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January 23 2012


Pew Report: Tablet Ownership Doubles. What's Left for Print?

The shift from print to mobile reading went into overdrive this holiday season, with ownership of e-readers like the Kindle and tablets like the iPad doubling in a single month.

A new survey-based study from the Pew Internet & American Life Project reports that the percentage of adults owning tablet computers went from 10% to 19% between mid-December and early January, with the same growth rate seen among black-and-white e-readers like the Kindle.


Source: The Dec. 2011 and Jan. 2012 Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project

So how should content providers and publishers react to this news? As the founder of e-book publishing startup BookBrewer, I live and die by these kinds of numbers, and they're obviously good for us. But they should serve as a wake-up call for traditional publishers -- especially newspapers, magazines and book publishers that still manage their businesses around shrinking print audiences.


The Pew study said tablet and e-reader adoption sped up due to holiday gifting, but it was amped by two new value-priced color tablets: Amazon's $199 Kindle Fire and Barnes & Noble's new $249 Nook Tablet, both of which are far below the iPad's $499-$829 price point. Amazon doesn't release exact figures on the Kindle Fire, but investment research firm Morgan Keenan recently estimated that Amazon sold 4-5 million Fires over the holidays at the expense of 1-2 million iPads that Apple would have sold absent the Fire.

Also noteworthy in the study is that the sex divide has disappeared -- at least for tablets. In November of 2010, 60% of tablet owners were male. Today? It's at a healthy 50-50 male to female ratio. Curiously, black-and-white e-readers went in the opposite direction, with women now making up 57% of of e-reader owners. (My theory on that based on e-book sales data I'm privy to as the owner of BookBrewer is that romance e-books play a role, but I digress.)

In both cases, people with more education and higher incomes were more likely to own a tablet or e-reader, although the difference was slightly less for e-readers.


So what's left for the print market? This is a valid question because the contrast in trends for tablets and traditional print couldn't be more stark. Think about it. In just one month the number of people with a sexy new device that can display books, websites and streaming video doubled. When's the last time you saw those kinds of figures for mass-market newspapers or magazines?

What's more, these tablets are generating significant sales from content after very little time on the market. An RBC Capital analyst projects that the brand-new Kindle Fire will make Amazon $100 over the lifetime of the device. The revenue comes directly from sales of e-books, apps and streaming content from Amazon.

Compare that to Pew's figures on yearly newspaper revenue, which has been going in the opposite direction for some time.

Having been completely out of the newspaper industry for over two years, I see the glass as more than half full, but I keenly remember how it felt to work for a newspaper and feel tied to a tanking business model. That's partly why I've been urging journalists and news organizations to repackage and publish their content as e-books. E-book sales were surging even before the numbers looked this rosy, and they represent a new way to monetize content without advertising.

And here's the great news there. I now have multiple, solid examples that readers buy e-books about news.

Our first news partner, The Huffington Post, has published several e-books through BookBrewer that quickly moved into the No. 1 spots of their categories -- including this latest about the Occupy Wall Street movement. And we're seeing a similar effect with The Denver Post's first e-book about Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos. Based on these successes, we're openly looking for more news organizations that are ready to jump into the e-book world with both feet, so let me know if that means you or your organization.

To those of you who mourn the loss of the feel of a printed product in your hand, don't fret. Print is not completely dead. If you think of the digital revolution as a play, print is going through a wardrobe change.

Here's just one example. On January 8, we started pre-order sales for the Post's Tebow book as a Print on Demand paperback through our partner Consolidated Graphics. Even though readers have a choice between e-book and print, we've been amazed to see the print orders outpace the e-book orders by a 3-to-1 ratio. The book's print pre-order sales reached $23,000 in just 10 days, and they show no signs of slowing down.

I heard something similar from the folks at O'Reilly Publishing at a session I ran at their recent NewsFoo camp in Phoenix. Founder Tim O'Reilly told participants that his company sells twice as many e-books from the O'Reilly website than it does directly through Amazon. Those e-book sales are high, but print sales still make up at least half of their business. More and more of those print books are printed on demand from online orders, too.


Here's what I see as the broader trend. It's not the printed book itself that's dying, but rather the way that books are mass-marketed, shipped to physical book stores, retailed, sold at a loss, and ultimately shipped back to publishers for a refund. (And what does that tell you about my view on daily newspaper delivery? It should be obvious. Stop the insanity! Newspapers should be personalized and on demand, too.)

On the same note, the growth in tablets and e-readers says more about peoples' desire for convenience and choice than it does about gadget lust.

Information consumers now expect to get whatever they want, whenever they want, in whatever form they choose. Tablets, e-readers and smartphones speak directly to that need, but so does an impulse buy of a printed book that shows up at your doorstep five days later. In fact, more and more of those purchases initiate from smartphones. The need for on-demand, multi-platform publishing -- perhaps including an app or two -- has never been more important.

June 30 2011


Japan - "Kikkomania" in Europe: novel ways to use long-cherished Kikkoman?

Wall Street Journal :: A new marketing campaign from the European arm of venerable soy sauce maker Kikkoman, “Kikkomaniaencourages people to come up with novel ways for using the cherished condiment with a trip to Amsterdam, not noted for its connection to soy sauce, on offer for the most creative submission. Early suggestions include adding a few drops to cocktails, or even painting with it.

A spokesman at Kikkoman in Japan said its overseas offices have freedom to decide how to market the company’s products. What would be your idea?

Continue to read Andrew Joyce, blogs.wsj.com

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May 26 2011


American Marketing Association Nonprofit Marketing Conference

OnPointPlease join us for the 2011 Nonprofit Marketing Conference in DC, July 11-13.
The line-up is amazing, the presenters an incredible mix of nonprofit marketing experts.

Here are a few of the tech-related highlights:

    Social Media Success for Nonprofits

    More than three-quarters of surveyed nonprofits in 2010 said that social media works best for “enhancing relationships with existing audiences.” But, are there more benefits coming with evolving use? Should nonprofits be using one networking site or more? Are there any strategies to managing the time it takes to grow social networks? And, how will services like Facebook and Twitter be changing in the future?

    Register for this three-hour, pre-conference workshop with renowned social media expert, Blue State Digital, the company that has crafted and implemented powerful social media campaigns for dozens of issue organizations and cultural institutions. We'll talk about some tactics that have worked well for BSD clients (like Obama for America, the NAACP, the Jewish Federations, Share Our Strength, US Soccer, and the It Gets Better Project) and others. We'll discuss where the biggest bang for the buck is for nonprofits, and where the risks are. We'll have a special conversation about prioritizing staff time in an era of limited resources. And, we'll reserve time to discuss your own programs and challenges.

    Lead presenter Rich Mintz will be joined by other members of BSD's communications team to talk about social media programs they worked on, why they made the decisions they did, and what results they achieved.  

    This is a hands-on session. Bring your laptop or mobile device!
    Presenter: Rich Mintz
    , Vice President, Strategy, Blue State Digital

  • All a Twitter July 12
    A recent study shows that 78% of nonprofit organizations find Twitter to be the most effective social media tool for reaching new supporters. This interactive session will focus on the future of social media and Twitter as they are being played out in the nonprofit sector and will include:  

    ·         Twitter best practices for nonprofits

    ·         Successful nonprofit campaigns on Twitter

    ·         Fundraising/membership on Twitter

    ·         Tools and tricks to use with Twitter

    ·         How Twitter benefits your integrated marcom strategy

    Bring your laptop or mobile device for hands-on practice!
    : David Neff,Senior Digital Strategist, Ridgewood: Ingenious Communication Strategy, co-author, The Future of Nonprofits: Innovate and Thrive in the Digital Age

  • Nonprofit Customer Acquisition and Retention: Traditional vs Digital Methods for Maximizing ROI

    July 12
    In order for nonprofits to survive and thrive, they need to continually acquire/recruit new donors, members, supporters, clients, and volunteers. Once they're in the door, however, attrition rates can soar without a sound stewardship and engagement program to retain them and grow revenue.

    Presenters: Allyson Kapin, Founder at Women Who Tech, Partner, Rad Campaign; Eric Rardin, Director of Nonprofit Services, Care2

 Get the earlybird discount of $100 if you register before June 11! There are group discounts, too, for nonprofits sending three or more employees. Click the image to find out more! JUST BE THERE!

February 22 2011


Help Spot.Us Find a Path to Financial Sustainability

Spot.Us recently launched a new design, so this is an opportune time to write a "State of the Spot" post -- something we haven't done since the website was six months old. I hope to lay out how far we've come and what's on our plate and make a call to arms to the Spot.Us community and anyone else interested in the future of journalism.

In the two years since our site has launched, we've funded over 160 projects with the help of 5,000 contributors, a fifth of whom contributed more than once. We've done this in collaboration with 95 organizations, and our reporting projects have won eight journalism awards.

In short, we're making a difference. Whether it's funding FOIA requests, exposing the lies of a sheriff, or providing a deeper understanding of those less fortunate in our society, the stories we fund make a difference.

I earnestly believe in the power of an informed democracy. The guiding principle at Spot.Us is to make the process of journalism more transparent and participatory -- not merely to inform but to engage. Our site is a testament to the notion that people can take ownership over their information needs if there is a platform to support it.

Partnerships make our impact bigger. Take Oakland Local, for example, which has invested $700 into Spot.Us pitches and received $7,000 worth of reporting in return. Whether it's Mother Jones, The UpTake, WitnessLA or the myriad news organizations (many of them non-profit or community-based) we've collaborated with, our collective efforts allow stories to gain a wider audience, and we empower partnering organizations to do the fearless reporting that our communities need.

Room for Improvement

With all that said, I'm not satisfied. As Clay Shirky noted, our communities can become rife with "casual endemic corruption" if we don't figure out how to keep the public informed and engaged. The Spot.Us platform can and will improve to continue this fight.

Our redesign is an example of forward momentum, and now it's time to tackle the next hurdle: How can Spot.Us become a fully sustainable organization and increase the number of stories we support? Although 2011 looks to be promising, I'm already taking time to look to 2012 and beyond.

Running a startup organization means making choices. This is my attempt to explain to the Spot.Us community, journalists, and others who follow us what choices I'm debating, what obstacles we're facing, and to ask for your advice.

One of the biggest Spot.Us. opportunities is its unique sponsorship model. I've written about this at length before -- from announcing the idea to launching it to seeing early success. As far as I know, we are the only media organization experimenting with the idea of letting the public manage our advertising budget. It's our budget, but your decision. In many ways, this idea is as revolutionary as Spot.Us itself. Community members can fund a story without spending any of their own funds. Meanwhile, sponsors get meaningful engagement from community members, which can turn into tangible return on investment. Our advertising is transparent, participatory and therefore jibes with the mission of Spot.Us to get the public involved in the process of journalism. We are just acknowledging that advertising is part of that process.

Our sponsorship feature has created an important revenue stream for Spot.Us. At the moment, however, it doesn't offset our burn rate. The challenge is getting enough sponsors when we have no sales team (my spare time doesn't really count). We also need to find the right sponsorships which will engage community members so they continue to come back. This is compounded because our model is unique. I haven't found a media planning and buying agency to take it on, even though I'm offering a higher-than-normal commission.

