1.4 million fans can’t be wrong: NPR’s Facebook page

“They swear like sailors, but boy, they’re smart.”

That’s how NPR strategist Andy Carvin described the 1.4 million fans who comment and share stories through NPR’s Facebook page. The page — originally created by an NPR enthusiast from the UK — is one of the more popular media outlets on Facebook.

Carvin talked about NPR’s approach to Facebook last night as part of an ONA-sponsored media event at Facebook headquarters in Palo Alto.

We have better comments on Facebook than on our own site,” Carvin said, in response to an audience question about whether NPR was reluctant to divert audience engagement from its own homepage to an outside site.

In part, Carvin said, that’s because comments on NPR.org tend to be highly political and polarized, and because comments sections are also constantly beset by spammers. For many news stories — particularly ones where reporters are filing from abroad — the author of the story isn’t able to moderate the comment thread and, so, to help guide conversation and build community. NPR’s blogs, on the other hand, where this moderation happens, tend to be more conversational and interactive.

But Carvin also emphasized the importance of audience expectations. “They still see our site as mainly dedicated to consuming news,” he said. Facebook, on the other hand, is a web venue in which people are used to chatting with their family and friends.

The result, Carvin said, is that conversations on NPR’s Facebook page can become surprisingly intimate. A story about stillborn children, for instance, attracted comments from “dozens and dozens” of families who talked about their own experiences. “That didn’t happen on our site,” Carvin said.

The referral traffic on NPR’s Facebook page has grown from 1.5 million to 4.5 million pageviews a month, Carvin said. While that traffic used to result largely from fans clicking on links that NPR posted, now as much as half of it comes from links that fans decide to share themselves.

The articles that Carvin and his team post to the Facebook site aren’t typically the day’s lead stories or items of big breaking news. Instead, Carvin said, the question he asks before posting is, “Will our friends want to talk about this?”

It turns out that NPR’s Facebook fans like arts and culture reporting and multimedia stories with video (but not, surprisingly, with audio). In a survey of NPR’s Facebook fans published this summer — which attracted 40,000 responses, the most of any survey NPR has conducted — the outlet found that its science stories are extremely popular on Facebook, but tech stories aren’t. And there’s some hypocrisy at play, as well: While, when surveyed, NPR’s Facebook fans claimed to value foreign affairs and economic reporting, they often won’t actually click through to those stories.

The survey also confirmed that fans thought the tone of the Facebook comments, swearing and all, was appropriate, and that having 7 to 10 articles posted a day wasn’t too much for them. The Facebook fans are also some of NPR’s most devoted listeners, with 70 percent of them tuning into their local NPR station — and averaging 2 hours of NPR consumption a day. Fifty-five percent also visit NPR’s website on a regular basis.

In other words, NPR’s Facebook page is a complement to, not a substitute for, other kinds of NPR news consumption.

While Carvin — very politely, given the venue — suggested that Twitter’s search function was more useful than Facebook’s for journalists, he said that the Facebook page has become “one of our most important sourcing tools.” NPR posts about three or four queries a week — asking, for instance, for jobless 20-somethings who might be willing to talk to an NPR reporter about their experiences. And NPR’s Facebook fans turn out to be very willing to respond. Typical sourcing requests attract 750 to 800 responses, Carvin said. Getting less than 300 is rare.

And of the 140 to 150 sourcing questions asked so far, he said, only two or three have had no results, an extremely high success rate. Facebook was even crucial in Carvin’s recent reporting on Tunisia, even though his query received fewer than 40 responses — in part, Carvin said, because many of those with information were scared to post it on a public site.

One of the most important choices NPR has made in regard to the Facebook page is a willingness to let fans set the tone of what will happen. “We feel like it’s as much theirs as it is ours,” Carvin said. “If they want to swear like sailors, [they can]. We  don’t block comments just because there’s swearing, or even if they’re being snarky.” While NPR staffers will delete hate speech in the comments, they’ll let criticism stand. And Facebook users themselves will often take care of trolls or fake accounts by reporting them to Facebook on their own.

As for criticism of NPR itself, Carvin said, they’ve struck a balance. Fans can’t post on the Facebook wall, which is defined by official NPR postings. But the outlet has given fans free reign over the “Discussions” section on the Facebook page — so users who want to continue to blast NPR over Juan Williams’ firing can do so, just in a slightly separate venue.

