New NewsHour Site Spotlights Multimedia Content and Team

During last year’s election cycle, I worked as the Online NewsHour’s associate editor for the Vote 2008 site, and while the site and show changed considerably during my year and a half there, bold revisions on the site today (and soon, the show) demonstrate an invigorated energy at the organization to keep up with new media during rocky times for traditional journalism.

In addition to a new design layout, some new site features include a new blog, written by both online and on-air employees, and the promotion of online video, something the site’s actually had for a long time but was never given its due prominence.

Of course, one of the most prominent features of the site and show is its new correspondent. Hari Sreenivasan, who comes to the NewsHour from years at CBS News, will be joining the on-air broadcast and working with the Online team to combine new media efforts.

Sreenivasan talked to The Bivings Group about the new site and the strategy behind its design.

… and about new social media and outreach efforts.

… and last, what other news outlets can learn from the redesign.

Blending the traditional program with Online efforts has not been an easy task. It took years to get the teams in the even in the same building, let alone the same work space.

Many of the new initiatives emerge due to pressure from dwindling sponsorship resources earlier in the year.

“Newspapers are thinning, and television has its own crisis,” show anchor Jim Lehrer said in an interview with the New York Times in May.

With the Online changes come revisions to the show format and a new name. Starting Monday, “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer” will officially become “The PBS NewsHour.”

All of these changes reflect a struggle within Public Broadcasting to find a place across all media spaces, promoting brand without losing purpose.

Lehrer told the New York Times in a more recent article, that he’s “’very concerned about serious journalism,’ and for longtime practitioners of the craft, ‘we damn well better get with it.’”

Profiles in Courage: Social Media Editors at Big Media Outlets

During a recent trip to see an editor I work with at The Globe and Mail, a national newspaper in Canada, I passed by the newspaper's cafeteria. My editor looked in and pointed at a man who was sitting with his back to us.

"There's Mathew Ingram, doing his office hours," he told me.

Ingram is the Globe and Mail's communities editor, a job he took on after being a technology reporter, columnist and blogger for the paper. My editor explained that Ingram's "office hours" consist of him making himself available in the cafeteria so that anyone can come see him and talk about Twitter, user comments, blogging, or anything thing else that falls under the social media/community banner.

Five years ago, there was no such thing as a community manager or social media editor at large media organizations. Today, this role exists at places such as the New York Times and NPR, among others. To get a sense of the role of these new social media editors at big media organizations, I spoke with four people currently filling these positions.

Mathew Ingram

Name: Mathew Ingram

Title: Communities editor, The Globe and Mail.

Time in the Position: Close to a year.

Previously: Technology reporter, columnist, blogger for the paper.

What the Job Entails: "There was never really a job description so we have been making it up as we go along," he said. "The general idea was to have someone who was thinking about how we interact with readers online, and all the ways of doing it and ways we could be doing it."

Biggest Challenge: "To be blunt, complacency is the biggest danger, the biggest risk," he said. "The biggest challenge is raising awareness of these tools, and convincing people that they are worthwhile. That's something that has been easier with certain people than with others. There's a wide spectrum of awareness and openness to trying new things. Let's face it: being a newspaper reporter hasn't really changed in a huge amount [over the last few decades]. You use a computer rather than a typewriter. So the change taking place right now is maybe harder to deal with if you've been doing that for a long time."

Best Initiative So Far: Using CoverItLive for discussions and liveblogging. "For certain things, like our swine flu discussion, we have gotten 10,000 or 15,000 people, and hundreds and hundreds of comments, along with interaction between editors and writers and readers," he said. "To me, that is a magical thing that never would have happened if we hadn't used that tool. We can also wind up making what we do better. In the swine flu discussion, we were feeding news into the live discussion and we had a Google Map that an epidemiologist had created. Someone said in the discussion that the map was not up to date. Our editor asked if anybody knew of a better map, and three minutes later a guy posted a link to a better map that we never would have found."

Lesson He's Learned About the Globe Community: "We get surprised daily by the things that people are interested in, and the things they want to read about or talk about," he said. "...For me, the big benefit of using these tools is getting a better idea of what readers want. Before, we kind of just had hunch and found out long after the fact. Now we can watch in real time."

