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July 26 2012

14:00

The newsonomics of Amazon vs. Main Street

Order it on Amazon. Then run to your front door and have it handed to you. The news of Amazon’s same-day delivery blitzkrieg — first explained in depth in an excellent Financial Times piece — elicited a near-maniacal laugh among newspaper companies: What next?

Of course, the impact of Amazon’s move extends well beyond the further toll it may take on the ever-shrinking newspaper business — but that crater-creating possibility may well be the biggest news of a big news summer. Advertising — in Amazon-contested markets — will never be the same.

We’ve known that newspaper advertising revenues are in a deep, downward spiral — higher single digits this year, with early budget guesses showing the same for 2013. In the U.S., overall ad revenues are half what they were five years ago, down $25 billion a year from 2007.

Here’s what most hurts most about the new Amazon threat: It aims directly at the one category of newspaper advertising that has fared the best, retail.

Classifieds has decimated by interactive databases. National has migrated strongly digital. Retail, which made up of just 47 percent of newspaper ad revenues 10 years ago, is now up to 57 percent of newspaper totals. Now that advertising, albeit in just a few markets initially, will have to compete with Amazon-forced marketplace change.

Amazon, of course, isn’t targeting newspaper revenues. It’s targeting customers — selling more to current ones and engaging new ones. Further hits to newspaper revenue are just another unintended consequence of accelerating disruption of all business as usual.

The same-day push is built on strategies long in the making. Amazon knew its day of reckoning on its sales tax exemption would come. Like all big, smart companies with legions of lawyers and lobbyists, it delayed the inevitable, and with each delay, built market strength and cash.

Now the jig is finally up. Combine revenue-starved states and the late-arriving sense that Internet business no longer needs a societal jumpstart, and Amazon is being forced to charge sales taxes, though it negotiated their arrival with great agility. The exemption allowed Amazon an incredible price advantage, and many of us have been glad to take advantage of it. Not having to charge customers four to nine percent in sales in taxes (which land-based merchants couldn’t avoid) allowed it to provide lower prices.

Amazon knew this day would come. What the market didn’t know was that sales tax settlements would lead to Amazon quickly flipping its model. It had paid sales taxes in a few states, forced to do that in places it had warehouses. So it placed those warehouses close enough to customers (Nevada for Californians, for instance) to make two-day shipping a snap. Now, with the tax changes underway (it’s estimated that Amazon will be on the hook for sales taxes for half the U.S. population) , it no longer needs to selectively place vast warehouses in only a few states — it can place them everywhere and much closer to customers.

Today, if you’re in Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Indianapolis, New York City, Philly, Seattle or D.C. , you can place an order and it the same day through Local Express Delivery. That becomes Amazon’s base program. It is now building out that simple concept with 7-Eleven distribution lockers and much more, city by dense city. Behind that new delivery service stands an array of back-end technologies, analytics, and logistics that far surpass what anyone else possesses. Even now, to get a sense, of what’s behind the evolving system, just check out the left-hand navigation on this page.

The program builds on the smarts of Amazon Prime, whereby 10 million Amazon customers pay $79 a year and get “free” two-day shipping. Same-day is just the next logical step, both for delivery of goods and deepening of customer relationships and selling opportunities — which, remember, increasingly include media (“The newsonomics of Amazon’s Prime/Subscription Moves”).

The unintended impacts of Amazon’s same-day push will be as intriguing as the ones we can foresee. Just for starters:

  • Will local advertising expand or retract? Retailing will be more intensely competitive, and anti-Amazon appeals need to be transmitted somehow, via smartphone, websites, print, community events, and more. Was SoLoMo just a dream, or is it now a counter-strategy? (Newspaper companies efforts to become regional ad agencies, ironically, may get a boost from the Amazon move.) Preprints, which may total as much as 40 percent of the $11 billion or so U.S. dailies take in as “retail,” will be a prime front here, one way or the other. While retail advertising impacts could be substantial, brand advertising may well become more important, as online buyers decide among brands in different ways.
  • Will newspapers be forced to accept still another death blow to their fortunes, as retail ads are further disrupted? The impact on print is up in the air. Further, Find ‘n Save, a fledgling newspaper-consortium-owned Amazon competitor finds itself even more outmatched as same-day delivery further trumps one of its key differentiations.
  • Will Google, with all its eggs in the ad basket, find unexpected competition, as Amazon further disintermediates advertising itself, becoming the first and only stop between “I want this” and delivery of the good? Will advertising itself be replaced to larger degree as manufacturers are forced to differentiate themselves within Amazon, maybe moving marketing spend there?
  • What will cityscapes and shopping centers of all kinds look like if Amazon’s plans succeed? Imagine a cityscape without big box stores, Walmart, Best Buy, and Bed Bath & Beyond? Impossible, you say? How about one without Borders, Tower Records, and Blockbuster Video, all of which have left hulking holes in the American suburban landscape. Nothing is safe from digital disruption; nothing, holy or commercial, is sacred. Optimistically, a couple of dozen communities are creating next-generation uses for these eyesores, as the big box reuse movement (good rundown and reuse wiki via Slate) has been unexpectedly spawned. Will big boxes, the spirit-sapping, wallet-supporting icons of our age of disenchantment, take the brunt of Amazon’s assault, or will it be smaller stores?
  • What might it do to employment? Will CVS checkers be replaced by more truck drivers and order fillers? Or is the future simply more robotic, as Amazon’s purchase of warehouse-product-picking Kiva Systems changes the supply chain? No, it’s not sci-fi, though it appears to be the year of the “robots,” as computers do everything from local “reporting” (Journatic) to filling our orders for toothpaste and printer ink.

Let’s take a first look at the competition, as we look at the newsonomics of Amazon vs. Main Street.

In one corner, there’s Amazon. Its strengths:

  • Quick findability, in your living room.
  • Delivery to your door, or near it, now “same day.”
  • Wide selection, often more than is available locally (but sometimes less).
  • Wide-ranging and increasingly deep user reviews.
  • Guaranteed satisfaction or easy return.

In the other corner, it’s Main Street. Its appeals:

  • Buy it now. Pick it up. See, buy, use. Ad veteran Randy Novak says that more than 80 percent of retail sales now come from areas within 15 minutes of a stores’ location.
  • The visual and tactile shopping experience; NAA’s Randy Bennett points to retailers’ role as “showcasers.” Then, there’s shopping as entertainment, plainly as much heaven for some as hell for others.
  • Habit.
  • Getting out of the house once in a while.
  • Support of the local guy.

Proximity here is fascinating. The local edge has long been proximity, that 15-minutes-away appeal. Now, Amazon counters that with 12 inches away (your nearest screen) and some number of hours, as Americans do their new arithmetic on buying.

Beyond proximity, there’s price. Yes, Amazon is acknowledging that the 20-year-long sales tax furlough it got is finally ending. It knows it will have to add that 4-9 percent of sales tax to its prices across the country within several years. So where will that tacked-on pricing put it?

Let’s remember that its world-class algorithms track competitors’ pricing in real time. After all, that’s been — often to Amazon investors’ chagrin — CEO Jeff Bezos’ strategy from the beginning: sacrifice profit margin for market share and growth. Its last quarterly report showed 1 percent net profit — on $13 billion of sales. Expect it to match or beat on many items, absorbing low margins, and maybe loss leaders to win market share from Main Street.

How much room, with tight margins, will Amazon have to maneuver? That could tell the tale here. Squeezing margins — lowering prices — will have one at least near-term consumer impact. If you’re selling the same vitamins, shoes, or dog food as Amazon, you’ll have to lower some prices to compete. The cautionary tales of bookstores and music stores, and now Best Buy, show that consumers don’t find a lot of sense in paying more locally than through the web.

As we consider price, the shipping fee comes clearly into view. With Prime, the innovation that paved this road, members don’t worry about each shipping cost. Pay once — that $79 annual fee that’s been remarkably stable — you get shipping “free.” Look for Amazon to embed free same-day shipping into another similar program, Prime Same-Day, for $99 or $139, or include it for anyone spending more than $500 a year, for example; we believe that Prime members may average $1,500 in annual purchases already. As with Prime and with Amazon overall, again, build market share for the long term, even at the risks of low profitability or even loss.