How You Can Help

Tackling this challenge is one of the things I'm working on during a good chunk of my remaining time at the Reynolds Journalism Institute. Any help from a community member on the below action items would be greatly appreciated:

  1. Join Spot.Us and try our latest sponsored survey (free credits) and give me feedback on the experience. Take the challenge of doing the next three sponsorships we have planned (the next one will be sponsored by us to get feedback on how to better sell these).
  2. Help create the sales material for our sponsorship model -- maybe even find an individual or agency to take on the process of selling for a commission.

  3. Draft a long-term business plan with a road map for how Spot.Us would have to scale to become sustainable.
  4. Write a handbook for community-funded reporting, which would be a gift to the larger journalism community.
  5. And finally -- an A.P.I. with PRX, ASAP.

The Nitty Gritty

Allow me to elaborate. First, in regards to the material to sell sponsorships, our current sponsorship page doesn't do the concept justice. I can talk almost anyone's ear off about this model. We have some data about our users, but it hasn't been presented in any kind of media kit. Hopefully, a media planning/buying agency or an independent ad-sales person could use this material. I'm comfortable sharing a healthy commission, but we should provide them with the best sales material possible.

If you are an ad salesperson interested in working on an innovative project, let me know. If you want to contribute some pro-bono time to help us create the material, your karma will increase 13.6 points!

Up next is a business plan that shows a path to sustainability. I've played with some numbers and believe it's wholly possible if Spot.Us can grow its sponsorship model. It's a bit of a supply-demand issue. If we get more sponsorships (supply), I believe we can support more pitches and increase the number of surveys taken (demand). If either side falls short, we fail. At the moment, our demand is much higher than the supply. If somehow tomorrow we got our ideal number of sponsorships, I am not sure if we could hit the demand numbers, but I do believe these numbers are possible by 2012 with the right messaging and if the sponsorships are coming in regularly. The supply-demand conundrum is a bit of a chicken-and-egg scenario. If one side doesn't come through, the circle of life won't continue, and Spot.Us lets one side down.

The business plan I intend to lay out will show what numbers we'd need to hit on both sides to reach a sustainable equilibrium, one that funds stories, provides sponsors with an appropriate amount of engagement and leaves Spot.Us as a strong forward-leaning non-profit.

The community-funded reporting handbook is being led by Jonathan Peters, under my supervision. The handbook will be informed by Spot.Us experiences, but my hope is that it becomes a resource for anyone, regardless of a relationship to Spot.Us.

In regards to the application programing interface, it's important to remember that Spot.Us is not a news site but a news platform. In that same vein, we don't have to be a destination site. If partnering sites can use our back-end to fundraise for projects on their sites, then more power to them. But first we have a few technical hurdles to overcome.

Luckily, PRX is a willing guinea pig I mean, partner. ;) If we are able to create a seamless A.P.I. that integrates into a site, we can scale up the number of pitches (demand) Spot.Us has in its stables whenever we get a new sponsor. In some respects, this turns Spot.Us into a 21st-century advertising network in addition to inviting the public to support journalism.

So what now?

Obviously, we don't have a shortage of things to do. I remain encouraged both by the journalism community that supports our work and the public at large that has shown it supports quality reporting -- stories that need to be told, stories that can make a difference in the lives of individuals and the communities we live in.

Although that is exciting, I remain humbled and don't want to lose sight of what is at risk.

In the 1985 film "Brewster's Millions," Richard Pryor's character spends millions of dollars designing a room he could "die in." The designer goes through various iterations, each time getting closer and closer to the goal but never hitting the nail on the head. Eventually, the designer gets it right. This happens just as we find out the main character is broke, and an army of movers come to collect all the furnishings.

Aside from being one of my favorite comedians, Pryor, with the tip of his hat, touches on one of my biggest fears with Spot.Us. This new redesign leaves the site looking awesome. All the pieces are on the table, and the puzzle is coming together and beginning to show a beautiful image of a community-powered site. If Spot.Us isn't able to reach this dream, it would pain my heart, but I feel I could tip my hat in just the same way. Still, I feel we have a dragon by the tail and the tools in hand to bring it down.

Why I'm Sharing This

  1. Spot.Us as an experiment has always been about openness. As the journalism industry rants and raves about experimentation, I still don't see it happening, at least not at the level I think is possible. The more I can show what I'm doing -- the success, challenges, failures, and fears -- the more I hope others will follow, even if it's not "the industry" but rather lone and brave individuals. The water is fine, and I truly believe it is what we need.

  2. Somewhat selfishly, I think there are ways the Spot.Us community can help push us forward, especially with finding sponsors. Our current sales material is all here (it'll get better, promise), and we do offer a commission to anyone who lands a sponsor. I'm happy to give anyone the talking points.

  3. A similar plea is for any folks who want to dive into the numbers with me and come up with a long-term business plan and a proposal for funding. How I feel about the foundation world is a post in itself. Suffice it to say, it takes money to make money, and any funding we seek would have to abide by the old proverb of teaching people how to fish rather than giving them free meals. Again, we have a tangible revenue stream, but we need to shore up. As a non-profit, we can't get VC funding -- unless it's the kind the Texas Tribune gets), so we'd have to look to philanthropists.

I certainly can't predict what will happen. I never could. But that's what makes this an exciting ride and what I believe empowers the Spot.Us community. We've come this far only because you see value in our efforts. Together, we've funded meaningful stories in partnership with nearly 100 publications. I'm happy to say that I've seen many of them make a real impact in how our communities function.

I'm excited to tackle the future. I hope you'll be there with me

February 07 2011


YouTube and basketball memories: FreeDarko’s Pasha Malla on fandom, curation, and democratized media

Editor’s Note: Last week, I read The Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History, the second NBA book produced by the people behind the NBA blog FreeDarko. (The first, The Macrophenomenal Pro Basketball Almanac, was really good too.) If you’re not familiar with FreeDarko, Deadspin founder Will Leitch described its writers as like “overcaffeinated, overeducated philosophy grad students who decided they could learn a lot more from NBA LeaguePass than from their professors. They saw Nietzsche in Zach Randolph, John Coltrane in the triangle offense, Moses in Moses Malone.”

It was the book’s final chapter that got me thinking beyond basketball and to more Lab-like matters. In it, writer Pasha Malla describes how YouTube’s endless seas of NBA clips, old and new, allow fans to recontextualize basketball history, challenging established narratives and creating a space for fans to push their own impressions of events and personalities. That sort of democratizing force has impacts across all media, including for news organizations.

I’m very pleased that the folks behind FreeDarko and the book’s publisher, Bloomsbury USA, have let me reprint that final chapter here. —Josh

As its name suggests, the Shot — Michael Jordan’s series-winning buzzer-beater against the Cavs during the 1989 playoffs — is iconic: “As the ball nestled through the net,” confirms NBA.com, describing an image we all can easily visualize, “Jordan pumped his fists in jubilation, completing a video highlight for the ages.” In time, the endlessly replayed Shot became representative of MJ’s transformation from showman to champion and a metonym for the very idea of legacy — it’s not just how dominantly you play the game, but how you’re remembered.

Yet this version of the Shot is also, to some extent, a fabrication. The original CBS telecast cut immediately (and in retrospect, bafflingly) to the reaction of then Bulls coach Doug Collins; Jordan’s celebratory histrionics only surfaced later, in archival footage. If the NBA is to be believed, the popularized version ranks with the moon landing and JFK assassination among the great live moments in American television history; this redux has become our memory of something most of us, watching Coach Collins tear around our TV screens, never saw.

The Shot was featured among the NBA’s “Where Will Amazing Happen This Year?” spots during the 2009 playoffs — as was a LeBron James dunk, a Manu Ginobili layup, and an alley-oop to Andrei Kirilenko, each slowed down, flipped to black-and-white, and soundtracked like the sad parts from Amélie.

The spots were solemn, bursting with meaning, somehow both stark and expansive, saying nothing and everything about these players and the sport they played. To call the clips highlights would be misleading; apart from Dr. J’s staggering reverse layup, few were aesthetically or athletically “amazing.” Rather, taking the Shot as a blueprint, they served as shorthand for larger narratives — of teams, of individuals, of the game itself. The goal of the campaign was to station these moments firmly, proprietarily, as commercials for an NBA product. As the Association has manipulated the import of Jordan’s ‘89 game winner, so was this a perversion of nostalgia, wrenching moments out of context and playing them back as advertisements — effectively co-opting the personal experience of players and fans to reaffirm and sustain the NBA product. They also presented the potential for posterity as incentive to stay focused for all two and a half months of the playoffs: Don’t change that dial, the ads suggested; you might miss out on what we later decide is history.

Since the whole business self-referentially recognized the league as the locus of “Where Amazing Happens,” subsumed into this corporate agenda was the individual. Consider what the less blatantly commercial focus would have been had the choice of interrogatives been not “where” but “who.” Not only would celebrating the people who made these moments happen have rescued poor Manu and Andrei from the generic, stuff-of-history, NBA-sanctioned Jordan model, but it would have also acknowledged that the Association’s true organ of experience is much more human than what can be captured by a branding strategy.

The WWAHTY? campaign suggested that having experienced these scenes for yourself, awash in your own set of feelings, was secondary to the teleological packaging. But any fan’s enjoyment (or misery, or bafflement, or envy) is always colored by his or her own subjectivity. We bring to professional basketball, and project upon its athletes, our own hopes, desires, fears, anxieties, and (sure, failed) dreams. For the league to try and tell us which moments are definitive and epochal seems not only counterintuitive but ignorant of the two-part engine, far beyond the NBA executive, that drives the game in the first place: players and fans.

But there’s hope, a place where we find individualism — the “who” ignored by the league — rekindled, a place that reemphasizes the relationship between the great (and, occasionally, not-so-great) athletes of the NBA and those who obsess over them, a place that puts the power back in the hands of the people: YouTube.

It’s on YouTube that WWAHTY? has spawned a legion of imitators. In the same style and with the same background music, these homemade approximations reclaim the subjectivity ignored by that thoughtless campaign. Take, for example, DWade3TV’s version, which ends with “Where Will Amazing Happens [sic] This Year?” superimposed in Arial bold italics over Dwyane Wade celebrating a regular-season game winner. Similar DIY spots have been created for Vince Carter, Derrick Rose, Joe Johnson, Allen Iverson, and countless others who didn’t make the “official” cut but who do have legions of slighted fans who in turn have done something about it.

Much like the knock-off “Abibas” high-tops you might find in a Chennai market stall, there’s something wonderfully fallible and defiant about these clips when contrasted with the NBA’s slick production. And while it’s sometimes hard to tell when the irony is intentional and the defiance inadvertent, it mostly doesn’t matter. What’s most important is that YouTube affords fans a venue to curate what they, not the league, consider “Amazing.” Rather than having history defined from on high, this unauthorized alternative of who and what (and where) might be the only venue for this sort of agency. Most important, it serves as an archive of collective memory, a much more comprehensive document of what professional basketball means to its fans than the league’s various CliffsNotes versions.

