What makes something go viral? The Internet according to Gawker’s Neetzan Zimmerman

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In March, I wrote about Gawker’s new quantity-over-quality experiment. Each day, one Gawker staffer was tasked with pageview-chasing duty, a quest to post enough cat videos, Miley Cyrus pics, and local news ephemera to keep the clicks coming en masse. That staffer’s work would free up others to work on longer, more involved pieces. Pageview duty rotated, because — who could stare too long into the Internet’s bright raw id and not go blind?

Neetzan Zimmerman, apparently. Editor A.J. Daulerio hired him two months ago to focus exclusively on viral content. Zimmerman’s title at Gawker is Editor, The Internet. He is assigned to cover the Internet.

This machine-like person has generated more than 300 bylines for Gawker since he started on April 9. These are not lengthy tomes, usually; nearly every post is just a funny photo or video, with body text barely longer than a caption. The average word count of a sampling of his recent stories is about 200.

Zimmerman sits comfortably atop Gawker’s leaderboard, garnering two to five times more pageviews than his highest-performing colleagues. Zimmerman is so prolific, his posts so magnetic, that Daulerio has now relieved all 10 full-time Gawker staffers of their pageview chores.

“A taxidermied cat being that’s been turned into a helicopter — that’s clearly going to be successful, right?”

“He’s a total freak, a specialist, if you will, and I’d much rather have him (one person!) taking care of the backend of Gawker and letting the rest of us grow the site a little more traditionally,” Daulerio told me in an email. “He’s doing an outstanding job so far, now it’s a task for us to keep up and build more around him every day.”

The reaction from readers to my previous story was split between “Journalism is doomed!” and “Journalism is saved!” A lot of people interpret Daulerio’s motives as trying to figure out how to maximize pageviews. That’s true, but I think the essential question is, more precisely: Can Chinese goats subsidize substance? Can farting babies pay the bills, so journalists can focus on real work?

Consider the reach of Zimmerman’s recent work (approximate pageviews parenthetical):

Zimmerman, 30, was previously the one-man operation called The Daily What, a Tumblr site he created in 2008 while bored at work. He’s the guy who elevated Double Dream Hands to meme status and Rebecca Black to global fame. (It is so documented in Know Your Meme, the paper of record for the Internet.)

The Daily What was scooped up by Ben Huh’s Cheezburger Network in 2010. In April of this year, Zimmerman parted ways with Cheezburger to get a little break from the relentless schedule and maybe pursue some more serious work. He was pumping out about 35 posts a day at The Daily What and never took a weekend off. At Gawker, he tells me, he averages 13-14 posts a day. “The least I’ve ever done was 9, and that was on an excruciatingly slow day,” he said. Weekends are mostly free now.

What makes something go viral?

Last week Zimmerman posted This Is How You Make Something Go Viral: An Impractical Guide, an essay five times the length of his usual work. I devoured it, expecting to finally learn the secret of virality. I came away unsatisfied. It seemed more like a guide to discovering — dare I say, curating — viral content, a complex system of early-warning signs that seems to make sense only in Zimmerman’s head.

He describes an Internet food chain, a series of tiers of websites that disseminate viral content. The highest-performing, most visible websites — BuzzFeed, Boing Boing, Gawker, Reddit — often graze on content discovered by lower-visibility sites. The lower-tier sites are often the ones to lift TV news bloopers or funny Facebook photos from obscurity. But they depend on their mainstream predators/enablers to elevate something to meme status. Zimmerman described his system thus:

In order to stay as current as possible, I make sure to run a spot-check of the most visible sites at least once a week. Refreshing the index with the most fruitful lower tier content sources is only half of it: Losing the dead weight is crucial as well. My rule is simple: If a site hasn’t produced at least on[e] item of value during the week, it drops down a tier. If it bottoms out and still hasn’t proven useful, it’s gone.

“In nature,” Zimmerman told me, “you can’t really say the fly or the mosquito are not as important as the animals that eat them, because they still provide sustenance for those animals…It’s the same thing with these lower-tier sites — they’re sometimes even more important.”

As in any competitive ecosystem, there are days when sustenance is scarce. On slow news days, Zimmerman wrote: “Insipid, pointless, patently unintesting and unfunny items are brought to the fore when they would otherwise remain unmissed in obscurity.”

I pressed Zimmerman to reveal precisely what it is that makes something viral. News organizations, marketers, and C-list bloggers could really use this. He talks about this vague quality called “Internet bent.”

“When I talk about Internet bent, it’s sort of, what’s viral, versus just what’s making headlines? Those tend to be two different things. When something goes viral, it tends to be something that is not expected to go viral,” he said. So when the U.S. kills al-Qaida’s No. 2 man in a drone attack, that’s a big headline, but it’s not bound to be viral content.

“A taxidermied cat being that’s been turned into a helicopter — that’s clearly going to be successful, right? Because it’s got that element of shock, it’s got that element of a cat, you know, it’s basically just tailored to the Internet,” he said. I am laughing at this point.

A Neetzan for news?

This would seem to disappoint people in news organizations who want to learn from the masters and grow their traffic. Not only is viral content so unpredictable, it tends to not really be news content. So instead of creating viral content, maybe news organizations should be aggregating viral content. Maybe every news organization needs a Neetzan Zimmerman.