There’s a lot of nuance we’ll miss in the first passes on the topic, of which Farhad Manjoo had the best. This commercial initiative is aimed of course at goods, not services. It’s the goods-selling competitive and geographic landscape — think Amazon categories like drugs, clothes, toys, and electronics — that could be transformed. Services, like those that we use today — health care, restaurants, fitness centers, and, of course, coffee shops — would be unaffected. In an ideal world, we may have less time for mundane shopping and more for more fruitful activity. Or we may have big empty buildings, fewer community jobs, and less socializing. And, maybe people will have more time to read. We’ll probably see all these things happening at once.

Amazon, of course, just wants to make money. Yet, it has already, in part, disintermediated shopping itself. Expect it to be extend its Subscribe (interesting choice of words, right?) and Save program, wherein you get small discounts for getting regular deliveries of goods, like detergent, that you reorder over and over again. Expect it to try to change our mindsets from shopping to deciding and then letting it go, and getting it delivered without a second thought — changing the very notion of shopping.

With price differentiation now driven by algorithm, with ad offers driven by those with the biggest data, and now with delivery of our daily goods newly rationalized, it looks like those that prize news creation best continue to look elsewhere for revenue. That’s one of the reasons I’ve become increasingly enthusiastic about reader revenue. Yes, newspapers could repurpose their daily delivery systems here, to actually aid Amazon, but that seems like a real longshot. The technocrats of commerce, Amazon, Google, Facebook and Apple, are the biggest game in town — and increasingly, they want to be the only one.

Photo by Stephen Woods used under a Creative Commons license.

January 04 2012

16:51

Daily Must Reads, Jan. 4, 2012

The best stories across the web on media and technology, curated by Nathan Gibbs


1. Yahoo announces PayPal president Scott Thompson as its new CEO (TechCrunch)

2. Wikipedia raises $20 million in its annual donation drive, from 1 million donors  (Wikimedia Foundation)

3. No warrant needed for GPS monitoring, judge rules (Wired)

4. Why Twitter's "verified account" failure matters (GigaOM)

5. It is now illegal to visit a foreign website in Belarus (The Next Web)

6. Slate partners with YouTube to bring its Explainer to video (Nieman Journalism Lab)



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



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This is a summary. Visit our site for the full post ».

16:51

Daily Must Reads, Jan. 4, 2011

The best stories across the web on media and technology, curated by Nathan Gibbs


1. Yahoo announces PayPal president Scott Thompson as its new CEO (TechCrunch)

2. Wikipedia raises $20 million in its annual donation drive, from 1 million donors  (Wikimedia Foundation)

3. No warrant needed for GPS monitoring, judge rules (Wired)

4. Why Twitter's "verified account" failure matters (GigaOM)

5. It is now illegal to visit a foreign website in Belarus (The Next Web)

6. Slate partners with YouTube to bring its Explainer to video (Nieman Journalism Lab)



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



Subscribe to Daily Must Reads newsletter

This is a summary. Visit our site for the full post ».

14:00

Slate brings the Explainer to video…but here’s why you won’t find it on Slate.com

A year ago, Slate stepped up its video game, committing to twice daily, quick-turnaround pieces on water-cooler talk and memes of the moment. The Trending News Channel, born in December 2010, turned out to be a decent traffic draw for Slate.com, bringing in between 500,000 and 750,000 video plays a month in 2011.

But traffic really took off in March, when Slate began cross-posting the content to its YouTube channel. Those videos have accrued around 18 million views since then.

Today, Slate is one of more than 100 media partners who begin rolling out new, exclusive video channels in a deal with YouTube, which reportedly spent more than $100 million to become a major source of original content. Slate’s slice is called the Slate News Channel.

As part of the deal, Slate is expanding the TNC franchise, producing three stories per day about politics, science, and tech (topics they’ve found tend to draw bigger audiences). And for the first time, Slate will bring its famous Explainer series to video once a week, starting with a videxplainer on how commercial pilots “make up time” in the air.

The video explainer was YouTube’s idea, said Bill Smee, the executive producer of Slate’s video unit, Slate V. “When we pitched the idea of a news channel, they were like, what about the Explainer?” Smee said. “It may be boneheaded that we didn’t do this sooner, since it is one of Slate’s signature franchises, and certainly it makes sense to turn it into a video format.”

The arrangement is novel. YouTube commissioned Slate for the work with a “sizable check,” Smee said — not as sizable as what YouTube might be paying fellow launch partners Shaq and Madonna, perhaps, but enough money to cover Slate’s production costs. While Slate ultimately retains ownership of the content, the videos must live exclusively on youtube.com for the first year. YouTube recoups the initial cost by selling advertising. If and when YouTube breaks even, Slate is entitled to a revenue share for every additional dollar, Smee said. The YouTube-exclusive stories will be produced in addition to the two stories a day Slate is already producing for its own site.

To review: Slate spends nothing to produce the content, and if that content is engaging enough to attract eyeballs and advertisers, Slate eventually makes a little profit.

There’s still a tremendous number of people out there who still don’t know that Slate makes video.

Back in 2010 and early 2011, Smee said he was a little queasy about Slate potentially cannibalizing its own video traffic by cross-posting to YouTube. That feels like a long time ago. “That’s just no longer a consideration. We see this as added audience,” he said.

“It’s an opportunity for us to build the franchise out. We’re going on five years of making video at Slate. There’s still a tremendous number of people out there who still don’t know that Slate makes video, original video.”

The YouTube deal is a step away from the old-fashioned insistence that a content producer’s work must live on the content producer’s domain. (An insistence, to be fair, inspired in large part by a reliance on ad impressions.)

Smee said Slate’s news videos have an audience because they are “of the web.” They are meme-ish and disposable; they tend not to be stories that hit A1 but “things that might be a little quirkier,” Smee said. Yesterday’s 31-second piece about Rupert Murdoch’s new Twitter account will probably feel stale by tomorrow. Last Thursday’s 47-second piece about the death of Cheetah the chimp feels ancient.

That’s unusual, because video is not as versatile as tweets or text; it takes more time to produce. But Smee’s team has created something of an assembly line. The team initially spent a lot of time building a production template using After Effects and Final Cut Pro, which lets producers create stories with color-by-numbers ease. Writing the scripts takes about 20 to 30 minutes apiece. Then the scripts go to copy edit and narration. Slate produces two pieces a day in about three to four hours each, he said.

“We’ve created a kind of visual voice and style that I think works well on the web,” Smee said. “We are not like some legacy media organizations that are creating video from an old-school playbook — my background, by the way, is television, I was in television for 20 years, so I don’t sit in sneering judgment of television — but I do think TV and print organizations that have come to the web have not tended to kind of experiment with the form in the way ways that I think we have.”

August 28 2011

21:17

Now can we all agree that the "high quality web content" experiment has failed?

TechCrunch :: It’s hard to imagine anything more perfect than Slate’s decision to lay off its respected media critic Jack Shafer. What better illustration could there be of online media’s woes than an ezine laying off its media critic because the economics of web content don’t support a writer of his stature and specialism?

[Paul Carr:] At least Shafer can take some satisfaction in the fact that his departure is in and of itself an absolutely perfect piece of media criticism: Jack Shafer as both medium and message.

Continue to read Paul Carr, techcrunch.com

August 27 2011

05:33

Slate's recent lay offs shows the limits of Web-only models

Forbes :: Slate lays of staff. Jeff Bercovici: "Does (Slates) model still make sense?"

General interest is a pretty good concept for a physical product that gets delivered to your doorstep, where getting all those disparate sections bundled together makes sense. It’s not such a great concept on the web. The web hates artificial bundles. If you’re going to do a general-interest news product online, you have to be prepared to do it on the cheap, as Matt Drudge and Arianna Huffington do, or at least used to do, in the latter case. Conversely, if you want to put out an expensively produced, professionally-edited product, it’s better to stick to a niche, preferably one with a demographic that advertisers want to reach, like technology or business.

Continue to read Jeff Bercovici, www.forbes.com

July 09 2011

04:48

Salon - is there a future for long-form journalism or only for quick, sharp blog style?

paidContent :: David Kaplan, paidContent, wrote a piece about "Salon CEO Gingras Resigns; Site Faces An Uncertain Future" - but as it looks like he rose the more interesting question later in the text - unfortunately without answering it. Where lies the future? In quick, sharp blog (HuffPo model) or long-form style? Here's what he wrote.