Basketball is a sport of continuous motion, or unbroken action, of games that must be seen from the start for that final buzzer-beater to make you leap screaming off the couch or hang your head in disgrace and shame. But the era of the highlight, as with all similar packaging of real-world content, forever changed the way the NBA was consumed. SportsCenter, as a convenient example, has since its advent in 1980 made the summary of games a project of fragmentation, and viewers have come to accept this as a means of understanding what happened around the league on any given night. What summarizing games in snippets misses, of course, is all the tension and nuance of the original: We get the final score and the big plays but, regardless how hysterical the accompanying narration, none of the feeling of the game itself. That feeling is, of course, always subjective, and nothing that can be transmitted without the totality of all forty-eight minutes (and all those off-the-clock minutes in between). While it was surely just as emotionally riveting at the time, who besides the odd nostalgic Cavs fan remembers Craig Ehlo’s apparently series-clinching layup only seconds before Michael Jordan made the Shot? (Check it out on YouTube!)

But if fragmentation has become the process by which basketball is replayed, and so remembered, at least on YouTube what the game means to actual human beings, as opposed to the league or the networks, is being restored. Beyond the WWAHTY? rips, here fans celebrate and share not only the amazing, the remarkable, and the sublime, but also the banal and the ridiculous. It’s a long, long season, and maintaining engagement often means having to nerd-out on the details; what’s “Amazing” about the NBA, to many of us, certainly isn’t limited to its career-defining moments. There aren’t many of those, anyway, and the crystal-ball project of trying to identify them as they happen, without the value of hindsight, can be spurious, if not impossible. The Shot, after all, didn’t become the Shot until Michael Jordan the guard became Michael Jordan the ultimate triumphant megastar and the NBA decided it was the birth of a legend.

“Amazing,” for YouTube user marik1234, is “Nate Robinson breaks Jose Calderon’s ankles.” In this seventy-nine-second clip, Robinson sends poor, hapless Calderon flopping to the floor with a ruthless crossover, is fouled on the ensuing drive, and has his shot swatted away. It’s a dead play, without any of the narrative weight we associate with the Shot — and never the stuff, for myriad reasons, of a WWAHTY? commercial. Fifteen years ago it would have been forgotten, lost and deleted from the league’s official record. But marik1234 has ensured that the moment will live on — if not for eternity, at least long enough that a staggering 1.5 million viewers have watched the clip since its posting.

If that number is any indication, YouTube represents a new kind of communal mythmaking, one that resists the great dictatorial hegemony of the NBA administration in favor of something approaching democracy. Like any democracy, it’s flawed (unfettered access can make the site something of a crazy train), but taken as an archive, hoops-on-YouTube offers a much more comprehensive understanding of how the game is played, watched, and remembered than those limited moments sanctioned by the league. And, fittingly, each post mirrors the remarkable self-expression so prevalent in professional basketball: Think what we learn or can at least speculate about marik1234 from his post — every portrait is a portrait of the artist, after all.

There’s an assertion of autobiography, of stamping one’s existence onto the world, in any creative gesture — be it a Nate Robinson crossover or curating (appreciating, recording, editing, posting, sharing) that crossover for mass consumption. YouTube is about fans appreciating the game on their terms: It allows the masses to contribute to the larger narrative of the NBA beyond the league’s savvy marketing and even the players’ own attempts at self-definition. YouTube renders meaningless the whole “this broadcast may not be retransmitted” legalese, a fitting demonstration of the limits of the league’s jurisdiction over personalized experience, as well as how backward it is for a corporation to claim our game as their property. In a culture with increasingly fewer opportunities for the individual to trump the institution, YouTube has become a platform for fans to assert themselves and what they feel to be their personal relationships with the game and its players.

On one hand, YouTube represents an even more radical descent into pastiche, with seemingly random moments and insignificant games elevated to the same level as the ones that really made a difference. But if any official record of NBA games (or careers) is a fall from the paradise of fan subjectivity, then these bits and pieces become — however unwittingly — an attempt to restore the notion of individualized experience. After all, one fan’s insignificance is another’s “Nate Robinson breaks Jose Calderon’s ankles” — or “Nate Robinson breaks Steve Blake’s ankles,” or “Nate Robinson breaks ankles of a boy in an exhibition in Málaga.”

Who knows if YouTube will ever succeed in overthrowing its own ontology — there are scores of old games sitting on there, and none are as often viewed as the so-called mix tapes that abbreviate the careers of Clyde Drexler or Dominique Wilkins into a sequence of money shots, most of them dunks. However, what’s key isn’t that the wholeness of game-as-text be restored, but that the complexity and totality of the game’s emotional truths are creeping back into fandom, and that fans now have a venue to share them.

While, if the Shot is any indication, the NBA’s branding engine seems content to feed us an image we never saw as a way of remembering a moment that only gained significance in retrospect, at least the curations of marik1234 and his thousands of fellow archivists are helping create an alternate, potentially more honest record of the sport as it has always been played and consumed. And if fans continue to corrupt the league’s attempts at memorializing professional basketball — as they have with the WWAHTY? rips — YouTube will not only challenge, but possibly even replace, the “official” document of what moves, frustrates, confuses, and amazes us about the NBA.

Pasha Malla is the author of The Withdrawal Method (stories) and All Our Grandfathers Are Ghosts (poems, sort of). His first novel, People Park, will be published in late 2011.

Reprinted from FreeDarko Presents: The Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History, published by Bloomsbury USA.

January 13 2011


SochiReporter Becomes Major Russian Media Player in 2010

2010 was a very good year for us at SochiReporter SochiReporter.ru. In late December we took time to analyze the year's achievements and, to be frank, I was excited about the list of various activities SochiReporter initiated or participated in.

Of course, I try to be cautious about praising myself and our team too much, as satisfaction is always a killer of development and a friend of stagnation. The undeniable good news, however, is that SochiReporter launched in the fall of 2009 and we managed to reach some serious heights in 2010, especially on the marketing side of the product.

SochiReporter is a citizen journalism platform that reports on the preparations for the Olympics, by the people and for the people. As a result of our efforts, the site is today one of the most advanced websites in Sochi, especially when it comes to interactive tools, features, and design. Its possibilities and potential are enormous and still to be realized in many ways. SochiReporter is the best Drupal website in Sochi and one of the best Drupal sites in all of Russia, according to the Russian Drupal community and the local programming community. Right from the start, the project was designed to be much more than just a blog, or a news wire; we envisioned it as a multi-functional tool that can also be an educational platform. SochiReporter is the first global initiative to build a unified digital archive of the multimedia resources about the preparation of the host city for the Olympics.

Stories about the transformation of the city were abundant in 2010. Just recently we received a report about the demolition of the "iron flea market," where an office and shopping center will soon be built. Citizen reporters are able to express how these kinds of changes affect the daily lives of residents.

2010 Highlights

SochiReporter enjoyed wide media coverage from both traditional and online media. Our site was featured in about 300 online media articles, 13 TV reports (that were aired 30 times), and over 20 newspaper stories. Here's a quick list of some of the key activities I engaged in over the past year:

  • I organized roundtables and participated in a number of professional conferences, presenting SochiReporter in Russia and worldwide.
  • I negotiated with and attracted our first partners.
  • I worked to raise the number of users, utilizing social media and other platforms to spread the word.
  • I communicated with potential advertisers, delivering presentations in their offices and meeting with them in other venues.
  • I worked to diversify the number of topics covered on the website, and increase the brand awareness nationally and globally.

To put it in a nutshell, my activities were aimed at strengthening our young brand.

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And here's a look back at some of the highlights from 2010:

January: Cooperating with McDonald's
SochiReporter supported McDonald's International Child Day on November 20. The Ronald McDonald Foundation is working to open child-care rooms in Russian hospitals all over the country (about 10 rooms are already open). SochiReporter, along with just a few other media outlets, helped with charity activities that raised 10 million rubles towards opening three more rooms in three other Russian cities. We partnered with McDonald's for a similar project early this year.

January: A Mobile Journalist School for the Students of Sochi
We organized a two-day seminar offering tips on how to blog, use social networking, and generate content. Professors from the faculty of journalism at Moscow State University took part as lecturers.

February: Sochi Winter Music Conference
SochiReporter was selected to be a media partner of the fifth Sochi Winter Music Conference, a two-day business forum and three-day music program. SWMC brings together well-known figures in show business, music journalists, DJs, producers, promoters, record company owners and managers, radio and TV presenters, brand managers, and music festival organizers. These creative, active and talented people are also sophisticated web users. Thanks to this collaboration, all of the 1,500 participants left with a SochiReporter leaflet in their conference bag.

February: Winter Olympics in Vancouver
SochiReporter participated in the Fresh Media Olympics conference. I Skyped into the conference from Sochi to connect with the dozens of bloggers and citizen reporters who gathered to cover the Winter Olympics.

June: Kinotavr
SochiReporter was selected to be the media partner of Russia's second largest film festival, Kinotavr. We were the only Sochi media to be named a media partner. (Other media partners were big Moscow-based media outlets as the Channel 5, STS, Hello! Magazine, etc.).

June: MIT Center for Future Civic Media Conference
This conference was one of the highlights of the year. After attending, I spent a week in Nebraska as the first Innovator in Residence at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Journalism School, where I met with students and faculty members and presented SochiReporter.

October: Abandon Normal Devices
I presented SochiReporter at the Abandon Normal Devices festival of new cinema and digital culture in Manchester, U.K. I also participated in the one-day #Media2012 conference.

October: Paralympics Action
SochiReporter reporters organized Paralympics Action to spread knowledge about the Paralympics and the Paralympic values in Sochi. This event was also aimed at supporting the creation of an accessible environment for disabled people. SochiReporter will continue to work on this important theme.

English Translation, Roundtables, Mapping
In 2010, SochiReporter started translating citizen journalists' posts into English. We also organized a number of roundtable discussions, including one on how residents of the city can unite on the web to fight smoking. I also spoke at a World Health Organization anti-smoking symposium in Sochi, I also moderated a roundtable on user-generated content at Michigan State University. Participants were the heads of seven leading Russian Internet sites. We continued our collaboration with Kodak, which saw digital cameras given to our citizen reporters. We also worked with Kodak to outline a Moscow replica of SochiReporter. Finally, back in Sochi, we initiated and fostered the creation of the OpenStreetMap of Sochi, which you can see below.


I hope 2011 is just as exciting and eventful.

December 16 2010


The Challenge of Attracting Traffic in a Post-Loyal Era

Back in the early days of websites -- way back, a decade ago -- there were far fewer publications on the web than there are today, of course, and many people read them as they had read print newspapers and magazines. A reader would go to a favorite site and check in perhaps once a day, once a week or even once a month -- whenever they thought it might feature new material.

Now, of course, that has changed. While some of us remain loyal to a few sites, we're more likely to click around, using search engines, blogs, email from friends and so on to guide us to new reading. As someone interested in education, for example, I visited a lot of Washington, D.C., local sites earlier this fall, having been sent there by searches for Michele Rhee, by Facebook friends who share my interest in public education, by friends who know of my interest and by an array of education blogs. Now that D.C. is generating less education news -- at least for now -- I'm less likely to come back. That's not a reflection on the quality of any of the sites.

Further complicating the picture is the fact that one often does not have to go to the original site to read a given item. As we all know, blogs and other online publications publish not only links but lift articles in their entirety.

Should We Yahoo?

Recently Gotham Gazette -- and probably many of your local sites as well -- was approached by Yahoo, which wanted to put some of our content in its new Yahoo local sections. The whole story -- not just a link and a teaser -- would appear on Yahoo. The massive reach of Yahoo obviously appealed to a small local site like ours, but we said no because we thought we could not afford any loss in traffic, however slight. (I'll admit another part of me couldn't see why a struggling site like ours should provide free content to a multi-billion dollar corporation, but I'll let that part slide for now.)

