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April 15 2013

12:04

May 26 2011

17:00

#Longreads is becoming more social (and making a play at sustainability)

Last month, Rolling Stone brought three of its reporters to a Manhattan bookstore for a standing-room-only conversation about long-form journalism. The event was co-hosted by a hashtag.

At the time, #longreads, along with its associated Twitter feed, had just reached its second birthday. Founder Mark Armstrong had made the tag ubiquitous as a source for great nonfiction, helping to prompt the media business’ startled realization that people will actually read long stuff on the Internet. But could Longreads’ crowd of nonfiction fans, nearly 25,000 strong on the web, be mobilized to help support the creation of the stories they loved?

It’s a question that Armstrong is still working on, as he continues Longreads’ development from media-geek favorite to industry standard. (NYT Magazine editor Hugo Lindgren used the tag Wednesday morning to announce the magazine’s latest cover story.)

Longreads’ beginnings were simple: Back in 2009, Armstrong had a 40-minute commute each morning, and he was looking for more stories to Instapaper. (As Oscar Wilde noted, “One should always have something sensational to read on the train.”) Since then, the number of Longreaders has continued to grow. Roughly 80 percent of the articles posted on the feed each day come from user recommendations, Armstrong said. And the hashtag is starting to be used in new ways, including to recommend short fiction.

Armstrong and his three-person design/programmer team recently introduced “Longreads Pages,” which allow readers to browse longform recommendations according to the Twitter handles of the recommenders. (Armstrong compared this to the voyeuristic pleasure of going to someone’s house and checking out his or her bookshelves.) The pages automatically aggregate #longreads tweets from individual users — @michellelegro or @alexanderchee, for instance. ”There are a lot of very diverse takes and personalities, and we wanted to find new ways to highlight that,” Armstrong said.

Under the Pages framework, publications that use the hashtag, including The Atlantic, the New York Review of BooksSlate, Time, and the Boston Review, also get their own pages. According to proper Twittiquette, these magazine feeds usually include some recommendations from fellow publications, as well as their own #longreads offerings. (And at least one publisher — Farrar, Straus and Giroux — is using its Longreads page quite deliberately to tout its authors.)

Armstrong said Longreads’ new social-sharing focus will continue in real life, as well.  He has a few more events with other publishers in the works, he says, and aims to make social gatherings a regular part of the Longreads experience. Having assembled a group of enthusiasts, Armstrong wants to explore different ways of bringing them together.

The big goal of this kind of community-building would be to use Longreads to help with longform’s supply-side woes. “Up to this point, the way we’ve viewed support is simply eyeballs and attention,” he said. So “the question on everyone’s minds is how to financially support the continued creation of that form of storytelling.”

We’ve talked about the long-form conundrum at the Lab before. Long stories often top publications’ most-read lists, but they are also some of the most expensive, time-consuming kinds of journalism to produce. And the number of magazine pages available for long-form has shrunk along with ad revenue.

“Long-term, without getting into specifics, we want to make this more sustainable,” Armstrong said.

Armstrong is enthusiastic about the new, online-only purveyors of longform, including The Awl. At the same time, though, as he told The Atlantic Wire earlier this year, “Traditional publications are still the main source of the most ambitious nonfiction storytelling you’ll find online.”

Still, he’s optimistic. “From what I’ve heard anecdotally, publishers are seeing value in producing longform,” Armstrong said. “They’re seeing traffic.” And that’s in part because “these are stories that are timeless. They are still enjoyable weeks, months, even years after they’re created. You’re creating something with a lot more durability over the long term.”

Longreads itself has a “long tail” of engagement on Twitter, with tweets and retweets still going out months after a story is initially posted. There’s also not very much  difference, he noted, in the enthusiasm and readership for very old #longreads as opposed to very new ones.

But the supply-side problem will not be an easy one to fix, at least for the highest end of longform. Former NYT Magazine editor Gerry Marzorati once noted that the magazine’s cover stories regularly cost upwards of $40,000. At that rate, per my speculative math, even if every single @Longreads follower donated $10 a year to pay for new stories, their joint purchasing power would only fund about six longform projects. That would be great, of course, but on a typical day, the feed posts at least four or five.

Armstrong’s first financial experiment is more basic: finding out whether #longreads aficionados might be willing to voluntarily shell out some cash for the support of @Longreads itself. He is asking for voluntary members at $3 a month, or $30 for a year (plus a Longreads mug). Since the membership push is new, Armstrong wasn’t willing to talk numbers yet (or to provide a size-related adjective). Same deal with the particular perks of membership. “The perks are fairly minimal right now,” he noted. “We hope to add more perks over time, but we don’t want people to come in with that expectation.”

That “no expectations” attitude could transfer to longform more broadly. Despite the heightened media attention to the future of lengthy nonfiction, questions about the fate of the form can be as common as answers. At last month’s Rolling Stone event, managing editor Will Dana said he believed that longform has a crucial place in today’s 24/7 media culture. And yet, as Yahoo’s Joe Pompeo reported, “Asked how he could be so sure of that, Dana hedged. ‘I just think we have to have a basic faith that quality will win out in the end.’”

April 25 2011

14:30

January 10 2011

16:30

The year ahead in narrative: Little piggies, extraterrestrial life, and how we’ll tell each other stories in 2011

Editor’s Note: To mark the end of the year, we asked a bunch of smart people for their predictions of what 2011 would bring for the evolving world of journalism. But because of an editing error, we forgot to post one set of predictions.

Here’s Andrea Pitzer, editor of our terrific sister site Nieman Storyboard, on what 2011 will bring for narrative and storytelling.

In the coming year, long-form text/print narratives will continue at a handful of U.S. newspapers, and we’ll still see stories from talented writers who will manage to cobble a career (sometimes a stellar one) out of their teaching and books or magazine articles. Aspiring storytellers will get less personal coaching, even as a broader range of people will be able to access information on craft via YouTube and writers’ networks.

Digital stories will continue to nibble away at print’s dominance of fabulous narrative—look for more things like Jay Caspian Kang’s “The High Is Always the Pain, and the Pain Is Always the High,” or Jake Bogoch’s “School of Fight” to introduce you to talented writers you’ve never heard of. A few places, like Slate, Frontline, and nonprofit journalism orgs, will continue their savvy commitment to carving out digital space for storytelling with news value that takes time or space to unfold.

These are all extensions of existing trends. So what will be new in 2011? I predict that the shift to visual narrative will pick up the pace a little, with at least one new storyteller producing surprising short-form nonfiction narrative video that will grab and hold an audience in the millions about an important issue. (By this, I mean a constructed story, not the situational video records like the death of Neda Soltan or the innovative testimonials of the “It Gets Better” campaign.)

And we’ll see social media reflected more and more in our story constructs and in the stories themselves. Curation tools are beginning to make it possible to tell stories in new forms that can make use of literary techniques — I’m still thinking about the way that Mandy Jenkins of TBD managed to recreate the moment-by-moment suspense and confusion in the wake of a death outside a D.C. nightclub. These kinds of tools for gathering and presenting social media will make it possible for new epistolary models like Slate’s mock presidential Facebook feed or collaborative Twitter efforts to serve as inspiration for nonfiction narratives.

Still, this new storytelling will likely be pretty messy through 2011. Telling a story depends on building a compelling arc, but it also relies on an audience finding a way to engage with the narrative. Quality work may fail to connect to audiences; other new-style narratives that have innovative, exciting aspects may not yet work as a whole.