Biggest Mistake: "I'd love to say we haven't made any, but I wish we had gotten involved in Facebook earlier on, and built an audience there or made better use of it."

Final Words: "Focus on the small victories. It's quite easy to get overcome and disillusioned when people are not interested in what you think is valuable, or when the things you try don't work."

Shirley Brady

Shirley_Bradysmall.jpgName: Shirley Brady

Title: Community editor, BusinessWeek.

Time in the Position: Close to 18 months.

Previously: Editor of the Cable360.net website, and a reporter at CableWorld magazine. Previously held editorial positions with Time Inc., among other media organizations.

What the Job Entails: "I spend a lot of time in the comments observing the trends, featuring people across the site, and trying to connect with our writers and say, 'Hey, there's this really interesting conversation going on, you may want to chime in.'" She also works on their blog, "What's Your Story Idea?": http://www.businessweek.com/blogs/whatsyourstoryidea/, and was brought on to help manage the magazine's Business Exchange community.

On Interacting With the BusinessWeek Community: "We've done things that feature our readers on the site by using their comments or contributed articles," she said. "Our audience is business professionals and they are on the front lines of all the stuff we're writing about. They are doing what we're just observing."

Best Initiative So Far: "We had a reader dinner and invited 10 really avid readers to come in and tell us what they like and don't like," she said. "The big takeaway was that our comment system, which is pretty basic, needs to get better... We got to sit face-to-face with these people, some of whom we only knew from their user names."

Biggest Lesson Learned: The need to manage expectations for new initiatives. "It's been interesting watching our Business Exchange platform launch because there were very aggressive expectations for it internally," she said. "As a user, I know the demands on people's time are really intense, and to expect people to adopt another social network is a lot to ask."

Next Big Challenge: Integrating with the magazine's new owner, Bloomberg. "We've been acquired by Bloomberg and are waiting to find out what their strategy is," she said. As this article was being finalized, Brady announced on Twitter that her "role isn't continuing with Bloomberg," and her last day at BusinessWeek will be December 1.

Andy Carvin

andycarvin.jpgName: Andy Carvin

Title: Senior strategist for NPR's social media desk.

Time in the Position: He's been the social media/community guy at NPR since September 2006.

Previously: Ran the non-profit Digital Divide Network.

What the Job Entails: "I work with a team called the social media desk, which is an editorial unit that focuses on ways for our reporters to interact with the public," he said. "The way I look at it is NPR has this large, loyal community of more than 26 million listeners around the country who tend to see us as more than just a content producer. In some ways, being involved with NPR is almost a lifestyle choice for them. We've had a long history of reaching out to the public and having hem contribute ideas and content. But there's never been a platform before social media that enabled us to interact with the public and give them tools to interact among themselves."

Biggest Lesson Learned: "The key thing is to come up with a variety of ways that people can interact and work with you," he said. "On one end you might have people contribute long stories and put together thoughtful narratives, whether in text or video or audio. At the other end, you may have some who are just wiling to share a quick snippet and move on."

Best Initiative So Far: HurricaneWiki.org. "Last fall when Hurricane Gustav was approaching, we asked for volunteers on Twitter to come together and list hurricane-related resources. Over 48 hours we had over 500 people signed up to build a wiki called HurricaneWiki.org," he said. "They built Google Maps with evacuation routes and shelter information, and some people listened to ham radio and scanner traffic for information and transcribed that." He also notes that Scott Simon and the team at NPR's Weekend Edition have done a good job using Twitter.

What He's Learned About the NPR Community: "These are communities that love us and our mission and what we do, they want to help us succeed and prosper -- and we ignore them at our peril," he said. "Thankfully, we are not ignoring them. It's about understanding that people who use social media and are fans of NPR are our most powerful supporters. They can be advocates, soldiers, messengers. They can assist in editorial matters as well."

Final Words: "There's no edict here saying that every person has to be on Twitter or Facebook. We do it somewhat organically because we want to make sure the staff that are using social media understand why they are using it, and have editorial goals in mind."

