A farewell to #content: Optimism, worries, and a belief in great work


This post is by Caroline O'Donovan from Nieman Lab


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Editor’s note: After two years here at Nieman Lab, Caroline O’Donovan is leaving us for BuzzFeed. We’ll miss her! On the occasion of her departure, she looks back on her time making media about media.

The other day, someone called me at work and asked me, What’s the future of journalism? As calmly and politely as I could, I replied, I don’t know what the future of journalism is. I’ve been asked to predict the future a couple of times. It comes with the territory I guess. What are the hot trends?, people want to know. Where do you see this all going? They want to hear about drones and wearables, lists and quizzes, social media reporting and viral content strategies. They want optimism — solutions journalism! Media reporting is a strange beat, characterized by a very niche, very loyal, very enthusiastic audience. Hamilton Nolan has a funny post on Gawker today that is ostensibly about Jill Abramson’s book deal, but is actually about media reporting, and the way in which its perceived importance is a direct inverse of its actual importance. Nolan is, of course, a sometime media reporter himself, and he has defended the importance of what he considers to be a dying practice. But he remains clear-eyed:

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Medium, known for going long, wants to go shorter


This post is by Caroline O'Donovan from Nieman Lab


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Medium announced some new updates to its publishing platform today. They include a tagging system (which means more structured data), a redesign of post presentation called The Stream, and an inline editor that’s supposed to make it easier to start writing. This last feature has received the most attention so far, with the general consensus being that Medium is getting “bloggier” (or is it Bloggerier?) and “more like Twitter.” When I met with Evan Hansen at Medium headquarters in October, he talked about how the site had grown a reputation as a home for longform writing. While Medium loves longform, Hansen said, they were also actively looking for ways to lower the barrier of entry for writers, trying to compel more writers to write more stuff more casually. That’s why, for example, they introduced a commenting format that encouraged readers with something to say to “write a response” in the form of a Medium post. Here’s how Medium (and Twitter) founder Ev Williams put it:
It was not our intention, however, to create a platform just for “long-form” content or where people feel intimidated to publish if they’re not a professional writer or a famous person (something we’ve heard many times). We know that length is not a measure of thoughtfulness. The quality of an idea is not determined by the polish of the writing. And production value does not determine worthiness of time investment on the web any more than it does at the movie theater. We also know that sometimes you need to get a thought out in an incomplete form in order for it to grow — by bumping into other brains and breathing in fresh air. That’s why, today, we’re making some pretty big changes to how Medium works and feels.
Venture-backed sites like Medium need lots of content and lots of users.
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Media accelerator Matter tries to connect an entrepreneurial ethos to traditional media companies


This post is by Caroline O'Donovan from Nieman Lab


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Matter, the public-media startup accelerator in San Francisco that began as a collaboration between PRX, the Knight Foundation, and KQED, is ramping up for a busy 2015. After announcing new media partnerships earlier this week with organizations include McClatchy, the AP, Community Newspaper Holdings, and the A.H. Belo Corporation, today they’ve released the new class of media entrepreneurs chosen to participate in Matter’s program. There are six all together, including Stephie Knopel’s PersonalHeroes, Niles Licthenstein’s The History Project, Tamara Manik-Perlman’s NextRequest, Lara Setrakian’s News Deeply, Arjun Mohan’s Eureka King, and Jennifer Brandel’s Curious Nation. While previous Matter classes have mostly been made up of relatively unknown entrepreneurs looking to build media-related products, some names among the new class will be familiar to Nieman Lab readers. Setrakian, for example, is the founder of News Deeply, the single-subject news network that creates content around timely, specific stories as they develop, such as Ebola Deeply or Syria Deeply. Setrakian hopes to focus on continuing to grow the News Deeply project and brand. “We’re here to solidify the proposition, to take the single-subject news model that we’ve come to be known for and turn it into a successful, scalable media startup,” she says. Brandel is another familiar face in new media to join Matter. Brandel initially had success with her AIR-funded Localore project, Curious City, which allows the audience to contribute and vote on questions, which journalists then answer via their reporting and a variety of media packages. (Full disclosure: I worked on a few stories with Curious City when I worked at WBEZ in 2012.) With continued funding from AIR, Brandel has grown the project into a fledgling national network known as Curious Nation. Brandel plans to spend her time at Matter exploring the possibility of growing beyond public media, and of making the project sustainable.

Timeline is providing historical context to the news — but is there a business model to support it?


This post is by Caroline O'Donovan from Nieman Lab


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There’s a new news app that’s made quite a splash. From headlines like “Timeline Is A Beautiful News App That Makes It Easy To See The History Behind A Story” to being Apple’s best app of January, Timeline’s gotten a warm welcome. Timeline is, indeed, an elegant app, built around providing historical context to topical stories, with a smooth interface. You have work off for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, but don’t know much about the civil rights era? No problem: Timeline has a compact, scrolling solution for that. It’s helped that Apple’s supported the app — the App Store has listed Timeline as a featured news app almost since launch. Timeline cofounder and venture capitalist Tamer Hassanein acknowledges what a blessing that was for his app. In his years of working at startups in Silicon Valley, he says, “I haven’t met a single company that’s been featured immediately after coming out.”
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Troll toll: Tablet is now charging its readers for the right to comment


This post is by Caroline O'Donovan from Nieman Lab


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Tablet magazine announced in a blog post yesterday that they’ll be taking an unusual step to deal with sometimes unruly commenters: charging readers who want to submit — or even view — comments on their site. Editor Alana Newhouse wrote that the new talk-back charge is aimed at heightening the discourse on the website.
We take pride in our community of readers, and are thrilled that you choose to engage with us in a way that is both thoughtful and thought-provoking. But the Internet, for all of its wonders, poses challenges to civilized and constructive discussion, sometimes allowing destructive — and, often, anonymous — individuals to drag it down with invective (and worse). Instead of shutting off comments altogether (as some outlets are starting to do), we are going to try something else: Ask those of you who’d like to comment on the site to pay a nominal fee — less a paywall than a gesture of your own commitment to the cause of great conversation.
To make the paid commenting system possible, Tablet called upon the services of Tinypass, a popular third-party paywall company. Tinypass chief strategy officer David Restrepo says out of hundreds of publisher clients, Tablet is the only one using the software in this way. “TabletMag is the first publisher to use Tinypass for a comments paywall,” he says. Tinypass’s flexible API made it relatively simple to build a platform for paid comments.
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Clicks, likes, and comments: A hacker looks into Facebook’s News Feed


This post is by Caroline O'Donovan from Nieman Lab


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Aram Zucker-Scharff, a content strategist with CFO Publishing, has a new piece about the results of a casual independent experiment he conducted on Facebook’s News Feed. His experiment — which he himself calls “not-so-scientific” — only lasted two weeks, and, as he notes, the analytics data he’s working with is less than perfectly accurate. But it might still be worthwhile to take a look at a few of his findings, particularly for people running Facebook pages for news organizations. For example, he finds that getting users to click on links is much more important than getting users to like or comment when it comes to getting a post promoted:
With a significant amount of consistency, the count of people who clicked on articles was the most important measure for determining the continuing popularity of a post. Almost every post was clicked the day it was posted and the day after. If the number of clicks exceeded 25% of the previous day, it usually got clicks the day after. If they didn’t, it didn’t get any clicks the following day.
I had some pretty active comment threads over this period, with variety when it came to the number of different participants. As far as I can tell, the number of comments or commenters didn’t significantly matter when it came to a post’s popularity.

