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July 01 2013

17:45

New York Times launches new interactive ads for mobile

The New York Times is out with some interesting new ad formats specifically tailored for their iPad app. Developed by the Times’ Idea Lab, the new formats emphasize interactivity and a push to connect the app to other features on the iPad, including:

In-App Download: This capability allows for a user to purchase and download any selection of media that is available in iTunes, all within the ad unit. This includes music or video available in iTunes, but also proprietary apps that advertisers might wish to promote to users of The Times’s iPad app.

Direct Coupon Download: Users can download a special offer, ticket or coupon from an ad unit that saves directly to their iPad Photo Stream, resulting in it being saved to the consumer’s other devices, such as an iPhone.

Calendar: Allows users to download and save information directly into their iPad calendar to help them schedule appointments and reminders tied to special offers or events.

Panorama: Users can visually pan around a 360-degree environment using touch and swipe motions. For example, advertisers may use this feature to display a retail location.

A number of other Idea Lab custom units will also now be available in-app for the first time, including Pleats, which offers advertisers four distinct panels to showcase full-screen images in expanded format through an XXL unit; Unveil, which allows users to interact with a brand message by “wiping away” an initial image to reveal another one underneath it; and Product Zoom, a newsroom-inspired ad concept that can showcase a product’s finer details through magnification as a user moves the cursor over the image.

June 26 2013

20:57

With gay marriage sure to spark emotional responses, The Washington Post and New York Times try structuring comments

Back in March, we wrote about a New York Times experiment to add more structure to reader comments on big stories. In that case, the story was the election of Pope Francis; The Times asked readers to notate their responses with whether they were Catholic, whether they were surprised by the appointment, and whether they approved of it. That added structure allowed other readers to view comments through those lenses, putting a filter on what could have been, on another platform, an overwhelming “Read 5,295 comments” link.

Today brought some more big news: the Supreme Court’s ruling that the Defense of Marriage Act, which prevented federal recognition of same-sex marriages, was unconstitutional. And today both the Times and The Washington Post brought structure to reader response.

First the Post:

wapo-structured-comments-doma

The interactive — credited to Katie Park, Leslie Passante, Ryan Kellett, and Masuma Ahuja — steps past the pro-/anti-gay marriage debate and instead asks why readers care: “Why do the Supreme Court’s decisions on gay marriage matter to you?” The given choices — “It engages my moral or religious beliefs,” “It impacts someone I know,” and the like — then provide the raw data for a lovely flower-like Venn-diagram data visualization. (With colors sufficiently muted to avoid immediate rainbow associations.)

The open response question also tries to steer clear of pro/con by asking: “Now, in your own words, use your experience to tell us how these decisions resonate with you.” It’s generated over 2,800 responses at this writing, and you can sort through them all via the structured filters.

Now the Times:

nytimes-doma-supreme-court-comment

The Times’ interactive was built by Lexi Mainland, Michael Strickland, Scott Blumenthal, John Niedermeyer, and Tyson Evans. They selected six key excerpts from today’s opinions — four from Anthony Kennedy and one each from Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito — and asked readers whether they agree or disagree with each. (There’s also an “unsure” option for those who don’t fancy themselves constitutional scholars.)

Along with that quantifiable response, readers were asked to leave a brief comment explaining their position. The excerpts appear in random order on each load. And, just as the pope experiment separated out responses from Catholics, this Times interactive pulls out comments from people who identify as gay. Like the Post, the Times uses a non-standard call for responses: Rather than responding to a news story, they’re asked to “Respond to the Justices.”

(The responses so far don’t do much to change the stereotype of Times readers as liberal. Justice Kennedy’s four excerpts — from the majority opinion, striking down DOMA — have been agreed with 130 times and disagreed with just four times. In contrast, Scalia and Alito’s pro-DOMA comments are losing Times readers 76 to 7 and 73 to 6, respectively.)

As news organizations try to figure out better ways to benefit from their audiences — ways that go beyond an unstructured “What do you think?” — these efforts from the Post and the Times are welcome. Big stories that generate big emotion deserve custom treatment if you want to get the most of your readers. Comments are just another kind of content, and as content becomes more intelligently structured, comments should follow suit.

June 20 2013

14:13

The New York Times adds a meter to mobile apps

Since 2011, the Times’ web paywall and app paywall have functioned differently. The website gave nonsubscribers a maximum number of articles per month; its apps set aside a subset of top stories that were free to all, but put everything else beyond reach.

The newspaper just announced it would be normalizing that divide, creating a meter for readers of the company’s mobile applications. Starting June 27, nonsubscribers will be able to read three articles per day through the app before being prompted to sign up for a subscription. After that, they’ll still get to browse headlines and article summaries. Videos will remain free inside the app, as Denise Warren, the Times executive vice president of the digital products and services group, previously told the Lab in April.

This spring, Times CEO Mark Thompson promised the company would be introducing a new suite of digital products to broaden its base of readers. But the Times’ mobile meter doesn’t come at a new price point. For an app-centric reader, the cheapest option for reading the Times starts at $15 every four weeks, which provides access to NYTimes.com and smartphone apps.

The timing may just be a coincidence, but the Times’ soon-to-be sold sibling, The Boston Globe, introduced a new mobile app subscription plan Wednesday which will cost readers $3.99 a month.

14:02

The newsonomics of Spies vs. Spies

So who do you root for in this coming battle, as Google petitions the feds? Are you on the side of Big Brother or Little Brother — and remind me, which is which? It’s a 50-year-update on Mad Magazine’s iconic Spy vs. Spy.

The Surveillance State is — at least for this month — in front of the public. The Guardian’s rolling revelations of National Security Agency phone and web spying have again raised the bogeyman of Big Data — not the Big Data that all the airport billboards offer software to tame, but the Big Data that the unseen state can use against us. We’ve always had a love/hate relationship with big technology and disaster, consuming it madly as Hollywood churns out mad entertainments. We like our dystopia delivered hot and consumable within two hours. What we don’t like is the ooky feeling we are being watched, or that we have to make some kind unknowable choice between preventing the next act of terror and preserving basic Constitutional liberties.

Americans’ reactions to the stories is predictable. Undifferentiated outrage: “I knew they were watching us.” Outrageous indifference: “What do you expect given the state of the world?” That’s not surprising. Americans and Europeans have had the same problem thinking about the enveloping spider’s web of non-governmental digital knowledge. (See The Onion headline: “Area Man Outraged His Private Information Being Collected By Someone Other Than Advertisers.”)

While top global media, including The Guardian, The Washington Post, and The New York Times, dig into the widening government spying questions, let’s look at the ferment in the issues of commercial surveillance. There’s a lot of it, and it would take several advanced degrees and decoder rings to understand all of it. No, it’s not the same thing as the issues surrounding PRISM. But it will be conflated with national security, and indeed the overlapping social and political questions are profound. Let’s look at some recent developments and some of the diverse players in this unfolding drama and see where publishers do — and could — fit in.

The commercial surveillance culture is ubiquitous, perhaps even less hemmed in by government policy than the NSA, and growing greatly day by day. While Google asks the FISA court to allow it to release more detail about the nature of federal data demands, its growing knowledge of us seems to have no bounds. From our daily searches, to the pictures (street to sky) taken of our homes, to the whereabouts relayed by Google Maps, and on and on.

It’s not just Google, of course. Facebook, whose users spend an average of seven hours per month online disclosing everything, is challenging Google for king of the data hill. A typical news site might have 30 to 40 cookies — many of them from ad-oriented “third parties” — dropped from it. That explains why those “abandoned” shopping carts, would-be shoe purchases, and fantasy vacation ads now go with us seemingly everywhere we move on the web. It’s another love/hate relationship: We’re enamored of what Google and Facebook and others can do for us, but we’re disquieted by their long reach into our lives. It’s a different flavor of ooky.

We are targeted. We are retargeted. Who we are, what we shop for, and what we read is known by untold number of companies out there. Though we are subject to so much invisible, involuntary, and uncompensated crowdsourcing, the outrage is minimal. It’s not that it hasn’t been written about. Among others, The Wall Street Journal has done great work on it, including its multi-prize-winning three-year series on “What They Know.”

Jim Spanfeller, now CEO of Spanfeller Media Group and the builder of Forbes.com, related the PRISM NSA disclosures to commercial tracking in a well-noticed column (“At What Price Safety? At What Price Targeted Advertising?”) last week. His point: We’re all essentially ignorant of what’s being collected about us, and how it is being used. As we find out more, we’re not going to be happy.

His warning to those in the digital ad ecosystem: Government will ham-handedly regulate tracking of consumer clicks if the industry doesn’t become more “honest and transparent.”

Spanfeller outlined for me the current browser “Do Not Track” wars, which saw its latest foray yesterday. Mozilla, parent of Firefox, the third most-popular browser by most measures, said it will move forward with tech that automatically blocks third-party cookies in its browser. Presumably, users will be able to turn back on such cookies, but most will go with the defaults in the browsers they use.