So where does this leave us? Do hits mean what they used to? Well maybe not, but we still need them. Advertisers rely on them and so do foundations and other donors, which are key funding sources for those of us in the non-profit journalism world.

That said, it seems marketing techniques of the past -- building brand loyalty, so to speak -- are less effective now. Or are they?

And what are the alternatives. Facebook? Twitter? What else?

Good content never hurts, but how does one spread the word about that good content? And since people reading a story are often oblivious to the name of the site they have found their way to, great stories do not necessarily ensure repeat customers.

It seems any talk about sustainability has to consider traffic. Sure, a site can have readers and still not make it. But without readers -- not necessarily millions but at least success in reaching the intended audience -- can any site survive?

December 09 2010


There’s a whole Internet outside of Twitter, so don’t forget it

Pew released a new study on Twitter demographics today that found only 8 percent of Americans on the web use Twitter. Of that 8 percent, only 2 percent use Twitter on a typical day. Keep in mind that about 74 percent of American adults are internet users, meaning that the Twitter users make up about 6 percent of the entire adult population.

This news shouldn’t be surprising, but maybe it is to those who live in the Twitter echo chamber.

When all of your friends, your coworkers, your spouse and the media you consume are on Twitter, it may seem logical to believe a great deal of America is as well. This is a dangerous assumption for journalists and media organizations to make – and I know I’ve been guilty of it from time to time.

While I still think it is very important for journalists to use Twitter, the following facts must be emblazoned on the brains of media Twitterati:

  • Twitter represents a very small group of people in your area.
  • Being popular on Twitter doesn’t necessarily make one popular or important in real life.
  • Re-tweets, replies and Twitter referrals do not adequately represent the larger interest in or importance of your work as a journalist.
  • Most people that use Twitter don’t use it to get news.

Now, the study. The Pew study did find some interesting demographic tidbits that should be making us rethink how we approach the tool.

  • There are more American women using Twitter as opposed to men (10% to 7%)
  • Internet users ages 18-29 are significantly more likely to use Twitter than older adults.
  • African-Americans and Latinos web users are more than twice as likely to use Twitter as are their white counterparts.
  • Urban residents are roughly twice as likely to use Twitter as rural dwellers.

So what does all of this mean?

First of all, all of these stats boil down to one unavoidable fact: Twitter (and social media in general) can’t be your only tool for reaching out. It’s excellent for engaging part of your audience, note taking, networking and consuming media – but it isn’t going to reach a lot of your online audience.

So if you’re using Twitter as your primary channel of crowdsourcing or opinion-taking, you are not getting a very large or diverse group of people involved in your project. Make sure you diversify your crowdsourcing methods if you want to reach more than the usual suspects. Try networking with other websites and blogs to see if they can help recruit users or gather responses; offer logical gateways on your own site into crowdsourcing projects (see ProPublica’s in-story crowdsourcing promos); consider buying advertising online or on Facebook; get organizations with interest in your project to reach out to their members. And, lastly, meet people (you know, IN PERSON).

These stats also mean that if you’re using Twitter as your primary means of marketing yourself or your company, you are not reaching the web audience as a whole. At TBD, for instance, our primary means of marketing has been on Twitter so far (with more plans to come). This means a lot of DC people on Twitter know of our site…but a lot of people who aren’t on Twitter do not. This is likely a problem for lots of small businesses, blogs and organizations that have followed the advice of over-zealous marketers and put too much stock in social media.

The study also shows us that Twitter is a very good way to engage with one of the most elusive news audiences on the web: Young minorities.

Even aside from these statistics, look at the anecdotal evidence by checking out Twitter trending topics in urban areas, especially after 9 pm (when the professional users and PR types get offline). Even outside the alleged “blacktags” (a misnomer, but that’s best said elsewhere), the level of participation from non-white users and non-English speakers in the U.S. on Twitter is huge and has been for a long time.

How do you tap into this audience? Noting trending topics in your community is a start. See what people are talking about, what’s going viral outside your social sphere. Is there a hole in your coverage in these areas of interest? Fix it. Try sending tweets late in the evening, when a whole other “nightside” conversation really seems to ramp up (keep in mind, a lot of people of all ages and races tend to be online late). And again, meet people in real life. It’s crucial.

The fact is, we’ll always be figuring out what kinds of tools, methods and networks are best for reaching people online and off. The Pew study is, of course, one of many on one of the many tools in our arsenals. Don’t forget about the rest.

December 01 2010

Medill Students: Audience Research Should Drive Hyperlocal Revenue Strategy

At the Block By Block "community news summit" in September, operators of locally focused websites came together to share what they knew and learn from their peers. Almost all of them were looking for advice on how to support their sites financially.

Here's a start: "Sustaining Hyperlocal News: An Approach to Studying Local Business Markets," a new report from a team of master's students at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. The report is the first output -- with more to come -- from this term's "innovation project" class.

"To become financially sustainable, hyperlocal publishers need to make revenue a priority rather than an afterthought," the report says.

The report focuses mainly on approaches to generating online advertising revenue in local communities. It draws on interviews with site publishers as well as audience research and advertiser interviews conducted by the class in our "case study" community: Evanston, Illinois, Medill's hometown.

The starting point, the students contend, is "getting to know your audience ... really getting to know them." The report describes the audience research process undertaken by the class, with suggestions on how hyperlocal publishers can adapt and replicate this research.

Based on an analysis of local advertising in Evanston, the report also identifies business categories most likely to be interested in advertising locally: home furnishing, retail, banking, community organizations, restaurants and professional services. Beyond that, the students conclude that new and growing businesses have different advertising needs than "legacy businesses," which are well-established in their communities.

"Sustaining Hyperlocal News" was researched and written by the class business/revenue team, which was led by Frank Kalman and Jesse Young,one of five Knight "programmer-journalist" scholarship winners enrolled in the class. You can read Frank's take on the report on the class blog, LocalFourth.com

The class will also produce a longer report addressing more of the challenges facing hyperlocal publishing on the web, as well as a website prototype demonstrating new forms of online interaction around local news.

For readers in the Chicago area, the class's final presentation next week is open to the public.  It's  scheduled for 5 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 9, in the Forum (first floor auditorium) of the McCormick Tribune Center, 1870 Campus Drive, Evanston. RSVP here. If you can't attend the presentation, it will be live-streamed (and archived for later viewing) at bit.ly/CMIP2010.

The class is being supported by the Community News Matters grant program. Community News Matters is overseen by the Chicago Community Trust, which initiated the program as part of the Knight Community Information Challenge.

November 18 2010


Crunching Denton’s Ratio: What’s the return on paying sources?

There was a lot of buzz on Twitter yesterday about Paul Farhi’s piece in The Washington Post on checkbook journalism — in particular the way a mishmash of websites, tabloids, and TV news operations put money in the hands of the people they want to interview. (With TV, the money-moving is a little less direct, usually filtered through payments for photos or videos.)

But, just for a moment, let’s set aside the traditional moral issues journalists have with paying sources. (Just for a moment!) Does paying sources make business sense? Financially speaking, the justification given for paying sources is to generate stories that generate an audience — with the hope that the audience can then be monetized. Does it work?

There’s not nearly enough data to draw any real conclusions, but let’s try a little thought experiment with the (rough) data points we do have, because I think it might provide some insight into other means of paying for content. Nick Denton, the head man at Gawker Media and the chief new-media proponent of paying sources, provides some helpful financial context:

With the ability to determine instantly how much traffic an online story is generating, Gawker’s Denton has the pay scale almost down to a science: “Our rule of thumb,” he writes, “is $10 per thousand new visitors,” or $10,000 per million.

What strikes me about those numbers is how low they are. $10K for a million new visitors? There aren’t very many websites out there that wouldn’t consider that an extremely good deal.

Let’s compare Denton’s Ratio to the numbers generated by another money-for-audience scheme in use on the Internet: online advertising. After all, lots of ads are sold using roughly the same language Denton uses: the M in CPM stands for thousand. Except it’s cost per thousand impressions (a.k.a. pageviews), not cost per thousand new visitors, which would be much more valuable. What Denton’s talking about is more like CPC — cost per click, which sells at a much higher rate. (Those new visitors aren’t just looking at an ad for a story; they’re actually reading it, or at least on the web page.) Except it’s even more valuable than that, since there’s no guarantee that the person clicking a CPC ad is actually a “new” visitor. Let’s call what Denton’s talking about CPMNV: cost per thousand new visitors.

CPC rates vary wildly. When I did a little experiment last year running Google AdWords ads for the Lab, I ended up paying 63 cents per click. I ran a similar experiment a few months later with Facebook ads for the Lab, and the rate ended up being 26 cents per click.

What Denton is getting for his $10 CPMNV is one cent per click, one cent per new visitor. It’s just that the click isn’t coming from the most traditional attention-generating tool, an ad — it’s coming from a friend’s tweet, or a blogger’s link, or a mention on ESPN.com that sends someone to Google to search “Brett Favre Jenn Sterger.”

Doing the pageview math

And that $10 CPMNV that Denton’s willing to pay is actually less than the return he gets for at least some of his source-paid stories. Take the four Gawker Media pieces that the Post story talks about: the original photo of singer Faith Hill from a Redbook cover, to show how doctored the image was for publication; photos and a narrative from a man who hooked up with Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell; the “lost” early version of the iPhone 4 found in a California bar; and voice mails and pictures that allegedly show quarterback Brett Favre flirting with a woman named Jenn Sterger, who is not his wife. Gawker publishes its pageview data alongside each post, so we can start to judge whether Denton’s deals made financial sense. (Again, we’re talking financial sense here, not ethical sense, which is a different question.)

Faith Hill Redbook cover: 1.46 million pageviews on the main story, and about 730,000 pageviews on a number of quick folos in the days after posting. Total: around 2.2 million pageviews, not to mention an ongoing Jezebel franchise. Payment: $10,000.

Christine O’Donnell hookup: 1.26 million pageviews on the main story, 617,000 on the accompanying photo page, 203,000 on O’Donnell’s response to the piece, 274,000 on Gawker’s defense of the piece. Total: around 2.35 million pageviews. Payment: $4,000.

“Lost” iPhone: 13.05 million pageviews on the original story; 6.1 million pageviews on a series of folos. Total: around 19.15 million pageviews. Payment: $5,000.

Brett Favre/Jenn Sterger: 1.73 million pageviews on the first story, 4.82 million on the big reveal, 3.99 million pageviews on a long line of folos. Total: around 10.54 million pageviews. Payment: $12,000.

Let’s say, as a working assumption, that half of all these pageviews came from people new to Gawker Media, people brought in by the stories in question. (That’s just a guess, and I suspect it’s a low one — I’d bet it’s something more like 70-80 percent. But let’s be conservative.)

Expected under the Denton formula:
Faith Hill: 1 million new visitors
O’Donnell: 400,000 new visitors
iPhone: 500,000 new visitors
Favre: 1.2 million new visitors

Guesstimated real numbers:
Faith Hill: 1.1 million new visitors
O’Donnell: 1.17 million new visitors
iPhone: 9.56 million new visitors
Favre: 5.27 million new visitors

Again, these are all ham-fisted estimates, but they seem to indicate at least three of the four stories significantly overperformed Denton’s Ratio.

