Jeff Israely: An idea and a brand come together as Worldcrunch

[Jeff Israely, a Time magazine foreign correspondent in Europe, is in the planning stages of a news startup — a "new global news website." He details his experience as a new news entrepreneur at his site, but he'll occasionally be describing the startup process here at the Lab. Read his past installments here. —Josh]

This is a long overdue introduction: a kind of public christening, a chance to share with you, the reader, our vision for the future of news. Okay, you see where we’re headed: this post is all about marketing. Sixteen months after secretly banging out my first PowerPoint business plan, nine months of blog posts delving into every twist and turn of my digital news startup except what the damn thing was — I am hereby beginning the rollout.

But first, one last hedge. Up until now, the motivations for these pieces for the Lab have varied: trying to figure out where I fit in to this transforming industry; sharing the daily ins and outs/ups and downs of Old Media Guy launching New Media Thing; a public search for my writing voice on new platforms and in the new role of would-be startup business dude. On that final point, I have been keenly aware of the potential benefits afforded by this space — and blogging in general — in the attention it might generate when (and if) my project got off the ground. It is an expression of that sometimes uncomfortable truth about the 21st-century journalist: that we can no longer shy away from the nitty-gritty of promoting, selling, marketing each piece of editorial output we produce and the building of each of our respective personal brands as the best way to increase the chances that we may continue (or begin) doing the actual newsbiz work we originally set out to do.

And so here, just this once, let me set aside the personal exploration and entrepreneurial and journalistic “processes,” and focus solely on product: a mini/soft/pre-launch and presentation of our company’s core concept, our big ambitions, our brand. I won’t go into detail here about our plans for actually executing what we set out to do, though that is perhaps the most difficult and decisive of all topics. Once we’re up and running live, we will see together how that execution is proceeding, both in the back office and on the front page. But first: throat clear….drumroll!….spotlight!!

What we do

How do you cover the world — the most sprawling and variegated and expensive beat of them all? Where do you turn to find the fresh new stories and voices that break through all the inevitable chattering and cannibalizing around this or that single news event that only the wires or The New York Times have managed to chronicle? Where is the existing, untapped potential for on-the-ground journalism that is more than just a lucky tweet? Might there be a shortcut to quality content? Real, worldwide scoops? Though ours is just one part of the solution to covering the global beat, we believe it is strong on simplicity and economy and immediate impact: The professional (and participatory) selection and translation of the best, most relevant stories in the foreign-language media.

This new idea, of course, is not brand new. There is much interesting already happening now around online translation of news and information: Global Voices’ coverage of international bloggers, Meedan’s innovative Arabic-English online current-events dialogue, Café Babel’s and Presseurope’s multilingual European coverage, Worldmeets.us’s global viewpoints on American policy, Der Spiegel’s English-language website. But the quest for a commercially viable digital formula around the top names in global journalism is indeed something new. And, we think, rich in potential.

The roots of the model can be found in Courrier International, a successful general interest weekly launched 20 years ago in France, and has been taken up by others, including my good friends at Internazionale in Rome, Forum in Warsaw and Courrier Japon in Tokyo. Indeed, we are exploring a range of possibilities in partnering with Courrier, which is just a Paris Métro ride away from our home offices. We have much to learn from what they’ve been doing in print, including questions of selection and translation and copyright. And some day, they may have something to learn about what kind of journalistic and business opportunities we can create by applying this formula digitally, and in the real-time news cycle of the Internet. Indeed, partnerships will be key to executing what we will be doing. More on that in a future post.

Where we are

Unlike Courrier International — or World Press Review, a high-brow New York-based monthly that survives as an online forum for global opinion — we are being born as a live news source in the digital space. This will permeate everything we do. But the technology (like the traditions) must serve the journalism, not be an end in itself. Frédéric Bonelli, one of our first investors, describes the media world right now as being “like Europe after World War II“: a mixed landscape of ruins, reconstruction efforts, old institutions trying to salvage their standing, and ambitious new players, some with true vision, others just looking to exploit the confusion. As a company that is both global and agile, we hope we can fit somewhere in the “vision” camp, aware of the words of Jay Rosen, who declared in a September speech here in Paris that “the struggle for the next press is an international thing.” Mais oui, monsieur!

What’s our name?