The Mozilla move, much contested and long in the works, follows a similar decision by Microsoft with its release of the latest Internet Explorer. Microsoft is using a “pro-privacy” stance as a competitive weapon against Google, advancing both Bing search and IE. Spanfeller notes that Microsoft’s move hasn’t had much effect, at least yet, because “sites aren’t honoring it.”

These browser wars are one front, and much decried by forces like the Interactive Ad Bureau, the Digital Ad Alliance, and its “Ad Choices” program — which prefer consumer opt-out. Another front is an attempt at industry consensus through the World Wide Web Consortium, or W3C. Observers of that process believe it is winding its way to failure. Finally, also announced yesterday was the just-baked Cookie Clearinghouse, housed at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society. The driving notion, to be fleshed out: creating whitelists and blacklists of cookies allowed and blocked. (Good summaries by both Ad Age’s Kate Kaye and ZDNet’s Ed Bott.)

Never too far from the action, serial entrepreneur John Taysom was in Palo Alto this week as well. Taysom, a current senior fellow at Harvard’s Advanced Leadership Initiative, is an early digital hothouse pioneer, having led Reuters’ Greenhouse project way back in the mid-’90s. His list of web startups imagined and sold is impressive, and now he’s trying to put all that experience to use around privacy issues. As a student of history, old and modern, his belief is this: “When they invented the Internet, they didn’t add a privacy layer.”

“We need a Underwriters Laboratory for our time,” he told me Wednesday. UL served a great purpose at a time (1894) of another tech revolution: electricity. Electricity, like computer tech these days, seemed exciting, but the public was wary. It wasn’t afraid of behind-the-scenes chicanery — it literally was concerned about playing with fire. So UL, as a “global independent safety science company” — a kind of neutral, Switzerland-like enterprise — was set up to assure the public that electrical appliances were indeed tested and safe.

Could we do the same with the Internet?

He’s now working on a model, colloquially named “Three’s A Crowd,” to reinsert a “translucent” privacy layer in the tech stack. His model is based on a lot of current thinking on how to both better protect individual privacy and actually improve the targeting of messages by business and others. It draws on k-anonymity and Privacy by Design principles, among others.

In brief, Taysom’s Harvard project is around creating a modern UL. It would be a central trusted place, or really set of places, that institutions and businesses (and presumably governments) could draw from, but which protect individual identification. He calls it an I.D. DMZ, or demilitarized zone.

He makes the point that the whole purpose of data mining is to get to large enough groups of people with similar characteristics — not to find the perfect solution or offer for each individual. “Go up one level above the person,” to a small, but meaningfully sized, crowd. The idea: increase anonymity, giving people the comfort of knowing they are not being individually targeted.

Further, the levels of anonymity could differ depending on the kind of information associated with anyone. ”I don’t really mind that much about people knowing my taste in shirts. If it’s about the location of my kids, I want six sigmas” of anonymity, he says. Taysom, who filed a 2007 U.K. patent, now approved, on the idea, is now putting together both his boards of advisors and trustees.

Then there are emerging marketplace solutions to privacy. What havoc the digital marketplace hath wrought may be solved by…the digital marketplace. D.C.-based Personal.com is one of the leading players in that emerging group. Yes, this may be the coming personal data economy. Offering personal data lockers starting at $29.99 a year, Personal.com is worth a quick tour. What if you could store all your info in a digital vault, it asks? Among the kinds of “vaults”: passwords, memberships and rewards programs, credit and debit card info, health insurance, and lots more.

It’s a consumer play that’s also a business play. The company is now targeting insurance, finance, and education companies and institutions, who would then offer consumers the opportunity to ingest their customer information and keep it in vault and auto-fill features then let consumers re-use such information once it is banked. Think Mint.com, but broader.

Importantly, while Personal.com deals potentially with lots of kinds of digital data, its business doesn’t touch on the behavioral clickstream data that is at the heart of the Do Not Track fracas.

Do consumer want such a service? Personal.com won’t release any numbers on customers or business partners. Getting early traction may be tough.

Embedded in the strategy: a pro-consumer tilt. Personal.com offers an “owner data agreement,” basically certifying that it is the consumer, not Personal.com, that owns the data. It is a tantalizing idea: What if we individually could control our own digital data, setting parameters on who could use what and how? What if we as consumers could monetize our own data?

Neither Personal.com nor John Taysom’s project nor the various Do Not Track initiatives envision that kind of individually driven marketplace, and I’ve been told there are a whole bunch of technical reasons why it would be difficult to achieve. Yet, wouldn’t that be the ultimate capitalist, Adam Smith solution to this problem of runaway digital connectedness — a huge exchange that would facilitate the buying and selling of our own data?

For publishers, all this stuff is headache-producing. News publishers from Manhattan to Munich complain about all the third-party cookies feeding low-price exchanges, part of the reason their digital ad businesses are struggling. But there is a wide range of divergent opinion about how content-creating publishers will fare in Do Not Track world. They may benefit from diminished competition, but would they be able to adequately target for advertisers? Will Google and Facebook do even better in that world?

So, for publishers, these privacy times demand three things:

  • Upscale their own data mining businesses. “There’s a big difference between collecting and using data,” says Jonathan Mendez, CEO of Yieldbot, that works with publishers to provide selling alternatives to Google search. That’s a huge point. Many publishers don’t yet do enough with their first-party data to adequately serve advertiser needs.
  • Take a privacy-by-design approach to emerging business. How you treat consumers in product design and presentation is key here, with some tips from Inc. magazine.
  • Adopt a pro-privacy position. Who better than traditionally civic-minded newspaper companies than to help lead in asserting a sense of ownership of individual data? If news companies are to re-assert themselves as central to the next generation of their communities and of businesses, what better position than pro-privacy — and then helping individuals manage that privacy better?

It’s a position that fits with publishers’ own interests, and first-party data gathering (publisher/reader) makes more intuitive sense to citzen readers. For subscribers — those now being romanced into all-access member/subscribers — the relationship may make even more sense. Such an advocacy position could also help re-establish a local publisher as a commercial hub.

News and magazine publishers won’t have to create the technology here — certainly not their strong suits — but they can be early partners as consortia and companies emerge in the marketplace.

Photo by Fire Monkey Fire used under a Creative Commons license.

May 30 2013

11:36

The newsonomics of climbing the ad food chain

The numbers are sobering.

While digital advertising has been growing at a 15 percent pace annually in the United States, the digital ad sales of news companies have largely plateaued, struggling to find any growth year over year. The New York Times Company reported digital ad sales down 4 percent for the 1st quarter, while McClatchy managed a 1.5 percent increase in the first quarter. Most news-based companies are significantly underperforming that 15 percent average — in the low single digits, either positive or negative. Meanwhile, the top five digital ad companies, led by Google, increase their share of ad revenue year after year and soon will hold two-thirds of it.

Why are publishers lagging?

Publishers describe their digital ad woe with these terms: “price compression,” “bargain-basement ad networks,” and “death of the banner ad.” Each describes a world of hyper-competition in digital advertising — a world of almost infinite ad possibility and unyielding downward pricing pressure.

Not long ago, news companies believed that their premium-pricing models would withstand the competitive onslaught. Now they’re retooling, trying to speed their adaptation to the new nature of the digital ad beast.

It’s a matter of survival. For some, all-access circulation revenues are a good positive (pushing overall circ revenue up 5 percent in the U.S. last year). All, though, find themselves running as fast as they can to make up both for the freefall of print ad loss and that overall digital ad pricing downturn. “The ground is falling away under you” is how FT.com managing director Rob Grimshaw describes it.

Let’s look at what some of the leading digital ad innovators among publishers are doing to regroup. Let’s look at the newsonomics of climbing the ad food chain, checking in with two global publishers, The New York Times and the Financial Times, and two regional ones, the Minneapolis Star Tribune and Digital First Media. They provide a snapshot of a world in ever-spinning change.

Their strategies are all fairly similar: employ a range of new techniques that will justify premium prices. Let Facebook, which controls as much as a quarter of all web ad inventory, sell at 80-cent CPM and make money on scale. Publishers know they will never win that game. They want rates *20 to 50* times that, offering increasingly better targeting of their affluent readers.

Climbing the ad food chain is mainly about three things: technology, creativity, and sales relationships. It is also, overall, about differentiation, the roar of a lion in a crowded landscape.

Grimshaw, a former ad guy, says simply: “You’ve got to be doing something unique.”

Let’s look at each of the areas:

Technology

Digital advertising is all about technology in 2013, and you’ll see lots of talk of the ad-tech stack, and who owns it. Google, of course, owns much of it, through its successive AdWords/Doubleclick/AdMob and more creations, acquisitions and integrations. Its stack is so efficient that many publishers feel compelled to use it, though they are wary of getting their businesses tied ever more directly to Google — or the Google “Death Star,” as some critics call it.

For most publishers, Google is the classic frenemy. They work with it when they think the advantages outweigh the hazards, even as top publishers build their own programs. In fact, expect to soon see U.S. news publishers transition their Newspaper Consortium partnership with Yahoo into something intended to be broader, something that allows publishers to opt into and out of the ad programs of multiple portals — not just Yahoo — harnessing the ad tech of the day.