Reaching new audiences

The primary revenue input for Gawker is advertising. They don’t publish a rate card any more, but the last version I could find had most of their ad slots listed at a $10 CPM. Who knows what they’re actually selling at — ad slots get discounted or go unsold all the time, many pages have multiple ads, and lots of online ads get sold on the basis of metrics other than CPM. But with one $10 CPM ad per pageview, the 2.2 million pageviews on the Faith Hill story would drum up $22,000 in ad revenue. (Again, total guesstimate — Denton’s mileage will vary.)

Aside: Denton has said that these paid-for stories are “always money-losers,” and it’s true that pictures of Brett Favre’s manhood can be difficult to sell ads next to. Most (but not all) of those 10.54 million Brett Favre pageviews were served without ads on them. But that has more to do with, er, private parts than the model of paying sources.

But even setting aside the immediate advertising revenue — the most difficult task facing any website is getting noticed. Assuming there are lots of people who would enjoy reading Website X, the question becomes how those people will ever hear of Website X. Having ESPN talk about a Deadspin story during Sportscenter is one way. Having that Redbook cover emailed around to endless lists of friends is another. Gawker wants to create loyal readers, but you can only do that from the raw material of casual readers. Some fraction of each new flood of visitors will, ideally, see they like the place and want to stick around.

Denton publishes up-to-date traffic stats for his sites, and here’s what the four in question look like:

It’s impossible to draw any iron-clad conclusions from these squiggles, but in the case of Jezebel and Deadspin, the initial spike in traffic appears to have been followed by a new, higher plateau of traffic. (The same seems true, but to a lesser extent, for Gizmodo — perhaps in part because it was already much more prominent within the gadget-loving community when the story broke than, for example, 2007-era Jezebel or 2010-era Deadspin were within their target audiences. With Gawker, the O’Donnell story is too recent to see any real trends, and in any event, the impact will probably be lost within the remarkable overall traffic gains the site has seen.)

Fungible content strategies

I’ve purposefully set aside the (very real!) ethics issue here because, when looked at strictly from a business perspective, paying sources can be a marker for paying for content more generally. From Denton’s perspective, there isn’t much difference between paying a source $10,000 for a story and paying a reporter $10,000 for a story. They’re both cost outputs to be balanced against revenue inputs. No matter what one thinks of, say, Demand Media, the way they judge content’s value — how much money can I make off this piece? — isn’t going away.

Let’s put it another way. Let’s say a freelance reporter has written a blockbuster piece, one she’s confident will generate huge traffic numbers. She shops it around to Gawker and says it’ll cost them $10,000 to publish it. That’s a lot of money for an online story, and Denton would probably do some mental calculations: How much attention will this story get? How many new visitors will it bring to the site? What’s it worth? I’m sure there are some stories where the financial return isn’t the top factor — stories an editor just really loves and wants to publish. But just as the Internet has turned advertising into an engine for instantaneous price matching and shopping into an engine for instantaneous price comparison, it breaks down at least some of the financial barrier between journalist-as-cost and source-as-cost.

And that’s why, even beyond the very real ethical issues, it’s worth crunching the numbers on paying sources. Because in the event that Denton’s Ratio spreads and $10 CPMNV becomes a going rate for journalists as well as sources, that means for a writer to “deserve” a $50,000 salary, he’d have to generate 5 million new visitors a year. Five million is a lot of new visitors.

There’s one other line Denton had in the WaPo piece that stood out to me:

“I’m content for the old journalists not to pay for information. It keeps the price down,” Denton writes in an exchange of electronic messages. “So I’m a big supporter of that journalistic commandment – as it applies to other organizations.”

When we think of the effects of new price competition online, we often think of it driving prices down. When there are only a few people competing for an advertising dollar, they can charge higher rates; when there are lots of new competitors in the market, prices go down. But Denton’s basically arguing the equally logical flipside: I can afford to pay so little because there aren’t enough other news orgs competing for what sources have to offer. Let’s hope we don’t get to that same point with journalists.

November 16 2010


How Spot.Us Doubled Its Grant Money with Community-Focused Ads

There are many things that excite me about Spot.Us. One in particular, which I believe is part of our pathway to sustainability is "community-focused sponsorship" (CFS). It is the main thrust of my fellowship at the Reynolds Journalism Institute. My evolving view of advertising is becoming a passionate topic.

In some respects CFS gave me a needed shot of adrenaline into the Spot.Us project. If I'm not pushing boundaries and trying something new, I get bored. To date I still know of no other media entity trying anything exactly like it.

So what is community-focused sponsorship?
The quick version: We sell the sponsoring organization a form of engagement on our site (a quiz, survey, etc). Anyone who engages with the sponsor gets a slice of our sponsorship budget. They decide where the funds go. The sponsor gets the anonymized information from community members. Each side creates value for the other. Give it a whirl thanks to HP Partners PCRush.com. (To read more about the genesis of the idea, check out this blog post.)

When I first came up with the idea I approached the Harnisch Foundation for support. This is a foundation that considers news and information, among others, a priority. Bless their journalistic hearts. More-over they are interested in finding new models of sustainability. Bless their bold hearts.

When I told them about community-focused sponsorship I made a bold claim that, in truth, I wasn't 100 percent sure I could deliver on. I told them I could double the money they gave Spot.Us. I asked for $15,000. They gave us $20,000.

I'm happy to announce that not only did we double up on this larger figure, we've made $7,250, to spare -- for a total of $47,250.

What happened to the money?

Some of it went toward developing the infrastructure of our model. We already had a credit system on Spot.Us, but the database structure needed to be cleaned and a user-interface created, etc. I'll spare you the geekery so much as to say, it took some work, but it wasn't insane thanks to early thinking about our credit system and the fine work of CTO Erik Sundelof.

Some was used to prime the pump. When we got our first sponsorship from FreePress.net, we added some of our funds to extend the sponsorship. We even created a few of our own surveys/quizzes.

A worst case scenario of the Harnisch grant would have been if we had not sold any sponsorships. In that case -- this would be like many other grants that fund content -- except instead of deciding how the funds would get spent internally, Spot.Us was looking to engage community members to make that decision. Still worth it in my humble opinion. Whereas most non-profit news organizations that get grants decide internally (the publisher makes the call) how to spend the money, we looked to the community.

I triple-dog-dare any major non-profit news organization to take a little of their foundation budget on the side and let the community vote on how it should be spent. (Oh no he didn't just bust a triple-dog-dare!)


So how did we double up?

Talking about money is never easy for me. I am a natural salesperson, but when it comes down to the closing and to put up a dollar figure, I wince. As Brad Flora will attest, you need somebody who can make the sales-kill. I'm learning.

Somehow I've managed to sell a few sponsorships.

Mortgage Revolution (our first) gave us $6,000 to get us started. That was quickly distributed. 

FreePress did two sponsorships with us for $1,000 each (we matched it with $2,000 from the Harnisch grant). 

AARP gave us two sponsorships totaling out at of $4,500.

> The Aspen Institute, marketing the Knight Commission report on news and information needs of communities, did a sponsorship for $1,000 (also matched by a Harnisch grant).

Clay Shirky did a speaking gig and was given the chance to make a donation to the non-profit of his choice. He chose Spot.Us but instead of keeping the money, we distributed it via a sponsorship model.

We did a focused survey for Way Out West News. The bootstrapped operation gave us $250. Because they are a news organization starting out and the survey was in line with Spot.Us' mission -- we subsidized it with $500.

And finally the biggie. HP Partners did a whopping $10,000 sponsorship! The main partner benefactor of the sponsorship so far has been PCRush.com.

Total: $28,750 raised for journalism.

That is ALL money that goes towards reporting (Spot.us did start taking a commission near the end -- details below). These funds are unlocked a few dollars at a time by community members (roughly 5,600 acts of engagement). That's 5,600 choices made by members of the public to support independent reporting. That might not be earth-shattering in page views, but in terms of engagement it's huge. The average amount of time spent on a survey is 2:45 (much more valuable than a banner advert).

Total spent from the original Harnisch grant?
Six thousand on development and just over six thousand on sponsorships.

Remaining in the Harnisch budget - $8,000
(so I might be able to turn the original 20k into more).


The extra funds from Clay Shirky was unexpected. And I'll be honest with you -- there was a fair amount of time I considered not giving it away via community-focused sponsorship, but instead saving the money for an organizational rainy day (see my triple-dog-dare above).

Even without those funds Spot.Us still would have doubled-up its original investment from Harnisch.

When I spoke with Clay to get his permission to publicly distribute the funds he brought up an important point -- that this model shouldn't be about Push/Push advertising. The sponsored engagement shouldn't dangle the $5 above a community member's head and make them jump through an annoying hoop. This, in the long run, will isolate Spot.Us from its community members. As we get larger and more corporate sponsors (fingers crossed) this will have to be something we really "push" back on -- pardon the pun.

Since Clay didn't have anything specific to sell, although you should buy his book, he let us do whatever we wanted with his sponsorship. Keeping in mind his suggestion -- we asked folks for their view on objectivity in journalism. The idea is that we a) genuinely wanted to know; b) this is a stimulating conversation/question; and c) once we got responses we could turn around and share their aggregated answers creating value back for the the collective community. See: "What the Spot.Us community thinks of objectivity in journalism."

This final analysis became another selling point we did not anticipate. When I showed it to Free Press, now on their second sponsorship, they wanted a similar analysis. On that note: here's what the Spot.Us community thinks of public media.

In both cases the analysis became a topic of discussion in the Twittersphere and beyond. Here were REAL numbers based on REAL responses from people who were asking and answering difficult questions. That it funded independent media was icing on the cake from the sponsors' perspective.

In some respects we are doing what Pew Center for Journalism does -- in a less scientific and faster way. As organizations will constantly need to keep a finger on the pulse of things -- I think our sponsorship model will be a way they can do that and support journalism at the same time. (I also double-dog dare Pew to sponsor a survey on Spot.Us.)


I still don't have a sales team. It's just me emailing people I meet or know.

I am confident this sponsorship model sells, but it doesn't sell itself -- somebody has to be there to make the phone calls and talk people through it.

What next?

Sell more sponsorships any way I can -- without falling into the push/pull trap mentioned above. I think that would be a death-spiral.

We hope to create an affiliate model whereby anyone can sell a sponsorship and earn a commission. I am in talks with Sacramento Press to be the first to try this out. They have a sales team (mostly does local) and if they can sell a sponsorship, I will gladly let them keep a healthy commission.

I also believe that this sponsorship model could be a way to bring in foundation support outside of the traditional foundations that support journalism. It is great that Knight, MacArthur, Patterson, McCormick, Harnisch and other foundations support journalism (they should triple-dog dare their large grantees to let the community decide as well). I believe that by sponsoring quizzes and surveys about topics of interest to them -- we can get more foundations interested in journalism. A foundation that supports child education might not ever see funding independent journalism as high on their priority list. At best they would support journalism about children's education, which, while well-intentioned, misses the point of independent reporting that reflects a community's issues -- instead of trying to dictate concerns.

Through this model that foundation could raise awareness on issues of child education, getting feedback and educating the public and at the same time support independent reporting. it would be icing on the cake.

