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August 14 2012

15:00

Forget display ads: Technically Media’s events-based business model is working

PHILADELPHIA — The year was 2008. Leaving their school newspaper behind, three Temple University graduates went looking for journalism jobs. Freelancing helped pay the bills, but they weren’t having any luck finding the full-time gigs they imagined.

The more they looked, the more it seemed like the kind of jobs they wanted — smart, high-impact, tech-focused local reporting — didn’t really exist. There were local tech writers out there, sure, but the amount of ink spent covering the Philly tech scene didn’t match its recent growth. The news organization this trio wanted to work for didn’t really exist, and the media companies that did exist weren’t really hiring.

So they decided to start their own. With a $50 WordPress theme, Technically Philly was born. It already had a staff, a distribution platform, and a vision fit for a bumper sticker: “A better Philadelphia through technology.”

The question was: How to pay the bills?

Display advertising revenue didn’t seem like a viable option. Grant money could — and ultimately would — help. But the group wanted to find a diverse, sustainable business model.

“We looked at larger entities like TechCrunch and a few other sites that we admire that were doing events,” co-founder Brian James Kirk told me. “It was really about diversification of revenue and just trying to pound the pavement — looking outside of that world for journalism and figuring out how to make it work.”

Today, Technically Philly’s flagship event is Philly Tech Week, an eight-day conference that shows the local tech scene is “alive and kicking ass,” as one Twitter user put it. It’s free for tech companies to participate, and free for anyone to attend. (Revenue comes from sponsors.) This year marked Technically Philly’s second ever Tech Week, and attendance more than doubled to some 10,000 people.

Kirk estimates about 40 percent of the revenue pie comes from events, 40 percent from consulting gigs, 10 percent from ads, and 10 percent from grants. That’s a shift compared with last year, when events revenue only represented about 12 percent of the pie.

Technically Philly’s consulting work has been to help develop web and events strategies for clients like the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia and other companies that have “limited interaction in the tech world” that Technically Philly covers. (If there were any overlap, Kirk says the person covering the company would not be the person consulting for it, and that the relationship would be disclosed to readers as per the site’s ethics policy.)

Technically Philly points to the events-based business model as the foremost reason it has become a profitable business, and that’s the area it will focus on expanding in coming months as it plans to “significantly scale down” its consulting efforts.

“The big pitch has been that it’s a geographic niche publication,” Kirk said. “That’s what entices our sponsors and that’s what entices our readers because they can’t get that niche anywhere else. Why does it work? I think sponsors immediately react to people in a room. They want to meet people. We essentially see Tech Week as, ‘This is our annual “ask” of the community.’ We try to limit when we do ask businesses for support, and it resonates with the people who are within our community.”

An event of that scale comes out of a surprisingly modest workspace.

Technically Philly’s budget is “definitely under half a million dollars” — closer to a quarter-million, Kirk later says — and the newsroom is in a Temple University building surrounded by classrooms and across the street from City Hall. The space has an administrative feel to it. (From her perch at the front desk, reporter Juliana Reyes is easy to mistake for an office manager.) Yet there are hints of color here and there. An American flag drapes over a cubicle partition. There’s a “Let’s Go Temple” sign on one wall, and a Mark Howe — of Philadelphia Flyers fame — poster on another. In between, printer paper with simple, printed-in-bold sayings: “Nobody Cares About What You Do As Much As You Do,” “Err on the Side of Action,” and “We’re Totally Fucked. I’m Sorry.”

It’s enough room for the lean four-person staff, but Kirk says they’re looking for new office space, something that will better integrate Technically Philly with the scene it covers. They’re also looking for new office space in other cities. Technically Media already expanded with a new site, Technically Baltimore, which formally launched over the summer after a soft roll-out earlier this year. Next month, that site’s hosting the first-ever Baltimore Innovation Week.

“We evaluated about a half-dozen markets,” Kirk says. “Baltimore just made sense because it looks a lot like Philadelphia. The narrative that’s playing out there is something we’ve seen popping out in Philly or on the tip of Philly’s tongue. There is a very similar trajectory. It’s been amazing how many of the conversations are so similar.”

