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August 16 2012

09:23

April 24 2012

14:00

Collaborating for Dollars: How to Raise Revenue With Others

At the recent Collab/Space 2012 event, more hands shot up when Journalism Accelerator's Emily Harris asked who was interested in generating revenue than for any other question. Clearly, there's big interest in collaborating to earn money.

Here, then, are some pointers on collaborating to earn revenue and otherwise improve business performance.

Share The Pie to Make It Bigger

The common model in the media business used to be that one party would pay another a flat fee for a specified service or product. A publisher, for example, paid a vendor for printing or distribution. A freelancer got a check for a specified amount, agreed upon in advance.

PieThese days, however, it's increasingly common for two parties in a media deal to share revenue as it grows, rather than for one to fork over a single lump sum -- an approach that aligns interests and keeps both sides working toward the same goal.

Content creators for platforms like YouTube, BlogTV and Yahoo Voices can earn more revenue as what they produce gets more traffic. Vendors like AdSense and ad networks collect a share of revenue as it's earned, rather than simply charging a fee upfront for their technology.

Sure, if you're a content creator, it can be hard to let go of the impulse to keep all the money your efforts earn -- after all, the more participants there are, the more revenue has to be generated to support them. But your chances of earning more revenue grow if more people are collaborating to help make a project a success.

Help Promotion and Distribution

The more people or organizations there are collaborating on a media effort, the more promotional and distribution outlets become available, from websites to social networks, broadcast outlets, emails, mobile platforms, word of mouth, and so on. 

A New York Times executive recently told me that the paper's collaboration with WNYC on SchoolBook generates a lot more awareness of the education website because of the radio station's reach. (Read our previous coverage of SchoolBook.)

Lowell Bergman

Such active linking and sharing can, in turn, increase a product's search engine visibility, thus generating more traffic over time. And every additional pageview that carries revenue opportunities such as ads equals more money over time.

For non-profits, increased traffic can lead to increased funding.

"Collaborations could lead to ... more recognition, more distribution and more impact for stories," MediaShift's Mark Glaser, who co-hosted Collab/Space with UC Berkeley's Investigative Reporting Program (Berkeley IRP), wrote on a discussion thread started by Harris on the Journalism Accelerator website. "That could lead to more donations, memberships and foundation interest for funding."

At Collab/Space, co-host Lowell Bergman of Berkeley IRP pointed out that a Frontline collaboration with another news organization generated twice the viewership of a typical episode of the investigative documentary series.

Increase Efficiencies and Decrease Costs

In today's resource-starved news business, with reporters being laid off and fact-checking and copy desks eviscerated, it's increasingly difficult for any individual news organization to have the person-hours needed to carefully report a story and get it right.

"Collaboration has become something that is not just optional," Glaser said at the event. "It's become something that's really required and necessary."

Collaborating creates efficiencies by enabling partners to report and produce different parts of the same story. Rather than having multiple partners send a reporter or camera operator to a news conference, the partnership can send one coverage team, and other staff can focus on complementary work. People who are good at writing can write; those who specialize in video production can focus on that; and so forth. Organizations can share resources on the business side, too.

"Do we all want to be islands, or do we want to collaborate, share things like back-office operations?" asked Evelyn Larrubia of the Investigative News Network collaborative, which helps its dozens of members share "back-end" resources such as billing and accounting. "The problem we're solving is not a content problem. It's a resource problem and a depth problem."

Change the Mentality and Learn "Coopetition"

arm wrestling

Journalists needed to learn, as technologists in Silicon Valley have, that sometimes, cooperation with competitors is the best thing for your business, Glaser said. Facebook, Google, Twitter, Foursquare and many other media and technology companies share some level of information and code with competitors, knowing they'll be stronger for having done so.

As The Huffington Post, Business Insider, and Gawker have shown, others will share your material and build a business on it with or without your active participation; in that case, it's better to form proactive partnerships for mutual benefit.

Many news organizations and some journalists still tend to be proprietary about their efforts. But in a linked economy, why invest resources in "matching" a story that's just a click away?

"We have to have this kind of cultural shift," Glaser said. "There's a kind of ownership of the story that ... becomes about us. 'I want this scoop, I want the award.' What we have lost along the way is it's not about us, it's about serving people -- uncovering things that are important."

Oakland Local's Susan Mernit talked at Collab/Space about a for-profit news organization that "doesn't link out" and refused to help fund her organization's efforts to contribute to their site for fear her not-for-profit group would eventually overtake them. Both, actually, could have benefited and earned more revenue from the content.

Build Smart Networks to Build Value

Collaboration can take advantage of the network effect, the concept that the more nodes there are in a network, the more value there is to the network and to each of those nodes -- even when the nodes are competitors.

One apt illustration is "private label" ad networks that allow similar, sometimes competitive websites to aggregate their page views and communities through platforms such as Addiply, BSA Private Label and AdKiwi and increase each site's ability to appeal to advertisers they'd have more trouble reaching on their own.

In one example, a group of local websites that reach different neighborhoods around Chicago are banding together and increasing their ability to sell throughout the region with one sales staff.

Large media companies such as NBC Universal and Cox media have formed their own private label networks to group sites by subject, such as health, sports and food. Collaborating in this way can lead to more revenue for all.

Limit Liability

Imagine if CBS News had collaborated with computer experts to vet documents allegedly showing George W. Bush shirked his duties in the National Guard, or if Jason Blair had collaborators on his false stories published in Times. In each case, the news organization could have saved huge embarrassment and cost, and even kept the focus on the issues in the stories rather than the mistakes.

Also, the more contributors and organizations there are behind a story, the less easy it is for someone offended by it to take legal action. As Bergman noted, "If you can spread the liability on a story," you can make those who might sue think a little more before they do.

By its nature, business is a collaborative venture. All sides must derive value for a deal to succeed, and that's never been truer than in today's media business. Journalists who've grown up in a lone wolf, competitive culture would do well to emulate the lessons of their brethren in other domains.

Related Stories

> Collab/Space 2012: Building Trust, Tools and Relationships for Collaborating by Meghan Walsh

> Live Coverage of the Collab/Space 2012 Event by Ashwin Seshagiri

> Collab/Space 2012 Detailed Agenda

Keep up with all the new content on Collaboration Central by following our Twitter feed @CollabCentral or subscribing to our RSS feed or email newsletter:







Get Collaboration Central via Email

An award-winning former managing editor at ABCNews.com and an MBA (with honors), Dorian Benkoil handles marketing and sales strategies for MediaShift, and is the business columnist for the site. He is SVP at Teeming Media, a strategic media consultancy focused on attracting, engaging, and activating communities through digital media. He tweets at @dbenk and you can Circle him on Google+.

Pie photo courtesy of Flickr user Mackenzie Mollo; arm wrestling photo courtesy of Flickr user Fabio Venni.

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April 19 2012

16:13

Daily Must Reads, April 19, 2012

The best stories across the web on media and technology, curated by Lily Leung.

1. Publishers could reach settlement with 50 states in e-books case (PaidContent)



2. NBC will stream live all 30-plus sports in upcoming summer Olympics (NYT)



3. California's lieutenant governor snags gig at Current TV (NYT)



4. Spotify teams up with Coca-Cola to draw more users (Businessweek)



5. Do social-reader apps on Facebook work? (ReadWriteWeb)



6. Should the Emmys shift to a web-only program? (The Wrap)




Subscribe to our daily Must Reads email newsletter and get the links in your in-box every weekday!



Subscribe to Daily Must Reads newsletter

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April 10 2012

16:45
14:00

Pew Survey Shows How E-Books Are Changing the Equation for Publishers, Readers

More Americans are reading e-books than ever, according to a new study by the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project.

The most impressive stat from the study is that 21 percent of adults had read an e-book in the past year, but adults are still more likely to read a printed book. Seventy-two percent of adults (age 16 or older) turn the pages the old-fashioned way.

