Tumblelog by Soup.io
Newer posts are loading.
You are at the newest post.
Click here to check if anything new just came in.

August 23 2012

14:17

August 07 2012

11:51

A case study in online journalism part 3: ebooks (investigating the Olympic torch relay)

8000 Holes - book cover

In part one I outlined some of the data journalism processes involved in the Olympic torch relay investigation, in part 2 I explained how verification, SEO and ‘passive aggressive newsgathering’ played a role. This final part looks at how ebooks offered a new opportunity to tell the story in depth – and publish while the story was still topical.

Ebooks – publishing before the event has even finished

After a number of stories from a variety of angles I reached a fork in the road. It felt like we had been looking at this story from every angle. More than one editor, when presented with an update, said that they’d already ‘done the torch story’. I would have done the same.

But I thought of a quote on persistence from Ian Hislop that I’d published on the Help Me Investigate blog previously. “It is saying the same true thing again and again and again and again until the penny drops.”

Although it sometimes felt like we might be boring people with our insistence on continuing to dig we needed, I felt, to say the same thing again. Not the story of ‘Executive carries the torch’ but how that executive and so many others came to carry it, why that mattered, and what the impact was. A longform report.

Traditionally there would have been so space for this story. It would be too long for a newspaper or magazine, far too short for a book – where the production timescale would have missed any topicality anyway.

But we didn’t have to worry about that – because we had e-publishing.

It still seems incredible to me that we could write up and publish a book on the missed promises of the Olympic torch relay before the relay had even finished. Indeed: to also publish the day before the book’s main case study was likely to run.

But if we wanted to do that, we had about a week to hit that deadline, with important holes in our narrative, and working largely in our spare time.

First, we needed a case study to represent the human impact of the corporate torchbearers and open our book. Quite a few had been mentioned in local newspapers when they discovered that less-than-inspirational individuals had taken their place, but HMI contributor Carol Miers found one who couldn’t have been more deserving: Jack Binstead had received the maximum number of nominations; he was just 15 (half of torchbearer places were supposed to go to young people – they didn’t); and he was tipped to go to the next Paralympics.

We also needed to find out if there was an impact on the genuinely inspirational people who did get to carry the torch – I had been chasing a couple when Geoff Holt came through the site’s comments (see above). That was our ending.

For the middle we needed to pin down some of the numbers around the relay. Comments from earlier stories had indicated that some people didn’t see why it was important that executives were carrying the torches – unaware, perhaps, that promises had been made about where places would go, and what sort of stories torchbearers should have.

In particular, the organisers had promised that 90% of places would be available to the general public and that 50% of places would go to young people aged 12-24. I had to nail down where each chunk of tickets had gone - and at how many points they had been taken away from availability to the ‘general public’. Ultimately, the middle of the book would describe how that 90% got chipped away until it was more like 75%.

That middle would then be fleshed out with the themes around what happened to the other 25%: essentially some of the stories we’d already told, plus some others that filled out the picture.

Writing in this way allowed us to go beyond the normal way of writing – shock at a revelation – to identifying where things went wrong and how. For all the anger at corporate sponsors for their allocation of torch relay places, it was ultimately LOCOG’s responsibility to approve nominations, to publish 8,000 “inspirational” nomination stories, and to meet the promises that they had made about how they would be allocated. The buck stopped there.

Thanks to the iterative way we had worked so far – publishing each story as it came, asking questions in public, building an online ‘footprint’ that others could find, establishing collaborative relationships and bookmarking to create an archive – we met our deadline.

It was a timescale which allowed us to tap into interest in the relay while it was still topical, and while executive torchbearers were still carrying the torch.

8,000 Holes: How the 2012 Olympic Torch Relay Lost its Way was published on day 66 of the 70-day Olympic torch relay. All proceeds went to the Brittle Bone Society, of which Jack is an ambassador. The publishers – Leanpub – agreed to give their commission on the book to the charity as well. This was all organised over email in 24 hours a couple days before the book went live.

We organised an interview with Jack Binstead which was published in The Guardian the day after – the day that the torch was to go through his home town and the day that he would be flying out of the country to avoid it. An interview with Journalism.co.uk on the ebook itself – Help Me Investigate’s first – was published the same day.

We published data on where torchbearer places went in The Guardian’s datablog two days after that, and serialised the book throughout the week, along with some additional pieces – for example, on how LOCOG missed their target of 50% of places going to young people by other 1,000 places. A lengthier interview with Jack and his mother was published at the end of the week.

In theory this should have captured interest in the torch relay at just the right time – but I think we misjudged two factors.

The first was beyond our control: the weather changed.

Until now, the weather had been awful. When it changed, the mood of the country changed, and there was less interest in the missed promises of the Olympic torch relay. But it also coincided with another change: the final week of the torch relay was also the last few days before the opening ceremony – and as the weather changed, attention shifted to the Olympic Games itself.

The torch relay, which had been squeezed dry of every possible angle for nine weeks, was – finally – yesterday’s news. It was no longer about who was carrying the torch, but about where that torch was going, and who might carry the last one.

Still, the book raised money for a deserving charity, and its story is not over. When the next torch relay comes around, I wonder, will it benefit from a resurgence of interest?

