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September 17 2010


4 Minute Roundup: New Twitter Makes Room for Ads

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 look at the newly redesigned Twitter.com, now with a double-pane view, embedded photos and video, and infinite scroll. Some folks say this means Twitter is more of a media company, getting people to pay more attention to its website, where it could serve up more ads. I talked with tech pundit and blogger Robert Scoble, who said he likes the redesign and thinks third party Twitter app makers will need to innovate to survive.

Check it out:


>>> Subscribe to 4MR <<<

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

Listen to my entire interview with Robert Scoble:

scoble twitter 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:

Meet the new Twitter.com from Twitter

A Better Twitter at the Twitter Blog

The good and bad of Twitter's new design at Scobleizer

New Twitter - Why It is Important for You at Fast Company

New Twitter shows the Web isn't dead at CNN.com

Twitter Revamp Appears Better for Businesses at PC World

Twitter as broadcast - What #newtwitter might mean for networked journalism at Nieman Lab

Twitter Is a (Reluctant) Media Company at Media Memo

Also, be sure to vote in our poll about what you think about the new Twitter:

The new redesigned Twitter.com is ______.online 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 ».

July 20 2010


AOL Patch and MainStreetConnect Expand Hyper-Local News

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It's difficult for media people to search any job site these days without running into an ad for AOL's Patch. It seems equally difficult to read media news sites without finding a feature story about Connecticut's MainStreetConnect. MainStreetConnect has appeared in recent days in both Columbia Journalism Review and Journalism.co.uk. Like Patch, the community news organization is hiring, though on a smaller scale as it expands from four sites to 10.

The attention being paid to them isn't surprising: These two companies are leading the charge to create a new, sustainable model for hyper-local, online community news. Both are pursuing a strategy based on scale and local reporting, both are still experimenting and looking for ways to generate revenue -- and both have big national ambitions.

"We've sort of built the car and now we're tweaking it," said Carll Tucker, founder of MainStreetConnect.

Strategy and Some Local News History

For Tucker and AOL's Patch, which now has 83 sites, the goal is to attract advertising aimed at local audiences. They hope to do this by providing content generated by an inexpensive workforce that has been grouped strategically to leverage resources. In that respect, the methods echo the techniques traditional newspapers used during the suburban wars of the 1980s and early 1990s.

In those days, metro dailies fought smaller newspapers in the suburbs for advertising supremacy by providing local news through targeted zones. One of the bloodiest battles happened in Atlanta, when the New York Times bought the suburban Gwinnett Daily News and went head-to-head with the Atlanta Constitution.

The preferred tactic at the time was to flood the zone with inexpensive local content. But in the years since, metro dailies have scaled back circulation and news coverage, leaving a vacuum of under-served businesses and local readers. Those are the advertising and reader markets that Patch and MainStreetConnect are targeting.

"Community business is the worst-served market in America," Tucker said in a May interview I conducted with him. He noted that, "This company could not have been started five years ago" because the vacuum in the local advertising market was not as large as it is now.

Patch executives say that local readers also feel under-served.

"People are way more hungry for news at their local level than even we imagined," said Brian Farnham, editor in chief of Patch. "There's a lot of good sources for news existing at the national level and beyond, but at the local level the cohesive experience is missing."

Site Design and Sharing

Tucker has built his sites with colorful tabs that reflect the vertical advertising markets that were the mainstays of traditional newspapers: "Wheels," "Real Estate, "Food, "Wellness," and "Home and Garden." Those pages hold feature stories that almost always include a local businessperson. These stories are often shared between contiguous sites. The pages also hold business directories for advertisers. The "Wheels" sections at MainStreetConnect sites also display large auto ads.


Tucker has a deep newspaper background with The Patent Trader, which he said covered 90,000 people over 10 towns before Gannett bought it in 1999. His company, which plans to have eventual affiliates across the country, began with the core of four Connecticut sites, with the flagship, TheDailyNorwalk.com, in Norwalk, Conn. Since mid-May, it has added six sites:

The other three original sites are:

The company's current goal is to expand to 50 sites by the end of the year, with 12 in Fairfield County, Conn. When we spoke in May, Tucker downplayed any competition with Patch, even though Patch is in some of the same territory in relatively wealthy Connecticut. Norwalk had an estimated median household income in 2007 of $70,672, and the national average was $50,233 for that year, according to the U.S. Census. Patch also has sites in Fairfield and Westport, just like MainStreetConnect.

"In no way do we compete with them," Tucker had said. When we spoke again this month, he explained that his company's focus is on covering local people, including local business owners, with the goal of attracting "Main Street moms."

Patch's sites have more subtle design and more social-networking features, such as "boards," which are like Facebook walls and are where readers can send feedback to specific writers. Those writers have profiles that list their current stories and sometimes recent tweets, as well as bio information and a statement of political and religious beliefs.
Patch's focus appears to be more on hard news.

For example, a fire in early July in White Plains, N.Y., injured 33 people and destroyed seven businesses. The Patch news story ran in clustered New York Patch sites: The Rye Patch, the Harrison Patch, the Yorktown Patch, the Scarsdale Patch, and likely others, with local sidebars, video and photos.

Advertising and Visibility Packages

MainStreetConnect's ads are sold as "annual visibility packages." In May, Tucker said the smallest "visibility package" the company aimed to sell cost between $5,000 to $6,000.
In our recent interview, he said the company has found ways to accommodate smaller businesses with less immediately available funds. Some advertising can cost as little as $60 to $70 a week.

"We've widened our net for our smaller advertisers," he said, noting that the company has had local success with real estate ads, hospital ads and banks.

"It's not about a price; it's about what you get for the money," he said.

Tucker explained that the company's visibility packages include extra service, such as a salute to advertisers' customers in the upper right of site pages, in a feature called "Our customer comes first!" These include the company name and a photo and name of a customer.

patch.jpgAt Patch, Farnham said the advertising focus goes beyond banner ads to directories and self-service ads as well.

"We think the applications that are most interesting are around our listings operation," he said. "We're sending teams to communities who will go door to door and collect data about those places, structure it in our templates, and have a really rich Yellow Pages."

Yes, They Have Job Openings

AOL's Patch continues to recruit editors and open sites across the country, with sites up in California, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York. New sites are promised soon in Illinois, Rhode Island and Maryland. The company was recruiting in early July for more than 20 editor positions in the suburbs of Atlanta and Los Angeles. Farnham, the Patch editor in chief, said the company is looking for tomorrow's journalists.

"It's basically one full-time professional editor, who is the reporter and editor and curator of that site, and they also hire local contributors and freelancers to round out that coverage," he said. "You're not thinking about column inches, you're trying to get up-to-the-minute information out there. Should this be a video or a slideshow or some other sort of multimedia?"

MainStreetConnect is also hiring, on a smaller scale, with ads on Mediabistro and Indeed.com. It is seeking experienced news reporters with five to 10 years of experience, preferably in local newspapers and with local knowledge.

Top staffers get a salary of about $40,000 a year, and rookies get less, Tucker said. His wife, personal finance writer Jane Bryant Quinn, serves as editorial director and coaches journalists on writing skills and headline writing. Twenty newsroom employees produce content for the 10 sites. The stories focus on local people, and the company currently does not rely on user-generated content.

"News gathering is a real profession," Tucker said. "Citizen journalism is a completely false rabbit. It's simply not going to succeed."

Patch, by contrast, solicits citizen contributions for news tips, feedback and announcements and calendars.

What Happens Next?

Both Farnham and Tucker spoke about the move into hyper-local online sites as experimental, with adjustments along the way.

"We're learning as fast as we can," said Tucker, mentioning his local advisory boards and social media.

Farnham acknowledged that Patch is moving into some territory where local online ecosystems are already well formed.

"What we do when we come into a market is certainly not just announce, 'Hey we're the only game in town,' " he said. "What we want to offer is a cohesive comprehensive experience. There is that ecosystem."

Farnham said the company is open to working with others.

"We are always open to exploring ways we can work with existing media outlets in communities where we are launching a Patch site. No option is closed off."

Tucker's company was formed with the idea of franchises or affiliates, and he said partners aren't out of the question. "We have had interesting conversations with many of the major players," he said.

For both, the focus is finding a way to make money to sustain local journalism. "There's no free press unless it's a profitable press," Tucker said.

To read more stories in the Beyond Content Farms series go here.

MediaShift editorial intern Davis Shaver contributed to this article.