However, the reach of e-books is growing, increasing from 17 percent of adults before the 2011 holiday season, during which thousands of e-reading devices appeared under Christmas trees, to 21 percent immediately after. The poll, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, captured Americans' attitudes toward reading and digital reading in mid-December 2011 and January 2012.

The data showing that e-books are on the rise will not surprise anyone who's been paying attention to the rapid adoption of e-readers. But what the study really sheds light on is how quickly our relationship with reading is changing in the digital age.

Reading is still in decline, but not by much

Thumbnail image for ebook_flickrcc_by_shall_be_lifted.jpg

According to the study, 22 percent of Americans said they hadn't read a book in the previous 12 months or refused to answer the question. That figure was 12 percent in 1978, 19 percent in 1990, 15 percent in 1999, 14 percent in 2001, 17 percent in 2005, and 22 percent in 2011. Fewer people are reading than ever, but the percentage of people who don't read has been hovering around 20 percent for 20 years now. Increasing use of the Internet since the mid-'90s and ever more available tech gadgets haven't radically changed the percentage of Americans who read books, especially when the study's plus or minus two-percentage-point margin of error is taken into account.

Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Richard Eoin Nash is a forward-thinking publishing veteran who ran Soft Skull Press, an independent publisher, from 2001 to 2007. He wasn't surprised by this result. "Frankly, this 'reading in decline' business struck me as a bunch of hokum," he said.

Nash currently wears several hats as the founder of Cursor, offering what he describes as a "new, social approach to publishing," the publisher of Cursor's Red Lemonade imprint, and the vice president of Community and Content for Small Demons, a startup that tracks the rich content inside of books, including songs and places referenced in them.

"There is absolutely no sign that reading is in danger," he said. "As a rule, these things tend to get exploited by people looking for stories about how the sky is falling, whether it's because they're looking for funding, or whether it's because every establishment institution that purveys culture in the end is looking for ways to preserve its status. Changes in technology, all other things being equal, tend to undermine its status. So, whether it was Socrates complaining about books or the great comic book scares of the 1950s when four-color printing came about, every time there is a new technology that allows more and different culture to be created, the guardians of the status quo announce that civilization is over."

E-Books Result in More Reading, Even in Men

On the other hand, despite the continued slight decline in reading overall, e-books are increasing the rate of reading among some people. According to Pew, "30 percent of those who read e-content say they now spend more time reading, and owners of tablets and e-book readers particularly stand out as reading more now. Some 41 percent of tablet owners and 35 percent of e-reading device owners said they are reading more since the advent of e-content."

Many studies have found that men read less than women, and this poll supports that general trend -- 14 percent of men are frequent readers, reading 21 or more books in the past year, while 20 percent of women are frequent readers. However, men who own e-readers report they are reading more now, and men are more avid readers than women of certain categories of material. Men are slightly more likely to read a newspaper daily. Men are more likely than women to read about current events daily (53 percent vs. 46 percent), and men are more likely to read daily for work or school, while women are more likely to read for pleasure. Men are more likely to own only a tablet computer, such as the iPad or Kindle Fire, while women are more likely to own only an e-reader, such as the Kindle or Nook.

Teachers and librarians have often lamented that it's more difficult to interest boys in reading than girls. Could e-books provide a way to interest more boys in reading?

Samantha Becker, research project manager of the U.S. IMPACT Study at the University of Washington's Information School, said, "I think it may be too soon to tell whether e-readers are making readers out of non-readers. But it certainly has the potential to be a hook for boys and other reluctant readers if they are enticed by being able to use technology. The other thing that e-books provide is the ability to link to other resources beyond the print, including videos and other enhanced content that will make reading more fun and interesting. This is an underutilized capability of e-books, particularly for tablets, but I think it will be a growing area of development as the market expands, and eventually there will be books written with enhanced content in mind."

E-Book Enthusiasts are Superlative Readers

E-book users earn a gold star for reading more avidly than any other group. The Pew study finds e-book readers are "relatively avid readers of books in all formats: 88 percent of those who read e-books in the past 12 months also read printed books. Compared with other book readers, they read more books. They read more frequently for a host of reasons: for pleasure, for research, for current events, and for work or school. They are also more likely than others to have bought their most recent book, rather than borrowed it, and they are more likely than others to say they prefer to purchase books in general, often starting their search online."

Significantly for publishers who feel the ground shifting under their feet with recent developments such as the demise of Borders and some other traditional bookstores, e-book readers are more likely to buy the books they read, while other readers are more apt to borrow.

"Is this part of a CD moment?" Nash wondered. "We had this moment in the music business where people embraced the CD player over their cassette player, and they started acquiring a significant amount of CDs. At a certain point, that plateaued as people acquired a critical mass of stuff, and then shifted to a more sedate degree of consumption. By consumption, I mean purchase. The amount they listened to remained the same, but the amount they purchased started to taper off. This is highly speculative. I'm not saying this will happen. But as Nassim Taleb (author of 'The Black Swan') always points out, every straight line going up at a diagonal stops some time."

Given that e-book readers are more likely to purchase books than non e-book readers, every publisher will have to cater to them to stay afloat in the rapidly changing book marketplace. Nash observed that figuring out how to do this is the publishers' problem, not the readers'.

"The interesting thing is the reader doesn't have a problem here," he said. "Because for so long, people could only read what a fairly small group of publishers picked for them to read. Readers were living in an oligopolistic world. So we didn't really have to think very much about readers. They were only peripherally part of the equation. From a cultural standpoint, they were absolutely central. But in terms of talking about the industry, they were an abstraction. They were helpless. Now they have power. Now they can choose not just from a much larger group of publishers than existed before, but also from a bigger chunk of publishing history, as books stay in print longer and books that were out of print get put back into print."

He added, "I would emphasize how significant it is that books are no longer going out of print. Most books published in 1986 were not available in bookstores in 1990, so there was this forgetting. We're sort of living in a science-fiction movie where no one forgets, where everything published stays published. That gives readers tremendous power."

pewchart_better.jpg

Do E-books Contribute to the Digital Divide?

The Pew poll, which was conducted in English and Spanish, found Hispanics read less than white or black people, and that lower-income Americans read the least: "A fifth of Americans (18 percent) said they had not read a book in the past year. This group is more likely to be: male than female (23 percent vs. 14 percent), Hispanic than white or black (28 percent vs. 17 percent and 16 percent), age 65 or older (27 percent), lacking a high school diploma (34 percent), living in households earning less than $30,000 (26 percent), unemployed (22 percent), and residents of rural areas (25 percent). Those who did not read a book last year also tended not to be technology users."

Do e-books contribute to the digital divide in which those without access to technology are being left behind in a tech-centered world? Becker said, "I don't know that e-books contribute to the digital divide right now, though that's certainly a possibility in the future if e-publishing overtakes traditional publishing and readers are shut out of participating because of excessive restrictions in borrowing and lending, or prohibitive costs for accessing devices and content.

"I think there is some more interesting research to be done around the intersection of reluctant readers and people who also don't use much technology. It seems likely that those folks are probably living on the margins generally, and lack of reading and use of technology is a symptom of their circumstances rather than a cause. Ensuring that rural, poor, unemployed, and other marginalized groups have access to reading and self-improvement has always been a core value for public libraries, and it continues in ensuring access to technology and digital literacy skills. Librarians see this as part of their mission, and e-book access is becoming part of that mission, too."

Looking Toward the Digital Future

The Pew study shows that Americans have begun to move toward reading books, newspapers, and magazines digitally, without waiting for the publishing industry to figure out how to survive this shift.

Nash reflected on the history of the publishing industry to frame the current moment. "In the last 150 years, publishing became a weird artifact of the industrial revolution," he said. "With the industrial revolution, you tend to have this really stark separation between producer and consumer, because you make money off of scale. In an analogue, mechanical reproduction situation, the primary way you're going to make money is because your marginal costs always decline. It starts high and always it declines. So the more you can print of something, the more money you're going to make on each additional unit. With digital, the marginal cost of reproduction is virtually zero. What we're witnessing most clearly is the slow demise of the industrial revolution model. It's interesting because books began it. Books were the first mass-produced object."

