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

May 21 2013

10:36

Former Facebook ME Dan Fletcher: 'It's a Great Time to Launch a New Publication'

This post was written by Ryan Graff of the Knight News Innovation Lab and originally appeared on the Lab's blog as part of a series of Q&As with highly impressive makers and strategists from media and its fringes, each with unique perspectives on journalism, publishing and communications technology. Catch up and/or follow the series here.

dan_fletcher.jpg

Dan Fletcher, the recently departed managing editor at Facebook, seems to be always ahead of the curve. In 2010, at age 22, Fletcher became the youngest person ever to write a cover story for Time magazine. He also created and launched Time.com's NewsFeed feature and Time's social media feeds. At Bloomberg a few years later he created and staffed the editorial social media teams for Bloomberg News and Bloomberg Businessweek, picking up a Forbes 30 Under 30 distinction in the process. Now, at a time when journalists are headed to the Twitters and LinkedIns of the world to help shape editorial content, he's already completed his time at a tech giant and is looking for his next project. Below is an edited version of our Q&A.

Q&A

Q: Can you give us a quick rundown of what you do, who you are, and all the latest since resigning from Facebook?

Dan Fletcher: I’ve really dug into the intersection of social media and editorial. At Time and Bloomberg, that meant helping news organizations figure out how to use these new platforms and reporting on the companies building them out. At Facebook, it meant trying to bring an editorial angle to a technology company. In each role, I've been lucky to be allowed to experiment, and now I’m eager to continue experimenting on my own.

What excites you most about journalism/media in 2013?

Fletcher: It seems like there’s a greater appetite for experimentation. Places like Circa and NowThisNews are rethinking how journalism’s packaged and distributed in a mobile world. Projects like Matter, Atavist, and The Magazine are seeing if people will pay for a great story, given to them in a way that honors the reading experience. And "traditional" publishers like The New York Times are recognizing the importance of good design and investing in tools and people that let them package stories in better ways. Not all of these will be successful, but it’s progress beyond the impetus to just rack up page views.

What are the big differences you found between the traditional news shops and Facebook?

Fletcher: Facebook has incredible focus on their goal of connecting the world. Everything exists in service of that mission, and Facebook Stories was our small way of showing some of the cool things that happens when people connect. Newsrooms generally can’t focus on examining one idea with that level of intensity -- there are other stories to tell and themes to explore. It was refreshing to spend a year really honed in on a single idea, but part of me really missed the broader purview of traditional news.

What has changed since you started working?

Fletcher: The pace. And things were pretty fast when I got started. But so many publishers are producing more stories and turning them around faster, so as to compete for traffic from search and social media. On the whole, I’m not sure this is a good thing. Or at least it shouldn’t be the only way that stories are produced.

When did you decide to become a media person?

Fletcher: I wish I had a better story for this -- I didn’t get into the pottery class in high school, and a girl I liked was in the newspaper class. So it goes. But I’ve loved it ever since.

C'mon, fess up, what's next?

Fletcher: It’s a great time to launch a new publication.

What is the biggest tech challenge that media companies will face over the next five years?

Fletcher: Monetizing. I wish there were another answer, but that’s still the case. Journalists are producing great work, maybe more great work than at any point in history. And therein lies the problem -- what makes this a great moment to be a reader makes it a tough moment to be a producer. There’s going to be a great deal of creativity in how companies approach these challenges, though -- I think we’ll see a variety of successful models, some of which will include new forms of advertising and some of which will require reader support.

What makes good content?

Fletcher: Authenticity. It doesn’t matter who’s making it -- the Times or a company doing content marketing like Facebook or Coca-Cola. If it feels fake, forced or false, people won’t trust it.

What excites you about technology and media?

Fletcher: The barriers to entry continue to fall. What WordPress did for blogging, someone's about to do for publishing on iOS and Android while companies like Scrollkit are making it easier to build immersive experiences around stories on the web. This frees journalists, photographers and art directors from technical costs that may have inhibited them in the past, and ultimately will result in more great projects being launched.

What applications do you have open while working?

Fletcher: MOG for music, Tweetdeck (although I’m much more of a follower than an active participant), Adobe Lightroom, and a really nifty and simple text editor called iA Writer. I find fewer options are better when it comes to writing.

What could the world use a little more of?

Fletcher: Originality.

What could the world use a little less of?

Fletcher: Top 10 lists.

Follow Dan Fletcher on Twitter, @danielfletcher. Find weekly updates from the Knight News Innovation Lab's profiles series on Fridays.

Ryan Graff joined the Knight News Innovation Lab in October 2011. He previously held a variety of newsroom positions -- from arts and entertainment editor to business reporter -- at newspapers around Colorado before moving to magazines and the web. In 2008 he won a News21 Fellowship from the Carnegie and Knight foundations to come up with innovative ways to report on and communicate the economic impact of energy development in the West. He holds an MSJ from the Medill School of Journalism and a certificate in media management from Northwestern's Media Management Center. Immediately prior to joining the Lab, Graff led marketing and public relations efforts in the Middle East.

knlogo_stacked_80x80_bg_white.jpg

The Knight Lab is a team of technologists, journalists, designers and educators working to advance news media innovation through exploration and experimentation. Straddling the sciences and the humanities the Lab develops projects, prototypes and innovative bits of code that help make information meaningful, and promote quality journalism, storytelling and content on the internet. The Knight Lab is a joint initiative of Northwestern University's Robert R. McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science and the Medill School of Journalism. The Lab was launched and is sustained by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, with additional support from the Robert R. McCormick Foundation and the National Science Foundation.