Six-month-old Smart Match is one of the FT’s latest innovations to stay “premium.” In brief, the content of an advertisement is matched, dynamically, to that of an article. The technology: semantic targeting of both article content and the FT’s current “ad library” for the best matches on the fly, as compared to standard keyword targeting.

Advertisers commit specific budgets for specific time periods, and the FT does the matching. The FT says it gets a major lift in ad engagement with the technology, an average of 9x over its average clickthrough. Ten clients are now live in Smart Match’s soft launch period.

Ad effectiveness isn’t a one-time process; breakthroughs like Smart Match require ongoing engagement with marketers, as publishers work with them to figure out what works and what doesn’t — and to tweak constantly. “Ads can’t be a fire-and-forget enterprise” any longer, says Grimshaw.

The FT is setting floors on pricing and better controlling inventory, testing small “private exchanges” with select ad buyers and agencies, working with Google in the U.S. and Rubicon in Europe. Exchanges have caused publishers lots of headaches, as too much of their inventory — mixed and matched with lots of “lower quality” inventory — helped drive down pricing and deflated the meaning of “premium.” So many have pulled back from exchanges in general; a few are starting to harness the exchange concept, but in a members-only approach.

“We are constantly evolving our approach to the programmatic marketplace, and private exchange activity is one part,” says Todd Haskell, the New York Times Co. group vice president for advertising. “We’ve been using private exchanges for a series of single-client buys executed using private exchange technology, and are now exploring several single buyer/multiple brand programs.”

One big notion here: minimize channel conflict, so that a publisher isn’t competing with itself, making its inventory available at variable prices here and there. Private exchanges are proceeding cautiously. Buyers get more flexibility, but within the control of publishers.

Such private exchange testing follows the adoption of RTB (real-time-bidding), which publishers are honing to get better rates for the ad inventory they can’t sell locally. “We moved away from a remnant inventory model a few years ago with the adoption of RTB and actively manage all of the programmatic demand that we see through the ad exchanges,” says Jeff Griffing, the Star Tribune’s chief revenue officer. “As a single-entity, local site publisher, our strategy is to make sure as many bidders/buyers as possible can transact on their audience impressions that we fulfill on our site.”

Similarly, Digital First Media is moving to add new data — including third-party data from traditonal sources like Experian — into its own systems. “As we move more into the programatic world, with our own Trading Desk and all our own inventory in our private exchange, we keep adding data to all that traffic and match it in a way that enhances the ROI for the small and medium advertisers,” says Digital First Ventures managing director Arturo Duran.

Ad tech is also allowing publishers to do things they couldn’t previously do. The Times is using new brand new ad formats to help marketers gain interactivity. One new program will allow for coupon delivery within an app.

The idea of delivering more experiences within experiences — rather than alongside — can be seen in another recent announcement. Twitter Amplify allows advertisers to deliver videos in-stream — part of a slew of ad-friendly moves, well described by Ingrid Lunden at TechCrunch. Among the early partners to sign on: BBC America, Fox, Fuse, and The Weather Channel. The goals here: make ads both more experiential and more lead-generating.

Yield optimization is a term now part of everyone’s vocabulary. Optimization — the better use of data through adjustment of the digital pulleys and levers that adjust what’s offered, at which price points when — has always been a part of the advertising game. Cycle time, and sophistication, though, have markedly moved up. Where the Times used to adjust in 24-month cycles, says Haskell, it now makes significant moves in three-month periods.

There are lots of moving pieces to optimization. The Star Tribune’s chief revenue officer Jeff Griffing describes how his company does it: “The push to premium help us drive our effective yield on pageviews; we’ve established baselines that our different pageviews should meet or exceed and factor in our directly sold campaigns with those indirectly or programmatically filled. We have an optimal formula for how will fill inventory and have set up systems that make sure we’re delivering maximum revenue across all ad units.”

Of course, publishers have long adjusted based on supply and demand. Today, though, the complex external development — various sales partners, through networks, private exchanges and more — requires fine tuning to get the highest possible price for fleeting inventory.

If this all seems like four-dimensional chess, mobile adds a fifth dimension. Haskell recalls the boom in second-screen tablet usage found on election night last November. That development provides a new place for the text-, numbers-, and analysis-driven Times to play in what is usually an immediate TV story. Consequently, it opens up new ways for the Times to exploit the tablet as a second-screen, timely ad vehicle.

The tablet (and mobile, generally) is quickly moving from niche to main play for the Times and others. Of its 43.6 million U.S. unique users in March, 18.3 million arrived via mobile devices, the Times says.

There’s targeting — and then there’s super-targeting. So the Times is selling what Todd Haskell calls “super premium.” It is able to target, through its growing audience database, readers with certain job titles, reading certain sections of content. That kind of targeting drives higher rates, and it’s part of the Times’ plan to move up on the food chain, just as the middle and bottom of that chain widens infinitely.

Creativity

Over the past year, publishers have reawakened to the notion of commercial storytelling. They now see it — a cousin to editorial storytelling — as a core competence, and one that many marketers envy.

“Agencies and many advertisers don’t know how to do it,” says Grimshaw. “There’s a constant need for fresh [marketing] content.”

Enter content marketing, which I recent covered in depth in “The newsonomics of recylcling journalism.” The Star Tribune’s Griffing points to his company’s first big foray into the field, a Kids Health site. Sold to a single sponsor for one year, Children’s Hospital, the new content was produced by Star Tribune staff and is a prototype for products to come. Griffing says the company’s innovations, overall, have pushed year-over-year digital ad growth into the teens.

2013 is the year of content marketing, from New York to D.C. to Minneapolis to Dallas to San Francisco. The creative spark comes from a combination of old-fashioned journalism skills, both editorial and marketing. Sums up Rob Grimshaw: “Publishers have tremendous assets that have never been exploited.”

Now, often, the creation and placement of “native advertising” are inextricably tied. As with the Times’ IdeaLab, the Washington Post’s Brand Connect, and Atlantic Media Strategies, global publishers have asserted their high-end editorial skills, applied to other people’s storytelling, and are packaging that skill with an ad buy. Haskell points out that the creative costs can be built into the ad buy itself, if the buy is big enough. “We’re not looking to make money on the creative,” he says.

That combination of the creative and the buy shows the newness of it all, and the early flux in the content marketing craft. Over time, we’ll likely see a greater cross-title placement of above-average creative, saving on creation costs. How then will the various content marketing works of a Times, an FT, a BuzzFeed, or an Atlantic Media compare? Which will become go-to creative companies, and which will return to the old comfort area of selling placement?

Video creation has also unearthed new creativity among the formerly ink-based wretches. In fact, most companies tell me that video ad demand, at anywhere from $25 to $75 cost per thousand rates (many multiples beyond display ads), is still outstripping supply.

The Star Tribune’s Griffing puts it this way: “This one is simple. We are selling as much video inventory as we have; 1.2 million plays per month, which is significantly more than the next closest competitor, a local TV station. That said, until we’re doing 10M plays a month, revenue for video will be relatively small.”

In a nutshell, that describes the dilemma. The New York Times recently hired Rebecca Howard, late of AOL/HuffPo, to expand its sold-out video inventory.

For Digital First Media, a pioneer in local news video through the Journal Register Company, new video formats offer premium possibilities. It’s going short, and long. “For short format we just closed a deal with Tout.com, and we are deploying their player in all our sites.” DFM journalists will take videos, through Tout (“The newsonomics of leapfrog news video”) and place them quickly on the sites, says Digital First’s Arturo Duran. “Some of those ‘Touts’ are embedded inside the articles. This is following what the consumers are doing, and the tests by WSJ and BBC. They have created snippets of 15 seconds of information that feed their sites with real time information on events. For end users, it’s a faster, easier way to watch it. There is a big play in the mobile arena, specially smartphones, as end users are watching more video in this [short] format than any other.”

Longer-format video is still in the planning stages for DFM, says Duran, pointing to the potential of live events, interviews with personalities, direct chats with readers, and more. It’s noteworthy that despite the success of video advertising, text-based sites still haven’t mastered greater quality production of greater scale and aren’t well-using third-party, “higher quality” video to satisfy ad needs.

Sales relationships

In an age of self-service, spawned by Google’s paid search products, the sales channel is still multi-tiered. Self-service works profoundly for some products, but telesales and in-person, feet-on-the-ground sales forces are finding new life.

Blame complexity. The choices advertisers now have are endless. Top-tier advertisers are served by such specialized teams as the FT’s “strategic sales” unit. The group works matches the complexity of FT’s analytics-fueled approaches to marketing with advertiser needs.

At the other end of the spectrum, the burgeoning marketing services business (“The newsonomics of selling Main Street”) is bringing these new approaches to smaller, local businesses. The Star Tribune’s Jeff Grilling, a major proponent of the marketing services business, has already learned some lessons from his company’s Radius marketing services foray.