Andria Krewson is editor for two community sections of the McClatchy-owned Charlotte Observer in Charlotte, N.C. She posts at Global Vue and is @underoak on Twitter.

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May 04 2010


OurBlook Roundup: Journalism Will Survive in Digital Age

OurBlook.com is a website that gathers opinions from today's top leaders in the hopes of collaboratively finding tomorrow's solutions. It is funded by Paul Mongerson, a retired CEO who has a long history of philanthropy in the journalism world. In December 2008, those of us who run the site launched a future of journalism interview series. To date, we have collected over 100 interviews with well known journalists and new media experts.

When looking for similarities between the interviews, there's an underlying sentiment that newspapers have a lot of catching up to do. Many experts also expressed the belief that, in terms of their internal culture, newspapers seem to have a hard time adapting to change. The good news, however, is that all believed that journalism will survive in one form or another, and that there will always be a need for trained journalists.

Below are some of our findings and the best quotes from the interview series.

Future of Journalism Interview Series Findings

blook.jpg* Newspapers are still searching for business and editorial models that are sustainable in this new world of media. Outlets that cling on to their old methods of doing things will die.
* The idea of newspapers charging for their websites was once looked down upon, but is now becoming an accepted strategy. Additionally, as online advertising changes, and banner ads are quickly becoming passé, experts are urging newspapers to explore non-traditional revenue streams such as online games or web apps.

* Hyper-local is gaining acceptance. As a result, harnessing the power of citizen journalism has become a key goal for many media outlets.

* The role of journalists and the skills necessary to succeed have changed. This has caused many industry insiders to ponder the future of journalism's culture and ethics.

* One-way storytelling has given way to a two-way (or multiple) conversation between the journalist and the audience. Tools like Twitter and Facebook have become incredibly important in this new context.

* TV news is beginning to experience the same changes and chaos as print journalism, causing many to panic.

Best Quotes from Future of Journalism Series

"I believe this is both a difficult and exciting time in journalism. The old paradigm is dying. The monopoly/ologopoly that news organizations once enjoyed is breaking apart. Amid all the disruption, something new is being born. The new paradigm is more democratic and comprehensive than the old one. The key is to make sure that it has substantive journalism." -- John Yemma, editor, Christian Science Monitor

"To date, newspapers have, for either the strangest or most inexplicable reason, chosen to either downplay or ignore their strengths: Reporting and writing. Newspapers have a virtual monopoly on those two attributes. 'Aggregating,' and its tedious synonyms, is not reporting nor is it writing; it's cutting and pasting." -- Bruce Austin, professor and chair, Department of Communication at Rochester Institute of Technology

"Giving away information for free on the Internet while still charging 50 cents to $1 for the print version of the paper was one of the most fundamentally flawed business decisions of the past 25 years. Newspapers told their paying customers that the information truly had no value. They told their paying customers that they were suckers. Why would anyone pay 50 cents for something he or she can get for free? This poorly conceived and obviously flawed strategy has helped put the newspaper industry into its current financial condition and hastened the demise of many publications." -- Paul J. MacArthur, professor, Utica College

"What I find unique is that publishers have gone online and said 'actually, we sell content.' In the 200-plus years of printing newspapers...they never sold content once. They sold advertising...The problem with that one trick pony, as it is right now, is that this sort of 'wantiness' of investors to invest in a company whose primary raison d'être is to sell banner ads, is not all that great...People involved in online marketing know the banner ad is not the future of online advertisement or online marketing." -- Mitch Joel, author of "Six Pixels of Separation" and founder of Twist Image

Bob Garfield on Journalism, Advertising, and Future from OurBlook.com on Vimeo.

"We are going to lose a horrifying amount of experience, judgment, talent and the culture of journalism which has, for the most part, made it a very ethical enterprise. Not only are we losing the accumulated judgment, wisdom, experience, knowledge of tens of thousands of journalists, we are losing their sense of how to stay relatively pure." -- Bob Garfield, co-host, "On The Media"

"I'm not convinced that video and audio...'multimedia'...are going to be newspapers' salvation. They're fine to have, as supplements to written stories with good graphics, powerful photos and useful database information. But video and audio take real time...five minutes of video is five minutes...and people can scan text so much faster. We'll always want to see the spectacular video or some special moment captured in sound. But if that would save newspapers online, then TV websites would be thriving...and they're not." -- Charlotte Grimes, Knight Chair in Political Reporting at the Newhouse School, Syracuse University

"When the U.S. media look at the changes in media consumption trends, naturally enough, they tend to focus on the United States. This is terrifically misleading. Newspapers are thriving in countries such as India and China...I say to my friends and colleagues: You should feel blessed. You are part of a revolution in how information is distributed far greater than the invention of the printing press, and certain to have more far-reaching effects." -- Thad McIlroy, author and founder, FutureOfPublishing.com

"My belief is that newspapers, in their traditional form, can still be enormously popular. And if newspaper publishers largely reject the web, and go back to basics, they can decrease their operating expenses and generate enough display advertising to return to profitability...I think it's been the mainstream newspaper industry's embrace of new editorial formulas and approaches that has been leading to its demise." -- Adam Stone, publisher, Examiner community newspapers in Putnam and Westchester counties in New York.

"Now, with online advertising in cyclical decline, news publishers of all kinds...newspapers and magazines but also online-only news organizations...see that it's hard to support a news department with only the advertising revenue stream." -- Gordon Crovitz, former publisher, the Wall Street Journal

"The consolidation of media in the broadcast age also changed the sociology of journalism by turning it into much more of a profession for educated people and, at its highest levels, an extremely powerful and prestigious position. I think an increasing portion of the audience for mass media, especially at the young end of the demographics, is turned off by the self-importance of highly visible mainstream journalists (as demonstrated by the success of media parodies like the Onion and 'The Daily Show'), and resent the inability to talk back in any kind of meaningful way...Members of the Millennial generation in particular find the pomposity and stuffiness of traditional media less engaging than the give-and-take of social channels."-- Rob Salkowitz, author and founder of MediaPlant

Amy Gahran on Future Journalist from OurBlook.com on Vimeo.

"Regardless of the newspaper, I think one of the most important things they should consider is nurturing talent. Are you a local newspaper? Ninety percent of your income from print adverts targeted at people in the area? Then you should be looking for the local citizen journalists who sit next to their police scanner and report on the drug busts and local fires. Assume you will have to invest in improving their writing skills, be relaxed about them publishing elsewhere, and pay them enough money to make it worth their while to give you the first option on material. If they could afford to, they would be on the scene at these fires and such." -- Brian McNeil, contributor, Wikinews

"Social media are becoming part of journalism, another transmission system, that all journalism must be involved in, in much the same way that aggregation is now a component of journalism. Journalism is more than narrative now. It is more than storytelling. It always has been, but professional journalists didn't always see it. Journalism is shifting from being a product...to being a service...how can I help you answer your questions." -- Tom Rosenstiel, director, Project for Excellence in Journalism

Sandra Ordonez calls herself a web astronaut who has been helping organizations navigate the internet since 1997. Currently, she helps run OurBlook.com, a collaborative online forum that gathers interviews from today's top leaders in the hopes of finding tomorrow's solutions. Since December 2008, the site has been conducting a Future of Journalism interview series. Sandra also heads up the Facebook page, "Bicultural and Multicultural People Rule." Previously, she was the Communications Manager for Wikipedia. She graduated from American University with a double degree in International Relations and Public Relations.

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April 09 2010


4-Minute Roundup: Apple's iAds; Journo-Programming Degree

Here's the latest 4MR audio report from MediaShift. In this week's edition, I look at Apple's plan to enter mobile advertising with its new iAd platform. Apple has been known for hardware and software but has never handled ad sales before, and now finds itself squarely in competition with Google and AdMob in that arena. Plus, Columbia University announced a new dual journalism-programming degree. And I ask Just One Question to AdAge reporter Kunur Patel about her take on the new Apple iAd platform.

