The Times of London, navigating audience with a strict paywall, retires its opinion Tumblr

times opinionWhen you bet on a strict, un-leaky paywall as The Times of London has, you’re forced to get creative about how to put your work in front of new audiences — particularly if you’re trying to influence their opinions. Unlike its fellow Times across the Atlantic, the U.K. paper has chosen not to allow a set number of articles per month or a number of free routes around the paywall.

So a year ago, The Times set up a Tumblr for its opinion content, with the aim of giving “a flavour of what our columnists and leader writers do, how they think, and what influences their writing.”

After initially posting 80 times or more a month, posting fell off, and earlier this month, the Times Opinion Tumblr was shut down, with editors announcing they would be moving all opinion content back to its original home on the newspaper’s main site.

“We wanted to see if it attracted new readers to The Times and were very clear, with ourselves and our readers, that it was an experiment to see how it could work for us. It flourished in parts, but we’ve come to the conclusion that it wasn’t quite right for us,” communities editor Ben Whitelaw wrote in a post that also appeared on the Times Digital Development blog.

The Times reactivated its Comment Central opinion blog — behind the paywall — on the same day that the Tumblr blog was shuttered. Whitelaw wrote that posts to the blog would occasionally be free-to-access.

Nick Petrie, The Times’ social media and campaigns editor, told me that the Tumblr page was part of an effort to draw in new digital subscribers to TheTimes.co.uk. Regular Times columnists like Oliver Kamm and Daniel Finkelstein posted shorter “off-the-cuff” pieces on the page, which were freely viewable to all visitors. Times Opinion had amassed 66,000 followers since its launch, Petrie said, “but it wasn’t driving traffic back to the site.”

“Tumblr seemed like a good, light, easy-to-use platform that we could use to give people a taste of our comment and opinion, which is obviously the type of journalism that the Times is renowned for,” Petrie explained. “There was a hope that pushing out a small amount of original journalism, of original comment and opinion, would further enhance the idea of giving people a taste of what’s on offer if they became a subscriber.”

Reaching an audience to influence

What to do about opinion writing behind a paywall is a question newspapers have dealt with as long as there have been paywalls. Opinions, after all, are meant to influence, and influence would seem to grow along with the audience reading them. The Wall Street Journal, a paywall early adopter, committed early on to posting many of its opinion pieces online for free even while most news content was subscriber-only. Meanwhile, The New York Times took the opposite approach in the mid 2000s with TimesSelect, which kept the news free but put the newspaper’s columnist behind a paywall.

(The Wall Street Journal also began posting pieces from its editorial page on an Opinion Journal Tumblr, but back in 2007; like the U.K.’s Times, the Journal also stopped updating the page about a year after its debut.)

Petrie said that The Times had not specifically set up analytics for the Times Opinion Tumblr, so the editors aren’t sure what kind of traffic the page generated. According to comScore data, The Times has seen a substantial increase in traffic over the past year, from 748,000 unique worldwide visitors in April 2012 to nearly 1.5 million in April 2013 — but that’s still far behind other British newspapers without strict paywalls such as The Guardian, which has over 18 million monthly uniques in the United States alone and well over 30 million worldwide.

The Times, owned by the soon-to-split News Corp., remains on shaky financial ground; last week, acting editor John Witherow announced that the paper would be cutting 20 editorial jobs as a result of the parent company’s decision to separate its newspaper and entertainment holdings, The Guardian reported. The Times has seen a major decline in online readership since erecting the paywall in 2010.

“The idea is that everything that we publish is worth being paid for,” Petrie said.

Teaser pages, which allow readers to view the first 100 words of every article, were integrated into the Times site in October 2012 and may be a driver of The Times’ increased traffic. Only 881,000 unique visitors came to the site in October 2012 according to ComScore — a modest increase from the previous spring.