But how does a Washington Post or St. Louis Post-Dispatch create its own Daily What and not look ridiculous?

“My approach to this whole thing from the start, it was…take everything that’s going on on the Internet seriously. Treat it as you would something that you might read in The Economist,” he said. “If you read Tumblr, for instance, there’s some smart people out there…They’re not dumbing down the content, but they’re still introducing it in a way that they know will be palatable to this new audience.”

As an example he points to GIF HOUND, a Tumblr site that presents the day’s news in the form of animated GIFs. Take this image that condenses a four-minute Obama campaign video about Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts jobs record:

That image reached a lot of people who might not otherwise watch the video. Maybe it compelled viewers to click through and watch the whole thing.

And then this happened:

When’s the last time someone with 16 million Twitter followers shared your content?

A.J. Daulerio, the Gawker editor, has said more than once that he does not like pageview-chasing — but, in essence, You got a better idea for paying for journalism? As he wrote last week:

I hate cats in hot tubs, cats sitting on babies, Keyboard Cats playing off babies who suck at singing, etc. Looking at them is fine. I mostly hate that, at some point, a viral video becomes the default hit-switch for a slow news day. But when your job is to grow a site’s traffic, it’s tough to ignore — and for the sake of the other writers, it’s a necessary cog.

Even if Neetzan Zimmerman could save journalism, his defect is that he’s human. Human beings wear out. Human beings want to try new things, branch out. I asked him, could he be automated? Could we turn Zimmerman into A MACHINE? He laughed and said math was his weakest subject in school. “You could probably find a way to do that.” You could write a program that checks the high-performing sites for stories and cross-checks them against other sites, dynamically ranking aggregators and awarding more points to those whose content goes viral more often.

But you can’t replicate his gut, not yet. There are no hard-and-fast rules, he said. Zimmerman’s many stories cohere somehow. They have wit and soul in a way I can’t quite describe. Robots can’t do that.

Zimmerman is skeptical that mainstream newsrooms will learn from Gawker. “They want to keep the integrity of the old guard in place, and they’re very concerned that any sort of shift from that would be seen as trying to pander,” he said. “That is something that’s going to end up with them going out of business.”

And he does not say that dismissively. Zimmerman grew up in Israel reading two national newspapers every day, cover to cover. He does not want traditional news organizations to disappear, he said, but they have to start catering to their next audience now.

A brief history of Car Talk: “They’ve changed the way people see public radio in America”

A younger Tom and Ray Magliozzi

Car Talk called it quits today. The NPR staple — first broadcast locally 35 years ago on Boston’s WBUR and nationally 25 years ago — will air its last original episode in October. After that, new shows will be produced from the program’s vast archives.

The show is by any measure a success, with 3.3 million weekly listeners on 660 stations, according to NPR spokeswoman Anna Christopher, making it NPR’s top-rated weekend program. While weekday blockbusters Morning Edition and All Things Considered reach far more listeners across five days, Car Talk enjoys the highest listenership by average quarterly hour; that is, “there are more people listening at any one moment to Car Talk than to any [NPR] national program,” Christopher said.

It’s also an object lesson in one powerful way to develop a show, or any creative endeavor, really: organically. Car Talk came into existence by accident and developed its distinctive voice at its own pace. Sometimes, the shows that aren’t focus-grouped and lab-tested and worried-over end up being the decades-long hits. The ones that end up sounding human.

I called up Doug “Bongo Boy” Berman, the show’s longtime executive producer, to understand what makes the show endure. (Berman has a gift for making radio; he also created Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!) He said the show was born as something else entirely, in 1977, back when WBUR was a volunteer radio station:

Some guy had a generic call-in show, and he thought it would be a good idea to do something on cars one week. And he invited six area mechanics in to take calls, and Ray thought it was a dumb idea, so he sent Tom. And Tom was a panel of one. He’s the only who showed up. He took calls, and apparently it went well, and the guy said “Hey, can you come back next week?” And he said “Sure, can I bring my brother?” And the following week they came back, and the guy who invited them had been fired and left them a note saying “Hey, good luck, watch your language.”

It would air for a decade before WBUR hired Berman to create a national pilot.

“I think this show benefited from 10 years of benign neglect in a lot of ways,” Berman told me. “They didn’t know what to do, and they weren’t getting paid. And they didn’t think anybody was listening. So they were just themselves.”

Nothing else on the radio sounded like it. The Magliozzi brothers weren’t stentorian or far away — they were right here in your living room. I mean, listen to these guys:

Here’s where another master storyteller enters the picture, Susan Stamberg. In 1987, NPR’s longtime correspondent had just begun hosting a new show called Weekend Edition Sunday. They were asking stations to send in anything that might work well as smaller segments, and they got all kinds of submissions from across the country. I called Stamberg for the story:

There are many versions of this story, but this is my favorite, the one I’m about to tell you: An air check was sent to NPR and it made the rounds. So the news director then was Robert Siegel, his assistant took it in, his then-assistant Jo Anne Wallace, who’s now the general manager of KQED in San Francisco.