“I’m finding more similarities than less, to our traditional sales approach. I’m finding that we are only as good as our sales people and the relationship they create, and that many small business customers have been approached by some sort of digital solutions vendor in the last few years. Make no mistake, there is no easy money in the SMB digital solutions business — it is very competitive and customers have are typically skeptical because of weak solutions they’ve experienced by other vendors in previous years. So if it’s a quick and easy revenue stream that a media company is looking for, I would look at options other than SMB digital solutions. I do still believe, however, that if your intention is to genuinely help local businesses grow, and you have the stomach for investment, strategy, execution, and patience, SMB digital solutions can be a viable product line.”

That tells you how long a haul this digital transition remains, and how many twists and turns even the innovators must endure.

Photo by NJR ZA used under a Creative Commons license.

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.

May 23 2013

16:33

The newsonomics of value exchange and Google Surveys

whittier-daily-news-google-survey-paywall

What happens when a reader hits the paywall?

Only a small percentage slap their foreheads, say “Why didn’t I subscribe earlier?” and pay up. Most go away; some will come back next month when the meter resets. A few will then subscribe; others just go elsewhere.

So what if there were a way to capture some value from those non-subscribing paywall hitters — people who plainly have some affinity for a certain news site but aren’t willing to pay?

Welcome to the emerging world of value exchange. It’s not a new idea; value exchange has been used in the gaming world for a long time. As the Zyngas have figured out, only a small percentage of people will pay to play games. So they’ve long used interactive ads, quizzes, surveys, and more as ways to wring some revenue out of those non-payers.

It’s a variation on the an old saw that says much of life boils down to two things: money and time. It also brings to mind the classic Jack Benny radio routine, “Your Money or Your Life.” If people won’t pay for media with currency, many are willing to trade their time.

Now the idea is arriving at publishers’ doorsteps. It is being tested mainly, but not exclusively, as a paywall alternative. Yet, as we’ll see it, there may be many other innovative uses of time-based payment.

In part, this is part of the digital generational shift we might call “beyond the banner.” Static, smaller-display advertising is increasingly out of favor, with both prices and clickthrough rates moving deeper into the bargain basement. But marketers want to market, readers want to read, and viewers want to watch, so new methods that combine the marketing of brands and offers and the go-button on media consumption are au courant.

That’s where value exchange fits. Publishers are seeing double-digit, $10-$19 CPM rates from value exchange, and that’s more than many average for their online advertising. Annual revenues in the significant six figures are now flowing in to the companies that have gotten in early on the business.

The big player in publisher-oriented value exchange is Google Consumer Surveys (GCS), a year-old brainchild born out of the Google’s 20-percent-free-time-for-employees program (and first written about here at Nieman Lab). GCS now claims more than 200 publisher partners, including the L.A. Times, Bloomberg, and McClatchy properties. It says it has so far exposed some 500 million survey “prompts” to readers.

GCS will soon have more company in the value exchange game. Companies like Berlin-based SponsorPay, which offers interactive ad experiences in exchange for access mainly to games, is beginning to pursue publisher possibilities, both in Europe and the U.S, where half of its current clients are based. SponsorPay emphasizes mobile and social in its business.

L.A.-based SocialVibe, newly headed by hard-charging CEO Joe Marchese, is an ad tech company. It’s mainly oriented to non-newspaper media, especially TV companies.

How does this value exchange exactly work? Typical is the implementation at one smaller paper, the Whittier Daily News in the L.A. area., one of some 35 Digital First Media papers (both MediaNews and Journal Register brands) that have deployed GCS almost since its inception. Upon reading their 10th, and last, free metered article of the month, readers get a choice: buy a sub for 99 cents for the first month — or take a survey. “Do you own a cat?” for instance.

Publishers get a nickel for each completed response. Response rates tend to fall between 10 and 20 percent. “Completion rates” improve by targeting specific questions to specific audiences. The nickels add up.

For publishers, then, we have a new acronym: PAM, Paywall Alternative Monetization.

Consider the innovation a by-product of the paywall revolution. If you haven’t created a barrier to free access, you have less leverage to force wannabe readers to choose the lesser of two choices to proceed with their reading. Now, publishers can say, pay me for access with money — or with time. The time is short — measured in seconds or maybe minutes, depending on a video’s length or a survey’s questions.

What does the consumer get for answering a question? It varies. Respondents can get as little as a single “free” article, or an hour, or a day of access.

These programs can offer side-by-side offers. For instance, someone like a Press+ (which now powers some 380 newspaper sites) may power a subscription offer in one box, and Google Surveys or a SocialVibe can offer up an alternative in a neighboring one.

Digital First Media, long a public skeptic of paywalls, is using value exchange as an adjunct to its paywalls, many of which were deployed before DFM took over management of the MediaNews papers. While it is using it successfully as a paywall alternative, says Digital First Ventures managing director Arturo Duran, it’s also finding a couple of other ways to wring money out of surveys.

At many of its digital properties, including The Denver Post, its photo- and video-heavy Media Center hub offers Google surveys as speed bumps for continued access. Readers perceive value; enough of them are willing to pay with a few seconds of time to keep getting access to visuals. Similarly, Boston.com’s The Big Picture “news stories in photographs” uses GCS.

This approach, putting up a speed bump — in the form of a survey — instead of paywall explores the nuances of differing consumer valuation of differing parts of news sites. The Texas Tribune has offered a similar approach, having used Google surveys on its extensive data section. How often a survey is deployed can be adjusted by the publisher, working with Google, to maximize both revenue and reduce traffic lost. The search here is for the magic sweet spots.

The Christian Science Monitor is also an earlier surveys adopter. “We don’t have a paywall,” says online director David Clark Scott. “So we tried an experimental speed bump.” Those bumps were installed first on a single section, and now have grown, popping up on much of the site. One CSM twist: If you come to the site directly, you won’t see the surveys. If you come via some search, social, or other referrals, you will.

Digital First is also testing survey deployment for a group notoriously hard for the news industry to monetize: international readers. “We can’t sell [ads] in Kenya, Japan, and India,” says Duran. Instead of fetching bottom-of-the-ad-network prices, as low as 25 cents, surveys can return money in the whole dollars. One lesson so far: “It’s a much better experience than an ad,” for many readers, says Duran.

Publishers are also finding other ways to get readers to “pay.” At the Newton (Iowa) Daily News, the paywall also provides these two alternatives: answer a survey question or a share an article (via Twitter, Facebook, or Google+) in exchange for continued passage.

“It wasn’t about market research at all — it was about trading time for content,” says Paul McDonald, head of Google Consumer Surveys. McDonald, who developed the product along with engineer Brett Slatkin, says they tested out what people would most likely be willing to do, in exchange for some good. They tested a million impressions at The Huffington Post and found that question-answering was the most likable activity. Hence, Google Consumer Surveys.

“Most research is stuck in old ways — paper, email, and phone. It’s a stagnant industry, ” McDonald says. The industry, of course, has responded, offering its own critique of GCS’ rapid-fire — surveys can be commissioned and deployed within a day, with complete results, broken down by customized demographics (at an extra cost to survey buyers) within 48 hours — disruption of the market survey space. Still, industry reaction is more than mixed, with the positives of Google’s new technique winning adherents among bigger brands and smaller businesses. It’s a self-service buying technique, borrowing from Google’s flagship AdWords model.

Interestingly, Google itself is using Surveys to obtain consumer insight. Yes, the company that derives more data from our clicks than anyone still finds asking a human being a question can yield unexpected learning — which, of course, can be combined with clickstream analytics. YouTube is among the many GCS deployers.

It’s a new frontier, and one that I think offers a number of curious potentials.

  • At scale, if there is scale to the business, it’s about significant new sources of revenue.
  • As a paywall alternative, it may be a detour that leads back to the road to subscription. If a reader is engaged enough with a news brand over time — kept engaged in part through value exchange — maybe he or she will eventually subscribe. Does a value exchange-using customer have a higher likelihood of subscribing in the future? It’s too early to know, but we may have soon have sufficient data to see.
  • Value exchange could expand the ability to gain customer data. Each time someone trades some time for reading, she or he could be asked for an additional piece of profiling information. Essentially “registered,” that new customer becomes more targetable for subscription offers or advertising.
  • We can start to widen the idea of trading time for access. Remember the idea of the “reverse paywall,” espoused by then-Washington Post managing editor Raju Narisetti and Jeff Jarvis? Spend enough time with a news product, and get rewarded, they proposed. Value exchange begins to structure that kind of relationship, providing value both to readers and publishers. Rough equalization of value would be a painful process, but it may be doable through much experimentation.
  • Let’s combine two things: the rise of mobile traffic and value exchange. Mobile may not be ad-friendly, but customers might be far more willing to watch a video or touch through a quick questionnaire on a cell phone — and that can ring a different key on the digital cash register. “Mobile is already more diversified,” says SponsorPay CEO Andreas Bodczek, explaining that it is moving beyond gaming companies for value exchange and will soon include publishers.
  • GCS is an easily deployable tool for small- and medium-sized businesses. As such, it could be an interesting add-on for publishers’ emerging marketing services businesses (“The newsonomics of selling Main Street”). That’s a line Google could allow newspaper companies to resell, just as many resell Google paid search.

