Adrienne LaFrance: What does Pierre Omidyar see in journalism?

Editor’s note: Before Adrienne LaFrance came to work for Nieman Lab last year, she worked for Honolulu Civil Beat, the Hawaii online news startup that’s made some unusual, creative choices in its search for sustainability. Civil Beat’s founder and primary funder is billionaire Pierre Omidyar, who made news this week by announcing he was “in the very early stages of creating a new mass media organization.”

Here, in a piece originally published by Reuters, Adrienne writes about what she learned about Omidyar’s interest in news from her time in Hawaii.

People talk about billionaires the way birdwatchers point out rare sightings — wide-eyed and in hushed, anxious tones.

pierre-omidyarSpeculation in media circles has been similarly breathless since the news broke Tuesday that billionaire eBay founder Pierre Omidyar is launching a major news organization with Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, and Jeremy Scahill, some of the world’s leading investigative journalists responsible for exposing the reach of the U.S.’s military and surveillance complex.

According to Jay Rosen, who says Omidyar consulted with him last month, Omidyar is prepared to back the new venture with at least $250 million. Omidyar posted a statement about his plans Wednesday, saying the plan for the digital news organization came together after he considered buying The Washington Post, which Amazon founder Jeff Bezos bought in a move that shocked the news industry. That deal, set to close this month, is also worth $250 million.

This isn’t Omidyar’s first foray into online journalism, and a look at his original news venture — where I worked for two years — offers clues about the one to come.

In 2010, Omidyar launched Honolulu Civil Beat, where I took a job as city hall reporter shortly after it launched. (Later, I opened the organization’s Washington bureau. I still report semi-regularly for the site.) Media types routinely ask me what founder Pierre Omidyar is like. Have you actually met him? Does he talk to any of the reporters? Has he even set foot in the newsroom?

To those who have worked at Civil Beat, these are hilarious questions. Of course we know Pierre. He sits in the open newsroom with everybody else, just a couple of feet away from my old desk. When I worked in Honolulu, he was there most days helping the site’s developers write code — Python and Erlang, for those who are keeping track — occasionally chuckling at our newsroom banter, and always eating healthier than anyone else in the room. In Civil Beat’s early days, he participated in a team-building scavenger hunt.

In early public forums, Civil Beat billed itself as “Wikipedia with a news edge,” a description that did little to illuminate what Omidyar had called the “new civic square.” But the idea was to encourage respectful discussion with an engaged community of readers around document-driven investigative reporting. Civil Beat was promoted as a new and different type of journalism serving Hawaii, where Omidyar lives.

Really, Civil Beat represented a return to fundamentals: shoe-leather reporting, an emphasis on filing Freedom of Information Act requests and examining public records, close coverage of government spending and campaign finance. Greenwald, Poitras, and Scahill are known for such doggedness, so their partnership with Omidyar fits. At one all-hands editorial meeting in Civil Beat’s early days, Omidyar unveiled his new slogan for the publication: “Change begins with a question.”

It might sound hokey, but it underscores the heart of what Civil Beat is about, and speaks to Omidyar’s values: The idea that the best journalism serves the people, and enables an engaged and informed citizenry to organize around information.

A noble goal, but one that doesn’t automatically translate into financial success. While there was obviously a need for this kind of reporting in Hawaii, it wasn’t clear that there was a robust market for it.

The original business model was novel, especially for a local digital-only publication at the time: Subscriptions cost $20 per month, as much as The New York Times and during an economic recession. The site also launched with a hard paywall, meaning you had to subscribe in order to read anything. (Civil Beat has declined to share subscription numbers or otherwise characterize its growth, which has “increased a lot,” editor Patti Epler told me in August.)

Some readers complained about the cost. Omidyar was quick to iterate, switching the paywall to a metered model that allowed people to read a set number of articles per month before requiring them to buy a subscription. The rate to subscribe has since dropped to $9.99 per month, in part due to a revenue-sharing partnership with the Huffington Post, an arrangement Omidyar forged with Arianna Huffington earlier this year. Civil Beat also found early partners in local media, expanding brand awareness through deals with the NPR affiliate in the islands and the local ABC affiliate.

Omidyar has made it clear that the organization isn’t a philanthropic hobby. He’s always said that Civil Beat is a for-profit venture, and that a sustainable business model is a must. (Omidyar is reportedly running the new publication as a business, not a charity, but will reinvest all revenue into the publication.) Epler hinted to me over the summer that taking down the paywall wasn’t out of the question — but also emphasized there were no plans to do so. The site has remained ad-free, a quality readers cite as a draw to Civil Beat, though it has dabbled in sponsorship deals — like the one it has with Hawaiian Airlines, for example.

While other publishers I’ve worked for have had specific and sometimes disruptive editorial agendas, Omidyar’s goal for us was simple and neutral: Ask tough questions on behalf of the public to make this community a better place. He has a seat on Civil Beat’s editorial board, and he has participated in planning discussions about special packages — a series detailing government salaries, for example — but only occasionally did he weigh in on day-to-day stories. When he did, it was to contribute questions or move the conversation forward, not to suggest how something ought to be covered. Otherwise, he isn’t one for memos. Rarely did he email the entire staff. When he did, his preferred emoticon was a classic :-).

Earlier this year, Omidyar opened the Civil Beat Law Center, an organization that helps people better access government information. The center is available to anyone, including individuals and reporters from other news organizations, in the hopes that it will lead to more open government.

That decision offers as much of a window as to his venture with Greenwald, Poitras, and Scahill as his three-and-a-half years at the helm of Civil Beat does. Omidyar identified a problem — that agencies routinely reject requests for reports, documents, and other information that should be readily available — and created something of his own to find a solution.

Based on what I’ve seen from Omidyar, he believes journalism is a vehicle toward a better functioning democracy. Though Civil Beat will remain separate from his new venture, it’s fair to see this next step as an extension of what he has learned in Honolulu. The lesson so far seems to be that journalism’s loftiest values are still worth backing, and the most fearless reporters are the ones who can best uphold them.