Get the free ebook for the full story: 8,000 Holes: How the 2012 Olympic Torch Relay Lost its Way - Leanpub.com/8000holes

 

11:51

A case study in online journalism part 3: ebooks (investigating the Olympic torch relay)

8000 Holes - book cover

In part one I outlined some of the data journalism processes involved in the Olympic torch relay investigation, in part 2 I explained how verification, SEO and ‘passive aggressive newsgathering’ played a role. This final part looks at how ebooks offered a new opportunity to tell the story in depth – and publish while the story was still topical.

Ebooks – publishing before the event has even finished

After a number of stories from a variety of angles I reached a fork in the road. It felt like we had been looking at this story from every angle. More than one editor, when presented with an update, said that they’d already ‘done the torch story’. I would have done the same.

But I thought of a quote on persistence from Ian Hislop that I’d published on the Help Me Investigate blog previously. “It is saying the same true thing again and again and again and again until the penny drops.”

Although it sometimes felt like we might be boring people with our insistence on continuing to dig we needed, I felt, to say the same thing again. Not the story of ‘Executive carries the torch’ but how that executive and so many others came to carry it, why that mattered, and what the impact was. A longform report.

Traditionally there would have been so space for this story. It would be too long for a newspaper or magazine, far too short for a book – where the production timescale would have missed any topicality anyway.

But we didn’t have to worry about that – because we had e-publishing.

It still seems incredible to me that we could write up and publish a book on the missed promises of the Olympic torch relay before the relay had even finished. Indeed: to also publish the day before the book’s main case study was likely to run.

But if we wanted to do that, we had about a week to hit that deadline, with important holes in our narrative, and working largely in our spare time.

First, we needed a case study to represent the human impact of the corporate torchbearers and open our book. Quite a few had been mentioned in local newspapers when they discovered that less-than-inspirational individuals had taken their place, but HMI contributor Carol Miers found one who couldn’t have been more deserving: Jack Binstead had received the maximum number of nominations; he was just 15 (half of torchbearer places were supposed to go to young people – they didn’t); and he was tipped to go to the next Paralympics.

We also needed to find out if there was an impact on the genuinely inspirational people who did get to carry the torch – I had been chasing a couple when Geoff Holt came through the site’s comments (see above). That was our ending.

For the middle we needed to pin down some of the numbers around the relay. Comments from earlier stories had indicated that some people didn’t see why it was important that executives were carrying the torches – unaware, perhaps, that promises had been made about where places would go, and what sort of stories torchbearers should have.

In particular, the organisers had promised that 90% of places would be available to the general public and that 50% of places would go to young people aged 12-24. I had to nail down where each chunk of tickets had gone - and at how many points they had been taken away from availability to the ‘general public’. Ultimately, the middle of the book would describe how that 90% got chipped away until it was more like 75%.

That middle would then be fleshed out with the themes around what happened to the other 25%: essentially some of the stories we’d already told, plus some others that filled out the picture.

Writing in this way allowed us to go beyond the normal way of writing – shock at a revelation – to identifying where things went wrong and how. For all the anger at corporate sponsors for their allocation of torch relay places, it was ultimately LOCOG’s responsibility to approve nominations, to publish 8,000 “inspirational” nomination stories, and to meet the promises that they had made about how they would be allocated. The buck stopped there.

Thanks to the iterative way we had worked so far – publishing each story as it came, asking questions in public, building an online ‘footprint’ that others could find, establishing collaborative relationships and bookmarking to create an archive – we met our deadline.

It was a timescale which allowed us to tap into interest in the relay while it was still topical, and while executive torchbearers were still carrying the torch.

8,000 Holes: How the 2012 Olympic Torch Relay Lost its Way was published on day 66 of the 70-day Olympic torch relay. All proceeds went to the Brittle Bone Society, of which Jack is an ambassador. The publishers – Leanpub – agreed to give their commission on the book to the charity as well. This was all organised over email in 24 hours a couple days before the book went live.

We organised an interview with Jack Binstead which was published in The Guardian the day after – the day that the torch was to go through his home town and the day that he would be flying out of the country to avoid it. An interview with Journalism.co.uk on the ebook itself – Help Me Investigate’s first – was published the same day.

We published data on where torchbearer places went in The Guardian’s datablog two days after that, and serialised the book throughout the week, along with some additional pieces – for example, on how LOCOG missed their target of 50% of places going to young people by other 1,000 places. A lengthier interview with Jack and his mother was published at the end of the week.

In theory this should have captured interest in the torch relay at just the right time – but I think we misjudged two factors.

The first was beyond our control: the weather changed.

Until now, the weather had been awful. When it changed, the mood of the country changed, and there was less interest in the missed promises of the Olympic torch relay. But it also coincided with another change: the final week of the torch relay was also the last few days before the opening ceremony – and as the weather changed, attention shifted to the Olympic Games itself.

The torch relay, which had been squeezed dry of every possible angle for nine weeks, was – finally – yesterday’s news. It was no longer about who was carrying the torch, but about where that torch was going, and who might carry the last one.

Still, the book raised money for a deserving charity, and its story is not over. When the next torch relay comes around, I wonder, will it benefit from a resurgence of interest?