Jo Anne listened. She thought these two guys talking about cars might have some potential. She played it for Robert, Robert said, “Well, I don’t know, send it around…” And then it was handed to me, and I gave it to my husband, who’s a big car buff, and he listened and — we’d met in Boston, so there was room for the accent — he listened and he said, “Gee, I don’t know, Susan, I’m not exactly sure.”

And then I listened and I said — this is why it’s my favorite version — “You betcha these guys are fabulous! They’re hilariously funny, everybody loves cars, and even if they don’t, they’re so wonderfully entertaining. And that accent is hilaaaarious. We’ve got to put them on!”…

They were very resistant to the idea because I was going to be working with them. They had had a two-man show for all those years, and here this interloper host was coming in, me, to join because that was what our format was, I sort of took part in everything. But when they heard — and honestly, this is the God’s truth, and I had no idea how important it would be that I had a 1974 Dodge Dart, which is Tom’s all-time favorite car. Slant 6 engine. They were won over!

After about nine months as a five-minute segment, the Magliozzi brothers got their national show.

Although they retire this year, Car Talk will continue airing in re-runs indefinitely. There are 25 years’ worth of archives and 12,500 calls to work with, many of them previously unaired. Berman said everyone on staff at Dewey Cheetham & Howe, the company that produces Car Talk in conjunction with WBUR, will remain employed, including producer Carly Nix, editor David Greene, Russian chauffeur Picov Andropov, butler Mahatma Coat, second-shift meteorologist Claudio Vernight, and wardrobe assistant Joaquin Closet.

“I think their stuff will hold up the same way the Marx Brothers’ does. I think it’s that good. I think people will enjoy it generations from now,” Berman said. “And I think they’ve changed the way people see public radio in America, where it was once seen as exclusive and very serious, I think made it warm and accessible and welcoming. They had a lot to do with that. NPR’s grown tremendously over the last 25 years, but they were at the center of that.”

It’s a sound NPR is always looking to reinvent; in April I wrote about the network’s attempts to create programming that draws in a more diverse audience.

Stamberg agreed: “It made it sound as if all of us did not have Ph.D.’s, which we do not all, but they certainly brought us down to earth.”

Why the Oregon Daily Emerald is transforming what it means to be a college newspaper

When newspapers cut back on their print product it’s big news. When the New Orleans Times-Picayune — not to mention three other Newhouse newspapers in Alabama — announced it was reducing its print production to three days a week it was like the shot heard around the (journalism) world.

And yet, that same day up in Eugene, Ore., another paper announced it was pulling back to two days of print and made it sound like a triumph. The Daily Emerald has been publishing five days a week for over 90 years and now, like the handful of papers who have cut back on print before it, plans to beef up its web presence and find new digital ways to reach their readers.

“We’re shifting to this idea of what does the reader want, not what do we think the reader needs.”

If you haven’t heard of the Emerald it may be because you don’t live in the Pacific Northwest, or, specifically attend the University of Oregon. The Emerald is the university’s student paper. (Go Ducks.) But there’s something else that sets the Emerald aside from other papers pulling back in print: It’s not bleeding money. The paper’s publisher says they have no debt and “a solid reserve fund”; this year has been the paper’s best, financially, in over a decade. And yet, the Emerald is knocking it all down, as the paper’s leadership wrote in the announcement: “We are making this change to deliver on our mission to serve our community and prepare our student staff for the professional world.”

When I spoke to the Ryan Frank, publisher of the Daily Emerald, he put it in basic terms. Stability is no excuse to stay idle, especially in the journalism business. “Some of our peers have been pushing the envelope on innovation for a decade — we’re not in that camp,” he said. “We had to do something big and bold to push as fast as we could to go where we need to go.”

So this fall, when students return to campus, the Daily Emerald will be officially replaced by Emerald Media Group. Under the new plan, the paper will be published on Mondays and Thursdays, two high traffic days on campus. The Monday edition will focus on longer news pieces and sports wrap-ups; Thursdays will have an emphasis on arts and entertainment (and, again, sports). The design of the paper is being completely overhauled; shifting from a broadsheet to a tabloid. They’re also adding an app development lab called The Garage and plan to extend themselves beyond advertising into marketing services and events.

Whenever a newspaper shakes up its production model, it runs the risk of shedding readers. As much as the Emerald’s target audience is of an age not known for reading print, the physical ritual of picking up a paper still has meaning. Frank told me they’ve received plenty of feedback from students that amounts to “the only reason I read the paper is because I can pick it up on the way to class.” At the same time, he said the Emerald hasn’t done extensive surveys on student’s likelihood of reading news online or on devices. In other words, the risk is real.

“From what I’ve seen, what I know, and what I’ve learned about students since I’ve been here, I honestly don’t know what kind of success we’ll have reaching them with news specifically on web and mobile devices,” he said.

But Frank says, even if times aren’t bad now, he expects the Emerald’s trend line for the print paper will be the same as others: Advertising will decline. The Emerald doesn’t get support from the university, which means they had to be proactive. At the same time, the paper’s mission is two-fold; keep the university community informed and prepare their staff for a career in the journalism business. Using that frame, thinking of a student newspaper as a “teaching hospital” for journalism, Frank said they had to change.