Way back in December 2009, when my Danish-born, Rome-based web designer friend Annie Skovgaard Christiansen agreed to create the demo site for the project, she casually said, “Okay — but I can’t start until you tell me the name.” Panic. There was a working name attached to my working biz plan, but it was both mediocre and unavailable as a URL. So the next 48 hours, I spent wracking my brain, harassing friends and colleagues, getting to know goDaddy. It had to be punchy, global…and available as .com for the standard $8.99 rate! The good names were all taken, and those not yet taken, weren’t quite good enough. Until…hmm…that’s not bad…probably not available? Let me see…yes! The feedback ever since — colleagues, friends, potential partners and investors — has been about as positive as you could hope for (though my ownDaddy said it sounded like breakfast cereal). So the URL nabbed back in late December has stuck as our website’s name, our company’s brand. And if we do the rest of our job well, we hope it sticks in your brain as a mark of quality international news: Worldcrunch.

One last bit of bald marketing: Please sign up for updates on our launch, as we continue with our alpha testing and building our team (and continuing our fundraising). We also have Twitter and Facebook pages. And though my business partner Irene is opposed, one day the Worldcrunch coffee mugs will arrive as well!

And finally, the brand needs a slogan, or what I’ve since discovered is referred to as a baseline. It came to me just a few weeks ago, as I swam my laps. Maybe you once heard it in j-school? Or at your first newspaper job? They say “All news is local.” Of course it is. The county hospital’s response to national health care reform, the school board budget deliberations, and the new stop sign installed around the corner must get covered because they affect the lives of you, the reader. But for the same reasons, we must keep up with the latest news from Peshawar or Pyongyang, China, Chile, and Chicago too, to say nothing of this autumn’s harvest in Bordeaux. What happens there matters here. All news indeed is local. We just say it differently here at Worldcrunch: All News is Global.

Meet Intersect, where storytelling, time, and location get all mashed up

It’s near impossible to tell a story that doesn’t have a place or a time. As readers and just as humans we have a difficult time connecting with a story — be it a friendly anecdote or a news article — that doesn’t tell us where it happened and when. As writing and storytelling has evolved online those two components have largely been relegated to the background — no less important of course, but often useful as metadata, a tag or pin on a map.

Intersect is trying to bring that information to the forefront of storytelling and wants people to build around what happens to them at fixed points in time and space. Part blogging tool, part social network, Intersect lets users tell stories as they are pegged to a certain time and place in a way that would eventually create a timeline for each user. But pulling back wider, Intersect will allow communities to share a more complete narrative of certain events.

An example? How about The Daily Show and Colbert Report’s Rally to Restore Sanity/March to Keep Fear Alive in Washington D.C. The Washington Post partnered with Intersect to tell stories from the event, both from attendees but also reporters:

The Story Lab team will be filing stories throughout Saturday’s events on the Mall via Intersect, a new site designed to collect and present stories live and from the scene. Here on washingtonpost.com and on Intersect’s site, we’ll be documenting the scene and asking those in attendance and those watching at home to weigh in on the politics vs. entertainment question. Please join us.

Let’s consider how this would work without Intersect: Anyone covering the event would hope for a universally accepted hashtag on Twitter, curate the best Tweets from the day, search for any photos on Flickr, and maybe, if they’re crafty, create a Google Map that pins Tweets and photos to locations on the National Mall.

Instead, with Intersect, any user can go in and automatically enter the time and location and proceed to write updates and post photos. (Like, say, the President get a donut while campaigning in Seattle.) But in order for Intersect to work they’ll need to answer two big questions: how to attract an audience to populate intersections, and how to introduce a new routine to users (i.e. get them to write about Intersections as much as they tweet or post to Facebook).

The Post partnership — an example of one potential route to an audience — was promoted online by the Post and Intersect, garnered its share of Twitter buzz and made a splash at the Online News Association conference, all of which seemed to generate interest in using the service on Rally day. Looking over Intersect there are more than 40 stories connected to the rally and the National Mall, each offering a different vantage point, the kinds reporters covering these type of events typically like to seek out.

Post reporters using a beta version of an Intersect iPhone app posted stories and photos that were fed to WashingtonPost.com and Intersect’s site, where they were side by side with updates from other users.

Since the content from the Rally was shared on both sites, Intersect demonstrated its value as both a platform for stories and a tool for crafting them. That may be key to any future success for Intersect, since they’ll need high visibility and a combination of big events and big partners willing to experiment.