May 22 2013

17:54

Who’s reusing the news?

Derek Willis, interactive news developer for The New York Times, wrote a blog post about a different way to use analytics. Willis says he’s interested in tracking and mapping who is citing and quoting the work of major news outlets (like The New York Times).

The idea behind linkypedia is that links on Wikipedia aren’t just references, they help describe how digital collections are used on the Web, and encourage the spread of knowledge: “if organizations can see how their web content is being used in Wikipedia, they will be encouraged and emboldened to do more.” When I first saw it, I immediately thought about how New York Times content was being cited on Wikipedia. Because it’s an open source project, I was able to find out, and it turned out (at least back then) that many Civil War-era stories that had been digitized were linked to from the site. I had no idea, and wondered how many of my colleagues knew. Then I wondered what else we didn’t know about how our content is being used outside the friendly confines of nytimes.com.

That’s the thread that leads from Linkypedia to TweetRewrite, my “analytics” hack that takes a nytimes.com URL and feeds tweets that aren’t simply automatic retweets; it tries to filter out posts that contain the exact headline of the story to find what people say about it. It’s a pretty simple Ruby app that uses Sinatra, the Twitter and Bitly gems and a library I wrote to pull details about a story from the Times Newswire API.

May 20 2013

16:00

Isolating the elements of compelling graphic design

What kind of response do we want readers to have? When you build an informative and elegant visualization, how are you hoping they’ll react?

These are questions that Amanda Cox of The New York Times’ graphics desk asks herself on a regular basis. In a recent analysis of their popularity on social media, Cox tried to locate what makes a graphic popular.

1. “development.really.hard”
2. “big.breaking.news.big.breaking.news.adjacent”
3. “useful”
4. “explicitly.emotional…atmospheric”
5. “surprise.reveal”
6. “comprehensive”

Unsurprisingly “difficult” topics — mostly related to war, violence, climate change, and other highly complex issues — performed least well, but “takeaway” pieces with an obvious message also performed poorly as a class. In contrast, visualizations that requires extensive technical resources tended to perform particularly well, as did features Cox classed as emotional and useful — and, of course, those closely tied to breaking news.

In the wrap-up of her analysis, Cox considered the problem of indicating importance to the paper’s readership across platforms: “How do you signal that something is important? You do that by using the resource that is scarce.” In print, the Times can use scarcity to indicate importance by giving an important graphic a desirable spot on a “good page.” On the web, the equivalent scarce resource isn’t placement, but the allocation of valuable internal tech/development hours.

May 15 2013

12:20

The newsonomics of where NewsRight went wrong

newsright-wide

Quietly, very quietly, NewsRight — once touted as the American newspaper industry’s bid to protect its content and make more money from it — has closed its doors.

Yesterday, it conducted a concluding board meeting, aimed at tying up loose ends. That meeting follows the issuing of a put-your-best-face-on-it press release two weeks ago. Though the news has been out there, hardly a whimper was heard.

Why?

Chalk it up, first, to how few people are really still covering the $38.6 billion U.S. newspaper industry. Then add in the fact that the world is changing rapidly. Piracy protection has declined as a top publisher concern. Google’s snippetization of the news universe is bothersome, but less of a central issue. The declining relative value of the desktop web — where NewsRight was primarily aimed — in the mobile age played a part. Non-industry-owned players like NewsCred (“The newsonomics of recycling journalism”) have been born, offering publishers revenue streams similar to those that NewsRight itself was intended to create.

Further, new ways to value news content — through all-access subscriptions and app-based delivery, content marketing, marketing services, innovative niching and more — have all emerged in the last couple of years.

Put a positive spin on it, and the U.S. newspaper industry is looking forward, rather than backward, as it seeks to find new ways to grow reader and ad revenues.

That’s all true. But it’s also instructive to consider the failure of NewsRight.

It’s easy to deride it as NewsWrong. It’s one of those enterprises that may just have been born under a bad sign. Instead of the stars converging, they collided.

NewsRight emerged as an Associated Press incubator project. If you recall the old AP News Registry and its “beacon,” NewsRight became its next iteration. It was intended to track news content as it traversed the web, detecting piracy along the way (“Remember the beacon”). It was an ambitious databasing project, at its peak taking in feeds from more than 900 news sites. The idea: create the largest database of current news content in the country, both categorized by topic and increasingly trackable as it was used (or misused) on the web.

AP initially incentivized member newspapers to contribute to the News Registry by discounting some of their annual fees. Then a bigger initiative emerged, first called the News Licensing Group (NLG). The strategy: harness the power of the growing registry to better monetize newspaper content through smart licensing.

NLG grew into a separate company, with AP contributing the registry’s intellectual property and becoming one of 29 partners. The other 28: U.S. daily newspaper companies and the leading European newspaper and magazine publisher Axel Springer. Those partners collectively committed more than $20 million — though they ended up spending only something more than half of that before locking up the premises.

Renamed NewsRight, it was an industry consortium, and here a truism applies: It’s tougher for a consortium — as much aimed at defense than offense — to innovate and adjust quickly. Or, to put it in vaudevillian terms: Dying is easy — making decisions among 29 newspaper companies can be torture.

It formally launched just more than a year ago, in January 2012 (“NewsRight’s potential: New content packages, niche audiences, and revenue”), and the issues surfaced immediately. Let’s count the top three:

  • Its strategy was muddled. Was it primarily a content-protection play, bent on challenging piracy and misuse? Or was it a way to license one of the largest collections of categorized news content? Which way did it want to go? Instead of deciding between the two, it straddled both.
  • In May 2011, seven months before the launch, the board had picked TV veteran David Westin as its first CEO. Formerly head of ABC News, he seemed an odd fit from the beginning. A TV guy in a text world. An analog guy in a digital world. Then friction between Westin and those who had hired him — including then-AP CEO Tom Curley — only complicated the strategic indecision. Westin was let go in July, which I noted then, was the beginning of the end.
  • Publishers’ own interests were too tough to balance with the common good. Though both The New York Times Company and AP were owners, it was problematic to include feeds of the Times and AP in the main NewsRight “catalog.” The partners tried to find prices suitable for the high-value national content (including the Times and AP) and the somewhat lesser-valued regional content, but that exercise proved difficult, the difficulty of execution exacerbated by anti-trust laws. Potential customers, of course, wanted the Times and AP as part of any deal, so dealmaking was hampered.

Further, all publishers take in steady revenue streams — collectively in the tens of millions — from enterprise licensors, like LexisNexis, Factiva, and Thomson Reuters, as well as education and copyright markets. NewsRight’s owners (the newspaper companies) didn’t want NewsRight to get in the way of those revenue streams — and those were the only licensing streams that had proven lucrative over time.

Long story short, NewsRight was hobbled from the beginning, and in its brief life, was able to announce only two significant customer, Moreover and Cision, and several smaller ones.

How could it have been so difficult?

It’s understandable on one level. Publishers have seethed with rage as they’ve seen their substantial investment in newsrooms harvested — for nothing — by many aggregators from Google to the tens of thousands of websites that actually steal full-text content. Those sites all monetize the content with advertising, and, save a few licensing agreements (notably with AP itself), they share little in the way of ad revenue.

But rage — whether seething or public — isn’t a business model.

Anti-piracy, itself, has also proven not to be much of a business model. Witness the tribulations of Attributor, an AP-invested-in content-tracking service that used some pretty good technology to track pirated content. It couldn’t get the big ad providers to act on piracy, though. Last year, after pointing its business in the direction of book industry digital rights management, it was sold for a meager $5.6 million to Digimarc.

So if anti-piracy couldn’t wasn’t much of a business model, then the question turned to who would pay to license NewsRight’s feed of all that content, or subsets of it?

Given that owner-publishers wanted to protect their existing licensing streams, NewsRight turned its sights to an area that had not well-monetized: media monitoring.

Media monitoring is a storied field. When I did content syndication for Knight Ridder at the turn of the century, I was lucky enough to visit Burrelles (now BurrellesLuce) in Livingston, New Jersey. In addition to a great auto tour of Tony Soprano country, I got to visit the company in the midst of transition.

In one office, older men with actual green eyeshades meticulously clipped periodicals (with scissors), monitoring company mentions in the press. The company then took the clips and mailed them. That’s a business that sustained many a press agent for many a decade: “Look, see the press we got ya!”

In Burrelles’ back rooms, the new digital monitoring of press mention was beginning to take form. Today, media monitoring is a good, if mature, industry segment, dominated by companies like Cision, BurrellesLuce, and Vocus, as social media monitoring and sentiment analysis both widen and complicate the field. Figure there are more than a hundred media monitoring companies of note.

Yet even within the relatively slim segment of the media monitoring space, NewsRight couldn’t get enough traction fast enough. Its ability to grow revenues there — and then to pivot into newer areas like mobile aggregation and content marketing — ran into the frustrations of the owner-newspapers. So they pulled the plug, spending less than they had actually committed. They decided to cut their losses, and move on.

Moving on meant making NewsRight’s last deal. The company — which has let go its fewer than 10 employees — announced that it had “joined forces” with BurrellesLuce and Moreover. It’s a face-saver — and maybe more.