“Gee, you guys are spending an awful lot of money”: The Bay Citizen editor on funding quality news

Seven months into its bid to reinvent the metro newspaper, The Bay Citizen, the San Francisco-based nonprofit news site, has so far raised a total of $14.5 million in philanthropic gifts, rolled out daily online news and culture coverage with a 26-person-staff, and, during November, attracted a monthly audience of approximately 200,000 unique visitors. It’s on track to spend $4 million during its first year.

I interviewed editor-in-chief Jonathan Weber in The Bay Citizen’s downtown San Francisco office, and later by e-mail and over the phone, to find out what he’s learned from the site’s first half-year of operation — editorially and financially. This is the first in a two-part series.

“There is nothing especially virtuous about being broke”

In a world where many local nonprofit startups are shoestring operations run by refugees from downsized or shuttered metro papers, The Bay Citizen’s relatively large budget continues to attract scrutiny — and some hostility. (As a quick comparison, the national investigative nonprofit ProPublica spent approximately $9.3 million last year, and the local civic news outlet Voice of San Diego spent approximately $1 million.)

“I’m honestly mystified as to why so many journalist-commentators seem to think that spending real money on journalism is a bad thing,” Weber told me. “I’ve been there, and there is nothing especially virtuous about being broke.” Moreover, he said, “I would challenge anyone to take a hard look at what we do — and I mean really dive in in a serious way over a period of time — and tell me that we are wasting money.”

F. Warren Hellman, the San Francisco investor who provided $5 million in seed money for The Bay Citizen, initially described it as a journalistic mainstay during the “inevitable” demise of local newspapers, and said it “might put journalism, broadly defined, on a much more stable foundation.”

Since then, the outlet has emerged as a general interest site for the entire Bay Area: It provides lists of weekend events, covers breaking news, and has even commissioned local author and artist Dave Eggers to produce a series of whimsical sketches of a World Series game. Instead of focusing, as most sites do, on a smaller geographical area, or a content vertical (like the Gawker Media blogs, or NPR’s local, topic-based Argo blogs, which launched this fall), The Bay Citizen is assuming the entire portfolio of a print paper.

“Others might disagree, but I have never seen any critique related to what we actually do journalistically,” Weber said. “It’s sort of this abstract, ‘Gee, you guys are spending an awful lot of money’ — and that kind of criticism makes no sense to me.”

The latest debate over The Bay Citizen’s finances came late last month, after an item in the Chronicle detailing (and mocking) The Bay Citizen’s solicitation of $50 memberships implied that the outlet had spent all its $5 million in seed money. PaidContent’s Staci Kramer responded with a deeply reported rebuttal to the Chron’s claim, noting that The Bay Citizen, with first-year spending at $4 million, was on budget — and that, far from being broke, it had actually raised $9.5 million on top of the Hellman money.

At the same time, other journalists involved in smaller nonprofit and local news ventures voiced their skepticism about the necessity of multi-million-dollar budgets. Howard Owens, publisher of the online-only Batavian in western New York, tweeted, “My question is, why do they need more than $1mill operational cost per year in SF?”

Weber responded that for a staff of 26, a $4 million budget was reasonable. (Steve Katz, publisher of the San Francisco-based nonprofit magazine Mother Jones, backed up that math.) But The Bay Citizen is also finding ways to amplify the work of its staff. Perhaps its most innovative step so far has been to position itself as a partner and umbrella site for the Bay Area’s many hyperlocal blogs.

“A different philosophical view about partnership”

The content on The Bay Citizen’s website is the product of a “range of different relationships,” Weber notes. On the front page, for instance, there are articles by staff reporters and paid freelancers. There is also content from the outlet’s community blog partners, who typically get paid $25 for every article The Bay Citizen re-posts from their sites. (The re-postings also appear on pages that are branded with the blog partners’ names and three additional links to articles on their homepages.) Weber has said repeatedly that he wants The Bay Citizen to be “a connector and a hub for an emerging ecosystem” of local blogs.

The site also features a Citizen Blog, which is open to pretty much anyone who wants to blog on local topics. (The Chron features a similar mix of content on its homepage, including citizen blog posts and stories from local partner sites, together with national wire stories, a “Daily Dish” of entertainment news, sports coverage, photo slideshows, and, of course, lots of advertising.) The Bay Citizen’s homepage features a single ad, as well as a jar of change with the slogan “$1 a week helps. Save Independent Reporting.”