“Our approach has been let’s teach our students and ourselves how to deliver what the readers want, because that’s going to be demanded of them when they leave this office,” Frank said.

Staffing up a newspaper that is always in flux

The Emerald has a staff of around 80, most of them students, many getting a small stipend for their work. Under the new plan, a handful of reporters will be assigned to the “speed team,” a group, Emerald Editor-in-Chief Andy Rossback said, responsible for chasing breaking news and updates for Dailyemerald.com. Rossback said they want these reporters to post breaking news as it happens, even if that means bypassing editors for expediency.

Elsewhere on the staff, Rossback wants to create thematic beats to encourage deeper coverage for things like student debt, public support for education, and the relationship between college athletics and sports business. (That’s something of particular interest given Oregon’s deep ties to Phil Knight and Nike.) “We want people to spend nine months on the beat and they’ll become experts in it,” Rossback said. With the change in print, Rossback expects to see more enterprise pieces, with an emphasis on news on Mondays and features on Thursdays. Of course, since it’s a college paper, some things won’t change: The police blotter is not going anywhere. “We’re shifting to this idea of what does the reader want, not what do we think the reader needs, which has been the journalism philosophy for years,” he said.

As they prepare the staff for the transition, Rossback said they’ve discovered that learned journalism habits can be hard to break, even for 20-year-olds. Even for a staff that embraces technology and is familiar with online journalism, change still takes getting used to, he said. “We can come up with a plan and set it out on the table, but the execution of it is a process that is going to take time,” Rossback said.

One of the biggest challenges college newspapers face is the annual staff turnover. It would be hard for any news organization to carry on institutional knowledge or not suffer drops in coverage if they brought in a new staff every 9-12 months. Rossback said the paper has a high carry-over rate of underclassmen; around 30 staff members (including himself) are returning from this past year. “The biggest thing about next year is it’s an all-hands-on-deck year,” he said. “Everyone has to pick up everyone else’s slack.”

While each year promises some staff shuffling, Frank said fresh faces are blank slates when it comes to learning about journalism. For Frank, that’s another reason why making the change was important; it puts students in an environment closer to the media companies they could work in after graduation. Mobile devices and social media have had a large impact on journalism, and for many of the potential journalists who’ll work for the Emerald, these things are second nature. Frank thinks that’s reason enough to adapt. “A [student] walking on this campus…they were 10 when Facebook started,” he said. “If we’re lucky, their parents still got a newspaper at home.”

Image of the Oregon Duck by Wolfram Burner used under a Creative Commons license.

In the Netherlands, a Patch-like hyperlocal network is making money and nearing profit

In the United States, there are any number of individual hyperlocal sites that are proving sustainable — Berkeleyside, West Seattle Blog, and the like. What’s proved more elusive is a way to take those individual successes and systemize them — to make them replicable across a larger scale. The best known effort to do so, AOL’s Patch, has had a rough go thus far: An activist shareholder estimates that in 2011, Patch’s 800-plus sites generated just $13 million in revenue against $160 million in expenses, and AOL is cutting costs.

But across the Atlantic, there’s a more optimistic example. The Netherlands’ Dichtbij — “close to me” in Dutch — is a hyperlocal news platform that’s generating real revenue despite operating on a much smaller scale. Across its 80 sites, Dichtbij is on pace for revenue of €10 million (about $12.5 million) in 2012, according to Het Financieele Dagblad, the Netherlands’ leading financial newspaper. And its founder, Bart Brouwers, says he expects the two-year-old operation will be profitable by year’s end. “The income is higher every week,” he said.

Brouwers came up in newspapers, starting as a reporter, then becoming editor-in-chief of a regional daily and a free tabloid. He decided to launch Dichtbij in 2010. From a small start, today the site has 140 employees, 70 dedicated to sales.

Like Patch, Dichtbij is backed by a large media company: Telegraaf Media Groep, publisher of the Netherlands’ largest newspaper and a number of other print, radio, and online brands. That backing’s helped as it’s expanded from a few pilot sites to a large network today — one that’s going to increase in size again in the near future.

“Many hyperlocal networks (around the world) have had a really hard time making money,” he said. “There were not enough examples of success, so I had to invent most of the things myself, which was fun, of course.”

The first step was a choosing three cities for start in. To maximize learning, each one was planned to test a different set of questions, with the hopes that a model might become clearer in the mix.

  • In Woerden, the focus was on identifying and activating a community, with social media playing a key role.
  • In Zwolle, the model was built around aggregation.
  • In Eindhoven, there was a bigger investment in original content, plus what Brouwers called “commercial writing,” which consists of writing stories about events sponsored by the site’s advertisers (a model not everyone likes).

“We are trying to make a good business,” Brouwers told me. “I made a lot of mistakes; that’s the good part of doing a pilot. They were crucial in finding the formula for our platform.”

The platform is still young and it is work in progress, but Brouwers can share a few lessons he believes have helped Dichtbij succeed:

Think community managers, not just reporters

Journalists that work for Dichtbij have to see themselves as “community organizers.” For Brouwers, part of the success of a hyperlocal site is to develop a symbiotic relationship with the audience. “You have to activate your community. It is difficult and it differs from one place to another, so you have to be really involved with it.” That’s why the community managers are expected to spend half of their time reaching out to citizens (mostly through social media) and being out and about in their cities. The other 50 percent, Brouwers explained, is for traditional journalism (writing stories, shooting video, editing). A few sites in the largest cities are big enough to have two community managers each; others are small enough that two sites have to share one.