Those two companies will try to extend media monitoring contracts for newspaper companies. BurrellesLuce (handling licensing and aggregation) and Moreover (handling billing and tracking) will make content available under the NewsRight name. The partnership’s new CAP (Compliant Article Program) seeks to further contracting for digital media monitoring rights, a murky legal area. If CAP works, publishers, Moreover, and BurrellesLuce will share in the new revenue.

What about NewsRight’s anti-piracy mandate? That advocacy position transitions over to the Newspaper Association of America.

NAA is itself in the process of being restyled into a new industry hub (with its merger and more) under new CEO Caroline Little. “As both guardian and evangelist for the newspaper industry, the NAA feels a tremendous responsibility to protect original content generated by its members,” noted Little in the NewsRight release.

What about the 1,000-title content database, the former AP registry that had formed the nucleus of NewsRight? It’s in limbo, and isn’t part of the BurrellesLuce/Moreover turnover. Its categorization technology has had stumbles and overall the system needs an upgrade.

There’s a big irony here.

In 2013, we’re seeing more innovative use of news content than we have in a long time. From NewsCred’s innovative aggregation model to Flipboard’s DIY news magazines, from new content marketing initiatives at The New York Times, Washington Post, Buzzfeed, and Forbes to regional agency businesses like The Dallas Morning News’ Speakeasy, there are many new ways news content is being monetized.

We’re really in the midst of a new content re-evaluation. No one makes the mistake this time around of calling news content king, but its value is being reproven amid these fledgling strategies.

Maybe the advent of a NewsCred — which plainly better understood and better built technology to value a new kind of content aggregation — makes NewsRight redundant. That’s in a sense what the partners decided: let the staffs of BurrellesLuce and Moreover and smarts of the NewsCreds make sense of whatever newer licensing markets are out there. Let them give the would-be buyers what they want: a licensing process to be as simple as it can be. One-stop, one-click, or as close as you can manage to that. While the disbanding of NewsRight seems to take the news industry in the opposite, more atomized, direction, in one way, it may be the third-party players who succeed here.

So is it that NewsRight is ending with a whimper, or maybe a sigh of relief? Both, plainly. It’s telling that no one at NewsRight was either willing or able to talk about the shutdown.

Thumbs down to content consortia. Thumbs up to letting the freer market of entrepreneurs make sense of the content landscape, with publishers getting paid something for what the companies still know how to do: produce highly valued content.

April 04 2013

12:47

April 01 2013

18:15

Shaping technology to the story: The Brown Institute for Media Innovation is finding its niche

The Brown Institute for Media Innovation just began accepting applications from students or alumni of Columbia and Stanford for its second round of Magic Grants. Helen Gurley Brown made headlines last year when she donated $30 million jointly to Columbia and Stanford to found the Brown Institute for Media Innovation, a bicoastal effort toward helping students build “usable tools” for the proliferation of “great content.”

The idea was that combining the engineering prowess of Stanford students with the journalistic know-how of Columbia students would propel innovation in the news industry. To that end, Columbia would construct a $6 million state-of-the-art newsroom within its j-school building (now under construction), and the institute would offer serious grant money — up to $150,000 per team, or $300,000 if it features members from both schools — for projects. Its next batch of Magic Grantees — due to be announced at the end of May — will go a long way toward further defining what a direct collaboration between computer science and journalism can produce.

The quest for personalized TV

The first three Magic Grants were awarded last June. Connecting the Dots is a project by two Stanford students dedicated to drawing out large, complex, data-heavy news stories through logic mapping, similar to the way that metropolitan transit maps simplify networks of trains and busses. Dispatch, a joint startup that already has an app for sale through Apple, helps journalists in crisis scenarios conceal their identities while publishing via mobile device.

The largest team belongs to the third winner, EigenNews — 10 members from both campuses combined. The idea: personalized television, built around a playlist of of national news clips based on the user’s selected preferences (by both category and by show) and by viewing behavior and user voting. (You can sign up and get a daily email update from EigenNews — it works pretty well.)

eigennews-screenshot

The design is meant to provide the user up-to-the-minute broadcast news while filtering out certain types of stories, but to maintain a sense of immediacy, some current very popular current stories make the playlist no matter what. “The playlist strikes a balance between presenting the most important stories currently and those stories that might be of particular interest to you,” wrote Stanford-based team member David Chen in an email. “For the second factor to be more evident, the user’s view history has to contain a sufficient number of samples.” As the project’s description puts it:

We forecast that next-generation video news consumption will be more personalized, device agnostic, and pooled from many different information sources. The technology for our project represents a major step in this direction, providing each viewer with a personalized newscast with stories that matter most to them…

Our personalized news platform will analyze readily available user data, such as recent viewing history and social media profiles. Suppose the viewer has recently watched the Republican presidential candidates debate held in Arizona, an interview with a candidate’s campaign manager, and another interview with the candidate himself. The debate and the candidate’s interview are “liked” by the viewer and several friends on Facebook. This evidence points to a high likelihood that a future video story about the Republican presidential race will interest the viewer. The user’s personalized news stream will feature high-quality, highly-relevant stories from multiple channels that cover the latest developments in the presidential race.

Chen said the EigenNews team wants to incorporate more sharability in the future — currently, you can generate a link by click a button on the player, but they hope to add comments soon. He also said they’re looking toward a future model that would incorporate more local coverage and user-generated video content.

“Seeing situations where the journalism is leading”

Mark Hansen, who was appointed director of the Columbia side of the Brown Institute last fall, says he imagines some form of the EigenNews project will probably live on. “That work is work that Bernd [Girod, his Stanford counterpart] does as part of his research program, so my guess would be that some part of that work will be funded consistently.” Hansen will be overseeing the administration of the second round of funding. Coming from the Center for Embedded Networked Sensing at UCLA, where he gradually began to realize the implications of data journalism, he is a blend of journalist and statistician.

“Over the course of my ten years at UCLA, the Center shifted…to more participatory systems, where we were encouraging the public to get involved with data collection. As we started working with community groups, as we started reaching out to high schools, the character of the enterprise changed,” he says. While sensor networks are opening up the power of public data, coordinating the gathering, calibration, analysis, and dissemination of that information is no small order. Hansen says that realization has honed his understanding of the important role that journalists play. His students learn to code — not just how to work with engineers who code — but what he’s most interested in are projects whose genesis is a journalistic question, not a technological advancement.

“I’m interested in seeing situations where the journalism is leading. Where there’s some story that needs to be told, or some aspect of a story that can’t be told with existing technology, but then drives the creation of a new technology,” he said. “As opposed to, ‘Look, we made tablets — okay, now you guys tell stories around tablets.’”

Since moving to Columbia, Hansen has had ample opportunity to observe the interplay of hard science and journalistic practice. He teaches a course on computational journalism, and he says the transition from teaching statisticians to journalism students has been enlightening. “When you teach a statistician about means, for example, their comment on the data will end with ‘The mean is 5.’ The journalist will say: ‘The mean is 5, which means, compared to this other country, or five countries, or other neighborhood…’ The journalists will go from the output of the method to the world. They contextualize, they tell stories — Emily Bell calls this narrative imagination — and they are hungrier than any other students I have ever worked with.”

Hansen plans to use the resources of the Brown Institute to recreate the open dialogue and experimentation of the classroom, in hopes of uncovering ideas for projects and prototypes to receive Magic Grant funding. “I’m usually the one writing the grants, not the one giving them away,” he joked. To that end, he’s been in conversation with industry professionals from the likes of ProPublica, The New York Times and Thomson Reuters, trying to figure out “what the interesting questions are,” he says. Defining what Brown can do that is distinct from the other institutes, labs, and other entities in the space is a top priority.

Organizing hackathons and other collaborative events is another route Hansen wants to explore. He is interested in a hackathon model with more concrete pedagogical objectives than the typical open-ended approach. The Brown Institute has already hosted a data hackathon, as well as a conference Hansen calls a “research threeway,” after the three sectors he aims to bring together — journalism, technology, and “opportunity” (that is, funding). Mixing speakers with journalism, media, and engineering backgrounds resulted in a “beautiful collision of language,” he said, and some intriguing ideas.

“There was a nice conversation around serendipity, especially as it connects to large data sets. I think often times we fall back on a kind of search metaphor where we are constantly googling something. If we don’t know what it is we’re looking for, how do we activate an archive, how do we activate a data set? How do you engineer serendipity?”

Building a space

Meanwhile, Hansen has also been overseeing some engineering in a more concrete sense. He hopes to unveil the Brown Institute’s newsroom by summer 2014, a two-story facility which he says draws inspiration from both traditional newsrooms and the “large, open, reconfigurable workspace” that we associate with startups and tech incubators. The space will feature a mezzanine, transparent conference rooms, and shared workspaces called “garages.” It’ll be a wireless office space with flat panel displays and a number of projectors, shared by Brown grantees, fellows, and faculty. “Emily Bell will be teaching a class on the sensor newsroom, a kind of pop-up newsroom,” Hansen says, “and that space will be the perfect space to try out the ideas that are coming out of that class.”

