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June 17 2013

09:48

Monday Q&A: Designer David Wright, departing NPR for Twitter, has just one favor to ask

David Wright is an award-winning designer who, in his time at NPR, worked on everything from their mobile music platform to NPR’s homepage design. Wright has spent a lot of time sharing his design philosophy with the news world, trying to explain how he built what he built, but also trying to make news managers understand the importance of making design a priority early on.

But now, Wright is leaving the news world behind — sort of. He’ll be moving over to Twitter, to work with what he considers an all-star team of web platform designers. (He joins API whiz Daniel Jacobson, now at Netflix, as NPR talent to move to prominent positions in the technology world — not the most common path.) Though not entirely sure what projects he’ll be working on, Wright says he has a lot of big ideas for simplifying Twitter and making it a bigger part of a variety of websites. And while he won’t be working in a newsroom anymore, Wright predicts he’ll learn a lot about how people are sharing and consuming information that could, down the road, be of great value to publishers.

Days before his final departure, we chatted about building platforms for distribution of audio, narrowcasting, Twitter on steroids, and World War II-era telephone operators.

O’Donovan: So! Obviously, there’s a lot of exciting stuff going on for you. How does it feel to be packing up and heading out of NPR?
Wright: I think that I have not yet realized how hard it will be for me to walk out of this building on Friday afternoon.

There’s a lot of really amazing stuff going on here, and it’s bittersweet because I’ve been really excited about what we’ve done here, and I don’t know if I really realize what it will be like to leave some of this amazing work unfinished.

O’Donovan: What are some of the bigger projects that are hanging out there, that you’re passing on? How do you and with whom do you hope to see them completed?
Wright: Well, that they will be completed is not really a question. They will be. The big ones that are going on right now are — the most obvious one is we’re in the midst of a fully responsive redesign of NPR.org that we began last fall and are picking away at, section by section. We’ve recently launched the small screen version of a redesigned and rethought homepage, and soon we’ll be releasing that to more viewports and moving on to the rest of the important pages, not just NPR.org. So that’s exciting. And I think in many ways the team is moving at a breakneck pace and I’ll be excited when the whole site kind of is finally launched in this unified rethought visual vocabulary. It’s amazing work, I”m super proud of it and the team that’s in the trench right now.

The other one that’s cool is one we haven’t really launched publicly yet, but we’re thinking a lot about what a reimagined kind of radio experience would feel like — taking some of the best of on-demand pieces that we know and love from services like Rdio and Spotify and Pandora and thinking about how public radio fits into that picture. So a lot of experiments that we’re taking small steps with. It’ll make me sad to not really be as involved with those anymore.

O’Donovan: The last couple years, you’ve spoken a lot about how you think about design and the fact that it’s different from storytelling. Can you talk a little about how — and I know it’s obviously been a dynamic experience — how your philosophy there has changed over time and if there are any big elements of it that have changed since you started?
Wright: I think that obviously the more that I’ve worked with what has become here, over the time that I’ve worked at NPR, the product team has really become a — I thought we were pretty high performing when I got here, but the kind of talent that we’ve been able to add to the team, and the methods and the processes that we use to create digital products has become more and more refined over time. I think that it’s fair to say that any of my thoughts that I’ve shared publicly are certainly the synthesis of my ideas, but they’re so greatly informed by the amazing people that I’ve worked with here.

So I think as we’ve gotten better at making stuff, my thoughts and how we could refine the process has really gotten a bit more sharp. But I think what’s most fascinating, and maybe what I’m most proud of leaving this building, is to be able to look back and see what an important part design has been able to play in the making of products here. I think it’s easy for lots of people to recognize that it is an important ingredient, but sometimes it’s hard to get an organization to understand why that is, and I’m really fortunate to have had a lot of really willing people here at NPR who’ve heard that message and have really embraced it. I think that’s changed a lot as we’ve sort of matured on our own, and our own understanding of what makes good products, we’ve really been able to convince a lot of folks here that design is really at the core of helping us figure out what problems to solve and how to solve them and most importantly how to solve them well.

O’Donovan: One of the questions I had for you was: How do you explain to management or people who are really editorially focused the importance of design? You’ve said that it’s the number one problem journalism is facing. Do you still feel that way? And for people who are struggling to make that clear, how would you advise them?
Wright: I think without calling out any specific products that are out there, I think we can all say that we’ve used and experienced journalism on platforms and in different situations that were less than satisfying, and I think just being pretty unbiased about what we think makes a good experience and what we think makes a great experience and what we think makes a terrible experience. They’re easy cases to show. Do we want to be more like this, or do we want to be like this? Nobody argues with the fact that everybody wants to create a good experience, but I think the most important thing that we as design thinkers can do is help explain how design is not really something that is an option.

If you want to create a good product, it can’t be a condition — it has to be something that is an absolute. You must include it, in order to create efficiencies, in your process, and make things that are fantastic and meaningful to people and beautiful and useful. It’s really about calling out these examples and saying: Here’s a perfect case where work design was involved from the beginning and it made this product better. And whether you’re editorial, or you’re a manager or a coder or a designer, you can look at those and from a pretty unbiased point of view say, Yes, you’re right, that’s better because design was involved.

O’Donovan: So, and you can explain to me the extent to which this is accurate, but assuming that you’re taking a step away from designing for news, as you look farther down the road, for people who are still in it, what are the next major hurdles? If you were still working for NPR, what would be the next areas you wanted to tackle?
Wright: I think NPR is a bit of an interesting animal, only because the kind of content that we deal with is a little bit different given how audio-centric much of what we do is. But I think it’s going to be really interesting for organizations who are wrestling with really getting their content to appear how they want to on many different platforms. I think that’s crucial. If a news organization is really not thinking beyond — I’m stating the obvious here  — if a news organization is not thinking beyond the desktop browser, I think that’s going to become much more problematic in the next coming years.

We’ve been really good at building stories and trying to express what I like to call editorial intention in what viewport size on the desktop. We can go to any one of our home pages, anybody in the news business, you can go to a homepage when it’s a papal conclave story or a Boston marathon or an election night, we know those patterns and we’re good at them. We can reflect them well on the desktop.

I think we have a harder time thinking about how to take what editors can do, what news professionals do, how they express themselves in other places, and separating them from the desktop page. So figuring out ways — news professionals need to express hierarchy and importance of stories and that this one is louder than this one — figuring out ways to make sure that works everywhere, I think is going to be a really big challenge for a lot of organizations, but a very important one to solve.

O’Donovan: You said at one point, I think, that you expected to see NPR rather quickly have a larger audience on mobile than they did for desktop. How close are you to that?
Wright: I think, as far as numbers go, we’re not there yet. But a little bit of that is from the hip and it will be interesting to see if history agrees with my proclamation there. I think there are actually more and more organizations who are being, and I can’t really name any off the top of my head, that have definitely read anecdotally about how mobile traffic is something that is catching up for everyone a lot faster than anyone really would have thought. There’s really no surprise in that. I think that should really be expected. If anyone’s paying any attention to any of our competitors in this space, which they all should be, that’s not a big surprise.

But yeah, I think we’re close — I think that every month we’re really seeing traffic growth across the board and most of our platforms and, on the desktop for sure it’s incremental, but it’s really quite a bit more pronounced on the mobile web for us. And I think it can only continue, given the number of devices and potential people that we can reach.

O’Donovan: You mentioned how NPR has a unique situation because of being predominantly audio focused. But I’ve heard from at least a handful of people that there are people out there who really think that it’s going to become a much more important part of everyone’s strategy, in the same way that we talk about video. But there are definitely people who say that audio will become increasingly important. Do you think that there are in your mind any big design takeaways that people who might be looking to get more into the audio game would want to know about?
Wright: Yeah! I think that. I would certainly not claim that NPR has solved every problem in this space, and in fact, I think if you asked a lot of people here, we still have some pretty major problems to solve in terms of how we distribute audio effectively.

I think that SoundCloud is doing a great job of creating some really interesting innovations in the space. Anybody could look at them and say that seems like a really solid platform for audio distribution. I think, for us, the most important thing is to think about why — the distribution could be anybody’s game and I think that, especially for organizations who aren’t very well resourced, nobody wants to. Just like we don’t all want to rebuild the exact same CMS at great expense and very little gain, I don’t know that everybody just wants to invest in building audio delivery platforms.

But I would say that I think it’s so important ot understand why people gravitate toward audio, the same way they gravitate toward video or photography. What is the recipe, or the formula, that goes into creating compelling audio that matters? I think it has much less to do with design of the experience right now and much more to do with what makes great audio great audio. I think we’ve all been fans of podcasts that are amazing, and there are certainly lots and lots of things not produced by a public radio community that are amazing and that we love. There are lots of things that public radio creates that are amazing and we love. But that has a whole lot more to do with the content than the presentation and delivery. There’s lots of room for innovation there. My best advice to anybody who wanted to get into that game, is to really think a lot about why people love it.

O’Donovan: I was looking over some presentations you’ve given in the past, and one of the things that you emphasize is that, while you haven’t served as a storyteller or journalist at NPR, you have taken away from working around journalists not only the importance but the ease with which it is possible to ask questions and get out there and talk to people about the things you want to know about. So I want to move into talking about your next step at Twitter, and how you see that playing into the rest of your career.
Wright: Anybody who wants to be successful at making products has to be able to draw on all of the places where we are when we’re making things. Often the most important person whose voice is the most important part of your team is the user. We have a lot of really great ethnologists and design thinkers and people who are creating content, but the people who are consuming it are often absent from that conversation. So it’s less about “is this a good idea” or not. I think it’s almost always a good idea at some stage in the process to really incorporate users and listeners into what w’ere making.