Dichtbij invites their users to visit their offices and have a beer (or coffee). “The reporter gives the audience reporting…and the public gives the reporter the knowledge of what’s happening in their communities,” Brouwers said.

What kind of content mix does this model produce? Here’s a sampling of what Dichtbij’s site in the town of Eindhoven offered yesterday: a story on two girls that were found after being missing 2 days, a sponsored piece about a new cycling tour in town, a daily “good morning” picture, an article describing how students are using Twitter to cheat, a photo gallery of how the city is welcoming soccer’s Euro 2012 championship, details on a decision to newly allow marriages on Sundays, and some breaking news (a fatal car accident.)

Allies, not foes

The Dichtbij model relies on close(r) relationships between journalists and sales people — something that raises the hackles of traditional journalists. A team of four “entrepreneurial journalists” collaborates with the advertising side across all the sites on generating commercially driven content. The result is stories like this one on Silly Bandz, which was paid by the local shop that introduced them to the Netherlands, or this one, a first-person piece from a student giving advice on how to cut expenses and paid for by a bank. (The sponsorship is disclosed in the last paragraph of the story.)

As you might imagine, and as Brouwers acknowledges, ethical issues come up. Businesses rarely pitch specific story ideas, he said, but they do get to see the story before it’s published and can suggest changes. And they often do. Brouwers says they tell clients that “they cannot dictate what we write.”

According to Brouwers, this kind of “commercial writing” makes up less than 10 percent of the site’s content, although in specific sections (like Shopping and Housing), the percentage can go up to 50 percent. Those stories are also not normally posted on the sites’ homepages or in hard-news sections. “I found it is possible to please an advertiser and still write stories that your audience finds interesting,” he said. Your mileage may vary.

Centralization doesn’t work

Stories and ads have to be tailored for each community; overcentralization makes it hard to truly connect with a community. The sales person and the community manager have to be from the region they are working with, Brouwers stressed: “Holland is a very small country, but we have small differences in the language, so if you speak with the wrong language, things can go wrong.”

Aggregation isn’t enough

From the pilot site and later experience, Brouwers said you can’t rely too heavily on aggregation to build a successful hyperlocal network. It helps — but he says it would be very difficult to make it without original content as a selling point. Today, as Dichtbij grows, more than half of its sites are what Brouwers calls “light sites,” which only do aggregation and have no sales teams, but the number of sites staffed for original content is growing..

To move beyond aggregation, Dichtbij just launched Android and iPhone apps aimed at generating more user content. Brouwers hopes the app will also help boost the site’s audience, which he said currently stands at 4.2 million unique visitors per month (in a nation of about 17 million). The site covers now 80 regions (418 municipalities), but that’s just half the country.

If you build it, you can sell it

On the business side, Dichtbij is now trying to franchise its model. Currently, three sites have been launched by entrepreneurs with Dichtbij’s framework; the sites’ owners pay three types of fees, one fixed, one based on a percentage of the site’s income, and one tied to the site’s size and potential growth.

Does your newsroom have a smart-refrigerator strategy?

In the future, the Jetsons have the TeleViewer, the McFlys have newspapers written by flying robots, and you’ll be getting the morning news from your refrigerator. (You know — when fridge doors become screens that display your Twitter feed, or give real-time traffic updates for the morning commute, or project holograms of Steve Inskeep and Renée Montagne into your breakfast nook, which’ll be integrated with Facebook so you can see real-time photos of what your friends are eating, etc., etc.)

Well, maybe. But it’s a serious question for newsrooms: What’s your refrigerator strategy?

The Internet-enabled future will reach more than kitchen appliances, of course, but it’s a useful shorthand for delving into an approach to non-traditional devices that extends way beyond smartphones and tablets.

The question came up in Austin this spring at the International Symposium on Online Journalism, on a panel about news in a mobile environment. In the Q&A, Brian Boyer asked (10:00 in) about moving beyond smartphones and tablets, “the first usable un-computers:” “What’s your Roku strategy? What’s your goggles strategy? What’s your Internet-connected refrigerator strategy?”

One of the panelists, Chaotic Moon Labs general manager Whurley (yes, Whurley, one word, and it’s like that on his credit cards, he says) riffed on the idea for a bit, and Pedro Doria, digital platforms editor for Brazilian newspaper O Globo confessed: “I’m suddenly worried because I don’t have a refrigerator strategy.”

Whurley, whose team helped code and develop The Daily, didn’t miss a beat: “Good news: I do! And it’s for sale.” This drew a laugh, but it was a provocative moment that highlighted the gap that sometimes exists between the way traditional journalists and tech-oriented developers think about the information future. (For the record, Doria has some innovation cred of his own. We wrote about O Globo’s wildly engaging iPad edition earlier this year.)

“The only way to do it is kind of like a black-hole theory. You can’t try to avoid it. Sometimes you have to go full speed into it.”