Check it out:


>>> Subscribe to 4MR <<<

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

Listen to my entire interview with Kunur Patel:

patel full.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:

Apple Launches 'iAd,' Mobile Ad Platform for iPhone and iPad at ClickZ

Steve Jobs Promises Developers That Apple's iAds Won't 'Suck' and Will Make Them Money at MediaMemo

Apple's iAd Not Game-Changing, but Will Move Market at AdAge

Apple Unveils New Ad Software for iPhone at Wall Street Journal

Apple Announces Mobile Ad Plans Thursday, and Google Can't Wait to Tell the FTC at MediaMemo

Apple unveils iPhone OS 4.0 at CNET

Apple Unveils Ad Platform and Phone Software at NY Times Bits

Will Columbia-Trained, Code-Savvy Journalists Bridge the Media/Tech Divide? at Wired Epicenter

Columbia's J-School Gears Up A New Generation Of Digital Media Geeks at Business Insider

Columbia Rolls Out Joint Journalism - CompSci Grad Program at FishbowlNY

New dual-degree master's in journalism & computer science announced at Columbia University

Also, be sure to vote in our poll about what you think about ads on your mobile phone:

What do you think about ads on your mobile phone?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.

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March 15 2010


How Journalism is Getting Better

Michael Arrington's recent TechCrunch post about old media "guys" who don't get it made me realize how far things have come -- and how much better they've gotten -- in the world of journalism.

I worked for more than 15 years in what's now called "legacy media" as a reporter, news editor and business person. All along, there were a bunch of things that made me scratch my head.

The Way Things Were (Wrong)

Why, for example, could we could lift from other sources without offering attribution? I remember when a librarian at ABC News taught us how to use news databases to find stories from local media that could serve as grist for our mill. On another occasion, I pretty much re-reported a Japanese magazine's story for Newsweek. The Japanese magazine's editor called me out privately, but I never paid any further price.

I marveled at how expensive databases with reams of news and information benefited us at big media companies, but weren't readily available to the public. One of the reasons I worked for large media companies (such as ABC, Newsweek and AP) was because of the information access they afforded.

I saw how my colleagues and I could resist calls for transparency in disclosing sources or methods because it was very hard for people to vet what we did and then share their concerns widely.

Meanwhile, the viewer or reader or listener pretty much had to take whatever we thought they should be given. At top-flight news organizations, we seldom talked about what the consumer might want. I would get sometimes looked at cross-eyed if I brought the topic up.

I remember the frustration I felt at always having to repeat the nut graf and essential information in a story, just in case someone reading it might not know the basics of what had already happened. I remember the Newsweek bureau chief in Tokyo telling me he was annoyed at being assigned a story that would cover the same ground as one done well by another news outlet.

As both a news professional and a news consumer, there was a constant feeling that I was missing something.

The Equation Is Changed

Digital media -- can we please stop calling them "new"? -- have changed it all.

I was exhilarated in my early years at ABCNews.com, where I was its founding international producer, when I got a Serb from Belgrade within the NATO bombing zone to email me missives, which I posted on the site. Sure, they were biased and sometimes myopic, but it was great to have someone who had bombs falling all around him making observations from his window, sending images, showing his feelings.

I remember, too, the enjoyment I felt getting screamed at from China for allowing what I believe was the first real-time chat between people in China and a major news website. In both instances, the experience was raw, unfiltered and direct from the source -- without any correspondent to tell us what was being said. The unlimited space, flexibility of time, and ability to bring others into the conversation broke down the barriers that the journalist can place, even inadvertently, between those involved in the news and those interested in it. (These were adjuncts, not the main story, and I don't believe we can or should do without journalists, editing and packaging. But I do think coverage is greatly enhanced by direct access to those involved.)

While watching the Paley Center's recent session, Education of the Entrepreneurial Journalist, I was glad to see Geneva Overholser, director of the School of Journalism at USC's Annenberg School for Communication, promise that, "We will have journalists who need to care about where audiences are and how they are going to reach those audiences."

But I was almost shocked that it had to be stated. Isn't it a given that journalists have to care about the audience? Are we still in an era when they don't?

Change for the Good

Access to information has, obviously, improved as well. Search engines such as Google and myriad other information sources, from Twitter and Facebook to Digg and Delicious, have made it easier to be sure we don't miss what's relevant. They can also enable us to find serendipitous links that take us on new journeys. Sure, there's still proprietary information locked up in Factiva, Nexis and Bloomberg terminals, but you'd be hard-pressed to convince me we have less access to good information today than we did before the web.

Journalists are also now held to a higher standard, and have to be more transparent. As everyone from Dan Rather to The New York Times and Reuters and many solo bloggers have found, any mistakes or distortions will be called out and publicized. You'll be hounded until you make a prominent correction. You may even have to find another line of work. No longer is it simply enough to say, "Trust us and our integrity. We have the brand and the access and the information."

The ability to link and refer to source documents has helped, too. I remember how I had to convince a boss in those early days of ABCNews.com to let a link or two replace a few paragraphs of background in order to save us space and effort, while also sparing readers the annoyance of repetition. Today, the link and search are our friends, and can give us not just the background, but also the source documents, raw interviews, and much more. Done right, journalism has new authenticity and credibility.

Accountable advertising

Democratization has also come to the business side. I used to wonder how it was that advertisers could place their ads without ever knowing much about the effect of their placement. Of course, we all knew that even though a placement in the front of a publication was deemed a choice spot, readers might pick up Newsweek just for the arts section and never get to the "front of the book." In the Washington Post, they might not go beyond the Style section, so a chunk of subscribers weren't being reached by ads in the front section.

Today, in digital media, advertisers can at least tell if their ads have been served to (and presumably seen by) a viewer. Yes, it's imperfect, but you can't convince me that digital media is less accountable than print or broadcast.

While I feel the pain of those who've lost their jobs -- I've both laid off people and been laid off myself -- there are now business models for news that work on the web, even if the traditionalists don't like it. Just ask Gawker Media, Gothamist, Talking Points Memo, Daily Kos or Drudge Report, all of which are said to be profitable. I know it's still fashionable in some circles to curl your lip when referring to "bloggers," or to lament the mediocrity of so much web journalism. But there is real, strong journalism taking place, too.

I'm not saying today's media have made things all sweetness and light, that digital is saving us and everyone is holding hands and dancing together in sun-filled meadows. But we're getting some clarity about information sharing and attribution, fraud is being detected, fairness and even-handedness are being demanded, the megaphone is being shared, and advertisers are able to demand evidence that their ads are actually being seen.

Meanwhile, there is huge disruption. This is not a time for the faint of heart or those unwilling to learn and change. But, for so many reasons and in so many ways, things are better than they used to be.

Dorian Benkoil is consulting sales manager, and has devised marketing strategy for MediaShift. He is SVP at Teeming Media, a strategic media consultancy focused on helping digital media content identify and meet business objectives. He has devised strategies, business models and training programs for websites, social media, blog networks, events companies, startups, publications and TV shows. He Tweets at @dbenk.

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February 04 2010


Google News to Publishers: Let's Make Love Not War

krishna bharat.jpg

In the view of some traditional media execs, Google is a digital vampire or a parasite or tech tapeworm using someone else's content to profit. As that rhetoric heated up in the past year, Google has responded not with equal amounts of invective but with entreaties to help publishers.

Google launched Fast Flip to help bring old-style page flipping to the web, promoting higher forms of visual journalism and sharing ad revenues with publishers. Then came Living Stories, a new format for updating stories at one URL, designed in tight collaboration with the New York Times and Washington Post. Google realized old-line media were hurting (and lashing out at them), so they wanted to help.

"Specifically for Google News, we don't see publishers as our competitors. We don't have a product without their content," said Josh Cohen, senior business product manager of Google News. "There's really a symbiotic relationship there. We don't have a product without high quality content to index, whether it's on Google News or Google overall. So part of it is there's interest in making sure that content thrives online. There's a balance there of the benefit that we certainly get from being able to index the content, and the benefit we give to publishers in the form of traffic."

I recently went to Mountain View, Calif., to visit Google headquarters, known as the Googleplex, to talk with Google News creator Krishna Bharat, now a distinguished researcher at Google, as well as Josh Cohen, who was in town from New York. Bharat provided background on the origins of Google News (as well as a peek into its future), while Cohen explained how he is spearheading outreach to publishers. The following is an edited transcript of our chat, as well as video clips.

When you first were developing Google News, what did you have in mind? What were your goals?

Krishna Bharat: It was in response to September 11 [terrorist attacks]. I was reading news from a bunch of papers all over the web. And I discovered that there was no efficient way to find coverage of the same topic from different sources. To find the same coverage about the Taliban I would have to go to the L.A. Times site and [go to all these sites]. It seemed fundamentally inefficient. That's not the way the web was supposed to work. The web was supposed to have a link structure that helped you find content.