Around the globe with the International New York Times

The International Herald Tribune officially became a thing of the past this morning, as the 126-year-old newspaper officially became the International New York Times.

(A style aside for people in our line of work: It should be the International New York Times, lowercase on the “the,” even though it’s still The New York Times. A carryover, one imagines, from the IHT, which was similarly downcased. That’s despite the fact that Times style is to capitalize the The in every newspaper name, even those — like the Chicago Tribune or the Houston Chronicle — that don’t capitalize it themselves. It’s strange.)

Renaming the Paris-based daily paper — founded 1887, fully under Times control since late 2002 — is part of the Times’ overall strategy to make non-U.S. revenue a bigger part of its business. Over the past few years, The New York Times Co. has jettisoned just about every part of its business that wasn’t The New York Times — selling assets like, The Boston Globe, and its smaller regional dailies; this move brings its largest remaining ancillary asset under the NYT umbrella, « plus de 125 ans après son lancement à Paris. »


The branding shift is most prominent in print, but the underlying reasoning is digital. Times CEO Mark Thompson told the paper 15 million to 20 million “unique international users” go to each month and that 10 percent of the paper’s digital subscribers are outside the United States. (Arthur Sulzberger has talked about improving the experience for international digital subscribers, including accepting their money in non-dollar currencies.) Here’s Sulzberger:

Only a few decades ago, The New York Times was a well respected but metropolitan newspaper. My father, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, had the vision to make The Times a national newspaper in 1980. Though seen as a gamble at the time, it was clearly the right decision.

Today, our future is global. The need for high-quality, authoritative, on-the-ground reporting and analysis from around the world has never been greater.

To promote the switch, the Times is making access to and its new international counterpart, as well as the Times iOS apps, free for five days. The free access is sponsored by Citi, which also recently sponsored part of the Times’ Scoop app for iOS.

The Times is also marking the occasion with a quick world tour and a few looks back at the history of the paper, made famous by the likes of Hemingway and Godard. (Don’t linger too long on the 1932 IHT editorial “Fascism for America.”)


To emphasize the international reach of the paper, executive editor Jill Abramson, Times media columnist David Carr, Thompson, and others are opening up their passports, making stops in Paris, Tel Aviv, Hong Kong, and Tokyo for panels, forums and other events. Joe Pompeo has the itinerary over at Capital New York:

The marketing and press push will resume Friday in Tel Aviv, where Thompson and INYT publisher Stephen Dunbar-Johnson are scheduled for a panel discussion at the Peres Center for Peace hosted in conjunction with the Isreali newspaper Ha’aretz.

Then on Monday, Oct. 21, Dunbar-Johnson and Times Company vice chairman Michael Golden will host a reception at the DealBook Global Forum in Hong Kong.

On the 23rd, in a joint event in Tokyo tied to a new partnership with The Japan Times, Andrew Ross Sorkin will join a discussion on “Innovation, Investment and the Japanese economy.” The next day there’s a Tom Friedman talk about “hyperconnectiveness” in Singapore, where his Global Forum takes place the following day.

Part of the transition to a International New York Times has meant shuffling and reorganizing the staffs of the two papers, in the Paris newsroom as well as in bureaus around the world. They’ve also expanded the opinion section of the International New York Times, with new writers for the paper’s editorial board as well as more than two dozen new contributing opinion writers (including recent Nieman Fellow Maxim Trudolyubov).

While the Times is moving forward with an eye on the future, they’re also celebrating the history of the International Herald Tribune, a paper that was very much part of a different era of newspapering — but one that, like ours, is driven both by visionary leadership and by technological change:

The International Herald Tribune was the latest incarnation of a newspaper founded in Paris 126 years ago as the European edition of the New York Herald, which was a rival of the Times in the bruising mid-19th century New York newspaper industry. James Gordon Bennett Jr., son of the founder of the sensationalist and popular Herald, put to use new trans-Atlantic cable just as readers were spreading out by rail and steamship.

Over the years, the Herald Tribune became an ink-and-newsprint staple for U.S. expatriates and foreigners looking for a dose of Americana. For more than a century, it was one of the few distributors of English-language news — plus baseball scores, daily crosswords, and comic strips — to readers in far-flung corners of the globe.

The staff of the IHT produced an interactive special section looking back on the history of the paper, its reach, and its reporting. It’s worth diving into if you’re curious about things like famous front pages from the paper’s history, the editorial after the day the USS Maine was sunk, or Art Buchwald’s thoughts on the the wedding of Grace Kelly.

The 3 Key Types of BuzzFeed Lists To Learn Before You Die

“Yeah, I think probably people shy away from 20,” BuzzFeed’s Jack Shepherd told me over the phone. “Twenty feels real weird.”

We were talking about lists, of course. Not listicles — Shepherd says, with some exceptions, listicles are not what BuzzFeed does: “A listicle, to me, is the lowest version of the art form. By lowest I don’t mean bad — sometimes they’re really, really great,” he says. “But a listicle, to me, is something that is literally an arbitrary grouping of things. Ten ghosts. Or 11 Songs We’re Listening to Right Now. Things where there’s no narrative that’s driving it.”

I had called Shepherd to ask him about list length — why some lists have certain numbers of items, and how they get that way. I was hoping there would be a science behind it, a big reveal that explained why some BuzzFeed lists get stretched out to 65 or 84, while others stop shy of 10.

Our curiosity was piqued by a side project that Knight-Mozilla fellow Noah Veltman calls a Listogram, a data analysis of the frequency of BuzzFeed lists by length — or, more precisely, quantity. Consciously or subsconsciously, BuzzFeed list authors tend to cluster their products around certain lengths, Veltman found:


Veltman said in an email that his curiosity was piqued when he started to notice an increasing number of irregular list lengths, and fewer round numbers.

“These odd lengths are sort of a new phenomenon. Most listicle makers still tend to stick to the top 5, top 10 format,” he wrote. “But when you see BuzzFeed listicles, they have these arbitrary lengths, and it always raises the question in my mind, why THAT number of items?”

