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May 26 2011

14:00

Topolsky and Bankoff on Engadget, SB Nation, and the new tech site that’s bringing them together

There can be a very real “through the looking glass” feel to working on a site that covers technology, especially when you start contemplating the technology of publishing. At least, that’s the situation Joshua Topolsky and his group of Engadget expats are finding themselves in as they ramp up to the fall unveiling of a new technology site that will live under the SB Nation flag.

“What we’re building and what we write about are the same thing in many ways,” Topolsky told me. “And for us that provides an incredibly unique point of observation.”

It says a lot about Topolsky, as well as his fellow Engadget-ites Nilay Patel, Ross Miller, Joanna Stern, Chris Ziegler, and Paul Miller, that while they could have spent the intervening time developing their new site in a bunker, they’ve instead decided to get out front and do what they do best, which is covering tech. They’ve been doing that on This is my next, their placeholder blog.

In migrating away from Engadget — and, in that, from the AOL/Huffington Post empire — the attraction to SB Nation, as Topolsky has written, came from the company’s publishing philosophy as much as its evolving publishing technology. As purveyors, chroniclers, and users of technology, Topolsky and his team are now in a unique position to develop a phenomenal tech site. It’s a scenario with Willy Wonk-ian overtones: They’ve been set loose in a candy store.

And yet, Topolsky told me, their aspirations are more modest than fantastical. If anything, they’re not looking to re-invent the blog or news site as we know them. They just want something that’s more adaptive both to the way stories are written and published, and to how audiences actually read them.

“We’re not trying to be Twitter or Facebook, as in this new thing people are using,” he said. “We want to be something that is just the evolved version of what we have been doing.”

The point, he said, is this: Reading on the web is an ever-changing thing, and publishers need to develop or embrace the technology that can respond to its evolution.

Topolsky isn’t releasing much information about the new site at this point, but in terms of his team’s coverage of the tech industry, he told me, they won’t be straying far from their Engadget roots. In many ways, what their Project X represents is an experiment in publishing and engagement technology, which fits in well with SB Nation’s M.O. One of the things they’re likely to be using on the site, for example, is SB Nation’s story streams, which provide constantly updated information on stories while also offering different access points to readers.

Though the site will also need to be able to accommodate things like multimedia (Topolsky said they it might use something similar to The Engadget Show for that, that that dynamic approach to narrative will work well for covering the latest updates on Google’s Android OS, say, or the tribulations of a phone producer like BlackBerry. “You write the news as seems appropriate and connect it automatically to a larger story, encompassing the narrative,” he said.

But what’s just as important as the tech, Topolsky pointed out, is an understanding between the editorial people and the developers, so when you need a new module or feature on the site both sides understand why — and how — it could work. In some of the more frustrating moments at Engadget, Topolsky said, he found himself having to plead his case to AOL developers in order to get site changes made.

That likely won’t be the case at SB Nation, which, as we’ve written about before, is more than willing to experiment with the blog format. It also helps that they’ve secured a healthy dose of new funding. When I spoke with SB Nation CEO Jim Bankoff, he noted that publishing companies are only as successful as the technology and people that comprise them.

“The foundation of our company is the marriage of editorial talent and technology, — sometimes I say people and platform,” he said. “We really believe that to be a new media-first company you have to be based on people who understand how to craft stories online.”

But other than trying to build inventive publishing systems out of the box, what makes the difference for SB Nation is its habit of addressing regular feedback from readers, Bankoff said. The developers at SB Nation, he noted, constantly update the sites based on comments from readers and contributors. If something’s in the service of making a better product, they’ll try it, he said.

Though the audiences for sports news and tech news have their own vagaries, there are some elements — cast of players, data points, and healthy competition — that they have in common. And those will go a long way towards helping to adapt and grow SB Nation’s publishing platform, Bankoff said. “Just like sports, there is an arc to every tech story — and we’re going to be able to really convey the various milestones across any big news item.”

November 19 2009

14:00

Need a lawyer? New network gives web publishers a line of defense

If you’ve gone the entrepreneurial route you know that first flush of enthusiasm often dampens when nitty-gritty decisions need to be made. There’s accounting, taxes, incorporation, insurance — and that’s the clear stuff. Toss in murky issues around trademark and branding and it’s easy to see how dreams of independence get squelched.

The Citizen Media Law Project at Harvard’s Berkman Center doesn’t want those entrepreneurial instincts to wither on the vine. It’s just launched an ambitious collection of free legal resources called the Online Media Legal Network (OMLN), the centerpiece of which is a matchmaking service that connects online publishers with attorneys who can address their specific needs. It’s a full-service effort, covering everything from basic business structure to contracts to representation in court.

OMLN is open to any online publisher that meets the network’s requirements. Organizations must be independent, journalism-minded, and have an eye toward sustainability either as for-profit businesses or nonprofits. If that describes your outfit, you can start the application process here.

The really good news is that pro bono assistance is available and the thresholds are generous. For-profit organizations that make less than $100,000 gross annual revenue qualify, as do nonprofits with operating budgets under $250,000. The high ceiling should cover the growing legion of bootstrapped web publishers.

“As long as their work is in the public interest, as long as it involves adherence to journalistic standards, then they’re going to be able to get help through the network until they’ve grown to the point where they are no longer entitled to free services,” said our friend David Ardia, the Project’s director.

Deeper-pocketed clients who don’t fall within the pro bono requirements are encouraged to apply, for free, as well. They’ll just have to arrange payment terms with a matched attorney.

More than a directory

Machine intelligence and algorithms can’t encompass all the variations in client needs and attorney specialties. That’s why four OMLN lawyers drive the process through extensive client screenings. These screenings need to capture a lot of nuance because applicants aren’t judged against any quantitative criteria, like page views or posting frequency.

Here’s how the matching process works: A lawyer in the network logs in to the site and is presented with client requests matching the lawyer’s pre-defined criteria (”nonprofits in California” or “clients who want to incorporate,” that sort of thing). Client names are not revealed at this point. The lawyer selects a specific request, and an OMLN staffer determines if the pairing is a good fit. If it is, the lawyer receives detailed information so he/she can check for conflicts with existing clients. The lawyer and the new OMLN client then get in touch directly and OMLN fades into the background. Either side can opt out if the match doesn’t feel right. Once the client’s legal issue is resolved, OMLN gathers feedback through private surveys with both parties.

OMLN needs to maintain balance if it’s going to be useful, Ardia said. Too many clients and online publishers won’t receive timely help. Too many lawyers and frustration mounts over lack of opportunities. Equilibrium is struck through a “slow as you go” approach that was honed while the site was being built. OMLN’s initial batch of clients was limited to past winners of the Knight News Challenge, and lawyers were invited to join based on their skill sets. Some amount of calibration will continue now that site is officially open, with the aim of matching clients and lawyers within three to four weeks of a request for assistance. That’s pretty quick considering the effort and issues at play.

OMLN itself is a 2007 News Challenge winner. It used an initial $250,000 grant to get the ball rolling, and it’s now running on two subsequent years of Knight funding. The goal is to make OMLN sustainable by the time funding runs out next October. Ardia hopes that since OLMN doesn’t bring in any money through the service, law firms and others will donate to support its continued operation.

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