The Bay Citizen’s local blog partnerships also include joint reporting projects between staffers and outside bloggers. The finished articles run both on the Bay Citizen and the local blog. They’re partnerships, Weber said, that can bring together the inside-baseball knowledge of local bloggers with the bigger-picture political perspective of staff reporters. “We have a different philosophical view about partnership and the role of non-staff people of various descriptions, and what role they play in the bigger project,” he notes. “I think traditionally mainstream media organizations have always had a religious view that ‘all news comes from here’ and ‘we don’t really publish other people’s news,’ and we definitely don’t.”

The Bay Citizen has also found “a sweet spot in mid-range enterprise news,” Weber said, as in its story about a payment scandal in the San Francisco Unified School District. These aren’t three-month, “capital I-investigative reporting” projects, as Weber put it, but quicker stories that might need only a single records request to pull together. (The Center for Investigative Reporting and its offshoot California Watch, which specialize in long-term investigative reporting projects, are right across the Bay in Berkeley.)

The value of business experience

While the idea for The Bay Citizen was conceived at a time when the San Francisco Chronicle was hemorrhaging millions and seemed close to shutting down, the outlet is now competing with a more stable Chronicle (whose print circulation, at last reporting, was 223,549 on weekdays) as well as a slew of other Bay Area news outlets, large and small. It’s doing so with the ambitious plan of leveraging its first few years of philanthropic funding into the kind of popular support that makes public broadcasting-style membership drives viable.

For all that, Weber said, employing a large staff — with business-side as well as journalistic expertise — makes sense. “The rationale on staff size is pretty simple,” he notes. “If you’re going to bite off something big and ambitious like doing daily and enterprise news and multimedia on a wide range of subjects for a large region, and producing 2 pages twice a week for The New York Times, you need the people to do it. ‘Big’ is a relative term. We have a big staff compared with New West or many other local start-ups, but we’re very small compared with any metro newspaper, and also smaller than ProPublica and CIR, as comparisons.”

While the $400,000 salary of Lisa Frazier, The Bay Citizen’s CEO, has generated particular criticism ever since it was announced last year, Weber has repeatedly said that “journalists tend to undervalue business experience.” And he told me that The Bay Citizen’s four-part revenue plan — which starts with large gifts and grants, and then aims to ramp up membership revenue over several years, bringing in additional money through syndication and underwriting — is complicated enough to need a sophisticated business manager. He also noted that The Bay Citizen’s ability to raise so much money in large gifts is indicative of the fact that major donors feel more comfortable giving to organizations with experienced businesspeople at the helm.

“How do we expect it to pay off?” he said. “By creating a great news operation that produces and supports important and interesting journalism and attracts a wide audience, which in turn will create financial support.”

Seeking Alpha’s Premium Partnership Program and the evolution of paying for content

When the word dropped this weekend that the finance blog Seeking Alpha would begin paying its contributors, the news was met with both questions about its motives and concern about how the deal shakes out for writers.

The payment plan, called the “Premium Partnership Program,” provides contributors a rate of $10 for every 1,000 pageviews on stories submitted to Seeking Alpha “exclusively.” It’s a formula that makes sense on paper, particularly for a site that gets between 40-45 million pageviews a month: If exclusive stories garner high enough hits, the overall traffic helps the site — and writers get a payday.

The catch, of course — beyond the “exclusivity” clause — is that writers have to find the perfect alchemy of scoops and SEO-friendly subjects to gain a substantial cut. And already a few of Seeking Alpha’s contributors are saying that the math doesn’t add up. Reuters’s Felix Salmon, whose work appears on Seeking Alpha, offered up these numbers:

On average, I’ve been getting just under 48,000 pageviews per month. Which means that if I gave every single one of my blog entries to Seeking Alpha exclusively, then I’d still be earning on average less than $500 a month. And I’m a full-time blogger, unlike most Seeking Alpha contributors.

If most posts on Seeking Alpha get between 3,000 and 4,000 pageviews, that means that, under the partnership program, a writer would get a check for $30 or $40 per post.

It’s clear we’ve reached Stage 2 in the saga of how sites handle contributor content, as more outlets are trying to find a way to compensate writers. Stage 1 was the period when news sites traded on reputation (and maybe ego) in motivating contributors to submit content (“write for us and your name will be in front of the right people”). But as a sites grow, attracting more advertising dollars or at least more funding, the question for a number of writers becomes “how do I get a piece of the action?”

Many sites and writers employ fairly traditional freelancing models of compensation — flat rates per post — while others rely on variations in CPM rates. (Yahoo’s Contributor Network, for example, compensates writers at $2 CPM plus an upfront payment.) We’ve also seen slightly more elaborate schemes, like The Awl’s recent venture in profit-sharing. And of course there’s Demand Media, the subject of many a story about writers’ pay and working conditions.