If you read enough BuzzFeed lists, you’ll start to notice some of things Veltman noticed as well. For example, some lists don’t actually contain as many separate points as they say they do. They might have that many gifs or images, but there aren’t actually (for example) “34 Reasons Why Parent Trap Dennis Quaid Is The Hottest Movie DILF Ever.” That list includes:

1. He owns a winery.
5. He’s practically a cowboy.

The third of which is just an amplification of the previous two, if you want to get technical about it. (The hotness is made clear elsewhere in the list. This is serious business.) Veltman calls this phenomenon listflation. Via Twitter, BuzzFeed founder and CEO Jonah Peretti offered a counterpoint:

Anyway — so what did Veltman learn crunching the data?

Despite the perceived move away from round numbers, the four most repeated list lengths are 10, 15, 21, and 25. (One of these things is not like the others.) But overall, Veltman was surprised by how common it was to write lists over 30.

“I’d have expected lists longer than 15 or 20 to be much rarer, since it seems like a lot to sit through AND it seems like a lot more work for the author,” Veltman wrote. In fact, Shepherd mentioned to a period in 2010 when there was an internal, unofficial competition in the BuzzFeed offices to see who could write the post that exceeded 100 by the most items.

“I think what we found ultimately is the amount of time it takes to compile 200 of something could be better spent actually narrowing it down to 20 and figuring out how to make it a really rich narrative experience,” he says. “The megalist phase of 2010 was an interesting experiment, but one that has mercifully gone by the wayside.”

Brian Abelson, who collaborated with Veltman on the project and is also a Knight-Mozilla fellow, found a slight correlation between list length and how many tweets the list gets — the longer the list, the more tweets.

It’s probably not surprising that there’s as much superstition as there is science at BuzzFeed around what list lengths should be. In addition to an instinctual dislike of the number 20, Shepherd told me, “It’s long been a superstition in the business — for years — that an odd number will do better than an even number.”  So it follows that Veltman also tried to find out whether certain authors invariably favor certain lengths, to see if they had any “pet theories” about what works well and what doesn’t. (Where well = viral, that is.)

“Certain editors get attached to certain numbers. I looked at my top ten viral posts of all time, and three of them have 21,” Shepherd says.

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Indeed, there are some common rules that are applied to list length. But first, it’s important to understand that there are different kinds of lists, which I tried to categorize from my conversation with Shepherd. “There’s such a massive variety of experiences you can have with something that is a headline that happens to have a number in front of it,” he said.

First, and most basic, is the listicle. “109 Cats in Sweaters is literally that,” says Shepherd. “There’s nothing more going on there.”

Second is the definitive list — the list that sets out to encompass all of something, like The 50 Cutest Things that Ever Happened. These lists have a strong tendency to go viral — 316,000 Facebook likes on that one so far — but they take a lot of effort.

“I didn’t just go and find 50 cute pictures that I liked. I thought back to my five years of scouring for cute animals on the Internet and the ones that really struck me and stuck with me,” he said. “Compiling that list took a huge amount of time and required having spent a lot of time looking at these things, whereas if you do something that is kind of more simple, you don’t want to put a big round number.”

And finally, there is the framework list — the list that only exists to structure a narrative. Take, for example, 54 Reasons You Should Go To A Dog Surfing Competition Before You Die.

The number 54, “in that case, that’s just a way of organizing this story that I’m telling about this amazing experience I had watching these dogs surf in San Diego,” Shepherd says. “If one of the items is that bulldogs are better surfers, and I have five great bulldog pictures that I’ll group under that number, it sort of doesn’t really matter.”

This is the most important kind of list for BuzzFeed, the one that helped it get past its reputation for creating Internet drivel and begin building a broader audience. This kind of list has the best content, but also the most arbitrary length — there are as many items as it takes for the story to be done.

“The thing that I’ve been saying recently about lists is a list is just a scaffolding for a story. It’s just a way of organizing information,” says Shepherd. “I mean, The Odyssey is 24 chapters. You could call that 24 Chapters About Odysseus. That’s, like, a really great list. Really top notch. Really, really viral. Super viral.” 

That’s heady stuff. But the point is, list length has more to do with what’s in the list than with trying to guess which lengths readers are most likely to click.

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Which doesn’t mean the lengths aren’t being manipulated. Lots of editorial thought goes into shortening or lengthening lists according to taste. “But it’s less interesting than numerology,” he says. “It’s more things like, ‘You know what, I looked at this post and I really felt like around 20, I got the point. So you might want to cut it from 31 to 21.’” (Not 20. Remember, 20 feels real weird.)

Lists being too long — or having too much mid-list dead weight — is definitely a concern. “We’ve looked at it in real time, which specific items on a list people were sharing the most, and started cutting out the ones that weren’t getting shares,” Shepherd says. “That was interesting — the idea being that, if there’s a dud in your list, you want to cut it down. But that didn’t in any conclusive way seem to effect the overall sharing of the post.”

Shepherd is also interested in using mobile technology to gather data on at which points in a list readers start scrolling faster. which could correspond with the point at which they got bored. He also likes to look over the shoulders of list readers.

“Something I would love to do — and it’s tough to get editors to do it when they’ve put a lot of time into a post — I would love to split test a bunch of different editorial posts. Let’s say an editor made a post that was 25 Steps to Get Through a Rough Day. I would like to have five versions of that post with different lengths and show readers different versions of that post and see which ones got the most sharing and see if we could get a sense,” he says.

But ultimately — much as one might want analytics to deliver conclusive answers — the results are often fuzzy. “I tried to have a look at some of our writers who have the most viral posts, and there’s actually a pretty wide distribution of numbers,” says Shepherd. People make lists of all different lengths for all different reasons. And why people click on them likely has very little to do with having a natural affinity for the number 12 or refusing to read lists longer than 30.

But thinking about list length does force us to consider the medium more seriously — something that BuzzFeed higher-ups have been trying to get us to do for a while. Ultimately, neither the magic of numbers nor science of numbers explains why people are drawn to lists to begin with — nor does length, on its surface, do much to telegraph what multitudes a list might contain.

“Honestly,” Shepherd told me, “I’ve often made posts where the post didn’t need a number, and then I’ll throw a number into the headline — just because people like that more.”