Jennifer Preston

jennifer_preston.jpgName: Jennifer Preston

Title: Social media editor, New York Times.

Time in the Position: Close to six months.

Previously: Edited the Sunday suburban section of the paper. Has also held other editing and reporting roles at the paper, along with jobs at other media organizations.

What the Job Entails: "I don't really have a typical day. I would say one of the challenges is not doing things on a piecemeal basis, and I'm sure my colleagues would share that concern. We know we have to put effort into getting more people to begin using these tools."

What She's Learned About the Times Community: "Surprise, surprise they like us. I tell anybody who is having a bad day around here just to go to the Twitter search field and look at what people are saying about our work," she said. "People are sharing and recommending the work... One of the really cool, fun, powerful things about social media is that, through the power of recommendations, your loyalists can share the stuff they like. We produce a lot of great stuff, and it's been heartening just to see people share that with enthusiasm."

Best Initiative So Far: New York Times Twitter Lists. "One initiative that helped us move forward quickly, and in an area where there is tremendous potential, is Twitter Lists," she said. "It was an opportunity to go across the newsroom desk-to-desk and talk with different editors and reporters and explain how the feature works and say, 'Hey, how about giving me a list?' I'm mindful that the landscape changes rapidly, and we will change with it. But I do think the Twitter Lists project for the newsroom has helped us get more people interested in Twitter." Preston noted that the paper built new Twitter Lists as reports rolled in about the Fort Hood shootings. "I sit in the middle of the newsroom with the continuous news desk, and so we were all jumping on the story and trying to figure out what was going on," she said. "I walked over to Jenny 8 Lee and said, 'Jenny can you help me put together a Fort Hood list?'"

Biggest Lesson Learned: "One of the most important lessons learned is that much of the best ideas, and the really creative approaches and innovations, come from the developers, many of whom work here in newsroom," she said. "This job is also a public role, and I was unprepared for that. Some people were very kind and helpful and welcoming, but there was a group who were not. I had to figure out what my role is on Twitter because every broken link I sent out was seen as a crime. In any event, you have to be resilient and have a sense of humor."

Final Words: "The New York Times did not discover social media with my appointment, and vice versa," she said. "For the last two years we have had more than a couple hundred accounts on Twitter, and we now have 2 million followers on our main feed. We have half a million fans on Facebook...We're going to be doing something interesting very soon with Tumblr. The really fun part of this whole moment is that you can really play in the space and have fun and figure out what works. And if it doesn't work, that's okay, you can try something else."

Craig Silverman is an award-winning journalist and author and an associate editor at MediaShift and Idea Lab. He is the founder and editor of Regret The Error, the author of Regret the Error: How Media Mistakes Pollute the Press and Imperil Free Speech, and a weekly columnist for Columbia Journalism Review. Follow him on Twitter at @CraigSilverman.

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Young Political Candidates Confronted by Digital Past on Facebook

Last spring Emanuel Pleitez, 26, ran for California's 32nd Congressional seat in a special election to replace Hilda Solis, the new secretary of labor.

During the campaign, one of Pleitez's opponents, California State Sen. Gil Cedillo, discovered photos from Pleitez's Facebook profile that showed Pleitez hanging around with various women at parties. The Cedillo campaign used the photos as the basis for a mailer that was sent to homes in the district. The mailer presented Pleitez as a partier, drinker and womanizer, among other smears.

Pleitez admits the negative attack probably cost him some votes. However, instead of shying away from the photos, Pleitez said in a phone interview that he used the incident to reinforce the transparency of his campaign.

Emanuel-Pleitez.gif

"I didn't take any pictures down," Pleitez said. "Everything is up on Facebook. If anyone questioned me after, I invited them to my Facebook page so we could go one by one through all my pictures and I could explain where I was and what I was doing. I have nothing to hide."

Social Media's Influence on Politics

Pleitez didn't win the election, and neither did Cedillo. But their race, and its use of Facebook photos, is yet another example of how social media profiles are increasingly becoming a major part of the political process.

Political candidates used to hide embarrassing photos in a shoebox in the closet. But many of today's younger candidates came of age with social media technologies. As a result, their large online footprint -- replete with status updates, videos and photographs -- often becomes a political football.

