Can Crowdfunding Work for Narrative Non-Fiction?

In 1978, in the middle of a deep economic recession, an 18 year-old girl named Dolly Freed wrote a book about living in a non-monetary economy called "Possum Living: How to live well without a job and with almost no money." The book described how Dolly and her father were able to live happily in rural Pennsylvania on less than $2,000 a year.

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The book became a surprise bestseller, and Dolly Freed (not her real name), became an overnight, if short-lived celebrity. After her 15 minutes of fame ended, Dolly disappeared from view, and has not written or spoken publicly in over 30 years.

Now, in the middle of another economic downturn, a revised version of Possum Living has been released, and this prompted Paige Williams, an award-wining American magazine writer, to try and answer the question: whatever happened to Dolly Freed?

She spent months pitching the idea to the New York Times Magazine, the New Yorker, and several other publications, but got no takers. So Williams decided to write the story anyway.

The result is "Finding Dolly Freed," a fascinating and revealing 6,000-word profile of a truly original American life that Williams posted on a website she created specifically for this story. "I'm self-publishing this story because it had no other home." Williams wrote. "I wanted it to live in the world, not die in my notebook."

But this was not a cheap story to do. It involved travel to Texas, where Dolly currently lives, and money to pay a photographer and fact-checker. All told, Williams, who was unemployed at the time, was out more than $2,000 in expenses, and that doesn't include weeks of reporting and writing time.

Enter Radiohead. In 2007, the British band released an album on the web before it appeared on CD, and invited their fans to download it. People could pay nothing for the download, or hand over whatever amount they thought was appropriate.

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Paige Williams thought she would try a similar approach with "Finding Dolly Freed." She put a PayPal link on her site and told readers they were welcome to read for free, or they could contribute whatever they wanted. Within the first ten days of the story being posted, it attracted around 6,000 unique visitors who donated nearly $900.

Crowdfunding Journalism

There has been a lot of buzz about reader-supported content or "crowdfunding" over the past year. The best known site is the San Francisco-based Spot.us, where readers can donate money to story ideas pitched by freelance writers. (Its founder, David Cohn, contributes to MediaShift's sister site, Idea Lab.)

Most stories pitched on Spot.us fall into the category of investigative news stories, the kind of solid local stories about municipal malfeasance that newspapers used to embrace before they started firing reporters.

But what about long-form narrative non-fiction features like "Finding Dolly Freed"? These stories typically take months to do, cost thousands of dollars, and they generally lack the "this story must be told" imperative that might drive readers to donate.

But the results of this kind of journalism can be spectacular.

'Frank Sinatra has a cold'

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In the 1960s, how many readers would have given Gay Talese money to follow Frank Sinatra around for a few months as he tried, unsuccessfully, to interview the reclusive crooner? Esquire magazine did, and Talese's profile, Frank Sinatra Has a Cold, is widely considered to be a model of narrative non-fiction.

For her part, Paige Williams recognizes there are serious shortcomings to the approach she took in writing about Dolly Freed. "I don't know if this template can work for everyone," she said in an interview. "That wasn't the question I set out to answer. I just wanted to see if it would work for this one story."

And now that she has a day job as executive editor of Boston Magazine, she's less concerned about whether she ever gets back all the money she spent to write her article.

"If we don't follow what we love, what the hell are we doing?" she said. "If I backtracked over the course of my 20-year career as a journalist and played every move safe, I wouldn't have done half the things I've done. I had to find out what the story was about."

Ira Basen is a former senior producer at CBC's Sunday Morning and Quirks and Quarks. He was involved in the creation of programs including The Inside Track (1985), This Morning (1997) and Workology (2001), as well as several special series, including Spin Cycles (2007) and News 2.0 (2009). His writing has appeared in Saturday Night, The Walrus, Maisonneuve and the Canadian Journal of Communication. He currently teaches at Ryerson University and the DeGroote School of Business at McMaster University. He is a co-author of the Canadian edition of The Book of Lists.

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This article was originally published on J-Source. J-Source and MediaShift have a content-sharing arrangement to broaden the audience of both sites.

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Bloggers Face Death Sentence in Iran; Some Escape to France

Iranian authorities are once agan cracking down on the Internet.