Photo by Thomas Hawk used via a Creative Commons license.

The newsonomics of 10 ways we’ll judge 2014

At the World Publishing Expo held in Berlin this week, two CEOs of major international news companies — Andrew Miller of The Guardian and Mathias Döpfner of Axel Springer — were asked a question: On a scale of one to 10, how far along were there companies in their digital transition? How far have they traveled on the road to where they need to be?

Miller: 3. Döpfner: 4.

At the conference, held by WAN-IFRA, Döpfner summed up the chances of all this activity producing a happy result in a single word: “Perhaps.”

As the news industry approaches 2014 — wary and uneasy, its annual budgeting exercises by now a familiar form of torture — that “perhaps” sums up so much.

Over the past three years, new hopes and strategies have been fueled by the new knowledge that readers will indeed pay — and sometimes a lot — for digitally delivered content. But the deepening print ad downturn has allowed no one to enjoy that lesson.

You can sum up 2013 in news publishing in a single word: sobering.

So as that budgeting starts to take out more staff and change the nature of how news companies are run, let’s take a look at the 2014 soon to come. Let’s look at the 10 of the most impactful facts that look ready to shape the year ahead:

  1. The print ad decline continues unabated. As recently as this year, news publishers expected the drop in print advertising to flatten out. Marketers’ rush to shift print dollars and euros to digital would slow a bit as advertisers found some balance in their spending. A recovering economy would help lift their print boats a bit.

    It hasn’t happened. Quite the opposite. If anything, we’ve seen an acceleration of the transition; European publishers are telling me of double-digit print declines, while U.S. ones are struggling to keep their losses in the high single-digit range. Most importantly, they now believe next year will just offer more of the same. Negative print revenue is a foregone conclusion in 2014 budgeting; the only question is how much.

    The big question: If it took almost a decade for news publishers to lose half of their print ad revenue, might it take just half a decade to lose another half? The astounding toll so far: The global newspaper industry is down $51 billion a year in total revenues from 2006, having lost 39 percent of its take.

  2. Consolidation and layoffs are the order of the day. We’ve seen more than a half decade of serious cost cutting. Only more cost cutting will preserve the relatively meager 5 to 10 percent profit margin many publishers now crank out, down by two-thirds or more from good old days. So in anticipation of continuing print ad losses, we’re seeing new rounds of layoffs. From Gannett to Reuters to Sao Paulo, announced and mostly unannounced, newsroom staff reductions continue.

    We’re also seeing lots of new consolidation, from Digital First’s Thunderdome and Gannett in the U.S. to Local World in the U.K. and Funke Media and Madsack in Germany. Work-saving consolidation — putting together a common set of nation/world pages, for instance, and sharing it across groups — can make great sense, but it’s all in how well it is done. 2014 will show us that on several continents. The dean of the old clusterers, MediaNews builder Dean Singleton, must be amazed at the clustering chops of this new generation of consolidators.

  3. Long-term private investors enter the U.S. newspaper market. It’s a parade from public to private. From Tampa to Orange Country and San Diego, and now Boston to D.C. — and with Tribune newspapers still hanging in limbo — we see longer-term focused private investors taking over. (Just this morning, Aaron Kushner’s Orange County operation announced it was buying the Riverside Press-Enterprise from A.H. Belo, shifting it from public to private ownership.)

    What’s crystal clear is that trying to meet Wall Street’s demands for quarterly numbers over the next three years will require gymnastic skill, given all the transitions and needed investments still unmade. The big question for 2014: Will we see these new private owners pump breath into their companies, taking a longer-term view, and laying down a multi-year path to revival? Will they, as 2013′s most famous new newspaper owner has promised, provide runway?

  4. Jeff Bezos Amazonizes The Washington Post. Will he or won’t he? Will Bezos send occasional emails and text messages to the Post leadership, or will his Bezos Expeditions venture troops — who have already visited the Post and started poking around — exert real influence? The mind reels at all the Amazon-like potential of modernizing a strong news brand like the Post’s with state-of-art analytics, product development, and customer relationship management. 2014 will be disappointing if the Post doesn’t start to move profoundly to produce new models for itself — and the industry worldwide.
  5. Paywalls 2.0 debut. Yes, I know that a lot of 1.0 paywalls are still rolling out. About two-thirds of U.S. dailies haven’t yet taken the plunge. While northern Europe has made a number of preparatory moves in 2013, 2014 will be the year paywalls kick in there, and start to populate southern Europe.

    But the next generation of paywalls will, as New York Times Co. CEO Mark Thompson puts it, “work the engagement curve.” The Times will debut several niche paid digital products six months from now, and we’ll see many more efforts to find new ways to extract money from digital news content. We’re finally moving beyond sales of omnibus subscriptions only — take ‘em or leave ‘em — to a world of delivering the best, timely content to the right reader at the right time and being paid for it. 2014 will offer a beginning.

  6. We’re on the brink of mobile-mainly. News companies worldwide report around a third of their traffic is coming from smartphones and tablets. Within a couple of years, that traffic will amount to more than 50 percent of all news traffic, as it already does at certain moments of the news cycle. (The BBC recently recorded its first mobile-mainly weekend.) How prepared are news publishers to take advantage of this big shift? In product development, the national/global players have a lengthening lead on most local publishers.

    The big dilemma, as 2014 move closer to 40 percent mobile audience: mobile advertising. Guess who already dominates there? Google, which pulls in 53 percent of mobile ad dollars in the U.S. The runner-up: Facebook.