After the 100-word previews became a standard part of the site, Petrie said that the opinion Tumblr “became slightly defunct in that moment…We’re pursuing a strategy that essentially, we want to bring people in to see our journalism, rather than take our journalism out of our space — that’s why we’ve relaunched the Comment Central blog, which had been incredibly popular before we started charging.” That blog will soon feature podcasts on opinion topics, and Petrie noted that the Times is developing new strategies to attract paying subscribers to the site.

“That’s something we’re working on at the moment, but we’re not ready to talk about that yet,” he said.

TrueTies Activist Demands Transparency Without Transparency

This piece originally appeared in the Washington Examiner It is reprinted here with permission.

An Op-Ed appeared earlier this month on PBS MediaShift that seemed to describe a civic-minded endeavor aimed at increasing awareness of who on the nation's editorial commentary pages was trying to influence public opinion.

"Every day, Americans read the opinion and commentary of seemingly impartial 'experts' from think tanks on critical subjects in the pages of the nation's newspapers," wrote Gabe Elsner.

"What these readers don't know is that the authors of these opinion pieces work for think tanks and organizations funded by the same industries they are 'impartially' writing about," Elsner wrote.

Being the editor of the editorial page of a major American daily, I was struck by several things upon reading Eisner's introduction. For one thing, his opening sentences set up a straw man by claiming that "authors of opinion pieces" claim to be writing "impartially."

But authors appearing on opinion pages are by definition writing as advocates, not as impartial voices, so I had to wonder what Elsner was really up to.

Problem with Elsner's Bio

My suspicions were heightened considerably when I read the tagline at the end of his piece where Op-Ed authors customarily describe themselves.

Elsner described himself as "a public interest advocate based in Washington, D.C. For the past five years, he has worked with a variety of non-profit organizations to elevate the voice of ordinary people in policy debates."

Note the absence there of an organizational affiliation. A little further on in the tagline, Elsner said he "joined the "Checks and Balances Project," but provided no identifying information about the organization, except to say that it exists "to help increase transparency and inform the public on critical issues, especially related to energy."

He also didn't say that he is listed on the Checks and Balances Project as its deputy director.

Three days after his Op-Ed first appeared on MediaShift, Elsner responded to a comment noting his lack of transparency about himself by appending a longer tagline.

There he described himself as having led a group opposed to California's Proposition 23, which he said "was funded by Big Oil companies." He also listed other activities in which he supposedly led student lobbying efforts in California and Washington, D.C.

He also said the Checks and Balances Project is funded by "the New Venture Fund" and "several foundations." Note the lack of names for the latter organizations.

Why the Ambiguity in His Ties?

What made all of this notable was that these verbal gymnastics about Elsner appeared in an Op-Ed in which he argued that opinion page editors should "ask a basic question of anyone publishing opinions on their pages regarding financial conflicts of interest -- and then tell readers about the conflicts."

But if that's what Elsner thinks, I wondered, why the ambiguity about his own ties? So I did some digging to learn more about him and the obscure Checks and Balances Project.

Turns out that the Checks and Balances Project is indeed funded by the New Venture Fund, but guess who funds the New Venture Fund? One of its funders is the Big Green power, the Sierra Club, which spends millions of dollars every year trying to stop oil and gas industry exploration, drilling and production across America.

Other grants to New Venture Fund came from the David and Lucille Packard Foundation for "conservation and science," the Wilburforce Foundation for "Responsible Trails America," and the Azby Fund of New Orleans for "civic projects."

One of the Packard grants was to "finance efforts to protect public lands on the Colorado Plateau threatened by oil and gas development and to provide support to tribal entities in their efforts to transition away from fossil fuels."

Azby, incidentally, is a private foundation that receives millions of dollars in income from investments in energy companies, which is then given in grants mainly to local Louisiana charities, including numerous environmental groups like the Garden Conservancy.

As for the Wilburforce Foundation, it gives millions of dollars in annual grants to a veritable who's who of Big Green activists groups large and small, including the Center for Biological Diversity, Earth Justice, Greenpeace and the League of Conservation Voters Education Fund, among many, many others.

No stance on energy?