Internet connection speeds were degraded in several cities in advance of the Islamic Revolution's 31st anniversary on February 2. This same tactic was previously used by the regime in advance of events likely to be used by the opposition to stage demonstrations. Several websites were also targeted by hackers, including the Radio Zamaneh, which was attacked by the "cyber-army," a group linked to the Revolutionary Guard.

Most alarmingly, the Iranian authorities are pursuing a deadly escalation of their strategy to silence bloggers. As I previously reorted on MediaShift, they were regularly arresting and convicting bloggers in order to put pressure on human rights activists and those who contest President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's re-election.

Now, two Iranian netizens and human rights activists, Mehrdad Rahimi and Kouhyar Goudarzi, have been accused of trying to wage "a war against God." The significance of this charge is that the Iranian government executed two men on January 28 in Tehran for similar reasons. Rahimi and Goudarzi are now facing the death penalty.

The authorities have made it clear that they intend to execute "mohareb" (enemies of God). Rahimi, who edits the Shahidayeshahr blog, and Goudarzi, who writes his own blog, are both members of the "Committee of Human Rights Reporters," which was created by students and bloggers to relay information about the crackdown that followed the disputed June 12 presidential election.

But Rahimi and Goudarzi are far from the only bloggers facing a dangerous fate in Iran.

Putting Bloggers and Journalists on Trial

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In the latest trial, which began on January 30, 16 defendants are accused of being "mohareb" (enemies of God) and of engaging in activities hostile to national security. They include Omid Montazeri, a young reporter for various newspapers, who was arrested on December 28. Montazeri gave interviews to foreign media and wrote for Shargh and Kargozaran, two newspapers that were shut down by the government. He was arrested after responding to a summons to report to the revolutionary court. The previous day, agents from the intelligence ministry searched his home and arrested his mother, Mahin Fahimi. Both were eventually transferred to an unknown place of detention.

As in the previous Stalinist-style show trials held in August, the defendants are not allowed to talk to their lawyers -- and their chosen lawyers are not given the specifics of what their clients are alleged to have done. Instead, the Tehran state prosecutor appointed different defense lawyers with links to the intelligence services.

Various reports state Montazeri is being pressured to confess links to foreign groups that are opposed to the regime. His lawyer has not been able to visit him or see the prosecution case file, nor has his counsel been told when Montazeri will appear in court. The lawyer is also not allowed to go to the court. It seems the regime intends to have him suffer the same fate as his father, a political prisoner who was murdered in 1988.

A Judicial Farce

This new round of political trials violates Iran's own laws. Reporters Without Borders has warned the international community that the regime was now capable of taking this macabre scenario to the bitter end by executing journalists and bloggers. The regime's leaders seem to think that executing prisoners will help restore calm in Iran. To them, fear is the same thing as peace.

According to information obtained by Reporters Without Borders, several of the journalists arrested in Tehran after the December 27 demonstrations are being held by the Revolutionary Guard in section 240 of the notorious Evin prison. They are being pressured to make confessions. Contrary to Iranian legal provisions, their names do not appear in official prison registers, or on the justice ministry website.

The authorities have said that "a change in judicial procedure not originally envisaged in the law" helps explain why lawyers are prevented from seeing their clients. They have also added a new process to investigations whereby cases are assigned to a "specialist" before being sent to the prosecutor's office. During this special period, no information is given to the detainee's relatives or lawyers.

Threats to the Media

Mohammad Ali Ramin, a Holocaust denier and a loyal adviser to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has issued several warnings and threats to the media, especially the print press. He has said that the purpose of suspending newspapers is to make them more compliant. Three papers have been shut down since January 14.

There is some good news to report. Thanks to the support of the French authorities, 11 persecuted Iranian journalists and bloggers recently arrived in France and are seeking asylum. Some of them were joined by their families. On January 5, three reporters who were persecuted in Iran -- Benyamin Sadr, Sepideh Pooraghaiee and Ghasam Shirzadian -- found housing in Dijon, France.

Reporters Without Borders is expected to receive financial support from the regional and departmental authorities to help cover their immediate basic needs, and also to help fund their integration into French society. This includes providing language courses and housing assistance.