Zucker-Scharff also tried to find a correlation between the time a link was posted and how much traffic the story received from Facebook:

I saw absolutely no correlation between the popularity of an article and when I shared it.
Zucker-Scharff also found that the majority of reading and click on Facebook is done on mobile devices, which means publishers need to be thinking about how their stories look on mobile devices:

60% of clicks were from mobile users. 87% of those users were on Apple or Samsung devices.

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This.cm isn’t built for mobile. Is that a problem?


This post is by Caroline O'Donovan from Nieman Lab


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The New York Times Style section published a story this week on This.cm, the Atlantic Media funded social platform we wrote about this summer. While there’s no doubt the platform has grown since August, not everyone agreed with the headline. Meanwhile, independent media journalist Simon Owens had a story on his website that took a slightly less rosy view of the network. Owens points out that a network meant for sharing high-quality, longer pieces of journalism is most likely to be used in the evening hours, when users are looking for the lean-back experience associated with mobile devices. The problem, Owens pointed out to founder Andrew Golis, is that right now This.cm is optimized for desktop and clunky to use on mobile. Here’s what Golis had to say to that:
“All the decisions about how to approach it were premised on what is the most flexible and inexpensive way to test the idea,” he said. “There are a few problems that go with launching something as an app. One is you live and die by the Apple App Store. Secondly, it’s very hard to originate sharing inside of a mobile app. There’s tons of resharing inside mobile apps, but if you look at Tumblr, Pinterest and Twitter, a lot of the original sharing has to start somewhere else, because it’s so hard to copy a link, leave the app, go into another app, and then paste it.” Continue reading "This.cm isn’t built for mobile. Is that a problem?"

Bloomberg Business’ new look has made a splash — but don’t just call it a redesign


This post is by Caroline O'Donovan from Nieman Lab


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Bloomberg launched a fresh, new Bloomberg Business Tuesday night, to both acclaim and confusion. Change has long been afoot lately at Bloomberg Media, which hired Justin B. Smith away from Atlantic Media in 2013 and Josh Topolsky away from The Verge last July to help reconfigure the company’s digital presence. The new look — inspired in part by the boldness of Bloomberg Businessweek, the print magazine the company bought in 2009 — is fresh, colorful, and not a little bit dizzying. In a piece for VentureBeat called “Bloomberg Business’ new site design is beautifully bizarre — and it’s begging for haters,” Harrison Weber writes that the design “pulls you in as much as it spits in your eye. Yet, for some reason, I want more.” This sentiment was, meaningfully, echoed on Twitter.

At Datalore, data plus storytelling means empathy, humor, and games


This post is by Caroline O'Donovan from Nieman Lab


Click here to view on the original site: Original Post




A handful of Cambridge-area media institutions — including The Non-Fiction Cartel, StoryCode Boston, Harvard’s Bok Center, the MIT OpenDocLab, and the MIT Center for Civic Media — joined forces this weekend to host a hackathon called Datalore that focused on storytelling and data. Around 50 participants, each of whom applied to be there, split into eight teams for the three-day event. Each team worked with a data set supplied by one of their team members; the idea was to “brainstorm and prototype an interactive narrative experience that tells a story with data, around data, or about data.” As one of the event’s organizers, HarvardX’s Nadja Oertelt, pointed out, some of the groups had to deal with especially emotionally charged data. The consideration each group gave to the sensitivity of their respective topics is reminiscent of last week’s essay on Source, “Connecting with the Dots,” by New York Times software architect Jacob Harris. In it, Harris writes about the experience of routinely taking human tragedy — in this case, “massive sectarian cleansing” in Iraq — and turning them into numbers, datasets, and, ultimately, dots on a map. The challenge he describes is similar to what two Datalore teams in particular had to face. One of those groups worked on merging two data sets that dealt with state executions in Texas: one that provided names of prisoners and another that documents their last words. Their task was to use this information to highlight the racial and economic injustices of the death penalty system in Texas. What they came up with was a grid display of prisoner’s photographs; when users click on a prisoner, they can view information about them, as well as play audio clips of some of the prisoners last statements. A text animation types out fragments of these final words; a constantly blinking cursor evokes lives cut short, people executed who still had more to say.
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What does Facebook’s new tool for fighting fake news mean for real publishers?


This post is by Caroline O'Donovan from Nieman Lab


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Facebook announced yet another tweak to the algorithm that governs its users’ News Feeds yesterday. The social network has introduced a new tool that allows users to flag a post as “a false news story.” The move follows a few other attempts by the platform to better delineate different types of content. For example, in August, it was reported that the company was experimenting with satire tags meant to help users differentiate between parody and news. They’ve also taken steps to push back against clickbait. fb_newsroom_spam_360Importantly, Facebook doesn’t do any of this tagging itself. Instead, it relies on its over one billion users to recognize and label links, videos, and photos that they perceive to be hoaxes. In an email, a Facebook spokesperson emphasized that the update is merely an additional signal helping to guide the PageRank algorithm. (“This is an update to the News Feed ranking algorithm. There are no human reviewers or editors involved. We are not reviewing content and making a determination on its accuracy, and we are not taking down content reported as false.”)
Of course, there are humans involved in reviewing fake news content — just not ones who work for Facebook. But as Dartmouth assistant professor of government Brendan Nyhan suggests, at this point Facebook simply delivers too much content for its own human moderation to be feasible. “I think if they tried to put a human in the loop of the content moving through their platform, they would have to have an army,” he says. “Human moderation doesn’t scale well. Would you prefer a human doing this? I’m not sure I would. It requires a lot of background knowledge to determine what’s true and what’s false. Continue reading "What does Facebook’s new tool for fighting fake news mean for real publishers?"

What Knight-Mozilla OpenNews has learned about preparing non-journalists for the newsroom

Since 2011, Knight-Mozilla OpenNews has selected 25 coders, developers, and technologists for their competitive fellowship program, which embeds fellows in news organizations for 10-month stints meant to educate both the organization and the individual. Of those 25 fellows, says editorial lead Erin Kissane, only about seven had previous experience in journalism. “It’s mostly the case that they’re interested in journalism and might be fans, but haven’t had direct newsroom experience,” she says.

The newsroom can be an intimidating place for newcomers. The journalism community has lots of rules, traditions and sacred cows that outsiders might not intuit or expect. “The community, broadly speaking, is warm, generous and helpful, but it’s also very passionated and focused and intense and very heads down, especially when under a deadline. And everyone is always under a deadline,” Kissane says. “If a fellow is already feeling out of it culturally, just the intensity of newsroom work and personalities involved can be off-putting or startling.”

After some rough patches in the first couple of years, the OpenNews team — which also includes program manager Erika Owens and director Dan Sinker, who launched a few tweaks to its website design today — decided they needed to do more to help guide the OpenNews fellows through their entry into the world of journalism.

Marcos Vanetta is a 2014 OpenNews alum who spent his year working at The Texas Tribune. In an email, he laid out a few of the surprises he encountered in his first foray into journalism, including hard deadlines and thinking in terms of stories. “Bugs are not optional,” he writes. “In software we are used to make mistakes and correct them later. We can always fix that later and in the worst case, we have a backup. In news, you can’t make mistakes — there is a reputation to take care of. The editorial team is not as used to failure as developers are.”