  7. New strategies will be tested. We’re bound to get some sense of how the major strategies put into local markets this year are working. Think Advance’s Slim-Fast three-day-a-week home delivery plan is a good or bad idea? Let’s see — or least divine, since Advance is privately held — the results. How about Aaron Kushner’s major reinvestment in southern California? What’s the payoff in circulation, reader revenue, and advertising? As DFM’s Thunderdome rolls out for a full year, will it be a hit or a miss?
  8. Selling more stuff adds up to more, or less. On the reader side, the revolution in reader psychology and payment has been fast and furious. On the ad side, publishers who used to sell advertising now sell so much more: digital services, events, sponsorships, content marketing, and education, to name the top of the list. Which of these will excel at replacing lost ad revenue and margin? 2014 will tell us a lot, as major companies test and benchmark against each other.
  9. Local commerce becomes a more nuanced battleground. We’ll see if Patch really regroups and reinvests in the halfway-there success that Tim Armstrong has described — or if it’s left gurgling, further stretched in resources and on its journey to the digital museum. While the moves into local digital services have gotten far less attention than Patch, that’s where the action is: thousands of sales people are selling marketing services to tens of thousands of small and medium businesses. Hearst, Gannett, Gatehouse, Digital First, and McClatchy are among those clawing for new business, to replace lost ad dollars. 2014 will be a pivotal year in toting up how real, and big, that business can be.

    We’ll see the rollout of the son-of-the-Yahoo Newspaper Consortium. The Local Media Consortium has just announced itself, after a long formation. At announcement, though, no new partnership relationships were bannered, unusual in the announcement trade. We’ll see whether such a consortium, with its own changing cast of publisher members, is as relevant in 2014 as it was when The Newspaper Consortium inked its five-year-plus deal with Yahoo way back in 2006. A lot has changed in ownership and the marketplace.

  10. The news crisis continues. It’s easy to become inured to journalism loss. It’s mounting every day across the world. While it can range from upsetting to life-changing to energizing (for the lucky) for those laid off or bought out — for readers, it’s mainly a tale of loss. They know less about more, at a time when democratic societies are struggling and often failing to deal with fundamental issues before them. As we reshape the business of news, we’ve got to ask better questions about how those reshapings affect what readers get — and what they don’t.

Photo by Artis Rams used under a Creative Commons license.

You won’t believe which media company just launched a BuzzFeed-inspired microsite

On Monday morning, a grumpy garden gnome introduced Ezra Klein’s newest addition to the Internet: Know More, “a site for people who like learning stuff.”

It’s a simple grid of images, looking not unlike Pinterest. (Or Fuego. Or Topicly. Image-heavy grids are in these days.)

knowmore screen grab

Eight to 10 times a day, Klein and reporter/Know More point man Dylan Matthews will post an image macro, video, tweet, data visualization, or block of text on a WordPress microsite built by Yuri Victor, user experience director at the Post.

If you’re intrigued by the snippet, you click “Know More,” a direct link to a context-providing article, maybe from The Post, but probably not. If you’re not intrigued, you click “No More” and head back to the Know More homepage. (Perhaps a Roberto Durán-style “No más” might be more clear.)

The pun is credited to Joey Marburger, the Post’s director of digital products and design. Beyond being tongue-in-cheek, it has a lot to do with how Klein and his team wanted the site to function: Readers are only meant to stay on the site briefly before charging off to pursue whatever interest was hopefully sparked by Know More’s catchy title and eye-catching post — whether that’s a Post story or something else.

Though building something like an internal Upworthy or BuzzFeed was Klein’s idea, it’s not tied tightly to Wonkblog. As Klein has said since the launch, Know More is not meant to be a traffic driver for the blog, which he says, “does just fine.”

Although Know More is labeled as a Wonkblog project, he says it doesn’t really matter if readers associate the brands. The only goal is to get people to read it, and to share it. “This was not about fitting in to some piece of Wonkblog,” Klein told me. “This is about this thing we love to do at Wonkblog in a broader way: Say ‘Look at this interesting, amazing thing. Isn’t that cool?’”

But don’t call it click-bait.

“There’s this idea that there’s this thing called click-bait that everybody wants to click on,” Klein says. “If I could figure out what that is and get people to click on good content — my god, what a wonderful thing!”

Both Klein and Matthews have a lot of respect for the work BuzzFeed does, and feel the site, along with Upworthy, doesn’t get enough credit for the quality of its packaging. “It really irks me when people act like they’re better than BuzzFeed, which is an extremely effective journalism outfit — much better than most at being honestly what people are looking for,” says Matthews, who will create most of the content for Know More.

After the Monday announcement, Gawker editor John Cook tweeted a subtle “look how far we’ve come” jab, linking to a Know More post and to a 2009 piece by Washington Post reporter Ian Shapira arguing that Gawker and its aggregating, link-baiting ilk were going to be the death of journalism. (Gawker had aggregated one of Shapira’s stories in a way he didn’t like; we wrote about it at the time. As it turned out, Gawker had been pitched the story by WaPo PR.) The aggregated had become the aggregator, Cook was implying.

Says Klein: “I come from the blogosphere. I come from having a blog. Certainly back then, which was really before Twitter and Facebook, you lived on links. That was the only way people found you. I’m really thankful when people do honorable aggregation.”

So if Know More feels like a BuzzFeed or Upworthy — “Why your mom should to college in one chart,” “The best song ever about a Target store” — that’s not an accident. That’s how it’s mean to feel — intriguing, intuitive, and ultimately, essential.

“Mimicry is the sincerest form of flattery,” says Matthews. “We regard them with respect and envy and want to get a little of that special sauce.”

But of course, Know More’s target audience is a bit nerdier than BuzzFeed’s — it’s for people who look up key dates of World War I just to know it, for people who blow through a weekend reading Wikipedia articles without showering. The question is whether Klein and his team can use the tricks of the former to serve the needs of the latter.

3 ways Know More is basically BuzzFeed

Writing impossible-to-ignore headlines is an art more than a science, Klein wrote in an email, “and I’ve never been that good at art.”

Both Matthews and Klein said that writing the headlines and picking which parts of stories to surface is a collaboration that takes a lot of time and effort. Of course, BuzzFeed itself is known for using science to narrow down what makes something shareable. Klein says the internally built Know More platform will allow him full access to the analytics, which he’s eager to dive into.

Of all the questions he hopes to explore, Klein said he’s most interested in finding out, “How do we activate…that sort of joyous curiosity that exists in these wonderful ways on the Internet?” Like Upworthy, Klein wants to take what BuzzFeed seems to have mastered and use it to promote a specific type of content to its corresponding audience, with virality being the ultimate goal.