They are the lucky ones.

Clothilde Le Coz has been working for Reporters Without Borders in Paris since 2007. She is now the Washington director for this organization, helping to promote press freedom and free speech around the world. In Paris, she was in charge of the Internet Freedom desk and worked especially on China, Iran, Egypt and Thailand. During the time she spent in Paris, she was also updating the "Handbook for Bloggers and Cyberdissidents," published in 2005. Her role is now to get the message out for readers and politicians to be aware of the constant threat journalists are submitted to in many countries.

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How Digital Marketing Helped ‘Avatar’ Break the Box Office

Do you remember August 21, 2009?

Moviegoers in more than 100 IMAX 3-D theaters worldwide watched 16 minutes of footage from a new James Cameron movie. That same day, Ubisoft debuted a trailer for a videogame based on the film, and Mattel unveiled action figures inspired by the film's characters. A day earlier, the teaser for the very same film broke a record on Apple.com after beng streamed more than four million times on its first day.


August 21 was celebrated as "Avatar Day." Today, it should be remembered as the dawn of the most comprehensive digital marketing campaign ever developed to support a film. Below are the details of four key components of the campaign, each of which are represented by important characters and creatures within "Avatar."

The Tree of Souls: Social Media

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In the film, the Na'vi believe that the Tree of Souls, a place where the souls and voices of their ancestors rest, was the heart of what connected them to each other. This is also a core idea with social networks, which are often built from relationships rooted in our past.

Social networks are frequently tapped for film marketing, and "Avatar" successfully built connections and conversation on Facebook (close to 1.3 million fans), MySpace (close to 800,000 friends) and Twitter (over 25,000 followers). According to Sysomos, a social media analytics firm, "Avatar" was the most talked about film on Twitter in January 2010. Some of those tweets resulted from a "Tweet to Listen" promo that required fans to send a message on Twitter in order to listen to music from the film. "Avatar's" social media strategy also branched out to YouTube (close to 11 million video views), Flickr (over 1 million photo views) and a TypePad blogging community (close to 4,000 members).

The Hometree: Avatar's Website

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The immensity and visual richness of the Hometree on Pandora reflects what's been cultivated on the film's official website. Visitors have access to more than the standard fare of trailers, images and background materials. The website offers 14 side-scrolling square boxes that showcase many of the digital initiatives that make this movie stand out. Fans have access to the story, character bios, the music, and wallpaper downloads; but they also have opportunities to contribute content and showcase their interest in the film -- including Pandorapedia, a wiki for all things "Avatar," and the previously discussed blogging community (which includes photo caption contests and timeless topics such as "Why Are Avatar Aliens Blue?").

And just as humans destroyed the Hometree in pursuit of self-interest and wealth, the film's homepage had its own destructive moment in mid-August when fans crashed the site while trying to secure free tickets for "Avatar Day."

The Banshee: The AIR Interactive Trailer

Avatar's interactive trailer soars over previous movie trailers thanks to its integration of social media feeds, and 11 points of interaction that provide viewers with one-click access to each character. (Viewers can simply click on a character in the trailer in order to unlock additional content.) The trailer was built using the Adobe AIR platform, which gives developers flexibility. The result is that fans receive a more exciting experience, similar to that offered by Banshee jumping in the film. The trailer is a moving and frequently refreshed gateway to the film, seemingly alive and fluid the moment it begins. The trailer also includes three options to purchase tickets.

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Hallelujah Mountains: Augmented Reality

In the film, the gravity-defying Hallelujah Mountains challenge perceptions, which is also what augmented reality strives to do by presenting an engaging experience that floats in front of the viewer's eyes. Mattel created "Avatar" toys that buyers could activate and "bring to life" through webcams and special product tags, while Coke Zero produced custom cans that opened up the world of Pandora at AVTR.com.

The end result is that "Avatar" is now the biggest box office movie of all time (not adjusted for inflation). The movie has eclipsed $2 billion in total ticket sales, driven largely by 3-D revenues and international interest. Cameron has once again orchestrated a cinematic milestone.