From an editorial standpoint, Kirk says Technically Media tries to combine the sensibilities of a community newspaper with the advocacy of a modern journalism startup. Coverage goes into one of three buckets: Tech business, tech education, and tech-related civics. “So looking at municipal government informed through tech,” Kirk said. “The bigger issue — or the more important one we push on a lot — is open data. And then the other side of it, infrastructure. Are they providing wifi or Internet access to citizens? What does City Council’s access look like?”

Technically Philly has also worked directly with the city. For example, it launched an initiative with the mayor’s office that gave people an SMS-enabled tool to help people find the closest wifi access point. Now that Technically Media’s Philly and Baltimore sites are humming, it plans to expand to two or more additional cities by 2014. Some of the cities in the running as of this writing: Boston, New York, Detroit, and New Orleans. “It could be that we’re focused on those post-industrial cities that really have burgeoning tech communities, or the alternative would be that we’ll look at how the Mid-Atlantic is connected,” Kirk said.

Also high on the Technically Media to-do list is a substantial site redesign, which is scheduled to go live in January. “It’s not the most attractive site right now,” Kirk says. “We’re still running on that same WordPress theme that we bought three years ago. People browse us mobilely, or have tried and given up, because we didn’t have the operating budget for it.”

If all goes as planned, Technically Media will have switched to responsive design in a matter of months. Determining what’s next after that comes down to a simple calculation, Kirk says: “Evaluating what value — what specific value — you provide to the community you cover. What kinds of services or products can you offer? We don’t think we’re doing anything particularly innovative. We just happen to be doing it online.”

July 03 2011

20:07

How will Google+ (Plus) work for education?

ReadWriteWeb :: There seem to be three forces at play when it comes to education and social media. The first is a lack of force; second the force of fear. And finally, the third force is that of more and more educators who are embracing social media and advocating its use on- and off-campus - for student learning and for teacher professional development alike.

Audrey Watters spent past week with other teachers at the International Society for Technology in Education conference in Philadelphia. When Google unveiled Google+ on Tuesday, most of them were otherwise preoccupied. But now that many of the early tech adopter teachers are getting their Google+ invites, the question on their minds is "How will this work for education?"

Google Plus and education - continue to read Audrey Watters, www.readwriteweb.com

November 16 2010

15:00

NewsWorks: Back-to-the-future community news

Yesterday brought the launch of a news site with a promising tagline: “For you. With you. By you.”

The evocative motto belongs to NewsWorks, a web portal overseen by WHYY, the public radio station serving metro Philadelphia. Though it’s been built under corporate-parent oversight, the site sees itself primarily as a network, Chris Satullo, WHYY’s executive director for news and civic dialogue, told me. In addition to reporting that comes courtesy of WHYY staff, NewsWorks will both rely on content provided by its community and aim to amplify it. And, in that, it will make a point of featuring the kind of news that often gets lost in the rush of gossip-based, conflictastic stories, providing “balanced journalism that is as interested in solutions and heroes as problems and scandals.”

In other words, Satullo says, the site will be “everything you love about NPR, only on the web.”

It will also be, from the looks of things, everything you love about the web: NewsWorks is something of a proof-of-concept when it comes to the new compact the Internet allows between journalism and its users. The site will emphasize, in addition to information about politics, health, culture, and the like, neighborhood news (with an early focus on northwest Philadelphia, but with plans to expand). User-produced stuff will factor heavily into the site’s content. And conversation will be key. Indeed, NewsWorks’ vision for itself is the product of several little revolutions going on at once — and another step toward the normalization of the pro-am model of journalistic output.

Pretty much every feature of the new site aims at user engagement; for NewsWorks, all roads come from, and lead to, community. In addition to its planned reliance on user-provided content, the site is also experimenting with ways to encourage engagement — and good behavior — in online discussions. Its Sixth Square space (“William Penn designed our city with five public squares. You can build the sixth”) provides a moderated area for community discussion, bringing together six different features — and, really, concepts — into one piece of conversational real estate. Junto (so named for Ben Franklin’s storied discussion club) is a discussion area that emphasizes “civil, knowledgeable posts”; Props (“good words for good people”) invites compliments for community members; MindMap offers a self-generated profile of a user’s tastes and preferences; influences and tastes; Snarl (coming soon) will be a blog dedicated entirely to the vagaries — and frustrations — of traffic; Sleuth provides a space for people to ask questions about, and solve, “local mysteries”; and Sixes, taking a cue from Newsweek, asks users to summarize news events — in six words or less.