"It is astounding and sort of scary the amount of information that is out there now," Claire Viall, president of the Cal Berkley Democrats at UC Berkley, said in a phone interview. "But it doesn't prohibit anybody from using social media. It's become a part of our lives."

Claire-Viall.gif

Viall, 21, joined Facebook when she was in high school as a way to interact with friends before heading off to college. She said that while there are some privacy controls on who can see her profile, it's really a false sense of control because anybody can post just about anything they want about people on the Internet.

Social media technologies have made it very easy to publish -- and find -- embarrassing photos online. C.J. Pascoe of the Digital Youth Research project at Berkeley suggested that young people are more willing to put personal information online because they are exposed to social media at a very early age. This can have big implications for those who aspire to political office.

The Election of Audra Shay

In July, Audra Shay ran for chairman of the Young Republicans, a Republican Party organization for 18- to 40-year olds. During her campaign Shay, 38, was accused of endorsing racism as a result of a reply she posted on her Facebook wall. When the story went viral in the blogosphere, Shay immediately scrubbed her Facebook page clean of other potentially damaging items. (She ended up winning the chairmanship.)

Tommy Jardon, executive director of the College Republican National Committee, called the incident a perfect example of how anything posted online can get picked up and sent around the Internet.

Audra-Shay-Facebook.gif

"Someone took a screen shot and even though you take it down or delete it, it now lives forever," Jardon said in a phone interview.

Running for a national organization seat is certainly different than running for Congress, because the Young Republicans, like any similar group, is governed by internal politics. The public at-large does not have a say. Overall, Jardon, 25, suggested that what young people post online should be considered in context.

"What you did in college or what you did five years ago or even five minutes ago, all has some context and an explanation and merits one interpretation or another," Jardon said. "The glory of it is that it is still up to the voters to decide."

Becoming a Public Figure

At age 19, Jason Overman was elected to the city of Berkley, Calif.'s Rent Stabilization Board in 2004, and in 2006 led an unsuccessful campaign for a city council seat. He said that young people considering a life in politics need to recognize that running for office is a choice to become a public figure. They should therefore be cognizant that what they post online is public.

"I think there is a fear of what is going to pop up, but I think it is sort of akin to a fear that anyone has in an elected office," Overman said. "It's the same sort of fear that older politicians would have had every morning opening the newspaper. I think that's just sort of a part of public life."

It may be just a matter of time until social media is widely understood and accepted outside of young generations who consider being online as second nature. Emanuel Pleitez, now a special assistant to President Obama's economic advisory board at the U.S. Treasury Department, said that, despite the way his Facebook photos were exploited in his last campaign, he would still like to run again. For him, the attack was akin to being baptized by fire -- and that people running for office have always been targeted.

"If I were to advise future political candidates, I would say don't be afraid of what's on Facebook, and don't be so paranoid," Pleitez said. "Just be aware and be ready. It's better to be transparent, open and humble about whatever your past is than it is to hide things."

Steven Davy is a freelance journalist, and freelance radio reporter/producer. He regularly covers the defense industry and security related issues for UPI. Additionally he hosts a current affairs news magazine radio show called the Nonchalant Café Hour which broadcasts live in Kalamazoo, Mich. Steven is a second year graduate student at Michigan State University in the School of Journalism. His research has covered news media bias and framing issues, censorship during war, urban revitalization, renewable energy and climate change.

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Tech Geek Myth Busted: Top Ten Ways Technology Boosts Your Social Life

Image by Flickr user Extra Ketchup In 2006, a popular study by experts at Duke University and the University of Arizona concluded new technologies have been making loners of us since 1985. Earlier this month, this theory was challenged and perhaps debunked. New technologies actually increase our social interactions, not our isolation, the Pew Internet and American Life Project found.

Pew’s deep research came up with a variety of causes and conclusions to support their hypothesis, but in my opinion, here are their most interesting finds:

10. There’s been no significant jump in the number of truly isolated Americans. While the study did support the idea the number of many Americans’ social connections may have gotten smaller and less diverse in the last 30 years, there are two important caveats: First, new technologies actually combat, rather than cause, this trend. Second, roughly the same number – six percent – of the American public is completely isolated from others in 1985 and now.

