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September 13 2010


Rafat Ali Seeks to Re-imagine Travel Guide Industry for Mobile

After traveling around the world for the last two years, paidContent founder Rafat Ali has a new venture. In a separate Q&A, he describes why he wants to avoid the business of covering news.

Here, he discusses how the travel guide industry piqued his interest and how he started Guidism.com to explore whether the industry can be re-imagined for mobile devices.

Dorian Benkoil: Could you tell me about what you’re working on?

Rafat Ali: One of the sectors that I’m deeply interested in, and very likely my next venture, is going to be in the travel guidebook sector.

And that’s born out of a few things. One is, as people who have been following me on Facebook and Twitter know, I have been traveling for the last 24 months. I have been to five different countries and all kinds of various places, and as a result I think it’s fair to say that I’ve caught more than the travel bug, and have also been using all kinds of guides, whether it’s books or research online, or a bunch of mobile apps.

I think there is an opening in the market that I can help address in the travel guidebook sector, particular as the sector gets re-imagined in the mobile arena. If anything says mobile, travel guide says mobile …

Exactly what it means for me and what the final thing I’m going to be working on will look like, to be honest, I don’t know yet. What I have done is launch a site, a blog, which is what I know best, about the travel guide sector called Guidism.com, which essentially is the daily links that I’m posting as I learn about the sector. …

Can you tell me more about your intentions with mobile and things you want to do?

Ali: It’s obvious that the scope for reinvention of the guidebook is on the mobile platform. Clearly, online there are too many sources of information. Most people start their research on Google.

So how do you as a startup or an established brand rise above the noise? I think on the mobile platform that becomes slightly more clear, because by the time you’ve reached the mobile platform, you’ve already done pre-research of where you want to go.

At a destination … you need a guide, whether that’s a printed guide or a mobile guide. Just making an e-book out of a guidebook is not enough. Some of the guide companies have done that. That’s not even taking advantage of the medium, which is a live medium. Mobile is a connected medium, so there a lot of things that you can do. And that’s what I’m trying to figure out.

This seems rather different than what you did before. This a vertical, but you’re not really talking about covering a vertical, and you’re not talking about doing a news media company.

Ali: Correct. Also, this is a consumer vertical, not a B2B vertical, which I’ve done previously. When I started thinking about leaving, and especially as I was traveling, I think one of reasons I was traveling so wide was to clear my head and also figure out what I want to do next.

One of the things I did not want was to do something in my comfort zone, which I’ve been doing previously for the last eight years of my life. The easiest thing for me would be to take that vertical building knowledge and apply it to another B2B vertical that I can apply the same treatment, which is fast-breaking news, bite-sized chunks, analysis, opinion, data, research. Add conferences, add classifieds, add video — all the elements that went into ContentNext and paidContent, and all the stuff that I’ve done. …

In business to business, everything is incremental, right? You get this many visitors or this much money, you hire another person. Or you do this much, and you expand. And the audience growth is also incremental — it never is exponential — which is good and steady. …

But having covered the consumer companies, I’ve always liked the high that comes with the exponential growth. If something clicks, that’s the high I want to experience at least once in my life, however naive that sounds. But of course there’s good and bad. Good is if you get that high. Bad is you can flame out so much faster. …

Isn’t everything you’ve said about news applicable to travel guides? Whatever brilliant content you get, brilliant applications you build, brilliant platforms you get them on, there is other content. Others with just as few barriers can do the same thing you’re talking about with travel.

Ali: Yes and no. I can’t explain for two reasons. One is I will disclose more than I’m willing to. And secondly, I’m still learning. The reason I say no is because for something where people have invested a bunch of money to go a certain place — especially destinations outside your own country — the planning and the guide part of it cannot be left to chance, which is left to brands that are untested and not well-known.

From a consumer point of view, if they’re investing so much money and time and effort to go, there has to be enough security, in terms of when they’re taking a guide, whether it’s a book or it’s mobile. It has to have reliable information. They can’t be stranded in the middle of nowhere without knowing where go.

I’ve learned this being a traveler, and learning about the travel industry. While it seems to be the easiest thing to get content, it’s one of the hardest, backbreaking kinds work that these guys have done over the last 20, 30, 40 years, which is how long these guys have been in existence. … It’s not just creating something one time; it’s updating that is also extremely difficult, especially outside the popular sectors. …

But there are four or six established brands I could name. Even in the backpack sector, the high-end sector, there are a couple or three brands in each.

Ali: If you look at the numbers in the travel guide sector, all of them, especially in the last couple of years, have declined.

Of course, those are secular trends. The print part of the guidebook sector is in decline. It’s also cyclical because travel in the last two to three years has been hit by the economy, and [that will continue] for the next couple of years, in all likelihood.