The exchange between Doria and Whurley has been tugging at me every since: How much thought have newsrooms put into this kind of strategy? And first things first, does Whurley really have a fridge strategy, or was he just trying to make a point?

“We really do have refrigerators we’ve taken apart,” Whurley told me. “People will one day get their news on the fridge. Perceptive, predictive, pervasive computing. You’ll have your newsfeed broadcast on your mirror, broadcast to your fridge, or home appliances…Why is it so strange to these people? How is that a surprise? I don’t mean to be beating up on journalists, but the fact is these are really, really, really, really, really interesting things, where you have an industry that’s being so drastically changed. The only way to do it is kind of like a black-hole theory. You can’t try to avoid it. Sometimes you have to go full speed into it.”

Whurley points out that companies like Samsung “don’t just make laptops” but also manufacture microwaves, washing machines, and other appliances. As user interfaces evolve toward touch, it’s easier to imagine screens sprouting on new surfaces. He also says that the “completely different” world on the horizon will affect information first, which means it will affect journalism first. That may be a scary thought for some of the “very, very, very risk-averse” journalists whom Whurley has encountered, but there are plenty of newsrooms already giving serious thought to so-called fridge strategy. For The Wall Street Journal, the conversation begins with responsive design.

“The whole point is that you build it in such a way that it moves to whatever device your readers are using to get content,” said Raju Narisetti, managing editor of the paper’s digital network. “The first step is to do universal apps — getting away from this idea of an app for an iPhone, an app for an iPad, an app for an Android. Our view is that the whole website experience will also become more app-like, so responsive design would be an easy way to kind of transport, if you will, our content.”

The idea is that content must be made to travel from device to device, but also optimized and even personalized based on the individual who encounters it. Over at ProPublica, which launched its “adaptive” responsive design last year, Scott Klein takes this idea a step further. Klein, ProPublica’s editor of news applications, suggests the content itself ought to fit the device — not just aesthetically but editorially.

“If people start needing ProPublica stories on their fridge, I guarantee that we’ll be there,” Klein said. “It doesn’t seem silly at all. The thing I suspect you would see on your fridge from ProPublica would be maybe the things that you don’t know that are in all of the food inside the fridge. It may not be good news about what’s in your fridge, but we would be there with accurate and thorough news.”

Like Narisetti, Klein says the bottom line is that ProPublica wants to be “everywhere our readers want to be.” So how do you actually, practically implement a refrigerator strategy? This isn’t the elections app you’re releasing before the conventions, or the website redesign that goes live by year’s end: The fridge solution is the longview, and for many news institutions it requires a tectonic shift without the luxury of a deadline in geologic time.

In Internet years, the early 2000s were a generation ago. Back then, The Washington Post’s Cory Haik, who leads the newspaper’s news innovation team, says that she used to joke that eventually she’d be producing holograms. “But it’s not a joke anymore,” she told me. “The fridge solution is integrating technologists into the newsrom.”

In other words: Understanding the need for a refrigerator strategy is not the same as having the staff that can get you there. For one thing, Haik says, “you have to have that hybrid journalist-technologist-data visualization person.” Then you have to figure out the best way to publish a damn good story on any given device. Cross-platform ubiquity may be essential, but it’s not enough.

“How do you tell stories on the fridge? How do you tell stories in holograms?” Haik said. “The newsroom of now, the newsroom of the future, is very much a studio environment of specialists that collaborate. Your editors are people who understand opportunity, and then they gather those people together and produce it.”

What about the news consumer of the future? Turns out she’s increasingly collaborative, too. Not only does she want news and information when and where she wants it, but she’s sharing the news, and her reaction to it (or her parodies of it) on Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, and on and on and on.

Talking Points Memo editor and publisher Josh Marshall says a refrigerator solution is about more than the refrigerator. It’s about how people use it to connect with one another. (Last month we caught up with Marshall about the point at which he stopped seeing TPM as a website, but rather “in the ether.”)

“There’s very little about Twitter that couldn’t have been done in 2003,” Marshall said. “There’s no technology there that’s new. And sort of the same with Facebook. There’s no technological breakthrough. Social experiences are changing, which is different than technology. How people relate to each other, and how people consume news. These new sites aren’t really new technology — they’re new ways of wiring people together. That’s evolving and we’re constantly looking for new ways to plug our innovations into that evolution.”

Whurley has a similar take. You think you’ve seen disruption to the news industry? Just wait, he says: “People say, ‘It’s changing so much.’ It really hasn’t. [The change thus far has] given people the ability to write and publish news stories who [previously] couldn’t, but it really hasn’t changed that much. Things are about to change now. That’s the warning. If you had thought things had changed? You are way, way off.”

Wilson Quarterly is ending print publication, moving to digital

The Wilson Quarterly — the sometimes wonky Washington-based public affairs magazine — will apparently put out its final print edition this summer. With that same issue, WQ will make its debut on Apple’s Newsstand, a move that suggests a digital-only future for the 36-year-old publication.

Perhaps it’s fitting that its most recent issue was branded “The Age of Connection,” and explored the cultural impact of technological advances.

Wilson Quarterly hasn’t explained the decision to stop printing, other than to say on its website that the quarterly will be “available in print form thru the Summer 2012 issue” and that, along with Apple’s platform, it “will also be available on the Nook, Kindle Fire, and Sony Reader.”