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Q&A: Amy O’Leary on eight years of navigating digital culture change at The New York Times


This post is by Caroline O'Donovan from Nieman Lab


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When Amy O’Leary announced in early January that she was leaving The New York Times to become editorial director at Upworthy, there was a collective jaw-drop in the digital journalism community. O’Leary is well known for the role she played in crafting the Times’ Innovation report, the influential (and intended to be internal) document leaked to the media press last May. Lab readers will recall the report as eye-opening and critical; in a candid speech at the Online News Association conference this fall, O’Leary remarked that, at the time, she was sure the leak was going to get her fired. But it didn’t; in fact, in October she was promoted to deputy international editor, one of more than a half-dozen titles O’Leary has held at the Times in her eight-year career there. Since the Innovation report, O’Leary has focused her efforts at the Times on implementing the recommendations she and her coauthors made, a process she described during a talk at the Nieman Foundation in November as somewhat more elementary than outsiders might expect. In our interview, O’Leary wasn’t able to say much about what she’ll be doing at Upworthy, though it’s clear she’s interested in working on measuring and directing audience attention. In a Facebook post about the hire, Upworthy’s founding curator Adam Mordecai hints at more original content down the line, saying the company is “just starting to dabble in making our own stuff.” Whatever she ends up doing at Upworthy, O’Leary says the Times will be fine without her, with particular praise for the newly founded audience development team. Here’s a loosely edited transcript of our chat, which touched on newsroom culture, leading digital change, what the Times holds sacred, and more.
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What does it mean to run “product” in a news organization? Hayley Nelson’s big challenge at Wired


This post is by Caroline O'Donovan from Nieman Lab


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I
f there’s a news outlet you would expect to be ahead of the curve in digital media, it might be Wired. The San Francisco-based magazine of technology has been at it longer than just about anyone; it launched HotWired.com back in 1994, with completely different content from the print magazine. Its creators, whose efforts were chronicled by Kyle Vanhemert on the occasion of the site’s 20th anniversary, were among the first to try and shape what a successful digital news business might look like. But the path from here to there hasn’t been particularly straightforward. HotWired, or Wired Digital, was sold to Lycos in 1999. There, it became Wired News but was otherwise largely abandoned until Condé Nast, which already owned the print magazine, bought it in 2006. After that, the magazine’s digital presence gradually advanced, with the website continuing to be run as a separate entity with a separate staff working in a different part of the building. In 2012, boy-wonder Scott Dadich became editor-in-chief of the magazine. The following year, Dadich hired the magazine’s first ever director of product management, Hayley Nelson. “There was no product organization when I got here.
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Study: Americans don’t worry about information overload and think the Internet has made them smarter


This post is by Caroline O'Donovan from Nieman Lab


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Recent media news headlines have briefly sucked the digital discourse around new and legacy media back into the reductive binary of pro- and anti-Internet. While asking whether the Internet helps or hurts journalism is about as useful as asking if technology is good or bad, the Pew Research Internet Project does have a study out today that comes down pretty clearly on one side.
The survey of 1,066 internet users shows that 87% of online adults say the internet and cell phones have improved their ability to learn new things, including 53% who say it has improved this “a lot.” Internet users under age 50, those in higher income households, and those with higher educational attainment are especially likely to say the internet and cell phones help them “a lot” when it comes to learning new things. Asked if they enjoy having so much information at their fingertips or if they feel overloaded, 72% of internet users report they like having so much information, while just 26% say they feel overloaded. […] News: Substantial majorities also feel better informed about national news (75%), international news (74%), and pop culture (72%) because of these tools.
Not only do individual Americans feel more personally informed because of the Internet, but a majority also believe that society at large is better informed. Interestingly, survey respondents generally felt that the Internet improved their knowledge of distant topics — pop stars and international news — more than it increased their understanding of things like local news or civic issues. 60 percent of those surveyed said they felt better informed about local news after the Internet, while 74 percent and 75 percent felt mobile phones and the Internet made them better informed about international and national news, respectively. Media news tends to focus on the national narrative — BuzzFeed versus The New York Times versus whoever’s spending millions of dollars to build a huge new website this week. But despite efforts of programs like the Knight Foundation’s Community Information Challenge, the tougher nut to crack for the Internet seems to be disseminating information on a more granular level.

Algorithm fatigue: What Evernote’s news-recommending product can tell us about privacy