Journalists, if they’re not doing it, they should be, because they’re already really good at that. They’re good at talking to people and asking hard questions and figuring out how to get somebody to say something meaningful, even if it’s hard to coax it out of them. It’s a natural fit. So if you’re trying to convince journalists and news organizations that talking to people about what you make is a good idea, it’s easy to tell them by saying, you’ve already done this. You already do this.

As far as the next phase in my career, I’ve fortunately had the great pleasure of working shoulder to shoulder with some really amazing journalists and some really amazing storytellers and some really great reporters, and people who know how to chase stories, and I think I’ll always feel in some way like I’d like to try to harness what I’ve witnessed, a lot of what these talented people do. In my own practice, whether it’s outside of a newsroom or in newsroom, I’d always like to channel that as best I can.

You know, What would David Gilkey do in this scenario? He wouldn’t be shy about approaching this curmudgeonly user? No, he wouldn’t.

O’Donovan: How do you approach the curmudgeonly user? How do you go about getting that opinion?
Wright: At NPR — there’s a million ways that organizations do it, but at NPR we use a mix of what I might really consider three major kinds of audience feedback.

The first one is really kind of faceless and it’s field surveys. We do this the most infrequently, but basically we’ll say we really need to get a handle right now on how we think people are consuming digital news of this sort. We’ll put together a fairly lengthy survey and field it with the understanding that by the time we process the results, they’ll already be a little bit dated. But it gives us a really good snapshot of the time of how many people really listen to NPR, how many people are looking at news sites, how many people are reading newspapers, how many people are watching TV news — getting demographic information about that. We do that pretty infrequently, but it gives us pretty low resolution blocks of people we need to be thinking about and it helps us figure out where opportunities are.

The second kind of testing or conversation that we have really has to do with our ability to have long-term conversations with people about stuff that we make. So existing users of products — we have opportunities that are much more regular than large surveys — opportunities to reach out to people that are on our listener panel, or other people that we can intercept or make callouts in social media and say, “Take five minutes and tell us what you think of this particular feature.” We can ask questions that way. It certainly puts more of a face on things and we can get very specific about product features.

And then the most specific thing we try to do is actually bring real life users into our world and sit down with them and lead them through testing that says, “Hey, we made this thing, it’s kind of half baked, and we want you to use it and tell us what you think about it.” Pretty standard user testing.

O’Donovan: I do want to talk about what’s coming up for you. How much do you know about what you’re doing there, what are you really excited about, what do you hope to see come out of it?
Wright: I wish that I had a lot more information — well, no, I’m fine having a vague sense of what’s going on, but, you know, we know what Twitter is and what Twitter does and it was really exciting for me to be able to visit with that team and learn about the kinds of things that they’re tackling and the things they’ve built and some of the plans they have for the future.

To the extent that I can be specific about what I’ll be working on, what I do know is that I’ll be focused at first on a platform team. I’ll be working with the Twitter for websites team, figuring out interesting ways to make Twitter appear in more places than it does today. The thing that I think I’m most excited about is that I feel like I work with a very talented team at NPR and I know it will be true about the team I’ll be working with at Twitter — just a lot of really smart people that, as a designer, I’ve just really respected and followed a lot in my design career.

To have so many of those people — like Doug Bowman and Mike Davidson, founder of Newsvine — just really smart, smart thinkers who, like I said, are respected web design heroes of mine. I’m really excited to be able to go and solve problems with them, to get up in the morning and go to work and try to figure out how to make Twitter better, which is great. I think that the other part that is a huge selling point for me is, there’s lots of reasons that my family wanted to get to California and be there and be a part of the amazing community that’s happening, and the amazing design community that is part and parcel of the Bay Area.

But for me to leave news is hard. It’s really hard. But what’s interesting is that while I feel like I’ll be leaving journalism, going to work at Twitter, I don’t have to squint very hard to see how involved I still will be in news. I think it’s a really fascinating platform for me to be able, as a user and an observer and a guy who spent a lot of time in newsrooms, who watch what I think this platform could do.

O’Donovan: In the future, how do you see people, specifically journalists but also more broadly, using Twitter differently than they do now? What would you like to build for, for what kind of usage?
Wright: That’s something I’m really looking forward to learning more about as a person on the inside, because I think that even though I’ve spent a considerable amount of time talking with folks there about what they’re trying to build and what they need help building, I still don’t think I have a full enough picture to really know what is even in the realm of possibility. I have lots of sort of fantastic dreams about what could happen, what sort of the Twitter-on-steroids might look like — and maybe even a simpler version of Twitter. I think there are many things. It’s probably too much for me to speculate right now.
O’Donovan: Well, give us one fantasy. What’s the craziest Twitter-on-steroids fantasy?
Wright: Wow.

I think that there’s something fascinating to me about the range of information that you can get from Twitter. We often talk a lot at NPR about making sure that people get their vegetables and also get really delicious pieces of candy that we can distribute through the radio. What I love about Twitter is that, in a combined stream, I can see this heartbreaking story or updates from people who are literally fighting for their lives in Egypt as they are in the midst of the revolution, and then, you know, followed by an update from somebody who’s, you know, explaining how hungover they are because they were at their favorite bar. I think that, as a medium, like, what else does that? That is never part of the presentation that happens on our broadcast news.

This is certainly not a Twitter-on-steroids idea, but, in terms of being able to harness the ability for people be able to narrowcast to them in really specific ways, I think has such a reach potential. That my mom can find value in that, in a way that manifests itself very differently from the way that I would, but we can find the same value out of it with very different content. I think that the challenge of kind of wrestling with: How do you create an experience that will be as useful for my mom as it will be for me, using the same basic parts and concepts but obviously delivering very different content? That’s a fascinating problem to solve, and I’m excited to roll my sleeves up and give it a go.

O’Donovan: Was it you who was tweeting about explaining Twitter to your grandmother recently?
Wright: It was. Absolutely it was. I believe the thing I said after that was if she gets sudden onset dementia, I’m going to feel partially responsible.

Yeah, the thing that’s cool though, is, her story is great. She was a telephone operator back in the day, where, we’ve all seen the photos of people plugging all the lines into one of the boards. One of my favorite stories that she told me was she was manning a board the night that it was V-E Day, and as soon as the word got to the United States via the phones, that victory in Europe had happened, she said the board lit up!

So I was trying to tell her: This is what we do now. We don’t use phones anymore — this is what we do. The fact that Twitter would blow up with this information is how we know it. She said, “I think I understand.” I said, “All right, well, it’s the same thing.”

O’Donovan: I guess it’s not altogether entirely undigestible.
Wright: Yeah, there was part of it she thought was pretty cool.
O’Donovan: We talked a little bit at the beginning about designing for audio, and I’d be curious to know if you think those skills will come into play.
Wright: We haven’t talked specifically about audio, but we had a lot of really great conversations about the experiences that I’ve had designing for news organizations and bringing with me information about how publishers specifically are using lots of different tools, Twitter included.

I’ve built really — I wouldn’t call them large muscles, I’d call them interesting muscles over the last 12 years, thinking a lot about these problems. I think it would be really hard for me to not apply some of those skills. It’s become such a part of my DNA that I’m interested in seeing, How do those skills fit and work? How are those patterns applied out of a newsroom?

O’Donovan: I would imagine you also bring some insight about what publishers want or what they think they want from ads. I don’t know if you have thoughts about Twitter’s different advertising strategies lately, but you’ve said in the past that you think publishers need to be thinking really differently about advertising.
Wright: What I said in my conversations with people at Twitter was, if you’re looking for a client services manager to go to newsrooms and write down the requirements of what would make Twitter great on news websites — I’ve been pretty vocal about some of the things news organizations aren’t doing as well as I wish they were, or things I wish they were doing differently — but I was pretty clear that I might not be the best guy to come in and take those kinds of requirements down.

So I’ve been critical about some of the things publishers have done and ads are chief among them. I think display advertising as we know it is in many cases a race to the bottom and is in many ways unsustainable. What I’m excited to learn more about is advertising models that are so native to the platform — and Twitter is a good example of that, I think the best is obviously Google’s AdWords, AdSense — and just feel like part of the experience. I won’t have a ton of good things to bring along with me from the point of view of what I think digital news design is doing in general. I think it will be more of the other way around, where I eventually might be able to bring some of the information and things I’ve learned working with a company like Twitter to help publishers figure out how to think differently about how they’re doing things. I expect it might go the other way.

O’Donovan: So, let’s say you’re leaving NPR and the whole news world throws you a party. And they say, What’s the one thing we can do for you while you’re gone? What would you want them to do?
Wright: Oh! This is easy. My one wish is for every news org, to really understand the importance of having — it doesn’t have to be a visual designer, but to have design thinkers have a seat at the table. It’s not about deciding what work gets done or how it gets done but it’s really about making design as important an ingredient in what we make as editorial, as reporters, writers, photographers, and technologists. Designers bring such a unique value to the table and can just help solve so many interesting problems in really thoughtful ways. The best presents the news community could give me is to say, Everybody, designers are always at the table.

Photo by Casey Capachi via the ONA.