Though the features range on the scale from silly to serious, the common thread is their earnestness — and their commitment to community. The site offers an ideal vision of the public square as a place not only of community, but of harmony. And that’s evident in NewsWorks’ commenting system, as well. Its experimental approach to enforcing civility involves rating individual comments according to a karma system, which will ask users to rate each others’ comments according to their relevance, propriety, etc. (Karma systems have, of course, been around in various forms for years.) And from the consumer side of things, users can also customize their site settings to display, for example, only those comments with higher user ratings, bypassing the low — and thus, ostensibly, the low-quality.

Though NewsWorks, with its focus on engagement and empowerment of users, is experimenting with of-the-moment ideas about journalism, there’s also a distinctly back-to-the-future feel to all of this — a sense of return to the early days of the newspaper, and of journalism in general, as a vehicle for community discussion as much as anything else. Days in which journalism was the people who consumed it. As Satullo put it in the site’s welcome note yesterday:

We won’t be able to do any of this without you. Newsrooms aren’t the teeming masses of eager reporters they were back when I first walked into The Inquirer in 1989, as the 560th employee on the newsroom rolls.

Nor are today’s readers willing to settle for having formulaic news shoved at them, by reporters who have no time to answer questions because they’re already racing to the next bit of fluff or sensation. Rightfully, you want journalism to be a process of continuous engagement between you and those who claim to bring you the news you need.

That’s how journalism will get saved in these troubled times, by a new depth of connection between the reporter and the public.

October 14 2010

16:00

Badges? We might need some stinkin’ badges! Badgeville tries to bring a little gameplay to the news

Is good content alone enough to build reader loyalty? Or could adding a little gameplay — and some circular icons — turn casual readers into engaged ones?

Early next week, The Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News’ philly.com will launch a virtual rewards program to build reader engagement. Registered users will earn points each time they visit the site, read an article, or post a comment. These points will translate into a series of virtual trophies, which will appear alongside the articles the users read and be displayed next to their usernames whenever they comment on a story.

Philly.com’s partner in this project is a tech startup called Badgeville, which won the audience choice award at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference earlier this month. The company’s name puns on FarmVille, the Facebook game which convinced as many as 85 million users to trade virtual vegetables from virtual farms. Badgeville uses similar social gaming techniques, like awarding points, trophies, and badges, to help web sites retain users. This is not a new idea: The Huffington Post already rolled out their own system of badges this April. But Badgeville is expecting newspaper and media sites to become some of their most enthusiastic clients.

As users grab their news from the swiftly moving streams of Twitter or Facebook, homepages can seem increasingly irrelevant, and traffic spikes from successful stories soon melt away. Two years ago, the focus of philly.com execs was on pageviews, said Yoni Greenbaum, philly.com’s vice president of product development. Now, as at many newspapers, what matters at philly.com isn’t just clicks, but engagement. How long are visitors spending at the site? How often do they return?

I spoke to Badgeville’s CEO and founder Kris Duggan about the company’s overall strategy for news sites, as well as to Greenbaum and Christopher Branin about why and how Philly.com is adding points and trophies.

Building on the lessons of social gaming

Duggan told me that he doesn’t think news sites should move beyond just adding Facebook widgets to their pages as their social media strategy. “You’re just promoting Facebook, which is kind of your competition,” he said. Instead, he thinks news web sites need to leverage the same kinds of tactics that make Facebook so additive. The goal is for users to spend time as part of the news site’s own community, rather than just viewing the organization’s content occasionally through the lens of another site. (The New York Times, of course, has already implemented their own on-site version of this, Times People, which has yet to really take off.)

In order to encourage users to hang around, Badgeville can create built-in frameworks to incentivize any kind of behavior with any kind of reward, Duggan said. Rewards might be completely virtual, like shiny pixel trophies, or more real, like coupons or access to premium content. The key, Duggan said, is “communicating with the user at the right moment in time to drive behavior.”

What news sites need to do, Duggan said, is build on incentives that have worked elsewhere on the web — anything from the badges that powered Foursquare, as TechCrunch suggested, to the little profile completion bar on LinkedIn that tells users that they’ve only filled in 60 percent of their profiles.