This post is by Caroline O'Donovan from Nieman Lab


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W
e all remember Clippy, right? He of the friendly, persistent “It looks like you’re writing a letter. Would you like help?” Clippy (real name: Clippit) was an innovation for Microsoft; the idea that a piece of software could predict what you were working on based on what you typed was startlingly new to the average consumer. But Clippy was also annoyingvery annoying. He popped up all the time, unbidden, and was both rarely helpful and hard to get rid of. Over time, Clippy became a meme synonymous with obnoxious, digital interruptions. 1zr14k2The backlash against the chirpy, distracting animation was widespread and eviscerating. Clippy was killed in 2001; Microsoft actually launched an anti-Clippy campaign to market Office XP in 2002. In 2010, Time named Clippy to a “50 Worst Inventions” list. The backlash against the animated algorithm was so intense, in fact, that it inspired its own backlash; in 2012, developers at Smore built a Javascript Clippy so that the bouncy paperclip could live on in perpetuity. Clippy made sense in theory, but in practice, the office assistant made users feel intruded upon. Today, the typical consumer is more accustomed to the feeling of being watched by technology. We know that Google reads our email to predict flight times, and we know Facebook tracks our searches to sell to advertisers. But just because customers have come to expect it doesn’t mean they like it. The question for tech companies is a tricky one — just how far into their personal and professional lives will users allow software to go? tumblr_inline_n0qwxmjXaL1ritblx That question is one that Evernote, the note-taking-turned-workspace app, has been struggling with lately. Earlier this fall, Evernote released Context, a new product that aims to seamlessly integrate the research process into a user’s workflow. As you type a note, Evernote not only searches for and provides relevant material from your own and colleague’s work, but also from third-party news organizations. “Think of the note area in Evernote like a big search box,” says Andrew Sinkov, Evernote’s vice president of marketing. “If you write one sentence and that one sentence contains the word Evernote, we may surface an article about Evernote. But if you write two paragraphs and now you’re talking about some specific feature like Evernote Web Clipper, now we have a lot more information to go on catered to the specific search that you happen to be doing. If TechCrunch has written an article about our Safari Web Clipper in the last few months, we will surface that.” Screen Shot 2014-12-01 at 4.40.29 PM To build Context, Evernote needed a way to match what a user was working on with relevant content. To do that, they hired a team of augmented intelligence researchers, who created an algorithm that is constantly trying to match keywords from what users are typing to related terms in outside material. To get this material, Evernote had to locate willing media partners who would give the company access to some or all of the news organization’s archives. Their first partner was The Wall Street Journal, which makes the the most recent 90 days of its archives available and searchable via Context. Next month Dow Jones will add in its Factiva databases. In the future, the program could also surface videos and images in addition to text articles. The partnership makes sense for Evernote because the majority of its users are “information workers” — small business owners, entrepreneurs — with an interest in reading business journalism. The Wall Street Journal, meanwhile, gets access to elite users — only Evernote Premium and Business members get Context — and the chance to expand brand recognition outside of the traditional newspaper subscriber base. “What we’re predominantly focused on is giving our existing subscribers a better experience,” says Edward Roussel, head of product for Dow Jones. “Point number two, we’re looking to recruit new subscribers.” The Journal launched a loyalty in September called WSJ+. Perks of premium membership include subscriptions to things like Evernote Business, one reason the partnership makes sense for the paper. The other reason is growth, especially international growth. Only a quarter of Evernote’s users — 100 million people have signed up for or downloaded the app — are in North America. The rest are mostly in Asia, especially China, and South America. For the Journal, that means Evernote is a platform for continuing to extend their brand globally, something Roussel told Digiday he’s explicitly working to accomplish via partnerships with companies like Evernote. Evernote is also interested in its foreign customers: The most recent addition to the list of Context media partners — which currently includes TechCrunch, Fast Company, Inc., Pando Daily, Crunchbase, and LinkedIn — is the Nikkei, an English-language Japanese business newspaper. (The Nikkei is part of the large media company Nikkei, which invested in Evernote to the tune of $20 million.) As Evernote’s presence in Japan grows, the platform could become an inroad for the Journal to build a stronger presence there as well. For example, though for now Evernote only surfaces English-language Wall Street Journal content, down the line Japanese users could be served local, Japanese-language Wall Street Journal content. “Evernote is very strong in Japan, we’re strong in Japan — we have a large number of readers and a strong subscription base. It’s the kind of experiment that we’re interested in, other things that we can do that are specific to a particular demographic,” says Roussel. For publishers, Context is a unique, if niche, way to get their content in front of engaged, professional eyeballs. What Evernote hopes to offer those users attached to those eyeballs is a productive, predictive way to work the likes of which they’ve never experienced before. tumblr_n0zjvqTfmh1t2as4so1_100 The problem is not all Evernote Premium and Evernote Business users who have experienced Context see it as a feature. The discomfort with and dislike of Context was so great at launch, in fact, that users soon started sharing methods for disabling it. The negative reaction to Context springs from two places. The first is that the stories’ square-tiled appearance in the sidebar makes them resemble ads, which makes Premium users especially feel like their private workspace is being encroached on. Sinkov says the assumption by Context users that recommended links were ads surprised the people who built the product. “Context sits at the very bottom of your note. It’s not at the side, it’s not at the top, there aren’t any popups, it’s not flashing,” he says. “What is that reaction? Why do you so viscerally hate a rectangle that shows up beneath your note at a distance from your cursor that is pretty significant?” Despite the effort that went into designing a product that wouldn’t annoy or disrupt users, that apparently doesn’t change the fact that when some users see a logo in the margins of their screen, they read it as an ad. Both the Journal and Evernote said that no money exchanged hands in forming the Context partnership, but that fact may not be enough in the face of engrained assumptions about how websites treat their readers. “Unfortunately, ads take so many forms these days there’s no way to design a space that could not be perceived as an ad,” says Sinkov. “That’s the challenge we have.” But Evernote Context has another challenge beyond repairing a spammy-looking interface. Though Sinkov says the third-party publishers have no access to Evernote data, that’s not necessarily clear to the user. The idea that Evernote has access to the content of all notes, both personal and professional, and is using that data to power an algorithm without asking the user to opt-in is, to some, worrisome. The fear that those notes — which could contain, for example, proprietary business information — are somehow being made available to unknown journalistic entities could be seen as downright disturbing. Sinkov says Evernote is aware of these concerns, and is working to address them with users. “We have these three laws of data protection that we take very seriously, about privacy and data ownership and data portability,” he says. For example, though it would be theoretically very useful for Evernote to use the content of notes to learn more about the demographics of its user base — where they work, how old they are, where they live — they don’t. Going forward, Sinkov says Evernote needs to do a better job of publicizing the steps the company takes to protect users. He believes that if people better understood how Context works — that the data flows only one way and that there’s no money involved — they would be more open to the benefits of the product. Without that information being made explicit, users often assume the worst of tech companies; with recent headlines in mind, it’s not hard to see why. “We’ve been beaten down in some ways by expectations that ‘the company is going to sell my data, and I’m not going to know about it, and it’s going to be bad.’ That’s why these unfortunate reactions happen,” Sinkov says. There are, of course, Evernote users who enjoy using Context, which makes sense. The idea of having links to background information made available automatically as I write sounds convenient and useful — no more opening a new tab and searching for the CEO’s name or the source’s appropriate title or the date of the original launch. Frictionless delivery of the facts I need to do my work without having to ask for it sounds, to me, like the future. But it takes a significant amount of private information to power tools like that, and it’s often unclear which companies are reliable enough to be trusted with that information. As our digital world becomes increasingly circumscribed by the machines that watch us as we work and play, we will be faced with more frequent decisions about who and what else we want to see in those spaces. “The algorithms we have running are intended to do one thing. If there’s a fatigue that says ‘I don’t want algorithms,’ that’s unfortunate,” Sinkov says. “There are good algorithms, and there are less good algorithms. If we wanted to stay in a world where it’s literally your head to your fingers to a keyboard to a screen, we’re there. That’s already the world we live in. What’s next?” eyebrows-1

New Pew Journalism report examines newsroom partnerships


This post is by Caroline O'Donovan from Nieman Lab


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A new report out today from the Pew Research Center’s Journalism Project takes a look at how partnerships work in journalism by way of five case studies. Rick Edmonds and Amy Mitchell write about collaborations between Charlottesville Tomorrow and The Daily Progress; I-News Network, Rocky Mountain PBS, and KUSA-TV; five Texas newspapers; The Lens and WWNO Public Radio; and The Toronto Star and El Nuevo Herald. It’s worth noting that these examples include both nonprofit and commercial partnerships. The report finds that, broadly, the majority of these partnerships are born out of economic necessity, and that, despite their increasing prevalence, they can be difficult to manage successfully. Interestingly, the authors say that many of these collaborations are easier to execute in legacy media — namely print and broadcast — than digitally, because of technological barriers such as incompatible content management systems. Also of interest is the observation that few of the partnerships are financial in nature. For the most part, the goal is to work more efficiently, reach a broader audience, and tell a better story, rather than for one side or the other to increase revenue. For example, the Texas Front-Page Exchange has been sharing content gratis for five years now. From the report:
What stood in the way of this sort of cooperation for decades was industry prosperity, big newsroom budgets and a tradition whose definition of quality began with running only the work of your own staff along with wire stories. But particularly after papers scaled back any statewide circulation ambitions as hard times set in, there came to be very little competition for audience among the five.

Other editors share Mong’s view that the cooperation, while not central to editorial strategy, is a distinct plus. Nancy Barnes came to the Chronicle in October 2013 after years at the Star Tribune of Minneapolis and began as a skeptic. “I was surprised—giving away all that content for free? But in fact these are all very distinct markets. The exchange helps us avoid redundant effort. It seems a very innovative solution.”

Finance media’s hottest club is Ello


This post is by Caroline O'Donovan from Nieman Lab


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By now, you’ve probably heard of Ello, the anti-Facebook social networking site founded by a handful of graphic designers. Though initially meant to be a closed experiment in network building, Ello grew popular due to its anti-advertising, anti-data mining stance. As Kyle Chayka wrote for Gizmodo not long ago, Ello also fits into the Web 1.0 trend, driven both by nostalgia for the aesthetic of decades old web design and a desire for respite from the age of massive social platforms. From Chayka’s story:
“People have more fun when they can be vulnerable and open,” [Paul] Ford explained to me in an email. Especially when they “aren’t bracing themselves for a bunch of shrieking assholes to violently weigh in on every possible thing in order to score more virtual rage points.” The appeal of a tighter content ecosystem is clear when any public tweet might be singled out by an internet terror machine like Gamergate.