Finally: We are taking steps on Spot.Us to emphasize the community-focused sponsorships and de-emphasize donating from an individuals own bank account. With our HP sponsorships there are more funds to distribute than we can with our current audience size. It may turn out to be a bad idea. We might realize that by de-emphasizing donations we are leaving money on the table. But so far people have reacted very positively and we should give people more opportunities to support reporting without having to whip out their wallet. We won't remove the ability to donate funds -- it just won't be the first option people see. Rather, they will see the option to earn credits until all those options have been completed.

(UPDATE: The above paragraph turned into a failed experiment, people complained, we reversed).

UPDATE #2: Spot.Us has always said that commission would be "optional and transparent." Well, now it's just transparent. We take 5 percent out of every community-focused sponsorship. Which means when you earn $5 in credits and you start to donate $4.71 goes to the pitch of your choice and .29 goes to Spot.Us. Hey, can you blame us? If so -- let us know in the comments.

We also need to build out the types of engagements we can produce. We started by mimicking parts of a Google Form. We still can't do everything Google Forms offers. But we will get there. There are tons of potential engagement opportunities we could build.

November 10 2010


Understanding How Political Cartoons Intersect with Newsgames

We are midway through the semester and the newsgames project studio at Georgia Tech is running at full steam. Newsgames: Journalism at Play, a survey of the field of newsgames by project director Ian Bogost, graduate assistant Simon Ferrari, and myself, is out and is available online and in bookstores.

We've spent the semester breaking down popular arcade and Atari games to find relevant structures for game generation, and identifying elements of meaning that we're calling "micro-rhetorics." Each student has also sought out related topics for analysis and critique on our research studio blog, which we update two to three times a week. Recently we've covered Soviet arcade machines, a game about the Chilean miner rescue, and the online migration of political cartoonists.

A few weeks ago, Mike Mikula, editorial cartoonist for the Atlanta Business Chronicle, paid our studio a visit. He shared a number of insights from his profession and fielded our questions about how we should go about interacting with other cartoonists and local newspaper editors.

Life of an Editorial Cartoonist

Every workday begins with Mikula spending hours (sometimes even half the day) doing research. He has a subscription to a number of papers and he reads them all over breakfast. Then he peruses blogs after sending his kids off to school, sifting through everything from The Huffington Post to TMZ. He draws inspiration from whatever catches his eye, following his time-honed instinctual humor and playing off the work of colleagues. The typical turnaround for one of his traditional cartoons is a day.

We were particularly interested in the interactive work Mikula did for CNN. His "poll cartoons" present users with a cue frame that invokes the issue at hand, typically posing a direct question. Users then vote on one of three choices: A liberal choice, a conservative one, and a toss-up drawn from celebrity news or other tabloid sources. Usually, the resulting frame shares many of the formal elements of the cue frame, and users can see how many people voted for each of the choices. Comparing the three result frames conjures many of the pleasures of hypertext fiction, without the accompanying anxiety that the user might have "missed" alternative paths.

Mikula explained that the exercise of making these interactive cartoons allowed him to tackle events from multiple perspectives, something that cartoonists usually aren't able to do. The poll cartoons also allow Mikula to transcend party lines and appeal to both major constituencies, despite his left-leaning views.

We also looked at a few variations on the animated political cartoon, a form being refined by Mikula and other cartoonists such as Ann Telnaes. Telnaes, the second woman to win the Pulitzer for editorial cartooning, makes motion cartoons for the Washington Post. Many of these are minimally animated, but they combine traditional panel techniques with poignant editing to great effect. Mikula said many cartoonists are struggling to adopt new technologies, such as Flash, to expand their digital work. The time required to refine new techniques and produce the additional material is daunting, but the results definitely seem to be catching the eye of some news media sources.

Removing Passion

One of the most intriguing suggestions from Mikula was that we learn to separate our passions from our interests. He explained that there are a number of political issues that he personally feels strongly about, but he avoids making cartoons about them in order to ensure he doesn't come off as a skipping record. This is actually a fairly uncommon practice in the design of newsgames, where personal issues tend to drive creation. Perhaps this passion is necessary for maintaining the persistence and teamwork required to make a game, but the expediting features of the Cartoonist project may be a way to bring interest and passion back to a healthy balance.

It meant a lot to us that Mikula was willing to visit and consult on our project, despite the fact that some cartoonists see it as a potential threat to their business. He was genuinely interested in the hurdles we were facing and finding out where our research might best be directed. By figuring out how humorists like Mikula scope out topics and find angles of attack, we'll be able to refine the user interface for our tool. We're welcoming more local cartoonists and AAEC members to the studio in the coming months in an effort to learn from them and figure out how to help them develop interactive work through our tool.

October 18 2010


BookBrewer Makes Major Self-Publishing Deal with Borders

This has been one of the most amazing, rewarding and surreal weeks of my life.

Borders has chosen BookBrewer -- the first product of my startup, FeedBrewer, which grew out of a News Challenge grant -- to power the engine for its e-book self-publishing service. You can read about our partnership in the official press release, or in media coverage from a variety of sources including Fast Company, Publishers Weekly and PC Magazine.


We made the announcement at BlogWorld Expo, one of the largest confabs of bloggers and new media enthusiasts in
the world. The response at our booth was enormous and even overwhelming
at times, with people lined up to talk to me, my team and Borders' e-book manager Kelly Peterson about how they can turn their content into sellable e-books. Their response is not surprising, given the explosive growth in e-book sales in recent months.

About BookBrewer

So what is BookBrewer? It's a web-based tool that helps you turn content from your blog, or Word or PDF documents on your computer, into e-books that can be sold on your through multiple online e-book stores, own through your own website. After importing your blog, you then add posts and organize them into chapters, edit and enhance content, and push a button. BookBrewer then turns your content into an e-pub that most e-book stores require. You can pay one fee to have it published to e-book stores we work with, or another fee to just get the file to do with as you wish.

This video shows how it works:

BookBrewer Help: Building Your Book from Dan Pacheco on Vimeo.

Some highlights on our partnership with Borders:

  • On October 25 the same technology and user experience will be surfaced on a separate site called "Borders Get Published, Powered by BookBrewer." You can enter your email address on the form on Borders.bookbrewer.com to be notified as soon as the service launches.
  • Books published through both BookBrewer and Borders Get Published will be available for purchase on Borders.com and viewable in Borders-branded apps (such as Kobo), but will also appear in other eBook stores that BookBrewer has relationships with. Those include Amazon.com and KoboBooks.com, with more on the way.
  • Borders will use its marketing muscle to encourage thousands of new authors to get published, and will promote promising new authors in its weekly emails and on its website. This is a huge boon for self-published authors because Borders reaches more than 30 million people per week in emails alone.

Our booth team, from left to right: Todd Levy, Laurelie Ezra, Kelly Peterson, Dan Pacheco.

BookBrewer, which only launched last week, will operate as its own entity. We will serve customers through both sites and will roll out more strategic "Powered By BookBrewer" services throughout the year that benefit our company and partners, in addition to other services for authors and content providers. With one of the largest bookstores in the world on board, we're now shifting our focus to companies with content or content relationships.

Given my news background, I know that a lot of newspapers and magazines have "evergreen" packages or investigative reports that would stand the test of time as e-books. I will be reaching out to some of you about that at the Online News Association conference later this month. And you freelancers/entrepreneurial journalists out there? This is a fantastic opportunity to pay for freight while also building your brand.

Borders' Open Publishing Stance

Some people are surprised that Borders would want "their" e-books to show up in competitors' stores, but it makes sense when you think about  the self-publishing customer. They want their content to be everywhere  that people want to buy it.

I can tell you from spending two days in a booth with Kelly Peterson and talking extensively with others at Borders that they're one of the  most customer-focused companies around. They understand that authors -- a category that now potentially includes each and every one of  you -- don't want their content to be defined or confined based on which service or programs they use to create it. The customer always comes first for them, and with self-publishing the book always belongs to the author.

I heard Kelly put it this way: "If you buy a piece of clothing at a store, you expect to be able to wear it everywhere, not just in the store where you bought it." You can see that evidenced with the wide variety of e-book readers and apps Borders promotes, beyond the Kobo reader the company invested in last year.

I'm also excited to work with Borders because they, and bookstores in general, are part of the fabric of local communities -- that rapidly disappearing third place that has been so important in the history of civil life. Other types of third spaces exist online, but at a local level physical meeting spaces are still important. Digital community engagement is the common thread  in my most meaningful endeavors (Bakotopia, Printcasting and AOL Hometown as just a few examples), and as a previous recipient of a Knight News Challenge grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation I'm a proud  public champion of helping the news and information needs of communities in the digital age. I see BookBrewer and Borders Get Published being strongly connected to those goals.

No Man is an Island

On that note, I want to once again thank the Knight Foundation for its role in the Printcasting project, which evolved into my company FeedBrewer, Inc., from which the Knight Foundation will one day benefit thanks to a voluntary 6 percent gift to the Knight Media Innovation Fund. While the Knight  Foundation didn't provide any funding for our proudly "bootstrapped" BookBrewer (and we did not ask for any), BookBrewer is an example of how non-profit seed funds can light a spark that continues to burn later.

It's my sincere hope that future successes from BookBrewer will go to help fund other startups that help local news and information.

The technology for BookBrewer is all new and distinct from Printcasting, but the thinking, methodology and customer insights evolved from it. In fact, thinking back, the biggest thing we learned from Printcasting was that even first-time print publishers really wanted to be multi-platform digital publishers. They just didn't know that until they got their feet wet. In the space of a few weeks after publishing a PDF magazine, they would start asking us if they could publish the same stories into Facebook or as a blog, and they would tell us that they saw print as only a small part of their future business.

They also started asking about e-books as the Kindle and, later, iPad grew in popularity.

The feedback we're getting with e-books validates that. People occasionally ask us if we can provide print-on-demand paperbacks for their books, but when we say we're currently focused on digital books they're fine with that. Most just want to make sure older readers who don't have e-reading devices, iPhones or iPads to have a print option. (And we will be looking into that, by the way).

What I've learned through this process is that when you have an idea that you're passionate about, people will step in at the last minute to help you out. I think the BookBrewer product engenders a desire to reciprocate after authors see how much it can do for them. We even had the leader of a writer's group in Florida buy an ad in a conference program for BookBrewer with her own funds -- a first in my 15 years of working on digital products.

I also want to thank Jon Nordmark, the co-founder of Wambo.com and founder and former CEO of Denver-based eBags. He facilitated Denver's inaugural class for Adeo Ressi's Founder Institute, an intensive technology and mentoring program. For four months, I would spend every Tuesday night from 5:30 to 9 p.m. with him, other startup CEO mentors, and founders of 17 other companies. We would sound ideas off each other, refine them, give and receive brutal feedback, and delve deeply into the business behind our businesses. While I had a lot of ideas before, I can safely say that without the Founder Institute program I never would have been able to create this product at this time and get it in front of Borders. Nordmark also helped with the Borders introduction.

Fellow Founder Institute graduate Todd Levy, co-founder of BloomWorlds, and his girlfriend Laurelie Lee Ezra also stepped in at the last minute to man our BlogWorld Expo booth and talked to hundreds of people about BookBrewer as if it was their product. I will never forget that, and can't wait to talk more about BloomWorlds once it launches.

Then of course there's Don Hajicek and Andy Lasda, my amazing team of co-founders, who have worked tirelessly on this alongside me with no pay other than generous equity. You learn a lot about people when you're down in the trenches with them, and these two are solid. In addition to their incredible development and product design skills, they've shown incredible faith and dedication. And a big thank-you to our advisors, especially Kit Seeborg from BumperTunes.