April 02 2013

14:58

Tuesday Q&A: Storify’s Burt Herman on entrepreneurial journalism, advertising, and finding the right business model

burthermanWhen you run a startup that leans on journalism, the hunt for a stable business model is top of mind. Burt Herman, cofounder of Storify, said he feels an urgency to find ways to monetize the service, which helps individuals and publishers collect and curates social media into stories. That’s in part because Storify is now three years old, but also because Herman has more than a decade of experience as a journalist working for the Associated Press — meaning he’s seen the disruption of the media business up close.

Last week, his company took its first step towards a business model: Storify announced the creation of Storify VIP, a new paid version of the service that offers a new tier of features and customization for users. The VIP program is designed with big publishers — who have an army of journalists and money to spend — in mind. The BBC has already signed up.

I spoke with Herman about the decision to create a premium version of Storify, how the company might explore advertising, and where he sees entrepreneurial journalism going this year. Here’s a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

Justin Ellis: When you were looking at ways to monetize, were there other models or options you looked at before deciding on the premium tier?
Burt Herman: We are looking at all potential business models. There basically are two models we see as ones we could use. There’s some kind of subscription or a freemium/pro/VIP plan where we ask some of our users what they would like and offer these premium features. We’re quite fortunate in that we have users who are large publishers and brands and PR agencies, political organizations, NGOs, and all kinds of people like that. They’re interested in these features and have come to us asking for some of these things. That’s a clear way we can now give them something better that they want, and also make sure this is something sustainable.

On the other side, there’s definitely an advertising model we’ve talked about. And it’s still something we kind of have out there for the future. The idea there is to come up with a native form of ad that goes in a Storify story — that is a social ad, like other things in Storify stories. It could be a promoted quote, or a promoted video, or a promoted photo from a brand that is trying to get a certain message out there.

That’s still something we’re talking about. But that requires a larger scale, and being able to sell a specific new form of advertising. But if we do that, we’d also want to do it in a way that works together with our users, and share revenue back with the people creating the stories. That’s really the most valuable thing, and we’re really lucky we’ve gathered this community of amazing people who, everyday, find the best of what’s out there.

Ellis: One of the questions with advertising would be who controls what ads are served — if companies or brands go through Storify, or if they go through publishers directly.
Herman: Yeah, and we could do it both ways. The thing we look at is YouTube — how they have embeds all over the web, and sometimes have advertising in those as well. We would want to work, obviously, with our users on that, who are their advertisers, does it conflict with other ads on the page, and other issues.

We do think there is room for this new form of advertising. We’ve talked about different ways of doing this: It could be more like we promote content to the user creating a story, and whether they want to put that in the story is their own decision. But it’s very clear that’s promoted in some way — that someone is paying to get in front of the eyes of our valuable user base. That is something we have experimented with a little bit, and it is quite an interesting model to look at — not advertising to the masses but advertising to this more elite user base.

Ellis: You’ve said you have more than 600,000 people using Storify now. How did you think about what types of features you would bring up to the premium level? Ideally, you want to create added value in the service but not take away from the things other non-paying users want.
Herman: Well, a lot of these things are things people have asked for, like customization. We’ve offered some things and see what people do with it, and had some people use it for different events, including The New York Times, Yahoo, the BBC. They’re already doing these things, so we’re responding to what they say.

We didn’t intend to be a live-blogging platform, but people have been using us in that way, which is great. So we want to serve that need too. That’s something that can be quite expensive, to service live updates on embeds that are being viewed hundreds of thousands or billions of times around the web. That’s a pretty technically intensive thing, so just to make it sustainable to us, that’s why we’re putting that in the premium tier of features.

Ellis: What’s been most surprising to you about the ways people have found to use Storify? That idea of using Storify for live-blogging seems like a MacGyvering in a way.
Herman: We did think about live stories, in a way, from the start. I worked at the AP for 12 years and that’s what I did all the time — take stories, update them whenever news comes in, move things around, take out quotes, add new quotes. That’s always what we’ve done.

But it’s the story in place that gets changed, which I still would be interested in seeing people thinking about more. Newspapers do that, but they just don’t show you that they’re doing it. Or the next day, they’ll just post a new story, because they’re still in this daily cycle. But what if the story itself was just in one place and kept changing over time as developments occur? I think that’s the idea we had originally.

I thought, initially, journalists will use this and see, “Oh, the Supreme Court is hearing the gay marriage case,” and just see what people are saying in general and mine the best — look for who’s reacting, and kind of pull things in. The thing I did not expect to see, which people have used Storify for, is to say, “Hey, we’re just starting this story, send us what you think about it and use this hashtag on Instagram, on Twitter, respond to us on Facebook, we’ll take the best thing you do and put them in a story and publish it.” It’s much more of an engaging way of creating a story — where it’s not just gathering reaction, but tell us what we should put in the story, we’re going to include what our audience is doing.

The New York Times has done some really interesting things with Instagram — like during storms, the big winter storm in February, or Fashion Week in New York, asking their readers, “Hey, send photos on Instagram, tag them #NYTfashionweek and we’ll put the best ones on The New York Times.” I think it’s really cool to see journalists getting this idea that yes, this is not just a one-way thing anymore — we don’t just decide what we write and call the people we want and put it out there. Now it’s really working collaboratively with the audience to create something bigger.

Ellis: As a journalist, what’s it been like for you to watch news organizations embrace new ways to create stories?

Herman: When I talk about this, I say it’s really like what journalists have always done. We’ve always taken bits of information, whether it’s a press release, or a federal budget, or your notes, or your audio, and pieced it together to tell a story. Now we just have so many more sources potentially to mine for our stories. So many more voices of people that you can include, that you might not have otherwise heard from. I think this is something more news organizations are realizing, and I think it’s a great way to be relevant with your audience again — “Hey, we hear you, we are listening to what you say.”

How can you not want to do this? As a journalist, I was always wanting to know what are people talking about, what are the stories that I’m missing that are out there. Now you can see what people are talking about, at least a segment of people, using social media. That’s a large group of people, and growing all the time. I just think: How could you not embrace that and look at that if you’re a journalist who wants to get the stories that are out there?