May 31 2013

14:08

This Week in Review: Debating journalists’ role in DOJ seizures, and Facebook tackles hate speech

james-rosen-fox-news

Blame for both the DOJ and journalists: The story of the U.S. Department of Justice’s seizure of news organizations’ phone and email records moved into “who knew what and when” stage, especially regarding the case of Fox News reporter James Rosen. Fox didn’t know Rosen’s phone records and emails had been taken until it became public last week, but The Wall Street Journal reported this week that its parent company, News Corp., was notified by the DOJ in 2010 but didn’t tell Fox.

News Corp. issued some mixed signals in response, initially saying it had no record of notification from the DOJ but eventually conceding that it didn’t dispute the DOJ’s claim that notification was sent. The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza put forward a theory as to why it’s in News Corp.’s interest to be more deferential to the Obama administration DOJ, but in Fox News’ interest to be more antagonistic. However, The Atlantic Wire’s Elspeth Reeve noted that Fox News doesn’t have a very good track record on advocating for journalists’ freedom in these cases.

The metastasizing issue — coupled with the DOJ’s seizure of what the Associated Press claims is “thousands and thousands” of its phone records — has led Attorney General Eric Holder to plan a meeting with the top representatives of several major news organizations to hash out guidelines for DOJ intrusion. Several news organizations, including The New York Times and AP, announced, however, that they wouldn’t attend the meeting because it’s set to be off the record. The Daily Beast’s Daniel Klaidman wrote a thorough piece on Holder’s regrets in these cases, saying that it’s not part of the progressive image in which he views himself, and Salon’s Alex Pareene explained why Holder’s likely to keep his job despite the outcry.

In a pair of stories, The New York Times reported on the remarkable scale of many of the Obama administration’s leak inquiries and journalists’ charges that such efforts are creating a chilling effect on investigative journalism on the federal government. Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian expressed his dismay at journalists’ lack of action against the administration’s actions: In the current climate, he said, “it’s very difficult to imagine the US press corps taking any meaningful steps to push back against these attacks. And as long as that’s true, it’s very hard to see why the Obama administration would possibly stop doing it.”

At the same time, several others argued that the press’s self-defense reaction is a bit too knee-jerk in this case. Slate’s Fred Kaplan and The Washington Post’s Walter Pincus both argued that Rosen’s source was not a whistleblower exposing corruption but someone simply breaking the law and revealing harmful information. And Reuters’ Jack Shafer contended that Obama has not declared war on the press, as his crusade against leaks has been much more on the supply side than the demand side.

Still others, including Peter Sterne of the New York Observer and Matthew Cooper of the National Journal, were concerned that the proposed shield law wouldn’t do enough to protect journalists. Kevin Drum of Mother Jones tried to find a middle way between their concern for journalists and the objections of those such as Pincus.

Facebook rape ad

Facebook, hate speech, and censorship: Yet another debate over Facebook’s control over its users’ content simmered this week, though it was a bit different from the privacy flaps of the past. A coalition of feminist groups called Women, Action, and the Media wrote an open letter to Facebook last week urging it to remove content that trivializes or glorifies violence against women, noting that Facebook already moderates what it considers hate speech and pornographic content.

The groups also campaigned to Facebook’s advertisers, succeeding in getting several of them to pull their advertising until Facebook took some action. Facebook ultimately responded by posting a statement saying it hadn’t policed gender-related hate speech as well as it should have and vowing to take several steps to more closely moderate such content. The New York Times has a good, quick summary tying together the advertiser campaign and Facebook’s response.

While Valleywag’s Sam Biddle argued that all Facebook did was try to placate those protesting rather than commit to any real action, while Forbes’ Kashmir Hill and Reuters’ Jack Shafer noted that Facebook probably didn’t do this out of any morally consistent concern over content, but simply because of advertiser pressure. Hill concluded that “the procedure appears to be that they will draw the line when advertisers start complaining to them,” and Shafer argued that Facebook has only pushed this discourse underground, further away from the voices of reason and shame.

And while everyone seemed to agree that Facebook’s well within its rights to police speech on its own platform (and that it’s clamping down on a particularly heinous form of speech in this case), they also wondered about the precedent. Mathew Ingram of GigaOM wondered about the slippery slope of what Facebook considers hate speech.

newsweek feature

Newsweek on the block (again): Variety reported that IAC is attempting to sell Newsweek, a month after its chairman, Barry Diller, called his purchase of the magazine a “mistake.” IAC shut down Newsweek’s print edition at the end of 2012, turning it into a web-only publication. As Variety noted, most every indicator at Newsweek — subscriptions, traffic, cash flow — is trending downward.

Newsweek confirmed the attempted sale with an internal memo, saying that Newsweek is drawing resources away from its sister site, The Daily Beast. Forbes’ Jeff Bercovici offered a more detailed explanation: Diller bought Newsweek thinking he needed a print publication to supplement its digital ad base, but since it’s failed at that, it’s become a mere distraction (and drag on the bottom line). Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan urged prospective buyers to stay away, though Mathew Ingram of paidContent offered some tips for its new owner: drop the paywall, aggregate, go deep on particular topics, develop a strong voice, and embrace mobile.

Reading roundup: Despite the quiet week overall, there were several smaller stories to watch:

— Rob Fishman of BuzzFeed wrote a thoughtful piece questioning whether the social media editor might be an endangered species at news organizations, as engagement with social media becomes a deeper part of each journalists’ work and routines. Reuters’ Anthony De Rosa (more on him in a bit) said social media editors are more important than ever, and Digital First’s Mandy Jenkins countered that many news organizations (especially smaller ones) still have a need for someone dedicated to newsroom-wide social media integration and gave some useful advice about how to do it. Elsewhere in social media, Twitter said it wants to partner with media companies rather than become one of them, and Jeswin and Jesse Koepke talked on Medium about how undo Facebook’s massification of online social interaction.

— One of the news industry’s most prominent social media editors, Anthony De Rosa, announced he’s leaving Reuters to join Circa, the startup that summarizes top news stories by breaking them down into “atomic units.” PaidContent’s Mathew Ingram explained what Circa’s up to, and Fast Company’s Anjali Mullany published a Q&A with De Rosa about his plans there.

— A few News Corp. pieces: It announced it will officially split into a publishing company (called News Corp.) and an entertainment company (21st Century Fox) on June 28. It introduced its retooled News Corp. logo, and the new News Corp.’s head, Robert Thomson, declared that it would have “relentless” cuts in store after the split.

— BuzzFeed announced a new YouTube channel featuring video through a partnership with CNN. The Wall Street Journal explained what’s behind both companies’ move deeper into online video.

— Finally, a couple of smart pieces on the native advertising phenomenon: CUNY’s Jeff Jarvis made the case against news orgs getting into native advertising, and Publish2′s Scott Karp laid out some of the difficulties of making native advertising scale.

May 29 2013

13:27

In the End Was the Word and the Word Was the Sponsor’s

and-now-a-word-from-our-sponsor1
We used to know what ads were. They had borders around them — black lines in print, a rare millisecond of dead air on TV, the moment when the radio host’s voice became even friendlier, letting us know he was now being paid to peddle.

Today, under many ruses and many namessponsored content, native advertising, brand voice, thought leadership, content marketing, even brand journalism — advertisers are conspiring with desperate publishers to erase the black lines identifying ads.

When I started Entertainment Weekly, a sage editor sat me down and summarized in one sentence the magazine industry’s voluminous rules about labeling what we then called “advertorials”: “The reader must never be confused about the source of content.”

Confusing the audience is clearly the goal of native-sponsored-brand-content-voice-advertising. And the result has to be a dilution of the value of news brands.

Some say those brands are diminishing anyway. So sponsored content is just another way to milk the old cows as they die. Lately I’ve been shocked to hear some executives at news organizations, as well as some journalism students and even teachers, shrug at the risk. If I’m the guy who argues that news must find new paths to profitability, then what’s my problem?

Well, I fear that in the end we all become the Times of India, where paid advertising and news content are allegedly mixed so smoothly in some areas that readers can’t tell one from the other. Worse, at some news organizations, editorial staff do the work of writing this sponsored content. They become copywriters.

Mad Men Don Draper Peggy Olsen

At the same time, many of these news organizations are using their brands as candy to attract legions of new contributors, which can drastically lower the cost of content. Mind you, I’ve applauded that spirit of openness and collaboration as well as that newfound efficiency.

But here’s the issue: Some media properties have taught me to pause before following a link to them. Sometimes, I’ll find good information from a staffer or one of many contributors who brings real reporting or expertise. Sometimes, I’ll find a weak contributor — or staff — piece that adds no reporting or insight; it merely regurgitates what others have written when a link would be better. (Beware headlines that start with “how” or “why” or include the words “future of” or “death of” or end with a question mark; chances are, they add nothing.) And then sometimes I’ll find one of those sponsor-brand-native pieces only vaguely labeled to let me know its source.

My problems with these trends in news media:

Inconsistency. I no longer know what to expect from news organizations that do this. Yes, I’ve heard editors claim that they work with both contributors and sponsors to improve the quality of their submissions — but apparently, not enough.

Brands used to be selective both because the scarcity of paper or time forced them to be and because that became key to their value. Now they want more and more content. Making content to chase unique users and their page views rewards volume over value.

Conflict of interest. First, let me say that I think we in news became haughty and fetishistic about our church/state walls. The reason I teach entrepreneurial journalism is so that students learn about the business of journalism so they can become more responsible stewards of it. I argue that editors, too, must understand the business value and thus sustainability of what they produce.