I also believe that the future is often a surprise, and so it’s possible that Geico commercials, the discovery of extraterrestrial life, or something that we can’t even imagine right now might play an important role in how we’ll tell stories in the future. But I wouldn’t give up on Instapaper and long-form stories just yet.

December 13 2010

20:00

Steven Brill: 2011 will bring ebook battles, paywall successes, and a new model for long-form articles

Editor’s Note: We’re wrapping up 2010 by asking some of the smartest people in journalism what the new year will bring.

Here, Journalism Online cofounder and long-time journalism entrepreneur Steven Brill lays out three predictions for 2011.

1. E-books will continue to soar — and authors will get into major fights with publishers over who gets what percentage of the take, with more top authors withholding their e-book rights and selling them independently or through specialty distributors.

2. Someone — via Press+, I hope — will go into the business of commissioning long-form magazine articles from top writers and providing the first two or three paragraphs online for free and then selling the rest for, say, 75 cents or a dollar. That trailblazing publisher might call these “mini-e-books” and use a business model of simply splitting the revenues with the author, 50-50. My favorite candidates would be website publishers who already have great brand names, such as the Huffington Post or Daily Beast, but that want to revive long-form journalism and make money doing it (and limit risk by making some top writers their 50-50 business partners, rather than pay high flat fees for their work.)

3. As it becomes clear (as it already is to our Press+ affiliates, and as will also be made clear when The New York Times, too, launches its metered model approach) that the sky doesn’t fall in on newspaper and magazine websites who try the freemium model, more newspapers and magazines (and online only sites, too) will begin charging their most frequently-visiting customers for their content online.

Unlike old-fashioned pay walls, the metered model means publishers keep all their online ad revenue and almost all of their monthly unique visitors. (Our affiliates have not lost a nickel of ad revenue.) By next year I bet a big chunk of publishers are doing it and most of the rest are planning it.

Progress will be slow but steady; they’ll gradually climb some of the way back to their old margins. More important, they’ll be preserving their franchises as the trusted-brand provider of news and information in their community — whether that community is the world of sophisticated news consumers who read the Times or those in a small town in Pennsylvania or the UK who read the local paper for news about the school board. Only now they’ll gradually be moving out of the business of paying printers and truck drivers to facilitate that. Their customers will be customers for their content, no matter how it is delivered. That in turn will enable daily papers, for example, gradually to stop printing daily, cutting back on the week’s slowest ad days or even ultimately cutting back just to Sunday or to no print version at all.

All of the above will be facilitated by the onslaught of tablets, such as the iPad, which make reading the same kind of intoxicating sit-back experience that have made books, newspapers and magazines so irresistible. But we’ll also see that the real value of devices like the iPad for reading newspapers and magazines is not as much about the apps that get built for them as it is about how web browser versions are so well presented on them — which means that publishers will want to charge for their web versions if they are going to charge for an app version.

October 29 2010

16:00

Center for Public Integrity’s HTML5 product aims to make long-form journalism readable on any device

Is it possible to enjoy long-form investigative journalism in a digital age without a fancy tablet? A 5,000-word piece can be tough to get through on an ad-supported website. And while the experience on iPad apps is promising, an app is a costly investment — or investments, in a world with multiple incompatible platforms — for a news organization to make.

The nonprofit news organization Center for Public Integrity is announcing an alternative today at the annual Online News Association conference. The Center wants to make reading its work more enjoyable for the user, and a smarter investment for an organization rethinking its online and mobile strategies. The Center has a new HTML5 product that gives users an app-like experience in a web browser. The project is part of a new digital initiative at the Center, funded by $1.5 million in grants from the Knight Foundation.

“We think we’ve created a better way to consume investigative reporting,” John Solomon, the chief digital officer told me, and at a much lower cost than developing apps for different devices.

Solomon gave me a demo yesterday, and I have to say, I was impressed. You can flip through stories from right to left the way you can on an iPad or an iPhone. Text and images resize easily for whatever screen you’re on, whether phone or desktop. It loads fast and smooth and has a clean, easy-on-the-eyes design. The impulse is to keep flipping through, from page to page or story to story.

The product was created with Treesaver, a platform specifically designed to make digital reading easier. It’s a project of, among others, the noted graphic designer Roger Black, whose famous three-color dictum — “the first color is white; the second is black; the third is red: the three together are the best” — is in evidence at Treesaver’s website (and the Lab’s). Treesaver is also working with Nomad, a startup that plans to put out paid electronic magazines.

I spoke with Filipe Fortes, the developer of Treesaver, about what his product means for long-form journalism. “The idea is to be reader friendly,” he said. As an example, he pulled up a website of a large regional newspaper and had me click on a story. (No need to name names — the experience would have been similar across most newspaper sites.) “It’s really kind of hostile to the reader, I feel,” he said, pointing out all the ads and social media boxes that distract from the text of the story. “I think that’s why people are loving the apps,” he said. “It’s just a chance to finally read again. There’s a lot of cool things happening on apps, but people on desktops are missing out.”

Those distractions Treesaver is trying to spare us from are also what monetize the content — but Fortes says he’s not against advertising, just how we display it with the content now. By lowering the bar to the content (as he puts it), by letting users easily flip along, fewer, cleaner ads can be monetized more effectively. He showed me a mockup of a Nomad magazine that runs full page ads between pages, similar to an iPad app. “If you can get people coming in from a blog or Google and you get them to read three stories [by flipping along],” he said, “Congratulations, you just tripled your revenue on that user.”

Fortes is presenting Treesaver at the ONA conference this afternoon. He says he’s eager to work with more news organizations, and is in talks with several.

September 14 2010

14:00

Twitter queen Susan Orlean on the mini-medium, the interactive narrative, and the writing persona

Susan Orlean is proof that being the consummate narrative journalist doesn’t conflict with becoming the consummate Twitterer. In her feed, currently 78,000-plus followers strong, the author and longtime New Yorker writer inverts the Jay Rosenian “not lifecasting, but mindcasting” approach to the platform: Orlean’s Twitter feed is focused on her life, from her writing, to her chicken-raising, to even — meta-tweets! — her use of Twitter itself. Rather than curating the web worldwide, Orlean (a former Nieman Fellow) curates the web of her own experience and her own (enviable) life. The feed is, in all, personal and whimsical and delightful — a memoir unfolding in real time. But if it’s a memoir, it’s an interactive one: To follow Orlean’s feed is to follow countless conversations between the author and her readers.

I spoke with Orlean about the way she interacts with this most interactive of media; she explained how writers can use Twitter to connect with their readers, why using Twitter makes financial sense for narrative journalists — and why it took Tweetdeck to make her a convert. The transcript below is lightly edited.

Megan Garber: So, first things first: How did you get started on Twitter?

Susan Orlean: I had an assistant who is quite a bit younger than I am, and one day she said to me, “You know, you really ought to be on Twitter.” I think her feeling was just: “Writers should be on Twitter.” So I opened an account — and I really didn’t do anything with it at first. It took a while before I “got it,” and began using it, and appreciating it as a part of my writing life.

MG: Was there a particular event or exchange that made it click for you — or was that appreciation more of a gradual process?

SO: It was gradual. When I was following a particular narrative in my life (when I was talking about one of my chickens being sick, for example), and seeing people respond to it — that made me think, “Interesting. Maybe this is a different way of talking to readers.” But it took a while. Twitter was something I didn’t quite “get” until I was actively using it — and until I was looking at it in a different way, rather than just on Twitter.com. It’s hard to appreciate the way it works if you don’t look at it on other services.