Ellis: Storify also gives tweets and other social media a little more permanence. If I’m following a hashtag on the vice presidential debate, I could theoretically go back and read through it, but it’s happening so fast. You guys capture that.
Herman: We picked the name Storify because it was this word used at the AP when editors would tell you to write a story about something, to “storify” it. It really is a word that means “to make a story.” But also, sometimes people see it more here in Silicon Valley and they think “Storify, oh, you’re like a storage company.” Which, in some ways that is true too. That is a lot of what people actually use Storify for in a way we didn’t foresee: simply being able to stop time and save some stuff from this never-ending deluge of tweets and photos and videos from all these social networks. Just being able to pause, take those out, and organize them in one place is kind of valuable.

There’s not a simple way to do that and just make it look nice, or to keep it for yourself or a smaller group. That’s another reason why we’re planning to launch things now like this private story feature. We noticed people simply saving stuff without adding any text in a story, or just saving drafts and never publishing stories because they wanted to keep it somewhere and refer to something, or show it to somebody.

We’re just inundated by all this media now. Everybody has the power to create things and publish easily, instantly, all around the world. It’s great, but it’s getting harder and harder to figure out where the valuable stuff is in all of that.

Ellis: What trends do you see in Storify usage? In terms of people gearing up for big events or big stories?
Herman: We are very aligned with what you would think of as peaks on Twitter or social media, of people talking about things. Definitely the election, the Supreme Court hearing the same sex marriage cases. Certain topics are very resonant on social media and obviously for us too, those are peak things, and that seems to be when people think to use us.

We hope that people also think to use us in other cases when it isn’t just mining what’s out there when it’s a huge event — a smaller, local scale, or asking the audience to help find stories. We’re seeing more of that. That’s also why we wanted to move in this direction we’re launching, to work more closely with people and be more embedded in their organizations too, so it’s not just the social media editor who says, “Hey, there’s this Supreme Court thing — can you get a reaction thing on the blog?”

Ellis: The premium service represents a focus on establishing a business model. For some startups, finding a business model is a “further down the road” idea. How pressing has it been for you to monetize Storify?

Herman: I think there’s been a shift out here in Silicon Valley in terms of thinking about startups and business models. They just had the recent class of Y Combinator, and The Wall Street Journal wrote a post saying none of the companies are doing social media, they’re businesses, which have a built-in business model where you pay somebody for something.

I think it’s definitely kind of shifted here, people are wanting to see the business model in what you’re doing. Unless you have massive, massive scale, you have to have a business model. We are lucky the users we have, more than 600,000 people, are amazing, high-level users. That’s why, as we look at that, we say, “Okay, let’s figure out how we can make this more sustainable and work with them and hopefully help give them some of the things they want. But also make sure we can survive into the future. “

People seem to understand that now. People have grown a little skeptical of companies that don’t seem to have a business model and you wonder when they’re going to do something. So far, the reaction has been hugely positive — I think people understand why we’re doing this.

Ellis: Do you think there needs to be more support for startups that are in this kind of journalism or journalism-adjacent area like Storify? I’m thinking about something like Matter, which is sort of a combination of the Knight News Challenge and Y Combinator.
Herman: I was just at Matter earlier this week talking to the companies there. They’re doing it in a smart way. They are saying yes, it should be related to media, but you can do something that has broader relevance. It can be for-profit, it doesn’t have to be nonprofit just because it’s sort of connected with public radio. I think if you make it too narrow — just for journalism — then you might have a problem in terms of thinking really big. When you’re doing a startup, you should be thinking as big as possible. I guess it would be difficult to limit things — it’s better not to impose that on startups from the start.

We do need things related to media, but I think people will go there. It is still a huge business — billions of dollars are spent on advertising on the web, and even in print still. Startups will go there. I think there are a lot of incubators, Matter and other people, who are focusing on that.

I guess I’m worried that when you support things and force them to be nonprofit or open source, which some of the Knight News Challenge grants did earlier, that it limits the potential of some of these organizations. I love Spot.us, and Dave Cohn is a great guy, and I always think of it as he had the idea for Kickstarter before it existed. But it was limited because it had to be open source and nonprofit and only in a local area. There were all these constrictions on how he was supposed to operate. He had some success, but what could have been if he wasn’t limited in that way? I just think any of these new things should not limit people and Matter is definitely not doing that.

Ellis: Now that you’ve reached this point with Storify, is there something you know now you wish you knew when you were launching?
Herman: I guess I would say it’s different than being a journalist. Things take much longer than you would think, even though people say startups are very fast-paced — often times technology is slow and has debugging issues. Getting a process for people to work together is not an easy thing because you’re not really sure how to do things, because you’re inventing them for the first time. Be patient and realize that this is a longer journey and not a sprint. You get fooled sometimes reading these supposed overnight success stories. But when you look into them, often times it’s somebody who’s been going back for years trying to work their way through different products and pivots, and finally figuring out something that people notice. Really, if it was an overnight success, it was built over years.

April 23 2012

18:23

Are you a young dude interested in news? All else equal, this study says you’re a top paywall target

Here’s a biggie: How do you get someone to pay for online news? A new study out of the University of Texas develops a theoretical model to begin answering that question.

The goal of the study, by Iris Chyi and Angela M. Lee, is to clarify the interrelationship among news preference, use, and intent to pay. What emerges, among other things, is a profile of the kind of people most likely to pay for online news: Young males who are — wait for it — interested in the news.

That last part is key, because while younger people are more likely to pay for news online, the study finds, they’re also less likely to be interested in news in the first place.

Another paradox: People say they prefer reading print products, yet online use is growing. In other words, consumers don’t always use what they prefer, and they’re not always willing to spend money on what they use.