That said, I worry about journalists who spend one day writing to serve the public and the next writing to serve sponsors. News organizations should never do that with staff, but I’m sorry to say that today, a few do. Freelance journalists are also turning to making sponsored content to pay the bills.

Thus, I hear of some journalism educators who wonder whether they should be teaching their students to write for brands. Please, no. My journalism school doesn’t do that. Others schools already include courses in PR and advertising, so I suppose the leap isn’t so far. In any case, brands will hire our students because of the media skills we teach them and we need to prepare them for the ethical challenge that brings.

Brand value. Some news companies are exchanging their brand equity for free or cheap content of questionable quality and advertising dollars of questionable intent. As someone who champions disruption in the news industry, you’d think I wouldn’t care about dying legacy media brands. But I do. I see how legacy news companies can bring value to the growing news ecosystem around them through sharing content and audience and someday soon, I hope, revenue. If the legacy institutions lose their value — their trust, their audience, their advertisers — then they have less to give, and if they die, there’s more to replace.

Now here’s the funny part: Brands are chasing the wrong goal. Marketers shouldn’t want to make content. Don’t they know that content is a lousy business? As adman Rishad Tobaccowala said to me in an email, content is not scalable for advertisers, either. He says the future of marketing isn’t advertising but utilities and services. I say the same for news: It is a service.

I’ve been arguing to news organizations that they should stop thinking of themselves as content businesses and start understanding that they are in a relationship business.

News organizations should not treat people as a mass now that they — like Google, Amazon, and Facebook — can learn to serve them as individuals. Can’t the same be said of the brands that are now rushing to make content? They’re listening to too many tweeted media aphorisms: that content is king, that brands are media. Bull.

A brand is a relationship. It signifies trust and value. Advertising and public relations disintermediated the relationship that commercial enterprises used to have with customers over the cracker barrel. Mass media helped them bring scale to marketing. But now the net enables brands to return to having direct relationships with customers. That’s what we see happening on Twitter. Smart companies are using it not to make content but to talk one-on-one with customers.

Here’s where I fear this lands: As news brands continue to believe in their content imperative, they dilute their equity by using cheap-content tricks to build volume and by handing their brand value to advertisers to replace lost ad revenue. Marketers help publishers milk those brands. And the public? We’re smarter than they think we are. We’ll understand when news organizations become paid shills. We understand that marketers would still rather force-feed us their messages than simply serve us.

What to do? The reflex in my industries — journalism and education — is to convene august groups to compose rules. But rules are made to be pushed, stretched, and broken. That is why that wise Time Inc. editor over me at Entertainment Weekly (as opposed to the oily ones who tried to force me to force my critics to write nicer reviews) summed up those rules as a statement of ethics. Again: “The reader must never be confused about the source of content.”

Well, if we’re not in the content business, then what is the ethic by which we should operate now? I think it’s even simpler: “We serve the public.”

If we’re doing what we do to fool the public, to sell them crappy content or a shill’s swill, to prioritize paying customers’ interests over readers’, then we will cannibalize whatever credibility, trust, and value our brands have until they dry up.

So am I merely drawing a black rule around advertising again? Don’t we hear contributors to a hundred news sites rewrite the same story every day — that advertising is dead? Well, yes, advertising as one-way messaging is as outmoded as one-way media. Oh, we in media will milk advertising as long as advertisers are willing to pay for it. But we know where this is headed.

Then do media companies have any commercial connection with brands? Can we still get money from them to support news? I think it’s possible for media companies to help brands understand how to use the net to build honest, open relationships with people as individuals. But we can teach them that only if we first learn how to do it ourselves.

Some will accuse me of chronic Google fanboyism for suggesting this, but we can learn that lesson from Google. It makes 98% of its fortune from advertising but it does so by serving us, each of us, first. It addresses its obvious conflict with the admonition, “Don’t be evil.” (When Google has failed to live up to that ethic — and it has — its fall came not from taking advertisers’ dollars but instead from seeking growth with the help of malevolent telcos or tyrannical governments.) Note well that Google sees the danger of sponsored content, which is why it has banned such content from Google News.

Whether you like Google or you don’t, know well that it provides service over content, enabling it to build relationships with each of us as individuals while also serving advertisers without creating confusion. Google is taking over huge swaths of the ad market by providing service to users and sharing risk with advertisers, not by selling its soul in exchange for this quarter’s revenue, as some news organizations are doing.

My advice to news organizations: Move out of the content — and sponsored content — business and get into the service business, where content is just one of your tools to serve the public.

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(Crossposted from Medium.)

May 28 2013

18:08

The New York Times experiments with native advertising…on two wheels

I’m not even sure “native advertising” is the right term, exactly; sponsored content works too. But whatever you call it, The New York Times just released an update to its New York City things-to-do app The Scoop that includes a new feature: real-time information on the location and capacity of nearby Citi Bike stations. That’s the new NYC bike-sharing system that debuted yesterday.

nytimes-scoop-citi-bikeBut instead of this being an editorial product — like the rest of The Scoop’s listings of restaurants, coffee shops, and the like — the bike-finding map carries a “Sponsored” label. It’s advertising content provided by Citi Bike. Says the Times press release: “This marks the first time The New York Times will feature content from an advertiser in a mobile application outside of an advertising unit.”

If most native advertising tries to make sponsor-provided content look a bit like a news article, this tries to make it look a bit like a regular ol’ tab in a mobile app. What’s interesting is that the “content” here is less a collection of words and pictures than a real-time data service. It’s a callback to the classic news advertising idea — we assemble the audience, you provide the content, we make a match — in a mobile, apped-up world. It’s a compelling match.

“This is just one example of how we are working more closely with our advertisers to create unique and custom campaigns to help them tell their brand story in innovative ways,” said Denise Warren, executive vice president, Digital Products and Services Group, The New York Times. “The integration of Citi Bike’s robust content complements The Scoop app’s main objective—to serve as a guide to New York City. With these new features we hope to further enhance the experience for users of The Scoop as they explore the city using their iPhone.”

(And one that can go both ways: The Times says that Citi Bike’s own iOS and Android apps will be updated this summer to feature…The Scoop’s listings of restaurants, coffee shops, and the like.)

I’m not sure how far idea could go — most newspapers are tied to a local audience; most digital outlets that might consider from this sort of a deal aren’t. But it’s interesting that the Times, one of America’s least local newspapers, is leading the way in figuring out a way to connect location and ad dollars in this way.

16:37

Hearst Magazines embrace native advertising

Lucia Moses at Adweek:

Grant Whitmore, vp of digital, said the company had been watching the success of digital-only publishers [read: BuzzFeed, Gawker] that have been made native advertising the cornerstone of their business.

“A lot of those companies are doing really, really well right now,” he said. “So we wanted to understand what we needed to do to keep pace with our newest set of competitors.”

Addressing a common knock that native advertising is unscalable, the units can run across Hearst brands, among them Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping and Esquire, and the content can run outside Hearst, if the client wishes.

Note that this is just Hearst’s magazine unit, not its newspapers.

May 22 2013

14:00

Jaron Lanier wants to build a new middle class on micropayments

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jaron-lanier-who-owns-the-future“We’re used to treating information as ‘free,’” writes Jaron Lanier in his latest book Who Owns the Future?, “but the price we pay for the illusion of ‘free’ is only workable so long as most of the overall economy isn’t about information.”

Lanier argues that a free-culture mindset is dismantling the middle-class economy. In his estimation, the idea “that mankind’s information should be free is idealistic, and understandably popular, but information wouldn’t need to be free it no one were impoverished.”

Who Owns the Future?, like his 2010 book You Are Not a Gadget, is another manifesto attempting to rebuff what he sees as the contemporary ethos of the web. But the followup also refreshingly attempts to pose solutions, one where all participants in this information-based world are paid for what they do and distribute on the web. Throughout, it places particular emphasis on the ways digital technology has unsettled the so-called “creative class” — journalists, musicians, photographers, and the like. As he sees it, the tribulations of those working in such fields may be a premonition for the middle class as a whole. It’s “urgent,” he writes, “to determine if the felling of creative-class careers was an anomaly or an early warning of what is to happen to immeasurably more middle-class jobs later in this century.”

I recently spoke with Lanier and we discussed the ways he sees digital networking disrupting the media, why he thinks advertising can no longer sustain paid journalism, and why he misses the future. Lightly edited and condensed, here’s a transcript of our conversation.