Although traffic has generally improved over the years, Salon has struggled where early rivals like Huffington Post, Slate and the still independent Talking Points Memo have thrived in terms of both traffic and revenue. 

One of the key differences between Salon and its close competitors was that Salon tended to model itself on longer, narrative newspaper and magazine style of reporting, as opposed to the quick, sharp blog formats of HuffPo, Slate, TPM and others. Salon expended into content areas such as food and the introduction of more e-commerce. They cut costs. But it is and will always hard to figure out how to balance the cuts without losing its value to readers.

[Richard Gingras in reply to NYT:] Scale matters. Salon is not there yet with that scale, but I expect it will be.

Really? Easier said than done. What strategy will work for Salon?

Continue to read the interesting piece here David Kaplan, paidcontent.org

January 10 2011

16:30

The year ahead in narrative: Little piggies, extraterrestrial life, and how we’ll tell each other stories in 2011

Editor’s Note: To mark the end of the year, we asked a bunch of smart people for their predictions of what 2011 would bring for the evolving world of journalism. But because of an editing error, we forgot to post one set of predictions.

Here’s Andrea Pitzer, editor of our terrific sister site Nieman Storyboard, on what 2011 will bring for narrative and storytelling.

In the coming year, long-form text/print narratives will continue at a handful of U.S. newspapers, and we’ll still see stories from talented writers who will manage to cobble a career (sometimes a stellar one) out of their teaching and books or magazine articles. Aspiring storytellers will get less personal coaching, even as a broader range of people will be able to access information on craft via YouTube and writers’ networks.

Digital stories will continue to nibble away at print’s dominance of fabulous narrative—look for more things like Jay Caspian Kang’s “The High Is Always the Pain, and the Pain Is Always the High,” or Jake Bogoch’s “School of Fight” to introduce you to talented writers you’ve never heard of. A few places, like Slate, Frontline, and nonprofit journalism orgs, will continue their savvy commitment to carving out digital space for storytelling with news value that takes time or space to unfold.

These are all extensions of existing trends. So what will be new in 2011? I predict that the shift to visual narrative will pick up the pace a little, with at least one new storyteller producing surprising short-form nonfiction narrative video that will grab and hold an audience in the millions about an important issue. (By this, I mean a constructed story, not the situational video records like the death of Neda Soltan or the innovative testimonials of the “It Gets Better” campaign.)

And we’ll see social media reflected more and more in our story constructs and in the stories themselves. Curation tools are beginning to make it possible to tell stories in new forms that can make use of literary techniques — I’m still thinking about the way that Mandy Jenkins of TBD managed to recreate the moment-by-moment suspense and confusion in the wake of a death outside a D.C. nightclub. These kinds of tools for gathering and presenting social media will make it possible for new epistolary models like Slate’s mock presidential Facebook feed or collaborative Twitter efforts to serve as inspiration for nonfiction narratives.

Still, this new storytelling will likely be pretty messy through 2011. Telling a story depends on building a compelling arc, but it also relies on an audience finding a way to engage with the narrative. Quality work may fail to connect to audiences; other new-style narratives that have innovative, exciting aspects may not yet work as a whole.

I also believe that the future is often a surprise, and so it’s possible that Geico commercials, the discovery of extraterrestrial life, or something that we can’t even imagine right now might play an important role in how we’ll tell stories in the future. But I wouldn’t give up on Instapaper and long-form stories just yet.

December 10 2010

17:02

Facebook as narrative: The Washington Post tries it out online and in print

This morning’s Washington Post print edition carried a story built out of an annotated Facebook feed. The piece was posted to washingtonpost.com last night with the title “A Facebook story: A mother’s joy and a family’s sorrow.” While I’d seen the Post and other papers structure stories around Twitter and Tumblr feeds, and Slate’s mock presidential feed has had a long run, I had yet to see a reported piece told via Facebook status updates.

Here’s a glimpse of what the story looks like online:

I spoke with the story’s editor, Marc Fisher, this morning about the project. Here are excerpts from our conversation:

Where did this story come from? How did you first find out about it?

The reporter for the story, Ian Shapira, heard about it through his wife, who heard about it through her work.

What did you use to put the story together? Was it an existing tool, or something the Post’s developers put together?

We actually had to develop something expressly for this, so it took an enormous number of work hours on the part of both the designer for the web and the print designer as well. So neither was done with any template, really. Both had to experiment to get the Facebook look down right.

The challenge with print was to make it legible. That went through several iterations. And the challenge online was to make it look plausible and recognizable. We struggled with how much in the way of links to have in there. We couldn’t pick up the entire Facebook page as is, so we had to recreate the links on that page.

It’s a story told via a Facebook feed. Does that feel fundamentally different than the long-form narrative the Post has done so often and so well in the past, or is it just a question of presentation?

It is fundamentally different, because the narration is provided by the original source. We had a little bit of a struggle early on in the project about just how much of our voice would be in the story. I was pushing all the way through for us to be very much on the sidelines and providing just the necessary bits of context, so that people understood who these characters were.

One of the gifts that Shana left behind was this extraordinary narration that she provided in great detail. This is the blessing and the curse of Facebook in that people are narrating their lives in this very intimate and granular sort of way, which creeps out some people and is literally fascinating to many others. That really was one of the main reasons we did the piece.

It was a way to get people talking about how people are portraying their lives on Facebook. The story in and of itself has a power, and there’s almost a voyeuristic appeal to it. But I think what makes it worthwhile beyond that is the questions it raises about just how much we’re living on Facebook and whether and to what extent that displaces human contact.

Did you at any point consider doing the story straight and just quoting some sections of the Facebook feed?

My thought from the beginning was that we would do it in the form of a Facebook page. The reporter wanted originally to do it as more of a traditional narrative, and then he very much embraced this idea. There was definitely debate about it in the early stages, all with an eye toward how to tell the story best and how to push the envelope on using Facebook as a storytelling tool.

It’s a story about a death. Social media has a reputation for being light and entertainment-focused. Did you worry about bridging those two ideas, or were you hoping that any tension between them would heighten the impact of what is ultimately a heavy story?

It is a heavy story, but it isn’t so much a story about death as it is love and loss. It’s a tough story, and we’re hearing form a lot of people that it hits them hard. We debated over quite some time whether to leave the death as a surprise in the narrative or to give it away at the very top, and we decided to let the story take its natural course, the way it had in real life, that that was truer to the story.

There is an inherent power to this story, but I think what was equally appealing to us was the chance to talk about what Facebook means and to use this as a vehicle for getting people to think about what kinds of stories we tell on Facebook.

There are real issues about what happens when someone dies on Facebook and who owns the page and how long it stays up. There are lots of users who believe that the page belongs to the person’s friends and should stay there as a memorial, and there are relatives who in a number of cases are fighting with Facebook to get control of someone’s page or to take it down. These are real issues about who owns someone’s story. That came up in the construction of this piece.

We decided we would not do the story unless the family endorsed our doing it in this way. They were totally on board and supportive, but they might not have been.

I was just predicting last week to our sister site, Nieman Lab, that we’d be seeing a lot more stories built out of Twitter and Facebook feeds in 2011, and here you didn’t even wait for January. I was also hypothesizing that these new forms of storytelling might be clumsy for a while. Did anything about the process or the end product feel messy or awkward to you?

It’s a little different, because the restrictions of the form made it more difficult. You can’t go in and edit or change the basic text of the story, because it’s her words, and we didn’t feel we had the right to play with that the way we would with our own copy. The version that’s in the print paper is heavily condensed, but we didn’t change anything that she wrote. The version online is much more full, though it, too, is shorter than the original. It is a more difficult and more time-consuming form to work in, because what we can bring to the story really had to be super-condensed into these little annotations we included between her status updates.

It’s a restrictive form, but if you have the right kind of story – and it has to be a narrative; it has to be something that is very tightly told. Not every story lends itself to this, but I think there are these human dramas and revealing tales that take place on Facebook, and we should be exploring ways to use them to tell them in a compelling way online.