Last but not least, there's my family. My wife Kendall Slee and two daughters have given up many nights and weekends with me, and also helped with ideas and feedback. (My 7-year-old Lauren even published an e-book that was for sale in Amazon, and she's now perfecting a second edition.) My mom and dad even pitched in at the end to handle the logistics of ordering last-minute t-shirts for our BlogWorld booth.

Start Brewing Your e-book!

...But I guess you should expect that from a community-focused product. BookBrewer is and will continue to successful thanks to the community of people behind it. Hopefully that also includes you. Start brewing your e-books so we can help you get published and featured by Borders!

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September 14 2010


Twitter queen Susan Orlean on the mini-medium, the interactive narrative, and the writing persona

Susan Orlean is proof that being the consummate narrative journalist doesn’t conflict with becoming the consummate Twitterer. In her feed, currently 78,000-plus followers strong, the author and longtime New Yorker writer inverts the Jay Rosenian “not lifecasting, but mindcasting” approach to the platform: Orlean’s Twitter feed is focused on her life, from her writing, to her chicken-raising, to even — meta-tweets! — her use of Twitter itself. Rather than curating the web worldwide, Orlean (a former Nieman Fellow) curates the web of her own experience and her own (enviable) life. The feed is, in all, personal and whimsical and delightful — a memoir unfolding in real time. But if it’s a memoir, it’s an interactive one: To follow Orlean’s feed is to follow countless conversations between the author and her readers.

I spoke with Orlean about the way she interacts with this most interactive of media; she explained how writers can use Twitter to connect with their readers, why using Twitter makes financial sense for narrative journalists — and why it took Tweetdeck to make her a convert. The transcript below is lightly edited.

Megan Garber: So, first things first: How did you get started on Twitter?

Susan Orlean: I had an assistant who is quite a bit younger than I am, and one day she said to me, “You know, you really ought to be on Twitter.” I think her feeling was just: “Writers should be on Twitter.” So I opened an account — and I really didn’t do anything with it at first. It took a while before I “got it,” and began using it, and appreciating it as a part of my writing life.

MG: Was there a particular event or exchange that made it click for you — or was that appreciation more of a gradual process?

SO: It was gradual. When I was following a particular narrative in my life (when I was talking about one of my chickens being sick, for example), and seeing people respond to it — that made me think, “Interesting. Maybe this is a different way of talking to readers.” But it took a while. Twitter was something I didn’t quite “get” until I was actively using it — and until I was looking at it in a different way, rather than just on Twitter.com. It’s hard to appreciate the way it works if you don’t look at it on other services.

MG: Which platform were you using when things clicked?

SO: Tweetdeck. I’ve urged people — anybody I know who’s been using Twitter, but not understanding it — to use Tweetdeck, or some other interface. Twitter makes so much more sense that way. It’s really hard to understand it until you look at it in a different way — literally.

MG: That’s true. There’s something powerful in having the flow of Twitter — the conversations and interactivity, in particular — visualized, and then centralized. Speaking of that, I love the description of Twitter you used in your “What I Read” feature on The Atlantic’s site: “a tendril of my writing persona.” Do you think of your feed as narrative in the classic sense?

SO: I do. For one thing, you’re creating and supporting and embellishing a persona. That fosters a narrative of who you are and what you feel is worth commenting on. And if you’re a person who already has a public presence, you’re enhancing people’s understanding of where that’s coming from. In many cases, you’re following stories; you’re telling stories that have an ongoing narrative. There have been a number of instances where I’ve told stories and followed them — mainly personal stories, since I’m not using Twitter as a reporting medium — and people reading my feed have seen those stories unfolding. They’re generally fairly short stories, but they’re stories nevertheless.

MG: I love it when snippets of those stories — little Twitter nuggets — make their way into your more traditionally structured pieces: the work published in the magazine and even on your blog. It feels almost subversive, in the sense that we’re getting peeks into the background of the author’s life, and the background of particular narratives, that we wouldn’t have been privy to before.

SO: It’s an enhancement. You’re in control of how much you do or don’t want to reveal, but, yes, there’s also the pleasure that a reader might find in watching a story being born, so to speak — or even in hearing me thinking out loud about a story as I go along.

When I first started writing, I was working for a small, alternative news weekly in a smallish city [Willamette Week in Portland], and I knew who was reading my stories. I would see them, I would talk with them, I would get reactions from them — and I had an ongoing sense of who was reading my work and how they were experiencing it. When I first started writing for national magazines, it felt very strange. Suddenly my readership seemed really removed. I did run into people who’d say, “I just read your story” — but it’s very different from writing for a paper that’s in a smaller city, where you just see the reaction, and you know exactly who’s reading your work and why, and they know you, and there’s an intimate relationship between the writer and the audience.

I feel like Twitter is bringing that back, a little bit. It’s intimate in a very different way, but I once again have a sense of who my readers are, for the first time in a long time. They know what I’m working on, and they know when I’m flailing. It just creates a different sort of connection between a writer and a readership.

MG: That’s true. And I like, too, that Twitter creates another size option, I guess, for narrative: small (Twitter feed), medium (blog), large (magazine) — all radiating from, and feeding back to, that one central story.

SO: Yeah. For me, it was particularly nice to get engaged with Twitter at a time when I was working on a book. You go for this long, long, long stretch of being in a rabbit hole with this piece of work that’s taken years to do, and it can feel like, “AARGH! Is anyone out there?” I’ve found it enormously encouraging to think that there are a lot of people out there who are an audience — whom I can encourage to listen up and be prepared for the project when it’s out and ready to be read. I like being connected to readers.

You can also use Twitter to feel your audience. As I’ve been working on stories, sometimes I’ll mention something I’m working on — and I’m very interested in the reaction. I love doing readings, and to me Twitter is actually very much like doing a reading — in the way that doing a reading in front of a live audience gives you a chance to see, “Gee, people didn’t respond to that line,” or “People seem puzzled by this part of what I’ve read.” Twitter hasn’t changed anything I’ve written as much as it’s been an interesting way to gauge an audience.

It’s also been useful for building up interest in a story. It’s a way to say to people, “I’m working on this now. Keep an eye out for it” — without being annoying or using the medium purely promotionally. It gives people a glimpse of a story in advance, and a chance to anticipate something — which is nice for readers, I think. There’s never any reason not to get people interested in a story ahead of time.

MG: Definitely. And that process also gives readers a sense, I think, of being more intimately involved in the story simply by familiarity with it. Even just a bit of background knowledge — that sense of being clued into the creation and the dynamism of a piece — invests you in it.

SO: I think so. I think Twitter’s really important in that sense, frankly. In a world where we’re worrying about people’s commitment to reading, the more engaged readers feel in your work, the more likely they are to follow it — and to pay for it. It’s marketing in the best sense, because it’s finding the people who are interested in work and keeping them involved in it in a way that they’ve never been able to be before. I think it’s all to the good.

MG: Have you found that being on Twitter has affected your writing, style-wise?

SO: Yeah, I think that’s inevitable. I think the economy of expression, if nothing else, reminds you that it is entirely possible to say something of substance in extremely few words. If nothing else, Twitter is just a very useful reminder that you don’t have to go on ad nauseam to make a point or even to say something of real emotion. I’m not sure that I’m writing my book in 140-character spurts, but I do think that I’ve been reminded of how efficiently you can really make points. And I think that it has an effect — as you sit down to write something considerably longer, you appreciate how well you can telegraph something.

I think, for a writer, any writing you do, whether it’s an email or anything else, exercises the same muscles that are going to be used when you sit down to write your magnum opus. You’re always learning, and you’re always trying things out, and you’re always practicing. Any form, with its limitations, gives you a new set of parameters to work within. And I think every writer can benefit from that. Because there are always limits; there are always parameters. Whether it’s that you’re a reporter, and the limits are the truth of the situation, or that you’re a fiction writer, and the limit is the length that your editor is going to permit you — there are always restrictions. So learning to write in yet another restricted form is just great practice. It doesn’t mean, necessarily, that you put into play the ways you write with Twitter. But I think that every time you write, you’re learning something. You should be learning.

August 26 2010


Project Argo blog is for participants, but an interesting read for outsiders

In the run-up to the launch of the D.C. local site TBD, the editors let future readers peek behind the curtain through a placeholder blog that teased new hires and plans for the project. The blog also did a great job of generating buzz; we tweeted quite a few links to the site.

So when Megan pointed me to a blog from another not-yet-launched project, NPR’s Argo Project, I assumed it would serve a similar marketing end. But this one’s different: The blog’s lead writer, editorial project manager Matt Thompson, is writing directly to the new Argo bloggers at 12 NPR member stations. Argo is a new cross-country network of reported blogs, and many of the journalists hired to run them need some tactical training in how to run a successful Argo site.

Think of it as an in-house blog that just happens to be open to the public; even though the blog is meant for NPR staff, it’s a useful read for anyone interested in the future of news or in best practices for launching a news blog. Here are a few of Thompson’s lessons:

1. You need a plan

One of the best posts on Thompson’s blog is a pre-launch checklist. (He’s since posted a revised version of the checklist on Argo’s impressive and useful docs site.) Thompson lays out a step-by-step guide for Argo participants, but it’s generally useful for anyone about to launch a new site could use (particularly if you’re using WordPress, which Argo is).

Some of the best: Do a “photowalk” for your beat (“try to capture images of things you’ll be posting about frequently”); build our your metadata beforehand (defining tags and categories before launch to straighten up your taxonomy); and reaching out to the best Creative Commons photographers on your beat (to ensure a happy group of free content providers).

2. Follow by example, steal from others

Blogging isn’t new, and Argo isn’t pretending it’s creating a new format. In fact, Thompson is urging bloggers to follow the examples of their best predecessors. He points readers to the work of trailblazers like Marc Ambinder, Nick Denton, and Andrew Sullivan. Ambinder gets a nod for his thoughts on journalism as an industry. A Nick Denton memo pushes for context (one of Thompson’s longstanding interests). And Andrew Sullivan gets praise for his pacing. The three writers certainly have different styles, different content focuses, and different missions, but Thompson has plucked out valuable advice for all of his bloggers.

3. Tactics are teachable

Thompson has a running series of posts called “dark secrets” that offer insight into how successful blogs engage an audience. Use photos. Watch your headlines. Where should you place that hyperlink? He’s got a good post on that. They’re the kinds of insights newspapers, magazines, and radio stations have compiled about their own media over time. But for this new-to-many platform, they make for helpful tips.

4. Blogging is a craft

The category Thompson posts to most frequently is “blogging technique.” His points are great: Find your morning routine, your rhythms, and your pace. Check out his post on “The blogger’s first month.” Blogging isn’t journalism for dummies — it’s a craft with its own set of practices and ways to excel.

August 12 2010


NowSpots: Working to Make Local Web Ads That Work

NowSpots are beautiful online ads that feature the latest social media updates from advertisers, and make it easy for a reader to follow and share their content across the web.

For the last year at WindyCitizen.com, a social network for Chicago news aficionados and urban explorers, we've been selling a simple version of NowSpots ads to small businesses and local colleges -- and we recently won a Knight News Challenge Award to spin the format off into its own company that provides these ads to other publishers.