Eric Allen Been: You were one of the early advocates of the notion that “information wants to be free.” An idea most media companies initially embraced when it came to the web, and one that now some seem to regret. Could you talk a little bit about why you changed your mind on this line of thinking?
Jaron Lanier: Sure. It was based on empirical results. The idea sounded wonderful 30 years ago. It sounded wonderful in the way that perfect libertarianism or perfect socialism can. It sounds right, but with all these attempts to make a perfect system, it doesn’t work out so well. Empirically, what I’ve seen is the hollowing out of middle-class opportunities and that there is an absurdity to the way it’s going. I think we’re not getting the benefits that I initially anticipated.
Been: When it came to journalism, what were some of those benefits that you originally expected? I imagine you then thought it would be a largely positive thing.
Lanier: Yeah. To use the terminology of the time, we — that is, me and others who were behind a lot of the ideas behind the Web 2.0 ethos or whatever — wanted to “supplant” or “make obsolete” the existing channels of journalism and the existing types of jobs in journalism. But what would come instead would be better — more open and all of that — and less intermediated. What happened instead was a little bit of what we anticipated. In a sense, the vision came true. Yes, anybody can blog and all that — and I still like that stuff — but the bigger problem is that an incredible inequity developed where the people with big computers who were routing what journalists did were getting all the formal benefits. Mainly the money, the power. And the people who were doing the work were so often just getting informal benefits, like reputation and the ability to promote themselves. That isn’t enough. The thing that we missed was how much power would accrue to the people with the biggest computers. That was the thing we didn’t really think through.
Been: Historically, technological advances have caused disruptions to industries, but they’ve also tended to provide new jobs to replace the wiped-out ones. There seems to be some optimism in a lot of quarters that journalism can get eventually get on the right track, economically speaking, within the digital world. But you don’t think so.
Lanier: The system is slowly destroying itself. I’ll give you an example of how this might work out. Let’s suppose you say in the future, journalists will figure out how to attach themselves to advertising more directly so they’re not left out of the loop. Right now, a lot of journalism is aggregated in various services that create aggregate feeds of one kind or another and those things sell advertising for the final-stop aggregator. And the people doing the real work only get a pittance. A few journalists do well but it’s very few — it’s a winner-take-all world where only a minority does well. Yes, there are a few people, for instance, who have blogs with their own ads and that can bring in some money. You can say, “Well, isn’t that a good model and shouldn’t that be emulated”? The problem is that they’re dependent on the health of the ad servers that place ads. Very few people can handle that directly. And the problem with that is the whole business of using advertising to fund communication on the Internet is inherently self-destructive, because the only stuff that can be advertised on Google or Facebook is stuff that Google hasn’t already forced to be free.

As an example, you might have a company that makes toys and you advertise the toys on Google, and that might show up in journalism about toy safety or something. So journalists can eek some money from people who sell toys. That’s kind of like the traditional model of advertising-supported journalism.

But every type of business that might advertise on Google is gradually being automated and turning into more of an information business. In the case of toys, there’s a 3-D printer where people print out toys. At some point, that will become better and better and more common, and whenever that happens, what happened to music with Napster will happen to toys. It’ll be all about the files and the machines that actually print out the toys. If the files that print out the toys can be made free, the only big business will be the routing of those files, which might be Google or Facebook handling that, and there will be nobody left to advertise on Google.

That’ll happen with everything else — pharmaceuticals, transportation, natural resources — every single area will be subject to more and more automation, which doesn’t have to put people out of work. The only reason automation leads to unemployment is the idea of information being free. It’s a totally artificial problem, but if journalists are counting the Google model to live on, it won’t work. Google is undermining itself, and there will be no one left to buy advertisements.

Been: Speaking of advertising, I’m interested in hearing what you think about a lot of people currently lauding BuzzFeed and its use of native advertising. There’s a lot of talk about it solving “the problems of both journalism and advertising at once”, or it being some sort of guiding light for a “future of paid journalism.”
Lanier: Advertising, in whatever form, just can’t be the only possible business plan for information. It forces everybody to ultimately compete for the same small pool of advertisers. How much of the economy can advertising really be? It can’t be the whole market. Why on earth are Google and Facebook competing for the same customers when they actually do totally different things? It’s a peculiar problem. You’re saying that there’s only one business plan, one customer set, and everybody has to dive after that. It becomes a very narrow game — there’s not enough there for everybody. It could work out locally a little bit, but it’s not an overall solution.
Been: And your solution is what you call a “humanistic information economy.” Could you talk a little bit about how such a system would work?
Lanier: There are some theoretical reasons that lead me to believe that if you monetized a deeply connected open network, the distribution of benefits to people would look like a middle class. In other words, there would be a lot of wealth in a lot of people’s hands that could outspend any elite, which is critical for democracy and a market economy to survive. So one benefit is you could get a consistent middle class even when the economy gets really automated. It becomes a real information economy.

A humanistic economy would create a middle class in a new way, instead of through unions and other ad hoc mechanisms. It would create a middle class by compensating people for their value in terms of references to the network. It would create an expanding economy instead of a static one, which is also important. It’s built around the people instead of the machines. It would be a change in paradigm.

Been: In the book, you write: “If we demand that everyone turn into a freelancer, then we will all eventually pay an untenable price in heartbreak.” But a lot of what you’re proposing strikes me, in some senses, as a freelance economy.
Lanier: That’s right. What I’m proposing is actually a freelance economy, but it’s a freelance economy where freelancing earns you not just income but also wealth. That’s an important distinction to make. What I think should happen is as you start providing information to the network, it then will become a part of other services that grow over time.

So, for instance, let’s suppose you translate between languages, and some of your translations provide example phrase translations that are used in automatic translators. You would keep getting dribbles of royalties from having done that, and you start accumulating a lot of little ways that you’re getting royalties — not in the sense of contractual royalties, just little payments from people that are doing things that benefited from information you provided. If you look at people’s interest in social networking, you see a middle-class distribution of interest. A lot of people would get a lot of little dribs and drabs, and it would accumulate over a lifetime so you’d start to have more and more established information that had been referenced by you that people are using. What should happen is you should start accumulating wealth, some money that shows up because of your past as well as your present moment.

Been: So if I simply shared a link to a New York Times article on Twitter, for instance, would there be a payment exchange? If so, who would it go to?
Lanier: It would be person-to-person payments. Right now, we’re used to a system where you earn money in blocks, like a salary check, and you’re spending on little things like coffee of something. And in this system, you’d be earning lots of little micropayments all the time. But you would be spending less often. That terrifies people, but it’s a macroeconomic thing. I believe the economy would actually grow if information was monetized, and overall your chances will get a lot better than they are now.
Been: You say in the book that this person-to-person payment system is partly inspired by the early work of the sociologist and information technology pioneer, Ted Nelson. Particular, his thoughts about two-way linking over a network. Could you talk a little bit about why you think this is a better way to exchange information?
Lanier: The original concept of digital networking that predated the actual existence of digital networking is Ted Nelson’s work from the 1960s. It was different from the networks we know today in a few key ways. All the links were two-way, for one. You would always know who was linking at your website — there would always be backlinks. If you have universal backlinks, you have a basis for micropayments from somebody’s information that’s useful to somebody else. If the government camera on a corner catches you walking by, and it matches against you, you’d be owed some money because you contributed information. Every backlink would be monetized. Monetizing actually decentralizes power rather than centralizing it. Demonetizing a network actually concentrates power around anyone who has the biggest computer analyzing it.
Been: Let’s talk about that last point. This is an example of what you call in the book a “Siren Server.” That is, computers on a network that gather data without conceding that money is owed to those individuals mined for the information.
Lanier: That’s right. It’s my name for one of the biggest, best, most effective, connected computers on the network. A Siren Server is a big server farm — a remote unmarked building somewhere in the countryside near a river so it can get cooled. It has tons of computers that run as one. It gathers data from the world for free and does more processing of that data that normal computers can do. What it does with the processing is it calculates several moves that the owners can make that put them in an advantage based on a global perspective.

If you’re Amazon, it means you keep track of everybody else’s prices in the world, including little local independent stores, so you can never be outsold. If a store wants to give a book away, Amazon will also do that, so nobody gets a local advantage. If you’re Google, it gives advertisers a way to use a behavioral model of the world to predict which options in front of you are most likely to steer you. If you’re a finance company, it’s a way of bundling derivatives in such a way that somebody else is holding the risk. It’s almost a cryptographic effort. If you’re an insurance company, it’s a way of calculating how to divide populations so you insure the people who least need to be insured. In all these cases, a giant computer calculates an advantage for yourself and you get a global perspective that overwhelms the local advantage that participants in the market might have had before.

Been: In the book, you call Craigslist a Siren Server, one that “created a service that has greatly increased convenience for ordinary people, while causing a crisis in local journalism that once relied on paid classified adds.” You write that it “has a tragic quality, since it is as modest and ethical as it can be, eschewing available spying opportunities, and yet it still functions as a Siren Server despite that.” So a Siren Server, in your mind, isn’t necessarily always a malevolent construction.
Lanier: That’s true. I don’t think there’s much in the way of evil or competitive intent. It’s the power of having one of the biggest computers. When you suddenly get power by surprise, it’s a seduction. You don’t realize that other people are being hurt. But if it wasn’t Craigslist, it would have been something else. Some computer gets a global perspective on everything and the local advantage goes away. Craigslist calculated away the local advantage that newspapers used to have.
Been: So far, the reviews of Who Owns the Future? have been largely positive. But in The Washington Post, Evgeny Morozov criticized it by saying “Lanier’s proposal raises two questions that he never fully confronts.” One being whether a nanopayment system would actually help the middle class once automation hits its tipping point. He cites cab drivers being replaced by self-driving cars and says: “Unless cabdrivers have directly contributed to the making of maps used by self-driving cars, it’s hard to see how a royalty-like system can be justified.”
Lanier: This has to do with the value of information. In the book I ask this very question — in the future, in the case of self-driving cars, it’s certainly true that once you’ve been through the streets once, why do it again? The reason is that they’re changing. There might be potholes, or there might be changes to local traffic laws and traffic patterns. The world is dynamic. So over time, maps of streets that need cars to drive on them will need to be updated. The way self-driving cars work is big data. It’s not some brilliant artificial brain that knows how to drive a car. It’s that the streets are digitized in great detail.