MG: Which platform were you using when things clicked?

SO: Tweetdeck. I’ve urged people — anybody I know who’s been using Twitter, but not understanding it — to use Tweetdeck, or some other interface. Twitter makes so much more sense that way. It’s really hard to understand it until you look at it in a different way — literally.

MG: That’s true. There’s something powerful in having the flow of Twitter — the conversations and interactivity, in particular — visualized, and then centralized. Speaking of that, I love the description of Twitter you used in your “What I Read” feature on The Atlantic’s site: “a tendril of my writing persona.” Do you think of your feed as narrative in the classic sense?

SO: I do. For one thing, you’re creating and supporting and embellishing a persona. That fosters a narrative of who you are and what you feel is worth commenting on. And if you’re a person who already has a public presence, you’re enhancing people’s understanding of where that’s coming from. In many cases, you’re following stories; you’re telling stories that have an ongoing narrative. There have been a number of instances where I’ve told stories and followed them — mainly personal stories, since I’m not using Twitter as a reporting medium — and people reading my feed have seen those stories unfolding. They’re generally fairly short stories, but they’re stories nevertheless.

MG: I love it when snippets of those stories — little Twitter nuggets — make their way into your more traditionally structured pieces: the work published in the magazine and even on your blog. It feels almost subversive, in the sense that we’re getting peeks into the background of the author’s life, and the background of particular narratives, that we wouldn’t have been privy to before.

SO: It’s an enhancement. You’re in control of how much you do or don’t want to reveal, but, yes, there’s also the pleasure that a reader might find in watching a story being born, so to speak — or even in hearing me thinking out loud about a story as I go along.

When I first started writing, I was working for a small, alternative news weekly in a smallish city [Willamette Week in Portland], and I knew who was reading my stories. I would see them, I would talk with them, I would get reactions from them — and I had an ongoing sense of who was reading my work and how they were experiencing it. When I first started writing for national magazines, it felt very strange. Suddenly my readership seemed really removed. I did run into people who’d say, “I just read your story” — but it’s very different from writing for a paper that’s in a smaller city, where you just see the reaction, and you know exactly who’s reading your work and why, and they know you, and there’s an intimate relationship between the writer and the audience.

I feel like Twitter is bringing that back, a little bit. It’s intimate in a very different way, but I once again have a sense of who my readers are, for the first time in a long time. They know what I’m working on, and they know when I’m flailing. It just creates a different sort of connection between a writer and a readership.

MG: That’s true. And I like, too, that Twitter creates another size option, I guess, for narrative: small (Twitter feed), medium (blog), large (magazine) — all radiating from, and feeding back to, that one central story.

SO: Yeah. For me, it was particularly nice to get engaged with Twitter at a time when I was working on a book. You go for this long, long, long stretch of being in a rabbit hole with this piece of work that’s taken years to do, and it can feel like, “AARGH! Is anyone out there?” I’ve found it enormously encouraging to think that there are a lot of people out there who are an audience — whom I can encourage to listen up and be prepared for the project when it’s out and ready to be read. I like being connected to readers.

You can also use Twitter to feel your audience. As I’ve been working on stories, sometimes I’ll mention something I’m working on — and I’m very interested in the reaction. I love doing readings, and to me Twitter is actually very much like doing a reading — in the way that doing a reading in front of a live audience gives you a chance to see, “Gee, people didn’t respond to that line,” or “People seem puzzled by this part of what I’ve read.” Twitter hasn’t changed anything I’ve written as much as it’s been an interesting way to gauge an audience.

It’s also been useful for building up interest in a story. It’s a way to say to people, “I’m working on this now. Keep an eye out for it” — without being annoying or using the medium purely promotionally. It gives people a glimpse of a story in advance, and a chance to anticipate something — which is nice for readers, I think. There’s never any reason not to get people interested in a story ahead of time.

MG: Definitely. And that process also gives readers a sense, I think, of being more intimately involved in the story simply by familiarity with it. Even just a bit of background knowledge — that sense of being clued into the creation and the dynamism of a piece — invests you in it.

SO: I think so. I think Twitter’s really important in that sense, frankly. In a world where we’re worrying about people’s commitment to reading, the more engaged readers feel in your work, the more likely they are to follow it — and to pay for it. It’s marketing in the best sense, because it’s finding the people who are interested in work and keeping them involved in it in a way that they’ve never been able to be before. I think it’s all to the good.

MG: Have you found that being on Twitter has affected your writing, style-wise?

SO: Yeah, I think that’s inevitable. I think the economy of expression, if nothing else, reminds you that it is entirely possible to say something of substance in extremely few words. If nothing else, Twitter is just a very useful reminder that you don’t have to go on ad nauseam to make a point or even to say something of real emotion. I’m not sure that I’m writing my book in 140-character spurts, but I do think that I’ve been reminded of how efficiently you can really make points. And I think that it has an effect — as you sit down to write something considerably longer, you appreciate how well you can telegraph something.

I think, for a writer, any writing you do, whether it’s an email or anything else, exercises the same muscles that are going to be used when you sit down to write your magnum opus. You’re always learning, and you’re always trying things out, and you’re always practicing. Any form, with its limitations, gives you a new set of parameters to work within. And I think every writer can benefit from that. Because there are always limits; there are always parameters. Whether it’s that you’re a reporter, and the limits are the truth of the situation, or that you’re a fiction writer, and the limit is the length that your editor is going to permit you — there are always restrictions. So learning to write in yet another restricted form is just great practice. It doesn’t mean, necessarily, that you put into play the ways you write with Twitter. But I think that every time you write, you’re learning something. You should be learning.

August 20 2010

10:38

Could technology actually be a gateway to long-form journalism?

There’s a useful post on PoynterOnline this week in which author Mallary Jean Tenore details some of the best tools and technologies available which support the future of long-form journalism on the web.

These include Nate Weiner’s Read It Later, which can “save, share and organize URLs”. He explains that this means users can return to the whole article offline at their own leisure, rather than simply bookmarking the URL.

“Read It Later is essentially the article’s second chance. It actually improves the likelihood that the article will be seen,” Weiner said via e-mail. “If any article is there, the user put it there. And in order for a user to have put it there, they would have to have visited the publisher’s site.”

Other examples include Marco Arment’s Instapaper, which not only saves web pages but also creates RSS feeds of saved stories and an ‘Editor’s Picks’ feature based on the most bookmarked content and Twitter account @LongReads, created by Mark Armstrong, for a constant stream of long-form journalism examples.

See her full post here…Similar Posts:



August 06 2010

15:47

Long-form proves popular on new university hyperlocal site

Pilot hyperlocal news and features site Standfirst Online, run by media students at Bournemouth University, has reported a successful first few weeks – with long-form journalism proving to be a popular product on the platform.

Co-supervisor Chindu Sreedharan oversees the site, which is aimed at the university community. He told Journalism.co.uk that the platform had allowed the students to tackle online content in different ways.

Over the three editions, they managed to go beyond the inverted pyramid, and explore other forms of reportage, other forms of writing – literary journalism, for instance. Again, when you look at it, that’s quite unique – having long-form journalism in a hyperlocal venture. For our launch, we had a strong cover story in an in-depth interview with the outgoing VC Paul Curran. In Edition 2, the students put together a very strong profile of Professor John Vinney, the new VC. And for our Edition 3, we had this wonderful piece of experiential journalism from Geo Willis.

