she might need to start a prosperous — that is, profitable — high-quality site or group of sites,” Tucker told me in a phone conversation.

Tucker’s program is essentially a franchise model. A local team assembles the journalists who will cover a community, then Main Street Connect provides the framework for everything else, including the technical setup (and ongoing support), plus an underlying business strategy. In the long run, Main Street Connect hopes the network of independent local sites across the country will reach a sizable audience in the aggregate (comprised, Tucker hopes, of suburban moms who make household spending decisions), making the sites attractive to national brands. In the short term, publishers of local sites get the infrastructure help, plus the ongoing benefit from the collective insight of many sites working side by side. Main Street Connect also publishes five sites in Connecticut, and plans to launch more, which will act as incubators to test revenue-generating strategies. In exchange for that assistance, Main Street Connect takes 17 percent off the top of whatever a site pulls in.

The idea is a balance between the individual sites’ needs and the MSC franchise: Local site publishers handle the nitty-gritty of cultivating connections, but they employ the Main Street Connect strategy. Tucker wants small business owners investing in sites on a weekly, monthly or yearly basis, he says, rather than based on ad impressions. He also expects to charge advertisers upwards of $700 a week, a price tag that dwarfs a typical online ad on a small news site. When we spoke, Tucker had just wrapped up a deal worth $57,000 for the year for his sites in Connecticut. He was in talks with a hospital about another deal that could be worth $100,000.

Tucker’s approach takes into account the problem of fragmented media consumption. In the last few years, local businesses have had to buy more types of advertising to reach their audience (cable TV, radio, direct mail, etc.). There’s no single place to reach customers in their community. That’s where a Main Street Connect site comes in. If the community site can become an addictive place for heads of households, it can serve as an invaluable place for local businesses to be, as well.

And, so far, Tucker’s Connecticut sites are proving there is an appetite for community news online. His first site launched, the Daily Norwalk, attracted 11,000 pageviews and an average of four clicks per visit (in a city with a population of 83,000), with more than half of all readers returning at least one more time that month. Tucker tells businesses to think of the decision to invest in the site as joining the virtual “town green” as a true community member. In return, the business gets traditional ad space, its employees featured in a “neighbors” portion of the site, and — the biggest departure from traditional ad/editorial divisions — a guaranteed number of stories written about it in the Features section of the site. (The sites are broken up into different verticals, with stories about local business sponsors running in the Feature sections of the site, not the main news vertical. Those stories will look like other features a staff writer would produce.)

“We support those who support us,” Tucker explained.

It’s a good deal for the business, but what about the site’s responsibility to keep readers accurately informed? Tucker gave me this hypothetical. Say a local grocery store is embroiled in a tax scandal. The news section of the site will cover the scandal in the main news section, regardless of whether the store supports the site. The store would still get its feature-section piece, which would not link to the scandal coverage.

Tucker was quick to say that this model works for community news, but not necessarily regional, national or international news. Community news is about supporting your neighbors, he explained. The local site wants local businesses to succeed, and vice versa. It’s a symbiotic relationship. “The old paradigm — church, state, advertising and editorial — when you get to community news…becomes much murkier.”

Photo courtesy of Copakavanagh under a creative commons license.

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