Get the free ebook for the full story: 8,000 Holes: How the 2012 Olympic Torch Relay Lost its Way - Leanpub.com/8000holes

 

December 30 2011

18:30

Clara Jeffery: What nonprofit news orgs are betting on for 2012

Editor’s Note: We’re wrapping up 2011 by asking some of the smartest people in journalism what the new year will bring.

Next up is Clara Jeffery, co-editor of Mother Jones.

Predictions are a chump’s game. So this is more like a window into what the editors of a small nonprofit news organization are betting on.

There is no spoon

Forget distinctions between blog posts and stories because readers don’t care. What they care about is a source — be it news org or author — that they trust and enjoy.

Data viz

We at Mother Jones had a breakout hit with our income inequality charts. 5 million readers, 240K Facebook likes, 14K tweets, and counting. Charts were pasted up on the walls of Wisconsin state capitol during the union fight; #OWS protestors blew them up and put them on signs, and distributed them in leaflets. Partly, it was the right message at the right time. But it was also that a very complicated story was boiled down into 11 charts and that the sources for the charts’ information were provided.

More broadly, in 2011, chart fever swept media orgs — hey, USA Today, you were right all along! In 2012, I am sure we’re not the only ones who are investing in ways to make data more frequent, and more interactive.

Blur the lines between writer/producer/coder

If you want to do visual storytelling, you need people who can marry words with images, animation, video. We’re not only hiring people who have advanced data app and video skills, but we’re also training our entire editorial staff to experiment with video, make charts, and use tools like Document Cloud and Storify to enrich the reader experience. To that end, anything that makes it easier to integrate disparate forms of media — whether it’s HTML5 or Storify — is a friend to journalists.

Collaboration 2.0

There are a number of cool content collaborations out there — MoJo is in the Climate Desk collaboration with The Atlantic, Grist, Slate, Wired, CIR, and Need to Know, for example. But in retooling that project for 2012 (coming soon!), we really started thinking about collaborating with tech or content tool companies like Prezi and Storify. And why shouldn’t news orgs on the same CMS potentially collaborate on new features, sharing development time? So, for example, we, TNR, Texas Monthly, the New York Observer, and Fast Company (I think) are all on Drupal. Is there something we all want? Could we pool dev time and build a better mousetrap? We actually built a “create-your-own-cover” tool that, in keeping with the open-source ethos of Drupal (and because I’m friends with editor Jake Silverstein) we handed over to Texas Monthly; they improved on it. The biggest barrier to collaboration is bandwidth within each constituent group. But ultimately it makes sense to try learn collectively.

Where am I?

As people increasingly get news from their social stream, the implications for news brands are profound. If nobody comes through the homepage, then every page is a homepage. Figuring out when (and if) you can convert flybys into repeat customers is a huge priority — especially for companies that have subscription or donation as part of their revenue stream. If everyone is clamoring for this, then somebody is going to invent the things we need — better traffic analysis tools, but also A/B testers like Optimizely.

It also means that being a part of curation communities — be they Reddit or Longform/Longreads — is as important as having a vibrant social media presence yourself. As is the eye candy of charts, data viz, etc. Lure them in with that, and often they’ll stay for the long feature that accompanies it.

User generated content 2.0

Social media and Storify are making users into content producers in ways that earlier attempts at distributed reporting couldn’t. Especially on fast-breaking stories, they are invaluable partners in the creation process, incorporated into and filtered through verified reporting. For MoJo, for example, the social media implications surrounding our Occupy coverage were profound. We were reporting ourselves, as well as getting reports from hundreds of people on the ground. Some became trusted sources, sort of deputized reporters to augment our own. And we found ourselves serving an invaluable role as fact-checkers on the rumors that swirled around any one incident.

It was heady and often exhausting. But it won us a lot of loyal readers. We could do all that in real time on Twitter and use Storify to curate the best of what we and others were reporting on our site, beaming that back to Twitter. (And Al Jazeera’s The Stream, for example, is taking that kind of social media integration to a whole new level. Of course, it helps to be bankrolled by the Al Thanis.)

Mobile, mobile, mobile

To me, especially within the magazine world, there’s been an overemphasis on “apps,” most of which thus far aren’t so great and are often walled off from social media. But anything that improves — and monetizes — the mobile experience is a win. And any major element of what you’re offering that doesn’t work across the major devices is a sunk cost. Sorry, Flash.

Investigative reporting renaissance

Despite all the hand-wringing of a few years ago, it turns out that people do read longform on the web, on tablets and readers, and even on their phone. They love charts and graphs and animation and explainers. They want to know your sources and even look at primary documents. And they want it all tied up with voice and style. There’s no better time to be an investigative journalist.

17:30

Joshua Young: 2012 will be the year we focus, again, on the writer

Editor’s Note: We’re wrapping up 2011 by asking some of the smartest people in journalism what the new year will bring.

Here’s Josh Young, who currently handles the contributor network at the real-time media company Sulia, and who formerly headed social news at The Huffington Post.

The first of Google’s ten core principles has framed the way we think about the content on the Internet:

Focus on the user and all else will follow.

Of course, that user is really what technologists and economists both call the “end user.” When it comes to content, that means the reader. This principle presumes that users have information needs and that the information to satisfy those needs already exists. The task is culling, discovering, finding.