As Pew's research shows, only a few years after their introduction, e-books have arrived as an important part of reading in America, whether publishers and booksellers are ready for them or not.

Photo of e-reader by Anders Hoff on Flickr

Jenny Shank is the author of the novel "The Ringer" (The Permanent Press, 2011), a finalist for the Reading the West Book Awards. Her fiction, essays, and reviews have appeared in Prairie Schooner, Alaska Quarterly Review, McSweeney's Internet Tendency, Poets & Writers Magazine, Bust, Dallas Morning News, High Country News and The Onion.

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March 29 2012

17:32

January 18 2012

15:20

Self-Published Authors Still Rarely Make the Jump to Publishing Houses

For many self-published authors, a traditional publisher is an elusive dream. It means a team of professionals taking over marketing, advertising, publicity and the mechanics of publishing one's own book on paper and electronically. It means already forged relationships with booksellers, critics and other writers - and it means more time to write, rather than haggling over the costs of a book cover design or editing.

While both the self-published fantasy writer Amanda Hocking and CIA thriller author John Locke show that independent authors can succeed in attracting big publishers and contracts, it seems, for now, that they are the exception, not the rule.

using the Kindle Store as a talent pool

The rise of e-books and self publishing has certainly enlarged the talent pool for publishers and made it easier to find authors, but that doesn't mean publishers are all taking advantage of the emerging talent.

Debra Dixon, president of Bell Bridge Books, a small press based in Memphis that publishes young adult, science fiction and fantasy titles, said, "I know that we have seen agents trolling Kindle lists . . . But our authors tend to come to us based on reputation."

"I know a lot of folks in the industry and I just don't hear anybody saying, 'I got the greatest author this week -- got her on Kindle,'" Dixon said.

Trina MacDonald, a senior acquisitions editor for Pearson Education, said she discovers authors by finding experts in the field, doing research and hearing from people in the community. "We ask what types of books they would like to see and who would write them," she said. "And then we would make direct contact."

MacDonald said she has heard of publishers contacting writers on Kindle and isn't against the idea.

"I have not approached any authors, but I think it would depend on the book and the author," MacDonald said. "But if they are already self-published you can see what kind of writing they're capable of."

The Truth About Amanda Hocking

AmandaHocking.jpgAmanda Hocking, a 27-year-old independent author who sold more than a million copies of her books, signed a reported $2 million-plus, four-book deal with St. Martin's Press earlier this year, making her an indie success story. The news of her book deal flooded the Internet, sparking reports that publishers are looking for the next Hocking.

But Hocking wasn't a passive participant in the process. She sent numerous queries, manuscripts and book proposals to traditional publishers and agents, only to be turned down repeatedly. Hocking was also a prolific author with nine self-published titles to her name and her popular Trylle Trilogy, had already been optioned for a motion picture. According to her blog, she even had an editor, cover artist and acted on feedback from publishers and agents. By the time she was offered a contract by St. Martin's she had negotiated foreign language rights in Hungary and sold 1 million copies of her books.

She said she chose to go with a traditional publisher because, "I want to be a writer. I do not want to spend 40 hours a week handling emails, formatting covers, finding editors, etc. Right now, being me is a full-time corporation."

The new independent author has to be able to market and advertise a book in nontraditional ways on a minuscule budget. That usually means blogs, social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook, and a lot of phone calls and email. That publicity, often called "discoverability" or a "platform," is what sells books and propels them up the e-book bestseller lists. And for most self-published e-book authors, that means making their downloads available at the Amazon Kindle store.

Clearing the Way

Erica Sadun, an author who previously wrote technical manuals such as "The iOS 5 Developer's Cookbook," decided to work on an independent e-book to stay ahead of the technological curve.

siribook.png

"My friend Steve [Sande] and I were sick to pieces of the 101 days of production before books can get out," she said from her Denver home. So she and Sande decided to pen a how-to for the iPhone 4S's virtual assistant Siri, called "Talking to Siri" and had it out within two weeks of the iPhone 4S launch.

After selling well for six days, it was picked up by a publisher - as it turns out, Sadun's own publisher Pearson wanted it for its Que imprint. "It isn't the normal story," Sadun said.

But Sadun's story isn't uncommon either. Several successful authors have started independently publishing for higher royalties or using it to test out new genres. One successful author that advocates and guides new Kindle authors into self-publishing e-books, J.A. Konrath, had six books published by Hyperion since 2004.

But lacking a following or any exposure, unknown independent authors still have to garner interest however possible.

The Hybrid Author

Dixon said she met self-published urban fantasy author John Hartness in the usual fashion, at a science fiction and fantasy convention.

"When I began talking to publishers and eventually signed with Bell Bridge Books, they were as attracted to my stories as they were that I was media-savvy and self-promotions savvy," Hartness said. "But I don't know of any publisher who would be willing to put out bad stories because their authors are a whiz at promotion."

Dixon signed Hartness in September, about two years after he uploaded his first independent e-book to the Kindle Store.

"We saw what he had done and his platform, which made it more attractive because when you relaunch an author it's a big commitment," Dixon said.

Traditional publishers do shoulder the price of editing, promotion and publicity, and they usually recoup those costs with higher asking prices than 99 cents or $2.99. With self-published authors, the costs for publishers are the same as for a new author. "We treat (the book) as if it has never been published," Dixon said. "One of the strong reasons writers come to publishers is to elevate their book."

While Hartness loves working with his publisher and the process, he continues to self-publish his own work. "I think you are going to see many more hybrid authors," he said.

Barbara E. Hernandez is a native Californian who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. She has more than a decade of experience as a professional journalist and college writing instructor. She also writes for Press:Here, NBC Bay Area's technology blog.

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July 27 2011

19:19

An advertorial publication - The Staff Recommends books they like, and when they are paid for

Would you rely on recommendations, when your adviser is paid for the coverage? - Difficult to answer. Depends on the context? If this decision rule is transparent from the beginning?

The Staff Recommends :: "Because deciding what to read is a difficult proposition. Each year, better than 175,000 books are published, and you’re going to read what, 10? 15? 50? Books can be pricey, a real investment of money and time—you can’t afford to choose poorly. Or, you’re going on vacation and packing space is limited. Do you want to be stuck with a dud? "

Their service promise: "We make sure you’ll have a dud-free reading life."

What's the business model? - Publishers send The Staff Recommends books they wish to be considered for a review. It is still a decision of the staff if a book will be features, but if they plan to publish it, "then publishers pay us to have their book featured here." - what happens if the staff says "yes" and the publisher "no" we won't pay?

Visit their website www.thestaffrecommends.com

Discussed by Justin Ellis, niemanlab.org

July 14 2011

14:40

Dear Publishers: Why ponder 'digital editions' when you could be building digital experiences?

If you’ve ever sat in a room where I’ve given a presentation on digital publishing, or run into me at a soem kind of publishing-related event, you will already know that I am no fan of so-called ‘digital editions’. In my experience, they are often expensive and questionable investments that rarely lead to any significant revenue (unless you’re Playboy).

As each year passes, I think to myself “finally, it must be the end of digital editions.” Alas, that has not proved to be the case.

There is such a burst of new technologies available today for creating divine digital reading experiences that I am just floored that certain well-known digital edition vendors are still (very successfully) peddling crap.

I know they are still successful, because I continue to be asked by publishers “Do you think we should invest in a digital edition? If so, who should we work with? Or what tool should we use?

Publishers are in a predicament, it is quite clear to see. Readers are asking for digital products as more of their life moves to new devices. The advantages of having a digital product to offer those readers are clear:

  • Keep the subscriber instead of losing them
  • Deliver a product that (hopefully) costs less to produce and deliver, while still charging a reasonable subscription price
  • Provide a ‘free trial issue’ with very low fulfillment costs
  • Make international subscriptions more affordable and easier to fulfill
  • Access to back issues
  • Last but not least, keeping the cost of renewals low because “digital in, digital renewal”

The challenge is that the range of devices that readers are using is multiplying and the digital edition vendors have not caught up. Not only have they not caught up on the devices, but — more importantly — they are not even close to catching up on the reading experience that people expect today.