So did the digital initiatives, awareness drivers and glowing online conversation contribute to this historic success?

The goal of any theatrical movie marketing campaign is to get people to head to the theater, plunk down $10 to $15 and grab a seat for two-plus hours. On that front, the entire campaign has been an inredible success. It all started on August 21, 2009, the day that started the campaign and successfully moved millions of people to experience something new and mesmerizingly blue. Since then, moviegoers have felt compelled to tell their friends to see the film.

As millions flocked to theaters and clumsily put on their 3-D glasses, they helped bring a now-famous Na'vi phrase to life: Oel ngati kameie ("I see you").

Nick Mendoza is the director of digital communications at Zeno Group. He advises consumer, entertainment and web companies on digital strategy, distribution and engagement. He dreamstreams and is the film correspondent for MediaShift. Follow him on Twitter @NickMendoza.

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Rent vs. Own: The Streaming Music Debate Continues

The exponential growth of Internet bandwidth combined with the ability to significantly compress digital audio has impacted the music industry in numerous ways, for better and worse. Just as file trading created a massive network of pirated music, the ability to stream audio in real-time has allowed for a number of innovative content distribution and promotion methods.

napsterlogo.gifDigital music streaming services have been around for over a decade. Companies such as Rhapsody, Napster, MOG, and We7 have experimented with various business models and user experiences, with mixed results. The traditional streaming model was based on an all-you-can consume subscription offering, occasionally supplemented with a very limited amount of downloads. Adoption has rarely met expectations, and long-term sustainable profit has been elusive for most companies.

Now, a new wave of streaming services such as Spotify are emerging. Can they succeed where others have failed?

Changing Consumer Behavior

The lack of adoption of music steaming services has been attributed to a number of factors. First, a culture of ownership based on decades of purchasing physical media has locked many fans into a set way of thinking about music consumption. There are millions of music fans that correlate paying to owning, not just listening.

Then there is the illegal downloads issue. Convincing someone to pay to listen is difficult when they can freely own all the digital files they can find. Recent IFPI numbers estimate that 95 percent of all digital downloads are still illegal.

In addition to having to change consumer habits, logistics have also been an obstacle to user adoption of streaming services. For the majority of the past decade, most services were only available via a computer, thus limiting the number of settings and situations in which a subscriber could use the service. Most streaming platforms have now begun releasing iPhone and Blackberry apps, which adds portability into the equation. Until recently, devices were not able to capitalize on the functionality that these services offer, but thanks to 3G and WiFi networks, the bandwidth finally exists to take streaming music almost anywhere.

imeem.jpgSubscriptions are not the only business model being used to monetize streaming. A number of ad-supported platforms have come and gone, such as imeem, which was purchased by MySpace late 2009. Imeem and similar sites (including MySpace itself) attempted to use the traditional media advertising model: Provide content for free, but surround it with marketing messages. Typically, this took the form of banners, sponsored promotions, and in-stream audio advertising. This model has also proved difficult to sustain long-term, due to the fact that royalties and bandwidth costs often exceed advertising revenue.

The New Wave of Streaming Services

Currently leading the charge in ad-supported streaming is Spotify. It has combined peer-to-peer streaming technology with in-stream audio advertising. Advertisements also appear on the user interface, raising the likelihood of user engagement. For users who wish to use the streaming service without advertising, and to have the option for higher quality audio, Spotify offers subscriptions in various configurations.

Due to licensing issues, Spotify is only available in a handful of European countries. Founder Daniel Ek previously expressed a desire to open in the U.S. by the end of 2009, but did not succeed. As discussed in a recent article on paidContent.org, the barrier to expansion seems to be licensing concerns, one of which is that U.S.-based labels are no longer satisfied with ad-supported free services and are only looking at subscription models. The most recent numbers show Spotify has 250,000 paying subscribers, compared to a free user base of six million.

The Path to Profitability

Content is key to the success of a streaming site, but adoption is still the ultimate issue. If consumers are focused on owning content, be it physical or digital, paid or illegal, streaming services will continue to have a major uphill battle.