“I really do believe that people want to see their face on web sites,” Duggan said. News sites right now use their sites to highlight their content. Duggan suggests they might need to become more like Facebook, and highlight their loyal users, as well. Why not add a widget with the faces of the users who have emailed the most stories, he told me, as well as a typical “most emailed list” of stories getting a lot of attention?

While Badgeville bills itself as a loyalty and rewards system, at the core, Duggan said: “We think of us as an analytics product…I don’t think they [news sites] really understand who their audience is. I don’t think they have the analytics to say, ‘here are our high-loyalty users, and our medium-loyalty users.’ They don’t know who’s sharing, they don’t know who’s commenting, they don’t know who the high-quality commenters are. They might have little tools for each of these things, but none of these things are unified…We think the next generation of analytics is actually influencing outcomes and changing behavior, and we think we’re in the forefront of that.”

Fitting gameplay into a newspaper context

For philly.com, partnering with Badgeville is a substantial investment. While Greenbaum said the monetary terms of their partnership were private, he did say that among philly.com’s third-party partnerships, it was “in the top three” in terms of cost.

Philly.com’s Badgeville roll-out, tentatively slated for Tuesday, will start off with a very simple incentive system. Users will get one point for visiting the site, one point for reading an article, and one point for commenting. The trophies they are awarded will be generic ones from Badgeville’s trophy library, but the “badges,” awarded for certain milestones — like posting a given number of comments — have been custom designed for philly.com. Branin said Badgeville’s service includes some barriers to keep people from gaming the points system — users can only get a point for visiting the site once every half hour, for instance, and for commenting once per article.

Branin said that they hope the points system will convey status on the site’s more enthusiastic, dedicated readers and commentors, and that the system might have an impact on the commenting culture, as HuffPo’s badge system set out more deliberately to do. As they get initial feedback on how the system is working, they’ll continue to add incentives and rewards.

I asked both Greenbaum and Branin and Duggan about how they thought reporters would react to the new system. After all, Badgeville operates on the assumption that giving out digital gold coins will attract loyal readers in a way writing good stories won’t. To a certain segment of journalists, the ones who pounce on tech entrepreneurs for referring to articles generically as “content,” Badgeville is likely to look like another step towards the total trivialization of news.

“I don’t think we’ve done a really in-depth analysis in talking with our reporters on how they’re going to feel,” Branin said, adding later that he didn’t think readers would be clicking on stories just to earn points.

Greenbaum said he thought Badgeville was friendlier to reporters than other social media tools. “It’s not that an article will have a value attached to it. It won’t be: ‘1,000 people liked this article and 10,000 people didn’t'…It’s really a tool on the publisher level and not the reporter level,” Greenbaum said.

Greenbaum and Branin also noted that the information gained from the points-and-trophies strategy could be used to direct traffic to stories that might otherwise languish unread. Philly.com might create a special badge for people who read, say, land use and development articles, or other worthy reporting that doesn’t tend to draw a lot of eyeballs.

For his part, Duggan noted that implementing a Badgeville reward system won’t fix sites with bad content or no community. A news organization needs a certain amount of community already in place for the points and trophies to have an impact. Philly.com is using Badgeville to build on what they already have; last month, that was roughly 6 million unique visitors, 76 million page views, and nearly 70,000 comments. They will be watching how the system affects the outcome of the complex algorithm they use to measure engagement. (Right now, that equation spits out a score of 73/100 for sports content engagement on philly.com, and only about 30/100 engagement for news.)

On the other hand, Duggan said, “Right or wrong, it’s just how it is. Facebook and Twitter have transactionalized your relationship with content.” In a world where content is shared freely, and articles sleep into the stream and disappear, news sites need something to “suck people back” to their home pages, Duggan said. “If you don’t have a magnet to keep people there, you’re dead.”

September 22 2010

19:00

Journal Register Company joins with Outside.in for a hyperlocal news/ad portal in Philadelphia

At the Suburban Newspapers of America conference in Philadelphia this morning, Journal Register Company CEO John Paton made an announcement: The newspaper chain will soon be launching an online, hyperlocal news portal in Philly. A new step forward in the company’s “digital first” business model, the yet-to-be-named site’s content will come from a mix of journalists professional and amateur, curated by JRC editors. And it will leverage the partnerships the JRC already has in place with Yahoo (audience targeting) and Growthspur (contributor training).