Anyway, this is turning into more of a rant than a useful blog post, so I’ll try to get it back on track here…

If you’re a publisher and you’re thinking about investing in a digital edition, start with these questions:

  1. Digital edition vs. adaptable reading experience: Do you want to provide readers with an experience that is device-appropriate, or one that is simply a replica of your print layout? (The reasoning “We can re-use photos licensed for print in a new medium if we don’t change the layout” should not drive your answer to this question.) The term ‘mobile’ applies to just about everything these days — laptops (increasingly smaller), tablets (various sizes), and smart phones (various screen resolutions) — and it’s unlikely that a print layout is going to be an enjoyable reading experiences across them all.

  2. InDesign-centric vs. Web-centric: Do you want to work from the Web version of your stories — the version that includes links to other sites, links to related articles, and so on — or the version that comes out of the print workflow? Remember, if you have a Web site there’s a good chance that you’ve already invested in getting your print-centric content into a digital content management system — thus, you’ve already done the work of the print-to-digital conversion for most devices.

  3. “Somebody do it for us” vs. Do-it-yourself: Finally, do you want to have the control to present your publication the way you want, with the features that your readers want, and own all the data? Or do you want someone to just “get it done” and “keep it working?” Remember, it’s pretty likely that you already have a circulation plan that can be adapted to these digital subscribers, and it’s likely that you’re already taking payments online and managing access to your Web site. Integrating those processes and system into your digital products is not as hard as you think.

There have been some incredible advances over the last year in the capabilities of the modern Web browser. It is the idea of ‘the Web in your pocket’ that draws many people to these new digital devices. And these new devices all run ‘the Web.’ Each of the major platforms — iOS, Android, Blackberry, Windows Phone, Palm WebOS, Kindle — have versions of their devices that support current Web technologies like HTML5, CSS, and Javascript. This opens up a whole new field of opportunity for you — as a publisher — to think about delivering amazing digital experiences, not just a ‘digital edition.’

If you don’t know where to start exploring what’s possible, here are a few pointers:

Hopefully that will give you a place to start. Still have questions, drop me a line. Are you experimenting with a framework, technology, or approach not listed above, leave a comment.

June 05 2011

13:55

Infographic: what publishers should know - the Periodic Table of SEO ranking factors

Searchengineland :: Search engines reward pages with the right combination of ranking factors, or “signals.” SEO is about ensuring your content generates the right type of signals. Search Engine Land's chart below summarizes the major factors to focus on for search engine ranking success. They also offer a free full guide (download) that explains factors in more depth.

Search Engine Land Periodic Table of SEO Ranking Factors

Continue to read searchengineland.com

Illustration by columnfivemedia.com

May 26 2011

05:38

Web apps: Aside - will publishers choose the open web over Apple's iTunes store?

Poynter :: A pair of Berlin-based designers has released a prototype of what they call the world’s first HTML5 magazine for tablets. The project, called Aside Magazine, a web app, is an impressive demonstration of the design, interactivity and app-like experience that can be created using new advances in the language that powers the Web: HTML. These advances of HTML5 are important for news publishers seeking independence and a universal development strategy. Publishers now can avoid to develop different apps for iOS, Android, Windows or RIM.

[Nico Engelhardt, Aside:] Don’t get us wrong, we love the App Store. But in our world, magazines are press content, not softwarel. And we don’t want a big company to decide whether our content is allowed to be published or not.

Continue to read Jeff Sonderman, www.poynter.org

Visit the site Aside Magazine, www.asidemag.com

May 12 2011

17:34

Comments Are Dead. We Need You to Help Reinvent Them

Let’s face it — technically speaking, comments are broken. With few exceptions, they don’t deliver on their potential to be a force for good.

Web-based discussion threads have been part of the Internet experience since the late 1990s. However, the form of user commentary has stayed fairly static, and — more importantly — few solutions have been presented that address the complaints of publishers, commenters, or those of us who actually read comments.

beyond comment threads.jpg

Publishers, for the most part, want software that will stamp out trolls and outsource the policing to the community itself (or, failing that, to Winnipeg). Commenters, on the other hand, want a functional mini-soapbox from which to have their say — preferably something that is easy to log into and has as few limitations as possible (including moderation). The rest of us are left to deal with the overly complicated switches, flashing lights, and rotary knobs that we’re expected to know how to use to dial in to the conversation so it’s just right for our individual liking, not too hot and not too cold.

Thankfully, there is an opportunity today to really innovate. New capabilities in the browser, and emerging standards provide an opportunity to completely rethink the relationship between news users and producers — between those who comment and those who are commented upon — and to demonstrate new forms of user interaction that are atomic, aggregated, augmented, or just plain awesome.

That’s why our next Knight-Mozilla Challenge is for you to come up with a more dynamic space for online discussions. You can submit your idea here, and you could win a trip to Berlin to compete with other innovators — or even win a year-long fellowship in a newsroom.

PUBLISHERS’ DIRTY LITTLE SECRET

The truth is, many news publishers don’t actually think comments are a good thing. Or if publishers won’t go so far as to admit that, they’ll usually agree that the so-called return on investment when enabling comments, discussion and debate on their site is not entirely clear.

Therein lies the biggest tension in the “beyond comment threads” challenge: At the end of the day, those who comment on stories, and those who have their articles commented upon, often have very different views on the topic.

Ask publishers about the purpose of comments and they’ll often speak to the very aspirations of independent journalism and a free press: democratic debate, informed citizens, and free speech. Ask them about the reality of comment threads on their site, and a very different picture is likely to emerge.

On the other end of the spectrum are the people who comment. No doubt, for some, it’s their very comment — or comments, in the case of those who actively comment — that creates the value on a given page, not the editorial. For others, the value is in the conversation that coalesces or unfolds in the context of a given story — but, to ease the minds of publishers, always at a safe distance from the “real content,” usually at the end of a story, or well below the fold.

In between are the rest of us, the people who benefit from the tension between publishers and commenters. We rely on the individuals who choose to comment to add context and clarifications, do extra fact-checking (a skill that’s often a casualty of newsroom cutbacks), and, ultimately, to hold the publisher accountable — publicly — and using the publishers’ own soapbox to do so. At the same time, we rely on publishers and reporters to start the conversation and keep it civil.

No wonder publishers are still asking questions about the value of comments: It takes a lot of work to build a successful online community, and the outcome is not guaranteed to work in their favor.

The Slashdot Era

Sometime in late 1997 or 1998, a bunch of hackers who agreed that commenting was broken (or — at that time — just simply missing) on most news sites decided to take matters into their own hands. Enter the era of Slashdot, an early example of the kind of sites that would begin to separate church from state by disconnecting the discussion from the content being discussed. These sites — with lots of comment and little content in the editorial sense — threw some powerful ideas into the mix: community, identity and karma (or incentives).

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Fast-forward to today, more than 10 years later, and not much has changed.

Newer sites, like Hacker News and Reddit, continue in the Slashdot tradition, but don’t break much new ground, nor attempt to innovate on how online discussion is done. At the same time, publishers — realizing the conversation was increasingly happening elsewhere — have improved or re-tooled their commenting systems in the hope of keeping the discussion on their sites. But instead of innovating, they’ve simply imitated, and little real progress has been made.

In an era where Huffington Post is the “state-of-the-art” for online discussion, I ask myself: What went wrong?

Enter the innovators’ dilemma

Meanwhile, as the events above unfolded, the rest of the web went on innovating. As publishers and comment-driven communities lamented their situation and pondered how to improve it, the conversation left those sites entirely. The people formerly known as the audience were suddenly empowered to have their say almost anywhere, via micro-blogs, status updates, and social networks.