“Being essential in that way, and sort of grabbing people in that way, is the medium-term goal,” Matthews says. “If a middle-school teacher who friended me years ago shares something, that would be a good sign.”

But there’s another key way that Know More resembles BuzzFeed, and right now it’s most evident in the upper-right tile of the Know More homepage. “We certainly intend to have ads on the site. I would like to pay the salary of my writers. Over time, I would like to pay the salary of more writers,” says Klein. “That’s something I could not be more comfortable with. If any luxury advertisers would like to come sponsor Know More, give us a call.”

(Matthews also used our interview to issue an open call to advertisers. “If anyone wants to buy an ad on Know More,” he said, “I highly encourage that behavior.”)

“If I could get people to read great stories by naming them all “1 Weird Trick to Lose Weight,” I’d do it,” says Klein.

But there are a few things about the new project that sets it apart from its viral peers.

3 ways Know More is not basically BuzzFeed

“I think BuzzFeed and Upworthy do super cool things. I read them and I learn a lot from them,” Klein says. “This is a different kind of project. This is an effort to get people to interact more not with the social web but with the slow web.” It’s meme-as-pointer, not meme-for-meme’s-sake. With Know More, he wants to take the lessons of the social web and apply them to the kind of wonky reporting he and his team are known for.

“I think we have this problem in journalism where we have to somehow persuade people to read the stuff we’ve written before they’ve read it,” he says. “After you’ve read something really great, it’s easy to explain why you wanted to read that — It was a great story! But before, it’s not.”

More so than Upworthy — which typically embeds videos or photos generated elsewhere, making most clickthroughs optional — Know More errs toward pushing you to the original source. “The site is designed to get you to leave it. It’s not designed to keep you there, it’s not designed to keep you at The Washington Post,” says Klein. “We built this from the beginning with the idea being the action we’re trying to get people to take is to leave.”

Ultimately, Know More is an experiment to help understand the desires of its audience. If more people read Wonkblog content along the way, fine. If the Post makes some money in the process, great. If your weird aunt or former roommate ends up posting a Know More link to Facebook, even better. But in the end, the project has two hallmarks of useful experimentation: It builds on a preexisting success, and the stakes are low.

“I think there’s every chance we could do this badly. We could fail,” says Klein. “Eight months from now, if it’s not working, I’ll kill it.”

Journalists of the Jersey Shore: How a novice reporter built a news network from scratch

The first post went up sometime just before 2:34 p.m. on September 12.

Just a few minutes later, the first of 375 comments went up on the next post, which also included a photo live from the Jersey Shore boardwalk fire. Throughout the rest of the day, 27 more posts followed, each garnering hundreds of likes and comments.

Most expressed dismay; others, who clearly were first learning of the fire via Facebook, expressed surprise. (From Roz Dolling: “Omg this is recent wow.”) Some alerted friends by tagging them in comments — “Nicole Ouimet did u see this? Jean Frank????” asks Trish Parratt Cherri. Videos and photos began to trickle in, live from the scene.

The man behind the updates was Justin Auciello, the founder and sole operator of Jersey Shore Hurricane News. It’s a Facebook-only news outlet with over 200,000 followers, most of them concentrated in a few counties of New Jersey. Auciello has been building up this following since just before Hurricane Irene hit in 2011. He has no particular background in journalism; by day, he’s an urban planner and consultant.

After Irene, Auciello decided he liked operating the page so much that he would expand its scope to daily news, traffic and weather. To build an audience, he’d do things like call for photo submissions and post a sunrise and sunset from a contributor everyday. By the time Hurricane Sandy came barreling in, Auciello had a community in place that trusted him and his information. His work as a journalist connecting shore residents with information and resources won him praise, grant money, and even the appreciation of the White House.

It’s not quite true to say Auciello built an online news operation by accident — there were plenty of purposeful choices along the way. But it’s nonetheless remarkable that an outlet that developed this organically now reaches an audience this big and long-lasting.

“It’s not so much even reporting,” says Auciello, “as a platform where people say, ‘Hey, I need help with this, or I need assistance,’ and people respond to that. It’s not so much traditional reporting, but also a community resource. ‘I lost my hat.’ ‘I need this service.’ ‘If you’re on the beach, how’s the weather?’”

Responding to all queries, no matter how small — or how daunting a task — is a big part of what’s made JSHN a success. “People contact me all the time and say, ‘You need to do this.’ Sometimes I agree, sometimes I don’t. But I listen to everyone,” he says. “You need to be willing to take chances. You have to be willing to do things differently from legacy media. You can’t operate in a 100 percent top-down way. You need to have this two-way dialogue.”

At a recent Citizens Campaign event, a community member praised Auciello, saying, “There was a trust that was built immediately, within those few days. You did it. You should definitely parlay that into something with the — I don’t want to call it legitimate — traditional media. People in this state know you now, and you have credibility, because you don’t just let the rumors fly.”

Verification is something Auciello takes seriously. He says he doesn’t think of his followers as commenters or “likes,” but as contributors in their own right. But when they post something, Auciello won’t repost it to his larger audience until he’s checked it out himself.

For example: “I generally will not publish anything about a car accident unless I know if there was an injury, because generally the first thing people ask is, are people injured? And that’s a common, 100 percent natural question…You really don’t want to leave unanswered questions, which, in my opinion, always lead to speculation, and that leads to rumors, and then, you know, the viral nature of social media, that tends to spread.”

During Irene, Auciello says JSHN “managed to knock down a ton of rumors that were floating around the Internet just by contacting local people and emergency services and being in contact with the sheriff’s office.”

Chris Satullo, vice president for news at Philadelphia public radio station WHYY, where Auciello also works as a freelancer, says his colleagues were impressed with how “amazingly clued in he was to the traditional standards of journalism, even though he’s coming at them in this new media way.”

Auciello also seems to have a gift for turning misfortune into opportunity. He resents being told “you got lucky because you built up your audience…because of these tragedies,” but it’s true that, sans hurricanes, there could be no Jersey Shore Hurricane News. Auciello says while the hurricanes were disastrous, the audience comes from providing useful content, which also served him well when it came to filling the news gap in southern New Jersey.