In other words, Elsner was writing on behalf of an organization -- the Checks and Balances Project -- that is a front group for anti oil and gas, pro Big Green environmental activism.

Interestingly, when the Columbia Journalism Review's (CJR) Craig Silverman asked Elsner if his group has a stance on energy issues, his response was: "We don't have a stance on energy policy."

But that's not all. The Checks and Balances Project established yet a third front group, TrueTies.org, to rally public support for greater transparency from authors like ... Elsner about their financial support!

I'm thinking now that you won't be surprised to learn that not a word appears on the TrueTies.org web site under its "About" entry regarding its funding.

Nor will you be surprised to know that the New Venture Fund acknowledges on its IRS 990 tax return to spending thousands of dollars on direct and indirect lobbying of government officials on environmental issues.

And it probably won't raise your eyebrows a nanometer to discover that, according to CJR's Silverman, among the directors of New Venture Fund is one P.J. Simmons, who was deputy chairman of the Clinton Global Initiative for energy and climate change.

Left-Wing Hypocrisy

Bottom line? Left-wing activist kettles like Elsner have no business calling right-wing advocate pots black.

I wonder if the 50 journalists -- five of whom identified themselves with the Society for Professional Journalists -- who signed a TrueTies.org letter to the New York Times endorsing the demand for Op-Ed page transparency were aware when they signed the letter of the hypocrisy behind the campaign or Elsner's prevarication about his group's stance on energy issues?

I'm guessing it wouldn't make any difference if they did.

Mark Tapscott is editorial page editor of The Washington Examiner, where this post originally appeared. http://washingtonexaminer.com/opinion/columnists/2011/10/lefty-activist-demands-oped-transparency

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The NYT promises to intermingle news and opinion

If you’re a Sunday New York Times subscriber — say, if you’ve taken the Frank Rich Discount — you may have seen a letter from Times editors in yesterday’s paper detailing changes in the Week in Review section, which is being renamed Sunday Review. One section jumped out at me:

Why, you ask, change something that is part of our history? We, too, are attached to the Week in Review. But we were frustrated by the simple geographic division between the news analysis pieces in the front and the opinion pieces in the back. We thought readers would find it more useful to have the stories, photographs and charts offered in an integrated way.

The new section will feature the best of what both the Times newsroom and the opinion pages have to offer, along with provocative and, we hope, entertaining voices from outside the paper. At times, these analysis articles and opinion articles may be presented with each other in themed packages, but they will always be clearly labeled so you can distinguish them.

In other words, the Times feels that the ancient division between opinion and news — and the even dicier division between opinion and “analysis” — doesn’t always serve its readers best. Sometimes, a provocative opinion piece can make more sense packaged with a provocative reported piece.

That mirrors, in a way, how the Internet has changed news navigation. When Google News groups stories into clusters, opinion and straight news can sit side by side. When you click a link on Twitter or Facebook, there are often no immediate cues for which journalistic bucket the story you’re about to read fits into. And, in general, online news readers don’t flow straight from section to demarcated section, the way a print reader might when running through the paper, where it’s visually clear where the news is supposed to stop and the opinions are supposed to begin.

We’ll have to see next Sunday’s paper to see how big an overlap the new Sunday Reader section will bring. But once we do see it, the next question becomes: If readers would benefit from the tactical intermingling of news and opinion, why would that only be true on Sundays?

What works for news orgs on Foursquare? Opinion, reviews, evergreens, but maybe not the news

Editor’s Note: At the International Symposium on Online Journalism earlier this month, one of the most interesting papers presented was from Tim Currie, an assistant journalism professor at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Canada. His subject was newspapers’ use of the tips function in Foursquare to spread their content — what works and what doesn’t? And what does “works” even mean? I asked Tim to write a summary of his findings for the Lab; you can download the full paper here. I’ve also embedded his slide deck below.

Many news organizations, including The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and Canada’s Metro chain of free dailies, began experimenting with the location-based social network Foursquare in 2010. They were adding editorial content — mainly restaurant reviews — as tips at locations that people could check into using the Foursquare app on their smartphone.