Though Intersect is not expressly a platform for journalism, it could be applied to news gathering, as evidenced by the Post’s partnership. Intersect could allow journalists to either tap into an existing community to see what background they can provide for a story, or be used to invite others to tell a story. I spoke with Monica Guzman, Intersect’s director of editorial outreach, and she gave the example of Seattle’s Space Needle, which celebrates 50 years in 2012. A journalist could begin a story on Intersect about the needle and ask readers to fill in the history of the landmark over the last 50 years.

“It’s this idea of you can actually tell your whole story, go all the way back, see how you’ve changed,” Guzman told me. “That’s kind of cool.” Guzman used to work at SeattlePI.com, where she ran its main blog.

Another reason Intersect could be valuable to journalists is that it’s a system set up to provide context in stories. “I think it’s absolutely critical. A lot of new media journalists are seeing that need to bring context back into journalism,” she said.

Intersect does have a social network meets real-world feel to it, as members have a presence online, but one tied to specific places. Instead of simply building online “community,” Intersect could also serve as a means of growing a physical community and connecting people around certain localities, like the story of the change in a neighborhood as told by the people who live there, she said.

If the launch of services like Storify and Intersect tell us anything, it’s that aggregation and collaboration in storytelling may be reaching a new plateau, one where there is a symbiotic relationship between the technology and the craft behind how we share stories.

Guzman sees Intersect as part of the broader change in news, the transition from journalists as the sole keepers of news and information to journalists finding ways to collaborate and reach out to readers. “I learned through the Big Blog just how much news is becoming a conversation,” she said. “It’s about bringing out new voices and perspectives.”

Loose ties vs. strong: Pinyadda’s platform finds that shared interests trump friendships in “social news”

There isn’t a silver bullet for monetizing digital news, but if there were, it would likely involve centralization: the creation of a single space where the frenzied aspects of our online lives — information sharing, social networking, exploration, recommendation — live together in one conveniently streamlined platform. A Boston-based startup called Pinyadda wants to be that space: to make news a pivotal element of social interaction, and vice versa. Think Facebook. Meets Twitter. Meets Foursquare. Meets Tumblr. Meets Digg.

Owned by Streetwise Media — the owner as well of BostInnovation, the Boston-based startup hub — Pinyadda launched last year with plans to be a central, social spot for gathering, customizing, and sharing news and information. The idea, at first, was to be an “ideal system of news” that would serve users in three ways:

1. it should gather information from the sites and blogs they read regularly;

2. it should mimic the experience of receiving links and comments from the people in their personal networks; and

3. it should be continually searching for information about subjects they were interested in. This pool of content could then be ranked and presented to users in a consistent, easily browsed stream.

Again, centralization. And a particular kind of centralization: a socialized version. Information doesn’t simply want to be free, the thinking went; it also wants to be social. The initial idea for Pinyadda was that leveraging the social side of the news — making it easy to share with friends; facilitating conversations with them — would also be a way to leverage the value of news. Which ties into the conventional wisdom about the distributive power of social news. In her recent NYRB review of The Social Network, Zadie Smith articulates that wisdom when it comes to Facebook’s Open Graph — a feature, she wrote, that “allows you to see everything your friends are reading, watching, eating, so that you might read and watch and eat as they do.”

What Pinyadda’s designers have discovered, though, is that “social” news doesn’t necessarily mean “shared with friends.” Instead, Pinyadda has found that extra-familiar relationships fuel news consumption and sharing in its network: Social news isn’t about the people you know so much as the people with whom you share interests.

Pinyadda’s business model was based on the idea that the social approach to news — and the personalization it relied on — would allow the platform to create a new value-capture mechanism for news. The platform itself, its product design and development lead, Austin Gardner-Smith, told me — with its built-in social networks and its capacity for recommendation and conversation — bolsters news content’s value with the experiential good that is community — since a “central point of consumption” tends to give the content being consumed worth by proximity.

The idea, in other words, was to take a holistic approach to monetization. Pinyadda aimed to take advantage of the platform’s built-in capacity for personalization — via behavioral tracking, or, less nefariously, paying attention to their individual users — to sell targeted ads against its content. “Post-intent” advertising is interest-based advertising — and thus, the thinking goes, more effective/less annoying advertising. That thinking still holds; in fact, the insight that common interests, rather than familiarity, fuels news consumption could ratifies it. As Dan Kennedy put it, writing about the startup after they presented at a Hacks/Hackers meetup this summer: “Pinyadda may be groping its way toward a just-right space between Digg (too dumb) and NewsTrust (too hard).” The question will be whether news consumers, so many of them already juggling relationships with Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr and Posterous and other such sites, can make room for another one. And the extent to which the relationships fostered in those networks — connections that are fundamentally personal — are the types that drive the social side of news.