Part of the problem is that all of this news was fresh. By definition, news is fresh and doesn't have links. And if Google is to fulfill its mission to find information efficiently, it occured to me that what I was doing a computer could do. A computer could, in fact, visit all these websites, find the same article, or similar articles, and group them together. I tried it, and it worked.

Also, given my background, having grown up in India and read about Western events from there, I knew the diversity of reporting that existed, and certainly different points of view. Especially on this subject [around 9/11], there is a Middle East point of view, a British point of view, an American point of view. Bringing those views together seemed like a good social function. Helping people understand multiple points of view, and hence becoming wiser for it -- whether they agree with it or not -- just understanding there is another point of view is enlightening.

Bharat describes how Google tries to serve the user first and then figure out the business model later:

How do you measure the success of Google News?

Bharat: We look at the number of queries that we impact on web search. I don't remember the number now, but it's a non-trivial subset. It's also a sign of the times, there's a lot of interesting stuff going on, a lot of good real-time information. The fact that we are contributing to that, making web search more powerful, and we're satisfying user needs, it's a sign of success. Besides that, the headline pages we have are a starting point for some people, and they follow the links, and we send traffic to publishers, which is also very satisfying.

I remember when Google News first launched, you made a point about saying that there was "no human intervention" in creating the site. But humans created the algorithms and have had a lot of intervention in it, right?

Bharat: Of course the algorithms don't come out of the blue, but that's obvious. The interesting thing is that the algorithms aren't trying to replace an editor, they're trying to assimilate the wisdom of mulitple editors, and say 'statistically, this is the most interesting story right now because more editors have covered this story than any other story.' That's the basis for our ranking. Even in news search, we look at who's publishing a story, when it's published, but also how big of a story is it. Ultimately, we are aggregating editorial wisdom.

I wouldn't say at all that this could operate without humans. In fact, everything on the web is a function of human output. People author content, people link to content, people prioritize content. And all of the different algorithms on the web, be it web search or Digg or something else, is drawn from human input. So yes, we draw on human input but the algorithm ultimately decides what leads and what does not lead.

Josh, what about in your role working with publishers? How do you measure success?

Josh Cohen: If we don't have a successful product, then it's not going to be all that successful for publishers. The business model we have is a little different. We're an aggregator, but we're not really a portal. So our focus is to get all that traffic and send it out to publishers. The more that we grow, that means the bigger our traffic hose is from the links that we're sending directly to publishers. So if we don't have something our users want, everything else falls apart.

On the engagement side, we don't have any content to offer pubishers -- we don't have editors or reporters -- but we have technology and tools. We see publishers taking advantage of the tools we have to make their websites better. Probably the best example today is Google Maps. So many editors will use the open API, embed that into their stories, think of different ways of telling stories online that you can't do in a paper. And the last part is monetization, which is a big part of Google's business, whether it's in display ads or search ads to help them make more money.

Cohen talks about the legal issues surrounding Google News, and how Google lets publishers remove their content from indexing:

How has Fast Flip gone so far? I know there's a revenue split with publishers, are they happy with that?

Bharat: Fast Flip was a way to increase engagement and look at new ways to monetize that. When I pick up a magazine, turning the pages is instantaneous. It's really fast to turn pages and see a lot of pages rapidly. On the web, things are slow, but they shouldn't be slow because we have the technology to make it fast. Loading a page from a top news sites may take 5 to 8 seconds on broadband. If it took you that long to turn the page of a magazine, you wouldn't turn many pages.

There's inertia here, so we're decreasing inertia and allowing people to see more content. We made Fast Flip really fast so you can skim through content really rapidly, and in the process encounter a lot more ads, thus making more money for the publisher. When you find something interesting, you spend time on it and click through. So we have a site optimized for skimming, but even the skimming experience is monetizing for the publisher.

And are those ads sold as CPM (cost per thousand) ads or CPC (cost-per-click)?

Bharat: They're CPC ads, but we're just starting out with this experiment. Right now we're serving the ads, but you could see a situation where a publisher serves the ads. Or you could see a situation where this is premium [pay] content and the idea is to encourage people to buy the content and buy subscriptions. There are any number of ways that this could evolve. The idea was to find out more about user behavior if you made it really fast. And we learned that people look at a lot more content, and a lot more ads.

We also found out that the old model of just showing you a title and a snippet [on Google News] does not do justice to certain kinds of content -- very visual content or enterprise journalism that if you don't have a sense where it's coming from and that the Economist or the Atlantic are behind it, you don't appreciate the quality of the content. The title does not do it justice. We're observing that a lot of traffic is going to sites that are extremely well typeset and carefully authored. And right now the model on the web does not help that kind of production.

Cohen: The assumption we had going in was that if you're showing more content, then there would be a lower clickthrough rate than showing just a headline and a snippet. The assumption was that with a lower clickthrough rate people would consume more of that content. It's hard to find that kind of content because Google News is so search-based. This is more a factor of serendipity. You don't necessarily know you're looking for these long-form investigative pieces that [you experience] more like sitting back and reading a magazine.

And we're seeing now that, especially for smaller publishers, Fast Flip is giving them a real burst of traffic. And Google News is so focused on breaking news that this is really a new channel for them.

Bharat and Cohen discuss the Living Stories project, and how Google employees were "embedded" in the New York Times and Washington Post newsrooms:

Where do you stand on what can be included as a source that's indexed on Google News? I remember discussions about whether blogs should be included, but there are also press releases, too.

Cohen: Overall, I'd say the bias is toward inclusion. Increasingly, it's a gray area, but in the same way Krishna talks about having the algorithms drive our rankings, we don't want to sit in judgment saying 'this is a good source or a bad source.' Making qualitative judgments is not a place where we want to be in selecting the sources. So you really try to make it a binary decision. Is it current events? Is it covering news? That's a big one. Is there original content? If you're aggregating content you want to get it from original sources instead of from sites that are purely aggregators.

We have press releases and label them as such. We have blogs and label them as such. A big part of it is having a certain level of disclosure for the user so they can understand the nature of the sources.

At one point, I remember that you would include blogs but only if there was more than one person working on it. Is that still the case?

Cohen: We want some evidence of an editorial review process. But it's not easy and it's getting that much more difficult to define those kinds of sources. There's a larger debate about what is news and not, and whether Twitter is news or not. I have a feeling it will only get more difficult.

Bharat and Cohen talk about possibly integrating real-time feeds from Twitter into Google News search, and the challenges of doing that:

Have you been tempted to bring in editors and even fact-check what goes onto Google News?

Bharat: Just the sheer volume of what we deal with becomes challenging, and then there's the issue of objectivity. If we had an editor in-house, then we would become another publication. That said, there are editorial functions one can perform that stop short of making those decisions, that don't take away the diversity we have right now. It is something we could think about in a limited scope at some point in the future, but right now we don't have editors in that role.

Can you talk about some projects you're working on now, anything coming up with publishers?

Bharat: What I can say is that the industry appears to be moving toward pay walls and subscriptions. And we've explained that Google as a company is very interested in working with whatever scheme ultimately takes off. We are happy to bring technology to bear on the problem. If a publisher feels they can monetize their content with ads, more power to them, we're absolutely happy to work with them, helping them drive traffic and providing increased engagement and better monetization models for ads.

If they do want to put the content behind a pay wall, you still need to find the content in order to get subscribers, and we're happy to play a role in that. Google would still want to link to the content or a preview of it and still drive traffic, which means we'd still have to know where the content lives, and there are technical challenges there. Beyond that, we have ways to pay for content like Google Checkout. We are actively looking at ways we can work with the industry to help non-ad based solutions take off.

The other thing we have a broad interest in is personalization. Every time a reader looks at something and says 'that's not for me' and moves on, there's inefficiency in the system. Along with getting the top news of the day, we want to make sure the rest of their experience is as efficient as possible -- not only on Google News but on other publishers' sites. Trying to be smart about selecting content will help the industry, and that's something we're investing resources to try to figure out how that can be done differently. And when we have technology that's ready, we'd be happy to work with the industry to make that successful.

Would you go by what users input or by their browsing history?

Bharat: A bit of both. Obviously if users are willing to tell us, that's great. It's very accurate. Beyond that, there's plenty of evidence from the way they browse the content to tell us where their attention is going.

Cohen talks about some of the factors leading publishers to attack Google, and how they deal with that heated rhetoric:


What do you think about Google's efforts to work with publishers? Do you think publishers should work with Google to help with their businesses online or go it alone? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Videography for this story was captured by Charlotte Buchen.