In a world where thousands of small businesses are signing up for sites like Facebook and Twitter every day, these ads deliver a more personal, dynamic, relevant experience than the banner ads offered by most publishers. NowSpots.com will provide these "real-time ads" to local publishers large and small. Over the next year, our team will be blogging our progress here. You can also receive an e-mail alert when we officially launch this fall by signing up at http://nowspots.com.

Why Do We Need NowSpots?

Local publishers need better ads. This is true for both the little guys and the big guys. The last few years have seen hundreds of neighborhood and small town blogs spring up around the United States. Many of these sites, like Lake Effect News in Chicago and West Seattle Blog in Seattle, are edited and published by journalists who left mainstream media to try their hands at something more entrepreneurial. Some of them are finding audiences. Some of them aren't. But very, very few of them are making money.

A publisher reaching 1,000 people in their neighborhood each day on a local blog has only a few options for converting that audience into dollars: She could sell text link ads to local businesses looking to boost their SEO -- but Google frowns on that practice -- and unless her blog has a PageRank of five or higher, few businesses will be interested. She could place AdSense or some other cost-per-click ad offering on her site, but the payouts for readers clicking on those ads will amount to pennies and her audience will be subjected to bottom of the barrel ads that have nothing to do with the content they're reading, thereby degrading their experience.

The third option, and the one chosen by a growing number of small, local publishers, is direct sale display advertising. With display ads, which are sold directly, the publisher has to get out and sell, but she will have better targeted ads that pay out at predictable rates, depending on how they're priced.

The problem with this third option is that traditional banner ads -- static or animated images that display an advertiser's messaging each time the page is refreshed -- simply don't scratch much of an itch for small businesses. They convey brand awareness and help an advertiser get clicks. That's great for a large advertiser that can afford to develop a strong web presence with high-conversion landing pages, but for the average small business that still doesn't have much of a website even in 2010, clicks just aren't that valuable.

Local businesses are looking for customers, not clicks; increasingly, they're finding those connections on social networks like Facebook and Twitter, where they can interact in real-time with customers and potential customers. Once someone likes your business on Facebook, they've entered into a relationship with your business that can lead to sales. A "like" is therefore much more valuable to a small business than a click.

Our Goal: Get Local Ads Past the Click Economy

That's where NowSpots come in. NowSpots are display ads on crack. They are inherently social ads that let advertisers step beyond the click economy and into what we call the introduction economy. When an advertiser buys a NowSpot on Windy Citizen, and soon, on other sites near you, they're not buying clicks -- they're buying an introduction into that site's audience and community. They're buying a very specific kind of relationship that actually converts into sales.

If local publishers are going to make money on the web, they need better ads. NowSpots is going to be there for them starting this fall.

How You Can Help Us Make Local Ads Better

We've spent this summer assembling a handful of Alpha Publishing Partners. These are local publishers who talk to us about their needs, pain points and goals for online advertising. These conversations are informing our decisions as we develop our product. If you run a local publication or work at one that would be interested in working with us to make your online ads more social, less annoying, and more effective for advertisers, drop us a line at info@nowspots.com and we'll get back to you soon.

August 09 2010


New Scientist peeks into people’s buying brains with ‘neuromarketing’

Certainly among the more forward thinking magazines in terms of content, New Scientist has this week boldly gone where no magazine (they “suspect”) has gone before: neuromarketing.

Neuromarketing is a from of marketing that uses brain-imaging technology to “peek into people’s heads and discover what they really want”.

You may find that sinister. What right does anyone have to try to read your mind? Or perhaps you are sceptical and consider the idea laughable. But neuromarketing, once dismissed as a fad, is becoming part and parcel of modern consumer society. So we decided to take a good look at it – and try it out ourselves.

A group of New Scientist readers – 19 men, to be precise – were connected to an electroencephalograph (EEG) machine shown various cover designs for the latest edition, after which NeuroFocus Europe, the company undertaking the tests, looked for “specific EEG patterns which the company believes betray whether or not a person will buy a product”.

The winning design is now on the newsstands. As for how it will sell, that is another test entirely.

See the full post at this link…

You can also take part in the magazine’s “Rate the Cover” survey at this link.

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August 03 2010


DocumentCloud Helps Arizona Paper with Annotated Immigration Law

We opened the DocumentCloud floodgates less than six months ago and we're still working hard to make DocumentCloud a better tool. We're rolling out improvements at a healthy clip including SSL support, better documentation, and support for cross-newsroom collaboration. We continue to listen to feedback from our really incredible crop of beta testers (who now number close to 500!).

There are nearly 100 newsrooms participating in the DocumentCloud beta and requests are still pouring in. We've been doing a fair amount of outreach and more is in the works, but it turns out that our users are our best advocates: After John Addams in Great Falls, Montana, blogged about his experiences with DocumentCloud we were deluged with requests from Montana news organizations large and small.

Use Cases in Arizona, Chicago, Memphis

The really great stories about how reporters are using DocumentCloud continue to surprise all of us.

Not long after Arizona's governor signed that state's now infamous immigration law, the Arizona Republic published the bill in full, complete with annotations by a local law professor. Republic reporters told us that traffic to the annotated legislation outpaced the paper's popular entertainment guide in its first weekend, and continues to draw traffic as the bill stays in the news.

Meanwhile, in Chicago, reporters at the Tribune have been uploading each document and transcript entered into evidence in former governor Rod Blagojevich's corruption trial -- the documents are just part of their extensive coverage of the trial.

In Memphis, the Commercial Appeal published a sample ballot alongside their voter guide.

These are just a few of the great uses reporters have put DocumentCloud to -- there are many more great stories already out there and plenty of new ones on the way.

June 28 2010


Crafting a Simple Elevator Pitch for the Public and Investors

A Knight Foundation grant is a wonderful gift, but in our case at CityCircles (and for many projects), the grant only lasts for one year. Because most of that year may be spent on programming, this gives winners very little time to craft a pitch.

By "pitch" I mean: How do you explain this to your audience in 10 seconds or less (i.e., an elevator pitch)? How do you explain this to people who may want to work with you after the grant ends?

We've finally found an approach that seems to be working for CityCircles, so let me save you some time by presenting two options to consider.

Pitching the Audience

First, let's start with our audience -- the people we want interacting with the site via their phones. These are folks who either ride light rail, live by it, or have a business near the tracks (within five blocks, to be exact). We've built a website and mobile site that lets them post news, events, classifieds, promotions, resumes, and community projects. Journalists can also contribute stories to the community.

Earlier in the grant period, I would give people what I thought was a clean, concise-yet-explanatory pitch about what we are and how we work. As time went by, it became shorter and shorter, and the look in their eyes seemed more attentive. I was on the right track. At some point, I tried this pitch:

It's called CityCircles. We're like Craigslist for the light rail community -- with a splash of journalism.

That's it. Done. Pause two seconds to see it sink in, then add a few details to fill in the blanks.

Now, I'm not advocating for making your project sound like a cocktail with a weird twist. But I am advocating for using a comparison to something that already exists, closely relates to your project and is widely known. It helps get the point across quickly. Choose wisely.

Detractors might ask, "Why would you want to promote someone else in your pitch?"

To which I respond: If the other project already has an established community "feel" to it, then it may help your chances. In our case, Craigslist is a universally known example, and it resonates immediately. The "splash of journalism" adds context and meaning.

Investor Pitch

Now let's look at the investor pitch. These are the folks who will keep your project going after the grant expires. We're solely focused on making our project a success in Phoenix, but reality dictates that we plan ahead. To do this, we're considering "sponsors" in other markets.

Instead of trying to find one large-scale investor, you might consider a "sponsorship" from someone who needs/wants some additional street cred.

One thing I am looking at is last year's green company rankings from Newsweek. Since we're a platform that encourages civic involvement and mass transit in the inner city, someone toward the top of the list could add us to their "green portfolio" if they support our expansion (in exchange for a promotional advertising presence on the site, like NPR's "brought to you by..."). Conversely, those companies toward the end of the list may want to use us as a means to advance up the rankings.

And like the audience pitch, choose wisely.

June 12 2010


Social Media and Corporates -- the#Promise Conference

A few days ago Vince Stehle from the Knight Foundation invited me to the Think Social's The #Promise conference in New York, and so i organized babysitting for my new son and came for the day. The conference was about how companies are using social media to advance their goals, and many people (mostly very attractive people, I would add too!) from NGOs, design firms, the corporate world and others turned out to hear the likes of Pepsi, Nokia, MTV, GE and others present their beautiful glossy social media campaigns. It felt like the "place to be" in New York yesterday.

For me, the highlight was MTV's A Thin Line campaign, which aims to reduce cyber harrassment amongst teenagers. This seemed a brilliant campaign because the issue is so totally unusual (at least to someone like me who has no teenage kids), which will certainly make it more fresh for the audience. They shared stats about the incredibly high correlation between cyberbullying and suicide, for instance, and about how often teenagers are forwarding naked pictures of their peers (very often.) MTV's online campaign had some very original pieces to it -- for instance, a digital, teen-made Bill of Rights where teens could work out together what their "community" considers acceptable and not. There is a portion of the site called ""over the line" ":http://www.athinline.org/overthelinewhere kids share stories of cyberharrassment and other kids vote on whether it is "over the line" or acceptable. One girl's story jumped out. She wrote on facebook about her father committing suicide, and kids from her school wrote comments on her fb page like, "if you were my daughter I'd kill myself too." How tragic, the moderator asked, was it that she had to even ask whether those comments were "over the line?" This is one of the most original online campaigns I've seen because it is not about people simply supporting an issue, but people collaborating to come up with an ethical framework in a new area of civic life -- the internet -- where such things don't exist. And that it's being done by teenagers is simply great. Well done MTV!

Moving on to other panels and speakers... I was glad that the conference addressed (at least in one of the panels) the issue of corporate whitewashing (the motivation for many companies in the world to do CSR initiatives) head on. The speaker Douglas Rushkoff presented his book Life, Inc. and made some great comments. He talked about how the core of a company's business should be doing good, so companies don't need to have separate social initiatives. it shouldn't be that a company makes things they are not proud of, and then does social investments to feel better about it. The business itself must be good for the planet.

One thing the companies all talked about a lot is transparency, and how in the internet age companies can't hide or lie or keep their employees quiet. I find it quite disingenuous when people say this, because the old rules do still apply and people will still get fired for speaking badly about their companies. The number of internet leaks or internet whistleblowers is tiny compared to the number of employees who are angry about something the public would find juicy. So I wonder how much the internet is really creating greater transparency about companies? If the live twitter feed running behind the speakers (with only positive comments for all the companies) is anything to go by, people are still concerned that they might actually have a real world reason to stay in their good books -- like a future job, for instance.

For a nonprofit media organization like this, a conference like this is both heartening and frustrating. It's heartening because one sees new ways of using online media, and new metrics of success, and so one get lots of new stories to add weight to one's own beliefs. And sometimes you see really usable ideas -- like Ed Norton (the actor's) new fundraising tool Crowdrise. But it's frustrating because a lot of it is still "old media" simply being pushed out via the internet -- really flashy funny video, written by comedians whose other jobs must be at ComedyCentral.) This is all extremely expensively produced, glossy, and beautiful. What I want to see are the successes of social media campaigns that cost next to nothing, and, ideally, could be replicated. Those are the kinds of things News Challenge winners can try to democratize.

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