This is essentially the idea that content just happens. Search is the easy example, but you can see it in curation, too. The answers are all there — disguised by the blooming, buzzing confusion of even more information — and we just need a better filter.

Almost all content platforms are informed by this principle, as well — at least as a matter of positioning. WordPress has no agenda. Tumblr doesn’t care what you write. Pinterest doesn’t have a say in what boards you pin together. Quora doesn’t care what you ask or answer. Nor does YouTube care what you upload. Soundcloud doesn’t care what you create. Read It Later doesn’t care what you read later any more than Twitter cares what you Tweet. The list goes on and on.

The formula for today’s most successful content platforms is to give a bunch of writers each a soapbox and then to give vastly more readers some tools to find the soapbox best for them. In any two-sided market, after all, an economist might tell you to subsidize the side that’s more price-sensitive and to charge the side that has more to gain from network effects. Blah blah blah.

Of course, audiences will never just happen. Likewise, “Focus on the writer and all else will follow” doesn’t seem like a promising economic model.

But I am not an economist, and I think 2012 will be the year in which we realize that Google’s first core principle misses something important. We will recognize all over again the value in catering to the writer — or, rather, the best writers. We will thus also invest in giving them tools to reach the right readers. Maybe readers aren’t so price-sensitive, and maybe they stand very much to gain from network effects. 2012 will show us.

Image by Steven Depolo used under a Creative Commons license.

December 08 2011

19:45

New Read It Later data: What does engagement look like in a time-shifted world?

This morning, Coco Krumme and Mark Armstrong — newly of Read It Later and always of @Longreads — released a study of Read It Later data examining stories that were saved by Read It Later’s 4 million-and-counting users over a six-month period (from May 1 to October 31, 2011). Together, David Carr put it, the data are part of a broader group of statistics that are emerging in the digital space to lend insight into “what kind of writing and writers are the stickiest.” (More bluntly: “What Writers are Worth Saving?“)

While the findings about overall article saves are pretty fascinating — go, Denton and Co.! — what I’m most interested in are the sample’s return rates, the stats that measure actual engagement rather than one-off story saves. Because, if my own use of Read It Later and Instapaper are any indication, a click on a Read Later button is, more than anything, an act of desperate, blind hope. Why, yes, Foreign Policy, I would love to learn about the evolution of humanitarian intervention! And, certainly, Center for Public Integrity, I’d be really excited to read about the judge who’s been a thorn in the side of Wall Street’s top regulator! I am totally interested, and sincerely fascinated, and brimming with curiosity!

But I am less brimming with time. So, for me, rather than acting like a bookmark for later-on leafing — a straight-up, time-shifted reading experience — a click on a Read Later button is actually, often, a kind of anti-engagement. It provides just enough of a rush of endorphins to give me a little jolt of accomplishment, sans the need for the accomplishment itself. But, then, that click will also, very likely, be the last interaction I will have with these worthy stories of NGOs and jurisprudence.

(“Saving…saved!…gone!”)

It’s when I’m actually looking at my Instapaper or Read It Later queue that things get real. That’s when the Aspirational Read and the Actual Read duke it out for my attention. Do I really want to read about how GOP senators’ positions on Consumer Financial Protection Bureau are aligned with that of the industry? Or would I — alone with my thoughts and my iPhone — really kind of prefer to read something from The Awl?

This is what makes the Read It Later dataset so interesting. There’s precious little overlap between the most-saved authors and the authors with the highest return rates. “Engagement” isn’t really “engagement”; it’s not a static thing. What we think we want in a given moment — life-improvement advice, tech news — may well be quite different from what we want once we’re removed from that moment. (Which is to say: Interest, like everything else, is subject to time.)

What does endure, though, the Read It Later info suggests, is the human connection at the heart of the best journalism. While so much of the most-saved stuff has a unifying theme — life-improvement and gadgets, with Boing Boing’s delights thrown in for good measure — it’s telling, I think, that the returned-to content can’t be so easily categorized. It runs the gamut, from sports to tech, from pop culture to entertainment. What it does have in common, though, is good writing. I don’t read all the folks on the list, but I read a lot of them — and I suspect that what keeps people coming back to them. When I’m looking at my queue and I see Maureen O’Connor’s byline, I’ll probably click — not because I necessarily care about the topic of her post, but because, through her mix of smarts and humor, she’ll make me care. The Read It Later suggests a great thing for writers: Stickiness seems actually to be a function of quality.

Or, as David Carr might put it: The ones worth saving are the ones being saved.

July 20 2011

15:00

June 03 2011

16:00

The news/analysis divorce: Who gets custody of the cash?

Editor’s Note: Lab contributor Lois Beckett is a freelance journalist who focuses on meta-media reporting and the future of long-form journalism. Here, in a response to a much-discussed article predicting a “divorce” between news and analysis, she considers the economic aspects of longform. 

One of the must-read articles of the week is “The News Article is Breaking Up,” by Sulia CEO Jonathan Glick.

Glick makes the pretty standard evaluation that the traditional news article is an outdated medium for conveying information. Consumers, he argues, want either a quick, tweet-sized update — something that they can take in as part of the stream, particularly on increasingly ubiquitous smartphone platforms — or an immersive longform experience that puts those bits of information into context.