When I spoke with Seeking Alpha’s CEO, David Jackson, last week, he told me that the site’s contributors were a mix of novice writers with backgrounds in the financial industries as well as established bloggers and newsletter writers. (Seeking Alpha has close to 4,000 contributors all told, including both individuals and other media properties like TechCrunch and Globe Investor, the investment site from Canada’s Globe and Mail.)

Before the partnership program, the payoff for writers was publicity for the work they published elsewhere. “We publish the article; we get traffic and drive leads to your business,” Jackson said in a phone conversation.

While that’s still the case, the money will sweeten the deal for the writers. “If they specialize in a particular sector, they become the authority on it and get lots of readership,” Jackson said. And that, in turn, will “make real money.”

Though he didn’t go into specifics, Jackson noted that writers have the potential to pull in a bigger take from pageviews than the site does from advertisers. Jackson told me they “view how much money [contributors] make as a sign of our success. If they do really well, it means we’re successful.”

The bottom line for the moment, though, is that freelancers and blog contributors are still not likely to pull in heavy dividends for their work — at least, as Salmon suggested, not enough for a full-time gig off any one website. Of course, the elephant in the room is The Huffington Post, which has an extensive network of unpaid contributors, and is in a universe far different than most sites, as Joseph Tartakoff points out. But out on the fringes, we’re seeing more of an evolution in the ways publishers are paying for the content they post online.

Popular on Twitter: SXSW, caffeine on the go, the effects of WikiLeaks

  • Tucson video captures victim sacrificing himself for others
  • 20 interactive panels that journalists should attend at SXSW
  • Now you can buy a bucket of Starbucks coffee using your cell phone
  • World Press Photo launches a multimedia contest
  • Starbucks accepts mobile payments nationwide
  • State Department: WikiLeaks “has caused little lasting damage”
  • RightHaven copyright-enforcers are now going after commenters
  • The demise of Dean Singleton and the rise of private equity
  • Big Picture founder Alan Taylor jumps to The Atlantic
  • Michael Kinsley, in Politico, “showing some real bite”
  • Links on Twitter: The demands of blogging, Freakonomics spins-off and OC Register gets a mobile boost

    Heading to Austin for SXSW interactive? Here are 20 panels for journalists to consider http://nie.mn/gsytkw »

    Spin-off: Freakonomics will leave NYTimes.com and go solo, bring back full RSS http://nie.mn/hXh4Is »

    Scribd gets big(d?) – New funding and wants to any written thing available to read on any device http://nie.mn/grRLAC »

    Is blogging "a demanding task with few rewards?" Some say yes. http://nie.mn/eAYZ9J »

    Finding better metrics for user engagement http://nie.mn/gNgREU »

    If the future is brands publishing online, where does that leave the media? http://nie.mn/eiJazl »

    Move over De Beers: Now your Tweet can last forever on a ring http://nie.mn/fkHXmM »

    The OC Register saw over 20 % digital traffic from mobile over the weekend. Here’s why they’re prepared for more http://nie.mn/fXOPT4 »

    Environmental storytelling: "It has to be possible to miss some things to make finding them meaningful" http://nie.mn/gUmQJd »

    On average iPad owners download 24 apps…6 of which are paid. http://nie.mn/hxiMuc »

    Paywall at the Waco Tribune-Herald is a mixed bag, with pageviews down and print subscriptions up http://nie.mn/fiqVlN »

    A word from our sponsors: Why companies experiment with sponsored Tweets and a few newspapers have yet to try http://nie.mn/f6g5tn »

    Hulu’s first web-only series, The Morning After has arrived. http://nie.mn/eDkYp8 »

    The Financial Times says at least 10 percent of new digital subscriptions are coming from the iPad http://nie.mn/ii1T1k »

    The big Comcast/NBC vote is expected today; @jcstearns and @freepress are live-blogging it http://nie.mn/hmAFiu »

    Today’s NYT story on Press+ http://nie.mn/fnXH7O has us wanting to play a rousing game of Paywall http://nie.mn/fooBTM »

    New Yorker web editor: The site is “guided by what’s on paper”

    In a 2006 post at Design Observer, Michael Bierut praised what he termed the “slow design” of The New Yorker: “the patient, cautious, deliberate evolution of a nearly unchanging editorial format over decades.”