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

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February 02 2010


Email is Far From Dead

For years, the digerati have been declaring the end of email as a useful tool.

Back in 2003, experts said RSS feeds would spell the death of the inbox. In 2007, Wired and CNET said younger generations were using IM, Facebook and MySpace instead of email. More recently, PC Magazine's John Dvorak proclaimed "9 Reasons E-mail is Dead," and The Wall Street Journal told us "Why Email No Longer Rules."

The prognosticators point to the annoyances of spam; the difficulties of getting mass messages through corporate firewalls (and of having them stripped of HTML or graphics); and the fact that overflowing inboxes are causing people to pay less attention to email.

It's true that media companies -- and isn't every company now a media company? -- need to pay attention to important social platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. But they shouldn't underestimate the power of a well-crafted subject line that lands in front of an email subscriber.

Let me give some examples from my own experience, and also provide some data to help bolster my case that email is alive and well.

Don't Underestimate the Email Newsletter

A business associate recently suggested we not devote too much energy to a client's email strategy because people are "overloaded with email." But within four weeks of launch, more than five percent of the client's website visitors had signed up to receive email communications. The list continues to grow at a fast clip, and I consider the people on it to be among of the site's most loyal following.

Another recent example came when a representative from a potential sponsor for MediaShift expressed interest in banner ads, but told me they were really keen to learn about opportunities in our email newsletter. They found email to be the most effective means of communicating, according to the representative.

"Email is probably the single most effective marketing communications platform available
to publishers today, especially since it already has a high penetration level," Chris Sturk, managing editor for the publishing consultancy Mequoda Group, said via email.

For a publisher, email ads, which by law require a user's permission and are thus more targeted than many other advertising formats, tend to garner a much higher fee on a per-user basis than web ads. They also allow for a level of design and linguistic craft that can be impossible to achieve on social platforms like Twitter and Facebook.

I have consistently seen spikes in traffic to websites in the hours and days after email newsletters are sent out. Email allows you to keep messages on your servers, and not have to trust the security and delivery of the social network you're sending them through. You can use the data related to open rates (the percentage of those receiving an email who actually open it), clickthroughs from links and bouncebacks (when an email address is no longer valid, for example), and not have to be as concerned with whether your information is secure. Users' privacy can be better protected with email, as well.

"In business communication with customers, oftentimes a private channel is desired, especially when pertaining to the exchange of money," Sturk said. "Email has this privacy, while social media is mainly public."

The aggregate numbers, too, show that email is not in decline. The Journal story cited data that found the number of email users grew 21 percent, to 276.9 million people, across the U.S, several European countries, Australia and Brazil from August 2008 to August 2009. Sturk said delivery rates and open rates, meanwhile, remain relatively stable.

Social Networks Make Email More Efficient


True, Twitter and Facebook and some social bookmarking and sharing sites are climbing up the rankings when it comes to referring traffic to websites. But surveys conducted by the marketing research company Marketing Sherpa find that users of social media consider them venues for personal communication, while 75 percent prefer that companies communicate with them via email.

Social media users, in fact, may use email more heavily than others, according to Marketing Sherpa editor Sean Donahue. "Just look at LinkedIn or Facebook -- how do you set up an account?" he said. "With an email address. How do you receive your notifications from those services? Through your email."

Social networks, as well as other tools like wikis and document sharing services, may also have made emailing more efficient. Collaborators can now more easily find out a project's status and access documents as needed without having to send and receive emails for every update.

Email may not have the buzz, but it still has a lot of power. If you're in the communication business, you ignore it at your peril. Email should still be in your mix if you're looking to reach your users in a way that makes them comfortable, lets them communicate with you, and also brings you business benefits.

Dorian Benkoil is the sales manager at MediaShift and SVP at Teeming Media, a strategic media consultancy focused on helping digital media content identify and meet business objectives. He has devised strategies, business models and training programs for websites, social media, blog networks, events companies, startups, publications and TV shows. He hosts the TV program "Naked Media: The Business of Media, Uncovered" (NakedMedia.org), blogs at MediaFlect.com and http://dorianbenkoil.tumblr.com/, and Tweets @dbenk.

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January 29 2010


GlobalPost Expands Partnerships, Struggles with Pay Service

A year ago, GlobalPost launched online with an ambitious mission to "redefine international news for the digital age...with a decidedly American voice." The idea was to hire freelance stringers around the world to report back to the U.S., and thereby fill the gap left by the closure of traditional media's foreign bureaus. While the site has forged important partnerships with CBS News and others, its hybrid business model of online sponsorships and a paid premium service has been slow to gain traction.

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When I spoke to GlobalPost CEO Phil Balboni last year, he was confident that an online-only news operation could be leaner than a legacy one. "We can do it on the web, where we can reach our audience very inexpensively and [we've developed] a business model that allows us to be profitable without having to jump over the moon," he told me.

One year later, Balboni said he is proud of the work done by the army of GlobalPost correspondents in 50 countries, including World of Trouble, a massive report on the global economic crisis that included work from 20 correspondents. The site also broke the story that U.S. military aid to Afghanistan was helping enrich the Taliban.

"I think we succeeded in our first year by bringing back great international coverage, with extraordinary reporting," Balboni said. "We now have a legion of freelancers, and have had 4 million unique visitors in all of 2009. Our goal was to hit 600,000 monthly visitors to our site, and we exceeded that with 750,000 visitors last November, and 618,000 visitors in December."

life death and taliban.jpg

Balboni was also happy with the growing number of syndication partners for GlobalPost's content. Last September, GlobalPost announced a partnership with CBS News that has brought in more exposure and pay for its correspondents, some of whom have been featured on the "CBS Evening News." Not only did Balboni promise to be a non-partisan outlet, he delivered with partnerships with outlets across the political spectrum, from Huffington Post to Reuters to Newsmax. GlobalPost headlines are even featured on Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly's home page.

Seth Kugel, a GlobalPost correspondent based in Brazil, told me the CBS News partnership paid dividends for him.

"I have made a decent amount of money from the partnership with CBS, which shows that they are being pro-active about getting us opportunities with their partners," Kugel told me via email. "I really feel GlobalPost understands reporters and does everything they can to support us, within their limited means."

Business Model Challenges

While the site has established itself as a player in the news business in its first year, it has also struggled to bring in steady revenues from its premium Passport service, which has just 400 subscribers. The site initially planned to charge $199 per year for access to special content from correspondents and inside information. The price is now down to $99 per year, with a discounted $50 rate for seniors or academics.

Balboni told me Passport members especially liked being included in the story-making process via a feature called "Foreign Desk" that allows them to suggest topics and story ideas to editors. But he also said GlobalPost did not meet its revenue goals in its first year, hitting the same wall as other media companies during the economic meltdown. Balboni said GlobalPost is revamping Passport and will announce something on that front in the spring.

So far, Balboni said advertising is bringing in about 70 percent of revenues, with syndication deals and Passport bringing in 30 percent. He hopes the split will move closer to a more ideal 50/50. "The less dependent we are on ads, the better," he said.

Steve Safran, editor in chief of Lost Remote, has worked with Balboni in the past as a consultant to GlobalPost and at Balboni's previous venture, the New England Cable News network. Safran says Balboni succeeded in establishing GlobalPost as a respected news site.


"GlobalPost has had a successful first year by any measure," Safran told me via email. "I dare say that this, its second year, will be even more critical. This is when we'll see if the the site and its reporting can keep growing to a point where it's clear whether this is a successful business model."

Alan Mutter, a media consultant and Newsosaur blogger, was also impressed with the ambition, scope and seriousness of GlobalPost, but took issue with the tone and content.

"The work typically is solid, but often prosaic and seldom distinguished," Mutter said via email. "You can get more up-to-the-minute news at Google News and many of the articles seem to lack the political, economic and strategic insight that characterizes the best of foreign reporting...I suspect they will get better and find their voice as time goes on."

Support for Correspondents

One of the challenges for GlobalPost is keeping its corps of freelance correspondents happy. The correspondents receive stock options in GlobalPost, as well as about $1,000 per month to produce one 800-word reported piece per week in addition to blog-like "Notebook" entries. That pay is not nearly enough to cover living expenses for most correspondents, who must field other full-time or freelance gigs to survive.

Jean MacKenzie.jpg

Jean MacKenzie is the GlobalPost correspondent in Afghanistan who broke the story on U.S. aid going to the Taliban. She told me via email that the exposure she's received while being a correspondent for GlobalPost has been satisfying. But she had to run an NGO that trains journalists in Kabul in order to make enough money.

