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March 28 2013

14:00

At The Wall Street Journal, a smartphone app has reporters on board for shooting video

The text-based web is dead, says Michael Downing. When AOL CEO Tim Armstrong announced his intention this month to transform the company into a platform for video, Downing heard a death knell — one he’s been expecting for some time. We are, after all, as he says, on the precipice of “the rise of the visual web.”

Downing has a dog in this fight; he’s the founder of Tout, a video sharing website and app that makes it easy for users to upload and share short — under 15 seconds — videos in real-time. Although originally designed as a consumer device, it also appealed to publishers: The Wall Street Journal approached Downing with the idea for a proprietary app that reporters could use as a news gathering tool. With the addition of some analytics tools and a centralized management function that allows editors to quickly vet clips before they’re published, that became WorldStream, which we wrote about in August.

“Consumer behavior has become much more accustomed to consuming the news they want as it happens,” says Downing. “The WSJ was trying to be much more in line with real-time news and real-time publishing.”

More than half a year later, how’s WorldStream working out? The Journal seems pretty happy. On the business side, WorldStream point man and WSJ deputy editor of video Mark Scheffler describes the project as a “destination but also a clearinghouse.” While all of the WSJ’s mobile videos are first published to the feed, many go on to live second lives across a wide variety of platforms. Some clips follow reporters to live broadcast appearances, while others are embedded into article pages and blogs. Andy Regal, the Journal’s head of video production, said that they don’t break out WorldStream views from the newspaper’s overall video numbers, which he said total between 30 and 35 million streams per month.

That kind of traffic across platforms draws the attention of advertisers. The WSJ says video ads generate “premium” rates, meaning somewhere around $40 to $60 CPM. Says Tim Ware, WSJ director of mobile sales, of the Journal’s broader video strategy: “We’re very bullish on the growth of WSJ Live this fiscal year, and thus the growth in video ad revenue. We’re also starting to contemplate some one-off sponsorships within our overarching video coverage of select events and stories.” (After spending about a total of about an hour on WorldStream, however, I only saw one ad — for a “smart document solutions” company — repeated about a half dozen times.)

But the surprise, both for Downing and WSJ management, is how readily — and ably — the WSJ’s reporters have taken to the new medium; getting reporter buy-in has been a struggle for many newspaper video initiatives. “It started out as an internal tool because we didn’t know how many people would be able to accommodate this kind of approach with the technology and the software,” Regal says, “but they think about it as part of their daily work now.” Armed with iPhones, iPods, iPads, and Android devices, hundreds of WSJ staffers have filed video clips via Tout; in the 229 days since launch, that’s 2,815 videos. In many cases, Downing said, the reporters didn’t even need training: “They just jumped right in and started using it.”

Charles Levinson has been reporting for the Journal from places like Syria “What are the assets that give us an advantage over the competitor? We have 2,000 reporters around the world,” he said. “How do you parlay 2,000 reporters into good video?” Levinson says the Tout app is helping the WSJ avoid print media’s tendency toward “mediocre” video production.

Christina Binkley is a style columnist at the WSJ who first experimented with the app while reporting on New York’s 2012 Fashion Week. She says there’s a lot of pressure on reporters to be producing a huge variety of content — articles, columns, blogs, Instagrams, tweets. She said, unlike some other apps, WorldStream has really stuck with her: “I can add a lot of value to my column very quickly without having to mic somebody up.”

Scheffler says some of the reporters have gained basic video shooting skills so quickly that the footage they file can be edited together into longer clips that could pass for more traditionally produced video. Going forward, Scheffler hopes to put better mobile editing tools in their hands: “Being able to be full-fledged creators on a mobile platform is something that we’re just going to continue being at the frontier of,” he said.

Regal’s focus, meanwhile, will be to make sure none of that prime footage is being lost in the ever quickening deluge that is the WorldStream feed. He’s considering a “Best of WorldStream” weekly digest, and a variety of other news packages that make that valuable content more findable, and more shareable.

News organizations have been chasing the promise of video advertising for years now, and the rise of apps like Vine illustrate the rise of social video sharing. But Downing says he isn’t worried about the competition. “Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of the existing video sharing apps have to do with self-expression,” he says, comparing Vine to something like Instagram. Tout’s enterprise apps skip the idea of sharing with friends and focuses on fast, concise updates from outlets that users follow based on broader personal interest.

“It’s a real-time, reverse chronological vertical feed of updates,” says Downing, “Whether it’s Twitter or LinkedIn, that is becoming the standard form factor for being able to track that information that you curate yourself.”