Though the quieter environments can be a more productive place to talk, the flip side of that is they’re inherently more exclusive; Ello, for example, is still invite-only. With its retro-trendy, whitespace-heavy design, Ello has been popular among designers, artists, photographers, filmmakers, and other professionals whose brands are heavy on visuals. But as the network has grown, so has the diversity among subgroups. Journalism professor Jay Rosen, for example, has been blogging on the platform with regularity. But the first journalistic subgroup for whom Ello really hit home is finance journalists — at least a little ironic, given the site’s origins. Earlier this fall, journalists like Bloomberg’s Joe Weisenthal started jokingly referring to the growing community of business writers on the site as “Finance Ello.” Screen Shot 2014-11-24 at 4.29.08 PM Weisenthal only joined Bloomberg recently from Business Insider, and was briefly without a platform to publish on between jobs. For a high-metabolism reporter, that can be a frustrating situation to be in, one which open platforms like Ello provide an interim solution for. jobs day Since jobs day (which is like a monthly election day for finance media) Weisenthal has been actively encouraging other business writers on Twitter to join the new platform, offering invitations, promoting the work of other journalists, and even pushing people to follow the Bloomberg News account. In fact, as of late November, he’s actively hiring someone to run Bloomberg’s Ello (and Twitter and Facebook) accounts: Through his efforts, uptake has sharply increased. Finance journalists who have migrated to Ello include other Bloomberg employees, Wall Street Journal correspondents, Business Insider writers, Financial Times reporters, Economist bloggers and more. There, they write notes with charts about breaking finance news, share links to published stories and comment on each other’s analysis. In an email, Wiesenthal told me he considers Finance Ello 80 percent serious and 20 percent joke. “The joke part is that it’s kind of a novelty to post in a totally new place that at first blush doesn’t offer *that* many advantages over what exists,” he says. Indeed, there’s little extraordinary about Ello. It’s unlikely to become the next huge traffic driving platform, or change how most journalists do business. But it’s interesting to observe how people in the profession gather online and use new digital tools to communicate about their work. For one thing, Ello lacks the character limits of Twitter, which makes it an ideal home for blogpost-length writing without the barrier of having to actually start your own blog — not unlike Medium’s pitch to writers. With a baked-in community of users and relatively functional comment threads, Ello makes sense as a place to gather for thoughtful conversation. “You can do a post the length of a tweet. Or you can do something longer,” says Weisenthal. “And then it’s very easy to see a conversation grouped around one post, rather than a sprawling thread that can be difficult to track.” Semi-private — or semi-private feeling — spaces like Ello tend to allow for more candid conversation than hugely popular social sites, which is part of their draw. Reporters see the platform as a safe space to test out new theories. For example, Business Insider reporter Shane Ferro wrote a somewhat personal Ello post about transitioning from a job in legacy media to a job at a startup and the cultural differences in those two environments. “It’s nice to have a space that feels a little bit quieter, and which lends itself to longer thoughts,” says Weisenthal. “I love Twitter, but it can be a shouty place, and Finance Twitter tends to be less shouty than, say, Politics Twitter. So the peace and quiet of Ello is nice.” Another benefit of Ello over other platforms is the ease with which graphics can be included in posts, according to Weisenthal. “Finance and econ talk is often greatly helped by the ability to include tables and charts within the discussion, which Ello does naturally,” he says. On Twitter, images take up precious character space; on Ello, that’s not a problem. Matthew Boes covers the Federal Reserve for Bloomberg; he’s been taking considerable advantage of Ello’s graphically-inclined interface. (His embrace of Ello is likely not unrelated to his boss’s — Weisenthal’s — enthusiasm.) Screen Shot 2014-11-26 at 10.56.07 AM Ello doesn’t function seamlessly for everyone. Designer Jeffrey van der Goot wrote on Medium about the ways in which the site’s weighting of design over function prevent it from being widely usable. In a post on The Toast called “You’re Not Stupid; Ello is Badly Designed,” Elena Palmer details the frustration of trying to discover and talk to friends on the platform. The difficulties of using Ello for fast and efficient communication are not lost on the members of Finance Ello. Bloomberg’s Matt Levine wrote a post on Ello about what he thinks the site is good for — talking to people, rather than linking to external publisher content. But in a reply, user Lew Burton expressed his frustration with the site. “I like Ello, but it kinda feels like my old bike where the kickstart never worked and I would miss the early ferry,” he writes. “I find that the flow is awkward, I want to be alerted to conversations being updated, and don’t get that here.” Despite the initial splash of Ello’s release, it doesn’t feel like the mainstream conversation has moved there. The company hasn’t released numbers on active users, but early analysis suggests that only a small fraction of Ello’s comparatively small user base posts regularly on the site. But it’s possible that for niche communities like Finance Ello, the platform’s clunkiness and small user base is more feature than bug. After all, that’s what lends the site its air of privacy: As with so many things, if it were easier to use or more popular, it wouldn’t be as fun. Cale Weissman, a reporter for Business Insider Intelligence, agrees that Ello’s alternative, artisanal aesthetic could be part of the draw. Recall the 20 percent of Finance Ello that’s a joke — maybe part of it is the irony of a bunch of reporters who obsess over markets and jobs rates and stock indexes electing somewhat arbitrarily to descend on a design-forward social media platform that has rejected the primary way social networks make money. Whether you see the humor in that or not, the really funny thing is that Finance Ello might actually be taking off. “I think if anyone actually knew what it took to get people to move platforms en masse they’d be really rich,” Weisenthal says. “Still seems like kind of a mystery to me.”

First Look Media is shutting down Racket and letting its staff go


This post is by Caroline O'Donovan from Nieman Lab


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First Look Media announced today that Racket, the political satire magazine originally headed by Matt Taibbi, is shutting down.
Since Matt Taibbi’s departure, we’ve been working with the team he hired to consider various options for launching a project without him. After multiple explorations, we’ve decided not to pursue the project. Unfortunately, this means that the team Matt hired will be let go.

The announcement follows weeks of seeming instability at the company. New York Magazine’s Andrew Rice broke the news last month that Taibbi, who had been brought on to run the magazine, would be leaving the project. The team at First Look’s The Intercept followed up with a detailed explanation of the management and culture clashes that led up to his departure. Shortly thereafter, Glenn Greenwald announced that editor-in-chief John Cook was leaving The Intercept and returning to Gawker Media. In the wake of Taibbi’s departure, the remaining staff of Racket, presumably under the leadership of Racket executive editor Alex Pareene launched a new project that fit in well with what was to have been the magazine’s satirical tone and penchant for pranks. RacketTeen, a somewhat inscrutable Tumblr account, poked fun at everything from Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to media insiders to parents. The announcement, which leaves the entire staff of Racket without jobs, was met with consternation and general upset by those in the media who had hoped RacketTeen was the sign of more cutting-edge commentary to come. Some also expressed concerns for how the staff had been treated by First Look.
What’s next for the staff of Racket, and for First Look, remains to be seen. I reached out to Racket staff members for comment, but so far haven’t heard anything back. Amid the wry jokes, though, it’s important to remember that Pierre Omidyar, First Look’s founder, promised $250 million to the project last year. The organization is often cited on the list of new media projects that are cause for optimism about the state of the industry. With plenty of funds and talent on hand, there’s considerable confusion over what is causing First Look to falter.