That’s an idea that Chyi has been exploring since the 1990s. She sometimes refers to it as “ramen noodle theory,” which we’ve written about before: People might prefer steak over ramen — but when it comes time to reach for their wallets, they opt for ramen more often. Because it’s free and abundant, the “ramen” is perceived as inferior — which reinforces consumers’ preference for “steak.” This could help explain why Chyi found “very weak correlations” between use and intent to pay in her latest study. This is from its abstract:

While media scholars tend to take “media use” as an indicator of popularity or diffusion, media use alone does not fully capture the complexity of online news consumption. For instance, given free online news offerings in most cases, consumers do not always use what they prefer, and most are not willing to pay for what they use. This study identifies three distinct factors — preference, use, and paying intent — each helps explain a specific facet of online news consumption.

Given how many variables play a role in a consumer’s decision to buy online news, the takeaway is a bit more complicated, and that’s kind of the point: Fully understanding online news consumption is about more than just looking at how often people are going online. News organizations must also get dig into what consumer’s want, what they’re willing to buy, then figure out how (and why) these factors overlap.

“The overall picture when we are looking at intention to pay for online news is that we have to consider as many as five predictors,” Chyi told me. “I think that sort of explains why most newspapers have found it’s so difficult to monetize their online content.” From the study:

Specifically, age is a key factor influencing every aspect of online news consumption. Gender, in comparison, only affects paying intent. Paying intent for online news is influenced by five factors (age, gender, news interest, preference, and online news use), with age and news interest being the strongest predictors.

The study was presented Saturday at the International Symposium on Online Journalism. Chyi’s study was based on an online survey of 767 adult respondents in August 2010. While that seems like a really long time ago in Internet years — the first iPad was only five months old — Chyi says her research is current enough to offer a useful picture of a longer-term shift she’s tracked for more than a decade. Though print is declining by just about every metric, Chyi is convinced that there is an “over-optimistic bias toward online news.” At the same time, she acknowledges it’s “very late and very difficult to change the perception that the future is online or online-only.”

It’s not that she’s anti-technology, she says: “I believe that new platforms will be really important for people to access news, but in terms of how to monetize it, I think it’s getting more and more difficult,” says Chyi, who also sees a conflation between print decline and online growth. “Very often we mix the two together and say, ‘Because print is declining, the future must be online.’ But I don’t think that’s the case.”

Whatever the case may be, the theoretical model her study produced might offer the beginnings of a structural map for those who need to find a way to convince audiences that their news products are worth paying for.

December 07 2011

19:20

Condé Nast: magazine publisher, app inventor

(A Santa clause: Spoilers lie ahead.)

Last week Condé Nast debuted a free web app called Santa’s Hideout, a registry for children’s Christmas gifts. Kids browse a virtual toy store and build a wish list; parents set spending limits and share the list with friends and family. If someone buys a gift, Santa checks it off the list for all elves (but not kids) to see. Kids can even write to Santa, and the reply arrives with spoofed email headers from the North Pole.

Cool app. So why is a magazine publisher building it?

“I guess I would start there and say that we don’t consider ourselves only a magazine publisher,” said Drew Schutte, the chief integration officer at Condé Nast.

“A year or so we took the word ‘publications’ off the building and took it off of our business cards,” he told me. “There was this final commitment to the fact that we are a company that makes quality content…and we’re going to put that on whatever medium it makes sense.”

It’s a startup-like approach that more media companies are taking as they try to diversify revenue.

Santa’s Hideout is the company’s second offshoot app, after Idea Flight. Neither app bears Condé branding; both have a built-in revenue model. Idea Flight, an iPad app for business presentations, is a free download with paid feature upgrades. Santa’s Hideout is powered by Amazon’s API, and as participants in Amazon’s Associates program the company gets a cut of every purchase.

The head elf was Julianna Stock, who manages a small team of digital experimenters at Condé Nast. The idea came when Stock asked her son what he wanted for Christmas and he refused to answer. He had already told Santa, he said. “I was sort of in a quandary and I felt like I needed a solution,” Stock said. And that’s the mission of her team: Solve problems as you encounter them, even if the solution does not have an obvious business application.

“You never know where that’s going to lead,” Schutte said. “This product…may sell on its own right. Maybe the software has applicability across the company. Maybe it’s something that we spin off into another company one day.”

Editor’s Note: You can find more examples of news organizations selling non-news products in our 2011 holiday gift guide.

19:20

Your 2011 holiday gift guide, brought to you by the news

Santa running down the street in Algers, France

If you want to save journalism, you might turn to journalism this year for all your Christmas shopping.

This weekend at NewsFoo, an O’Reilly “un-conference” for about 170 journalists and tech disrupters, the tech writer Mónica Guzmán posed a question: “Can’t we [news organizations] sell anything besides articles?” Yes, it turns out, and there are numerous examples of them trying it.

A couple of months ago Guzmán was talking to an entrepreneur in Seattle who had just sold his latest startup to Google. “We got to talking about journalism, and I’m always fascinated to listen to people who come from an innovative mindset, but not a news mindset, look at news. What he said, basically, is I don’t see how news is really going to innovate and move forward unless they can get past this idea that what they sell is just content.”

News organizations have one big advantage in business: They know their audience.

“We have a huge leg up when it comes to organizing information communities,” she said. “[News outlets] build those communities that can be really specific and really well defined.” (NewsFoo is generally off the record, but Guzmán talked with me after her session.)

Here are a few examples of all the ways news companies are selling non-news products to consumers. Some might look better wrapped up under the tree than others, but if you feel like supporting the news, maybe there’s room on your credit card for one or two of them.

Merchandise!

For the oenophile in your life, buy a gift subscription to the New York Times Wine Club. Six rare wines (four red, two white) for $90 per shipment, or $180 for the most exquisite Reserve Club varietals. Each bottle is paired with tasting notes and an NYT recipe. Europeans can sample Telegraph Wines, “one of the UK’s most respected wine merchants.” A case of six bottles of Prosecco goes for £54 and includes two complimentary Champagne flutes.