It was the classic innovators’ dilemma at work. While focusing on how to make commenting systems better, many people didn’t see the real innovation happening: Everyone on the Internet was given their own, personal commenting system. Services like Twitter and Identi.ca solved the most pressing issue for commenters: autonomy. Services such as Facebook and LinkedIn addressed another problem: identity.

Unfortunately, not all innovation is good. Local improvements do not always equal systemwide benefits. That is the situation we are left with today: Comments, discussion and identity are scattered all over the web. Even worse, the majority of what we as individuals have to say online is locked in competing, often commercial, prisons — or “corporate blogging silos” — and is completely disconnected from our online identity.

The Sixth Estate

The opportunity in the beyond comment threads challenge is to radically re-imagine how we, the users, relate to the people producing news, and to each other. It’s time to get out of a 10-year-old box and completely rethink the current social and technical aspects of online discussion and debate. It’s time to stop thinking about faster horses, and start thinking about cars (or jetpacks!).

To get specific, let’s start with a list of great experiences that are made possible with comments:

  • Providing value to the publisher: Think about the times that comments have revealed new facts, uncovered sources, or pointed out easily correctable errors. This exemplifies the opportunity for a community to provide value back to a publisher, and helps answer the return-on-investment question. Recently, during the uprising in the Middle East and the earthquake in Japan — when several news organizations introduced real-time streams that mixed editorial content with user-submitted comments — we witnessed a glimmer of something new. What does it look like to push those ideas to their extremes?

  • Publishers and users working together: Sites like Stack Overflow (and the other sites in that network) introduced a new standard for directed conversations. More than just question-and-answer forums, these sites attempted to leverage the sense of community on sites like Slashdot and Hacker News, but also direct that energy toward a socially useful outcome, such as collective wisdom. If the Press is a “key social institution that helps us understand what’s going on in the world around us,” then we are all responsible for making it better — reporters, publishers and news readers. So what does that collaboration and the goal of collectively assembled wisdom (other than Wikipedia, of course) look like?

  • Holding publishers, or authors, accountable: If the publishers’ aim is to stamp out trolls, the commenters’ equivalent goal is to squelch bad reporting. Many readers expect news stories to be factually accurate, fair and balanced, and free of hidden agendas or unstated personal opinions. Comments were the first opportunity to quickly point out shortcomings in a story (versus a letter to the editor that may or may not be printed some days or weeks later). Think of that span — an immediate retort versus an edited response published well after the fact — and project it into the future, and then ask yourself, “How far could an idea like MediaBugz go?”

The last example on my list has to do with providing value to the community and learning together. How do we address the myriad concerns on both sides of the fence and come out the other end with something that isn’t broken? How can the historical tension between the need for anonymity and the perceived advantages of a real identity be overcome using our knowledge and the tools of the open web? In what way can the visual language of online discussion be taken beyond “thumbs up” or “thumbs down?” And what does it look like to enable commenting on the HTML5 web, which is increasingly driven by video, audio, animations and interactivity?

In those rare inspirational moments — when two sides of a conversation come together and actually listen — there is the nucleus of the idea that inspired the world to embrace comments in the first place. How do we weave that idea into the web of tomorrow? How do we turn up the volume on everything we love about comments, discussion and debate online, without losing what we love in the process?

That, if you accept it, is your mission.

March 02 2011

17:20

Facebook Pushes Comments Upgrade, But Will Publishers Bite?

Bit by bit, feature by feature, Facebook is making inroads into sites that live outside of Facebook.com. Major publishers now sprinkle their sites with Facebook plug-ins, from fan page widgets to friend recommendations to the ubiquitous "Like" thumbs-up. And hey, why not? It's a win-win, with publishers getting more engagement and increased traffic from Facebook News Feeds, and Facebook getting more embedded in more of the web.

So it is not a bit surprising that along comes a Facebook Comments plug-in upgrade, offering added moderation for comments on publishers' sites with these very nifty features:

> Simple upgrade: Publishers only need to add one line of code to their site for the new comments box.

> Enhanced moderation: Publishers get control to make specific comments private (only seen by the commenter and their friends); or publishers can delete comments and blacklist users.

> Commenting in the News Feed: Users can now share the comments they've made on publishers' sites in their Facebook News Feed; their friends' comments on the News Feed update are automatically posted back to the publishers' sites.

The last feature is perhaps the most important viral/social element of the Comments system -- the chance to get comments to reach beyond a website and into the Facebook social stream and bounce back to the website itself. That kind of easy sharing was missing from comments previously.

So, for instance, when I posted a comment on the Facebook blog, I made sure to share it with my News Feed on Facebook, as you can see here:

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And then, when Jen Lee Reeves and I commented on that comment on my News Feed, our comments were posted both on the News Feed, as seen above, and on the original Facebook blog post, as seen here:

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Plus, there's the much vaunted advantage of making people comment with their real names and affiliations showing, cutting down on trolls and ne'erdowells. (At least, that's the hope -- until they figure out a way to create fake Facebook accounts and return with their invective flowing.)

The new Comments upgrade was announced yesterday, with publishers such as Sporting News, Examiner.com and Discovery jumping on board (and TechCrunch is trying a test as well). According to a discussion summary at Quora, the pros of Facebook Comments on TechCrunch so far are real identities, while the cons are loss of anonymous comments by people who are uncomfortable saying who they are. And more troubling is that you can't log in to Facebook Comments with Twitter or Google.

I spoke to Facebook media guy Justin Osofsky yesterday to do a quick interview about the release of the upgraded Comments. Below is the full audio interview, and the edited transcript of that call, including one interjection by Facebook spokesperson Jillian Carroll.

osofskyfull.mp3

Q&A

What was your overarching goal with the update of Comments?

Justin Osofsky: We're always working to iterate on our products, and this update is a natural evolution of our existing plug-in, which we first launched in February 2009. Over the past couple years, we worked really closely with partners, and listen to their feedback all the time. One of the consistent themes we heard related to Comments was that partners wanted a system with great moderation, which led to a quality discussion on their site and provided great distribution. That was the spirit behind the product we released today as an upgrade.

My team works with media partners, and listens to their feedback and helps them understand how to use Facebook's tools to derive value for their business. In regards to Comments, we heard two themes from [publishers] outside of moderation. One is they use Facebook as a distribution platform. Comments offer a great opportunity to get distribution. Users can easily share their comments back to Facebook; the average user on Facebook has 130 friends, so they can extend the conversation around the web.

The other theme we heard from partners is that they really wanted a quality conversation around their content. They cared more about quality than quantity. And as the number of blogs and content sites we visit every day grows, it should be easy to see the highest quality comments first -- based on feedback from your friends and the rankings from other readers.

Many people have said, including social media power user Robert Scoble, that they like the new Comments feature because it will lead to more civilized discourse because people have their names associated with comments. But I've seen the opposite on well trafficked Facebook pages because people can punch in their comments so easily without having to register first. Sometimes they will throw things out quicker than they should.

Osofsky: We think we can facilitate a higher quality conversation. The Comments plug-in makes commenting online more like having a conversation in the real world by leveraging authentic and persistent identities to create more quality and meaningful dialogue across the web. We think that will lead to a higher quality conversation when it's your real identity and you're representing your real self in the comments you're making.

How have you seen publishers adopting the new Comments plug-in? Are they using just Facebook Comments on stories, or using other types of commenting systems as well?

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Osofsky: We're seeing a lot of publishers who adopted Facebook's commenting system as the exclusive commenting system on their site. Sites like SportingNews.com and Discovery Communication and SBNation launched with Facebook Comments today.

You allow either Facebook or Yahoo log-ins now to comment on these sites. Where are you at with allowing people to use Google or Twitter log-ins?

Osofsky: As part of the update, we added Yahoo as a third-party log-in and we hope to add additional major providers in the future. We're always looking for ways to improve the product and add more flexibility for partners, but we have nothing further to announce today.