Hansen says one of the most rewarding parts of his directorship so far was having the chance to share the plans for the newsroom with donor Helen Gurley Brown just before she passed away last August. Both the architects and the web designers for the Institute’s new website were told to use the creative output of Brown and her husband, film producer David Brown, as a design compass. As a result, the website will feature a rotating color palette, updated on a monthly basis to reflect covers from Cosmopolitan magazine throughout Brown’s career.

Running a bicoastal institute is not without its challenges, and the hope is that the new space in New York and a newly unified website should help to deal with those. Stanford grantees and fellows don’t have a centralized office space like their New York counterparts, but travel costs are covered by Magic Grants for bicoastal projects and regular project reviews.

Still, Hansen says figuring out how to operate as one entity has been challenging. “Not only is [Stanford] 3,000 miles away, and not only is it two different disciplines,” he says, “but it’s also the quarter system and the semester system, and three hours’ [time] difference — every little thing you could imagine is different is different.” In addition, engineering grad students study for four to five years, while Columbia’s main graduate journalism program is only one year long. To allow the journalism students equal opportunity to participate, they’ll be eligible to apply for Magic Grants as part of an additional, second year. Says Hansen: “We’re doing what we can to make it feel like a cohesive whole.”

The Brown Institute is also invested in ensuring that, when it funds successful projects, they have the opportunity to live on. While grant winners can apply for a second year of funding, Hansen is also focused on communicating with private investors, companies, and other foundations. He’s particularly excited about the potential addition of computational journalism to the National Science Foundation‘s official subfields, which would open up significant additional funding for Brown Institute alums.

“It does really feel like a great moment to be thinking about technology and storytelling, technology and journalism,” Hansen says. But in addition to using technology to propel the journalism industry into the future, he takes cues from the memory of the Browns, and hopes to shape the Institute into something that reflects them both.

“Helen and David were showmen, if you will,” Hansen says. “They really understood audiences and how to tell a good story.”

14:18

Not an April Fool’s joke: The New York Times has built a haiku bot

timeshaiku2

New York Times senior software architect Jacob Harris has a thing for robots and wordplay. You may recall he’s the guy behind @nytimes_ebooks, the Times answer to the elusive and inscrutable Twitter bot @Horse_ebooks.

So it’s only natural that Harris has now created an algorithm that extrudes haiku out of the text of Times stories. In other words:

Haiku harvester
built inside The New York Times —
does it have a soul?

(If my eighth grade English teacher is reading this. Sorry.)

Here’s a better, more Times-y example:

timeshaiku1

Times Haiku is a collection of what they are calling “serendipitous poetry,” derived from stories that have made the homepage of NYTimes.com. The haiku live on a Tumblr hosted by the Times. Harris built a script that mines stories for haiku-friendly words and then reassembles them into poetry. (For those of you that may have zoned out in class, haiku are comprised of three lines with, in order, five, seven, and five syllables.) The code checks words against an open source pronunciation dictionary, which handily also contains syllable counts.

“Sometimes it can be an ordinary sentence in context, but pulled out of context it has a strange comedy or beauty to it,” Harris said.

Harris was inspired by Haikuleaks, a similar project that found poetry in the cache of diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks in 2010. The backbone of that project was an open source program called Haiku Finder, which crawls through text to generate haiku. The program was built in Python; Harris made his own version in Ruby on Rails.

The result, much like @nytimes_ebooks, is bizarre, quirky, and kind of zen. The haiku have a strange way of getting at the heart of a story, or teasing out interesting fragments from an article. “There’s something appealing about finding these snippets of text, these turns of phrase and pulling them out,” Harris said. “You find it compelling and it drives you to read the article that it came from.” (Think of it as a more lexicographically strict version of Paul Ford’s SavePublishing.)

In its own poetic way, Times Haiku will be another access point for Times stories, said Marc Lavallee, assistant editor for interactive gnus at the Times. “If someone sees the site, or the image of an individual haiku and shares it on Tumblr, and it gets them to think about who we are and what we do, or gives them a moment of pause, I think we’ve succeeded in a way,” Lavallee said.

Lexi Mainland, social media editor for the Times, said they wanted the poems to be able to stand on their own and be readily sharable. That’s why the haiku are actually images, which fits well with the aesthetic of Tumblr, she said. Outside of Tumblr, the Times will promote the haiku through the paper’s flagship Twitter account.

That the Times has the ability to build a haiku bot isn’t surprising. But why build a haiku bot? “A lot of the projects we work on here are these incredibly big heaves, which are very, very gratifying,” said Mainland. “But you crave these smaller projects, which are just as valuable.” Similarly, projects like the haiku bot may seem silly on the surface, but the underlying code, the use of natural language processing, or other components could be valuable to future projects, Lavallee said.

It helps that the project came at little expense to the Times — Harris put it together on his own during a fit of post-election letdown. Harris had been working on projects connected to the presidential race for over a year, and after election day suddenly found himself with idle hands. He wrote the code in November and began monitoring what it was spitting out. After showing it to Mainland, Lavallee, and other editors, they gave the project a green light. Designer Heena Ko and software developer Anjali Bhojani gave the haiku their distinctive appearance for Tumblr. (Those lines you see running askew of the text of the haiku? The length is computer generated, based on the meter of the first line of text.)

As whimsical as a haiku bot or a spammy-sounding Twitter bot might be, both are efforts to find new uses for the Times’ vast collection of work. “It’s just this large corpus of text that gets very dizzing to look through,” Harris said.

The Times may also have a soft spot for artwork inspired by the written word. Anyone who has visited the lobby of The New York Times Building has likely seen Moveable Type, an algorithm-backed art installation that displays fragments of Times content across 560 display screens.

But why poetry? For starters, today is the first day of National Poetry Month, Mainland said. (Today is also April Fool’s — and if you were wondering, this is not a joke.) Still, for lovers of verse, it may sound like a cold and bloodless way to create poetry. Can you really create poetry without a soul? Do robots have feelings? Can they really see a sunset, or be moved by the sounds of a whale songs CD?

Harris admits the bot is imperfect; it’s required a little teaching along the way. One reason he limited the scope to the front page was because it provides an editor-picked selection, which tends to be richer features and important daily fare. (Running the bot on the Times Wire, Harris said he often got haiku made up of basketball scores, which may be too esoteric for any lit major or stat nerd.) The algorithm is designed to toss haiku with certain sentence constructions (sentences that start with a preposition, for instance) or from sensitive stories. Mainland, Lavallee, and Harris also keep an eye on the haiku being created to see if anything untoward sneaks through.

But Harris also has to do some syllable counting himself, teaching the bot words that appear in the Times (“Rihanna,” for instance) that it doesn’t know. Henry Higgins would be proud.

March 29 2013

12:50

September 02 2012

09:39

What The New York Times should do next: Membership

Niemanlab :: To be sustainable past print’s lifespan, Rex Sorgatz argues, the New York Times will have to build more meaning and more value into a membership program.

A report by Rex Sorgatz, www.niemanlab.org

September 01 2012

15:33

BetaBeat: Anonymous puts the New York Times on notice with #OpNYT

BetaBeat :: Anonymous has pretty much had all it can take of The New York Times’s bullshit and it’s not going to take it anymore. That’s the upshot of this “Anonymous Declaration of #OpNYT” posted on Pastebin sometime late yesterday. #OpNYT certainly sounds ominous, but as Gawker’s Adrian Chen noted in a tweet, “Anonymous’ press releases get somehow get longer-winded every time.”

A report by Steve Huff, betabeat.com

Discussed here as well "Anonymous Leaks Secret New York Times Correspondences That Reveal Reporters’ Shocking Competence" written by Adrian Chen, gawker.com

August 30 2012

15:02

The newsonomics of leapfrog news video

Our political conventions reminds us that this is not the summer of love. But it may be the season we’ll remember as the summer of video.

Certainly, video’s — news video’s — growth has been noteworthy for awhile. But now there’s a bursting of new news video forms, a hothouse of experimentation that is both refreshing and intriguing. The blossoming has implications far and wide, not just for “news,” but for tech companies like Facebook and television brands from Ellen to Piers to The View. Within it, we see the capability of non-TV companies to leapfrog the TV people.

Just Monday, both The Wall Street Journal (“The Wall Street Journal wants its reporters filing microvideo updates for its new WorldStream”) and The New York Times made video announcements. A couple of weeks ago, the ambitious Huffington Post Live launched, hiring the almost unbelievable number of 104 staffers. In these three forays, and in the thinking in and around them, we see the boundaries of old media being slowly broken. We’re on the edge, finally, of new ways to both create and present news — and how to talk about the news.

It’s funny: “Video,” as a term, as a category, barely defines what we’re seeing. All video means is moving pictures, and we’ve had those since George Méliès (as Martin Scorcese reinterpreted in Hugo). We’ve known broadcast news and then cable news, witnessed their triumphs and now the declines of both. Because of twin technologies — all the iGadgets reintroducing us to the world as we know it and the behind-the-scenes digital pipes making content creation and distribution increasingly seamless — we’re seeing what creative people can do with moving pictures.