According to Satullo, WHYY has been struggling to keep up with New Jersey news since Gov. Chris Christie sold the transmitter towers and call letters that previously belonged to the New Jersey Network.

“They’ve basically gone uncovered for decades in South Jersey,” Satullo says, citing the irregular reporting efforts of The Philadelphia Inquirer, local Gannett papers, and NJN before its dismantling. “The people of South Jersey to a degree felt ignored.”

Molly de Aguiar is director of media and communications at the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, which helped facilitate donations via the New Jersey Recovery Fund, through which Auciello was awarded $25,000 to expand his project.

“New Jersey is a very poorly served market — sandwiched between the New York and Philadelphia markets means that the issues and challenges we face in NJ are often overshadowed by news from NYC and Philly,” she wrote in an email.

As a lifelong consumer of news and resident of South Jersey, Auciello felt the sting of neglect as much as anyone. He likes to say that as a boy, when he heard fire engines, he would jump on his bike and chase them down. “I’ve always been really fascinated by not just gathering information, but sharing that information,” he says.

Auciello’s love for sharing encapsulates both JSHN’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness. Using Facebook — and, to a lesser extent, Twitter — as the platform for his reporting allowed Auciello to quickly build a large and highly engaged audience very quickly.

“The ability to post something and it ends up in someone’s stream and they can see that without having to do anything — that’s a lot more powerful than just posting a link and saying, ‘Hey, go here,’” he says. “I’m kind of pigeonholed in many ways to social media, because people are so comfortable with that platform.”

But the drawback is also clear: “I’m not sustainable right now. From JSHN itself, I’m not generating any revenue.”

Post-Sandy, he was able to parlay his audience, experience and demonstrated commitment into a freelancing gig at Newsworks, WHYY’s digital experiment in online community and user engagement. (More on that venture in this recent story from NetNewsCheck.) Satullo says Auciello’s existing network became a logical part of a summer project that was funded through the New Jersey Recovery Fund, a series of community forums addressing how to move forward and work toward a “more storm-resilient community.”

“It’s driving an enormous amount of traffic to Newsworks, and hopefully we’re doing the same for him,” Satullo says. Auciello produces one to two posts a day for Newsworks, many of which come directly from interactions with his Facebook “contributors,” and which are cross-posted on both sites.

“He created a really important news organization in the state of New Jersey on Facebook. The only problem for him is, any money made on Facebook goes to Mark Zuckerberg,” says Satullo. “We’re not looking to exploit what he’s doing, but collaborate with him where it seems mutually useful. He stepped in and took something we’d begun to another level. He’s benefitting from hanging out with journalists who have been at it a little longer than he has, and our guys are benefiting from seeing his energy and passion for his community. So, should he have a website? He’s got to find some way — horrible word, but — to monetize, and make a living off this somehow.”

But so far, despite the grueling hours and personal sacrifices he’s made to the site, Auciello hasn’t decided exactly how he wants to do that. The money he received from Dodge will fund a standalone website and a mobile app, to be launched by spring. “He took the information to the place where people already are, and he made it easy for them to get it,” writes Aguiar. “Now that he has established such a large following, he’s finding that he’s outgrown Facebook and would like more robust tools at his disposal to serve his audience.”

While Auciello isn’t sure if the final product should be a for-profit or nonprofit venture, he’s dedicated to one day being able to hire reporters. But despite the seven-day-a-week schedule — ”I’ve missed out on a lot of things in the past few years,” he says — it’s more important to him that the audience continue to be served than that the project become profitable.

“There have been times when I’ve been so discouraged, because I get tired sometimes. It’s hard to keep up in real time and be constantly on, and your mind constantly going,” he says. “But the times I get down, I start thinking: People really like this. They like being informed. And that keeps me going.”

Image by Names on the Shore with permission from Jersey Shore Hurricane News.

This Week in Review: False equivalence in shutdown coverage, and a paywall backtrack

False equivalence and the shutdown: The U.S. federal government’s shutdown has dominated the news this week, and it’s had tangential impacts on some areas of the media as well. Several government websites crucial to data journalists, particularly the U.S. Census site, have been shuttered, as Poynter reported. On the other hand, the government’s news programs broadcasted to foreign countries, such as Voice of America, are remaining open.

News coverage of the shutdown followed some familiar tropes, none more vexing to observers than the devotion to “both sides are responsible” equivalence. Dan Froomkin at Al Jazeera America called out false symmetry most forcefully: “the political media’s aversion to doing anything that might be seen as taking sides — combined with its obsession with process — led them to actively obscure the truth in their coverage of the votes.”

NYU’s Jay Rosen identified the same problem, but said this type of reporting’s prominence is slowly fading, writing that “with the critique of ‘false equivalence’ now a part of the journalist’s daily life and the rise of point-of-view reporting to normal status online, the artifice is shakier than ever.”

NPR’s David Folkenflik talked to journalists about how they’re dealing with the false-equivalence problem. Poynter’s Kelly McBride approached the issue from an ethical perspective, asserting that journalists have an obligation to use the clearest language possible to describe political action and reiterating PolitiFact founder Bill Adair’s recommendation to use specificity to counter false equivalence.

In pair of posts (one from last week), the Columbia Journalism Review called for journalists to go past the bipartisan rhetoric by covering the shutdown at a local level. On a different front, the Lab’s Caroline O’Donovan looked at Quartz’s use of a single-serving site to monitor the government shutdown in a tongue-in-cheek way.


One newspaper tears down its paywall: The overall trend in newspapers has been to embrace paid-content plans online, but The Dallas Morning News became the second major American newspaper to drop its paywall in recent months with its announcement this week that it will make all of its content available for free. It will continue to charge, though, for a “more visual experience” — a different design for the same content. The premium version will be $11.96 a month and free to subscribers.

The Lab’s Justin Ellis wrote a thorough analysis of the site, noting that unlike the two-site free/paid strategies at papers like The Boston Globe and San Francisco Chronicle, the Morning News’ sites differ only in presentation, not content. He also talked to publisher Jim Moroney about the paper’s plans to shift away from getting digital-only subscriptions (which weren’t growing as they’d hoped) and toward using the premium site as a supplement to the print product, with events and other perks as part of subscribership.