Telling it in print is probably not going to be an everyday kind of thing because of the space considerations. But as an online storytelling tool, I think it has tremendous power and promise.

What else should we know about the project?

For people trying to do this at home, it really was remarkably time-consuming, and the designers – Grace Koerber on the online side and Greg Manifold on the print side – put in lots of long nights trying to make this work. There is no template for this. The upside is that no one can steal our copy on this because it doesn’t transfer, so they’re actually going to have to link to us. But the downside is that it was many dozens of hours of work.

November 12 2010

21:18

4 Minute Roundup: Newsweek-Daily Beast Merger; Slate Hurting?

news21 small.jpg

4MR is sponsored by Carnegie-Knight News21, an alliance of 12 journalism schools in which top students tell complex stories in inventive ways. See tips for spurring innovation and digital learning at Learn.News21.com.

In this week's 4MR podcast, I discuss the recent merger announcement between Newsweek magazine and online publication The Daily Beast. The deal becoming finalized was first reported by Nick Summers, a former Newsweek reporter now at the New York Observer. I talked with Summers about the challenges Newsweek has faced, and his back-and-forth online with Slate's Jacob Weisberg about the current state of Slate.

Check it out:

4mrbareaudio111210.mp3

>>> Subscribe to 4MR <<<

>>> Subscribe to 4MR via iTunes <<<

Listen to my entire interview with Nick Summers:

summers final.mp3

Background music is "What the World Needs" by the The Ukelele Hipster Kings via PodSafe Music Network.

Here are some links to related sites and stories mentioned in the podcast:

Observer Exclusive - Newsweek and Daily Beast to Merge at NY Observer

New Details Emerge on Newsweek-Beast Merger at NY Observer

Daily Beast, Newsweek to Wed! at Daily Beast

Newsweek, The Daily Beast Combine at Newsweek

Jacob Weisberg Was a Web Pioneer. But He Doesn't Much Care for What Works on the Web Now. Can Slate Recover? at NY Observer

Press Clips - The New York Observer's New Disclosure Problems at the Village Voice

Weisberg - NYO wrong; Slate's going gangbusters in memo at Romenesko

Slate's Traffic Is Gangbusters, Except When It's Not at NY Observer

Also, be sure to vote in our poll about who you think is the winner in the Daily Beast-Newsweek merger:




Who will come out the winner in the Daily Beast-Newsweek merger?customer surveys

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.

news21 small.jpg

4MR is sponsored by Carnegie-Knight News21, an alliance of 12 journalism schools in which top students tell complex stories in inventive ways. See tips for spurring innovation and digital learning at Learn.News21.com.

This is a summary. Visit our site for the full post ».

September 30 2010

17:00

The Newsonomics of journalistic star power

[Each week, our friend Ken Doctor — author of Newsonomics and longtime watcher of the business side of digital news — writes about the economics of the news business for the Lab.]

Maybe it’s a trend, or maybe it’s a bubble, but Jim Romenesko’s blog is chockablock with high-level journalist movement. The Newsweek Six are on the auction block, sought by eager bidders, as Time Warner solidifies its relationship with Fareed Zakaria, making him a wholly owned, cross-platform phenomenon, and Howard Fineman gets tapped on the shoulder by The Huffington Post, soon after it hired away The New York Times’ Peter Goodman.

Daniel Gross jumps from his long-time Slate home to Yahoo Finance. The National Journal makes acquisition after acquisition, this week reeling in Dave Beard, the well-respected editor of Boston.com, where he joins numerous other veterans (AP’s Ron Fournier, Newsweek’s Michael Hirsh, The Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder, Fox’s Major Garrett, among them) who’ve recently made a switch. After an apparent flirtation with AOL, Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg stay safely in the News Corp bosom, while AOL spends its bonus dough on TechCrunch, buying a brand and an established news operation.

Other well known journalists are also suddenly fielding calls of interest — and often moving on to new adventures. Bloomberg’s been hiring pedigreed journalists by the dozens, for Bloomberg Government and other initiatives. Patch is snatching many of its regional editors from daily newspaper ranks.

What we’re seeing is a market develop. This is market that newly prizes talent, but a certain kind of talent. Most of the hiring is at the minor star level, though the lumens emitted vary. How do you measure — critical to digital success — the light?

First off, the hiring companies believe they know sustainable models of building businesses on higher-quality content. That may seem basic, but when we look at the much of the newspaper, broadcast, and consumer magazine worlds, that belief is flagging. They look at well salaried, professional staffs and see high “cost structures,” which are harder to justify, given current levels of advertising and the lack of successful digital revenue models.

We know that Yahoo and AOL, increasingly competitive with each other, believe they’ve found a working formula to make good content pay profitably. Tim Armstrong, AOL’s CEO, talks about “sparking a content revolution.” His formula, and Yahoo’s, is fairly straightforward, and borrows its commandments from the Demand Media bible. It’s all about the efficient ad monetization of content, with analytics — know the nature of the content, target the reader and align the advertiser — that seem to grow better week by week (see The Newsonomics of content arbitrage).

(AOL, ironically, is milking its online access business — yes, lots of people still think of AOL and Internet service as the same thing — drawing 43 percent of its revenue from it. That’s similar to newspapers milking the print business for as long as possible, as they can make the inevitable digital transition. By that comparison, AOL’s lifeline is much shorter, with a 25-percent 2Q drop in customers paying for that access, while most newspaper companies’ circulation revenue down only in low single digits.)

The newsonomics of the star hires is intriguing. Think of these “star” hires as individual SKUs, “products” whose value can be estimated against the customers they bring in the door. Those conversion customer metrics are evolving. Counting pageviews is the simplest way. Take those views at whatever (premium?) rate you can sell them, and you’ve got a first number. The intangibles are how many new unique visitors the Zakarias, Finemans, and Grosses bring with them from their old haunts. How many of those new customers become regular customers of the outlet? That gets you to some annual and/or lifetime value metrics. As metrics are collected and tested, we’ll see some more science brought to what is now a star-search art form.

There certainly are other intangibles. What is Yahoo News exactly? What is HuffPo? What is AOL? As they define themselves as legitimate news companies, the new stars bring cred — and legitimacy. In addition, they are magnets to other, lesser-known talent, signaling, “it’s okay to come here.” There’s economic value in that, too.

Notably, few established legacy brands are hiring new top-end talent; Time’s Zakaria hire is a smart, though unusual one, enabled by the Newsweek uncertainty and Time/CNN linkage. For the most part, legacy news companies’ growth scenarios are borrowed, curiously, from those now hiring those stars: multiplying the amount of content available under their brands, harnessing amateur and lower-cost stuff from local bloggers, licensing from Demand Media and aggregating content through FWIX, Outside.in, and OneSpot. They’re the ones paying heed, at least indirectly, to Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales’ observation that hiring six-figure columnists in this time is silly: “The best of the political bloggers are easily the equal of the opinion columnists at the New York Times. I don’t see the added value there and question whether a newspaper should be paying large sums of money for that any more.”

The hirings at the National Journal and Bloomberg point to a different kind of business model. Those companies have found niche models involving significant reader and/or enterprise payment, and now are building out, and around, those businesses. They, too, believe they can make a new business out of superior content.

It’s complicated, and there are more than two phenomena happening here. Yes, some players that have built successful enterprises — think Yahoo, AOL, Huffington Post — on non-professional staff content (through aggregation, pro-am sites, and more) are now adding the pros at the top, to reinforce brands and put faces on them. At the same the high-cost, pro-based enterprises are going the other way.

It’s not an equilibrium, nor will these models meet in some neat middle, but there’s some sense of coming at a similar solution from two ends of the spectrum. It’s a blend of old and new, expensive and cheap, and no one yet knows the best formula.

Arianna Huffington explains it as a maturation, and indicates the hiring of pros was part of the original Huffington Post plan: “From the day we launched, it was our belief that the mission of The Huffington Post should be to bring together the best of the old and the best of the new. Bringing in the best of the old involved more money than we had when we launched. But now that our website is growing, we’re able to bring in the best of the old.”

The likely result of these moves? By 2015, news companies will pay top dollar, and pound, euro and yen, for top-end talent, and they’ll pay as little as possible for good-enough newsy content that fills many topical and local niches. Over the next several years, the most successful media brands will have mastered better the economics of pro-am journalism.