The newspapers were trying to explore what some social media editors have called a promising tool for news organizations. These journalists say Foursquare offers the possibility of targeted news distribution and finding on-the-scene human sources during breaking news events.

Online editors at these outlets were putting only a fraction of their paper’s editorial content into Foursquare; the number of tips left by each of these newspapers in early 2011 numbered, at most, in the low hundreds. So I was interested in determining what it was about the articles they did choose that editors thought worked well in this location-based service. I also wanted to know how editors were crafting the tips and what their goals were.

I chose Canada’s Postmedia Network as a case study subject because its member newspapers were among the most active in North America for placing editorial content into Foursquare. As of early March, Postmedia newspapers had 1,901 tips cumulatively in Foursquare. I studied three newspapers — the National Post, the Edmonton Journal and the Vancouver Sun — through in-depth interviews with the online editors that were responsible for putting content into this social network.

Asked to characterize the articles they placed into Foursquare, the editors used phrases such as “feature-y”, “evergreen”, “opinion”, “not hard-core news” and “useful to people over a longer period of time.” They cited successful efforts in using editorial content such as a film festival guide, a commentary on transit users and reviews of hip urban restaurants.

In general, the newspaper content they placed into Foursquare had at least one of these five characteristics:

An opinion, review, guide, or first-person account: The articles had a strong narrative voice and usually offered recommendations. The editors said they were using lots of restaurant reviews — but also travelogues and commentaries.

Described with the goal of inspiring action: The articles contained opinions selected specifically to inspire interaction. The editors chose editorial content likely to spark an emotional response in readers. They hoped this response would lead users to click the “I’ve Done This” or “Add This To My To-Do List” buttons in Foursquare — or begin a conversation in other social networks such as Twitter or Facebook. The editors said they crafted their tips to highlight these opinions. One or two worked specifically to link editorial content with Foursquare’s interactive buttons. Some editors cited relatively weak functionality within Foursquare for discussion and traffic measurement. Consequently, they looked to push conversation to social services that had more robust support for interaction — and analytics.

Timeless — or about an event lasting more than 2 days: The editorial content had an “evergreen” quality” about it that made it relevant for a long period of time. Foursquare users value immediacy, the editors said, and articles about long-past events have little appeal. The editors said they rarely placed articles into Foursquare concerning events that took place on a single day. Some said they had initially placed profiles of single-day concerts at clubs or concert halls but ultimately found the workload demanding in light of low user response. One editor had also come to worry about “clogging up” entertainment venues with multiple tips. A majority of editors said they used articles about music festivals or sporting events — as long as the events ran for at least three days. One editor said that’s enough time to attract adequate attention within Foursquare and to use other social media services such as Facebook and Twitter to drive traffic to Foursquare.

About a specific location or an activity typically done at a location: Articles left as tips were about locations with a street address, such as a restaurant or a school offering a cooking class. However, they were also about activities typically done by people at a specific kind of location. For example, they were about things people do at light rapid transit stations or about issues of interest to people who shop at an Apple Store.

Placed at a location where people gather socially: Editors rarely placed articles at venues such as homes or small businesses. Instead they placed tips at venues where people gather in groups: at music and theater festivals, sports events, transportation hubs, educational classes — and restaurants. These are places where people interact in the real world and where the editors guessed people are likely to interact online as well.

News content rarely used

While most participants said they were open to the idea of putting news stories into Foursquare, few cited instances of doing it. One said it would be “jarring” to know someone had been robbed or beaten recently near where they were. This editor added that Foursquare’s nature as a tool for exploration (“unlock your city” is its slogan) was at odds with violent news content: “I think indicating where there have been shootings and where there are robberies would be indicating why you should stay in.”

The editors drew almost all of their articles from the newspaper or the website. They frequently used the headline or deck of a published article as their 200-character tip in Foursquare. Some, however, said they searched an article for vivid descriptions of physical surroundings or distinct flavours in a restaurant dish. They subsequently used these descriptions to craft a custom tip aimed at attracting a user who might be holding a menu or gazing around them.