Since partnering with The Wall Street Journal last year, a number of publishers have pursued similar agreements with Tout — CBS, Fox, NBC Universal, WWE, La Gardere and Conde Nast are among them. By the end of 2013, Downing expects to host around 200 media outlets, including some of News Corp.’s other brands. Downing says these publisher agreements are now the company’s “primary mode of business,” not the consumer product.

What does Downing see coming in video? He confidently points to Google’s spring 2012 earnings report, when for the first time, its cost-per-click rate fell. “That was the sounding bell. That was the beacon. That was the one clear signal to the world that the era of the print metaphor defining the web experience…was over.”

August 01 2011

14:00

Newsbeat, Chartbeat’s news-focused analytics tool, places its bets on the entrepreneurial side of news orgs

Late last week, Chartbeat released a new product: Newsbeat, a tool that takes the real-time analytics it already offers and tailors them even more directly to the needs of news orgs. Chartbeat is already famously addictive, and Newsbeat will likely up the addiction ante: It includes social sharing information — including detailed info about who has been sharing stories on Twitter — and, intriguingly, notifications when stories’ traffic patterns deviate significantly from their expected path. (For more on how it works, Poynter has a good overview, and GigaOm’s Mathew Ingram followed up with a nice discussion of the decision-making implications of the tool.)

What most stood out to me, though, both when I chatted with Tony Haile, Chartbeat’s general manager, and when I poked around Newsbeat, is what the tool suggests about the inner workings of an increasingly online-oriented newsroom. Chartbeat, the parent product, offers an analytic overview of an entire site — say, Niemanlab.org — and provides a single-moment snapshot of top-performing stories site-wide. Newsbeat, on the other hand, can essentially break down the news site into its constituent elements via a permissioning system that provides personalized dashboards for individual reporters and editors. Newsbeat allows those individual journalists to see, Haile notes, “This is how my story’s doing right now. This is how my people are doing right now.”

On the one hand, that’s a fairly minor thing, an increasingly familiar shift in perspective from organization to person. Still, though, it’s worth noting the distinction Newsbeat is making between news org and news brand. Newsbeat emphasizes the individual entities that work together, sometimes in sync and sometimes not so much, under the auspices of a particular journalistic brand. So, per Newsbeat, The New York Times is The New York Times, yes…but it’s also, and to some extent more so, the NYT Business section and the NYT Politics page and infographics and and blogs and Chris Chivers and David Carr and Maureen Dowd. It’s a noisy, newsy amalgam, coherent but not constrained, its components working collectively — but not, necessarily, concertedly.

That could be a bad thing: Systems that lack order tend to beget all the familiar problems — redundancy, wasted resources, friction both interpersonal and otherwise — that disorder tends to produce. For news orgs, though, a little bit of controlled chaos can be, actually, quite valuable. And that’s because, in the corporate context, the flip side of fragmentation is often entrepreneurialism: Empower individuals within the organization — to be creative and decisive and, in general, expert — and the organization overall will be the better for it. Analytics, real-time and otherwise, serve among other things as data points for editorial decision-making; the message implicit in Newsbeat’s design is that, within a given news org, several people (often, many, many, many people) will be responsible for a brand’s moment-by-moment output.

Which is both obvious and important. News has always been a group effort; until recently, though, it’s also been a highly controlled group effort, with an organization’s final product — a paper, a mag, a broadcast — determined by a few key players within the organization. News outlets haven’t just been gatekeepers, as the cliché goes; they’ve also had gatekeepers, individuals who have had the ultimate responsibility over the news product before it ships.

Increasingly, though, that’s not the case. Increasingly, the gates of production are swinging open to journalists throughout, if not fully across, the newsroom. That’s a good thing. It’s also a big thing. And Newsbeat is reflecting it. With its newest tool, Chartbeat is self-consciously trying to help organize “the newsroom of the future,” Haile told me — and that newsroom is one that will be dynamic and responsive and, more than it’s ever been before, collaborative.

March 08 2011

23:00

Something to “Like”? Facebook offers real-time analytics

Facebook just launched a round of updates to Insights, its analytics tool for sites that feature its social networking plugins. The updates include a bunch of useful improvements — you can now measure impressions, Comments Box analytics, and Like button clickthrough rates (yep, that’s a thing now!) — but the most significant (and potentially quite awesome) of the updates is the addition of real-time analytics capabilities when it comes to measuring Facebook interaction. Think Chartbeat for social engagement.