While this week’s Journal’s announcement focused on WorldStream, that semi-raw feed (all staff contributions are okayed one-by-one for public view) is but one of the full handful of Journal experiments with video.

Watch video now better embedded into stories (as the Times also has done with QuickLinks). Get appointment programs on WSJ Live (“The newsonomics of WSJ Live”). Watch on demand, in a variety of formats. Go directly to a video page, where all of the video output is categorized. And now, WorldStream, that rawish feed the Journal is doing, because it can — and because such video becomes great bait for the social web. Pick up the url, tweet it, and the Journal has happened on a social video strategy that is curiously akin to Upworthy’s.

It’s a multi-point access world for video producers. The Times will tell you that its viewing is roughly divided in thirds among its video center, its homepage video player and embedded-within-stories video. The Journal says more than half its views are now coming from embedded videos, with less than five percent of its views come from its video page. It makes sense that “video center” usage will decrease over time; these are transitional pages. Convergence is now becoming real, and we expect to see the content, text, voice, and pictures delivered in context. Finally. We don’t go to a place on sites called “Words.”

What’s most important about we’re seeing flickering before our eyes? Try these, as we look at the newsonomics of leapfrog news video.

  • It’s about money. Video advertising rates are holding up far better than display-around-text rates. “Give me inventory” is a cry heard from the salespeople, who find agencies and top advertisers’ pre-roll appetites nowhere near satiated. For top premium brands, $45-60 CPM (cost per thousand views) are still available, as display rates fetch as little as a tenth and as much as one-half of those numbers. In addition, companies are selling video packages and sponsored tile ads in addition to pre-rolls to sweeten their take. So production of video makes financial sense — even as news companies cut back, lay off, and pinch, pinch, pinch. The smarter companies are investing in video — staffers, training, technologies — even as they make those cuts, while other companies find themselves just stuck. Video is the second-fastest growing ad category in the U.S., according to IAB, up 29 percent year-over-year. It will be worth about $2 billion this year.
  • It’s about platforms. The Journal’s Alan Murray, who heads digital news efforts, says the company’s video traffic has doubled in six months. Why? It’s not mainly because of more use on Journal platforms, even though it’s been an innovator on the tablet. Most of that growth comes from the deals the Journal has done with an astonishing 26 “platforms.” They range from the ubiquitous iPad and Kindle to lesser known 5Min and LiveStation.1 By way of comparison, The New York Times is currently using three (Hulu, Google TV, YouTube).
  • It’s about technologies. The Times and the Washington Post have been using Google + Hangout, to facilitate conversation, and we’ve seen the fruits this week at the Republican Convention. As well-described by The Daily Beast’s Lauren Ashburn, Google Hangouts are a major, disruptive force; “no longer needed are satellite trucks or underground cables to beam talking heads to people’s living rooms. A simple Internet connection and a camera are rendering expensive gadgets obsolete.” The Journal is touting Tout, a Silicon Valley start-up that has taken much of the “friction” out of the business of video production. “Make it drop dead simple,” CEO Michael Downing says is his goal. That means taking the background tasks of uploading smartphone video from the field, “transcoding” it and then translating it to work in all the various formats (devices, screen sizes, operating sizes). That removes the work from media companies, and lets them focus on content and audience. In addition to the Journal, broadcasters including CNN, CBS, and ESPN have become customers.
  • It’s apparently not about appointment TV. HuffPo’s Live is the most interesting here. While it has 10 telegenic anchor/producer/hosts, those hosts don’t have standard daily program times. Segments will last between 12 and 35 minutes (most average 20-25), HuffPost Live president Roy Sekoff told me this week. Yet, they are fluid, with segment length adjustable on the fly. Readers pick topics — before, during, and after “Live” — from a reader-activated conveyor belt at the top of the page. “It’s the Internet,” says Sekoff pointedly, meaning it’s a flow, not a TV Guide-like grid in how readers/viewers use it. The Journal agrees. Even with on-the-hour blocks of News Hub programs, the majority of its viewing is on demand. Even for HuffPo, all of that live programming is then chunked into segments, and Sekoff estimates that he’ll have about 10,000 of them archived and ready for long-tail viewing by year’s end. We want what we want when we want it — and expect it to be there. Thus, findability becomes the issue, and the multiple points of access now being offered are very much a live test of consumer behavior and want.
  • It’s about simplicity. The Times’ announcement basically said this: You’ve proven you like video. Now we’re cleaning it up and making it more pleasurable to watch and easier to find. In the cleanup, the Times moved to 11 “navigation items” from 25, says Peter Anderson, director of video product. We see that translation in more uniform positioning of video panels on NYTimes.com pages, and a more elegant 16 × 9 video player format, replacing the oh-so-20th century 4 × 3.
  • It’s about the news — and talk about the news. In the approaches of the Times and the Journal on the one hand, and of HuffPo on the other, we see two quite different philosophies and strategies, but ones that may find meeting points. Both the Journal and the Times see their reporters as the foundation of the video process; Murray calls Dow Jones’ 2,000 journalists “the core asset.” So both are putting cameras into the hands of journalists, or enabling them to better use smartphones, thereby creating more impactful, multi-dimensional, multi-platform journalism. HuffPo, from its early days of being mainly a curator/aggregator, has had its pulse on what its progressive audience is wondering and talking about. Those topics, mostly off the news (Marissa Mayer’s pregnancy, veterans and poverty), are the ones front and center in its Live pages. Some, of course, derive from its journalists’ work, and now staffers like Howard Fineman are suggesting video segments as they prepare stories. By and large, though, the talk-about-news drives the 12-hours-a-day site (5 days a week), with actual news supplementing. Sekoff says some 1,300 HuffPo community members have “raised their hands” and been featured as talking contributors on its segments. They’re unpolished and a far more diverse (for all the good and bad that implies) lot than we see among the too familiar faces of cable TV. For the Journal and the Times, traditional stories drive the video, and then, as Peter Anderson describes it, “The New York Times starts the conversation.” (Here, the Times brings civilians more prominently into its Opinion pages.) How these somewhat opposite approaches come together will be something to watch.

Maybe, most intriguingly, this video revolution may be morphing into a social revolution.

Watch a few of the HuffPo Live segments. Call them semi-slick. The technology works. The production values are okay, even if blogger/contributors faces seem a bit low-def, as TV itself moves moves from HD to Ultra. Some raise interesting, unorthodox issues and views; some are deadly boring. They are not, though, the lookalike programming of traditional news outlets. In their socialness, they cross lines.

Here’s what I find fascinating as I watch those, and smaller steps toward engagement taken by the Times, Journal, and others. As we all watch more video, where will the minutes come from? They may come from other news, text news. They may also come from Facebook. Compare HuffPo Live to Facebook and we see lots of social/sharing commonalities — but in picture form. Discussions — less in linear words than with in-motion video. They may come from morning talk shows like “Ellen” or “The View,” or compete with The Young Turks.The minutes will come from somewhere, as these technologies are more universally adopted and the world of competition only gets more complicated. This is the world in which news companies now compete.

For the news industry specifically, we see that legacy lines are written in disappearing ink, as the Journal, for instance, out-innovates ABC. One dirty little secret of broadcasting is being revealed, as technologies like Google+ Hangouts even the playing field for the print guys: it’s a game of numbers. The number of journalists in newspaper newsrooms still far outnumber those in broadcast ones. In addition, traditional TV has demanded many staffers to do the technical work of creating the broadcast. So, newspapers — if they can rapidly connect their workforces with the new technologies — have a chance to do what seems illogical: leapfrog broadcast and outflank them in the move to fully available, multi-platform news video.

Notes
  1. The full list: YouTube, iPad, iPhone, Apple TV, Google TV, Boxee, Roku, Hulu, Ustream, DailyMotion, Panasonic Internet-connected TVs, Samsung Internet-connected TVs, Sony Internet-connected TVs, Vizio Internet-connect TVs, Yahoo Internet-connected TVs, Windows Phone, Xbox (announced, not yet launched), Kindle Fire, Google Nexus 7, Pulse, 5Min, TouchTV, Flud, WatchUp, LiveStation, Tout, Etisalat.

August 29 2012

09:29

August 28 2012

20:02

Ad pages slip further at New York Times' magazines

WWD :: The luxury title lost ad pages in all but two of 2012’s first seven issues. The trend puts it out of step with most luxury and fashion magazines, which are overperforming as the luxury sector once again booms.

A report by Erik Maza, www.wwd.com

Also "Sally Singer is out as editor of T" - Continue here Amy Wicks, www.wwd.com

HT: mediagazer.com

19:55

NYT reporter leaked advance copy of Maureen Dowd column to CIA

Politico :: Newly available CIA records obtained by Judicial Watch, the conservative watchdog group, reveal that New York Times reporter Mark Mazzetti forwarded an advance copy of a Maureen Dowd column to a CIA spokesperson — a practice that is widely frowned upon within the industry.

A report by Dylan Byers, www.politico.com

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