    It’s an apt description. As Jon Michaud, the magazine’s archive director, told me, “There have been slight design changes over the years — the pages are now a little smaller than they used to be. We put the bylines at the top of articles, no longer at the bottom. We introduced photographs in the ’90s.”

    But “for the most part, the magazine has evolved slowly over the decades.”

    The New Yorker’s self-conscious connection to its own past is undoubtedly one of its key selling points. But what about the more future-oriented component of the publication: the digital magazine that lives on the web? When you redesign your site — as The New Yorker did late last year, in its first online revamp since 2007 — how do you balance “a nearly unchanging editorial format” with the needs of transition to (an at least partly) digital existence?

    One way: Even online, preserve an ethos of print. “Designers who’ve worked on the print magazine week after week were intimately involved in the web design,” Blake Eskin, The New Yorker’s web editor, explained in an email. So “there are all sorts of ways, articulated and unarticulated, in which the look and feel of newyorker.com is guided by what’s on paper.”

    Indeed, the new update is — as The New Yorker has always has been — spare in its use of text, minimal throughout, and squeaky clean. It even makes more use of Irvin, the iconic, 1925 typeface designed by (and named for) the magazine’s original art director, Rea Irvin. Illustrations and other art have also been more integrated into newyorker.com, and can be found at almost every turn — clever, and reliably unpredictable.

    Then again, not everything on the new site is print-derivative. The magazine’s vintage sensibility notwithstanding, it was actually The New Yorker’s iPad app that inspired many of the site’s visual design choices, Eskin told me — like the greater use of images, both thumbnail and full-screen. “Before, our website, much like the printed magazine, had been more sparing in its use of art, and the iPad helped pave the way for using more images,” he says. “We tried to optimize both digital formats for readability. Which is why the default font size is bigger — one benefit of removing the sidebar on the left edge of most pages.”

    SEO was a factor, as well. “The removal of the sidebar made a more open page, but it should also help search engines to notice our stories,” Eskin notes. (Headlines, with the help of Typekit, are also searchable.) Likewise, “as we’ve added more writing that isn’t from the magazine, and more audio and video and slide shows, we outgrew navigation that largely followed the structure of the print magazine.”

    The most telling change, though, is as much about philosophy as it is about design. On the re-launched site, “we put less of the magazine online than we used to,” Eskin says. It’s a choice that will likely become more common as The New Yorker’s fellow outlets make key decisions about paid content. “Especially now that ‘Information wants to be free’ is no longer an article of faith — we wanted to tell our paying subscribers that they can access everything,” he says. “And to tell our non-paying visitors that there’s a lot that they’re missing.”

    Alan Taylor brings “Big Picture” prowess to The Atlantic

    Starting in February, The Atlantic will have a new section on its website: In Focus, a photography blog featuring “photo essays on the major news and trends of the day.”

    Editing the site will be Alan Taylor, who’s moving to the magazine from the Boston Globe, where, for the past two-and-a-half years, he edited Boston.com’s celebrated photo-essay feature, The Big Picture. The Globe is maintaining The Big Picture as a blog and an iPad/iPhone app — and retaining the name, too — but Taylor’s departure is still a big loss. He’d built up The Big Picture into both a web property with 8 million pageviews a month and an app that, with its lush images, is often cited as one of the most logical-for-tablets apps out there. The move is a big gain for The Atlantic, though, which is becoming known for its inspired hiring choices.

    I spoke with Taylor to find out more about what In Focus will look like.

    “I have a lot of plans, some small, some big,” he told me. One of the broadest goals will be expanding the format — “not necessarily many more pictures, or pictures that are much more gigantic” (though, hey, a Bigger Picture could be awesome and fitting for the times), “but just kind of going to the next level with it.”

    One of the most notable things that next level may include is more user involvement. At the Globe, Taylor got to do some experiments with user-generated content, he notes, “and that worked really, really well. And I’d like to not only do similar things to that, but even more so.” In Focus might also involve more interaction with photographers and agencies — and, in general, “things that take time to get out and do and integrate and build.”

    And that time will be key. At the Globe, Taylor’s job has been to be both a web developer and The Big Picture’s editor. “Part of the agreement to let me run the Big Picture was that I kept doing the other web development that needed to be done,” he noted in a blog post. “I agreed to that arrangement, and tried my best to make it work, but in the end, it was often unworkable — one or the other job would suffer when there were crunch times.”

    Now, come February, the single photography feature will be Taylor’s, er, focus. “It’s the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done professionally,” he says. “And it’s become clear to me that it’s something I want to do for years to come.”