Infrared image of a star cloud courtesy of NASA.

August 03 2010

17:51

The Climate Desk: Time-Intensive Collaboration Pays Off

When I first heard about The Climate Desk back in April, I was impressed by its ambitious mission:

The Climate Desk is a journalistic collaboration dedicated to exploring the impact -- human, environmental, economic, political -- of a changing climate. The partners are The Atlantic, Center for Investigative Reporting, Grist, Mother Jones, Slate, Wired, and PBS's new public affairs show "Need To Know."

As someone who's managed several large-scale journalistic partnerships, I was curious to peek under the proverbial hood and see how the project was going several months in. Were the partners achieving their goals? What could other journalists interested in cross-organization collaboration learn from their experiences? I checked in with one of Climate Desk's de facto managers, Monika Bauerlein, co-editor at Mother Jones; a transcript of our email conversation follows.

Q&A

Please describe how Climate Desk is structured and staffed.

Monika Bauerlein: The Climate Desk is designed to produce a few major projects per year, with ad-hoc collaborations, content exchange, and link love continuing in between. Our first major project was a series exploring how business is adapting to climate change. We have several projects planned for the coming year. At the moment, we are focusing on collaboratively covering and exchanging content on the BP oil disaster.

It's a very flat structure, basically a consortium of peers -- there are one or two editors who serve as the main contacts at each of the partner organizations. We have met in person twice and talk via conference call regularly.

Among the group of editors involved, Clara (Jeffery, co-editor, Mother Jones) and I have thus far taken on most of the coordination and cat-herding (which can be quite time-consuming -- at key moments it's probably taken more than 50 percent of our time, but most of the time it's quite a bit less). All decisions are made collaboratively.

There was not really another project similar enough for us to model this collaboration on -- most of the ones we're aware of have been one-shot reporting projects (e.g. The Arizona Project and the Chauncey Bailey Project, both focused on the killing of reporters), whereas this is more of a soup-to-nuts, brainstorm-to-publication-to-"tweetstream":http://twitter.com/theclimatedesk collaboration.

But we certainly got ideas from a range of other projects and hope to in turn make our experience available to others.

How are project participants defining "collaboration" for the purposes of this project? How did you arrive at that definition?

bauerlein.jpg

Bauerlein: We started out with a very simple thought: How cool would it be if some of the smartest editors we know got in a room together? A cross between imaginary dinner party and dream-team edit meeting, if you will. We wanted to share three things: ideas, content, and audiences. We hoped that the resulting cross-pollination would produce a whole that was greater than the sum of its parts. That's proven true -- we've all really enjoyed the exchange of ideas, we've all gotten great content out of it, and we've been able to introduce some of our users to each other's work.

In practice, here's what we did: We brainstormed how the collaboration should work and, for our first big project, settled on doing a distributed package of stories as a pilot project. As our topic, we chose an exploration of how business is adapting to climate change. Several of the main feature stories were conceived and assigned by the group; in addition, each partner organization produced stories that were made available to the group as part of the package. Some partners also produced stories that were not shared, but were linked to from other partner sites.

During the publication phase of this series (the two weeks surrounding Earth Day 2010), the stories ran on all the partner sites, and we used a collaborative widget from Publish2 to give users a running feed of the entire package. We also built theclimatedesk.org as a repository for our FAQ and story feed; it continues to be updated with reporting from the partner organizations.

What has been the project's biggest success so far, and why? What success metrics are you using?

Bauerlein: Honestly, for this many journalists from fairly different organizations to play well together and enjoy themselves felt like a big success. Demonstrating to ourselves that it could be done, and be fun, was great.

Beyond that, we produced a lot of really good content that got widely seen and commented on, as well as buzz in the trade press and great feedback from the rest of the journalism community. And, perhaps most importantly, through the pilot project we created both a framework for working together and a great deal of trust among the group, which has already helped us seize opportunities for further collaboration.

For example, we were in the planning stages for our next project when news of the BP oil spill hit; at that point, we shifted gears to focus on this major story, with an ongoing content exchange and ad-hoc collaborations among individual members of the group. In the past few weeks, "Need to Know" has teamed up with the Atlantic, Mother Jones, and Grist to produce segments for its show. All the partners have exchanged content about the spill. In the meantime, we have started a podcast and are continuing to work on our next big project.

What has been harder than you expected? What would it take to ease this difficulty?

Bauerlein: It¹s really all about time and bandwidth, but we've managed to find both because the rewards are great. What we'd love to do is raise enough money to have a dedicated project manager as well as technology/interactive design and user participation talent. This would allow us to really pull in the best ideas from each of the partners and develop the collaboration to its full potential.

If a genie appeared and could grant you three wishes to make Climate Desk succeed beyond your wildest dreams -- what would your three wishes be?

Bauerlein: 1. Major celebrity and massive funder falls in love with this project.

2. We create cutting-edge projects that engage a broad audience -- even beyond our existing 27 million users -- and fundamentally change the conversation about climate. It's a very abstract concept for many people; what we want to do is make it tangible and intellectually engaging.

3. Is this where we ask the genie for three more wishes?

The former editorial director of PBS.org, Amanda Hirsch is a digital media consultant who recently managed the EconomyStory collaboration, a journalistic partnership between 12 public media organizations. Learn more about Amanda's background at amandahirsch.com and follow her on Twitter at @publicmediagirl.

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July 28 2010

06:46

A War Logs interactive – with a crowdsourcing bonus

Owni war logs interface

French data journalism outfit Owni have put together an impressive app (also in English) that attempts to put a user-friendly interface on the intimidating volume of War Logs documents.

The app allows you to filter the information by country and category, and also allows you to choose whether to limit results to incidents involving the deaths of wounding of civilians, allies or enemies.

Clicking on an individual incident bring up the raw text but also a mapping of the location and the details split into a more easy-to-read table.

War Logs results detail

But key to the whole project is the ability to comment on documents, making this genuinely interactive. Once commented, you can choose to receive updates on “this investigation”

This could be fleshed out more, however (UPDATE: it’s early days – see below). “So that we can investigate a war that does not tell its name” is about as much explanation as we get – indeed, Afghanistan is not mentioned on the site at all (which presents SEO problems). In this sense the project suffers from a data-centric perspective which overlooks that not everyone has the same love of data for data’s sake.

A second weakness is an assumption that users are familiar with the story. While the project is linked with Slate.fr and Monde Diplomatique there are no links to any specifically related journalism on those sites, leaving the data without any particular context. Users visiting the site as a result of social media sharing (which is built into the site) might therefore not know what they’re dealing with.

Technically, however, this is an excellent solution to the scale problem that War Logs presents. It just needs an editorial solution to support it.

UPDATE: Nicolas Kayser-Bril, the man behind the project (disclosure: a former OJB contributor) explains the background:

“We contacted several outlets on Monday to coproduce the app. (we’re still in talks with several others in Italy, Belgium, Germany). What we offered them was an all-inclusive solution that gives them visibility and image gains and a way for them to engage with their audience.

“You’re right to say that the app lacks an editorial perspective as such. We’re implementing a feature called ‘contextualization’ that will offer users links to backgrounder stories published on partner websites according to several criteria (year, civil/military report, region, nationality of the engaged forces).

“Moreover, we’ve crowdsourced a huge work that considerably expanded the glossary published by Wikileaks and the Guardian. We launched a call for help on Monday morning. In 36 hours, we had 30% more entries related to unexplained abbreviations or details about equipment, as well as a French translation. Something we want to provide is a way for everyone with a low level of English to decipher the documents.”

July 19 2010

15:33

Can in-depth journalism flourish online?

How much do we want to read online? Is the screen really the domain of the breaking-news headline, while paper is better suited to in-depth reports?

Apparently not, according to techdirt.com, who refer to the case of online magazine Slate, where writers were given the opportunity to research and produce lengthy pieces of journalism, with their work receiving millions of page views.

No content farm is going to create the type of content described above. They won’t even come close. Perhaps one of the problems with traditional media is that they’ve focused on writing stories that can be easily copied by content farms. Instead, they should be focusing on deeper, quality work.

This is also the thinking over at The Times, who believe such journalism can not only thrive online, but should be paid for.