So where does the data come from? To a degree, from automated cameras. But no matter where it comes from, at the bottom of the chain there will be someone operating it. It’s not really automated. Whoever that is — maybe somebody wearing Google Glass on their head that sees a new pothole, or somebody on their bike that sees it — only a few people will pick up that data. At that point, when the data becomes rarified, the value should go up. The updating of the input that is needed is more valuable, per bit, than we imagine it would be today. Cabbies themselves, that’s irrelevant. There won’t be cabbies. They’ll have to be doing other things.

Been: His other question is “how many [online] services would survive his proposed reforms?” Morozov brings up Wikipedia and says the “introduction of monetary incentives would probably affect authors’ motivation. Wikipedia the nonprofit attracts far more of them than would Wikipedia the startup.”
Lanier: But in what I’m proposing, Wikipedia would not pay you — it would be a person-to-person thing. I’m proposing that there’s no shop and people are paying each other when they create things like Wikipedia. Which is very different. If it’s going through a central hub, it creates a very narrow range of winners. If it’s not, it’s a whole different story.

The online services that would survive would be the ones that can add value to the data that people are providing anyway. Instagram could perhaps charge to do cool effects on your pictures, but the mere connections between you and other people would not be billable, it would just be normal. People would pay each other for that. The services would have to do more now than they are. A lot of services are just gatekeepers and would not survive and they shouldn’t. It would force people to up their game.

Been: Speaking of upping one’s game, you get a strong sense throughout the book that you think society is no longer future-minded. Towards the end, you write that you “miss the future.” What do you mean by that statement?
Lanier: It seems that there’s a loss of ambition or a lowering of standards for what we should expect from the future. We hyped up things like being able to network — and we understood it was a step on a path — but these days I call the open-source idea the MSG of journalism.

An example would be this: Take some story that would be totally boring, like garbage bags are being left on the street. But if you say, “open-source software is being used to track garbage bags on the street,” there’s something about it that it makes it seem interesting. And that makes it a low bar for what seems interesting. A very unambitious idea of what innovation can be.

Photo of Jaron Lanier by Dan Farber used under a Creative Commons license.

April 04 2013

10:32

Game Changer? Inside BuzzFeed's Native Ad Network

After quietly piloting the concept for months, BuzzFeed officially launched its own native ad network this March. The mechanics of the network are bizarre, yet intriguing: Participating publishers allow BuzzFeed to serve story previews on their sites which, when clicked, bring visitors to sponsored stories on BuzzFeed.com. The network, whose ads resemble real story teases, is brash and a bit risky, but it may just help publishers circumvent the abuses of today's established, banner reliant, ad network ecosystem.

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The current ad network model, or indirect sales model, is a mess. It functions based on an oversupply of simple display ads and is rife with inefficiencies, opening the door for middlemen to reap profits while devaluing publisher inventory. BuzzFeed's native ad network, along with others in a similar mold, has the potential to minimize these drawbacks by giving publishers a simple, safe way to make money through indirect sales channels.

How We Got Here

The ad networks we know today came about as a result of the poor economics of the banner ad. A little history: In the early days of Internet publishing, the banner ad seemed to make sense. Just as many publishers began figuring out the Internet by taking content produced for print and slapping it on the web, they took the standard print ad format -- selling advertisers designated space on a page -- and brought it online too. Instead of selling these ads by the inch though (a measurement suitable for edition-based print publishing), digital ads were sold by the impression, or view, a better fit for the unceasing nature of online media.

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Over time, the acceptance and standardization of the banner ad brought a number of side effects along with it, the most important being an incentive for publishers to pack their pages with as many banners as possible. For publishers, the decision was easy: The more banner ads they placed on a page, the more money they stood to make. So instead of running a more manageable (and more user-friendly) three or four banner ads, publishers cluttered their pages with 10, 15 or even 20 of them.

Placing ads on a page was only half the equation though; publishers still needed to sell them. As they soon found out, selling premium, above-the-fold ads was a lot easier than getting advertisers to pony up for the glut of below-the-fold, low-quality inventory. A significant percentage of ads thus went unsold, and into the void stepped ad networks. Even at a heavy discount, publishers figured, it was better to get some money from remnant inventory via ad networks as opposed to making nothing. This would prove to be a poor calculation.

The Dark Side of Ad Networks
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Rather than question the logic of creating more inventory than it was possible to sell, publishers stuck with the model, growing their audiences along with their inventory and watching the original ad networks evolve into a multibillion-dollar tech industry fed largely on remnant inventory. Soon, publishers found themselves exposed to more drawbacks than they perhaps initially bargained for, and the original premise of making more money with more ads came into question.

As it grew, the indirect ecosystem not only enabled advertisers to buy publisher inventory at cheaper prices, devaluing even premium inventory, it also allowed them to buy premium publisher audiences on non-premium sites, thanks to the third-party cookie. The Atlantic's Alexis Madrigal zoomed in on this problem in a long piece about the tough economics of the online publishing industry.

"Advertisers didn't have to buy The Atlantic," he wrote. "They could buy ads on networks that had dropped a cookie on people visiting The Atlantic. They could snatch our audience right out from underneath us." The indirect system, in other words, commoditized his audience, leaving his impressions as valuable, in some ways, as those on third-rate sites.

Recognizing these and other abuses as endemic to the system, publishers today are starting to fight back. Many are trying to limit their dependency on banner ads either by cutting them out of their business completely or by constricting supply. David Payne, the chief digital officer at Gannett who oversaw a major USA Today redesign which dramatically reduced the site's supply of banners, put it this way when I spoke with him for an article for Digiday: "I think we've all proven over the last 12 years that the strategy we've been following -- to create a lot of inventory and then sell it at 95 percent off to these middlemen every day -- is not a long-term strategy."

Publishers have started looking for alternative forms of revenue to fill the gap and, so far, the hottest alternative is the native ad. Everyone from The Atlantic, to Tumblr, to the Washington Post, to Twitter is giving it a try and BuzzFeed, perhaps the extreme example, is all in. It sells only native ads, no banners.

BuzzFeed Susceptible to the Same Problems?

Which brings us to BuzzFeed's ad network. At this early point, it seems like the network should indeed be free of many of the abuses listed above. Its simple nature, for example, ensures that most of the value won't be siphoned out by a group of tech middlemen and will be largely shared by BuzzFeed, participating publishers and minimally, the ad server. Participating in the network, furthermore, should not devalue publishers' existing inventory since it will not provide advertisers access to the same inventory at cheaper prices.

BuzzFeed also claims its networks steers clear of third-party cookies, the audience-snatching culprit that The Atlantic's Madrigal railed against.

"We believe the ultimate targeting is real human-to-human sharing, digital word of mouth, so we don't do third-party cookie targeting," BuzzFeed advertising executive Eric Harris told me via email. "We're not collecting individually identifiable data and will not sell any data."

The approach should help participating publishers breathe a bit easier -- and they may just want to consider demanding the same from any network they engage with, not just BuzzFeed's.

"It's cleaner; it's more straight up," said Fark.com CEO Drew Curtis of BuzzFeed's network. His site, which is one of the partners participating in the launch, embeds BuzzFeed sponsored story previews on its home page, marking them as sponsored. "I just like the fact that there's no screwing around," Curtis explained in a phone interview, "It's exactly what it appears to be, no more no less." Rates from BuzzFeed's ad network, he added, are significantly higher from other indirect channels. "Advertisers," he said, "are willing to pay for less bulls#*t."

Of course, one question participating publishers might ask themselves is why they are helping BuzzFeed profit from sponsored posts instead of selling them on their own sites. The answer might worry BuzzFeed -- at least until it can get its traffic up to the point of advertiser demand -- but if publishers decide to go that route and withdraw from the network, they may be able to pull themselves away from the bad economics that brought them into the network game in the first place.

Alex Kantrowitz covers the digital marketing side of politics for Forbes.com and PBS MediaShift. His writing has previously appeared in Fortune and the New York Times' Local Blog. Follow Alex on Twitter at @Kantrowitz.

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April 02 2013

10:49

Native Advertising Shows Great Potential, But Blurs Editorial Lines

Radio legend Paul Harvey was such a great storyteller that he could totally enthrall you before you realized you were listening to an ad.

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Today, you'd call that sponsored content. The larger term is native advertising -- strategies that mesh branded messages into the media where they appear. They include articles on news sites; funny videos and animated GIFs on humor sites; tweets and Facebook updates, and more. Instead of interrupting the flow like a typical TV commercial, pre-roll, pop-up or print ad, it blends into its surroundings and, in theory at least, offers the reader/viewer/listener something interesting.

Pew Research Center's 2013 State of the News Media Report found that while the amount spent on native advertising in 2012 was comparatively low -- $1.5 billion compared with $8.6 billion for banner ads -- it's rising fast. Spending for sponsored content grew 45 percent in 2011 and almost 39 percent in 2012. That's second only to video ads.

A Word from Our Sponsor

Some fear sponsored content blurs the ethical church-and-state division between advertising and journalism, while others say the revenue keeps reporters employed.

Reuters' Jack Schafer put it strongly in a recent piece, "A Word Against Our Sponsor": "If, as George Orwell once put it, 'The public are swine; advertising is the rattling of a stick inside a swill-bucket,' then sponsored content is the meal so wretched that even pigs will reject unless sugar-frosted," he wrote.

But whether you love or hate native advertising, examining the recent history of the news business, including declining revenues and widespread layoffs, sheds light on why it's growing so quickly.