Spaceballs: The Flamethrower

The Telegraph doesn’t stop at wine. There’s a Telegraph Garden Shop, Motoring Shop, a travel shop for holiday cottages. You can buy earrings, duvet covers, snow boots, and clothes hangers. “They are the leading retailer of clothes hangers in the U.K.,” said Jeff Jarvis in an April 2010 Editor & Publisher story. The newspaper raked in a quarter of its profit in 2009 from selling things, he said.

The Onion cheaply repurposes tons of its own content into coffee-table books and framed prints. NPR, almost true to stereotype, sells “green gifts,” “gifts for gardeners,” and “gift for tea lovers.” None of those items have NPR branding, just the kind of things a typical NPR listener might like to buy. (And shoppers know their purchase helps support the news.)

The überaggregator Boing Boing sells stuff as weird as that which it aggregates, e.g., rubber finger tentacles, a remote-controlled flying shark, a bacon-scented air freshener. That site outsources the e-commerce software and payment processing.

Specialty iPhone apps

Santa's Hideout screen shot

There are plenty of smartphone and iPad apps that try to generate revenue for news organizations, but it’s less common for there to be an app that doesn’t have anything to do with the outlet’s journalism. Just today we wrote about Condé Nast’s new Santa app, which helps parents assemble and share lists of what their kids want for Christmas.

This summer Hearst Corp. launched its App Lab, a sort of digital R&D unit for the ad agencies who work with Hearst. It was Hearst that developed Manilla, a financial management product for consumers, earlier this year.

Events

In September, the web-only Texas Tribune launched the Texas Tribune Festival, a first annual symposium that brought together politicians, wonks, lobbyists, and others from the universe of Texas politics. (I interviewed editor Evan Smith about it this summer.) Tickets cost $125, but the real money comes from corporate sponsorships. In 2010, before the festival existed, the Tribune raised about $600,000 in event sponsorship, Smith told me. The Tribune festival was modeled on the New Yorker Festival, which also sells tickets and big-name sponsorships. Forbes follows a similar model for its CEO conferences around the world, but those tickets are a lot pricier.

Digital marketing services

Rubber finger tentacles

435 Digital is a Chicago consulting firm that does web design, SEO, and social media — actually, it’s a division of Tribune Co., but you would never know that from looking at its home page. The group is made up of the people who gave us Colonel Tribune and the ChicagoNow blog network.

GannettLocal, too, offers marketing services for local businesses that advertise in Gannett-owned papers. Condé Nast sells its in-house creative talent to advertisers, competing with the very agencies whose work fills the pages of its magazines.

Using reporters’ smarts

The Chronicle of Philanthropy, as I wrote this summer, packages its reporters’ in-house expertise about particular topics as paid webinars that cost as much as $96 apiece.

The premium content, the merch, the events, the consulting, the apps — they are all specialty products for niche audiences. Whether all of the offerings are making money is for another story.

“Last-minute shopping?” by Louise LeGresley used under a Creative Commons license.

December 01 2010

18:30

State-run papers from China and Russia buy convincing advertorial sections on the WaPo’s website

Clicking around the Washington Post, you stumble onto the types of stories you’d expect a national newspaper to cover, like “Judges free homeowners from foreclosure mess” or “Obama reaches out in Indonesia.” But then you might come across something like “A panda dream that comes true,” a story about young people from around the world becoming “pandassadors” on a panda breeding reserve in China. One of those stories is just not quite like the others. And there’s a good reason. The “pandassador” story wasn’t written or edited by anyone at the Post, but, instead, by China’s state-run English language newspaper, China Daily.

The Washington Post hosts a “paid supplement” section called China Watch on its domain (chinawatch.washingtonpost.com). On the right-hand side of the China Watch logo appears the tagline “a Paid Supplement to The Washington Post.” But beyond that line, there are few visual clues that the stories aren’t written or edited by the Post. (China Daily has run large display ads on the Post homepage directing readers to the section.)

The structure is the same as other Post sections. It has its own sub-categories of content, like business, politics, opinion, and multimedia. The bylined stories can be shared on Twitter or Facebook. You can leave a comment. There are traditional display ads within the section — for China Daily’s own site. In a way, it’s a site within a site, a digital translation of the advertorial insert you might find in a print-edition newspaper. But online, that insert is seamlessly embedded into the the broader publication.

When reached via email, Jennifer Lee, communications manager for the Washington Post, said: “China Watch is a print and online paid advertising section. It is clearly labeled as advertising so readers know the content is not produced by The Washington Post newsroom. China Watch’s advertising campaign runs through September 2011 and will be updated by the advertising department.”

She also noted that this is not the first time the Post has sold a government-backed publication space on their site. The Post has been hosting a section called Russia Now since 2007. Like the China Watch section, Russia Now’s logo includes the line “a paid supplement to the Washington Post.” It’s a product of Rossiyskaya Gazeta, the Russian government newspaper that runs the “official decrees, statements and documents of state bodies.” The “About Us” page on the Post section doesn’t mention that part, but describes the Gazeta as simply “the leading Russian daily.” It boasts publishing headlines in newspapers around the globe.

By comparison, here’s how China Watch is described on its “About us” page:

China Watch, previously known as Reports from China, is a paid supplement to the Washington Post, and is presented by China Daily. The international project started in 1996, and went online in 2010. It selects for the American readers the latest and in-depth news and analysis about China’s business, society and culture.

And here’s the description of China Daily:

China Daily is the national English-language newspaper in China and is one of the most authoritative newspapers in the country. It serves as a key reference point for media and society worldwide. China Daily (US Edition) is the North American version of China Daily. Launched in 2009 and published Monday through Friday, the US Edition was created to provide news about China tailored to the North American readers.