9. Web users are more likely to seek counsel outside their own family. “Whereas only 45% of Americans discuss important matters with someone who is not a family member, internet users are 55% more likely to have a non-kin discussion partners,” the study reports.

8. Many 18-22-year-olds use social networking to keep in contact with nearly all of their key contacts. Pew found 30 percent of those 18-22 — the age group most likely to use social networks — use those networks to keep in touch with 90 percent or more of their “key influentials.”

7. Internet users like clubs. If you own a cell phone, use the internet at work or blog, you’re more likely to join a voluntary group, on or offline. These can include neighborhood associations, sports leagues, youth groups and social clubs.

6. Technology users have more “core” friends in their discussion networks. “On average, the size of core discussion networks is 12 percent larger amongst cell phone users, 9 percent larger for those who share photos online, and 9 percent bigger for those who use instant messaging,” Pew reported.

5. Web users leave their rooms. Contrary to the iconic image of a lone blogger on a couch sans sunlight in a basement apartment, it turns out internet users are 42 percent more likely to visit a public park or plaza and 45 percent more likely to frequent coffee shops than non-users.

4. Cell phone and web users make better neighbors. Whether or not you own a cell phone or use the internet makes no difference in the amount of time you spend face-to-face with your neighbors, however, 10 percent of internet users supplement their face time with personal emails. When online neighborhood discussion groups are considered, 60 percent of users “know ‘all or most’ of their neighbors,” compared to the average 40 percent.

3. Technology users seek conversation outside their marriage. If you use the internet at all, you’re 38 percent less likely to rely exclusively on a spouse as a discussion confidant, the study found. Use instant messaging? You’re 36 percent less likely than other internet users and 59 percent less likely than non-internet users.

2. Sharing those family vacation photos online might make you more politically open minded. “Those who share photos online are more likely to report that they discuss important matters with someone who is a member of another political party,” the study showed. 

1. Bloggers have more racially diverse friends. Pew found those who use the internet frequently and especially those who maintain a blog are “much more likely to confide in someone who is of another race.”

Media140 Brings Old and New Media Together, With Explosive Results

Over 300 people gathered under the Media140 banner in a concert hall at Australia's national public broadcaster ABC in Sydney last week to consider the future of journalism in the social media age.

Media140 is a newly formed global collaboration of journalists, academics and social media practitioners that is staging conferences around the world. The goal is to examine the impact of the real-time web on news and media industries. It was founded in the UK last February by media worker Andrew Gregson. (Disclosure: I was the editorial director for Media140 Australia. Profits from the event will be donated to The Big Issue, a magazine designed to empower the homeless.)

Our conference at the bottom of the world rose to No. 4 on Twitter's trending topics after just a few hours. Issues on the agenda included the role of Twitter in reporting the Iran uprising; professional and ethical guidelines for journalists using social media; and how political reporting is being changed by journalists' adoption of social media platforms.

The gathering tested some professional journalists' assertions about the threat to quality reporting allegedly posed by Twitter. It also challenged claims on the territory made by social media experts. In the end, we established that Twitter is the platform propelling Australian journalists into the social media age, while also broadening the base of the movement to reinvent journalism.

The line-up featured some of Australia's most respected and prolific journalists, academics and bloggers. Tensions arose on stage and online during the conference between old rivals, over newly contested territory, and in pursuit of redefinitions of journalism. While hundreds mingled at the ABC, hundreds more participated online via Twitter, a live ABC webcast, a Ustream video feed, and live blogging.

The ABC of Social Media Guidelines

media140 mark scott twitter slide.jpg

The ABC's managing director, Mark Scott, was the first keynote speaker. He used the event to launch the most progressive social media policy that I've seen from a large media organization.

"I wanted to title my talk 'Making This Up as We Go Along'... because to a degree that's what we're doing," he said.

Essentially, the simple guidelines empower ABC employees to freely use social networking sites and tools for professional and personal purposes, with the rider that they be careful not to undermine their professional practice, nor their employer's reputation. The policy outlined four key rules:

* Do not mix the professional and the personal in ways likely to bring the ABC into disrepute.
* Do not undermine your effectiveness at work.