Center for Public Integrity changes up its audience strategy to build a new revenue stream from readers

Nonprofit news outlets reach an audience in different ways. To borrow an analogy, imagine that there are two camps: wholesalers and retailers. Under the wholesale umbrella, we find organizations like ProPublica that primarily reach their audience through partnerships with established news organizations. Retailers, meanwhile, reach an audience directly, like Voice of San Diego or MinnPost.

Both strategies can make sense. But as journalism fundraising becomes increasingly competitive, that audience distinction is blurring. ProPublica, for one, is investing more resources into its website. And the Center for Public Integrity, a longtime wholesaler known for projects that appear in newspapers like the Washington Post or The New York Times, is now rethinking its digital strategy and wading into retailing, too. “It’s not an either or proposition,” the Center’s new executive editor John Solomon told me recently. With a $1.95 million* investment from the Knight Foundation, they’re working on revamping their digital strategy to reach readers directly, via the web and mobile products. The strategy isn’t just about distribution for distribution’s sake — it’s about the bottom line.

“The Center had a different challenge than the rest of the journalism industry,” Solomon told me, referring to the for-profit world. “When the Center started, it was the center of the nonprofit world. Today there are 70, 80, 90, 100 groups all competing for the same limited pool of nonprofit dollars — the Knights, the Fords, the Carnegies, all these gracious funders of nonprofit journalism. So the Center has decided to take the leap aggressively and listen to funders and try to create earned revenue that augments our donations, that creates a sustainable model.”

Solomon’s goal is to produce $2 worth of journalism for every $1 a foundation donates. To do that, he’s looking beyond foundations to readers. That’s akin to a model very familiar to the Center’s executive director, Bill Buzenberg, who spent almost 30 years in public radio (supported by listeners, like you!) at NPR and Minnesota Public Radio. The Center isn’t alone in trying to rethink its nonprofit model. Knight recently announced a $15 million grant project to help figure out longterm funding solutions for journalism.

The first step toward that new revenue stream is pulling in a new audience. Since Solomon started on new digital projects a few months ago, including making its website more SEO friendly, time on the Center’s site is up dramatically, to a remarkable 12 minutes per user. (He showed me the Google Analytics chart for proof.) Pageviews have skyrocketed too. The site is in the midst of a complete redesign, which will make it feel more like a news site and less like a think tank’s. We recently wrote about a new HTML5 product that makes reading long-form journalism pleasant on any device and without an app.

I asked Solomon how he plans to round up these new, engaged readers. He pointed to some of the successes he pulled off in widening the audience both online and in print at the Washington Times, where he had been executive editor for a little less than two years. “One of the little dirty secrets in my last eight months at the Washington Times before the Moon family erupted and the paper fell apart, web traffic was up 500 percent,” he told me. “Digital revenues were up 360 percent and our national print publication grew circulation by 25 percent. There is no other print publication, that I can think of, in the middle of a recession that had that kind of double-digit gains.” (Although, to be fair, many conservative outlets saw increases in audience pegged to the election and administration of Barack Obama.)

Washington journalism is in a time of significant revenue rethinking — from the paywall-only National Journal opening up a free version of its site, to free Politico launching paid products, the movement toward multiple revenue streams is afoot. General manager of the Allbritton-backed startup TBD, Jim Brady, recently said at a Online News Association panel that his business model is “shrapnel” — “there isn’t one stream that’s going to make us successful.”

If the Center can figure out a way to monetize a new audience, there will likely be an eager audience watching that success. “I really believe the nonprofit journalism world can be the innovation lab where the business models change,” Solomon said.

Correction: Center for Public Integrity received $1.95 million from Knight, not $1.5 million. I regret the error.

Election week wrap-up: Tuesday night traffic trends from some prominent politics websites

Among the victors emerging from Tuesday’s midterm elections was digital news. On sites’ homepages and politics sections across the web, interactive features, data-rich graphics, and live-streaming came into their own, offering users a live alternative to TV returns-watching that was even more impressive and immersive than it had been in 2008. But, for those sites, did the increased quality of coverage lead to increased traffic? To find out, we on the Lab staff have done a (highly unscientific) survey of traffic stats from some of the major outlets covering Tuesday’s returns.