It’s also James Fallows’ favorite state-run publication, which, he notes, is “always touchingly earnest in its surface demeanor but often with a different message underneath.”

That same surface demeanor is everywhere on China Watch (à la “pandassadors”), plus that pro-China propaganda flavor. (Take, for example, a story in the business section about the handful of steps government should take to effectively intervene in the rare minerals industry.) And Russia Now has a similar earnest, upbeat feel (“Young designers freshen Moscow’s catwalk”).

Russia Now and China Daily did not get back to the Lab on a request for comment.

Regardless of whether China or Russia are winning over American readers, the content-as-advertisement strategy is an example of a trend that was around long before the web came along, but that’s been amplified by the financial realities of the digital world: the blurring of lines between advertising and editorial. Forbes recently took some heat after its first corporate-written blog launched. And this spring we wrote about Main Street Connect, a well-funded startup that hopes to make local news profitable by changing the distinction between content and advertising.

In a time when display ads are in what feel like infinite supply, and other traditional sources of revenue are fading away, publishers must experiment with new ways to profit from their content. The question is, will the supped-up advertorial pay off, and, even if it does, will it be worth it?

November 09 2010

15:00

Loose ties vs. strong: Pinyadda’s platform finds that shared interests trump friendships in “social news”

There isn’t a silver bullet for monetizing digital news, but if there were, it would likely involve centralization: the creation of a single space where the frenzied aspects of our online lives — information sharing, social networking, exploration, recommendation — live together in one conveniently streamlined platform. A Boston-based startup called Pinyadda wants to be that space: to make news a pivotal element of social interaction, and vice versa. Think Facebook. Meets Twitter. Meets Foursquare. Meets Tumblr. Meets Digg.

Owned by Streetwise Media — the owner as well of BostInnovation, the Boston-based startup hub — Pinyadda launched last year with plans to be a central, social spot for gathering, customizing, and sharing news and information. The idea, at first, was to be an “ideal system of news” that would serve users in three ways:

1. it should gather information from the sites and blogs they read regularly;

2. it should mimic the experience of receiving links and comments from the people in their personal networks; and

3. it should be continually searching for information about subjects they were interested in. This pool of content could then be ranked and presented to users in a consistent, easily browsed stream.

Again, centralization. And a particular kind of centralization: a socialized version. Information doesn’t simply want to be free, the thinking went; it also wants to be social. The initial idea for Pinyadda was that leveraging the social side of the news — making it easy to share with friends; facilitating conversations with them — would also be a way to leverage the value of news. Which ties into the conventional wisdom about the distributive power of social news. In her recent NYRB review of The Social Network, Zadie Smith articulates that wisdom when it comes to Facebook’s Open Graph — a feature, she wrote, that “allows you to see everything your friends are reading, watching, eating, so that you might read and watch and eat as they do.”

What Pinyadda’s designers have discovered, though, is that “social” news doesn’t necessarily mean “shared with friends.” Instead, Pinyadda has found that extra-familiar relationships fuel news consumption and sharing in its network: Social news isn’t about the people you know so much as the people with whom you share interests.

Pinyadda’s business model was based on the idea that the social approach to news — and the personalization it relied on — would allow the platform to create a new value-capture mechanism for news. The platform itself, its product design and development lead, Austin Gardner-Smith, told me — with its built-in social networks and its capacity for recommendation and conversation — bolsters news content’s value with the experiential good that is community — since a “central point of consumption” tends to give the content being consumed worth by proximity.

The idea, in other words, was to take a holistic approach to monetization. Pinyadda aimed to take advantage of the platform’s built-in capacity for personalization — via behavioral tracking, or, less nefariously, paying attention to their individual users — to sell targeted ads against its content. “Post-intent” advertising is interest-based advertising — and thus, the thinking goes, more effective/less annoying advertising. That thinking still holds; in fact, the insight that common interests, rather than familiarity, fuels news consumption could ratifies it. As Dan Kennedy put it, writing about the startup after they presented at a Hacks/Hackers meetup this summer: “Pinyadda may be groping its way toward a just-right space between Digg (too dumb) and NewsTrust (too hard).” The question will be whether news consumers, so many of them already juggling relationships with Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr and Posterous and other such sites, can make room for another one. And the extent to which the relationships fostered in those networks — connections that are fundamentally personal — are the types that drive the social side of news.

August 04 2010

17:00

“AdSense for online subscriptions”: Meet MediaPass, the platform that wants to put pores in your paywall

In a post over at Poynter yesterday, Rick Edmonds analyzed the paid-content experience of Spokane’s paper, the Spokesman-Review — and made, in the process, a case for a mixture of paid content and free living together on a media website. A case for, essentially, a porous paywall.

Like a number of industry analysts I have spoken with recently, [digital operations director Shaun] Higgins sees a business model in which news and special, online-only features (like a columnist singing his song parodies) is used to draw an audience. Once on the site, users can then buy archived articles, click on contextual ads and search local business listings. So the site essentially acts as a free marketing tool that can be used to pitch an assortment of products.

The upshot, for both Higgins and, by the looks of things, Edmonds: the walled-versus-free debate about web content, with its broad and often politicized terms, misses the point. Because “the obvious answer for newspapers” is “a hybrid formula.”

If that’s the case (and if The New York Times’ current path toward porousness is any indication of Paywall Zeitgeist, it could be), then publishers have another option besides Press+, Journalism Online’s paywall-facilitator: MediaPass. The platform takes a brick-by-brick approach to walls: through its modular system, it wants to give publishers the flexibility to determine not only the specific terms of their subscription asks, but also which sections (or even individual pages) of their content to make premium in the first place.

As MediaPass’ CEO, Matt Mitchell, puts it: “We want to be to online subscriptions what AdSense has been to online advertising.”