* Do not imply ABC endorsement of your personal views.

* Do not disclose confidential information obtained through work.

"We need to experiment and we need to give our staff the space to experiment," Scott said.

The new ABC guidelines strongly contrast with the position adopted by the Australian Financial Review, which recently banned its staff from using Twitter professionally. (In a forthcoming MediaShift post, I'll analyze Australian media outlets' attempts to negotiate ethics and professionalism in this new territory).

Scott has dragged his staff -- some kicking and screaming -- into the social media age. He acknowledges that these new platforms are part of the public broadcaster's future. In his Media140 address, he pointed out that Twitter is just another "t" in a progression from telegraph to telephone to telex, and so on. He also showed how Twitter could easily fit within the realm of breaking news by offering tweet-length posts for some of the major stories of the past century.

Nevertheless, skepticism remains. The ABC's most senior political reporter, Chris Uhlmann (christened by the ABC chief the "Harpo Marx of Twitter" for his virtually mute state in the sphere), said, "I just don't see how I could verify sources from Twitter."

There were pockets of internal resistance to the ABC's involvement in Media140. But as the conference progressed, I heard that many journalists at the public broadcaster were watching the feed from their desks. Some of them eventually ventured onto the conference floor, while others contacted me after the conference was over.

The challenge now for progressive industry leaders like Mark Scott is to adequately support journalists so they can use social media as an integral part of their beat. As the ABC radio's chief political correspondent Lyndal Curtis blogged during the conference, many already over-laden journalists are simply "too tired to tweet!"

Tweeting Politics and the Clash of the Titans

As I reported earlier this year, there has been a veritable explosion of Australian journalists in the Twittersphere. Today, Twitter is changing the way political reporters interact, and has broken a century-long tradition that prohibited live reporting from the Australian parliamentary chambers.

As the Sydney Morning Herald's Annabel Crabb told the conference, reporters are tweeting the daily Question Time sessions. Journalists are using Twitter to interact with each another and a broadening base of engaged civic tweeters. People are even challenging politicians via tweets as debates play out on the floor of the House.

media140 stage.jpg

While some journalists and organizations move forward, working on building new audiences by engaging through social media, conflict is emerging between publishers like Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. and public broadcasters such as the ABC and the BBC. Mark Scott recently compared Murdoch's last grasps at control -- re-erecting pay walls and, as of this week, musing about blocking content from Google -- with the desperation of an emperor experiencing the fall of Rome.

On stage at Media140, the award-winning author and journalist, Caroline Overington expressed genuine alarm at the rising, monopolistic power of public broadcasters like the ABC in the new media landscape. She launched into a strident defense of Murdoch (whom she described as "benevolent") and his vision for newspapers.

She also revealed a hint of company strategy by indicating News Corp.'s plans were also linked to the development of a media consumption device, which is now facetiously being referred to in Australia as the iRupert or the Ru-pod. Overington also challenged rival, Annabel Crabb, with assertion that the Sydney Morning Herald, a Murdoch competitor, was in very dire financial straits.

That drew the retort from Crabb: "I think it is wonderful that your survival strategy depends on the robust genes of a 78-year-old... We are not in as much trouble as you will be once your great leader drops off the twig." Cue peals of laughter. (You can view the entire panel on Social Media and Political Reporting here.)

The Mass Media as the Masses' Media

One academic speaker told the conference that "the hoards are at the castle gates." I took this analogy further in my closing remarks at Media140. From my perspective, the masses aren't just threatening to storm the castle -- they've overrun it. Mass media has become the masses' media. Unless the mainstream media wants to be left behind to starve, it needs to join the revolution and figure out new ways of funding, filtering and curating stories to ensure the hard work of journalism -- shining a light in dark places -- can continue to be done.

"For the first time in human evolution we are co-creating the human narrative, never again will our histories be held hostage to the victors, our stories forgotten, unwritten, unscribed," said social media activist Laurel Papworth.

media140 jayrosen.jpg

This point was driven home in the question-and-answer session that followed a presentation delivered via Skype by NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen. During his talk, Rosen outlined a clarion vision for journalism in the social media age via 10 key points. Then a journalist in attendance got up and expressed fear about giving the "audience" the reins.