What’s the right news experience on a phone? Stacy-Marie Ishmael and BuzzFeed are trying to figure it out


This post is by Caroline O'Donovan from Nieman Lab


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A
few weeks ago, we wrote about BuzzFeed’s hiring of Stacy-Marie Ishmael, formerly of the Financial Times, as the editorial lead for their forthcoming news app. Product lead Noah Chestnut, formerly of The New Republic, has been working on building a product that will serve news in a mobile context to core BuzzFeed News readers for a few months now. Ishmael helped start one of the FT’s first blogs, Alphaville, which allowed the paper to experiment with tone for the first time. Connecting with digital financial communities eventually inspired Ishmael to look into how the paper could build a deeper relationship with its readership offline. As vice president of communities, Ishmael expanded an events business at the FT that has come to include over 200 conferences a year. But BuzzFeed offers Ishmael the opportunity to explore an area she’s never taken on directly — general news. She’s been thinking a lot about ways to reach to reach BuzzFeed’s audience on mobile, like push notifications, email newsletters, and Twitter cards. Both she and Chestnut want to find a way to predict users’ information needs without asking them to commit time to establishing preferences and to provide an overall delightful experience on par with Instagram or Tinder. As Ishmael has been preparing to leave the FT, Chestnut has been busy building up a staff of developers and researching competitors. During that transition, I had the chance to talk with Ishmael about her plans for the app, including her own mobile media diet, management philosophy, and experience in audience development. Here’s a lightly edited version of our conversation.
O’Donovan: How do you see the division between the product side and the editorial side of this app?
Ishmael: I think it’s going to be hard to separate them, and not just because both Noah and I are two people. I like talking about living at the intersections of things — I have a strong product background and a strong news background, and so does he. Increasingly on mobile — and especially for sophisticated technology companies that are in media, like BuzzFeed — when you talk about the editorial, the editorial is the product. The story is the product. You can see the way that’s informed a lot of their editorial strategy — like, promoting Tom Phillips to be head of new formats. They’re thinking about stories, but they’re also thinking about ways to tell those stories. So Noah and I are going to be working very, very closely together from the beginning. Which is not to say that there’s going to be any interference into the editorial. I’ve been really impressed with the way that Ben [Smith, BuzzFeed’s editor-in-chief] has handled this especially. It’s very easy for people to talk about news organizations like BuzzFeed News and say “there’s so much interference from the commercial side.” I haven’t seen that at all.
O’Donovan: So far, what’s your sense of what the product team is building? Are they checking in with you and asking what you might what to present, or is yours going to be a primarily news decision-making job?
Ishmael: I think it’s going to be more talking to each other multiple times a day on Slack about: How does this enable the editorial vision? The editorial vision for BuzzFeed News is to be a great news organization, have a fantastic newsroom with people all over the world gathering news, reporting, telling great stories, having exclusives and scoops. Mobile is yet another way to get in front of sophisticated, interesting, demanding audiences. In addition to brilliant stories about Ebola, they want to get that in a way that is contextual, frictionless — I don’t want to use the word “delightful” in a story about Ebola, but they want the experience to be really, really seamless.
I think for a long time, news organizations have struggled with figuring out how to create great experiences in digital. In a lot of cases, the print reading experience is the best reading experience. For most people. I subscribe to The New Yorker in print because for me, it’s just better. I like flipping the pages, I like having the opportunity to read in a longer form way. But…I find that mobile is the thing I read most after my magazine. I’ve always found reading the weekend editions of most newspapers to be really difficult. You look at The New York Times on the weekend and you feel like you’re never going to get through it! What we’re trying to figure out with this mobile app is: How do we create that delightful news experience for this audience and for this generation, that expects that?
O’Donovan: I was at the Online News Association conference and every time people were talking about a “delightful” mobile experience, they could not resist talking about Tinder! It came up a number of times.
Ishmael: My team at the FT’s actually written a piece about what news organizations can learn from dating apps. The interesting thing about Tinder is it introduced a new interaction paradigm into mainstream use — the swipe. Swipe left, swipe right. I don’t even use Tinder, and have not used Tinder, but I downloaded an app the other day, and it was a scroll app, and I was like, what the hell! Why can’t I swipe on this thing? Influences can come from a lot of different places. I’ve always been agnostic about where good ideas come from. When I was a finance reporter, what seems like a million years ago now, I would try to write in a way that still felt interesting and accessible. Nobody actually wants to read about credit derivatives unless they have to. Why would you punish them by having really turgid writing? I feel the same way about product development. If the best ideas are coming from dating apps, we should try those. If the best ideas are coming from physical design and 3D printing, we should see what we can learn from that as well. I don’t think that only looking at things that other media organizations are doing is where you’re going to get most of your inspiration.
O’Donovan: So, is the BuzzFeed News app going to involve a lot of swiping left and right?
Ishmael: We don’t know yet! We have the basic designs that we’re looking at. The key for this is to feel really easy — for it to feel like something you don’t have to spend a lot of time configuring.
I technically qualify as a milennial. You could talk about me as being one of the attention-deprived generation. But I’m also the kind of person who likes tinkering. I like setting things up. I like messing around in my settings. But I know I’m not representative. And actually, when apps ask me to spend a lot of time — Tell us all your preferences! — I’m like, I don’t want to! I want you to help me make informed decisions. That’s what we’re going to try to do. One of the things that I have always respected about the FT and always will respect about the FT is we pride ourselves on having really strong editorial judgement. One of our old taglines is “Without fear and without favor.” We are going to give you an unvarnished look at what we think is important today, and we are going to help you make good decisions. I really want that ethos to inform how we present the news at BuzzFeed.   There’s always this tension — you see it now in newsrooms, where people are like, I’m really worried if we only focus on data and analytics, we’re only going to write things about what people say they want to read rather than what they actually should be doing. The “should” is seen as worthy — it’s seen as the public service journalism versus are they really just going to look at pictures of Kim Kardashian? I think that’s a false dichotomy. I think good editors understand how to present compelling mixtures of the worthy and the funny and the fascinating. If you’re good, the worthy is also funny and fascinating and you want to read it. It’s on us to be able to deliver that, and I think we will.
O’Donovan: It sounds like you want this to be a core news source. Like, someone could go through their day and not check for news anywhere else and be fairly well caught up.
Ishmael: The way that I’ve been thinking about this is — almost everybody has that one friend who’s really interesting and really witty and who’s, like, the sparkling guest at the dinner party. They always have that one anecdote that nobody else at the dinner party has. We want to be that friend. We want you to come across something through us that you would never have otherwise seen that is a nugget of interestingness that makes you more informed. It’s not always going to be something that we write. We will link if someone else is doing interesting things; we want to highlight that as well. One of the things that Ben always says is that we want to make sure that the good news rises. I don’t mean good in the sense of positive, but if other people are doing good work, we should highlight that good work wherever it lives on the Internet.
O’Donovan: Who do you see being the core audience for the BuzzFeed news app?
Ishmael: In the beginning, we’re going to focus on the people who are currently coming and reading BuzzFeed News on the site. BuzzFeed News has solid traffic. It has an engaged audience. There are people who come back and follow the series that they’re doing. Having Max [Seddon] in Ukraine, he becomes a destination for a generation of people who might not even know the names of other people covering these kinds of stories at other media organizations, but they have a strong relationship with BuzzFeed. BuzzFeed is one of their destinations, so BuzzFeed News becomes one of their destinations. We want to be one of the options when somebody is either, say, going to college for the first time or going to their first job. A rite of passage for people used to be: And now I’ll subscribe to The Economist. I think there’s going to be a generation for whom it’s going to be: And now I’m going to download the BuzzFeed News app. That’s where we want to get to.
O’Donovan: I want to go back a little bit to where you were before this. Can you tell me what you were doing at the FT?
Ishmael: So this was my second stint at the FT, which tells you a little bit about how much I love them. The role of communities is really about ensuring that the FT has a strategy and a commitment to creating and deepening meaningful relationships with our audiences around the world. I mean that in a really uncynical way. We know that our audiences are extremely interesting people, that they are running countries and companies and central banks around the world, and there’s a lot we can learn from them in addition to being of service to them as a news organization.
My team gets to do fun things. We get to do things like organize events for women in business and technology. Or we get to come up with better ways of packaging our news so that it’s even more relevant to students at business schools. We get to show that we are a key part of the product development process and that we represent the changing needs of our audiences. One of the tensions that media organizations have is we’re sometimes using technology that is a couple of years behind what our readers are using. It wasn’t that long ago that most reporters had BlackBerrys, which was not representative of phones people are actually using. What that means in the newsroom is your view of the world, or how people are consuming the world, is actually completely different from the reality. One of the tangible responsibilities of the communities team is to make sure that we are in touch with what our audiences are interested in. Where are they on social if they’re on social? What events do they find interesting? We have an events business that does 200 conferences a year; we want to make sure that we’re delivering great experiences for them.