The magazine is published by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, which was established through an act of Congress in 1968, and now gets about one-third of its funding from the federal government and the rest through private donations. (According to the center’s most recent annual report, some of its most generous donors include philanthropic institutions like the MacArthur Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation, as well as private companies like defense contractors and Exxon Mobil.) In 2010, the center spent $1.96 million on the magazine against $950,000 in revenue.

The Quarterly, launched in 1976, characterizes itself as “a nonpartisan and nonideological window on the world of ideas,” including coverage of foreign affairs with a policy-not-politics approach, as well as extensive book reviews. (The Quarterly’s blog is occasionally home to lighter fodder — take the recent “What We’re Drinking” post that coincided with the long Memorial Day weekend, for example.)

A shift to digital will no doubt cut expenses for the quarterly, and it could give WQ staff more ability to focus on the web, where much of the world of ideas has shifted. But it also risks its connection with readers: If WQ’s readers are print purists — and the cerebral, dense content in the magazine suggests they’re more likely to carry AARP cards than fake IDs — then how likely are they to follow the quarterly into a digital realm?

It’s unclear what pricing will look like. Digital PDF copies cost $6 apiece, while single print copies are $9 (shipped), so it will be interesting to see what WQ charges for access to a tablet edition. (It already sells a Kindle edition for $7 an issue or $24 a year.)

I couldn’t immediately reach editor Steven Lagerfeld on Tuesday afternoon, but he articulated his worries about the larger digital media shift in a column last year:

So let me introduce myself. I am a wristwatch. Or, more accurately, a wristwatch maker. Okay, so I’m really the editor of a print magazine — the media world’s equivalent of a wristwatch.

Now, if you’re a wristwatch-maker and cell phones come along, you have some choices to make. You could go into the cell phone business. But that doesn’t seem like a very good idea. Or you could drastically reduce the quality and price of your watches — dumb them down — in order to sell more of them. Also not a good idea. Actually, it looks like it’s really not such a bad thing to be a Rolex in a cell phone world. A fancy watch isn’t just a device for telling time. But I don’t think I’d want to be a mass-market watch, like Timex.

Lagerfeld went on to describe himself as “agog” at the web, which he characterized as a great place to experiment, but also a space that makes journalists susceptible to misplaced “mania” over what’s to come. (“When the iPad came out, I thought, ‘Oh my God, we have to have an app!’ Well, I cooled down and it turns out it really didn’t make sense to go to the expense of creating apps right away. You’ve just got to keep your head.”)

He concluded:

Will the iPad and other tablets be the salvation of magazines and books? I don’t know. What I do know is that print-based people like me need to be prudent, but not gloomy or defensive. It’s a scary time but it’s exciting too. We need to throw ourselves into it with the same dedication and passion we bring to print.

In sum, you could say my position is that we need to embrace the web but wear a condom. Thank you.

For The New York Times, India Ink is a step toward figuring out how to please a global audience

The New York Times may have a city in its name, but its reach has long been much broader. The birth of a national edition in 1980 and a big push in the 1990s cemented its spread far beyond the tri-state area, and of course the Internet has pushed that reach around the globe. Now an established worldwide player, the Times, like other major news organizations, is trying to figure out its place in the international mediascape.

But just because the Times’ audience is defined more by demographics and interests than by geography, that doesn’t mean location has become meaningless. One of the newspaper’s most important experiments in the space is India Ink, a nine-month-old, English-language, blog-style account of Indian news — including politics, culture, sports, lifestyle, and the arts.

“One of the things the Times is figuring out is what do we do in English around the world? Where do you go with an English-language site in India?” said Jim Schachter, associate managing editor at the Times. “What do we do in foreign languages? What do we do that’s The International Herald Tribune brand, and what do we do that’s The New York Times brand? We’re not decided or settled on any of that. It’s all interesting.”

The Times has used social media, geo-targeted ads (so readers in India see ads for the blog when they visit nytimes.com), and events in India to get the word out about India Ink. India was the right country for such a project because the newspaper already has a “very large number” of readers there, Schachter said. (He wouldn’t give more precise numbers other than to say that India is “very high on our list of international audiences.”)

“The hypothesis was if you heavy-up on content there, and you focus on that audience, there’s something to nurture,” said Schachter. “There’s a thread to pull on. That’s largely what we’re doing. In fact, there’s some work going on now to try and use the ability of our website to target geographically — just sort of get even more in people’s faces.”

“What do we do in foreign languages? What do we do that’s The International Herald Tribune brand, and what do we do that’s The New York Times brand? We’re not decided or settled on any of that.”

Yet despite the promotional work in India, so far, most of the blog’s readers are outside of it. Heather Timmons, who runs India Ink for the Times, estimates that about half of readers are in the U.S., 40 percent in India, and 10 percent elsewhere. The fact that the majority of readers are visiting the blog from outside of India doesn’t surprise Schachter, who suspects that many India Ink readers are from the Indian diaspora “everywhere around the world.”