"I have relished being a reporter again, and I believe that having to produce my own stories has made me a better trainer as well," she said. "The downside, of course, is the lack of adequate financial compensation, which keeps me from being able to devote as much time as I would like. In order to live and work in Kabul, which is a surprisingly expensive environment, I have to have a full-time job in addition to GlobalPost. That makes things a bit frustrating, since I sometimes cannot get as deeply into the story as I would otherwise."

Kugel, the Brazil correspondent, also has to juggle other freelance writing work with his GlobalPost reporting. Kugel said he would appreciate getting paid more, though he's thankful that the company has covered some expenses, in addition to the extra work for CBS News.

"Of course, I would like to be paid more, and there have been times where I've put in many days on a story and realized that my hourly pay was something god-awful," he said. "But most stories are not like that, and these days [GlobalPost] has gotten much more flexible about allowing us to do major projects that pay more, and give us expenses to work with...I should note that no one can live off what GlobalPost pays, but that is part of the model: we're freelancers that devote ourselves part-time to GlobalPost."

David Carr, media reporter for the New York Times, is amazed by the diversity and quality of the content at GlobalPost, but worries that correspondents who come from legacy media backgrounds might not be able to pass the torch to a new generation of seasoned reporters.

"Many of the best people who file on GlobalPost are correspondents who gained years or even decades of experience while living in far-flung lands on the nickel of MSM outlets," Carr told me via email. "Those operations now find themselves in reduced circumstances and as a result have cut their global news efforts and the people who make it happen...I'm thrilled to still be reading the work of many of them, but once that generation of talent that was sustained and educated under an old media paradigm peters out, where will the talent come from?"

While GlobalPost has done a good job establishing its credentials as a serious, non-partisan news organization, it still has work to do in exploiting the online medium. Balboni said they had plans to integrate Facebook more deeply into the site, the way that Huffington Post has. And while they have increased video reports to at least two on-location reports per week, the videos are still not embeddable.

"In many ways, GlobalPost piggy-backs on other organizations, since a correspondent is forced to use resources from other jobs (Internet, housing, drivers, translators, etc.)," MacKenzie said. "This is not exactly fair. But as I have said, these are teething problems that will have to be worked out if the organization is to progress. GP will have to have dedicated reporters, not stringers who have to chase a million other gigs in order to survive. For now, we are all feeling our way forward -- can this new model work? If it does, it is an exciting step for journalism."


What do you think about what GlobalPost has accomplished in its first year? What do you think it could improve, and would you be willing to pay for a premium membership? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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

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January 06 2010


What to Expect From the 'iTunes for Magazines'

Apple appears poised to introduce a much-anticipated product: the once seemingly-mythical "iSlate" or "iTablet," its first tablet-style touch-screen computer.

Though the potential of an Apple tablet thrills many fans of the company, it's also piqued the interest of magazine publishers, who -- long before the device's rumored introduction -- foresaw its possibilities for their industry. The announcement in early December of a so-called "iTunes for magazines" digital storefront that would be well-suited to this new device, among others, seemed a bit hasty, given that the device's development hasn't even been publicly confirmed by Apple.

The coverage of the "iTunes for magazines" concept, and its connection to new tablet computers under development, has been a little confusing. Here, we'll sort through some of the highlights, and explore what it might mean for the beleaguered print magazine industry.

iTunes or Hulu for Magazines?

Most of the news stories about this new project have suggested it's modeled after iTunes, but others have invoked comparisons to Hulu, the (currently) free streaming TV and movie site.

Though it might seem like a minor difference, iTunes and Hulu have very different business models. iTunes offers small pieces of content (such as a song or a TV episode) for a small charge, and also sells season passes to TV shows, and movie downloads. Hulu, however, doesn't charge for any of its content at the moment. It's supported by ads.

In an interview with the New York Observer, John Squires, a Time Inc. executive vice president who will soon leave Time to head up this new venture, did not specify how users would pay for content. He said individual publishers involved in the venture would set their own fees for content, a statement that doesn't rule out the possibility of free and advertising-supported content.

But more than likely, some content will probably be free and paid for solely by ads, and some will be available only by paid subscription (and could still contain advertising). Publishers could also separately sell individual items, such as magazine articles or related multimedia.

Who's Involved in This Project?

Time Inc., Condé Nast, Hearst, Meredith and News Corporation are the five publishers involved in the joint venture. The first four are the four largest magazine publishers in the U.S. by revenue, according to the State of the News Media 2009 report, while News Corporation owns numerous magazines in Australia as well as many other newspapers and magazines around the world.

These publishers own some of the best-known magazines in the country, including Time, People, Sports Illustrated, Glamour, Wired, the New Yorker, Cosmopolitan, Redbook, O: The Oprah Magazine, Better Homes and Gardens, and Family Circle. In short, this digital joint venture is very likely to impact at least one magazine found in the average American home.

What Will a Tablet Magazine Look Like?

A couple of video demonstrations of tablet-formatted magazines from this joint venture are available online. The one below shows a tablet version of Sports Illustrated, which is presumably similar to what readers would buy from the new iTunes-like service. The digital version includes video, photo galleries, customizable content and -- yes -- a video swimsuit edition. (There's also a real-world demo of the same edition given to TechCrunch.)

Wired has also been reconfigured for the digital venture. The video below shows its new layout in the tablet edition. Both the Sports Illustrated and Wired demos show the tablet-based e-reading application using vertical and horizontal layout options. They also highlight interactive advertising.

How Will Publishers Make Money?

Publishers will probably make money the same way they do in print: with subscription fees and advertising. One advantage of electronic editions for publishers, however, is that they can track exactly how readers interact with advertising: for example, how long readers look at an ad, or whether they pursue more information about a product at that moment.

Publishers have long argued that magazine readers savor advertising as part of their reading experience. The Magazine Publishers of America handbook (PDF) states that 54 percent of magazine readers have a very positive or somewhat positive attitude toward magazine advertising. However, skeptical and increasingly frugal advertisers may need a bit more convincing. The data that digital magazine publishers can provide about readers' viewing and reading habits will allow advertisers to better target specific audiences, and determine cost-effective advertising methods.

What Formats Will Be Sold?

The publishers in the joint venture say that their "digital storefront" will use open standards, presumably so other publishers and other device makers can join in. Microsoft is reportedly developing Courier, a touchpad device in a booklet format rather than a tablet. HTC, a company known for its cell phones, is also said to be unveiling its own touchscreen device based on the Google Android operating system within the next few months.

The Amazon Kindle and Barnes & Noble Nook e-readers may not be invited to this joint venture party, however, because their current technology can't show color or video, and because their downloadable files use proprietary formats.

Is This Really So New and Different?

The real challenge for magazine publishers in this joint venture may be to find ways to truly innovate. Though the "iTunes for magazines" concept and its primary use on state-of-the-art tablet devices might seem innovative enough, the fundamental question is whether this new distribution and business model fully utilizes the advantages of the digital format in exciting, engaging and creative ways.

The video demos linked above don't really appear to add much more to the magazine experience than what readers might already access on a well-designed magazine website. On the web, a reader can already access content in any order, see supplemental multimedia, and interact with other readers and social media. And in most cases, those sites are free of charge.

So far, the tablet format and iTunes-style business model may not be fundamentally changing the nature of magazine content and reading, at least based on the video demos. As of now, it appears to be primarily a new distribution method, not a change in the essential magazine experience. The tablet editions might be shinier and prettier, but they still offer mostly the same content in a new layout. Readers will have to determine if those qualities outweigh the advantages of paper magazines in cost and convenience.

Susan Currie Sivek, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Mass Communication and Journalism Department at California State University, Fresno. Her research focuses on magazines and media communities. She also blogs at sivekmedia.com, and is the magazine correspondent for MediaShift.

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December 08 2009


5 Tools to Help Automate Local Advertising

Promises of whiter teeth, IQ quizzes, and digital dancing people clutter online ads these days. At the same time, experts at future-of-journalism conferences are declaring that news will never again be solely supported by advertising. Neither one tells the full story of the present and future of online advertising for hyper-local and other news websites.

Experiments with new advertising technology are popping up everywhere. Websites are trying to reach smaller, local advertisers that have been underserved for years by legacy media. This local and hyper-local ad market will be a significant part the future of journalism, says Jeff Jarvis, author of "What Would Google Do?" and associate professor and director of the interactive journalism program at the City University of New York.