O’Donovan: Those people that you’re talking about — those loyal FT subscribers — are a really different population than the people who are reading BuzzFeed News. Is that going to be a big adjustment for you?
Ishmael: I like challenges. There’s two things that I have always been really obsessed with. One is building fantastic teams, and the other is solving hard problems. I think of news as a public service. I think it’s really important to functioning democracies that you have people who are informed, not just about their own neighborhoods and their own families and their own lives, but the context in which they’re operating. Being at FT reader is an enormous privilege, because you’ve gotten to the point where not only are you informed about your own life, but you’re also being informed about the world to an extent that can be incredibly esoteric. You’re probably one of those people that’s going to Davos. That’s incredibly important, and that’s one of the reasons the FT is now 126 years old. But there’s a generation coming up who don’t think of themselves as the future Ben Bernanke. That’s totally fair — most people will never be Ben Bernanke. But I still want them to have the opportunity to be informed about the world and to understand what’s going on and be fascinated by countries outside of their own. I think general news is a fascinating market, and I’m really looking forward to that.
O’Donovan: At the FT you also worked on a couple of standalone products. What were the big challenges? What did you learn about managing a team that’s working on a product that’s of the newsroom but also inherently separate, from a management perspective? And what of that do you want to bring to BuzzFeed?
Ishmael: One of the very first things that I learned is that it’s super important for your team to understand how they fit in and align with the overall strategy of the organization. As soon as people feel like they don’t know why they’re doing what they’re doing, it becomes very difficult to succeed. I feel that it’s going to be crucial to understand the importance of BuzzFeed News. The second thing is it’s incredibly important to create an environment in which people feel simultaneously supported and challenged. The kinds of people who opt into working on products that don’t exist in a crowded marketplace at a super fast-growing technology company tend to have self-selecting personalities. It’s really easy for those teams to get obsessed with a particular problem, or take it really hard if they feel like they’re not making progress. It’s the responsibility of the people leading those teams to help people grow and learn and understand that we’re not going to get everything right the first time, and that’s okay.
O’Donovan: I don’t quite want to ask who are you going to hire, but what is that team going to look like? How big is it? And beyond people who are ambitious and into news, what kind of skill sets are you looking to combine?
Ishmael: One of the first things I’m looking for is attitude. I want people who want to solve problems, who think creatively, who have — to use the jargon — grit. Lucy Kellaway, who’s an FT columnist who I adore, wrote a column about the importance of conscientiousness, which is wanting to get the thing done and being motivated to get the thing done. I also have a really strict no-asshole policy. In all of the teams I’ve built it’s like, if you’re a jerk — no matter how talented you are, no matter how brilliant — I’m not interested.
O’Donovan: That sounds like it will mesh well with BuzzFeed’s hiring policy.
Ishmael: Exactly. Shani [Hilton, BuzzFeed’s executive editor] has done a really good job of also not tolerating assholes.
In terms of the skills and the interests, I’ve been thinking about this in a couple of ways. One of them is I want people who are really beautiful writers, who have the ability to make copy sing. Going back to what I said about when I was trying to write for the FT — nobody has to read you. You have to earn that. You have to respect people’s attention. One way that you respect people’s attention is by being a good writer and by being able to present things in interesting and engaging ways so that reading is actually a pleasure. I’m also looking for people who like making phone calls and like going out and finding stories and breaking news. Sometimes, the people who are really strong reporters are not necessarily the same people who are the really strong writers and editors, and that’s totally fine. I’m looking for people who think in images. I’m completely open about the fact that I grew up in an Internet that was very text-heavy. My default is to think in words. I need people who don’t think in words. I need people who think in pictures and videos, who think in slideshows and who think in charts. The Internet is an increasingly visual place. The web is an increasingly visual place. Pretty much everything on social is a picture. We have to be able to build a team that has that skill set as a core competency. And then I’m looking for people who are really good at reading the Internet. That one friend who no matter what link you send them, they’re like, “Oh, I’ve already read that.” There’s going to be a very strong element of finding good stuff that’s out there and linking to it. That’s a skill. There are people who are very, very good at finding that one thing that no one else has seen, and I’m looking for those people as well.
O’Donovan: Yeah, that’s a newish skill set.
Ishmael: It is newish. It’s also an old one. Newspapers back in the day used to have teams of what they called copy-tasters. Those were people who read all of the wires, who would read all of the wires coming in on AP and Reuters and Bloomberg and AFP, and say “This is what we need to be covering,” and they would pass it on to the news desk. So, in a way, nothing in news is really new.
O’Donovan: You brought up social — we know that the social web is also the mobile web, right? If something is breaking, it’s going to be big on social, and people are going to be checking it on mobile. But when you’re talking about an app, there’s this problem of where that’s going to open. How are you thinking about solving that problem? Or is it going to have to be that, in the beginning, the app is for core users who are going to open it directly?
Ishmael: There are three elements to this. One is acknowledging that your app has to do a good job of presenting things to people in a contextual and relevant way, in a realtime way. My favorite app right now, on both Android and iOS — because obviously I have more than one device — is Google Now.
O’Donovan: You walk around with two phones in your bag?
Ishmael: Yes, it’s true. One of the funny things is, Noah and I have actually known each other for a while. One of the first times we met for coffee we both took out these two phones and were like: We’re going to get along really well. One of the things I like about Google Now is it’s managed to not be creepy. I think that’s actually hard for Google, because Google has sometimes been super creepy. But this app will be like, “You should probably leave home if you want to make it to the office on time, because it’s going to take 39 minutes because the 7 train’s not running properly.” Or, “By the way, did you know that FC Barcelona — which is my favorite football team — is playing today and they’re playing Real Madrid at 2 p.m.” And it’s great, because I never have to go into Google Now, because Google Now comes to me. It presents itself in ways that are useful, and I really appreciate that. So that’s going to be one of the things we have to solve — knowing that people don’t go into apps unless it’s something like a Facebook or an Instagram or a Pocket or an Evernote — how do we get in front of them regardless? That’s the first challenge. The second challenge is how do we make really good use of email. Now, I’ve been obsessed with email for a long time, and now I see everybody else is obsessed with email — which is fine. Why is everyone in your inbox? Because people still spend a lot of time reading email. We complain about it, but we still do it, and we sign up for more stuff all the time. So I think email alerts and email newsletters are popular because they tap into a need that isn’t going away. So that’s certainly something that we look at and explore and try to do well. I think BuzzFeed is actually pretty good at email. The longreads email, which is edited by Dan [Oshinsky], is fantastic. It’s one of the things I look forward to reading on the weekend. The third is what you described. It’s signaling out how you integrate social into the flow. One of the huge advantages that the news app team is going to have is that we are part of BuzzFeed, which is really good at social. As an organization, it understands how to be interesting on social without being patronizing. It doesn’t resort to the kinds of tricks that make you hate yourself when you click on something, and I appreciate that. I’m really looking forward to learning from people like Dao [Nguyen, BuzzFeed’s publisher] about the kinds of techniques we can use. Whether it’s Twitter Cards that lead to the app, whether it’s publishing straight to a story, or, if you’re on Android, you click on it and it will ask if you want to view this in the app — it’s an evolving space, and it’s a really exciting one.
O’Donovan: The email newsletter thing — is that going to be born out in how you use and voice push notifications and other alerts?
Ishmael: Absolutely. I don’t think it’s possible to be a media organization without some kind of notification strategy. Your notifications could be direct from your app, they could be tying into IFTTT, it could be getting into email. I’ve been watching with interest what Evernote is doing with media organizations. Evernote just signed these deals with people like the Journal and Dow Jones where, if you’re editing a note in Evernote Business, you’re going to see relevant things from Factiva and Dow Jones and The Wall Street Journal. It’s about: How do you get into people’s workflows in a way that doesn’t feel obtrusive and that is actually totally relevant to whatever they’re doing at that time?
O’Donovan: Right. That’s what people say about Tinder, and apps like Instagram: How do you become an app that people are addicted to? That they open compulsively?
Ishmael: Two of the books that I’ve been reading, or rereading, is one called Don’t Make Me Think by Steve Krug, and another called The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman. These are completely different universes. One of them is about chairs and doors and entrances and how you design spaces that make sense, and the other one is about web development. But the thing they both have at the heart of them is: how do you make it super easy and actually pleasurable for somebody to complete a task that they might not want to complete but they have to? It’s fascinating.