Unlike Jeff Jarvis, who argues that “the most precious resource in news is reporting,” Glick argues that “the news” should be given away for free, as a loss leader for analysis. “Long-form writing will survive and will do so by abandoning news nuggets,” he writes. Furthermore: “The good news for writers is that this dovetails with their financial and intellectual interests.”

Via a variety of social-mobile platforms, they will pass along facts and pictures as soon as they obtain them — or verify them, depending on the writer’s journalistic standards. Writers who are especially good at doing this real-time reporting will develop audiences who are attentive to their mobile alerts. News nuggets are highly viral, so successful reporters will very quickly be introduced to huge numbers of readers.

Through this loss-leading channel, writers will then be able to notify their readers about longer-form articles they have created…. These pieces will written to be saved to read later — for that time when the reader takes a moment to relax, learn, and enjoy resting by the side of the stream. Social and mobile platforms make payment much easier, so it will be practical to charge a small fee. Fifty cents for thoughtful analysis is inexpensive, and yet it is the cost of an entire newspaper today.

Let’s put aside the question of whether charging “fifty cents for thoughtful analysis” is a realistic price point. The problem with Glick’s proposed business model is that it misrepresents the relationship between explanation and appetite.

Consumers have an appetite for updates about stories they’re already following (industry news, celebrity relationships) or for big events whose importance is easy to grasp (tornadoes, sex scandals, revolutions). But for many issues, consumers develop an interest in ”news nuggets” about a topic only after reading a long-form story about it. This can be true of investigative journalism, and of almost every long-form story that isn’t about a celebrity or a piece of major breaking news. Explanatory journalism creates the appetite for news updates on many subjects, not the other way around.

For that kind of longform, Glick’s business model is nonsensical. The pieces of many stories — the chronologically gathered details — have little value, economically or otherwise, without relevant context. As a reporter, how can I tweet observations about a source my readers don’t know about, or new wrinkles in an investigation that is still a mass of contradictory evidence?

Glick also creates a dichotomy between Twitter’s raw “nuggets” of news and highly crafted long-form stories. But Twitter, as a reportorial form, is actually much richer and more flexible than that either/or framing would suggest.

Take Mother Jones human rights reporter Mac McClelland, who gained a larger audience through her vividly tweeted coverage of the BP oil spill. Her tweets aren’t exactly “highly viral news nuggets.” Some of them have a breaking-news quality, but the central appeal of her Twitter feed is cumulative. It’s a crafted narrative, with McClelland as the questing, sometimes outraged, protagonist. Her feed is a long-form story that lives inside the news stream. To break it down to atomic elements seems, somehow, to miss the point.

That’s not to say that Glick’s notion of reporters propelling themselves to long-form stardom might not work for certain types of reporting — about big political campaigns, or revolutions, or natural disasters. These are situations in which readers have enough of a grasp of what’s going on to want real-time “news nuggets,” and enough questions to be willing (maybe) to pay for a well-crafted explainer that puts the updates together. In these cases, the loss-leaders might be tweets, or they might be the long-form stories themselves, which, in turn, might attract readers to pay for access to journalists’ live updates. Or, as Gerry Marzorati suggested earlier this year, nonfiction writing itself might become a loss-leader for another form of economic sustainment: book tours, events, and other direct encounters with the public.

Glick may not arrive at the right answer, but he is asking the right question: If short articles, once the journalist’s daily bread, can indeed be replaced in part by snappier, tweeted updates, how will reporters make money?

Image by Jez used under a Creative Commons license.

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

March 01 2011

19:30

A hive of long-form journalists: Gerry Marzorati and Mark Danner on a new model for long form

Yesterday at the Berkeley School of Journalism, former NYT Magazine editor Gerald Marzorati and author and former New Yorker writer Mark Danner sat down to talk about the “the fate of long-form journalism in a new media age.”

Their conversation came on the heels of Virginia Heffernan’s paen to long-form journalism and the possibilities of the new Kindle Singles platform, designed for “Compelling Ideas Expressed at Their Natural Length.”

Marzorati argued that the Internet has not shortened readers’ attention spans, and that the audience for long-form journalism is large, enthusiastic, and happy to read long pieces that are actually long. (He noted that, during his tenure, cover stories at the Times Magazine didn’t shrink, but actually grew from an average of 4,000 to 5,000 words to at least 8,000 words.) For him, the crisis of the form isn’t the audience, but the expense: Who is going to pay for  the necessary months of reporting, fact-checking, and editing — not to mention the legal protection that intensive pieces often require? (Marzorati has said previously that NYT Times cover stories regularly cost upwards of $40,000.)

Marzorati’s comments reinforce a trend Megan highlighted this January: In a world where magazine editors are increasingly unwilling to invest in a big, intriguing story before it’s finished, long-form journalists are often turning to nonprofits to finance their reporting. Nonprofits are the “lifeboats,” as Megan put it. They keep important stories afloat until they’re close enough to publication that editors will take them on.

But the most intriguing part of yesterday’s conversation came when Danner asked Marzorati to imagine how he would build a long form-focused organization from scratch, if he had $10 or $12 million to do it.