The site, which was launched as a pilot a month ago today, has received more than 6,000 page views despite its summer holiday launch period.Similar Posts:



July 14 2010

16:24

Online journalism: A return to long-form?

Nieman Journalism Lab’s Megan Garber has a good post up about Slate and its dedication to long-form journalism, a dying art in the world of blogs and aggregators and online news consumption analysis.

Slate editor David Plotz launched the Fresca Initiative last year, designed to give reporters the opportunity to produce long-form work on subjects of their choice. Under the scheme, staff can take four to six weeks off their normal jobs to produce more in-depth stuff.

The result? Not only a handful of very good (and, at as many as tens of thousands of words, very long) articles but serious traffic to the site too. For the tens of thousands of words there have been millions of page views.

For Plotz, the form is about “building the brand of Slate as a place you go for excellent journalism”. It is not about “building Slate into a magazine that has 100 million readers,” but making sure they have “two million or five million or eight million of the right readers”.

Anybody trying to monetise online content at the moment knows about the right readers, and about their value to advertisers.

So here’s to the idea that ten thousand word articles and are not anathema to online audiences, and to the idea that giving your staff six weeks off to write them isn’t anathema to making money from online content.

And, most of all, here’s to the idea that my boss thinks so too.

But I’m not holding my breath.

Full Nieman post at this link…Similar Posts:



14:00

“Smart editorial, smart readers, and smart ad solutions”: Slate makes a case for long-form on the web

Via blogs, or, more likely, Twitter, you might have come across the breezy term “tl;dr.” Which is short — appropriately — for “too long; didn’t read.”

Yes. You know the conventional wisdom: long-form journalism doesn’t do well on the web. Our attention spans are too short and sentences are too long and and we’re too easily distrac — oooh, Macy’s is having a sale! — and, anyway, complex narratives are inefficient for a culture that wants its information short, sweet, and yesterday. Long, carefully wrought articles are tasty, sure; online, though, the news we consume is best served up quick-n-easy. The web isn’t Chez Panisse so much as a series of Sizzlers.

Whether or not that kind of thinking is valid from the psychological perspective, a more relevant question, for our purposes, is whether it’s valid from the financial one. What kind of value proposition does long-form journalism represent in the digital world? Can it be monetized? Or, as behavioral economists might put it: Does long-form, you know, work?

One piece of good news — good news, that is, if you’re a fan of the genre — comes courtesy of Slate.

The right readers

You may recall the online magazine’s Fresca initiative — so named for editor David Plotz’s passionate and non-ironic obsession with the grapefruity beverage — which launched last year to give Slate writers and editors the opportunity to focus on long-form work. Essentially, the fellowship program requires that every editorial staff member at Slate (Plotz recently added copy editors to the Fresca pool) take four to six weeks off from their normal jobs — and use that time to produce one in-depth piece (or, often, a series of in-depth pieces) on a subject that compels them. So far, the project has netted such praiseworthy specimens of long-form as, among others, Tim Noah’s analysis of why the U.S. hasn’t endured another successfully executed terror attack since 9/11 and Julia Turner’s look at the fascinating complexities of signage and June Thomas’ examination of American dentistry and Dahlia Lithwick’s crowd-sourced foray into chick-lit authorship and John Dickerson’s reclamation of risk-taking after the financial crash gave that quintessential American practice a bad name.

The other thing the initiative has netted? Pageviews. They’ve been in the millions, a Slate rep told me: over 4 million for Noah’s piece, over 3.5 million for Thomas’, nearly 3 million for Turner’s. That’s especially significant considering the length of the pieces, which often run in the tens of thousands of words. Combine that with New York Times Magazine editor Gerry Marzorati’s claim, last year, that “contrary to conventional wisdom, it’s our longest pieces that attract the most online traffic” — and, come to think of it, with tablet computing’s promise of portable, pleasurable reading experiences — and “tl;dr”: you are on watch.

Pageviews, though, are only part of the picture. “The raw traffic numbers matter to me — I like them, they’re good, and they’re certainly good for advertisers,” Plotz says. But the Fresca pieces are about more than, say, Huffingtonian eyeball-harnessing and traffic-baiting (PHOTOS! SLIDESHOWS! CLICKCLICKPLEASECLICK!); they’re also about brand-building. Plotz got the idea for the fellowships, he told me, through his earlier experience as a general-assignment reporter at Slate, under Michael Kinsley and, later, Jacob Weisberg. As part of that position, he got to do longer pieces of the Fresca variety; and not only did those stories “make me enthusiastic about coming to work,” he says, but they also “clearly contributed to building the brand of Slate as a place you go for excellent journalism.”

And when Plotz took over the magazine’s editorship — in 2008, at pretty much the height of Media’s Existential Crisis — he realized that “in order to really thrive, in order to have the kind of committed, excellent, well-educated, media-engaged audience that we’ve always had — and to build that audience — we had to do something more than just 1,500 word pieces, and more than just explainers.

In other words, for Slate, long-form’s value proposition is also reputational, rather than strictly financial. The Fresca pieces are community and commodity ratifiers — subtle indications, to advertisers and audiences alike, that the magazine cares as much about informing users as attracting them. “Our job is not necessarily to build Slate into a magazine that has 100 million readers,” Plotz points out. “It’s to make sure we have 2 million or 5 million or 8 million of the right readers — readers who are the smartest, most engaged, most influential, most media-literate people around. That’s more attractive to advertisers, it makes the community of readers around the site more energetic and more lively, and it’s a way to distinguish ourselves from some of the more aggregation-heavy sites, or some of the single-person blog sites, or some of the commodity news sites.”

That wide-angle view of the reader/marketer relationship is one that permeates the outlet, from its editorial content to its business-side messaging. Take, for example, the magazine’s pitch to advertisers (entitled “Slate: The Online Magazine for the Smartest Generation”), which uses the term “smart” eight times on a single, short page, by my count — four of them in the declaration that “Slate is unrivaled at combining smart editorial, smart readers, and smart ad solutions to produce the smartest possible media buy.” It’s an approach similar to the Gawker Media strategy of leveraging “recurring reader affection,” rather than relying on the blunter instrument of simple traffic metrics — and one that emphasizes the holistic quality of the audience, as a commercial entity, over its simple quantity. It’s not the size of the boat, and all that.

Engaging readers and writers

The reputation-based approach is of a piece with Slate’s broader strategy of engagement: user affection is advertiser affection. And both of those are bolstered by staff affection — a smart, engaged audience being in large part the result of work produced by a smart, engaged staff. “As a reporting and writing process, this is what had attracted me to journalism almost twenty years ago,” John Dickerson says of his Fresca-enabled series. And “it was wonderful,” he says, to translate that process to the web — to harness the multimedia power of the web to produce “that long, narrative, long-fiction storytelling that’s always been so interesting to me in the course of my career.”

As fellow Fresc-er Tim Noah puts it: “I can’t speak highly enough about the project. I think it’s probably the most exciting thing that’s been going on at Slate for the last couple years.”