Who do you see as the main competition for your Comments plug-in? Do you think there's a way for you to co-exist with established players like Disqus (used on MediaShift), Echo, and others?

Osofsky: When we develop products, we focus on meeting the needs of our users and developers in creating really good solutions. Basically, this release is based on feedback from users and developers and partners. We plan on continuing to iterate on it, but we think that the greater moderation that's built into this product, the distribution of reaching Facebook's more than 500 million users, the higher engagement through the conversations -- threading on both the publisher's site and on Facebook itself -- and the quality makes us a really compelling product for publishers.

One of the features that's interesting is that when you see someone's comment, a friend of yours, on your News Feed on Facebook, you can respond to it, with the comment going back on the third party site. Do you think that might take people a little while to get used to?

Osofsky: I think users will understand the natural conversation. What's cool about this product is the most interesting content on Facebook is the stuff I discover through my friends. Over 30 billion pieces of content are shared on Facebook each month. It's a way to find content through friends and other people.

What the commenting system enables now is -- when I am commenting on an article on, say, MediaShift -- I immediately have social context and the opinion of my friend that is being delivered on whatever the article is on your site. From that, I think there's a very natural discussion that takes place that's unified on both sites. So users will see that lead to a richer, authentic dialogue on publishers' sites and on Facebook.

One thing I'd like to see is all the conversations happening about an article all over the web in one place. And Facebook has FriendFeed, which does that a little bit. Can you see sometime down the road that this might be a unified comment system that brings together comments from other sites too? So you'd see them all in your Facebook News Feed?

Osofsky: We see the News Feed as a way of discovering content from your friends. So if I comment on an article on the Sporting News and Discover and the Examiner, my friends can now see it on their News Feed. So it's a great way to discover the conversations that are happening among the friends you are most interested in.

But as far as being an aggregator of comments from other systems, you don't see that happening at some point?

Osofsky: No. The News Feed will always be a good way to make social discovery of content, but that's the way we view it. You go to Facebook to find out what your friends like. When you show up to Facebook.com and I show up to Facebook.com -- even though we typed in an identical URL -- we're having fundamentally different experiences because we have different friends and different interests, and they are sharing different things about their lives and from publisher sites. That's the experience that will continue on Facebook.

When I look in my Facebook News Feed I can see when people connect their tweets to their status updates. So I am seeing things from other services outside of Facebook. That's why I'm wondering whether other comments could be brought into the News Feed like that.

Osofsky: When we launched the platform in 2007, we basically opened it up for developers to allow people to connect with the things they care most about, and the entities they care most about -- whether it's a sports team, whether it's a celebrity. And because of that, I think that Facebook is a great way to find things in your life, and that's the way that Facebook works, and that's the way it's going to continue to work going forward.

When you talk about comment moderation, you said comments from friends and top-rated comments would rise to the top. Some comment systems have a "thumbs up" or "thumbs down." Will you continue to have just the thumbs up or would you consider a thumbs down as well?

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Osofsky: We will listen to feedback on how to best surface the best and most relevant comments. We have no immediate plans to change what we launched today. But essentially we want users to see a really quality conversation, and we think the way you do it is you first see the comments from your friends and then the comments ranked highly from other readers on a publisher's site.

There is a way to block comments that you don't like, or report them?

Osofsky: As you're reading, you can mark comments as spam or report them as being abusive.

And it's up to the publisher to decide what to do with those reports?

Osofsky: We will naturally surface the most highly ranked comments, those will be the ones you'll see more than other comments. And we also give moderation controls to publishers. Based on their feedback, we added a lot of moderation controls as well as "blacklist" controls so website administrators can control the visibility of a comment from making it private [i.e., only shown to the commenter and their friends] to hiding it completely. Or they they can block content or specific words -- such as foul language and spam -- all from their own moderation dashboard.

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Will a reader see a highly rated comment above their friends' comments or which one comes first? And can the publisher adjust that?

Osofsky: Each individual reader that goes to a publisher's site, on the site, they would see a different view. Just like you or I have different friends, from that, what you see in a comments box and I see would be different. The publisher has an administrative dashboard that also shows the comments that are being made on their site.

So which would be ranked higher, the friends' comments or the ones ranked high by readers?

Osofsky: The product seeks to surface the highest quality comments first, and the way in which we built it, we'll continue to evolve our approach to this to make sure there's really quality conversation.

Part of what you see with the comments is the person's affiliation or where they went to college. Is there a way to adjust what shows there alongside a person's name next to a comment?

Jillian Carroll (Facebook Communications): It's an interesting situation. If you made your school network public but not your work, then your school would show up even if it's more relevant where you work. Part of this will be addressed by privacy controls and people adjusting those.

Osofsky: When we release products, we respect people's privacy settings. And if they want to change their privacy settings, we give them the control to do that.

One other piece of feedback I heard was that TechCrunch had implemented Facebook Comments and they're not seeing a number on the number of comments for each article, that there are "48 comments" or whatever. Is that something you will be adding?

Osofsky: We believe our product encourages quality instead of quantity of comments. What I think you're seeing today on publisher sites is a very real and interesting dialogue in the comments section. One of the consistent things we heard from publishers, who we've been talking to the past couple years, is you often get so many comments, one can't surface the relevant and interesting comments. That's what this product is trying to address.

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What about people who aren't on Facebook? Would they still be able to comment on a story?

Osofsky: You can log in on Facebook or you can log in on Yahoo, and we'll be looking to add additional flexibility going forward in terms of log-in providers.

So at the moment if you don't have Yahoo and you don't have Facebook, then you're not able to make comments in the system.

Osofsky: The two ways to comment in the system is through Yahoo and Facebook, correct.

*****

What do you think about the upgraded Facebook Comments plug-in? If you run a site, would you use it? What do you see as its strong points and drawbacks? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit.

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November 16 2010

19:30

Google News experiments with metatags for publishers to give “credit where credit is due”

One of the biggest challenges Google News faces is one that seems navel-gazingly philosophical, but is in fact completely practical: how to determine authorship. In the glut of information on the web, much of it is, if not completely duplicative, then at least derivative of a primary source. Google is trying to build a way to bake an article’s originality into its no-humans-used algorithm.

Today, it’s rolling out an experiment that hopes to tackle the “original authorship” problem: two new metatags, syndication-source and original-source, intended to attribute authorship, via URLs, into the back end of news on the web. Though the tags will work in slightly different ways, Googlers Eric Weigle and Abe Epton note in a blog post, “for both the aim is to allow publishers to take credit for their work and give credit to other journalists.”

Metatags are just one of the many tools Google uses to determine which articles most deserve news consumers’ attention. They work, essentially, by including data about articles within webpages, data that help inform Google’s search algorithms. Google itself already relies on such tagging to help its main search engine read and contextualize the web. (Remember Rupert Murdoch’s so-far-unrealized threats to opt out of Google searches? He would have done it with a noindex tag.)

The tags are simple lines of HTML:

<meta name="syndication-source" content="http://www.example.com/wire_story_1.html">

<meta name="original-source" content="http://www.example.com/scoop_article_2.html">

And they’ll work, Weigle and Epton explain, like this:

syndication-source indicates the preferred URL for a syndicated article. If two versions of an article are exactly the same, or only very slightly modified, we’re asking publishers to use syndication-source to point us to the one they would like Google News to use. For example, if Publisher X syndicates stories to Publisher Y, both should put the following metatag on those articles:

original-source indicates the URL of the first article to report on a story. We encourage publishers to use this metatag to give credit to the source that broke the story. We recognize that this can sometimes be tough to determine. But the intent of this tag is to reward hard work and journalistic enterprise.

(This latter, original-source, is similar to Google’s canonical tag — but original-source will be specific to Google News rather than all of Google’s crawlers.)

Google News is asking publishers to use the new tags under the broad logic that “credit where credit is due” will benefit everyone: users, publishers, and Google. A karma-via-code kind of thing. So, yep: Google News, in its latest attempt to work directly with news publishers, is trusting competing news organizations to credit each other. And it’s also, interestingly, relying on publishers to take an active role in developing its own news search algorithms. In some sense, this is an experiment in crowdsourcing — with news publishers being the crowd.