Or, as Paton puts it: “crowd and cloud.”

The site will be a direct competitor to Philly’s existing establishment news sources: the Inquirer and the Daily News. It’s no accident that Paton announced the project the day before the financially plagued papers are to be put to auction. “They’ve had that town to themselves for a long time,” he told me. “And I think there’s room in this new ecosystem for a whole bunch of people to play. I’m sure they’ll think we’re no threat at all — and I hope they keep on thinking that.”

The idea of the new site is to bolster both content and audience — on the cheap. (JRC, you’ll recall, declared bankruptcy last February; since Paton took the helm of the company shortly after that — with an advisory board that includes new media thinkers the likes of Jay Rosen and Jeff Jarvis — it’s been engaged in the Herculean task of restoring a network of small, Rust Belt papers to profitability. Remarkably, it’s getting close.) The new effort will tap into Philly’s existing content infrastructure — the hyperlocal blogs that have already sprung up to cover the area — and then give that content, via the hyperlocal news provider Outside.in, a singular publishing platform. (The site will also mark a continuation of JRC’s partnership with Growthspur, which trains would-be journos in both blogging and the dark arts of content monetization.) The details are still being worked out, but the idea is a mutualization of resources and revenues that will benefit all involved, from the local bloggers to the Journal Register Company to its partners — to, of course, the site’s consumers. Think TBD, Philly edition.

Think also: TBD, “inexpensive tools” edition. Though JRC will dedicate some of its resources to the new site — in particular, staffers will provide additional content, curation, and general editorial oversight — “we’re hoping that this will be largely crowd-supported,” Paton notes. JRC, after all, doesn’t have papers in metro Philly. “We’ve surrounded Philly with our properties, and so we’re able to provide some context” — but, then, generally not “right-downtown context.” For that, the site will rely on the bloggers who know the terrain; and in turn, Paton says, “we can bring depth to this, and we can bring curation to this.”

And that’s true of audience, as well. The site will apply JRC’s “digital first” approach…to users. Last week, JRC expanded its partnership with Yahoo — the latter company provides behavioral and geographical ad targeting to the newspaper chain — to include the Philadelphia market. That was “the sales piece,” Paton notes; the new site will be “the content piece.” The hoped-for end result? “We’re collectively creating audience, collectively creating content, at a very low price point.”

It’s a “hoped-for” result, though, because the site is still in its development stages. (Hence, again, the lack of name — “I figured TBD was taken,” Paton laughs.) But the CEO values transparency, even if it means unleashing a gestational product onto the market. “It’s a work in progress,” he says of the site. But he and the JRC staff figured, he says, “Let’s just announce it — we’ll get some help in finalizing it just from the announcement. And our solution will come out of that.”

September 13 2010

16:44

N2Y4 Project gets Local in Philadelphia

The N2Y4 Mobile Challenge called for innovative mobile applications supporting social good. There were many excellent ideas and the top 15 Featured Projects were selected through a Community Vote. Those Featured Projects came together May 26-27, 2009 in San Jose, CA, at the N2Y4 Conference to pitch their ideas, find collaborators, and get valuable feedback. Many volunteer organizers from the NetSquared Local network convened at the N2Y4 Conference to build relationships and expand their knowledge and resources for local community building.

read more

August 24 2010

11:43

Should bloggers pay business tax?

Should bloggers making money from their site have to pay a business tax?

It’s a question that’s been doing the rounds in the past week, following what commentators have been labelling a “tax amnesty” in Philadelphia. Thousands of online writers have reportedly received letters from local government reminding them that if they make money from their site, they must pay up.

Any bloggers earning revenues from their online publishing – through display advertising or services such as Google Adsense – will be asked to pay $300 (or $50 a year) for a Business Privilege Licence. Alternatively, they can remove any advertising or other money-making means and have their blog classified as a hobby.

The renewed efforts by the city council to ensure everyone eligible to pay does so have sparked wide debate and commentary across the web, from the Washington Post and Reuters to technology news site Mashable, who say the fee will only have limited impact.

The Atlantic Wire offers a neat summary of the main arguments, from Technorati’s post arguing that a $300 tax is “outrageous” for bloggers who on the whole make little returns, to New York Magazine’s suggestion that bloggers should shun advertising services, rather than hand over the small profits they make.Similar Posts:



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