It’s also why I’m looking at it as an opportunity because now is the down cycle, and there are probably things to start and things to pick up that will be much cheaper now than they will be in a few years.

I do think brands matter in this industry. Imagine the content dropped into these books. I mean, a company like Lonely Planet, just as an example, has 800 different titles. Imagine the amount of content that is built into those books. How can a startup even begin to rival that, even if all they’re doing for the next five to 10 years is gathering content?

So what’s your opportunity?

Ali: Maybe not in the travel content industry but maybe an allied services thing that will become a hit. It could be a technology. It could be a way of presenting these books on these platforms. It could be search in the travel guide sector. So I don’t know yet, to be honest. That’s what I’m trying to figure out. Search certainly seems to be an interesting opportunity.

If you do create the brilliant application, brilliant technology, sure that gives you a head start. But somebody else could come along and create another brilliant technology that somehow undercuts or steals or improves upon what you’ve done.

Ali: Hopefully I will be that person.

Again, there are slight risks in going public for competitive reasons or even talking about it in the posts that I did. But if your competitive advantage is silence, I don’t think that’s a huge advantage.

I feel like I’ll learn more being in a public forum, as I say in my post [on the site], and also I’m getting e-mails from people in the sector, so clearly I’m already getting more opportunities than I would have just being silent.

September 09 2010


Public Media API Could Be ‘Engine of Innovation’ for Journalism

Journalists from American Public Media, Public Radio Exchange, Public Radio International, PBS and NPR have spent months scoping out how they would create an online pipeline to share and distribute public media content on any platform.

Their goal is to create a “Public Media Platform” — an open API that would allow public media organizations across the U.S. to share content with one another, with application developers, and with independent content creators and publishers.

Along with giving people greater access to content, the Public Media Platform would make it easier to aggregate and package different news organizations’ stories on major news events such as the BP oil disaster and the earthquake in Haiti.

“If you really want to follow a story across all the public media producers, there’s no simple way to do that, and there needs to be,” Joaquin Alvarado, senior vice president for digital innovation at American Public Media, said in a phone interview.

“Folks spend a lot of overhead time going between sites, and I think we need to start producing an efficient pipeline to connect the dots between the various threads of interest.”

It’s possible to curate such coverage by hand, but an API is a technological solution. Essentially, APIs, or application programming interfaces, enable software programs to communicate with one another, allowing data to be shared and used in various ways.

“Engine of innovation”

Kinsey Wilson, senior vice president and general manager of digital media at NPR, has helped lead the six-month-long planning phase, which costs $1 million and is scheduled to end in December. (The Corporation for Public Broadcasting provided the majority of the funding, while the rest came from in-kind donations.)

Wilson said in a phone interview that he hopes the API will encourage greater collaboration among public media outlets and make it easier for them to innovate and push their content in front of new audiences.

“We see this as an engine of innovation, and we’re really trying to create something that will spur others to innovate and develop compelling applications for the public,” said Wilson, a member of Poynter’s Board of Trustees.

“There’s a great amount of content for radio and the Web that resides in lots of different places,” he said, “and that’s locked in lots of different systems now.”

Throughout the planning phase of the project, Wilson has drawn on his own experiences with NPR’s API, which gives outside parties access to more than 250,000 stories dating back to 1995. Since it launched two years ago, the API has contributed to an 80 percent increase in NPR.org’s total page views, Wilson said.

Enabling collaboration

NPR’s API is a critical part of NPR’s Project Argo, a new online journalism venture aimed at producing in-depth, local coverage on topics such as politics, public safety and climate change. The 12 NPR member stations that are part of the Argo network will share stories through NPR’s API.

Joel Sucherman, program director of Project Argo, told me in an e-mail that sharing content via APIs is becoming increasingly important as public media outlets look to expand their reach.

“It’s important that public media organizations ensure that we reach audiences wherever and however they want to consume content — terrestrial radio, TV, online, mobile, wherever,” Sucherman said. “And we think through the power of public media networks, the whole will be greater than the sum of the parts.”

Robert Bole, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s vice president of digital media strategy, hopes to spread the word about the Public Media Platform in a South by Southwest Interactive panel he proposed last month. He said in a phone interview that ideally, the platform will encourage public media to collaborate more with developers and programmers. 

There’s already a lot of collaboration among public media outlets. Public Radio Exchange, an online marketplace for distribution and licensing of public media content, partnered with NPR last year to create a portal for information about H1N1. The FluPortal, as it was called, was funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and served as a resource for stations covering the outbreak.

“We had to manually assemble that,” said Jake Shapiro, CEO of PRX, by phone. “That’s the kind of thing that would be easy to launch in a more timely fashion once something like the platform exists.”

Shapiro said he can think of several other ways PRX could use the Public Media Platform — for instance, to build an iPhone app featuring content from many public media organizations. Currently, that would take a lot of effort.