See the full post here…Similar Posts:



July 14 2010

16:24

Online journalism: A return to long-form?

Nieman Journalism Lab’s Megan Garber has a good post up about Slate and its dedication to long-form journalism, a dying art in the world of blogs and aggregators and online news consumption analysis.

Slate editor David Plotz launched the Fresca Initiative last year, designed to give reporters the opportunity to produce long-form work on subjects of their choice. Under the scheme, staff can take four to six weeks off their normal jobs to produce more in-depth stuff.

The result? Not only a handful of very good (and, at as many as tens of thousands of words, very long) articles but serious traffic to the site too. For the tens of thousands of words there have been millions of page views.

For Plotz, the form is about “building the brand of Slate as a place you go for excellent journalism”. It is not about “building Slate into a magazine that has 100 million readers,” but making sure they have “two million or five million or eight million of the right readers”.

Anybody trying to monetise online content at the moment knows about the right readers, and about their value to advertisers.

So here’s to the idea that ten thousand word articles and are not anathema to online audiences, and to the idea that giving your staff six weeks off to write them isn’t anathema to making money from online content.

And, most of all, here’s to the idea that my boss thinks so too.

But I’m not holding my breath.

Full Nieman post at this link…Similar Posts:



14:00

“Smart editorial, smart readers, and smart ad solutions”: Slate makes a case for long-form on the web

Via blogs, or, more likely, Twitter, you might have come across the breezy term “tl;dr.” Which is short — appropriately — for “too long; didn’t read.”

Yes. You know the conventional wisdom: long-form journalism doesn’t do well on the web. Our attention spans are too short and sentences are too long and and we’re too easily distrac — oooh, Macy’s is having a sale! — and, anyway, complex narratives are inefficient for a culture that wants its information short, sweet, and yesterday. Long, carefully wrought articles are tasty, sure; online, though, the news we consume is best served up quick-n-easy. The web isn’t Chez Panisse so much as a series of Sizzlers.

Whether or not that kind of thinking is valid from the psychological perspective, a more relevant question, for our purposes, is whether it’s valid from the financial one. What kind of value proposition does long-form journalism represent in the digital world? Can it be monetized? Or, as behavioral economists might put it: Does long-form, you know, work?

One piece of good news — good news, that is, if you’re a fan of the genre — comes courtesy of Slate.

The right readers

You may recall the online magazine’s Fresca initiative — so named for editor David Plotz’s passionate and non-ironic obsession with the grapefruity beverage — which launched last year to give Slate writers and editors the opportunity to focus on long-form work. Essentially, the fellowship program requires that every editorial staff member at Slate (Plotz recently added copy editors to the Fresca pool) take four to six weeks off from their normal jobs — and use that time to produce one in-depth piece (or, often, a series of in-depth pieces) on a subject that compels them. So far, the project has netted such praiseworthy specimens of long-form as, among others, Tim Noah’s analysis of why the U.S. hasn’t endured another successfully executed terror attack since 9/11 and Julia Turner’s look at the fascinating complexities of signage and June Thomas’ examination of American dentistry and Dahlia Lithwick’s crowd-sourced foray into chick-lit authorship and John Dickerson’s reclamation of risk-taking after the financial crash gave that quintessential American practice a bad name.

The other thing the initiative has netted? Pageviews. They’ve been in the millions, a Slate rep told me: over 4 million for Noah’s piece, over 3.5 million for Thomas’, nearly 3 million for Turner’s. That’s especially significant considering the length of the pieces, which often run in the tens of thousands of words. Combine that with New York Times Magazine editor Gerry Marzorati’s claim, last year, that “contrary to conventional wisdom, it’s our longest pieces that attract the most online traffic” — and, come to think of it, with tablet computing’s promise of portable, pleasurable reading experiences — and “tl;dr”: you are on watch.

Pageviews, though, are only part of the picture. “The raw traffic numbers matter to me — I like them, they’re good, and they’re certainly good for advertisers,” Plotz says. But the Fresca pieces are about more than, say, Huffingtonian eyeball-harnessing and traffic-baiting (PHOTOS! SLIDESHOWS! CLICKCLICKPLEASECLICK!); they’re also about brand-building. Plotz got the idea for the fellowships, he told me, through his earlier experience as a general-assignment reporter at Slate, under Michael Kinsley and, later, Jacob Weisberg. As part of that position, he got to do longer pieces of the Fresca variety; and not only did those stories “make me enthusiastic about coming to work,” he says, but they also “clearly contributed to building the brand of Slate as a place you go for excellent journalism.”

And when Plotz took over the magazine’s editorship — in 2008, at pretty much the height of Media’s Existential Crisis — he realized that “in order to really thrive, in order to have the kind of committed, excellent, well-educated, media-engaged audience that we’ve always had — and to build that audience — we had to do something more than just 1,500 word pieces, and more than just explainers.

In other words, for Slate, long-form’s value proposition is also reputational, rather than strictly financial. The Fresca pieces are community and commodity ratifiers — subtle indications, to advertisers and audiences alike, that the magazine cares as much about informing users as attracting them. “Our job is not necessarily to build Slate into a magazine that has 100 million readers,” Plotz points out. “It’s to make sure we have 2 million or 5 million or 8 million of the right readers — readers who are the smartest, most engaged, most influential, most media-literate people around. That’s more attractive to advertisers, it makes the community of readers around the site more energetic and more lively, and it’s a way to distinguish ourselves from some of the more aggregation-heavy sites, or some of the single-person blog sites, or some of the commodity news sites.”

That wide-angle view of the reader/marketer relationship is one that permeates the outlet, from its editorial content to its business-side messaging. Take, for example, the magazine’s pitch to advertisers (entitled “Slate: The Online Magazine for the Smartest Generation”), which uses the term “smart” eight times on a single, short page, by my count — four of them in the declaration that “Slate is unrivaled at combining smart editorial, smart readers, and smart ad solutions to produce the smartest possible media buy.” It’s an approach similar to the Gawker Media strategy of leveraging “recurring reader affection,” rather than relying on the blunter instrument of simple traffic metrics — and one that emphasizes the holistic quality of the audience, as a commercial entity, over its simple quantity. It’s not the size of the boat, and all that.

Engaging readers and writers

The reputation-based approach is of a piece with Slate’s broader strategy of engagement: user affection is advertiser affection. And both of those are bolstered by staff affection — a smart, engaged audience being in large part the result of work produced by a smart, engaged staff. “As a reporting and writing process, this is what had attracted me to journalism almost twenty years ago,” John Dickerson says of his Fresca-enabled series. And “it was wonderful,” he says, to translate that process to the web — to harness the multimedia power of the web to produce “that long, narrative, long-fiction storytelling that’s always been so interesting to me in the course of my career.”

As fellow Fresc-er Tim Noah puts it: “I can’t speak highly enough about the project. I think it’s probably the most exciting thing that’s been going on at Slate for the last couple years.”

Leveraging the personal passions of journalists — as opposed to their skills and talents alone — is an idea that’s getting more and more traction in a media world where standing out from the crowd is a business-side mandate as well as an editorial one. There’s Google’s famous 20-percent time — which has led to personal-interest-fueled innovations like, for example, Google News — and, in journalism proper, the Journal Register Company’s implementation of an innovation team that will devote 25 percent of its workweek to stepping back from the much-maligned vagaries of the Daily Grind. One of the challenges journalism is facing, Noah points out, is in matching ambition to ability in reporting. And though “money is a big obstacle,” in general, he points out, “none of the Fresca pieces have really been terribly extravagant in terms of their cost.” They’ve been extravagant instead with the one resource that, in journalism, is even more precious than money: time. The Fresca stories are a declaration, Dickerson says, that “this is the kind of commitment we have to storytelling: being in-depth in a world of tiny little bites of information.”

Photo by Dave Winer used under a Creative Commons license..

June 10 2010

22:23

Google News experiments with human control, promotes a new serendipity with Editors’ Picks

Late this afternoon, Google News rolled out a new experiment: Editors’ Picks. Starting today, a small percentage of Google News users will find a new box of content with that label, curated not by Google’s news algorithm, but by real live human news editors at partner news organizations. Here’s an example, curated by the editors of Slate:

Per Google’s official statement on the new feature:

At Google, we run anywhere from 50 to 200 experiments at any given time on our websites all over the world. Right now, we are running a very small experiment in Google News called Editors’ Picks. For this limited test, we’re allowing a small set of publishers to promote their original news articles through the Editors’ Picks section.