Since different news organizations measure traffic differently — and have different policies on what they consider shareable and what they consider top secret — the numbers aren’t directly comparable. But they should give some sense of the shape of audience response. If you have access to stats for a site not on our list, share them in the comments.

NPR: According to NPR media relations manager Anna Christopher Bross, pageviews for NPR.org were up overall on election night, getting a 23 percent bump from normal Tuesday-night traffic. At the same time, election night brought an 11 percent increase in the use of NPR’s iPhone app and an 83-percent jump in traffic on the NPR mobile site, which featured live returns similar to those on the normal site. The requests for streaming audio broadcasts, meanwhile, were double those for a typical day.

The New York Times: While the Times doesn’t generally release its specific traffic stats, the paper did see, as you’d expect, a big spike in traffic to its online Politics section: Over Tuesday and Wednesday, the section accounted for 21 percent of total site pageviews, Kristin Mason, the Times’ communications manager, told us in an email. And NYTimes.com, with its powerful graphics, interactive features, straight-from-the-newsroom video streams, personality-driven live blogs, and Twitter integration, became a destination for election coverage, rather than just a stopping point: Nearly half the traffic to the Politics section, Mason noted, came from within the site itself. Tuesday and Wednesday “each earned a spot on the list of the top 5 busiest days for the NYTimes homepage” ever.

The Wall Street Journal: For its overnight (7 p.m. to 2 a.m.) traffic, when the outlet offered the bulk of its online coverage, WSJ.com saw a 50 percent increase in its pageviews over the typical Tuesday, Ashley Huston, Dow Jones’ senior director of communications, told us. (Between 7 p.m and 9 p.m., it saw a 40 percent increase.) And the outlet’s video-based coverage, for its part, garnered 300,000 views.

The Chicago Tribune: The paper’s Election Center got more than 1 million pageviews on election day, a 25 percent increase over the numbers for the primary, according to Ben Estes, editor of ChicagoTribune.com. Overall traffic to the site was up 40 percent over a normal weekday, with the biggest surge coming between 10 p.m. and 11 p.m.

The Los Angeles Times: Latimes.com traffic tripled from the average number of visitors on election night, Tribune Company communication VP Nancy Sullivan told us in an email. “With California’s hotly contested races, these numbers met expectations and all online operations ran smoothly,” she noted. As expected, as well, “election data traffic was most substantial to pages on Western states, leading with California and followed by Alaska, Nevada, Colorado and Washington.”

Talking Points Memo: Editor and publisher Josh Marshall told us in an email that his election night strategy “to go head to head with other major media sites” took significant investment — and paid off. TPM’s homepage hosted an interactive map and election scoreboard, built in-house, that let readers monitor results as they came in throughout the night.

The site was noticeably stable, considering the bells and whistles and TPM’s smaller size. The site’s “increasing move toward cloud computing for our server needs which both provides critical savings but much more importantly the ability to scale capacity much more fluidly and rapidly than with the traditional boxes in a closet approach.” As far as traffic, TPM looked at the statistics from election night 2006 and 2008 to determine what they might see in 2010. And “the results were substantially higher than we expected,” Marshall said.

Compared to a typical Tuesday, TPM’s election night saw a 220 percent increase for unique viewers, and a 290 percent increase for overall pageviews. And those who came stuck around: the outlet’s time-on-site states jumped by 206 percent.

Real Clear Politics: Chief Technology Officer Anand Ramanujan told us that Real Clear Politics, an all-things-politics site that specializes in polling data, had four times the traffic on election night that it has on a typical Tuesday. Unique visits were up by 500 percent. With that, the site met its expectations for the night. “The numbers were in line with our expectations,” Ramanujan wrote in an email. Like TPM, they also prepared for the influx. “We added additional servers in preparation for election night and our infrastructure was able to handle this spike.”

Image by UggBoy[hearts]UggGirl used under a Creative Commons license.