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Mark Jurkowitz, associate director of the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism, told me that tough economic realities and the "anemic" growth of digital ad revenue opened the door.

"The grimmer news is that basically for every $16 that a newspaper is losing in print revenue, they're gaining $1 in digital," he said. "Just as the case with classified ads, which disappeared ... it's very possible that other forms of digital ad revenue are maybe more difficult than previously thought."

Forbes Leading the Way

Forbes was the first major news site to integrate sponsored content. In 2010, I wrote about how Forbes Media chief product officer Lewis Dvorkin shook up the established formula with AdVoice -- which hosted sponsored articles on Forbes.com.

Forbes Media chief revenue officer Meredith Levien told me it was slow going at first, especially since few companies had the staff or mindset for content creation. But in the last 18 months it's grown dramatically, in part because the publication added a team of writers, editors and graphic designers -- separate from the editorial team -- to help brands produce their articles. "We can't staff it fast enough," she said, adding that BrandVoice was "No. 1 on the list" of factors that made 2012 revenues the best in five years.

Last year, Levien successfully lobbied for the name to be changed to BrandVoice.

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"AdVoice conveyed the notion it was part of the advertising mix," she said. "This is really about content and thought leadership."

Levien adds that she was gratified to see the Washington Post adopt a similar model earlier this year. "I don't think we can take credit for it, but we were especially pleased to see the Post get into it," she said.

A recent random look at BrandVoice content showed a piece from Oracle titled "King Richard III: Villain, Hero, or Tragic Victim of Identity Theft?" NetApp offered "3 Steps To Build Your Personal Brand For Tomorrow's Business (Tips From The CIO)." The CapitalOneSpark credit card team offered: "Optimize Your Website To Convert Visitors To Buyers." The "Voice" pages include links to more from the sponsor, which in some cases includes press releases.

In February, Dvorkin blogged that BrandVoice now has 20 partners. While he remains passionately upbeat, others are more cautious.

Digiday recently quoted Businessweek.com editor Janet Paskin saying she's treading lightly: "Our credibly and integrity, for all journalists, is sometimes harder to defend than it should be. We don't want to compromise that or allow for that perception."

Edgier Sites Jump In

While the traditional journalism community remains divided, many edgier news and entertainment sites see no problem at all. Some of BuzzFeed's snappy content is sponsored, as is some of what you'll see on Cheezburger, Gawker, Vice and others.

Onion Labs, the in-house advertising and marketing team of The Onion humor site, works with sponsored content in several ways. It integrates brands into its own video content -- such as 7-Up's placement in its morning show, "Today Now." It creates original content for major brands. It also posts or links to content produced by the brands themselves, like this video for Adobe:

CollegeHumor CEO Paul Greenberg said his site embraced the concept five years ago. At the Native Advertising Summit in February, he said there's such interest that the site's inner workings now resemble a digital ad agency.

"We've really had to turn into a machine to super-serve the clients that come to us and meet the demand that we're seeing in the marketplace," he told me. Listerine, he says, saw a 17 percent jump in sales after its native ad campaign.

Matt McDonagh, vice president for national sales at The Onion, says a Nielsen study shows that humor is the best way to reach a young target audience. Even big names such as Hilton and Coke Zero are dipping their toes into the comedy pool. "Brands are willing to take a few more risks than they were a few years ago because to hit 18- to 24-year-olds -- you're not going to do that on '60 Minutes,'" he said.

It seems that when it comes to entertainment sites, sponsored content has found a comfortable home.

"Those kinds of sites have pretty seamlessly integrated this," Pew's Jurkowitz said. "It's a more controversial choice for traditional legacy news organizations."

What Not to do

In 2010, Gary McCormick, then-chair of the Public Relations Society of America, publicly warned that poorly labeled sponsored content could be confused with objective news, especially because disclaimers can be lost as information is shared. Three years later, he feels media and brands understand the need for authenticity and transparency.

"It may be that it's no longer always the 'buyer beware' -- it's now the 'manufacturer beware' of putting out false claims," McCormick said. "If you come out with something hidden behind the wall it only takes one consumer to spot it ... They're going to dig deep."

When The Atlantic ran a boosterish Church of Scientology native ad, then deleted critical comments, the outcry prompted an apology with the opening line, "We screwed up."

At the Native Advertising Summit, The Atlantic Digital's vice president and general manager, Kimberly Lau, called the Scientology incident a lesson in what not to do. "The whole experience clarified how it is people are going to judge these things," she said.

The Onion did a scathingly hilarious take featuring fake content praising the Taliban.

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The Onion's McDonagh notes the parody came from the editorial, rather than sales side, but he feels their pain. "To The Atlantic's credit, they're testing some things out and trying to make themselves a smart digital publisher," he said. The key, he adds, is to understand and stay true to your audience.

Sharing the Wealth

The native ad boom is also already creating new business models -- maybe even a whole new advertising sector.

Take, for instance, the success of Sharethrough, which helps increase the reach of sponsored content. For example, if a brand creates a post for one site, Sharethrough carries it to other platforms such as WordPress, Forbes.com, The Awl and Thought Catalog, which direct traffic back to the original post. Videos can be embedded and viewed in a number of blogs and sites.

Although it's only four years old, it's worked with 20 of the top 25 brands of AdAge magazine's Megabrands list. Relationships with many websites and publishers helped it create the Native Advertising Summit. (As a matter of fact, it popularized the term "native advertising," building off the phrase "native monetization" used by venture capitalist Fred Wilson.) Sharethrough has also become a clearinghouse for information about the new industry with tools such as the Native Advertising Leaderboard, which is searchable by brand, publisher, topic and social actions.

"There's a lot of creativity happening in this space right now," said Chris Schreiber, the firm's vice president of Marketing & Communications. One recent project promoted an infographic Pop Secret developed about how people watch movies. "They were delivering value -- something you didn't know and was easily sharable," he says.

When sponsored content -- especially videos -- work, he says, it's great. "It's more about thinking what's valuable for the audience and the consumer rather than what's valuable for the marketer."

Microsoft met its marketing goals while engaging a new audience with its The Browser You Love(d) to Hate campaign for Internet Explorer 9. Roger Capriotti, director of Internet Explorer product marketing, hired producers to create visual content that targeted young people who might otherwise disregard the product. The effort relied on viral shares and news coverage instead of paid posts; the most frequently shared video recalled memories of growing up in the '90s:

As anyone who's tried to make a video go viral knows, 25 million video views -- including 22 million for "Child of the 90s" alone, is nothing to sneeze at, even for Microsoft.

"If we can build good content, we can engage them in a way that we haven't engaged them in the past," Capriotti says. The best part, he says, was reading positive reviews posted by new-found fans.

The Rest of the Story?

Jurkowitz, of the Pew Research Center, questions how far the native ad trend will reach.

"Obviously the growth rate is high, but we're talking about a universe of small numbers here," he says. "There's some momentum in this direction, understandably, but it's not by any means a foregone conclusion that this is going to become a dominant form of advertising in mainstream news outlets going forward."

But The Onion's McDonagh clearly sees brands moving away from conventional ad campaigns, and demanding more creativity. "Brands are trying to develop content and trying to act more like publishers, and that's a sea change from where we were three to five years ago."

Sharethrough's Schreiber notes that as soon as new platforms crop up, advertisers jump on them -- as they've done with Twitter's Vine app, which creates short videos. He expects newer platforms will arise specifically for native advertising. "You're going to see new media created with native advertising, knowing that's how they're going to make their money," he says. And brands, he says, will learn what works best for their audience and their message. "They'll find their voice," he concludes.

Usually at this point in a Paul Harvey show, he would knowingly say, "And THAT's ... the rest of the story." But right now, prospects for native advertising are not so clear-cut that any one person or group can claim to have the last word. The only thing that's certain is that they will continue to evolve.

Terri Thornton, a former reporter and TV news producer, owns Thornton Communications, an award-winning PR and social media firm. She is also a freelance editor for Strategic Finance and Management Accounting Quarterly. Follow her on Twitter @TTho

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April 01 2013

11:00

Special Series: Online Advertising, Evolved

If the banner ad isn't dead, it's certainly on life support.

Once upon a time (actually, not so long ago), there was one way to advertise online: the almighty banner ad. But, the banner ad just didn't do enough. It didn't fully take advantage of the medium, it was hard to track, and it certainly didn't keep up with the lightning speed at which the medium changed.

Even Federated Media CEO John Battelle, who was there at the birth of the banner ad, said recently to Business Insider that as an industry, "we messed up when we decided banner ads would be how we make money on the Web."

Today, as the banner ad of old gasps what could be its last breath, brands, publishers and industry leaders are breaking the ad mold wide open to find new ways to connect online readers with marketing. All this week on MediaShift, we're looking at the ways they're doing this with our "Online Advertising Evolved" special.

We'll still look at banner ads -- but we'll look at how they're innovating and changing. After all, some of the banner ad's ancestors will survive. But, how those ads are targeted, how they're purchased, how they're measured ("viewability" is hot on industry minds), and how they're used will determine their fate.

Then there's scrapping the banner concept altogether and working with something new -- so-called "native advertising." The definition of a native ad can be as narrow or as broad as the person defining it would like. (There's a whole push there -- to define native advertising better so everyone is speaking the same language.) But, in essence, native advertising is advertising that folds more seamlessly into the content around it. It could be just an old-fashioned advertorial -- a story written by a marketer next to an original magazine piece. Or, it could be in-stream ads that pop up in your Facebook newsfeed. Or, it could be a short digital film that's part ad, but also part content. But, no matter what it is, if it's called "native advertising" it has some major buzz around it these days for publishers, marketers and the industry as a whole.