That by itself is a remarkable shift for a website that, at its launch in 2002, proudly included on every page: “This page was generated entirely by computer algorithms without human editors. No humans were harmed or even used in the creation of this page.

But Google’s statement very much understates the feature’s (potential) significance. You know how Cass Sunstein wanted to build an “architecture of serendipity” that would give readers important but surprising information? And how, increasingly, many news thinkers have come to believe that systematizing serendipity is not so much a contradiction as a democratic necessity? Well, this is a step — small, but certain — in that direction. Think of Editors’ Picks as a Spotlight-like feature that, instead of highlighting “in-depth pieces of lasting value,” shines a light on what editors themselves have deemed valuable. 

In that sense, Editors’ Picks — currently being run in partnership with less than a dozen news outlets, including The Washington Post, Newsday, Reuters, and Slate — could recreate the didn’t-know-you’d-love-it-til-you-loved-it experience of the bundled news product within the broader presentation of Google News’ algorithmically curated news items. Serendipity concerns exist even at Google (see Fast Flip, for example); this is one way of replicating the offline experience of serendipity-via-bundling within the sometimes scattered experience of online news consumption.

Editors’ Picks also does what its name suggests: it allows editors to choose which stories they introduce to the Google News audience. (Google confirmed to me the links on display aren’t being paid for by the news publishers — that is, it’s not a sponsored section.) Publishers can choose to promote stories that have done well, traffic-wise, amplifying that success — or they can choose to promote stories that have gotten less traction. Or they can simply choose to promote stories that are funny or important or touching or all of the above — stories that are simply worth reading. The point is, they can choose.

Which is, of course, of a piece with Google’s renewed focus on the news side of its search functionalities — and its effort to reach out to the news organizations. And it’s of a piece with other sites that have moved from automated news to automation-plus-human-editing.

Consumers, for their part, get some choice in the matter, as well: The Editors’ Picks experiment combines crowd-curated content with content selected by news organizations themselves — editorial authority and algorithmic — within the same news presentation.

In other words: serendipity, systematized.

May 12 2010

13:00

Slate advertiser incorporates a mystery story into an animated ad that will only bother you once

As I was perusing Slate’s homepage Monday, an ad caught my eye. Granted, I’d have to have had my eyes closed to miss it: It was the kind that takes over your screen momentarily, with a high-production-value animation enticing you to check out the advertiser’s site, in this case Auto Trader. I found it alluring enough that I opened up a new browser to watch it one more time. When a teaser for a story by Joel Dreyfuss (“Michael Steele has a point”) appeared at the top of the page, animated cars burst onto the screen, smashing the front-page design. When the ad ended, the front page reassembled itself in a Universal Studios backlot-tour style. Neat! (Or, annoying! Depending on your taste.)

I clicked around the Slate homepage looking for Dreyfuss’ story to see if I could trigger it again, but no luck — in either finding the story or triggering the ad. Josh grabbed a video of it for me, and, as you can see above, the ad launches just after the mystery Steele story takes the top slot. In the real, non-ad world, that story is not actually featured on Slate’s front page: It’s a month-old story published on Slate’s sister site The Root, whose stories are frequently cross-promoted on Slate.

In an email exchange with Matt Turck, VP of advertising sales for Slate Group, which saw a 52-percent ad revenue gain in the first quarter of this year, he explained that Auto Trader chose the Steele story and took the screenshot of it to use as part of the ad. So when you see what looks like a placeholder for the Steele story, you’re actually already watching Auto Trader’s advertisement. It creates a natural flow for the launch of the ad, but with downside of confusing any readers who’d actually like to check out the story.

(That didn’t stop us from having an age-old problem: After watching the ad, we couldn’t remember what it was for. A car company? Some sort of car-related service? I guessed Carfax; Josh guessed Ford.)

Turck said Slate tracks how well campaigns like this one work at getting clicks, but that information is “proprietary to advertisers.” He did say that, generally, ads that break out of the traditional banner box like this work better than traditional ones. “Most successful ad campaigns take advantage of unique and creative executions.”

But, of course, one person’s “unique and creative” execution is another person’s “typical and irritating,” forcing Slate also to consider their audience’s, and balance intrusive ads against fleeing users. I asked if Slate has a set of criteria in place to help strike that balance. “There’s no specific set of criteria, but we run all advertising by editorial first conceptually, and then again just prior to final execution,” he said in the email. “Our editors will always err to the intelligence of our reader base. Fortunately for Slate, our readers have grown up on the Web and therefore are often interested in and embrace interesting ad executions.” (Slate posts its reader demographics and ad services it provides here.) Turck also noted that the intrusive Auto Trader ad only loads once in a 24-hour period for a user, barring a browser switch.

May 07 2010

15:00

This Week in Review: Newsweek on the block, Twitter as a journalistic system, and more paywall rumblings

[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]

Has Newsweek’s time come?: This week was a relatively quiet one until Wednesday, when The Washington Post Co. announced that it’s trying to sell Newsweek, which it’s owned since 1961. A possible sale doesn’t always signal the demise of a news organization, but in this case, as the folks at The Wall Street Journal’s All Things Digital noted, this move was the equivalent of “hastily scrawling out a ‘Going Out of Business — Name Your Price’ sign and plastering it on the front window.” The New York Times has the details, including a j-prof’s pronouncement that “the era of mass is over, in some respect.”

PaidContent’s Staci Kramer talked to Washington Post Co. chairman Don Graham, who boiled Newsweek’s profitability problems to one telling statistic: Newsweek’s staff split its time about evenly between print and digital last year, but print brought in $160 million in revenue, while the digital side drew $8 million. Newsweek’s digital operation was good, Graham said — just not good enough to stand out from the hundreds of other news sites out there. Still, he was confident the Post would find a buyer (though he hasn’t talked with anyone seriously), and that Newsweek and newsweeklies in general would live on.

Newsweek editor Jon Meacham talked to the New York Observer, saying he’s going to see if he can save the magazine, possibly by rounding up bidders to buy it. Meacham’s conversation with Jon Stewart the day the news broke was laced with both optimism and gallows humor, and New York magazine examined Meacham’s decision to try to make Newsweek the American equivalent of The Economist.

In a well-written piece, The New York Times’ David Carr summed up two bits of conventional wisdom about Newsweek’s downfall: The economics of weekly publishing simply aren’t feasible anymore, and the Washington Post Co.’s Slate, with its snarky, knowing tone, has taken Newsweek’s place. MarketWatch’s Jon Friedman suggested that the Post combine the two. Slate’s Jack Shafer said it wasn’t the Internet that killed Newsweek, but instead an ongoing game of musical chairs that someone had to lose. (Slate and Time, for example, seem to be doing just fine, thanks.) Meanwhile, Derek Powazek, who’s edited several web magazines, gave his recipe for newsweekly success in the digital age.

The next question, of course, is who will buy Newsweek. News business analyst Ken Doctor examined two possibilities: TV-based news orgs like ABC, CBS, and NBC looking for a print distribution point, and “firebrand owners” like media moguls Mort Zuckerman or Marty Peretz. Either way, Doctor said, Newsweek will probably be all but extinct before long. Poynter’s Rick Edmonds, Media Alley, and Mediaite all throw out some combination of Zuckerman, Meacham, Bloomberg, and Rupert Murdoch. as possibilities.

Committing journalism with Twitter: Many of Twitter’s users have understood and used it as a medium for breaking, spreading and consuming news for quite a while now, but some research presented within the past week adds some backbone to that idea. Four Korean researchers collected all of Twitter’s data over a month’s time last year and released their research on it — the first quantitative study of the entire Twitterverse.

What they found, according to PC World, was that both the structure of Twitter (with its asymmetrical following system, creating a world with some incredibly influential users and many other more peripheral ones) and its messages (85 percent are about news) give it more of a resemblance to a news medium than to its fellow social networks online. Our Jason Fry also gave his take, noting the potential value of reciprocity even in an environment that doesn’t require it.