“If you look at, say, the Google analytics, which is an imperfect gauge, there is large readership where there are large populations of the Indian diaspora: London, greater New York, Houston, Northern California,” Schachter told me in an interview at the newspaper’s New York headquarters. “I mean, those are also big populations. If you start looking at the commenters — so commenters’ locations, Indian surnames — it enforces that impression. That’s a very good thing because, I don’t want to cast dispersion, but there is not a great media diet for the non-resident Indian. So if we’re that, that’s a great thing.”

But it remains to be seen whether that’s enough from a business standpoint. Part of wanting to attract Indian readership means looking for ways to attract Indian ad dollars. And Schachter points out “there are not a lot of marketers who are setting out specifically to hit a global Indian diaspora audience.” But he also says that India Ink is growing, and that “you have to build the audience before you sell the audience.”

As its audience has evolved, so has the blog itself. Timmons runs India Ink with the help of four other full-time reporters who make up The New York Times India team. (India Ink also has some local part-time contributors, Schachter said.) Timmons says she originally envisioned India Ink mainly as a discussion site, rather than news driven. Today, the blog publishes around two pieces of analysis, seven features, and up to 15 news stories a week.

“We would have one big essay/analysis-type piece a day on a topic in the news, with maybe two other short pieces related to news of the day or to NYT stories about India — an interview of someone in the article or a short vignette carved out of a recent story,” she wrote in an email. “But, we have really moved in the direction of reporting on breaking news and sometimes breaking news itself.”

To get an idea of the content mix, here are the stories India Ink offered readers on Thursday:

An 830-word article on a national strike

A brief on India’s slowing economic growth rate

An excerpt from a longer follow-up Times article on the growth numbers

A 17-photo slideshow of modernist architecture in Mumbai

An excerpt from a Times article on Indian chess champion Vishy Anand

An excerpt from a Times article on how India’s “Ultra High Net Worth Individuals” are affecting the global art market

An Image of the Day, showing an army inspection.

Or consider the package India Ink offered Monday. The Times had an article by Jim Yardley on the excitement surrounding India’s brief mango season. (“Mangoes are objects of envy, love and rivalry as well as a new status symbol for India’s new rich.”) India Ink featured an excerpt of the story. But it also ran separate pieces riffing on the topic, telling the diaspora where authentic Indian mangoes could be found in New York and in London and examining the mango’s place in Indian literature.

For The New York Times’ larger India coverage, the existence of India Ink advances coverage in the way that many blogs do. Real-time online coverage of breaking news means that the story that ends up in the printed paper can follow more of a second-day approach. The New York Times’ newspaper coverage of India’s Agni 5 missile launch demonstrates how India Ink coverage feeds into newspaper stories.

Timmons, sharing a byline with the Times’ New Delhi bureau chief Jim Yardley, says the piece they produced was richer in analysis than a traditional first-day story because India Ink had already collected and published reactions to the missile test.

It would have taken a reporter “hours to collect and sift through [what] was there ready and waiting thanks to the Ink team,” Timmons wrote in an email. When it came time to write the story for the paper, she says they were able to think “farther ahead,” and make calls they normally wouldn’t have made. Schachter says this approach is what the Times is increasingly doing across the board “to have any sort of competitive advantage in a world of instantaneous reporting.”

There’s also the benefit of having material ready for print editions around the world — like the International Herald Tribune’s Asia edition, for example. (The Times, which had shared ownership of the IHT with The Washington Post since the 1960s, took over complete ownership in 2002.) The ability to publish to multiple platforms and at just about any time on the world clock raises larger questions.

India is increasingly a media battleground, featuring a fast-growing local sector and numerous foreign players. “Others are there — the FT is there, the BBC is there,” Schachter said. “And then you’ve got a very large and growing indigenous media presence in English and a dozen languages. There’s clear hunger for high-quality news with Western ethics…The upper crust reader doesn’t really trust the Indian press.”

Of course, The New York Times isn’t the only U.S. news presence in India either. The Wall Street Journal launched an Indian news section in 2009 and the blog India Real Time in 2010. Six months after launching the blog in English, it launched a Hindi version of India Real Time that features distinct coverage from its English counterpart. And in the past decade, more than 2,000 new newspapers launched in the country, according to the Los Angeles Times.

“Whether it’s the Press Trust of India or the Times of India or the Hindustan Times, these are all organizations with tons of journalists,” Schachter said. “We’ve got Heather and her band of warriors. And so, you know, it’s this question of whether you can sort of ride the wave — not by aggregating but by being incredibly selective — and have an impact on a conversation in as big a place as that. It’s an interesting test.”

Schachter considers India Ink a small-scale experiment in the Times’ larger international strategy. He doesn’t dismiss the idea of similar country-specific efforts at the Times, but he doesn’t reveal any specific plans either. But the Times has focused on expanding and branding its verticals. (Last month we wrote about the newspaper’s redesigned health living blog, Well.)

“I think you’ll see both core growth and verticals,” Schachter said. “We just put down a heavier bet on Well. A few months ago, we put down a heavier bet on Bits, the technology vertical. Dealbook is a continuing growth story. But, you know, the heart of the enterprise is The New York Times core thing. And I think it’s really incumbent on us to make that grow, too — both from a serving-the-world perspective, and from a making-money perspective, that’s probably where the biggest things are going to come from.”

Photo by Ryan Ready used under a Creative Commons license.