At the moment, there are no ready-made tools for publishers to use these tags in their webpages — although one presumes, if they get any traction at all, there’ll be a plugins for many of the various content management systems in use at news organizations.

The tags, for any would-be Google Gamers out there, won’t affect articles’ ranking in Google News — at least not yet. (Sorry, folks!) What it will do, however, is provide Google with some valuable data — not just about how its new tags work, but also about how willing news publishers prove to be when it comes to the still-touchy process of credit-giving. That’s a question Google News has been trying to tackle for some time. “We think it is a promising method for detecting originality among a diverse set of news articles,” the tags’ explanation page notes, “but we won’t know for sure until we’ve seen a lot of data. By releasing this tag, we’re asking publishers to participate in an experiment that we hope will improve Google News and, ultimately, online journalism.”

October 22 2010

16:00

Using the power of publishing to influence: The U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s entry into the news biz

On the front page of today’s New York Times is a story on the prodigious corporate funding of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the tax-exempt group that supports business-friendly policies and has been an aggressive spender in recent (and upcoming) elections. The story, by Eric Lipton, Mike McIntire, and Don Van Natta Jr., focuses on the secrecy surrounding donors to the Chamber, which the group is not required by law to report.

But money isn’t the only area where associations can be kept quiet. For the past several years, the Chamber has also invested in its own publishing platform, running a network of local publications (print and online) that focus on legal issues in areas where business interests have been critical of the decisions of local courts. It also runs an online-only national publication called Legal Newsline.

“We’re beginning to see advocacy groups, nonprofit groups, mission-directed groups, not always evil by any means, having a particular truth that they see and a particular lens through which they look at news and they want to report news through that lens,” Jan Schaffer told me. She’s executive director of J-Lab at American University, and she pointed to Kaiser Health News, owned by the Kaiser Family Foundation, and Foreign Affairs, owned by the Council on Foreign Relations, as examples.

But there’s a big difference between the sites Schaffer mentioned — which happily promote their nonprofit parents — and the Chamber’s sites, which are published by a subsidiary called the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform. Nowhere on the main pages of the Chamber sites is the Institute or Chamber mentioned. In 2008, the most recent year available, the Institute spent $41 million (pdf) on various activities pushing for the cause of tort reform. At the same time, the Institute’s reporters are covering civil cases with large settlements and other tort reform-related news — and working for news outlets set up in some of the nation’s most tort-friendly jurisdictions.

Local publications in allegedly business-unfriendly jurisdictions

Along with the national site, the Chamber-affiliated local publications are all set in areas where plaintiffs’ attorneys have had success with class-action suits and other litigation. There’s little else that would connect the states of Louisiana and West Virginia and the areas around East St. Louis, Illinois (Madison and St. Clair counties) and Beaumont, Texas. To give an idea of the flavor of the publications, here’s the about page for the Louisiana site, the Louisiana Record:

To be sure, whether one agrees or disagrees with the happenings at our courthouses, no one should believe that what happens at them is the norm. This year, Louisiana’s courts were ranked among the most unfair in the nation, according to a survey (Harris Interactive) of top corporate lawyers and business executives.

Many accomplished local plaintiffs’ attorneys and erstwhile activists would argue that, in fact, they are the great leaders of their time, holding that Louisiana has it right and everyone else has it wrong.

On the flipside, many who drive this country’s economic engine — small businessmen, medical professionals and corporate executives — argue the opposite. They hold that plaintiffs’ attorneys use frivolous lawsuits to game the system and pillage private property. If every state were like ours, they say, America would be out of business.

At The Louisiana Record, we hope to provide an objective view of the playing field as well as an active forum for both sides of the argument so that all of us can decide for ourselves.

Similar phrasing appears at the West Virginia, Madison, and Southeast Texas sites. (The Madison site says a “welcome mat to class action filings and lottery-like awards have helped create a ‘judicial hellhole’ reputation.”)

The mention of a Harris Interactive survey refers to the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform’s annual State Liability Systems Ranking Study, which gave low marks to the jurisdictions where the Chamber publications are based.

Chamber says it does not interfere editorially

The publisher of the sites, Brian Timpone, says the Chamber is no different than any other parent company. “The Chamber is like most media owners — it stays out of editorial operations,” Timpone told me over email. “That was the deal upon which we agreed when I started the first Record in 2004 (I was a community newspaper publisher then) and it remains the deal today. Myself and my editorial team have full editorial control. There is no direction from ownership — thematic or otherwise.”

Timpone called his disclosure policy — explaining who owns the publication when the Chamber is specifically mentioned in the story — fair. He said in an email that that is when it is the best time to tell readers because it is “communicated in a useful, proper context.”

When asked for comment, a Chamber spokesperson said in a statement that it “has great respect for the norms of professional journalism. Our professional publisher, editors and reporters have strong journalistic backgrounds and skills, and operate under the highest professional standards and conduct.” The Chamber statement said it is not involved in the day-to-day of the operations, and is hands off when it comes to editorial control.

Legal Newsline has the look and feel of a trade publication, the kind read by members of the legal community, lawmakers, and traditional reporters looking for story ideas. Several journalists I spoke with said they thought the Chamber should be more upfront about its connection, even if the journalists working for them publish accurate stories.

“I think they should just put on the site that they’re the U.S. Chamber of Commerce,” Mary Jacoby, the editor-in-chief of a legal publication called Main Justice, told me. (I wrote about Main Justice in May.) Jacoby is particularly irked because story subjects on the Chamber’s sites sometimes overlap with hers, which covers the Justice Department. Several of her reporters linked to Legal Newsline in their stories before she was aware that the site wasn’t an independent trade publication. “It’s news, it’s true that they have real news and they have real reporters, but they’re writing it from an agenda and trying to underline certain ideas that they have,” she said.

The importance of disclosure

For example, the current top story at the Southeast Texas Record is “With retirement announced, tort reform groups praise Judge Jack’s impact.” An excerpt:

[Retiring U.S. District Judge Janis Graham] Jack’s 2005 decision also “laid a corner stone for future investigations of abuse of the civil justice system,” according to Darren McKinney, spokesperson for the American Tort Reform Association.

“We here at ATRA…are admiring of Judge Jack’s impact in Texas, which has long been known to be a judicial hellhole,” McKinney said. “Her decision reverberated throughout the nation.”

ATRA is the group that publishes an annual list of “Judicial Hellholes,” which it describes as “America’s most unfair jurisdictions.” Each of the areas covered by the Chamber publications is mentioned in the executive summary of the list — West Virginia as a “Hellhole,” Madison County, Ill., and the Gulf Coast of Texas on a Hellhole “Watch List,” and Louisiana’s Orleans and Jefferson parishes as “other areas to watch.”

The Southeast Texas Record story also features approving quotes from Texans for Lawsuit Reform and Texans Against Lawsuit Abuse, two groups that share the Chamber’s perspective on tort reform. But because the story does not mention the Chamber specifically, it carries no disclosure.

On the web, disclosure is perhaps even more important than in print. Readers aren’t necessarily making an active choice to consume information on Legal Newsline; as with any site on the web, visitors often arrive via search or a link from a mainstream source. USA Today, for example, has linked to articles on the site on its automatically aggregated topic pages. USA Today’s online editor Chet Czarniak said he’d take a look at the Chamber sites to see if the reader needs more of a heads up. “It’s been a while since we’ve done a full review” of the sources used in the topic pages, Czarniak said. “I think frankly, I’m now curious about the sites we have out there.”

This isn’t the first time the disclosure policy has come into question. In 2007, the Southeast Texas Record came under fire from plaintiff attorneys who said the print edition, which is distributed at the local courthouse, was a dubious attempt to influence jurors.