Leveraging the personal passions of journalists — as opposed to their skills and talents alone — is an idea that’s getting more and more traction in a media world where standing out from the crowd is a business-side mandate as well as an editorial one. There’s Google’s famous 20-percent time — which has led to personal-interest-fueled innovations like, for example, Google News — and, in journalism proper, the Journal Register Company’s implementation of an innovation team that will devote 25 percent of its workweek to stepping back from the much-maligned vagaries of the Daily Grind. One of the challenges journalism is facing, Noah points out, is in matching ambition to ability in reporting. And though “money is a big obstacle,” in general, he points out, “none of the Fresca pieces have really been terribly extravagant in terms of their cost.” They’ve been extravagant instead with the one resource that, in journalism, is even more precious than money: time. The Fresca stories are a declaration, Dickerson says, that “this is the kind of commitment we have to storytelling: being in-depth in a world of tiny little bites of information.”

Photo by Dave Winer used under a Creative Commons license..

June 30 2010

16:00

Not all free time is created equal: Battles on “Cognitive Surplus”

[Matthew Battles is one of my favorite thinkers about how we read, consume, and learn. He's reading and reacting to Clay Shirky's Cognitive Surplus and Nicholas Carr's The Shallows. Over the next several weeks, we'll be running Matthew's ongoing twin review; here's part one. — Josh]

Putting The Shallows into dialogue with Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus, the latter book seems like the one with an actual idea. However smartly dressed, Carr’s concern about the corrosiveness of media is really a reflex, one that’s been twitching ever since Socrates fretted over the dangers of the alphabet. Shirky’s idea — that modern life produces a surplus of time, which people have variously spent on gin, television, and now the Internet — is something to sink one’s teeth into. Here’s his formulation:

This book is about the novel resource that has appeared as the world’s cumulative free time is addressed in aggregate. The two most important transitions allowing us access to this resource have already happened — the buildup of well over a trillion hours of free time each year on the part of the world’s educated population, and the invention and spread of public media that enable ordinary citizens previously locked out, to pool that free time in pursuit of activities they like or care about.

I remember reading an early essay Shirky wrote about this idea and finding it enormously compelling. Perhaps that’s because like Shirky I grew up in the 1970s, whiling away many a half-hour in front of Gilligan’s Island reruns. If only I had been able to pursue activities I liked or cared about, rather than burn off my extra cognitive cycles by consuming mass-market drivel…

Only hang on — I did pursue such activities, as I recall. I played in the woodlot near my friend’s house, fished in an actual river, worked a paper route, watched ant colonies go to war in the backyard. I rode my bicycle to the library.

Child’s play, right? Cognitive Surplus is about a specific kind of free time: not the Hundred-Acre-Wood or the endless summer, but the stock of leisure hours produced by modernity, and the rise of technologies that make it possible to spend that time in engaging ways.

And yet the notion of free time itself should be suspicious to us, shouldn’t it? “Free time” is something born of an industrial economics of time, a commoditized temporality. Leisure is a boon granted by the system — a perk, a benny. Compensation. And as long as it helps us recharge our batteries and never keeps us from being productive, high-performance workers, free time isn’t free.

What if this enormous new resource — billions of hours of “free time” — might actually be a product of a machine that’s constantly reproducing and extending itself through us? Gin at least was a release from the shops and trades of early modern life; TV too provides counterpoint to the workday. But with the Internet, for creative-class types at least, we entertain ourselves with the very tools we spend our work time using.

This is a good time to name-check Herbert Marcuse. It’s also where Nick Carr’s understanding of intellectual and creative work begins to seem more attractive. Because for Carr such things are not leisure-time activities; they’re at the heart of the human enterprise.

I’m still excited by Shirky’s idea. But I want to bring Carr’s highbrow concern for the vital uses of cognition, contemplation, and communication to bear upon it. The technologies Shirky celebrates present us with a choice: do we use them as the means of liberation, or as Skinner boxes to while away the off-hours? As liberators they can be incredibly powerful; as producers of auto-stimulation, they’re highly efficient, and incredibly seductive.

This choice — between labor and work, between alienation and freedom — is an ancient one. And in facing it, technology is only a means, and never an end or answer.

June 29 2010

16:00

Reading isn’t just a monkish pursuit: Matthew Battles on “The Shallows”

[Matthew Battles is one of my favorite thinkers about how we read, consume, and learn. He's a former rare books librarian here at Harvard, author of Library: An Unquiet History, and one of the cofounders of HiLobrow.com, which Time just named one of the year's best blogs. He's reading and reacting to two alternate-universe summer blockbusters: Clay Shirky's Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age and Nicholas Carr's The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. (We've written about both.) Over the next several weeks, we'll be running Matthew's ongoing twinned review. —Josh]

Early in The Shallows, Nick Carr stirringly describes what he sees at stake in our time:

For the last five centuries, ever since Gutenberg’s printing press made book reading a popular pursuit, the linear, literary mind has been at the center of art, science, and society. As supple as it is subtle, it’s been the imaginative mind of the Renaissance, the rational mind of the Enlightenment, the inventive mind of the Industrial Revolution, even the subversive mind of Modernism. It may soon be yesterday’s mind.

It’s an inspiring image, this picture of the modern mind arrayed in the glories of progress and possibility.

It’s also wrong.

As readers of my site, library ad infinitum, likely know by now, I’m suspicious of any pronouncements that begin with Gutenberg. To say that the printing press was an agent of change, or that moveable type inaugurated a series of transformations in world culture, is reasonable, if very preliminary; but to treat the goldsmith from Mainz as modernity’s master builder simply is wrong: wrong on the biography, wrong on the facts, wrong from the perspective of a theory of history.

Biography

Gutenberg and his investors were trying to corner the market in Bibles—a market that already existed. Time made him its Person of the Millennium, but Gutenberg was no Leonardo, no Michelangelo, no Descartes. The fact that he wasn’t — that he was a man of no particular account in his own time — drives the subsequent story of his invention, moveable type, in interesting ways — ways too complex to boil down to the kind of simplistic formula Carr likes to proclaim.

Facts

Moveable type is not what made book reading a popular pursuit. That it played a role is not in doubt — although it may just as easily be said that the increasing popularity of book-reading spurred transformations in the technology, spurring inventors to find ways to increase the output of the press. But Gutenberg’s invention, however epochal it appears in retrospect, is rightly seen not as an origin point but as a station along the way — an important one, a real Penn Station or Kings Cross, with lots of branch lines and spurs sprouting from its many platforms — but a station nonetheless.

Theory of history

Here’s the most esoteric part, and the most vital. There is no unitary mind at work in history, neither a plan nor a Geist, no questing Spirit of Modernity or Truth or Righteousness. There’s a damaging irony at work in the model to which Carr seems to ascribe: for if the modern mind truly is the the direct descendant of Gutenberg’s invention, then so is the Internet. And like the host of cultural innovations that partook of the possibilities of the press — humanism, the Reformation, rationalism, the modern novel — critics fear its disruptive powers. In retrospect, we mistake those innovations for the charted course of history; to our counterparts in their respective eras, they looked like the Internet does to Carr: exciting but disruptive, soothing but dangerous, seductive but corrosive.

What is the four-sided Mind of which Nick Carr speaks — this imaginative, rational, inventive, subversive angel striding through the ages, showering the generations with its beneficence? Who is this promethean shapeshifter, whom we’re now in our churlishness binding to some rock for the crows to feast on its innards? What Carr is describing isn’t a historical reality — it’s a god. And it does not exist.