MIT’s Technology Review zeroed in on two particularly interesting findings illustrating the breadth of this new news system: First, two-thirds of Twitter users aren’t followed by anyone that they follow, meaning they use it for information consumption rather than social connections. Second, despite the wide disparity between the Twitter “stars” and typical users, anyone’s tweet still has the possibility of reaching a wide audience, thanks to the usefulness of the retweet function. “Individual users have the power to dictate which information is important and should spread by the form of retweet,” the researchers wrote. “In a way we are witnessing the emergence of collective intelligence.”

Also this week, Canadian j-prof Alfred Hermida put forward his argument in an academic paper for Twitter as an “ambient form of journalism” — a medium in which the former news audience creates, disseminates and discusses news, performing acts of journalism that were once performed only by professionals. In a more technical paper, Alex Burns delved into the definition of “ambient journalism,” especially as it relates to Twitter. Here at the Lab, Megan Garber also looked at the way news organizations in several countries are using Twitter and other social media for news.

The paid-content beat goes on: A few quiet indicators this week of the move toward news paywalls: Rupert Murdoch said News Corp. will be announcing their paywall plans in a few weeks. Those plans apparently include anchoring a consortium of paid-content systems across various media companies, using technology that powers the Wall Street Journal’s paywall, the Los Angeles Times reported. Meanwhile, the number of publications that Journalism Online’s execs say they’re working with on paywall plans has increased to 1,400, including the sizable MediaNews chain of newspapers.

The Minneapolis Star-Tribune’s new publisher/CEO, Mike Klingensmith, talked to MinnPost about his plans for a new metered-model system (like what The New York Times announced in January), and from the sound of it, he’s looking at charging primarily for local news — the paper already charges for some of its Minnesota Vikings coverage — and wants to allow traffic from links to come in fairly uninhibited. A decision on the specific plans sound like they’re at least a year off, though.

Advertising Age’s Nat Ives also took a look at paywalls for smaller newspapers (here’s the link, but Ives’ article is also under a paywall). Ken Doctor says that for smaller papers, a paywall may be a good short-term wait-and-see strategy, but papers still have to be proactive about ensuring long-term growth.

The pros and cons of Facebook’s spread: There wasn’t a lot of news involving Facebook this week, but the grumblings about its privacy issues rolled on. The New York Times used Facebook’s latest (relatively minor, it seems) privacy glitch to give another overview about those concerns, and TechNewsWorld pegged their overview to a Consumer Reports survey about Facebook information sharing that was released this week.

Social media guru Robert Scoble wrote a depressing piece about why Facebook’s disregard for privacy can’t be regulated, concluding that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg “just played chicken with our privacy and it sure looks like he won.” New media expert Jeff Jarvis suggested that Facebook turn their bad privacy PR into a service for users (with some help from their ubiquity), offering them a simpler way to see what’s being written about them across the web and manage their online reputation.

The New York Times’ digital chief Martin Nisenholtz was pretty impressed by Facebook’s spread across the web, giving a sharp analysis of the importance of engagement and identity to publishers online. Those are things that Facebook has mastered, he said, but news organizations haven’t, and that’s a shame when the Times’ most valuable asset is “our audience as knowledgeable participants in the life our web site.”

Reading roundup: This week, I’ve got two news items and a few other good ideas to chew on.

— EBay founder Pierre Omidyar launched his new local news site, Honolulu Civil Beat, this week. It’s being run by John Temple, who was at the helm of the Rocky Mountain News when it shut down. The biggest distinctive of this project: It’s almost entirely behind a paywall. PaidContent and NPR both have the details.

— The Audit Bureau of Circulations reported the most recent set of newspaper numbers a couple of weeks ago, and here at the Lab, newspaper vet Martin Langeveld punched a few holes in the Newspaper Association of America’s declaration that the results are the sign of a turnaround. And after the announcement of the first quarter’s newspaper profit numbers, the Lab’s Ken Doctor explained why newspapers aren’t going to be investment those profits in much-needed innovation.

— Publish2’s Greg Linch put together a great case for incorporating more of a computational mindset into journalism, identifying several common elements between journalism and programming and urging the two groups to work more closely together. English professor Kim Pearson followed that post up with some proposals for ways to integrate computational thinking into curriculums.

— We’ve been hearing a lot about online comments over the past few weeks, and Poynter’s Mallary Jean Tenore took a close look at the ways several news organizations are working to improve them.

— I’ll close with two simple but thoughtful pieces on online media, one from the production standpoint, and the other looking at consumption. First social media entrepreneur and blogger Ben Elowitz gave a fine summary of the way the definition of quality has changed in online media versus traditional publishing, and Slate’s William Saletan had some helpful tips to make your media consumption broader, deeper and altogether smarter. It’s hard work, but it’s necessary, Saletan said: “In the electronic echo chamber, it’s easier than ever to shut out what you don’t want to hear. Nobody will make you open the door and venture out. You’ll have to do that yourself.”

March 04 2010

19:11

A “reporting recipe” to dig up dirt like ProPublica

A core goal of nonprofit news organizations is to create impact. Foundations and donors expect evidence of journalism’s impact in a way that the local department store never did. Jack Shafer wrote a scathing critique of the nonprofit-as-impact driver not long ago, arguing that for-profit media is better insulated against donor whims because the audience is the client:

Nonprofit outlets almost always measure their success in terms of influence, not audience, because their customers are the donors who’ve donated cash to influence politics, promote justice, or otherwise build a better world.

(His view of the nonprofit drive to change the world is more jaded than mine. What for-profit newspaper writer got into the business not to change the world?)

Whatever your stance, the reality is here: Maximizing impact is a key part of nonprofits’ aims. Outlets like the Center for Public IntegrityThe American Independent News Network (where I edited The Washington Independent), ProPublica, and others measure the reach and impact of their work to drum up support. They do this a number of ways. Center for Public Integrity published its work under a Creative Commons license to try to get other publications to reprint it and amplify the message. (They also participate in a young, and struggling, AP-nonprofit distribution program.) The Washington Independent tracks both media pickup and how its work resulted in real change. ProPublica partners with newspapers around the country in printing its stories — all of which is aimed at maximizing their journalism’s impact.

Today ProPublica is unveiling a new approach in increasing impact: a step-by-step reporting guide that shows how its reporters executed a major investigation, with the hopes that state-based reporters and interested citizen journalists will continue their work.

Reporters Charles Ornstein and Tracy Weber have created a guide that reverse-engineers how they reported a year-and-a-half-long investigation on how states handle disciplinary action against nurses. The results of their work were alarming, and its consequences were swift: One day after the Los Angeles Times ran a story on how it took years for the state nursing board to take disciplinary action, while allowing dangerous nurses to keep working, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger removed most members of the state nursing board. Newspapers in several other states have picked up on ProPublica’s work and run their own versions.

It took Ornstein and Weber over a year to research their series, but by making the state-based data available and building a guide on how to do the reporting, they say it should be much simpler and less time-consuming for another reporter to follow in their footsteps. The data alone should at least help “find the smoke” in federal reporting-requirement lapses quickly, so a reporter knows where to invest her time, Weber said. They’re both eager to talk to interested reporters, too. (You can contact them directly, or join in on a conference call that will be scheduled soon.)

“When you called all these different states, you realized you were talking to folks who had never talked to journalists before,” Weber told me. “It made me think it was so ripe for local reporters to take a look at this because, frankly, everyone is touched by a nurse.” The guide lays out seven broad steps for reporting out a regulatory board story, with details under each section, including relevant federal law. It also includes relevant links for certain states.

She added the guide’s methods could be applied to any regulatory board, not just those that govern nurses. “This gives them a map to say, ‘Okay, let’s go take a look at this’…They could maybe change the way these boards are overseen in their state if they find, for instance, they never disciplined anyone, which we found, and that just seems impossible.”

Ornstein told me he hopes this experiment, specifically pointing to the online database of disclosure data, creates real change — and impact. “If somebody has to pay $20 to get a copy of a disciplinary order against a nurse, if they’re looking for a home health nurse, is that something they’re really going to do? Is the state really helping them make a smart choice to protect them? I don’t think so. By pointing this out, we’re really doing a service.”

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