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In a recent Bob Lefsetz article, he addressed this issue, providing a detailed look at the obstacles standing in the way of mass consumer adoption. He also looked at how other industries have used bundling and focused marketing efforts to influence consumer viewpoints on renting content versus owning. Lefsetz states in his opening sentence that, "The recorded music business must switch to subscription, it's its [sic] only hope of economic survival."

His rationale for this belief is that iTunes and other a la carte purchase options are a losing battle regarding long-term revenue. Selling music track-by-track may be better than illegal downloads -- but it's still a poor economic model. By removing value from the album format (and losing its higher price point), the music industry has allowed customers to spend very little money. This means the business requires a much higher number of transactions to be profitable.

Lefsetz argues that by requiring users to pay one amount for massive amounts of music -- essentially bundling content the way the cable companies do -- the music industry is able to charge a much larger amount of people a higher amount of money. In exchange, these customers get all the music they can consume, across any device they want to use. Instead of paying $10 for storing 10 tracks, they can pay the same amount and have access to millions of tracks.

The continually dropping cost of bandwidth and massive connectivity available has set the stage for a profitable model in subscription-based services. The biggest challenge is to now convince consumers this is the best method for experiencing music. This job falls to the streaming companies and to the labels and artists that license the music. It also requires that the technology continue to offer more and more choice and convenience. In addition, a massive number of free users must be shown the value of converting to paying for listening, through higher quality audio and an ad-free experience.

As with almost everything in the music industry, the optimal streaming business model is still being figured out, but the emerging success of companies such as Spotify is showing a growing level of consumer adoption.

Jason Feinberg is the president and founder of On Target Media Group, a music industry online marketing and promotion company. He is responsible for business development, formulation and management of online marketing campaigns, and media relations with over 1,000 websites and media outlets. The company has served clients including Warner Bros. Records, Universal Music Enterprises, EMI, Concord Music Group, Roadrunner Records, and others with an artist roster that includes Har Mar Superstar, Flipper, George Thorogood, Steve Vai, Robben Ford, Chick Corea, and many more. You can follow Jason on Twitter @otmg

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4 Minute Roundup: Facebook as News Reader; Engadget Comments

This episode of 4MR is brought to you by GoDaddy, helping you set up your own website in a snap with domain name registration, web hosting and 24/7 support. Visit GoDaddy to learn more.

Here's the latest 4MR audio report from MediaShift. In this week's edition, I look at the rise of Facebook as a place to find news. Hitwise found that Facebook was the #4 referrer of traffic to news sites, after Google, Yahoo, and MSN -- and above Google News. Plus, the tech blog Engadget shut down comments after an influx of trolls, before relenting to open them again. And I ask Just One Question to Google News founder Krishna Bharat, who explains how 9/11 inspired him to create the service.

Check it out:

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

Background music is "What the World Needs" by the The Ukelele Hipster Kings via PodSafe Music Network.

Here are some links to related sites and stories mentioned in the podcast:

Facebook Largest News Reader? at Hitwise

Facebook Could Become World's Leading News Reader at ReadWriteWeb

Creating Your Personalized News Channel at Facebook blog

Is Facebook, Not Google, the Real Global Newspaper? at The Atlantic

Facebook helps the news industry, but it's no white knight at VentureBeat

We're turning comments off for a bit in Engadget

Comments getting out of hand, Engadget turns them off at AFP

Engadget editor - Why I turned off comments at VentureBeat

Are Blog Comments Worth It? at Web Worker Daily

How Much Blog Would a Blogger Blog If a Blog Chucked Its Comments? at MediaPost

Commenting on Engadget - a human's guide at Engadget

Google News to Publishers - Let's Make Love Not War at PBS MediaShift

Here's a graphical view of the most recent MediaShift survey results. The question was: "What do you think about Apple's iPad?"

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Also, be sure to vote in our poll about where you find news online:

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

This episode of 4MR is brought to you by GoDaddy, helping you set up your own website in a snap with domain name registration, web hosting and 24/7 support. Visit GoDaddy to learn more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do you measure the success of Google News?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

Videography for this story was captured by Charlotte Buchen.

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

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Email is Far From Dead

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

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

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

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

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

Don't Underestimate the Email Newsletter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Social Networks Make Email More Efficient

emailVs.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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