Even Twitter is dropping hints about its advertising plans. Founder Biz Stone said the company is not considering text and display ads for Twitter's home page, but he told Reuters on November 25 that the company plans to make money with "non-traditional" advertising. Stone didn't define what non-traditional ads will look like, but here are five examples of new tools that websites can use to make money from advertising.

5 Tools for Automating Local Ads

1. PlaceLocal: A new, hosted solution that allows publishers to automate local ad creation and sales. It's operated by PaperG, a startup led by Victor Wong, who is taking time off from Yale to develop his business. PlaceLocal automatically builds customized ads for any local business using just its name and address. The tool can even create a landing page for a small advertiser, Wong said in an interview during which he demonstrated the tool.


The technology builds an ad using algorithms, and by searching databases and the web for reviews, photos, or entertainment listings. It also filters out any content that has a negative tone. The tool allows advertising representatives or publishers to easily build ads on spec and use them as a sales tool, Wong said.

"Some of our partners are using it to crawl their own databases," he said. The tool can be deployed on a publisher's ad servers or run separately, and payment to PaperG is based on a revenue-share basis, he said. "If customers aren't buying ads, we won't make money," he said. "If they are, we will make money." Several media properties are testing the software, Wong said, and a public launch is planned this month. PaperG raised $1.1 million in its second round, from people like the former Boston.com publisher Steve Taylor and Mark Potts, CEO of GrowthSpur, according to paidContent.

2. Dynamic ads: Offered by TheDigitel in Charleston, S.C., this tool allows advertisers to change ad content dynamically via a text message, Facebook or blog update, or using a Twitter or Flickr photo feed. "If you can feed it, our thing can eat it," claims TheDigitel's website. Advertisers fill out a form to create the ad and designate which parts are static, and which are dynamic.

3. Flyerboard: A virtual bulletin board that enables small, local advertisers to create flyers that are then distributed to hyper-local websites. This is another offering from PaperG. The tool, which lets readers share the flyers on Facebook and Twitter, is deployed at sites like the New Haven Independent, Boston.com's Newton, and some of Hearst's local sites, like The Woodlands in the Houston suburbs. Flyerboard is a permanent widget installed on local sites, and revenue is shared between the site and PaperG. Wong said Flyerboard has generated 1% clickthrough rates for ads on some hyper-local sites, outperforming traditional advertising.

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4. Real time ads: These are delivered at MinnPost.com, a non-profit site covering Minnesota. Joel Kramer, CEO and editor of the site, showed off the concept during a panel at the Online News Association conference in early October. MinnPost champions the ads as a simple way to avoid creating specific messages just for one website. Rather, small advertisers can harness an RSS feed from an existing blog or business tweet stream. The text is displayed on a widget at MinnPost.com, with a link to a pop-up page displaying the text with images and links to originating websites.

5. Self-serve ads: Multiple examples of self-service ad vendors exist for print and the web, such as the Instiads offered through Neighborlogs, a placeblogging platform based in Seattle, and PageGage. Also, AdReady is used by The New York Times. A partnership for a self-service ad network was announced in September between the Tribune Company and MediaSpectrum.

Most of these services offer hosting and billing assistance in exchange for a percentage of revenue. Other companies, such as Trafficspaces, offer advertising software-as-a-service with monthly fees. Trafficspaces has also launched a free version with sponsored ads. Another ad management company, isocket, is in private beta with TechCrunch, and recently received $2 million in seed funding. Mobile self-serve ad tools have sprouted up as well, such as Zeep Media, which sets ad prices via auction, and Mojiva.

Sharing Space

Beyond the new technology offerings and platforms, traditional media organizations have begun sharing ad space with smaller publishers, borrowing the ad network concept from digital natives like the Blogher network of independent blogs for women. The Miami Herald, a McClatchy newspaper, has launched a Community News Network and is partnering with local websites for content on the Herald's site and sharing ad positions on those pages.

Andria Krewson is a freelance journalist and consultant from Charlotte, N.C. She has worked at newspapers for 27 years, focusing on design and editing of community niche publications. She blogs for her neighborhood at Under Oak, writes occasionally as a Tar Heel mom at The Daily Tar Heel and covers changing culture at Crossroads Charlotte. Twitter: underoak.

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December 03 2009


Will Google Sidewiki Shift Control of Online Comments?

Journalists and news outlets are accustomed to offering comments and criticisms about others, but they're not as used to being the subject of public comment themselves. In the online world, where technology can and does upend established relationships, journalists and online news outlets are joining the ranks of the commented-upon.

The shift has taken place due to the increased presence of commenting and feedback features on news websites, and partly thanks to the use of comment-friendly platforms such as WordPress. In these contexts, the news outlets have chosen to accept user comments, and they retain a certain amount of control over which ones appear on their site. Now, a new technology, Google's Sidewiki annotation tool, is poised to present a challenge to website owners, including news outlets, that attempt to control the interface between their site and end users. Suddenly, they won't have as much control over comments related to their content.

And that change in control might lead to some legal tussles down the road.

Google Sidewiki

Google debuted Sidewiki in September. The tool permits users of the Google toolbar to write comments about any website they visit. These comments are then visible to other Sidewiki users when they navigate to the same page. But the comments are hosted by Google, rather than the website itself.

The Google Sidewiki site provides a graphic depiction of what a Sidewiki entry looks like. When the Sidewiki button on the Google toolbar is clicked, a sidebar opens to the left of the webpage and displays the comments entered by Sidewiki users.

Usually, a website's publisher decides whether or not to provide comment functionality, and if such functionality is provided, the site's owner retains the ability to delete unwanted comments. But a website operator has virtually no control over the Sidewiki functionality. This is something of a major shift.

Attack of the Commenters

Some websites have already been the subject of negative Sidewiki comments. In a September 24 blog post on Econsultancy, "Google Sidewiki: Brands under Attack," the author included examples of Sidewiki comments on the Microsoft and Apple websites. Microsoft products were described as "useless" and "crap," and Apple was slammed for "lying" and shipping products with "severe bugs."

Another example comes from a September 24 comment on the website of the Daily Mail. A commenter named "supaswag" wrote, "Why?? ... would you read this sad toss? Don't you have more important things to do? Seriously ... you'll find better/proper news here..." The link included in the comment led to the website of a Daily Mail competitor, the Guardian.

Responding to Sidewiki

A website owner is given few options to respond to comments like those listed above. Website owners can claim their sites through the Google Webmaster functionality, and thereby gain access to the top comment spot on Sidewiki. This means they can add whatever content they wish to the thread about their site(s). Other user comments are sorted according to a secret Google algorithm that takes into account the responses of Sidewiki users to the question of whether or not a particular comment is "useful," among other factors.

Google has a Sidewiki content policy that prohibits spam and malware, threatening, harassing and sexually explicit comments and the like. But commercial content in general is not prohibited, only "unwanted promotional or commercial content" (which is included in the definition of spam). It is not clear by whom the promotional or commercial content must be "unwanted" in order for it to constitute spam.

There is a link for reporting abuse, but the link leads to a form that is available to any Sidewiki user; it does not appear that website owners themselves are given any priority when it comes to communicating concerns to Google.

Sidewiki and the Law

One of the legal issues raised by Sidewiki is whether it intrudes upon the rights of website owners to control their interface and interactions with users. A similar type of technology that comes to mind is pop-up advertisements. Web users have become accustomed to seeing pop-ups -- and equally accustomed to blocking them. But several years ago, the ubiquitous and intrusive nature of pop-ups led a group of media companies to join in a litigation effort against Gator. Gator distributed technology that enabled the delivery of pop-up advertisements on websites without the permission or participation of the sites' owners.

gator.jpg The media company plaintiffs, as well as other plaintiffs in similar lawsuits, took the position that the pop-up advertisements violated trademark law. The media companies were successful in obtaining a preliminary injunction, and the litigation was eventually settled favorably. The company that distributed the pop-up technology is now out of business. As a result, there was never a definitive resolution of the issues raised in that case.

The lawsuits related to trademark law were based upon the fact that the pop-up functionality was being used to deliver commercial advertising, which presents a different set of legal considerations. But what if the comments that appear next to a site via Sidewiki are non-commercial comments by users, rather than commercial messages? Legal challenges by site owners to Sidewiki may be complicated by the fact that Sidewiki facilitates all kinds of messages, both commercial and non-commercial.

Has Sidewiki Got Legs?