Nonprofit journalism is booming, at the local and national level. When our Jim Barnett was trying to suss out what makes a nonprofit news outlet “legit” in his eyes, he cited financial transparency as a key element. Looking at the front page of one of the Chamber’s publications, that transparency is sometimes hard to see.

February 26 2010

15:00

This Week in Review: The Times’ blogs behind the wall, paid news on the iPad, and a new local news co-op

[Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week’s top stories about the future of news and the debates that grew up around them. —Josh]

A meter for the Times’ blogs: Plenty of stuff happened at the intersection of journalism and new media this week, and for whatever reason, a lot of it had something to do with The New York Times. We’ll start with the most in-depth piece of information from the Times itself: A 35-minute Q&A session with the three executives most responsible for the Times’ coming paywall (or, more specifically and as they prefer to call it, a metered model) at last Friday’s paidContent 2010 conference. No bombshells were dropped — paidContent has a short summary to go with the video — but it did provide the best glimpse yet into the Times’ thinking behind and approach to their paywall plans.

The Times execs said they believe the paper can maintain its reach despite the meter while adding another valuable source of revenue. Meghan Keane of Econsultancy was skeptical about those plans, saying that the metered model could turn the Times into a niche newspaper.

Reuters’ Felix Salmon started one of the more perplexing exchanges of the session (starting at about 18:10 on the video) when he asked whether the Times would put blogs behind its paywall. The initial response, from publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., was “stay tuned,” followed shortly, from digital chief Martin Nisenholtz, by “our intention is to keep blogs behind the wall.” A Times spokeswoman clarified the statements later (yes, blogs would be part of the metered model), and Salmon blogged about his concern with the Times’ execs’ response. He was not the only one who thought this might not be a good idea.

My take: Salmon has some valid concerns, and, piggybacking off of the ideas he wrote after the paywall’s initial announcement, even the Times’ most regular online readers will be quite hesitant to use their limited meter counts on, say, two-paragraph blog posts on the economics of valet parking. Times blogs like Freakonomics and Bits are a huge part of their cachet on the web, and including them in the meter could do them significant damage.

The iPad and paid content: We also saw another aspect of the Times’ paid-content plans at a conference in Australia, where Marc Frons, the paper’s chief technology officer, talked about the Times’ in-progress iPad app. Frederic Filloux, another one of the conference’s speakers, provided a useful summary of publishers’ attitudes and concerns about creating apps for the iPad, including their expectation that Apple will provide some sort of news store built on the iTunes framework.

Two media vets offered a word of caution to news organizations excited about the iPad’s possibilities for gaining revenue for news: Kara Swisher of The Wall Street Journal’s All Things Digital blog said that “with their hands on none of the key technology and innovation levers online … media giants continue to be without even a pair sticks to rub together to make digital fire.” And citizen journalism pioneer Dan Gillmor wondered whether news orgs “should get in bed with a company that makes unilateral and non-transparent decisions” like the ones Apple’s been making for years.

For those following the future of paid news content, we have a few other new data points to consider: The stats-heavy sports publication The Sporting News will begin charging for its daily digital edition, and a small daily newspaper in Washington State says the first year of their paywall has been a tentative success, with less effect on traffic than expected. Also, Alistair Bruce of Microsoft has a thorough breakdown of who’s charging for what online in a slideshow posted last week. It’s a wonderful resource you’ll want to keep for future reference.

NYT, NYU team up on local journalism: The Times also had one of the week’s big future-of-journalism announcements — a partnership with New York University to create and run a news site devoted to New York’s East Village, where NYU has several buildings. NYU professor Jay Rosen has all the details you’ll need, including who’s providing what. (NYT: publishing platform, editorial oversight, data sources, inspiration. NYU: editor’s salary, student and faculty labor, offices.)

The partnership raised a few media-critic eyebrows, mostly over the issue of the Times using free (to them, at least) student labor after buying out and laying off 100 paid reporters. The Awl, BNETThe New York Observer, and Econsultancy all have short but acerbic reactions making just that point, with The Awl making a quick note about the professionalization of journalism and BNET speculating about the profit margins the Times will make off of this project.

Innocence, objectivity and reality in journalism: Jay Rosen kicked off some conversation in another corner of the future-of-journalism discussion this week, bringing his influential PressThink blog out of a 10-month hiatus with a post on a theme he’s been pushing hard on Twitter over the past year: Political journalists’ efforts to appear innocent in their reporting at the expense of the truth.

Rosen seizes on a line in a lengthy Times Tea Party feature on “a narrative of impending tyranny” and wonders why the Times wouldn’t tell us whether that narrative was grounded in reality. Journalistic behavior like this, Rosen says, is grounded in the desire to appear innocent, “meaning a determination not to be implicated, enlisted, or seen by the public as involved.” That drive for innocence leads savviness to supplant reality in political journalism, Rosen said.

The argument’s been made before, by Rosen and others such as James Fallows, and Joey Baker sums it up well in a post building off of Rosen’s. But Rosen’s post drew a bit of criticism — in his comments, from the left (Mother Jones), from the libertarian right (Reason), and from tech blogger Stephen Baker. The general strain running through these responses was the idea that the Times’ readers are smart enough to determine the veracity of the claims being made in the article. (Rosen calls that a dodge.) The whole discussion is a fresh, thoughtful iteration of the long-running debate over objectivity in news coverage.

Where do reporting and aggregation fit?: We got some particularly valuable data and discussion on one of journalism’s central conversations right now — how reporting will work in a new ecosystem of news. Here at the Lab, Jonathan Stray examined how that new landscape looked in one story about charges of Chinese schools’ connections to hacks into Google. He has a fairly thorough summary of the results, headlined by the finding that just 13 of the 121 versions of the story on Google News involved original reporting. “When I think of how much human effort when into re-writing those hundred other unique stories that contained no original reporting, I cringe,” Stray writes. “That’s a huge amount of journalistic effort that could have gone into reporting other deserving stories. Why are we doing this?”

Also at the Lab, CUNY professor C.W. Anderson spun off of Stray’s study with his own musings on the definition and meaning of original reporting and aggregation. He concludes that aggregation/curation/filtering isn’t quite original reporting, but it does provide journalistic value that should be taken into consideration.

Two other interesting pieces on the related subjects of citizen journalism and hyperlocal journalism: PR/tech blogger Darren Barefoot raises concerns about citizen journalism’s ability to do investigative journalism, and J-Lab’s Jan Schaffer makes a strong case for the importance of entrepreneurs and citizen journalists in the new system of news.

Reading roundup: I’ve got two news developments and two thoughtful pieces for you. First, BusinessWeek reported on AOL’s efforts to build “the newsroom of the future,” a model largely driven by traffic and advertising data, not unlike the controversial Demand Media model, only with full-time journalists.

Editors Weblog raises some questions about such an openly traffic-driven setup, and media/tech watcher Tom Foremski says AOL should be focusing on creating smart news analysis. Social media guru Chris Brogan likes the arrangement, noting that there’s a difference between journalism and publishing.

The second news item is ABC News’ announcement that they’re looking to cut 300 to 400 of its 1,400 positions and move toward a more streamlined operation built around “one-man band” digital journalists. The best examinations of what this means for ABC and TV journalism are at the Los Angeles Times and the Poynter Institute.

The first thoughtful piece is theoretical: CUNY professor Jeff Jarvis’ overview of the evolution of the media’s “spheres of discovery,” from brands to algorithms to human links to predictive creation. It’s a good big-picture look at where new media stand and where they might be going.

The second is more practical: In a Q&A, Howard Owens of the award-winning upstate New York hyperlocal startup The Batavian gives an illuminating glimpse into life in hyperlocal journalism. He touches on everything from advertising to work hours to digital equipment. Building off of Owens’ comments of the personal nature of online news, Jason Fry muses about the uphill battle that news faces to win our attention online. But if that battle is won, Fry says, the loyalty and engagement is so much greater online: “I chose this. I’m investing in it. This doesn’t work and wastes my investment — next. This does work and rewards my investment — I’m staying.”

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