The six-figure fan club: How Global Post got 100,000 fans on Facebook

GlobalPost, the online-only foreign news outlet, has over 100,000 fans on Facebook. (As of this writing: 104,180.) While, sure, that’s far fewer fans than some of the bigger, more established publications out there — The New York Times has, at the moment, nearly 900,000 fans; The New Yorker, more than 162,000 — it’s also far more than, say, The New Republic (under 7,000) or, for that matter, the Washington Post (nearly 90,000.) And within GlobalPost’s more direct peer group, both Foreign Policy and Foreign Affairs fall in the 20,000-follower range. For a startup that, given its age (young), its size (small), and its ambition (huge), can fairly be called “scrappy”…a six-figure fan club is a pretty big deal.

So, then: How’d they do it? The size of the young outlet’s Facebook fan base is to some extent a matter of simple serendipity — it’s “more than we’d ever imagined,” notes Phil Balboni, GlobalPost’s CEO and president — but it’s also one of strategy. “It goes without saying: Facebook is a tremendously important part of the web and people’s consumption of information,” Balboni told me. “And we really wanted to grow our Facebook engagement as much as we could.”

“Some kind of magic”

The growth came, in the end, from a concerted effort to take GlobalPost’s content and turn it into a campaign. In late May, the outlet began an overhaul of its website — giving GlobalPost.com not only an image-heavy aesthetic that reflects web design’s current trend toward timeless magazine-iness, but also baked-in social plug-ins from Facebook. Now, Balboni notes, in addition to the outlet’s brand-building efforts on Facebook.com, “we’ve completely integrated GlobalPost with Facebook for commenting, liking, and sharing stories.”

Starting in early July, Balboni and GlobalPost’s marketing director, Rick Byrne, built on the site’s social integration with an aggressive, Facebook-based marketing campaign, creating ads to capture the interest of the site’s members. When they began those efforts, GlobalPost had 5,000 or so followers, Balboni estimates; by late October, they’d reached the six-figure mark. (For the statisticians out there, that’s about a 2,000-percent increase.) The ads that fueled all the liking focused on some of the broad narratives that are, for better or for worse, evergreens in the sphere of foreign reporting — among them human rights issues, green technology, and the war in Afghanistan. (The latter of those, “the Forever War,” has drawn particular engagement and interest on Facebook, Balboni notes.) The how’d they do that here, then, comes down not to a strict formula so much as a loose recipe. As Balboni puts it: “There’s some kind of magic between the content, the brand, and the types of issues we cover.”

You might think that the explosion of followers would be tied to particular events that occurred between July and now — I seem to recall something happening in Chile at one point — but, no: The fan-base increase “was a pretty steady rise,” Byrne told me. You could argue, in fact, that the evergreen nature of the stories the site’s ads focused on — the environment, the war — allowed for the kind of steady, month-over-month engagement that builds name recognition iteratively…rather than via the momentary surges that come from event-based traffic, which spike suddenly and tend to plummet just as quickly.

You could also add that the narrative- and context-heavy journalism GlobalPost specializes in — “a look at the world that is quite different and richer and varied than you’d get from any other news organization,” Balboni puts it — is precisely the type of journalism that people like to, well, like: It’s political in the kind of broad way that allows users to demonstrate engagement with foreign news without having to act on that engagement. (It’s also often supra-partisan in a way that much of our national journalism is not.) There’s also the more hopeful view that people actually want more foreign coverage than most of us assume. And liking, of course, is an extremely low-barrier form of brand affiliation: see the invite, click the button, and move on. The transaction cost involved is basically zero.

The halo effect

Which begs, then, another question: For a site that has bills to pay and investors to please, does a Facebook-based marketing campaign offer enough in the way of return? Does GlobalPost’s fan base on the closed world of Facebook translate to traffic for a site that lives in the the open web?

The short answer: probably. While the direct correlation between GlobalPost’s Facebook likes and its site’s traffic is impossible to measure in concrete terms, “we’ve seen a significant increase in direct traffic since we started the Facebook campaign,” Balboni notes. (Of all visitors — GlobalPost.com recently surpassed the one-million mark for uniques — 21 percent are direct-to-homepage users. And 44 percent are returning visitors.) Even if direct causation can’t be determined in that, the correlation is clear: The Facebook fan base helps GlobalPost build its brand, and brand recognition, in turn, creates a halo effect — the kind of broad brand engagement that radiates back to the site itself. “It’s important to not only maintain, but also to increase the number of direct visits,” Balboni notes, “because those are arguably the people who are most committed to your brand: your loyalists, your most enthusiastic readers.”