Think also, though, Google Analytics for social engagement. Facebook has been expanding its role when it comes to its relationship with publishers — not only through its broad Facebook + Media efforts, but also through an array of new plugins designed to help news sites better understand (and, then, interact with) their readership. And the Insights updates, via aggregate (and anonymized) usage stats, provide data not just about traffic, but also about user demographics. It’s not just about how many people are liking (and, you know, Liking) your stuff; it’s about who’s liking it — according to age range, gender, location, and language. Knowing all those demographics — some of which Google Analytics can’t provide — gives publishers the option of targeting their content (and with it, perhaps, their advertising) to specific user groups. And, given the real-time data, during specific times of the day.

The revamped Insights tool is, essentially, an invitation to publishers to experiment with how they present their content and, with it, their Facebook-integrated features. Is a Like button more effective at the top of stories, or below them? Or both? Do the majority of shares come organically — through cut-and-pasted links — or via plugins? (Yep, the updated Insights tool measures that, too.) Those small data points can make a big difference as far as traffic — and, obviously, user engagement — is concerned. Same deal from the Share/Like/Recommend perspective: Are your readers more inclined to distribute your content when it’s framed with a “Like” button, or a “Recommend”? Once you know, you can design accordingly. We use Insights to track Facebook engagement here at the Lab; it’ll be interesting to see what it will reveal.

January 13 2011

19:30

National Post rolls out digital “welcome mats”

On Monday, Canada’s National Post published an article about a local school instituting a ban on gay-straight alliance groups. It’s a good local story with broad cultural relevance, and, not surprisingly, it got linked on the web-curiosities aggregator Fark. Which led to a sudden surge in traffic to the story on the Post’s site.

The Post uses the real-time analytics tool Chartbeat — an addiction for many a digital newsie — and so noticed both the spike and its source. So its web production team updated the school story to include a specialized greeting to the new visitors (“Welcome, Fark readers!”), as well as some hand-curated links that it figured might interest members of the Fark community.

“We’re trying to make things just a little more relevant — a little more meaningful — to you in every way we can,” Chris Boutet, the senior producer for digital media at the Post, told me. The paper’s been experimenting with what it calls “welcome mats” since the summer, doing similar experiments with “Westerners vs. the world: We’re the Weird ones” and “Garbage truck cameras give new meaning to trash TV” (“Welcome, Drudge Report readers”);
A Tale of Two Ghettos” (“Welcome, Reddit readers”); and “Margaret Atwood Thinks the Moon Landing Was Fake — Or Does She?” and “When is twins too many?” (“Welcome, Fark readers”).

The Post isn’t the only outlet to experiment with the welcome mat idea. The Wall Street Journal, when it realized that an old story ranked first on a Google search for “Verizon iPhone,” tried something similar, as well. So have we here at the Lab. (If you know of any others, we’d love to hear about them in the comments.)

The mats take a few minutes to put together, Boutet says, and the return isn’t just a matter of more traffic — although that’s certainly part of it. (With the school story, “the clickthrough was just okay,” he notes. “It wasn’t huge, but it certainly was more through traffic than we would have seen if we hadn’t had that there. It always is.”) The bigger idea is brand identity. “We basically have two kinds of readers that visit the site: native readers and nomadic readers. Natives come to you because you’re you; nomadic readers are coming in from other communities or search traffic.” Welcome mats are an attempt to do what every news organization hopes to: to convert some of the nomads into natives. “We’re just trying to get them that little bit deeper into the site,” Boutet notes, and “to get them to develop some opinion or feeling about what the National Post is. And maybe next time, they’ll come back here natively.”

We often talk about the web’s effect on narrative, how its new grammars are changing the way we write and connect and even think. What we talk less about, though, is the web’s effect on the structures narratives operate within: assumptions about what constitutes relevance itself. “Archive,” we assume, is an analog concept. But there’s no need for it to be. There’s nothing to say that older stories can’t find new relevance in a networked environment — or that stories’ structures can’t leverage analytics in the same way that their narratives do. Welcome mats are one way to do that. (For Wordpress users, there’s even a handy plugin, WP Greet Box, that can generate those mats automatically.) Another might be, for example, to add specific social media buttons to stories when they’re seen by users who’ve reached the site from them. (Someone who came to a site from StumbleUpon might see StumbleUpon buttons on the site’s pages, for instance. A Digg visitor would see Digg buttons.)

Real-time analytics — in fact, the plethora of new metrics available for news organizations to learn and otherwise benefit from — mean that outlets have a fantastic new way to relate to their users and, of course, their products. Stories on news sites, Boutet notes, can feel very static. “We fire and forget, and they read it, and no one ever looks at it again.” But welcome mats, and similar real-time updates, can be small gestures of dynamism. “What we want to do is make people aware, in a subtle way, that this is all part of the communication between the reader and the editors of a site. We’re watching you watching us.”

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