The first step, Marzorati replied, would be to attract a lot of big-name writers who already have their own audiences. Then, he said, he would “surround, immerse each of these writers in a lot of the tools — social media tools. The writers would sort of be the hive, and the experience people would be coming for would be not only to read and encounter the writers, but also the community that this writer had created.

Danner, liking this idea, said it might appeal to the writers by providing “one-stop shopping” for editing, publishing, literary representation, and more, so that writers could spend less time managing their professional lives, and more time writing.

An edited partial transcript of the pair’s conversation is below.

Mark Danner: Are we right in worrying about the survival of long-form journalism? Is it really threatened?

Gerry Marzorati: I do think it is threatened. I don’t think it’s a technological problem, I don’t think it’s an audience problem. I think the conventional wisdom about long-form journalism — that people’s attention spans have lessened to such a degree that they no longer have the time, or they’re too distracted to read long form, or the medium itself is non-conducive to that sort of longer read (the 45-minute, hour-long read) — I think all of those things are not true.

We have metrics at The New York Times that show that people absolutely click the 23 clicks through to the end of the story. When I was at the magazine, the longest pieces in the magazine were the best-read, the most-read, the most-emailed. The pieces also tended to be, at the end of the year, the pieces that got the most pageviews of anything the Times ran…. People figured out their own sorts of behavior. They printed out the story — on the subway, you would see a printed-out version. Or Instapaper. People are reading these things, and they still become conversation pieces. I don’t know how many of you read Larry Wright’s [New Yorker] piece on Scientology, but a lot of people have read that piece…. [That] you can comment on them, you can blog about them, actually brings more readers to these long-form pieces.

The problem is who’s going to pay to have these pieces reported. That’s the problem. That’s really the crisis. You have  fewer and fewer news outlets, you have fewer and fewer magazines, willing to have a journalist report for five or six or eight months, or send them to the edge of the world — and then have the edifice in place to edit and fact-check these pieces. There is a feeling among these magazines that they don’t have to fund these pieces to create readership. It’s a really, really big problem.

At The New York Times Magazine, the number of magazines that were competing with us was just a handful, and none of these magazines makes money. If you go back to the heyday of long-form journalism in the ’60s and ’70s, the publications were also making money —

MD: You’re talking about Esquire, Harper’s —

GM: There were city magazines, The Atlantic, Harper’s, the New Yorker. There were a lot of places that were making money publishing long-form journalism.

MD:  For many magazines, whose identities have been formed with the reputation of funding this kind of work, do they have an alternative? Are they having the possibility that “we can’t do this stuff anymore, we can just stop doing long form, period”?

GM: I think that’s what’s happened. I cannot believe that Rolling Stone’s newsstand sales, or what have you, that that’s being driven by whether they have long-form journalism or not. It’s a crisis of the expense of reporting.

MD: What does long form bring to a publication? [With Rolling Stone], the McChrystal piece, which earned them a great deal not only of attention but news chops…is this Tina Brown’s notion of  “the mix”? Take a glossy magazine, give it credibility by inserting long-form journalism? What do you have left if you pull this stuff away? [Do they think], “I’m going to cut this stuff, but we’ll be fine without it”?

GM: …Or we’ll take book excerpts rather than funding the original reporting ourselves.

In part, you’re seeing things like ProPublica rise up. When I was at the magazine, we won a Pulitzer Prize partnering with them on a long reported piece…and here’s  interesting story. [The author, Sheri Fink] had come to magazine with this pitch years before. She had really no experience as a magazine writer, but it was a really interesting idea. We just weren’t in a position to fund what we knew was going to take a year or two of reporting — and we especially weren’t in a position to make the case to make the money available to someone who didn’t have that experience. I think she started with a grant from Knight, and eventually ProPublica funded her reporting, and we got involved about a year before the piece was published, and began shaping the story, and getting our legal team involved, and that sort of thing.

MD: What was the economic model? Most of her travel and reporting was funded off-site?

GM: ProPublica funded most of her reporting, and did a lot of the initial editing and that sort of directional editing. Steve Engelberg, who had been the Times’ investigative editor in the 1990s, is the managing editor at ProPublica. We knew each other and had a good working relationship. It wasn’t without a fair amount of back-ing and forth-ing. It’s very unusual to be involved in a project like that, where you have so many editors. It turned out to be a great experience in the end.

I suspect you’re going to see more of these kinds of organizations springing up, which is not without its own problems. ProPublica has its own best practices. I imagine there will be organizations in the future who have a specific message they want to get out, or a specific line of inquiry to pursue, and what’s the Times’ relationship with them going to be? You need to know the agenda of everyone before you leap into bed with these things.

MD: From the point of view of a young writer who is looking at long form and trying to make a life of it…is the landscape from that point of view worse? Are their fewer outlets at the end of the day? Fewer chances to make a living?

GM: I d0n’t think we know yet. We’re at a very early moment in web journalism. It changes year to year just so rapidly. Obviously the tablet is going to have a bigger impact than we can even imagine. I think there is something about reading on the tablet that is just more conducive. I also think Steve Jobs has figured out a way, brilliantly, to get people to pay through the iTunes store. People will pay for things…. Could you imagine paying 99 cents for a piece of journalism that you really want to read? Probably, yes. If you now have these sorts of models in place, through some startup money and foundation money, someone coming along and creating these kinds of pieces…yeah, I think it could happen, there’s a good chance it will happen. I don’t think we’ll know what it’s going to be until we have the first Harold Ross of Web 2.0.