"If you don't have a democratic heart, you don't belong in journalism in the first place," Rosen said.

Media140 Sydney was an attempt to bridge the gap between the mainstream and the fringes, to negotiate change, and to provide a platform for the collaborative reinvention of journalism. Thousands of tweets, many new connections, and a few minor brawls later, the global conversation -- in newsrooms, on Twitter and blogs -- continues to reap dividends for journalism's reinvention.

In the coming weeks I'll outline more of the lessons learned and the progress being made in the wake of Media140. But, for now, the last word should go to SBS online news and current affairs editor, Valerio Veo, who told Media140 "I am the bastard child of old and new media... like a child of a broken home -- [I] care deeply for both my divorced parents, despite their temporary differences."

Images by neeravbhatt via Flickr

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Can Salon’s Revamp Help it Stop Bleeding Money?

Salon.com was a pioneering website launched in 1995 by former editors of the San Francisco Examiner, mixing opinion and investigative reporting with a sharply progressive slant. Although the company went public at the height of the dot-com boom in 1999, it had lost more than $80 million by 2003, and lost $4.6 million in the fiscal year ending March 31, 2009. Its stock trades at just 12 cents a share on the over-the-counter stock market.

This year, Salon hired a new CEO, Richard Gingras, who previously worked as a media advisor to Google and at startups such as @Home. Gingras had his work cut out for him. The recession hit the site's bread-and-butter ad revenues hard, it cut staff by 20 percent, and paid memberships have declined.

Salon recently unveiled a redesign to provide more context to stories, include related material from around the web, and give advertisers a more creative platform. It's also planning a new store that will sell third-party products (and provide Salon with a cut of e-commerce sales), as well as a new food section.

I visited the Salon headquarters in Rincon Center in downtown San Francisco, and spoke to Gingras about the redesign, the future of investigative journalism, and his thoughts on competing with Huffington Post. He greeted me by saying "welcome to the oldest new media company." The following is an edited transcript, along with video clips of our discussion.

Q&A

What is Salon's greatest asset?

Richard Gingras: Salon has been around now 15 years and I think its greatest asset is the quality of its writing. I think it's particularly true today, when there's more information than ever, but there's also more bad information than ever. We have these ongoing arguments about where Obama was born, so I think separating the wheat from the chaff is more important than ever; figuring out what really matters is more important than ever. And that's what Salon is about, so that's its key asset. And it's doing it with a friendly, witty personality that a lot of folks find appealing.

Gingras explains what Salon will be offering advertisers with the redesign.

On a lot of publishers' sites, there's a balance between short and long content. To me, Salon is known for giving more depth. But online you're almost punished for doing longer stories versus lots of shorter ones. How do you balance those?

Gingras: It's an interesting point. I don't think the web punishes you for depth. I think it suggests there might be new ways of going deep that doesn't necessarily mean a 3,000 word article. Salon does both. We do long pieces and short pieces, and the short ones might end up having depth, they're just done with a different periodicity. I'm reminded about something [Marshall] McLuhan said about "every new medium starts as a container for the old."

That's as true for the web as any medium. Radio started out with people reading the newspaper, and they figured out that didn't work. So the narrative form will evolve on the web. It's true that short stuff works really well, blogging works really well. It doesn't mean it's any less thoughtful. It doesn't mean it's any less comprehensive.

Gingras talks about how he sees Huffington Post differing from Salon by succeeding with SEO and traffic, but not with original in-depth reporting.

With all the talk around Web 2.0, people think of Salon as being part of the first wave. Do you feel like Salon needs to be reinvented for Web 2.0?

Gingras: Interestingly, Salon was named for the notion of engaging in discussion. Salon has always been very much about engaging in discussions with its audience. Our comments and letters sections are both extremely prolific and interesting. The WELL, the pioneering discussion site, is part of Salon Media. In one dimension, it's in our bones; in another, technology is changing. We didn't talk about social media three years ago because Twitter and Facebook were barely there. Now it's a key part of the landscape.