That loyalty-focused approach is increasingly common in outlets’ traffic strategies. Slate, it’s worth noting — along with Gawker and several other online brands — employs a similar logic based on branded traffic: A small group of loyal readers, the thinking goes, is worth more to publishers than a large group of casual ones.

For GlobalPost, that thinking is particularly relevant given that it sells subscriptions to users as well as space to advertisers. (The outlet, which has partnered with Journalism Online to help facilitate its e-commerce activities, reduced its fees this summer. Membership now costs $2.95 a month, or $29.95 a year.) “I think you can make a logical connection between people who are very interested in what GlobalPost does and those who are becoming members,” Balboni says. “The more people who care about what we do, the greater the chances that they’re going to click on that big red arrow at the top of our site and consider becoming a GlobalPost member.”

Which comes back to the idea that “engagement,” as notoriously difficult as it is both to inspire and to measure, is a business proposition as much as an editorial one. And it requires strategy to achieve. “You have to take deliberative steps,” Balboni says. “It doesn’t happen just by putting up a Facebook icon on your site. It takes more than that. You have to get people’s attention, in the Facebook community and everywhere else.”

This Week in Review: Rupert’s online reader purge, election-night innovation, and ideas at ONA10

[Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week's top stories about the future of news and the debates that grew up around them. —Josh]

Skepticism about News Corp.’s paywall numbers: Future-of-news nerds have been watching the paywall at The Times and Sunday Times of London pretty closely since it was instituted in June, and we finally got our first hard numbers about it this week, from Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. itself. The company said 105,000 readers had paid up — either as subscribers or occasional purchasers — for the paper’s site or iPad or Kindle apps, with another 100,000 activating free digital accounts that came with their print subscriptions.

To hear News Corp. execs tell it, those numbers marked a huge success. The Times’ editor told the BBC he’s “hugely encouraged,” and Reuters led with the fact that the drop in readership was less than The Times had feared. (TBD’s Jim Brady called this rhetoric the Spinal Tap defense — “it isn’t less popular, its audience is just more selective.”) But most everyone outside the company was skeptical. The Guardian’s Roy Greenslade and blogger and web activist Cory Doctorow both said we have no idea how successfully this paywall is until we have some more substantive numbers to dig into.

Fortunately, TechCrunch’s Erick Schonfeld and Reuters’ Felix Salmon found some other relevant data that helps us make a bit more sense of the situation: Schonfeld looked at the Times’ sites’ traffic dive and concluded that its strategy might be working in the short run but not long-term, and Salmon pointed to another report that contradicts The Times’ apparent theory that print circulation is dropping because people are reading the paper online. “The fact is that insofar as printed newspapers compete with the web, they compete with everything on the web, not just their own sites,” Salmon said. “No general-interest publication can prevent its print circulation from declining simply by walling itself off from the web.” The New York Observer’s Ben Popper saw the numbers as a potential readers-vs.-revenue paradox, and The Guardian’s Dan Sabbagh took a stab at what that revenue what be.

Other critics were even more harsh: Lab contributor Ken Doctor said The Times’ numbers “don’t seem to provide a path to a sustainable business future for the papers, as readers go digital,” and GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram argued that it’s time to officially deem the plans a bust. Former Guardian editor Emily Bell had the most insightful take on the situation, explaining that it indicates that The Times has become a mere pawn in Murdoch’s larger media-empire chess game, which means that “the influence game for The Times is up.” Once one of the world’s leading newspapers, “internationally it has no voice, or none to speak of, post the paywall,” Bell wrote.

Innovation on election night: The midterm elections made Tuesday easily the biggest day of the year in U.S. politics, but it was also an important day for news innovation as well. News organizations were trying out all kinds of flashy new web-related techniques and gizmos, all ably chronicled by Lost Remote’s Cory Bergman and by Matt Diaz here at the Lab. The online efforts were led by The New York Times’ streaming web video coverage and Twitter visualization, The Washington Post’s sponsored Twitter topic, and CNN’s web of holograms and magic walls.

Not all of those ambitious new-media efforts hit the mark: The Lab’s Megan Garber criticized The Times’ and Wall Street Journal’s webcasts for simply adopting many of cable news’ norms on the web rather than trying something web-native, saying they “had the feeling of trying to be cable news without actually, you know, being cable news.” And Poynter’s Regina McCombs had a tepid review of news organizations’ election-day iPad apps, giving them an A for effort and probably something around C+ for execution. “By the end of the night I was tired of how much work it was on mobile, and I went old school,” she wrote.