That ambitious goal pivots, like many such goals do, on a simple insight: whether you’re searching the web or monetizing its content, ease of use can make all the difference. “Part of the reason everybody monetizes through advertising networks and AdSense and Yahoo’s comparable product,” Mitchell told me, “is that it’s all very easy.” MediaPass tries to leverage the power of simplicity through its quick, AdSense-y sign-up process: provide your site’s basic info, select your subscription’s price point (when I tested the system out, the pre-populated options were one-month, three-month or six-month periods at fees of $9.95, $20.85, and $47.40 respectively — though you can write in your own price, as well), and MediaPass generates a line of Javascript that you can paste onto the back-end text of whatever content you want to keep behind your wall. There are no up-front costs for publishers who use the service. And the code itself is laid over content rather than integrated into it — and thus won’t, MediaPass promises, affect a site’s SEO.

The business proposition? MediaPass takes a flat 35 percent commission on subscription sales. (That’s an “introductory rate,” Mitchell told me, noting AdSense’s 68 percent cut for content ads.) And the value proposition for publishers, Mitchell says, comes in the system’s ease of use — which translates to nimbleness of use. As the MediaPass site notes, alluding to the Times of both New York and London, “a change is occurring in the industry as major media conglomerates have announced plans to charge a subscription for some of their online content. But while they are investing significant time, money and resources in building a proprietary subscription infrastructure, you can get started right now.

So what about the most common argument against a paywall strategy — that whatever money you manage to make in subscriptions and other payments will be negated by the exodus of the walled-off masses?

“If you do it right, you don’t lose users,” Mitchell says. ESPN.com, he points out, hasn’t seen a drop in its user base since it went paywall with Insider; quite the opposite. What’s “right” will vary by publication; still, Mitchell notes, it’s clear that, online ads being what they are, publishers need something beyond ads to support themselves. (Even the Huffington Post, he points out, widely cited as a successful outlet in terms of popularity and influence and other traditional metrics, has yet to turn a steady profit.)

Again, though, hybridity is key. Take the Times of London’s paywall, which, Mitchell says, erred on the side of excess: it put everything behind its wall, without even abbreviated content to let non-subscribers know what they’re missing. A smarter strategy is seduction: You need enough content outside the wall, Mitchell points out, to entice users to come in. You need peepholes. You need pores.

As for MediaPass’ pitch to publishers: the point isn’t necessarily to convince them of the merits of salvation-via-subscription. It is, though, to convince them to give paywalling a try. To take some of the life-or-death, all-or-nothing thinking that often surrounds the paid content debate…and re-direct it toward some (potentially) productive experimentation. As the platform’s FAQ sheet puts it: “Our entire goal in creating MediaPass was to make a subscription system that is easy to try with no obligations. We wanted to create a service in which publishers would ask themselves, ‘Why not?’”

June 01 2010

14:00

Parsing Panera: Could a name-your-own-price model work for news?

The former CEO of Panera Bread recently announced an intriguing experiment: The chain’s store in Clayton, Missouri is doing away with prices. The Clayton franchise, now run as a nonprofit restaurant and renamed the “Saint Louis Bread Company Cares Cafe,” offers the same products as typical Panera stores, the same baked goods and soups and salads. Instead of assigning a monetary value to the products, though, the store leaves it to customers to decide what they’ll pay. “Take what you need, leave your fair share,” reads a sign above the store’s counter.

Name-your-own-price schemes like this aren’t new; often, they don’t work. (“If you use a PWYW scheme too liberally, you are courting financial disaster,” the economist Stephen Dubner points out. “Just imagine if Tiffany & Co. held a PWYW day on all diamond jewelry.”) But sometimes — under the right circumstances — the approach can be quite effective. At One World Everybody Eats, a community kitchen in Salt Lake City, Denise Cerreta runs an analog service to the Panera experiment: Instead of pricing the meals One World serves, she asks customers to pay what they can — and, she told me, “to pay it forward when they can.” She’s doing something right, it seems: One World’s been in business for seven years.

Which brings me to the question you’ve seen coming, but one I’ll come out and ask anyway, as a thought experiment if nothing more: Could the Panera payment model work for news?

Request, not demand

First of all, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that it couldn’t. Carta, the German public-affairs publication, is currently the highest-grossing participant on the donation-facilitator site Kachingle. Carta’s current yield from Kachingler donations is $198.27 — from a total of 65 people. Oof. Membership drives both journalistic and otherwise tend to suggest specific notation amounts for a reason: We like prices. Or, more specifically, we’re conditioned to expect them.

But what if our expectations changed? What if news outlets built into their online interfaces a more structured, and systematic, request for content compensation? Take, again, One World. One of the reasons Cerreta’s effort works is that, at the cafe, consumer behavior is monitored: The kitchen has built into its physical layout what Cerreta calls a “point of accountability” — a point at which, moving through the consumption-to-satisfaction continuum, consumers know that this is the moment they’re expected to compensate the kitchen for what they’ve (literally) consumed. In One World’s case, the accountability point is a simple donation box. One that is situated — explicitly, purposely, unavoidably — in public.

And that makes a big — and perhaps all the — difference. (Recall the “Big Brother Eyes” experiment from a few years ago.) Which means that, when the accountability is negotiated in private — when there is only, as in the case of online news, the glare of the computer screen to cast light on our shoulders’ angels and devils — our willingness to drop dollars in the donation box certainly becomes a more open question. But, then, what if we took a looser approach to publicness — what if we translated Cerreta’s physical accountability point to the ephemeral interactions of the web? Even if we citizens need a little push to behave in private with as much civic sensibility as we would in public, there’s nothing to say that news outlets can’t provide — or, at least, experiment with providing — that push. It would simply be a matter of building the push into the structure, and patterns, of consumption. Of creating, to modify Cass Sunstein’s phrase, an architecture of accountability.