At Poynter, Andrew Beaujon came away with a similar impression from Morning News executives. He focused on the paper’s use of its digital product as a throw-in with print rather than a standalone product that people would be expected to pay for by itself. Ad Age, meanwhile, looked at the Morning News’ plans to center advertising on the free site, with less on the premium one.

Ryan Chittum of the Columbia Journalism Review said the Morning News’ dismantling its paywall isn’t an indictment of paywalls in general, but simply the product of faulty paywall design. When the paper set its paywall up in early 2011, Chittum said, it should have used the more porous metered model pioneered by The New York Times, rather than a hard paywall that limits traffic and advertising revenue. “Only the most essential news providers can pull that off, and the News is not the powerhouse paper it was 10 years ago,” Chittum said of the hard-paywall model.

twitter-bird-2012Facebook, Twitter, and TV talk: Facebook made the latest move this week in its ongoing battle with Twitter over grabbing the ad dollars around TV-related online conversation by sending weekly reports to the big four American networks on the social-media chatter about each of their shows, The Wall Street Journal reported.

Twitter is also providing that kind of data to TV executives and advertisers, but Facebook is pitching its data as deeper and more representative than Twitter’s. TechCrunch’s Sarah Perez wasn’t buying it, though, as she argued that the likes included in Facebook’s data aren’t as meaningful as the tweets that Twitter measures. The Next Web’s Jon Russell also concluded that Twitter is the superior venue for real-time TV discussion because of its simplicity and the accessibility of its information.

The New York Times’ Vindu Goel and Brian Stelter laid out the stakes and strategies in this struggle over the online conversation (and ad dollars) surrounding TV, noting each side’s strengths: Twitter has the upper hand in instant discussion about live TV, but Facebook has more information about its users that advertisers can use to make more finely honed and individually targeted appeals. Forbes’ Tim Worstall said this conversational arms race should work out great for Facebook, Twitter, and advertisers, but the networks look like the losers, as they fall behind in the competition for advertisers.

Facebook also expanded its Graph Search to include posts and status updates, rather than just people, interests, and photos. As TechCrunch’s Josh Constine pointed out, this should help push Facebook toward that real-time water-cooler status around big events that Twitter currently enjoys, but it also ends the “privacy by obscurity” of many users’ old posts. Forbes’ Robert Hof contended that while the new Graph Search has troubling implications for privacy, it’s unlikely to spark the protests that past Facebook changes have. And Alastair Reid of explained how Graph Search might be useful for journalists.

Twitter opens its books: Twitter also filed its long-awaited S-1, the public document registering for an initial public offering, on Thursday. The New York Times has a good overview of the filing, and Quartz has a quick rundown of the notable details and figures: Twitter lost $79.4 million on $317 million revenue (that’s $0.55 per user this quarter, compared with Facebook’s $1.41 over the same period), it gets 85% percent of its revenue from ads and the other 15% from data, and it has 218 million active monthly users, of which 49 million are in the U.S.

A few other details from the filing: Twitter is issuing only one class of shares (unlike Facebook), it revealed some new information about its major shareholders, and it focused on the need for international growth, as its revenue per user is much higher there.

As PandoDaily’s Erin Griffith noted, Twitter’s S-1 was clearly meant to position the company as the anti-Facebook, emphasizing its openness and its orientation to news and real-time events. BuzzFeed’s Matthew Zeitlin also broke down Twitter’s pitch to advertisers compared with Facebook. But as Tom Simonite of MIT Technology Review and Ryan Tate of Wired argued, Twitter isn’t in nearly as good of shape as Facebook was at its IPO: It’s growth is slowing, it’s getting less revenue per user, and it’s losing money. Tate put the difference most starkly: “One is a reliable profit gusher while the other is an anemic mess.”

Reading roundup: A few updates on ongoing stories this week, as well as thoughtful pieces to give a read:

— The U.S. National Security Agency revelations keep coming: It’s gathering detailed information mapping Americans’ social networks, and it’s storing web browsing metadata for a broad range of people whom it doesn’t consider people of interest. The New Yorker’s Ken Auletta profiled the paper that’s been at the center of these revelations, The Guardian, and its indefatigable editor, Alan Rusbridger. The story included and prompted some sniping back and forth between The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald and The New York Times’ Bill Keller, and Greenwald and Guardian editor Janine Gibson talked to Redditors about their NSA reporting. Meanwhile, recently unsealed documents told the story of how the email encryption service Lavabit resisted government efforts to track NSA leaker Edward Snowden, as Wired and The New York Times reported.

— Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos officially closed his $250 million purchase of The Washington Post this week. The Post published an in-depth examination of the forces that led up to the Graham family’s sale of the paper, which Ryan Chittum aptly analyzed at the Columbia Journalism Review. The Post also looked at the future of The Washington Post Co. without the paper.

— A few leftover pieces from last week’s debate over comments: The New York Times looked at how comments are being handled on science sites, and science educator Marie-Claire Shanahan took issue with Popular Science’s rationale for its decision to do away with comments, as the Columbia Journalism Review’s Alexis Sobel Fitts. Longtime editor Howard Weaver proposed allowing users to rank and filter comments themselves.

— A couple of useful pieces for those in journalism: Paul Bradshaw defined journalistic curation and provided a guide to numerous curational tools, and the Knight Digital Media Center’s Michele McLellan published a pair of posts highlighting results of a survey of local online news startups, illustrating their strategies and challenges.

— Finally, a couple of thoughtful pieces to reflect on: Reporter (and former Lab staffer) Adrienne LaFrance wrote a candid reflection on the gender inequity in her own reporting and the reasons for it, and The New York Times’ Derek Willis urged young journalists and students who consider themselves digitally savvy to push themselves to learn about how to make things on the web, not just use them.

Image of The Dallas Morning News building by Al Bakker used under a Creative Commons license. Photo of protestor at Sen. Ted Cruz’ San Antonio office by AP/Eric Gay.