Of course, some things about the press’s election coverage never change: Most election-night TV coverage hasn’t been terribly helpful in the past, and this year it was marked by uneven analysis masked by excess. And leading up to the elections, the media again lavished the lion’s share of its attention on a fringe candidate with little chance to win but plenty of interesting sound bites. Election coverage didn’t come without a minor controversy, either, as ABC News invited and then uninvited budding conservative media mogul Andrew Breitbart to participate in its coverage. NYU professor Jay Rosen issued a warning to the mainstream press about welcoming in those who are openly hostile toward it.

Ideas, conversations and ‘evil’ at ONA10: Quite a few folks in the news and tech worlds were headed to Washington last weekend — not for the Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert rally, but for the Online News Association’s annual conference. (OK, probably for the rally, too.) As usual, the conference featured plenty of nifty speakers and panels, all of which were captured on video and helpfully gathered in one place by Jeff Sonderman. Other sites also created visualizations of the tweets around ONA 2010 and the association’s members.

We got several varied but useful summaries of the conference, starting with the Lab’s Justin Ellis, who recreated its sessions, one by one, through tweets. Craig Silverman of PBS MediaShift was just about as thorough with a roundup of both days’ events, focusing largely on the conference’s three keynotes covering TBD, NPR, AOL, and WikiLeaks. Poynter’s Mallary Jean Tenore listed five key themes from the conference, including the emergence of investigative journalism online and the decline of the “Is this journalism?” debate. The Online Journalism Review’s Pekka Pekkala had a review of themes, too, and NPR’s Patrick Cooper had some more personal thoughts on the conference, noting the youth and energy of its attendees.

The individual session that drew the most attention was a conversation with NPR CEO Vivian Schiller and AOL CEO Tim Armstrong (liveblogged by Tenore), in which USC j-prof Robert Hernandez asked Armstrong of AOL’s controversial large-scale hyperlocal news initiative, “Is Patch evil?” Armstrong responded by defending AOL’s treatment of Patch editors and pointing out its connections with local bloggers in Patch blogs’ areas. In a blog post, Hernandez explained his question and gave his thoughts on Armstrong’s answer, concluding, “Under the umbrella of ‘we care about the community,’ this is a business venture. That’s not evil, that’s capitalism.” Two other sessions worth reading a bit about: Webbmedia’s Amy Webb on digital storytelling and several others with advice for would-be journalism entrepreneurs.

Twitter adds ads to the stream: Twitter took another step in its integration of advertising into its platform this week with the introduction of Promoted Tweets in users’ tweet streams. The tweets will initially be tested only with users of the Twitter application HootSuite, with Twitter selling the ads and HootSuite getting a cut of the revenue, according to Advertising Age. The Next Web chatted with HootSuite’s Dave Olson about how it will work, and said that Promoted Tweets have successful and relatively inoffensive so far: “Focusing on a good user interaction, instead of simply on the money, Twitter has kept its users and advertisers happy.”

ReadWriteWeb’s Mike Melanson talked to a few web experts on the potential for user backlash, and they seemed to agree that while Twitter will likely get some initially angry responses, it may end up keeping a satisfied user base if it reacts well to that initial response. As Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Land explained, Twitter’s Promoted Tweets were also added to Google search results, lending some credence to Mathew Ingram’s assertion at GigaOM that Twitter is in the process of growing up from an awkward teenager into a mature adult right now.

Reading roundup: A few good things to read before I send you on your way:

— Two relatively lengthy first-person pieces by journalists who did stints with the content farm Demand Media were published yesterday: A more colorful one by Jessanne Collins at The Awl and a more contextualized one by Nicholas Spangler at The Columbia Journalism Review. Both are worth your time.

— Your iPad update for this week: AdWeek looked at why most media companies’ iPad apps have been disappointing, and New York and Newsweek magazines released their iPad apps — Newsweek’s with a subscription option.

— The Columbia Journalism Review ran a short but sharp editorial urging news organizations to work toward earning authority based on factual reporting, rather than cowering in ideological niches, and Free Press’ Josh Stearns connected that idea to the concept of “talking to strangers.”

— Finally, three miscellaneous pieces to take a look at: Investigative journalism veteran Charles Lewis’ map of the new public-service journalism ecosystem, Jason Fry’s list of five places sports departments (and any news department, really) can innovate, and Steve Coll’s open letter to the FCC on digital media policy.