What troubles me most in the first chapter of The Shallows is the simplistic definition of reading Carr offers. It may seem strange to call it simplistic, as the epithets that characterize reading at its best for Carr all derive from the matrix of “complex,” subtle,” and “rich.” But he writes as if these are all that reading has been (ever since Gutenberg, anyway), as if the kind of reading he ascribes to the web — quick and fitful, easily distracted — is a new and disruptive spirit. But dipping and skimming have been modes available to readers for ages. Carr makes one kind of reading — literary reading, in a word — into the only kind that matters. But these and other modes of reading have long coexisted, feeding one another, needing one another. By setting them in conflict, Carr produces a false dichotomy, pitting the kind of reading many of us find richest and most rewarding (draped with laurels and robes as it is) against the quicksilver mode (which, we must admit, is vital and necessary).

In ecosystems like the Gulf of Mexico, the shallows are crucial. They’re the nurseries, where larval creatures feed and grow in relative safety, liminal zones where salt and sweet water mix, where light meets muck, where life learns to contend with extremes. The Internet, in this somewhat dubious metaphor, is no blowout — it’s a flourishing new zone in the ecosystem of reading and writing. And with the petrochemical horror in the Gulf growing daily, we’re learning that the shallows, too, need their champions.

June 08 2010

13:30

Why link out? Four journalistic purposes of the noble hyperlink

[To link or not to link? It's about as ancient as questions get in online journalism; Nick Carr's links-as-distraction argument is only the latest incarnation. Yesterday, Jason Fry tried to contextualize the linking debate around credibility, readability, and connectivity. Here, Jonathan Stray tries out his own, more pragmatically focused four-part division. Tomorrow, we'll have the result of Jonathan's analysis of how major news organizations link out and talk about linking out. —Josh]

You don’t need links for great journalism — the profession got along fine for hundreds of years without them. And yet most news outlets have at least a website, which means that links are now (in theory, at least) available to the majority of working journalists. What can links give to online journalism? I see four main answers.

Links are good for storytelling.

Links give journalists a way to tell complex stories concisely.

In print, readers can’t click elsewhere for background. They can’t look up an unfamiliar term or check another source. That means print stories must be self-contained, which leads to conventions such as context paragraphs and mini-definitions (“Goldman Sachs, the embattled American investment bank.”) The entire world of the story has to be packed into one linear narrative.

This verbosity doesn’t translate well to digital, and arguments rage over the viability of “long form” journalism online. Most web writing guides suggest that online writing needs to be shorter, sharper, and snappier than print, while others argue that good long form work still kills in any medium.

Links can sidestep this debate by seamlessly offering context and depth. The journalist can break a complex story into a non-linear narrative, with links to important sub-stories and background. Readers who are already familiar with certain material, or simply not interested, can skip lightly over the story. Readers who want more can dive deeper at any point. That ability can open up new modes of storytelling unavailable in a linear, start-to-finish medium.

Links keep the audience informed.

Professional journalists are paid to know what is going on in their beat. Writing stories isn’t the only way they can pass this knowledge to their audience.

Although discussions of journalism usually center around original reporting, working journalists have always depended heavily on the reporting of others. Some newsrooms feel that verifying stories is part of the value they add, and require reporters to “call and confirm” before they re-report a fact. But lots of newsrooms simply rewrite copy without adding anything.

Rewriting is required for print, where copyright prevents direct use of someone else’s words. Online, no such waste is necessary: A link is a magnificently efficient way for a journalist to pass a good story to the audience. Picking and choosing the best content from other places has become fashionably known as “curation,” but it’s a core part of what journalists have always done.

Some publishers are reluctant to “send readers away” to other work. But readers will always prefer a comprehensive source, and as the quantity of available information explodes, the relative value of filtering it increases.

Links are a currency of collaboration.

When journalists use links to “pay” people for their useful contributions to a story, they encourage and coordinate the production of journalism.

Anyone who’s seen their traffic spike from a mention on a high-profile site knows that links can have immediate monetary impact. But links also have subtler long term value, both tangible (search rankings) and intangible (reputation and status.)  One way or another, a link is generally valuable to the receiver.

A complex, ongoing, non-linear story doesn’t have to be told by a single organization. In line with the theory of comparative advantage, it probably shouldn’t be. Of course journalists can (and should) collaborate formally. But links are an irresistible glue that can coordinate journalistic production across newsrooms and bloggers alike.

This is an economy that is interwoven with the cash economy in complex ways. It may not make business sense to pay another news organization for publishing a crucial sub-story or a useful tip, but a link gives credit where credit is due — and traffic. Along this line, I wonder if the BBC’s policy of not always linking to users who supply content is misguided.

Links enable transparency.

In theory, every statement in news writing needs to be attributed. “According to documents” or “as reported by” may have been as far as print could go, but that’s not good enough when the sources are online.

I can’t see any reason why readers shouldn’t demand, and journalists shouldn’t supply, links to all online resources used in writing a story. Government documents and corporate financial disclosures are increasingly online, but too rarely linked. There are some issues with links to pages behind paywalls and within academic journals, but nothing that seems insurmountable.

Opinion and analysis pieces can also benefit from transparency. It’s unfair — and suspect — to critique someone’s position without linking to it.

Of course, reporters must also rely on sources that don’t have a URL, such as people and paper documents. But even here I would like to see more links, for transparency and context: If the journalist conducted a phone interview, can we listen to the recording? If they went to city hall and saw the records, can they scan them for us? There is already infrastructure for journalists who want to do this. A link is the simplest, most comprehensive, and most transparent method of attribution.

Photo by Wendell used under a Creative Commons license.

April 30 2010

14:30

This Week in Review: Gizmodo and the shield law, making sense of social data, and the WSJ’s local push

[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]

Apple and Gizmodo’s shield law test: The biggest tech story of the last couple of weeks has undoubtedly been the gadget blog Gizmodo’s photos of a prototype of Apple’s next iPhone that was allegedly left in a bar by an Apple employee. That story got a lot more interesting for journalism- and media-oriented folks this week, when we found out that police raided a Gizmodo blogger’s apartment based on a search warrant for theft.

What had been a leaked-gadget story turned into a case study on web journalism and the shield law. Mashable and Poynter did a fine job of laying out the facts of the case and the legal principles at stake: Was Gizmodo engaged in acts of journalism when it paid for the lost iPhone and published information about it? Social media consultant Simon Owens has a good roundup of opinions on the issue, including whether the situation would be different if Gizmodo hadn’t bought the iPhone.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group, came out most strongly against the raid, arguing to Wired and Laptop magazine and in its own post that California law is clear that the Gizmodo blogger was acting as a reporter. The Citizen Media Law Project’s Sam Bayard agreed, backing the point up with a bit more case history. Not everyone had Gizmodo’s back, though: In a piece written before the raid, media critic Jeff Bercovici of Daily Finance said that Gizmodo was guilty of straight-up theft, journalistic motives or no.

J-prof Jay Rosen added a helpful clarification to the “are bloggers journalists” debate (it’s actually about whether Gizmodo was engaged in an act of journalism, he says) and ex-Saloner Scott Rosenberg reached back to a piece he wrote five years ago to explain why that debate frustrates him so much. Meanwhile, the Columbia Journalism Review noted that the Gizmodo incident was just one in a long line of examples of Apple’s anti-press behavior.

Bridging the newsroom-academy gap: Texas j-prof Rosental Alves held his annual International Symposium on Online Journalism last weekend, and thanks to a lot of people’s work in documenting the conference, we have access to much of what was presented and discussed there. The conference site and Canadian professor Alfred Hermida devoted about 20 posts each to the event’s sessions and guests, so there’s loads of great stuff to peruse if you have time.