MD:  Maybe Kindle Singles are an early sign. But there’s  nothing in here about the editing method, nothing in here about if you have an idea for a story, how you end up published. It simply seems to be a place where writers of some reputation already can publish.

GM: Whether the metaphor is a magazine or a clearinghouse of some kind, there’s a few projects, Longreads, Longform.org — but I don’t know if they pay. A lot of them are just collecting pieces from various publications. The problem is discovery — search.

One of the things that’s really taken off in the last 10-15 years: The public has a hunger to actually encounter the writers who are writing these pieces. One of the ways nonfiction writers are able to make money — not all nonfiction writers, but a fair number of them — is on the lecture tour. A kind of 19th century idea, the book as a loss leader for actually going out and encountering people.

[On the web] there are costs that you do eliminate, physical paper costs, which are considerable. You could imagine that someone could pull together a cadre of writers, fund them through foundation money, raise some kind of venture capital money, have some combination of lecturing and writing. If I were in that position, one of the things I would be very interested in experimenting with is: Is there a way to make more transparent the work-in-progress, which you have the possibility of doing online? We’re experimenting somewhat with this in the Times. If you have Nick Kristof in the main square in Cairo and he’s tweeting, can you get people interested in the story through that, and the story comes later? And part of what he’s doing through tweeting is explaining how he’s gathering the story. You’ve got some added value, which you don’t have in print.

Maybe that’s one of the things that will make this work. You subscribe to this place, and you know you’re going to get a story in six months, from some war correspondent, that’s really going to be a big narrative — but along the way, that reporter is tweeting and posting about what he or she is doing.

MD: It’s really an amazing “back to the future” thing. Tolstoy did War and Peace by subscription, and finally, with publication in full, the earlier volumes were substantially changed. You signed up for the beginning and you basically did see it in progress.

If you were going to set something like this up — you had a few million dollars in venture capital — given the obstacles now and the advantages, how would you go about doing it? If I handed you $10 million, $12 million.

GM: You’d have to start by attracting some big-name authors. One of the things the Internet has reinforced is the individual brand of a writer, and it’s to those writers that people go. I was having this discussion with Michael Lewis. He publishes his pieces in Vanity Fair, but most of his readers don’t read Vanity Fair — they just read it because he’s attached the link to a tweet and sent it out.

MD: Most of his readers are not paying readers —

GM: Those writers in some ways have transcended the publication. I think it’s going to be harder online to set up this kind of “publication”” feel, this kind of magazine, front of the book/back of the book/feature well, that was there to serve advertisers — to some extent, anyway. That sort of thing will disappear.

You will have to at least start by building the brand around a handful of these writers, and then, how I would go about it, would be just: Surround, immerse each of these writers in a lot of the tools, social media tools. The writers would sort of be the hive, and the experience people would be coming for would be not only to read and encounter the writer, but also the community that this writer had created.

MD: So are we talking to them, paying to get onto the community, or paying for a Kindle —

GM: You’d probably give them different options. You could subscribe to all the people, you could subscribe to one writers. I’d probably use social gaming mechanics to actually get people returning to the particular place, by which I mean: You become the most important commenter on Mark Danner, you are recognized, because your comments are the most read of all the comments. We badge you. We give you the title and you are now badged.

This has an enormous effect on keeping people coming back. It’s the same thing as in those shoot-em-up Mafia Wars: You work your way up, you kill more and more mobsters. You keep coming back. You have a place in the game. You become a super commenter, your comments are flagged in some way. Maybe you do it in color shades. The blue overlaid comment is the one that’s teh most read. Your comment on Michael Lewis’ recent piece is the most important. Or you get badged by bringing other commenters to the site, bringing 20 of your Facebook fans to the site. [Marzorati is the Times' Assistant Managing Editor for New Products and Strategies, but when I asked him about that strategy after the talk, he said the Times is not planning to implement a badge system any time soon — it's just something he finds interesting.]

GM: How would you attract writers? Editors attract writers by some combination of paying them the going rate or force of personality.

MD:  What are you offering them as a lure?

GM: The promise of getting them more readers than they would otherwise have. You could work out deals with print magazines that you also reverse publish into, form partnerships with Amazon and other distributors…. Ultimately, what these writers want is the best readership they can have, and if you figure out a way to pull that off, the promise of the Internet is gigantic. The reach — The New York Times, on any given weekday, sells 800,000 copies, and you know, we have more than 60 million unique visitors a month. It’s gigantic. It’s international.

MD: There’s also an irony here. The Internet has made long form writers entrepreneurs. You have a website, you have speaking tours, you have a publisher and a literary agent…. It’s more time-consuming for the author. Maybe what you’re offering is one-stop shopping: We are your publisher, we are your editor, we are your literary agent.

During the Q&A session, Michael Pollan, who is also a professor at the journalism school, asked Marzorati:  “What should we teach these kids, especially as long form writers?