Sidewiki is not the first or only service of its kind. Services such as Draw Here, Fleck, Trailfire and MyStickies have offered website annotation capability for a few years, but none of these services have garnered widespread adoption. (One annotation startup, ReframeIt, claimed recently that Google appropriated its patented technology in creating Sidewiki.)

Right now, Sidewiki users appear to be relatively few, and the technology presents some barriers to widespread use. In order to see Sidewiki comments, a user must install the Google Toolbar and its enhanced features. And a user must also be logged in to a Google account in order to use the Sidewiki functionality.

But being the media giant that it is, Google may have the capacity to bring Sidewiki, and website annotation, into mainstream use. If that happens, online news outlets, along with other websites, may find that the dialog on and about their sites is increasingly controlled by Google. And that could result in some interesting legal issues for all parties.

Jeffrey D. Neuburger is a partner in the New York office of Proskauer Rose LLP, and co-chair of the Technology, Media and Communications Practice Group. His practice focuses on technology and media-related business transactions and counseling of clients in the utilization of new media. He is an adjunct professor at Fordham University School of Law teaching E-Commerce Law and the co-author of two books, "Doing Business on the Internet" and "Emerging Technologies and the Law." He also co-writes the New Media & Technology Law Blog.

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November 12 2009


Can Salon's Revamp Help it Stop Bleeding Money?

Salon.com was a pioneering website launched in 1995 by former editors of the San Francisco Examiner, mixing opinion and investigative reporting with a sharply progressive slant. Although the company went public at the height of the dot-com boom in 1999, it had lost more than $80 million by 2003, and lost $4.6 million in the fiscal year ending March 31, 2009. Its stock trades at just 12 cents a share on the over-the-counter stock market.

This year, Salon hired a new CEO, Richard Gingras, who previously worked as a media advisor to Google and at startups such as @Home. Gingras had his work cut out for him. The recession hit the site's bread-and-butter ad revenues hard, it cut staff by 20 percent, and paid memberships have declined.

Salon recently unveiled a redesign to provide more context to stories, include related material from around the web, and give advertisers a more creative platform. It's also planning a new store that will sell third-party products (and provide Salon with a cut of e-commerce sales), as well as a new food section.

I visited the Salon headquarters in Rincon Center in downtown San Francisco, and spoke to Gingras about the redesign, the future of investigative journalism, and his thoughts on competing with Huffington Post. He greeted me by saying "welcome to the oldest new media company." The following is an edited transcript, along with video clips of our discussion.


What is Salon's greatest asset?

Richard Gingras: Salon has been around now 15 years and I think its greatest asset is the quality of its writing. I think it's particularly true today, when there's more information than ever, but there's also more bad information than ever. We have these ongoing arguments about where Obama was born, so I think separating the wheat from the chaff is more important than ever; figuring out what really matters is more important than ever. And that's what Salon is about, so that's its key asset. And it's doing it with a friendly, witty personality that a lot of folks find appealing.

Gingras explains what Salon will be offering advertisers with the redesign.

On a lot of publishers' sites, there's a balance between short and long content. To me, Salon is known for giving more depth. But online you're almost punished for doing longer stories versus lots of shorter ones. How do you balance those?

Gingras: It's an interesting point. I don't think the web punishes you for depth. I think it suggests there might be new ways of going deep that doesn't necessarily mean a 3,000 word article. Salon does both. We do long pieces and short pieces, and the short ones might end up having depth, they're just done with a different periodicity. I'm reminded about something [Marshall] McLuhan said about "every new medium starts as a container for the old."

That's as true for the web as any medium. Radio started out with people reading the newspaper, and they figured out that didn't work. So the narrative form will evolve on the web. It's true that short stuff works really well, blogging works really well. It doesn't mean it's any less thoughtful. It doesn't mean it's any less comprehensive.

Gingras talks about how he sees Huffington Post differing from Salon by succeeding with SEO and traffic, but not with original in-depth reporting.

With all the talk around Web 2.0, people think of Salon as being part of the first wave. Do you feel like Salon needs to be reinvented for Web 2.0?

Gingras: Interestingly, Salon was named for the notion of engaging in discussion. Salon has always been very much about engaging in discussions with its audience. Our comments and letters sections are both extremely prolific and interesting. The WELL, the pioneering discussion site, is part of Salon Media. In one dimension, it's in our bones; in another, technology is changing. We didn't talk about social media three years ago because Twitter and Facebook were barely there. Now it's a key part of the landscape.

Part of our redesigning and re-architecting of Salon was to put us in a better position to use those technological enhancements as they're rolling out. But the theme is the same. Let's pursue interesting subjects. Let's try to approach it from angles that mainstream media does not, and let's engage our audience and let them engage us as much as we possibly can.

I ask Gingras why Salon has lost so much money, and he says he is confident that will change.

Tell me more about your take on paid content. Salon tried out subscriptions early on, but those have faded somewhat. Now many mainstream media outlets are considering paid content. What do you think about that?

Gingras: I refer to business models not model because online you have to be open to different approaches. We do have a premium subscription for $45 a year that people pay to access Salon without advertising. Others subscribe for $35 a year because they want to support what we do. That's one component of it. But advertising is a very big component of it, and I expect it to be that way as we go forward.

But we're also looking at other possibilities. Around Thanksgiving we're going to launch a Salon Store, we're going to go into e-commerce. Salon as an independent voice represents a set of values, a way of looking at the world. In business-speak, it's not just a content brand, it's a lifestyle brand. Just as we carefully select what to write about and discuss in the content space, [we are examining] what we can do in the product space. The web has allowed so many artisans and merchants to mount businesses virtually on the web. It's an opportunity for us to select products and share in that transaction with the merchants.

And we'll be extending Salon's content into new vertical areas. We'll be launching a food section as well in the next month or so.

I've noticed that your paid subscription numbers have gone down. Is that something you're not going to be emphasizing as much moving forward?

Gingras: I'd like to see the premium subscriptions increase. But keep in mind the way we approach it. We're not gating content, we're not saying you have to pay us to see the content of Salon. I don't think that really can work for us or most mainstream publications. It can work for the Wall Street Journal because that's perceived to be high-value business content that people can subscribe to and write off the expense. We don't play in that world.

Gingras walked me through the redesign of Salon and how stories now live within topic pages.

How has your community blogging area Open Salon gone, and what's the business model for that?

Gingras: Open Salon has been a great success for us, and it's something we're very pleased with. And it's an important component of how we're going to have a successful strategy moving forward. It launched a year ago, and has 35,000 bloggers, an audience of about 1 million unique visitors per month, several million page views. But to me the most interesting thing is, given the nature of the Salon audience, which is probably the most intelligent audience on the web, with many writers among that audience, the participation in Open Salon is of very high quality.

We have novelists, former journalists, New Yorker cartoonists who put up cartoons the New Yorker hasn't used. So there's a lot of very high quality content there, and it's a vibrant community. It's a way for Salon to expand its content depth and range with those that love Salon. We target ads into those pages, and the bloggers can also get some money from Google Ads that run on those pages. Open Salon to us is less about getting more revenues, and more about expanding our philosophical view that the web isn't just about speaking at people -- it's about speaking with people.

Have you considered crowdsourcing, because you have this big community at Open Salon, and you have reporters doing work over here. There's been a lot of talk about combining the two, and using the power of the audience.

Gingras: Absolutely. I don't quite use the term crowdsourcing. I've been spending a lot of time over the past few years trying to figure out how journalism will evolve. I think journalism of the future will be great, and frankly better than the journalism of the past, because so many people can participate. I spent a lot of time working at Google and studying how the web works, and how that might impact journalism moving forward. One conclusion I had was that future successful news organizations, part of their success will be based on their ability to effectively and qualitatively leverage what I call 'the trusted crowd.'

This goes beyond citizen journalists submitting cell phone photos of a tractor-trailer crash. That's fine, I'm not saying that shouldn't be done. But we want to go beyond that. So when we look out at Open Salon and others out there, we do think about how to leverage the efforts of those that want to participate with us [with] their writing, research or their assistance curating what we do. Wikipedia has shown the high quality of what you can get by leveraging the help of folks, done carefully. We don't need 1 million contributors, but can we bring in a couple hundred folks into the editorial process of Salon? Absolutely.

Gingras explains how Salon will fund investigative reporting by increasing soft features including a new Food section.


What do you think about Salon's revamp and its prospects for becoming a profitable online media publisher? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Videography and photo by Charlotte Buchen.

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

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