The conference included presentations on all kinds of stuff like Wikipedia, news site design, online comments, micropayments, and news innovation, but I want to highlight two sessions in particular. The first is the keynote by Demand Media’s Steven Kydd, who defended the company’s content and businessmodel from criticism that it’s a harmful “content farm.” Kydd described Demand Media as “service journalism,” providing content on subjects that people want to know about while giving freelancers another market. You can check summaries of his talk at the official site, Hermida’s blog, and in a live blog by Matt Thompson. The conference site also has video of the Q&A session and reflections on Kydd’s charisma and a disappointing audience reaction. The other session worth taking a closer look at was a panel on nonprofit journalism, which, judging from Hermida and the conference’s roundups, seemed especially rich with insight into particular organizations’ approaches.

The conference got Matt Thompson, a veteran of both the newsroom and the academy who’s currently working for NPR, thinking about what researchers can do to bring the two arenas closer together. “I saw a number of studies this weekend that working journalists would find fascinating and helpful,” he wrote. “Yet they’re not available in forms I’d feel comfortable sending around the newsroom.” He has some practical, doable tips that should be required reading for journalism researchers.

Making sense of social data: Most of the commentary on Facebook’s recent big announcements came out last week, but there’s still been plenty of good stuff since then. The tech blog ReadWriteWeb published the best explanation yet of what these moves mean, questioning whether publishers will be willing to give up ownership of their comments and ratings to Facebook. Writers at ReadWriteWeb and O’Reilly Radar also defended Facebook’s expansion against last week’s privacy concerns.

Three other folks did a little bit of thinking about the social effects of Facebook’s spread across the web: New media prof Jeff Jarvis said Facebook isn’t just identifying us throughout the web, it’s adding a valuable layer of data on places, things, ideas, everything. But, he cautions, that data isn’t worth much if it’s controlled by a company and the crowd isn’t able to create meaning out of it. Columbia grad student Vadim Lavrusik made the case for a “social nut graph” that gives context to this flood of data and allows people to do something more substantive than “like” things. PR blogger Paul Seaman wondered about how much people will trust Facebook with their data while knowing that they’re giving up some of their privacy rights for Facebook’s basic services. And social media researcher danah boyd had some insightful thoughts about the deeper issue of privacy in a world of “big data.”

The Wall Street Journal goes local: The Wall Street Journal made the big move in its war with The New York Times this week, launching its long-expected New York edition. The Times’ media columnist, David Carr, took a pretty thorough look at the first day’s offering and the fight in general, and Columbia j-prof Sree Sreenivasan liked what he saw from the Journal on day one.

Slate media critic Jack Shafer said the struggle between the Journal and the Times is a personal one for the Journal’s owner, Rupert Murdoch — he wants to own Manhattan, and he wants to see the Times go down in flames there. Meanwhile, Jeff Jarvis stifled a yawn, calling it “two dinosaurs fighting over a dodo bird.”

Along with its local edition, the Journal also announced a partnership with the geolocation site Foursquare that gives users news tips or factoids when they check in at certain places around New York — a bit more of a hard-news angle than Foursquare’s other news partnerships so far. Over at GigaOm, Mathew Ingram applauded the Journal’s innovation but questioned whether it would help the paper much.

Apple and app control: The fury over Pulitzer-winning cartoonist Mark Fiore’s proposed iPhone app has largely died down, but there were a few more app-censorship developments this week to note. MSNBC.com cartoonist Daryl Cagle pointed out that despite Apple’s letup in Fiore’s case, they’re not reconsidering their rejection of his “Tiger Woods cartoons” app. Political satirist Daniel Kurtzman had two of his apps rejected, too, and an app of Michael Wolff’s Newser column — which frequently mocks Apple’s Steve Jobs — was nixed as well. Asked about the iPad at the aforementioned International Symposium on Online Journalism, renowned web scholar Ethan Zuckerman said Apple’s control over apps makes him “very nervous.”

The New Yorker’s Ken Auletta also went deep into the iPad’s implications for publishers this week in a piece on the iPad, the Kindle and the book industry. You can hear him delve into those issues in interviews with Charlie Rose and Fresh Air’s Terry Gross.

Reading roundup: We had some great smaller conversations on a handful of news-related topics this week.

— Long-form journalism has been getting a lot of attention lately. Slate’s Jack Shafer wrote about longform.org, an effort to collect and link to the best narrative journalism on the web. Several journalistic heavyweights — Gay Talese, Buzz Bissinger, Bill Keller — sang the praises of narrative journalism during a Boston University conference on the subject.

Nieman Storyboard focused on Keller’s message, in which he expressed optimism that long-form journalism could thrive in the age of the web. Jason Fry agreed with Keller’s main thrust but took issue with the points he made to get there. Meanwhile, Jonathan Stray argued that “the web is more amenable to journalism of different levels of quality and completeness” and urges journalists not to cut on the web what they’re used to leaving out in print.

— FEED co-founder Steven Johnson gave a lecture at Columbia last week about the future of text, especially as it relates to tablets and e-readers. You can check it out here as an essay and here on video. Johnson criticizes the New York Times and Wall Street Journal for creating iPad apps that don’t let users manipulate text. The American Prospect’s Nancy Scola appreciates the argument, but says Johnson ignored the significant cultural impact of a closed app process.

— Two intriguing sets of ideas for news design online: Belgian designer Stijn Debrouwere has spent the last three weeks writing a thoughtful series of posts exploring a new set of principles for news design, and French media consultant Frederic Filloux argues that most news sites are an ineffective, restrictive funnel that cut users off from their most interesting content. Instead, he proposes a “serendipity test” for news sites.

— Finally, if you have 40 free minutes sometime, I highly recommend watching the Lab editor Joshua Benton’s recent lecture at Harvard’s Berkman Center on aggregation and journalism. Benton makes a compelling argument from history that all journalism is aggregation and says that if journalists don’t like the aggregation they’re seeing online, they need to do it better. It makes for a great introductory piece on journalism practices in transition on the web.

April 12 2010

21:40

ProPublica’s expensive story and deserved Pulitzer

Congratulations to ProPublica’s Sheri Fink, who just won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting for her story about a New Orleans hospital in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. (She shared it with Barbara Laker and Wendy Ruderman of the Philadelphia Daily News.)

We wrote about Fink’s terrific piece twice last fall. First, Zach Seward noted the huge cost of producing the story — $400,000 by one estimate — and the unusual cost-sharing between ProPublica, the Kaiser Foundation, The New York Times Magazine, and Fink herself. And I (gently!) tweaked the piece’s online presentation for not being as reader-friendly as it could have been.

February 05 2010

15:00

This Week in Review: Google’s new features, what to do with the iPad, and Facebook’s rise as a news reader

[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]

A gaggle of Google news items: Unlike the past several weeks with their paywall and iPad revelations, this week wasn’t dominated by one giant future-of-media story. But there were quite a few incremental happenings that proved to be interesting, and several of them involved Google. We’ll start with those.

— The Google story that could prove to be the biggest over the long term actually happened last week, in the midst of our iPad euphoria: Google unveiled a beta form of Social Search, which allows you to search your “social circle” in addition to the standard results served up for you by Google’s magic algorithm. (CNN has some more details.) I’m a bit surprised at how little chatter this rollout is getting (then again, given the timing, probably not), but tech pioneer Dave Winer loves the idea — not so much for its sociality but because it “puts all social services on the same open playing field”; you decide how important your contacts from Twitter or Facebook are, not Google’s algorithm.