A small number of editors said they were working with reporters to create content specifically for Foursquare — such as a guide to Christmas light displays in town or a list of travel tips integrated with Foursquare’s To-Do List. The aim was to prompt users to click Foursquare’s “Add This To My To-Do List” button or “I’ve Done This” button on each tip screen. However, some of the editors described these button-clicks as weak measurements of engagement. As one put it, “It’s an inaccurate term for what we have [published] because it isn’t really a ‘to do.’”

Here at the Lab, there’s been discussion about news organizations’ discomfort with the awkward nomenclature of social media sharing buttons, such as Facebook’s Like button. Buttons that signal agreement can be a tough fit with content from news organizations, which have been “traditional bringers of bad news.” There’s also been some emerging research, conducted by my colleagues at Dalhousie University and others, suggesting a link between positive emotion and online sharing.

The results of this study suggest editors have acknowledged this association. Their goal of promoting engagement seems to have influenced their selection of articles for use in Foursquare. They chose a narrow range of content that supported the mood of people out on the town, having a good time and looking to explore. In general, they indicated they looked for light-hearted recommendations users could mull over, not weighty, impartial reporting to digest.

This choice reflected an observation made by former NPR CEO Vivian Schiller at the conference at which this paper was delivered. She called the notion of platform agnosticism “misguided.” News organizations need to tailor their content to specific platforms, she said. In this study, there was indeed a certain type of newspaper content that Postmedia editors thought was suited to this particular social platform.

In other findings:

— Some editors said they formatted key points with bullet lists to help users view recommendations on small screens.

— None of the participants used Foursquare to find sources for stories.

— A majority said they regularly removed tips from Foursquare to avoid presenting users with out-of-date articles.

Goal is engagement, not monetization

None of the editors I spoke with had made any attempt to monetize Foursquare content. They all cited engagement as their primary goal, with one saying, “The ROI on this stuff is going to be five or 10 years. It’s getting people reading your stuff [now] who would never normally read it in any way, shape, or form.”

This study did not investigate audience numbers. All of the editors suggested their Foursquare audience was relatively small — in keeping with a study that pegged the number of Americans who use a location-based service with their mobile phone at 4 percent of online adults.

In general, the editors said their main goal was simply to be present where people interact with each other. They framed this presence in geographic terms: at venues where people use their phones while eating, playing, shopping, and travelling. They also said it was simply important to be present in the social media spaces populated by young, connected adults — such as Tumblr or Foursquare — even if those spaces aren’t yet crowded with users.

This study used a very small sample size — five editors at three news organizations controlled by a single company. One can’t extend these results to other location-based social networks or to the use of editorial content in location-based services generally. Much more research is needed.

Jon Stewart: NPR Brought Tote Bag With David Sedaris Books To Knife Fight With Fox

Last night Jon Stewart opened a week of shows taped in the nation’s capital, returning from a week off the air to rundown the biggest news from the world of opiniotainment from last week: NPR’s firing of Juan Williams. What many have deemed to be a rather frank, if not tame opinion correspondent Samantha Bee claims that, in the eyes of NPR, Williams real sin was “saying something interesting.” The heart of the segment was Stewart’s recounting of the current battle being waged between NPR and Fox News, including Vivian Schiller’s unfortunate “pyschologist” gaffe and FNC’s lionization of Williams.

As has been reported here, after getting fired by NPR, Fox News rewarded Williams with a fat new contract. Which Stewart reported, then followed by a montage of Fox News personalities eulogizing Williams in the most over-the-top manner. Stewart summed up by whispering an aside to Fox News executives “guys, you gave him $2 Million. You don’t have to bl*w him!”

Facebook Groups: The reaction

Facebook has unveiled a new Groups feature, which enables users of the social networking site to organise their circle of friends in to groups according to likes and interests. But what do industry insiders think of this new initiative?