Can Berkeleyside turn an engaged community into a profitable membership program?


This post is by Caroline O'Donovan from Nieman Lab


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If you were a resident of Berkeley, California with free time on your hands and a sense of curiosity, you might have found yourself a couple of weekends ago at Uncharted, an “ideas festival” put on by local news site Berkeleyside. Berkeleyside founders Tracey Taylor and Frances Dinkelspiel told me that they, along with cofounder and editor-in-chief Lance Knobel, discovered an appetite in the community for such an event, and thought it might become a viable source of revenue. October’s Uncharted was the second such festival put on by Berkeleyside; the roster of speakers included authors, academics, journalists, executives, and more. Another thing that you, as a theoretical resident of Berkeley, California, might have been doing that weekend was sharing your experiences at Uncharted with like-minded souls on a subreddit called BerkeleysNide, a forum “where it’s OK to be snide about the news in Berkeley!” As is probably made clear by the name, redditors on BerkleysNide enjoy attacking and speculating about Berkeleyside almost as much as they love aggregating and sharing news links about their town. A new post goes up on BerkeleysNide practically every day. In the course of the discussion about Uncharted, commenters discussed theories about the site’s funding model (“Berkeleyside/Uncharted is significantly funded by a very limited and demographically (& ideologically) uniform pool of ‘angel’ patrons”), its founders’ agenda (“an attempt by Lance Knobel to position himself with respect to certain sources of subsidy”), its niche (“I need to spend less time on Berkeleyside, which just absorbs some of the vacuum created by an absence of real civic life here”) and more.
Berkeleyside’s leaders don’t mind the shade. “We’re important enough that five people hate us,” says Dinkelspiel, who is often called out by first name on the subreddit. Indeed, the staff of Berkeleyside take great satisfaction from their hyper-engaged audience, who regularly leave dozens or hundreds of comments on stories about things like soda taxes (passed yesterday) and traffic patterns. “It’s very much a part of the fabric of the site,” says Taylor. Berkeleyside sees around 160,000 unique visitors a month — impressive, considering there are only around 116,000 people living in Berkeley. The site has a staff of five, including the three founders (some of whom have second jobs), plus reporter Emilie Raguso and advertising director Wendy Cohen. In addition, Berkeleyside employs a rotating cast of around a dozen freelancers who help support their coverage of food, local artists, municipal policy, politics, and culture. Revenue for 2013 was around $218,000, and the team is projecting revenues for this year at around $350,000 — no small feat for a small team covering a small city. One thing that’s helped Berkeleyside grow its audience is strategic partnerships with other organizations, including KQED and The San Francisco Chronicle. In exchange for helping regional newsrooms fill coverage gaps they can no longer afford to report on themselves, Berkeleyside grows its impact. With KQED, for example, staffers get a chance to go on air and promote the site.
“With the Chron, they give us tiny amounts of money based on traffic — pageviews that they get as the result of publishing our stories — but where the advantage really is for us is if they put our stories on their homepage,” says Taylor. “It’s a really nice firehose of readers that helps us keep our numbers up.” According to Dinkelspiel, who once worked for the San Jose Mercury News, rather than breed a sense of competition in the Bay Area news market, symbiotic relationships like these create a cooperative atmosphere in which what matters is making sure stories get covered. “The Mercury and the Chronicle used to have 1,000 reporters combined,” she says. “Now they have fewer than 300 together. You can see it in the lack of news coverage. I think both papers make a valiant effort to cover things, but the bread and butter stuff people used to rely on them for is not happening.” About six months after launching Berkeleyside in 2009, the founders decided they needed someone to take over ad sales. They felt hiring a professional would both be more ethical and more efficient. Wendy Cohen had no experience in digital when she came on board, but she had worked at Condé Nast and was interested in the project. Many local news entrepreneurs come to realize in starting a media business just how difficult and time-consuming sales can be, but finding the right person — or the funds to pay them — is rarely easy. “She brought a huge amount of expertise in building brand awareness,” says Dinkelspiel. “It’s not just a job to her. It’s building this thing — what are we going to do with this thing that is Berkeleyside?” Today, Dinkelspiel and Taylor say Berkeleyside is nearly sold out of online inventory. As ever with local news, having a geographically and demographically definable audience helps: Berkeley companies want to advertise to Berkeley residents who, conveniently, tend to be wealthy, educated, and a bit older. Delineated content verticals, especially around lifestyle issues, are also an easy sell; for example The Nosh, Berkeleyside’s food and dining vertical, counts Whole Foods among many others as an advertiser. NOSH The site has also experimented with sponsored content, like a cooking tips video blog sponsored by a local restaurant company and a real estate data analysis package sponsored by a realtor. But lately, as the Uncharted event suggests, Berkeleyside has been pushing beyond merely advertising as a revenue strategy. “Wendy was the one who said, You need to get out there in the community,” says Dinkelspiel. They started by organizing local business forums and ratcheted up from there. In 2012, they held an event with local speakers called “Three Michaels,” featuring Berkeley residents Chabon, Lewis, and Pollan. Uncharted had an impressive array of sponsors. Knobel, one of the founders, works in events planning professionally outside of Berkeleyside and has run programming at major global conferences including Davos and The New York Forum. His expertise helped Berkeleyside cash in on the events trend in media quickly. “We’re not inventing the wheel, but we think we’ve got the in-house expertise and the community that really wants that sort of thing,” says Taylor.
Being responsive to and involved in that community — BerkeleysNide and all — is important to the site’s sustainability. Their third revenue arm for Berkeleyside after advertising and events is a relatively new membership program where, in exchange for small donations, readers get perks like free event tickets and access to parties. “We feel like, membership, we could go very far with that. We don’t do a good job asking members to donate,” says Dinkelspiel. If Berkeleyside wants to pay for a site redesign (which would cost “several thousands of dollars”) or expand their coverage area (a considerable undertaking) or pay themselves a living wage (which they haven’t done yet), the next step is to see is whether they can convert lower-tier forms of engagement, like comments and event attendance, into the dollars that they need. “There’s no formula, that’s a sure thing,” says Dinkelspiel. “We’re a very successful site in many ways, but we’re still not there yet.”
Photo of Berkeley (foreground) and San Francisco taken from Sather Tower by Gordon Mei used under a Creative Commons license.