Shapiro emphasized the importance of creating a service that involves a broad range of public media outlets.

I really err on the side of openness and inclusiveness,” Shapiro said. Public media, he said, is uniquely suited for this work because of its public service mission — “to make sure content that reflects public dollars is accessible in the most broad and relevant way possible.”

Planning for future business models

Those involved in the planning phase of the project have talked at length about establishing a set of business rules around the distribution and use of content. The goal, Wilson said, is to find a way for news organizations to share content without dramatically undercutting their existing businesses.

“I think there’s an assumption on our part that the business models and the rules may change over time,” Wilson said, “but we need a starting point and one that will encourage people to experiment with the kind of sharing that [the API] will facilitate.”

Wilson emphasized that the API will be built incrementally so that it’s easier to assess what works and doesn’t work and then make adjustments along the way. Several people have been involved in the planning phase of the project and are working to determine the next steps.

There’s an advisory board that consists of public media journalists, as well as a technical advisory board made up of journalists from outside public media, such as ProPublica and Publish2. Each of the members is assigned to one of three committees — a leadership committee that is figuring out the business rules; a planning committee creating a document explaining how the API will come together; and a proof of concept committee that will build a live prototype of the API.
As of right now, there’s not enough money to continue beyond the planning phase. Wilson estimated that the API would cost several million dollars to build. “We don’t have a dollar figure yet,” he said, “but it will be relatively modest compared to the historic investments made in pubic broadcasting.”

The success of the Public Media Platform will likely depend not just on the content in it but also on whether people actually use it.

“I think I would measure success in two ways: by the number of different content producers that ultimately elect to use this and put their content in it, and by the number of institutions, organizations and individuals who make use of what’s available and put it on their sites,” Wilson said. “My hope is that this would stimulate some real creativity.”

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August 02 2010


4 Digital Tools to Improve Your Government Coverage

Monday and Tuesday, about 40 journalists are gathering at Poynter to learn how they can use free digital services to cover government more effectively. They’ll learn how to share and annotate documents, share data on politicians and lobbyists, understand voting patterns and create data visualizations.

We live blogged four presentations about:

  • Sunlight Foundation: How to use data to cover politicians, lobbyists and campaign contributors
  • Tableau: How to use data visualization to tell interactive stories

The live blogs are archived below. You also can view a live stream of the seminar through 4 p.m. ET today.

Archived blog from the Tableau presentation:

Archived blog from the DocumentCloud, Sunlight Foundation and Patchwork Nation presentations:

July 29 2010


7 Ways to Use Facebook to Merge News with the Social Web

Although many news organizations know they should incorporate Facebook into their social media strategies, so far they’ve had to rely on independent consultants to tell them what works. This week, however, Facebook outlined best practices on how news organizations can connect with the site’s enormous and highly engaged user base.

The findings are the result of a several-month long study by an internal team that examined Facebook usage at major news organizations such as CNN, The New York Times, and Univision.

Because Facebook boasts 500 million active monthly users and an average monthly time-on-site of around seven hours, integrating Facebook into your site could translate into substantial additional traffic. Tools such as Like buttons, Activity Streams and LiveStream can keep users clicking through stories on a site. And the Insights analytics tool provides valuable demographic information.

After implementing various combinations of Facebook tools on their sites, ABC News saw a 190 percent increase in referral traffic, Life magazine’s referrals increased by 130 percent, Scribd’s user registrations went up by 50 percent, and Dailymotion saw as many as 250,000 users engaged with a single video.

Facebook Developer Network engineers Justin Osofsky and Matt Kelly provided an in-depth look at their findings at a Hacks/Hackers meetup this week. Journalists can learn more about the techniques and discuss how to improve upon them at facebook.com/media.

Optimize the Like button

There’s a lot of power in those little Like buttons, both on the Facebook site and off. When a user clicks Like, that gesture is broadcast to all of his friends — on average, 130 people. Depending on how a site implements the button, clicking the like button may add a link to the user’s profile page and make the liked page discoverable in Facebook’s search system.

Anything on the Web is potentially Likable: a news story, an organization, or even a reporter, Osofsky explained.

Crucially, once a user Likes a Facebook Page, the administrator of that Page gains the ability to push new content to that user’s Activity Stream. In essence, that single click is all that’s needed for users to opt-in to future messages — and if they don’t like your content, to opt back out.

Like buttons are easy to make and come in a variety of features and sizes, from tiny rectangles to full-featured iframes that include profile pictures and comment boxes. Facebook has found that “Like” buttons do best when they’re close to content that is both visually engaging and emotionally resonant, such as video.

In addition, full-featured Like buttons tend to do better than smaller ones. Adding faces of other Likers to the button and including Facebook comments increased the clickthrough rate from as low as zero up to 0.2 percent — comparable to the click-through rate of a banner ad.