Step one would be re-framing the terms of the transaction when it comes to compensating news providers for the content they provide: from fee (obligatory, and therefore purely economic) to donation (optional, and therefore suggestive of social good). It’s a semantic shift, certainly; but it could be a psychological one, as well.

Take the work of Edward Deci. In a series of experiments in the 1970s, the social psychologist examined the behavior of two groups of subjects: One was asked to solve a puzzle; the other was told it would be paid for solving the same puzzle. Those who worked for what Deci called the “intrinsic” reward of solving the puzzle — the simple satisfaction of a job well done — were, he found, more successful in finding solutions than those who were paid. Payment functioned, ironically, as a disincentive.

Deci was studying the motivation to work, rather than the motivation to pay; still, his overall finding (officially, that “contingent monetary rewards actually reduced intrinsic task motivation”) is illustrative. Introducing the concreteness of payment into an otherwise more ephemeral exchange can sometimes discourage action, rather than encouraging it; assigning monetary value to goods and experiences has a way of confining — and even negating — their broader value. Pricing is practical, of course, and, for the most part, entirely necessary. Still, we prefer to think of ourselves as motivated by something other than — something more than — rote obligation. And price tags, general necessity notwithstanding, tend to rob us of our altruism.

Accountability and urgency

What Deci’s findings suggest for news is that, paradoxically, “It’d be nice if you paid” could actually be more incentivizing for consumers than the more blunt, and more transactional, “You have to pay.” Paywalls are one thing; pay doors, if you will — come on in! have a bite! pay what you think is fair! — are another. Permeability suggests trust; expectations of good behavior have a way of encouraging good behavior. Broken windows, in reverse.

Again, though, publicness (read: public accountability) is key; roughly the same number of people who want to be good citizens want to be recognized for being good citizens. Every year, I receive a series of emails from my college (usually featuring a slick little slideshow: “Campus in the Fall,” “Campus in the Spring,” “Campus in the Summer, with Children and Puppies and Rainbows”) asking for contributions to its Annual Giving drive. And it usually takes several of those emails before I actually make my donation. It’s not that I don’t want, or for that matter intend, to give back; it’s just that the give-back ask lacks urgency. The payment isn’t a demand; it’s a request. It doesn’t have to be paid now; it can be paid whenever. And that decelerates the dynamic of the transaction.

One of the most recent emails I received, though, tapped into something other than nostalgia: It featured a long list of donors from my class — ostensibly, as a way of thanking them for their contributions by way of public acknowledgment…but also, of course, as a way of highlighting those who hadn’t yet contributed. The loud, empty space between ‘Ganson’ and ‘Geannette,’ I have to say, made for an excellent disincentive against future dallying. Suddenly, the urgency was implicit.

The Alumni Giving staff, in other words, built into their donation request a point of accountability. Not a virtual cash register, a “pay now, or you won’t get the goods you want” approach — an impossibility for donation-seekers who sell not goods but potential good — but a more subtle (and, yet, just as impactful) message: “pay now, or everyone will know you haven’t paid.” Social capital is an economic good as much as a civic one; the AG donation-seekers wove that fact into their email so implicitly that their request suddenly bore the semblance of demand. By highlighting the social, rather than the monetary, aspect of their appeal, they conveyed the fact that they meant business. Literally.

Leveraging the social economy

When it comes to the problem of monetization, we sometimes to fall into the trap of equating “pay model” with “pay wall.” We assume that news is a straight commodity, and that the cash register model is therefore the only viable option for monetizing it. (“We’re not NPR, after all.”) But the commodity-focused approach ignores the social aspects of media economics. Particularly online, with the web’s built-in mechanisms of mutuality, news is a social good as much as (and perhaps even more than) a product to be bought and sold. It is also an experience good — something that needs to be consumed before its value can be accurately determined. A tip-based model — which combines reward for a job well done with the social prestige of being generous enough to leave a tip in the first place — actually makes more sense than a paywall, which is necessarily predictive in nature.

Cerreta’s name-your-own-price experiment, and my Alumni Giving’s public-accountability approach — not to mention the experience of, yes, many a public media membership drive — suggest the raw potential of a request-oriented, rather than a demand-oriented, approach to the pay-for-news problem. They hint at what might happen when we bring a little humanity to paid content’s practical, yet wholly impersonal, business proposition. Most of us, after all, are much happier to make donations than to pay bills. Even if the checks we write are for the same amount.

That’s not to say that reframing the terms of transaction is a broad answer to the seeping problem of content monetization; “no silver bullets” has become a common refrain for a good reason. (Plus, as Laura Walker, president and CEO of WNYC, told me in a conversation about PWYW’s scalability, “I think there is a much stronger pull toward supporting an organization that is not supported by advertising — that is not there to deliver an audience to advertisers — but is there because of a mission. I think that’s why people value us.”) It is to say, though, that it may be worth widening the scope of consideration when it comes to how we think about payment structures in the first place. The many experiments we’re seeing with social media right now — HuffPo’s implementation of recognition for committed community members, Gawker’s star commenter system, Spot.us’s and Kickstarter’s public donor lists, Foursquare’s merit-badge framework — leverage users’ cultural connection to the news — and their desire to be recognized for, essentially, good citizenship within the cultures news systems create.

What would happen if those same motivations were employed in the service of monetizing online news? What would happen if we shift our focus from transactions to exchanges? Kachingle may not have revolutionized online payment structures; then again, its digital tip jar is a rare presence on websites. But what if The New York Times — or The Washington Post, or The Huffington Post — had its own kind of Kachingle? What if it also had a badge-like way of praising, publicly, the people who had financially supported its services? What if, instead of erecting a paywall, it built its site on an architecture of altruism?

It’d be an experiment, certainly. An experiment that well might fail. Still, though: I’d love to see what would happen if we broaden our notion of what a viable pay model could be.

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