Tumblelog by Soup.io
Newer posts are loading.
You are at the newest post.
Click here to check if anything new just came in.

September 21 2010

16:00

Foreign Policy quickly turns daily dispatches from northern Afghanistan into its first ebook

Susan Glasser, editor-in-chief of Foreign Policy, wrote a piece for the new issue of our sister publication Nieman Reports on how she relaunched the magazine’s slow-paced website in 2008, turning it into a vibrant, go-to place for international news and commentary, ramping up the amount and variety of content published everyday. The site now runs multiple daily feature stories and a network of notable blogs (as compared to a single story “every day or so” and just a single blog before the relaunch).

To Glasser’s credit, FP is still experimenting. Foreign Policy is now promoting its first ebook, Waiting for the Taliban: A Journey through Northern Afghanistan. The book is a compilation of daily dispatches filed by war reporter Anna Badkhen from April of this year. It’s available on Amazon for $2.99.

Glasser commissioned the pieces after Badkhen received a grant from the nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting to return to Afghanistan, where she did reporting in 2001, 2002, and 2004. The grant covered Badkhen’s substantial costs (translators, drivers, satellite phone). Glasser said that when Badkhen finished her series, the work felt like it could fit into the broader genre of travel literature — perhaps making a better read as a book than as individual postings. But any such book would need to be published quickly, given the timeliness of the material. “We thought, well, that’s exactly where ebooks are going and should be going,” Glasser said.

This first ebook is a good test case for Foreign Policy because the investment it required was relatively low. The work got a second edit mainly for clarity, consistency, and structure by Badkehn’s primary editor, Britt Peterson, who said the work “translated well” into book form. Badkhen wrote an introduction. All that was left was production, which Amazon handled.

“We don’t know how many copies we can sell,” Glasser told me. “We’re trying to understand what kind of business [ebooks] can be.”

For now, Amazon is serving as publisher of the book, which means they handled conversion of the text into Kindle format (Foreign Policy sent them a Word doc) and cover (with input from FP editors and Badkhen). Amazon is also taking the lead on promotion, sending out email blasts and featuring the book for likely buyers on the site. Slate Group, which owns Foreign Policy, will take a cut of the sales. Badkhen will also get a share. Badkhen and Glasser wouldn’t disclose the exact percentages.

Amazon hasn’t released initial sales numbers to Foreign Policy yet, but Glasser pointed out the book cracked the Amazon Bestseller list for paid Kindle books its first weekend (the 9/11 anniversary), sliding in around slot 50. As of today, Badkhen’s book holds the number one slot for all Amazon books in the 20th Century world history section and the Middle East travel section. Those rankings are updated hourly, so it’s difficult to say what kind of overall sales the book is pulling in.

Badkhen noticed that people who have bought her book have also bought books unrelated to foreign policy (like this thriller in a small Texas town). “I think my excitement comes from the idea that I’ll reach an unexpected audience,” she told me. “As a journalist, I believe my job is to reach as many people as I possibly can. A lot of times we’re preaching to the choir.”

This isn’t the first time a magazine has repackaged content for a quick-turn ebook. For instance, Newsweek published, A Long Time Coming, shortly after the 2008 presidential campaign. That book was written by Evan Thomas, using the reporting of several Newsweek staff writers from the trail. Unlike Waiting for the Taliban, Thomas’ book was later published in print format. Foreign Policy’s model is straight ebook.

Glasser and Badkhen, who have both written books (Badkhen has a book coming out in print this October, also on Afghanistan), agreed that ebook publishing and book publishing are miles apart. Glasser’s book on Russia, Kremlin Rising, was considered a “quick turn” — which in publishing terms meant it still took six months to make it to bookshelves after editing was complete. “The whole world can be reinvented between January and June,” Glasser said. “It was an agonizing wait.”

July 14 2010

14:00

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

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

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

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

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

The right readers

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

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

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

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

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

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

Engaging readers and writers

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

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

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

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

May 12 2010

13:00

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Older posts are this way If this message doesn't go away, click anywhere on the page to continue loading posts.
Could not load more posts
Maybe Soup is currently being updated? I'll try again automatically in a few seconds...
Just a second, loading more posts...
You've reached the end.
(PRO)
No Soup for you

Don't be the product, buy the product!

close
YES, I want to SOUP ●UP for ...