GM: I position myself on the more conservative side. I don’t think journalism school is a place to  learn how to write computer code. I think a lot of the tool kit you’ll need, you’ll get on the job. I think our job, if you want to be a long form journalist, is to read a lot of really great long-form journalism and learn how to write it…. Reading is my own particular hobby horse. I think in a lot of programs there isn’t a lot of time built in just to read, to read the people who did it really well.

February 15 2011

18:00

1,900 copies: How a top-selling Kindle Single is generating new audiences for ProPublica

Listing the eight big trends journalism will see over the next year, Josh highlighted the increasing role that the singles model will play in the news. He was talking about the disaggregation of the author and the publisher — “a way for an individual writer to kind of go around getting the approval of a glossy magazine editor or getting a newspaper editor’s approval to get something to an audience.” But the idea has another intriguing twist, as well: individual news organizations using the singles model to circumvent traditional constraints on publishing.

One outlet that’s making a go of that approach is ProPublica, which, at the launch of Amazon’s Kindle Singles platform late last month, published a story as a Kindle Single: staff writer Sebastian Rotella’s nearly 13,000-word-long exposé, “Pakistan and the Mumbai Attacks: The Untold Story.”

The piece, also available for free on the web, is a work of long-form investigative journalism, telling the story of the complex stew of relationships and circumstances that led to the 2008 terror attack on Mumbai. It’s long for a web piece, short for a book — right in the sweet spot Kindle Singles are trying to hit.

Selling it through Amazon for 99 cents was an experiment, Richard Tofel, ProPublica’s general manager, told me. From the looks of things, though, it’s been a successful one: The story’s been a regular in the top 10 of Kindle Singles bestsellers (it’s been as high as #2, as far as I’ve seen; it’s #6 at this writing). It’s also currently #1 in books about both terrorism and international security — and #1, for that matter, across all books (e- and otherwise) in Amazon’s International Security category. That, with almost no marketing effort (besides the placement of the story on Amazon’s site itself) on the part of ProPublica.

And if you’re wondering what being a top-10 Kindle Single gets you in terms of actual sales: In the first two weeks of its availability in the Singles Store, the piece sold more more than 1,900 copies, Tofel says.

The 1,900 sales number is certainly not a lot compared to other metrics (pageviews and the like). And given the story’s 99-cent pricing (the minimum amount for a Single) and the 35 percent royalty rate, the direct financial gain isn’t much, either. “The money will be nice, but even if you multiply the eventual sales of this by ten — and multiply that by 20 — it still doesn’t turn into enough money to float our boat,” Tofel notes.

Then again, pageviews — while they’re good at measuring a story’s popularity and decent at measuring its impact — don’t accrue to much direct financial gain, either, even on a site that accepts advertising. The Singles model, instead, allows ProPublica to take a new twist on the old “diversify your assets” maxim: It’s one more revenue stream for the outfit. And, given the broad brand exposure that being listed on Amazon’s site allows, the Singles model could allow separate (and sometimes contradictory) goals to be achieved on the same publishing platform: editorial impact and financial gain.

Besides, the value proposition here lies more in the cultural proposition that the Kindle Single and its counterparts represent: the editorial normalization of long-form. The web isn’t bringing about the long-predicted “death of long-form”; on the contrary, it seems, the digital world is heralding a renaissance in long-form reportage. “The economics of book and magazine publishing for the last 100 years have had the effect of saying that you cannot write narrative nonfiction at longer than 10,000 words,” Tofel says — and, for that matter, shorter than book length.

Sheri Fink’s story on the chaos at a hospital devastated by Hurricane Katrina — the New York Times Magazine piece that won ProPublica its Pulitzer — was about the same length as Rotella’s story, around 13,000 words. And “that’s pretty much the outer edge of the range for a magazine piece,” Tofel notes. On the other side of the equation, you have books, where short of a certain length, Tofel notes, “it’s hard to charge enough for a book to make money.” Essentially, magazines have had a maximum length for stories, while books have had a minimum. The end result: “There’s this void,” Tofel notes. “And the void is dictated not by narrative, but by economics.” Despite the web’s ability to remove the physical constraints from the editorial process, until now, there hasn’t been a platform that’s been well suited to the length. Journalism hasn’t had its equivalent of the novella.

“One of the things that people were saying a few years ago is that long-form is dead,” Tofel notes. In reality, though, “long-form was never alive as a mass medium.”

Selling 1,900 copies at 99 cents doesn’t make for a mass medium either, exactly, but the hope is that the Singles model might allow for a kind of renaissance of pamphlet, with benefits accruing to reported pieces. The platform allows users to get used (re-used) to the idea of journalism as a long-form, immersive proposition. And for an outfit whose specialty is deep-dive, attention-requiring narrative, that’s valuable. “Anything that promotes ways for people to effectively consume long-form journalism in the modern world is good for us,” Tofel notes. If the big question is whether there’s an audience for longform, he says, “this, to us, looks like an interesting way to find an audience.”

Older posts are this way If this message doesn't go away, click anywhere on the page to continue loading posts.
Could not load more posts
Maybe Soup is currently being updated? I'll try again automatically in a few seconds...
Just a second, loading more posts...
You've reached the end.

Don't be the product, buy the product!

Schweinderl