Stay tuned as we tackle a few of these issues this week on MediaShift. Below is a list of what we have planned so far. Have an idea to share? Let us know.

Also, to get you up to speed, see our list below of some of the best reporting, opinion and analysis from other outlets on this topic.



Coming Soon

>Digital Magazines Dive Into Native Advertising, by Susan Currie Sivek
>Where Native Ads Have Been and Where They're Going, by Terri Thornton

>Advertising Remains Revenue King, but the Future Is in Innovation, by Marianne McArthy

>Ad Exchanges: Automated Systems Hold Great Promise, But Raise Concerns, by Dorian Benkoil

>Why Are the 'One Old Trick' Ads Surviving? by Laruen Orsini

>How Responsive Design Is Changing Advertising, by Jenny Xie

>What's Behind BuzzFeed's Native Ad Network? by Alex Kantrowitz

Recent required reading on the evolution of online advertising

Native Advertising Study Shoots Some Bullets at Pre-Roll (MediaPost)

BuzzFeed, Sharethrough Battle to Bring Native Ads to the Masses (AdAge)

Native Advertising Is Bad News (Digiday)

What's All the Hype About Native Ads, Anyway? Looking Beyond the Buzzword. (AdAge)

Native + Content: A Powerful Advertising Combination (MediaPost)

The Washington Post Dives Into Native Advertising (Forbes)

Ad War: BuzzFeed, the Dish, and the Perils of Sponsored Content (The Atlantic)

Where You Can Go Right, And Wrong, With Native Ads (TechCrunch)

We Need a Better Definition of Native Advertising (Harvard Business Review)

AOL Eschews Banners, Leans Into Native (AdWeek)

Native Advertising Works -- If You Don't Embarrass Yourself (VentureBeat)

3 Out of 10 Display Ads Are Never Seen by Consumers (ClickZ)

5 Marketing Predictions for 2013 (Mashable)

The New York Times' Plan to Save the Banner Ad (Digiday)

Industry Effort to Improve Web Ad Metrics Goes Nowhere (AdWeek)

Study Says Half of Media Buyers Will Try Native Advertising in 2013 (PaidContent)

Solve: Media Buyers Warm To Native Ads (MediaPost)

Is Your So-Called 'Native' Advertising Really Native? (AdAge)

Sponsor Content Doesn't Fool Anyone Except Advertisers (AllThingsD)

12 Tips to Avoid The Atlantic's 'Sponsored Content' Meltdown (PBS MediaShift)

Managing editor Courtney Lowery Cowgill is a writer, editor, teacher and farmer based in central Montana. In addition to her work with MediaShift, she teaches online courses at the University of Montana's School of Journalism. Before she came to MediaShift, she was the co-founder and editor in chief of the now shuttered online magazine NewWest.Net. When she's not writing, teaching or editing, she's helping her husband wrangle 150 heritage turkeys, 30 acres of food, overgrown weeds or their young daughter.

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11:00

Digital Magazines Dive Into Native Advertising

Ah, that awkward moment when you're interviewing someone about online advertising and you have to pause to quit your ad-blocking browser plugin so you can view a sample ad.

Clearly, I'm part of the problem, not the solution, for magazines trying to develop online monetization opportunities for their digital products. Yet most online advertising options, like banner ads, provide little profit to magazine publishers.

But a new (old) approach is rising to the rescue in the form of revitalized, interactive, and highly tailored sponsored content within digital magazine products. That is to say, yes, magazines are also taking advantage of the "native advertising" boom.

While some of the sponsored content looks a lot like digitized versions of the "special advertising sections" that print magazines have long used, today's innovators are coming up with more creative ways to integrate sponsored content to increase its effectiveness and to maximize profit.

Sponsored content on the web and in replicas: GTxcel

One of the challenges of using sponsored content for today's digital magazines is that standard PDF-like replica editions typically only include static ad pages, like those in print issues. GTxcel (the just-rebranded company formerly known as Godengo+Texterity) is releasing a new product, Turnstyle, that will allow publishers to add interactive sponsored content to an HTML5-based magazine app.

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Available first for iOS apps and later for other platforms, Turnstyle allows a publisher to insert interstitial full-page ads that can show video and lead to additional pages of sponsored content within the app, accessible through touch interaction with the ad. Readers can interact with all of this content without leaving the magazine app. Interactivity will be fully functional offline as well. Personalization and geolocation features are likely to be added in the future.

"In magazine apps, the industry is pretty much banners and ribbons at the bottom, maybe an introduction page. Then you get into the flip experience," says Kim Keller, executive vice president for sales at GTxcel. "The ability for you now to be able to insert an interstitial ad that is completely interactive is very powerful."

Keller sees this new product as especially valuable for magazines that want to create standalone special issues for regional or seasonal themes. "They can create it very easily with Turnstyle -- a 20- to 30-page app with sponsored content that is highly interactive and relevant to that special edition," he says.

The goal of the new product, along with the other sponsored content strategies GTxcel recommends for its magazine customers, is a positive user experience of marketers' messages -- "not sponsored content that gets in the way, that is obviously just an advertisement," says Keller. "When a publisher does sponsored content correctly, the reader doesn't care. They actually love it."

Sponsored content made customized and current: Nativo

Part of creating a good user experience for sponsored content is ensuring a seamless, relevant look and feel in the context of a magazine's usual content. Nativo (known as PostRelease prior to its rebranding this month) is creating ways to help publishers integrate native advertising (another term for sponsored content) into their web and digital magazine experiences with a smooth, integral feel.

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"When [publishers] are redesigning their sites, they are looking at native advertising as not just an option, but perhaps their lead option," says Justin Choi, CEO of Nativo. "They can get improved monetization because they're focusing on driving engagement, as opposed to interruption" caused by banner ads and other forms of display ads.

Nativo allows publishers to use native advertising that marketers have tagged and customized in such a way that it matches the editorial content's existing online appearance. So far, the company has attracted magazine clients including Maxim, Source Interlink (publisher of Motor Trend, among other magazines), and Entrepreneur Media. The service works across platforms, including mobile devices and the web.

"The publisher says, 'I want the native ad here.' They start tagging, and the system knows to replace those elements when they get a branded element," explains Choi. "Once it's integrated, they can control that native ad the same way they do other advertising. They can turn it on and off. They can geotarget it. All the same ad controls they can do with advertising, they can do it with native."

This kind of branded content is an especially good option for mobile publishing, says Choi, at a time when other kinds of mobile ads are bearing little profit for publishers. While mobile traffic is growing rapidly, advertising formats for mobile haven't adapted to maximize that audience.

"Monetization has to be solved by publishers. Smart editors realize that. Native placement works remarkably well on mobile, for the user experience but also for monetization," says Choi. "Publishers are thinking of this holistically."

Of course, making sponsored content or native ads a truly seamless part of a digital magazine experience is an issue of not just transparency, but also brand voice: Who produces the content? What kinds of brands fit with the publication's editorial perspective? Nativo's focus is on the technology to integrate these ads, one part of what Choi calls a "whole ecosystem now helping brands produce better content."

Sponsored content across media properties: Brightcove

For companies that publish more than one magazine or have other digital properties, the ability to reuse sponsored content across more than one website or app is alluring. The same content can be rebranded and republished in more than one place, maximizing its value to the publisher.

Brightcove is one company exploring ways to make this reuse easier for publishers. With a long list of magazine publishers as customers, Brightcove's platform allows the sharing of a single video -- like one created by a sponsor -- in different settings, with unique branding and distinctively formatted players for each publication.

"If I'm ... creating sponsored content because it has good upfront value and will invest my reader, I'm going to take that sponsored content across a number of platforms," says Chris Johnston, vice president of digital media solutions for Brightcove. "If I have that on my homepage, that's great, but if I have another property that has a whole gallery of videos, it adds value to them, too. If another property has a feature on a related topic, they may already have a video, but they may want to show another to show depth of knowledge."

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The possibility of applying sponsored content to multiple media properties may appeal to publishers that want to make the most of an initial foray into sponsored content.

"Most magazines aren't working on lots of sponsored content. They more typically lean towards the traditional CPM-based model because it's easier," says Johnston. Creating sponsored content in-house for an advertiser, or managing its creation by an outside firm, is difficult for publications already stretched to just create their print and digital products. "Lots of content creation and distribution takes effort," he says.

So while magazines may like the idea of integrating more sponsored content into their digital products, and the payoff may be greater than the investment in other advertising efforts, it's going to take time for these innovations and others to find a place at many publishers -- plus a willingness to face the other challenges of sponsored content, like ensuring readers' positive experience of the content and maintaining a consistent editorial identity.

Keller of GTxcel, however, is optimistic, comparing the integration of sponsored content today to the early adoption of Google AdWords by publishers.

"They had text in them, and people were concerned it might look like editorial. It's not uncommon for that view to be applied" with sponsored content today, Keller says. "What we've found is that over time, as more and more publications have adopted native advertising, that concern has subsided."

Susan Currie Sivek, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Mass Communication at Linfield College. Her research focuses on magazines and media communities. She also blogs at sivekmedia.com, and is the magazine correspondent for MediaShift.

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