Part of our redesigning and re-architecting of Salon was to put us in a better position to use those technological enhancements as they're rolling out. But the theme is the same. Let's pursue interesting subjects. Let's try to approach it from angles that mainstream media does not, and let's engage our audience and let them engage us as much as we possibly can.

I ask Gingras why Salon has lost so much money, and he says he is confident that will change.

Tell me more about your take on paid content. Salon tried out subscriptions early on, but those have faded somewhat. Now many mainstream media outlets are considering paid content. What do you think about that?

Gingras: I refer to business models not model because online you have to be open to different approaches. We do have a premium subscription for $45 a year that people pay to access Salon without advertising. Others subscribe for $35 a year because they want to support what we do. That's one component of it. But advertising is a very big component of it, and I expect it to be that way as we go forward.

But we're also looking at other possibilities. Around Thanksgiving we're going to launch a Salon Store, we're going to go into e-commerce. Salon as an independent voice represents a set of values, a way of looking at the world. In business-speak, it's not just a content brand, it's a lifestyle brand. Just as we carefully select what to write about and discuss in the content space, [we are examining] what we can do in the product space. The web has allowed so many artisans and merchants to mount businesses virtually on the web. It's an opportunity for us to select products and share in that transaction with the merchants.

And we'll be extending Salon's content into new vertical areas. We'll be launching a food section as well in the next month or so.

I've noticed that your paid subscription numbers have gone down. Is that something you're not going to be emphasizing as much moving forward?

Gingras: I'd like to see the premium subscriptions increase. But keep in mind the way we approach it. We're not gating content, we're not saying you have to pay us to see the content of Salon. I don't think that really can work for us or most mainstream publications. It can work for the Wall Street Journal because that's perceived to be high-value business content that people can subscribe to and write off the expense. We don't play in that world.

Gingras walked me through the redesign of Salon and how stories now live within topic pages.

How has your community blogging area Open Salon gone, and what's the business model for that?

Gingras: Open Salon has been a great success for us, and it's something we're very pleased with. And it's an important component of how we're going to have a successful strategy moving forward. It launched a year ago, and has 35,000 bloggers, an audience of about 1 million unique visitors per month, several million page views. But to me the most interesting thing is, given the nature of the Salon audience, which is probably the most intelligent audience on the web, with many writers among that audience, the participation in Open Salon is of very high quality.

We have novelists, former journalists, New Yorker cartoonists who put up cartoons the New Yorker hasn't used. So there's a lot of very high quality content there, and it's a vibrant community. It's a way for Salon to expand its content depth and range with those that love Salon. We target ads into those pages, and the bloggers can also get some money from Google Ads that run on those pages. Open Salon to us is less about getting more revenues, and more about expanding our philosophical view that the web isn't just about speaking at people -- it's about speaking with people.

Have you considered crowdsourcing, because you have this big community at Open Salon, and you have reporters doing work over here. There's been a lot of talk about combining the two, and using the power of the audience.

Gingras: Absolutely. I don't quite use the term crowdsourcing. I've been spending a lot of time over the past few years trying to figure out how journalism will evolve. I think journalism of the future will be great, and frankly better than the journalism of the past, because so many people can participate. I spent a lot of time working at Google and studying how the web works, and how that might impact journalism moving forward. One conclusion I had was that future successful news organizations, part of their success will be based on their ability to effectively and qualitatively leverage what I call 'the trusted crowd.'

This goes beyond citizen journalists submitting cell phone photos of a tractor-trailer crash. That's fine, I'm not saying that shouldn't be done. But we want to go beyond that. So when we look out at Open Salon and others out there, we do think about how to leverage the efforts of those that want to participate with us [with] their writing, research or their assistance curating what we do. Wikipedia has shown the high quality of what you can get by leveraging the help of folks, done carefully. We don't need 1 million contributors, but can we bring in a couple hundred folks into the editorial process of Salon? Absolutely.

Gingras explains how Salon will fund investigative reporting by increasing soft features including a new Food section.

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What do you think about Salon's revamp and its prospects for becoming a profitable online media publisher? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Videography and photo by Charlotte Buchen.

Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit.

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