Because Facebook delivers this content to publishers’ sites through an iframe, only a small amount of code is necessary to implement the “deluxe model” Like buttons.

Tailor content specifically for Facebook users

Content matters on Facebook. Touching, emotional stories earned 2 to 3 times as many Likes as other stories, as did provocative debates. Sports stories tend to perform particularly well, with 1.5 to 2 times more engagement than the average.

With that knowledge, news organizations can identify stories likely to perform well on Facebook and push those stories through social channels such as Facebook Pages and Twitter.

Publishers can even strategize around when they push this content. There’s a spike in Likes at 9 a.m. and 8 p.m., so having fresh content at those times is crucial.

Deploy activity plugins on every page

Increasingly, news site home pages will be customized to users’ tastes and networks. On CNN’s home page, for example, an Activity Feed plugin shows users what their friends have Liked on the site.

Osofsky recommends that publishers set aside real estate on every page on their site for the Activity Feed and Recommendations plugins, which suggest relevant content to users. “Sites that placed the Activity Feed on both the front and content pages received 2-10x more clicks per user than sites with the plugins on the front page alone,” he wrote on the Facebook Developer Blog.

He also advises that sites use Facebook’s LiveStream plugin, a real-time chat box that gathers users in a conversation about live, breaking news. The plugin could be seen as a competitor to live-tweeting and live-blogging tools like CoverItLive.

Create separate pages for major events

For major stories that break over several days, some organizations increased engagement by creating a dedicated Facebook Page for that event. “Stories published from a World Cup-focused Page of one major media company had 5x the engagement rate per user than stories from the company’s main Page,” Osofsky wrote.

Of course, that technique isn’t without some degree of risk. Publishers might worry about fragmenting their audience and losing viewers when an event is over.

For example, after a flurry of wall posts, ESPN’s World Cup Page abruptly stopped posting on July 15. The 636,000 or so fans have continued to post to the wall, but with no response from ESPN, they are likely to lose interest.

Manage your many pages

Depending on the type of item that a user Likes (a person, a show, an article, and so forth), almost every Like button generates a new Page on Facebook. As more people click “Like,” publishers will need to organize and manage an ever-growing volume of Pages — some of which aren’t even visible to most users.

Facebook Engineer Matt Kelly described how Facebook uses what he informally called “Dark Pages” to connect publishers to users. Invisible to everyone but administrators, Dark Pages represent pages on the Web that have been Liked but do not have a publicly visible Page on Facebook — for example, a single news article.

Publishers must place the Open Graph and Facebook tags such as <og:type> and <fb:admins> on each page of their site to identify the content. Then, once a publisher has claimed its page (dark or otherwise), it can publish new content to the Activity Streams of their Likers and examine Insights to learn more about their users’ demographics.

Publishers could wind up with thousands of Pages to monitor. There’s not a perfect method to manage that onslaught of Likable content, Kelly said, but he expected that solutions would emerge from Facebook’s outreach to publishers.

Attendees at the Hacks/Hackers event expressed some dissatisfaction with Facebook’s Insights tool. Although visually similar to real-time traffic reporting tools like Google Analytics, Facebook’s Insights can lag up to four days behind. That may change in the future; Osofsky said the goal is for Insights to lag no more than a day behind.

Turn status updates into infographics with the streamlined API

Just as newspapers invested in printing presses, online news divisions must now invest in software development. Facebook recognized that developing social tools can be confusing and resource-intensive, so the company recently streamlined its API.

“It’s simple and modern,” Kelly said, demonstrating the clean, comprehensible data that developers can access from simple URLs such as http://graph.facebook.com/markzuckerberg.

Facebook’s new API is structured around objects and connections, just like the user experience on the site itself. It can be used to generate innovative visualizations like the New York Times’ visualization of soccer players’ popularity.

In addition, Facebook has developed a more robust search tool, which can be used to find content from public status updates, not just people. Journalists could use the tool to gauge community interest in a story or to find new sources.

Facebook has also streamlined its authorization process, implementing OAUTH 2.0, which offers improved scalability and ease-of-use. For users, authorizing applications is now a single-click process, rather than having to click through one dialogue after another. For publishers, that translates into smoother engagement with users.

Participate in development of Facebook products

Social networks — particularly Facebook — are quickly becoming a key way to learn about breaking news, a phenomenon that Facebook is only too happy to embrace. The recently released research is just a foundation for what Osofsky hopes will be a long-term collaboration with media partners.

He encouraged anyone involved with news — journalists, editors, software developers — to visit facebook.com/media to learn about Facebook’s engagement with the news industry, to share ideas, and to contribute to the emerging practice of integrating social tools with journalism.

“We have plenty of work to do,” Osofsky said. “And the dialogue is very important.”

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