— Also late last week, several media folks got some extended time with Google execs at Davos. Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger posted his summary, focusing largely on Google’s faceoff with China. “What Would Google Do?” author Jeff Jarvis posted his summary, with lots of Google minutiae. (Jeff Sonderman also further summarized Jarvis’ summary.) Among the notable points from Jarvis: Google is “working on making news as compelling as possible” and CEO Eric Schmidt gets in a slam on the iPad in passing.

— Another Google feature was launched this week: Starring on Google News stories. The stars let you highlight stories (that’s story clusters, not individual articles) to save and return to them later. Two major tech blogs, ReadWriteWeb and TechCrunch, gave the feature their seal of approval, with ReadWriteWeb pointing to this development as the first of many ways Google can personalize its algorithm when it comes to news. It’s an intriguing concept, though woefully lacking in functionality at this point, as TechCrunch notes: I can’t even star individual stories to highlight or organize coverage of a particular issue. I sure hope at least that feature is coming.

Also in the Google-and-news department: Google economist Hal Varian expressed skepticism about news paywalls, arguing that reading news for many is a worktime distraction. And two Google folks, including Google News creator Krishna Bharat, give bunches of interesting details about Google News in a MediaShift interview, including some conciliatory words for publishers.

— Meanwhile billionaire tech entrepreneur Mark Cuban officially jumped on the Google-News-is-evil train, calling Google a “vampire” and urging news organizations not to index their content there. Not surprisingly, this wasn’t well-received in media-futurist circles: GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram, a former newspaperman himself, said Cuban and his anti-Google comrade, Rupert Murdoch, ignore the growing search traffic at news sites. Several other bloggers noted that Cuban has expressed a desire in the past to invest in other news aggregators and currently invests in Mahalo, which does some Google News-esque “sucking” of its own.

— Finally, after not carrying AP stories since December, Google struck some sort of quasi-deal that allows it to host AP content — but it’s still choosing not to do so. Search engine guru Danny Sullivan wonders what it might mean, given the AP and Google’s icy relations. Oh yeah, and Google demoed some ideas of what a Chrome OS tablet — read: iPad competitor — might look like.

What the iPad will do (and what to do with it): Commentary continued to trickle out this week about Apple’s newly announced iPad, with much of talk shifting from the device’s particulars to its implications on technology and how news organizations should develop for it.

Three most essential pieces all make similar points: Former McClatchy exec Howard Weaver likens the iPad to the newspaper in its physical simplicity and thinks it “will enrich human beings by removing technological barriers.” In incredibly thoughtful posts, software developers Steven Frank and Fraser Speirs take a programming-oriented tack, arguing that the iPad simplifies computing, bringing it home for normal (non-geek) people.

Frank compares it to an automatic transmission vs. the traditional manual one, and Speirs says it frees people from tedious tasks like “formatting the margins, installing the printer driver, uploading the document, finishing the PowerPoint slides, running the software update or reinstalling the OS” to do the real work of living life. In another interesting debate, interaction designer Sarah G. Mitchell argues that without multitasking or a camera (maybe?), the iPad is an antisocial device, and developer Edd Dumbill counters that it’s “real-life social” — made for passing around with friends and family.

Plenty of folks have ideas about what news organizations should do with the iPad: Poynter’s Bill Mitchell and news designer Joe Zeff both propose that newspapers and magazines could partially or totally subsidize iPads with subscriptions. Fortune’s Philip Elmer-DeWitt says that wouldn’t work, and Zeff gives a rebuttal. Publish2’s Ryan Sholin has an idea for a newsstand app for the iPad, and Frederic Filloux at The Monday Note has a great picture of what the iPad experience could look like by next year if news orgs act quickly.

And of course, Robert Niles of The Online Journalism Review and BusinessWeek’s Rich Jaroslovsky remind us what several others said (rightly, I think) last week: The iPad is what content producers make of it.

Facebook as a news reader: Last Friday, Facebook encouraged its users to make their own personalized news channel by creating a list of all the news outlets of which they’ve become a fan. The tech blog ReadWriteWeb — which has been remarkably perceptive on the implications of Facebook’s statements lately — noted that while a Facebook news feed couldn’t hold up to a news junkie’s RSS feed, it has the potential to become a “world-changing subscription platform” for mainstream users because of its ubiquity, sociality and accessibility. (He makes a pretty compelling case.)

Then came the numbers from Hitwise to back ReadWriteWeb up: Facebook was the No. 4 source of visits to news sites last week, behind only Google, Yahoo and MSN. It also accounts for more than double the amount of news media traffic as Google News and more than 300 times that of the web’s largest RSS program, Google Reader. ReadWriteWeb’s Marshall Kirkpatrick responded with a note that most news-site traffic still comes through search, and offered a challenge to Facebook to “encourage its giant nation of users to add subscriptions to diverse news sources to their news feeds of updates from friends and family.”

This week in (somewhat) depressing journalism statistics: Starting with the most cringe-inducing: Rick Edmonds of Poynter calculates that newspaper classified revenue is down 70 percent in the last decade. He does see one bright spot, though: Revenue from paid obituaries remains strong. Yup, people are still dying, and their families are still using the newspaper to tell people about it. In the magazine world, Advertising Age found that publishers are still reporting further declines in newsstand sales, though not as steep as last year.

In the world of web statistics, a Pew study found that blogging is steady among adults and significantly down among teens. In other words, “Blogging is for old people.” Of course, social media use was way up for both teens and adults.

A paywall step, and some suggestions: Steven Brill’s new Journalism Online paid-content service has its first newspaper, The Intelligencer Journal-Lancaster New Era in Pennsylvania. In reporting the news, The New York Times noted that the folks behind both groups were trying to lower expectations for the service. The news business expert Alan Mutter didn’t interpret the news well, concluding that “newspapers lost their last chance to hang together when it became clear yesterday that the wheels seemingly have come off Journalism Online.”

In a comically profane post, Silicon Valley veteran Dave McClure makes the strangely persuasive argument that the fundamental business model of the web is about to switch from cost-per-click ads to subscriptions and transactions, and that because people have trouble remembering passwords, they’ll login and pay through Gmail, iTunes or Facebook. (Mathew Ingram says McClure’s got a point.) Crowdfunding advocate David Cohn proposes a crowdfunded twist on micropayments at news sites.

Reading roundup: Two interesting discussions, and then three quick thought-provoking pieces. First, here at the Lab, future Minnesota j-prof Seth Lewis asks for input about what the journalism school of the future should look like, adding that he believes its core value should be adaptability. Citizen journalism pioneer Dan Gillmor gave a remarkably thorough, well-thought-out picture of his ideal j-school. His piece and Steve Buttry’s proposal in November are must-reads if you’re thinking about media education or involved in j-school.

Second, the discussion about objectivity in journalism continues to smolder several weeks after it was triggered by journalists’ behavior in Haiti. This week, two broadsides against objectivity — one by Publish2’s Paul Korr calling it pathological, and another by former foreign correspondent Chris Hedges saying it “killed the news.” Both arguments are certainly strident ones, but thoughtful and worth considering.

Finally, two interesting concepts: At the Huffington Post, MTV’s Maya Baratz calls for newspapers to think of themselves as apps, commanding them to “Be fruitful and multiply. Elsewhere.” And at the National Sports Journalism Center, former Wall Street Journal journalist Jason Fry has a sharp piece on long-form journalism, including a dirty little secret (“most of it doesn’t work in any medium”) and giving some tips to make it work anyway.

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