About Frédéric Filloux

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The Quartz Way (1)

 

Quartz, a web-only business publication, just turned one year old. On both editorial and business dimensions, Quartz features all components of a modern media venture. Is this a formula for the long run? To answer the question, in the first of two articles, we take a closer look at the editorial product.

Quartz (qz.com) is the kind of media most business writers would love to be part of. It’s smart, fun, witty, basic and sophisticated at the same time. Like Jony Ive design at Apple, its apparent simplicity is the combined product of deep thought and of a series of bold moves by its owner, the Atlantic Media group, publisher of the eponymous monthly. From all standpoints, content, organization or even business model, Quartz came up with innovations (see the Monday Note I wrote for the launch in September 2012).

Ten days ago, my phone interview with editor-in-chief Kevin Delaney, started with a discussion of his newsroom of 25 writers and editors. On Tuesday September 24 at 9pm Paris Time, Quartz had this piece at the top of its infinite scroll:

Quartz illustr

Editorially, this epitomizes (in a way) what Quartz is about: topics addressed through well-defined angles (in this case, the idea that if Amazon hit large book retailers hard, it didn’t have much impact on small independent bookstores.) The story was short but right to the point — taking the opposite side of the now worn tale of Amazon devastating the book-selling landscape. To illustrate his piece, instead of using yet another photograph of Jeff Bezos haranguing a crowd, the writer picked this weird image of a girl showing off at a bookstore event.

Yes, at Quartz, journalists are the ones who get to select the pictures that go with their article. Most of the time, this yields better audience numbers.

Actually, explains Kevin Delaney, the staff is supposed to produce a complete package, ready to be processed by editors, with links, headline, photos (lifted from Reuters, Getty, AP or sometime the Creative Commons trove) properly cropped and adjusted. Everything is done within a WordPress interface, chosen for its versatility, but also because most journalists already know to use it. As for headlines (the task usually handled by editors), the Quartz newsroom relies on team chats to quickly and collaboratively work on pieces.

kevin_delaney
Kevin Delaney (photo: Quartz)

The same goes for graphics like in this snapshot of Tweeter’s IPO prospectus, a part of the magazine’s comprehensive coverage of the upcoming event. To further encourage the use of graphics and charts in stories, Quartz engineering director Michael Donohoe (a NYT alumni) ChartBuilder, a bespoke, easy to use tool.  [Correction : as pointed out by Quartz'global news editor Gideon Lichfield, ChartBuilder has been developed by David Yanofsky, one of Quartz journalist/coder/data hackers...] As an internet-native company, Quartz threw its software in the open-source world (see how it looks in Github) — an unthinkable move in the close-to-the-vest legacy media world…

While listening to Delaney describing his organization, I couldn’t help but mentally itemize what separates its super-agile setup from traditional media. A couple of months ago, I met the digital management of a major UK newspaper. There, execs kept whining about the slow pace evolution of the news staff and the struggle to get writers to add links and basic metadata (don’t even think about pix or graphics) to their work product. By and large, most legacy media I know of, in France, UK and the United States, are years behind swift boats such as Quartz, Politico or the older but still sharp Slate.

I used to think the breadth and depth of older large newsrooms could guarantee their survival in a digital world plagued by mediocrity and loose ethics. But considering great pure players like Quartz — which is just the latest offspring of a larger league — I now come to think we are witnessing the emergence of a new breed of smaller, digital-only outlets that are closing the gap, quality-wise, with legacy media. In the context of an increasingly segmented and short-on-time readership, I can only wonder how long the legacy newsroom’s strategic advantage of size and scope will last.

Quartz editorial staff has nothing to do with the low-paid, poultry farm newsrooms of many digital outlets. Most of the 25 journalists and editors (out a staff of 50) were drawn from well established brands such as Bloomberg, The Economist, Reuters, New York Magazine or The Wall Street Journal (Kevin Delaney, 41, is himself a former WSJ.com managing editor). “Our staff is slightly younger than the average newsroom, and it is steeped in the notion of entrepreneurial journalism”, says the Quartz editor-in-chief. “With Quartz, we had many opportunity to rethink the assumptions of traditional media”.

The original idea was to devise how The Economist would look like if it had been born in 2012 rather than in 1843, explains Delaney. It would be digital native, mostly for mobile reading, and focus on contemporary economic engines such as digital, globalization, e-commerce, the future of energy, debt, China, etc. Instead of abiding by the usual classification of business news that looks like a nomenclature from the Bureau of Labor Statistics  (Industry, Services, Markets, Trade, etc.), Quartz opted for a sexier taxonomy; its coverage is based on an evolving list of “Obsessions“, a much more cognitive-friendly way to consider the news cycle than the usual “beat” (read this on the matter). As an avid magazine reader, Delaney said he derived the idea from publications like New York Magazine.

The challenge is connecting this categorization to audience expectations… Hence the importance of the social reverberation of Quartz treatments. They translate into stunning numbers: according to Kevin Delaney, 85% to 90% of its traffic is “earned” and social referrals account 50% of the site’s traffic. In other words, the traffic coming from people typing http://qz.com in their browser accounts for only 10-15% of the volume. To put things in perspective, on a legacy media site, social traffic weighs about 5% — in some rare cases 10% — and around 40% to 50% of the pages views are generated via the home page.

Since the site is nothing else but an infinite rolling page of stories, there is no classic jumping board home page. Another obsession of Quartz founders: “We wanted to minimize friction and encourage readers to share our stories. We designed the site first for tablets, then for mobile and as a classic website, in that order,” insists Kevin Delaney. No apps in sight, but a site built in HTML5 and responsive design that adjusts to screen size. At first, the no-app choice sounded weird for a media aimed at a mobile audience, but considering the rising costs and complexity of building, managing, and maintaining native apps on multiple platforms, a single HTML design was probably the best approach.

I’m not through talking about Quartz. Next week, we’ll examine the venture’s business aspects, its bold ways of dealing with advertising.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

News: Personalized or Serendipitous?

 

Every digital news designer faces the question: should the traditional serendipity of contents be preserved or should we go full steam for personalization? It turns out Google is already working on ways to combine both — on its usual grand scale.

Serendipity always seemed inseparable from journalism. For any media product, taking readers away from their main center of interest is part of the fabric. I go on a website for a morning update and soon find myself captured by crafty editing that will drive me to read up on a subject that was, until now, alien to me. That’s the beauty of a great news package.

Or is it still the case? Isn’t it a mostly generational inclination? Does a Gen Y individual really care about being drawn to a science story when getting online to see sports results?

Several elements concur to the erosion of serendipity and, more generally, curiosity.

First, behavioral among digital readers are evolving. These extend far beyond generations: Regardless of her age, today’s reader is short on time. At every moment of the day (except, maybe, in the loo or in bed at night), her reading time is slashed by multiple stimuli: social teases, incoming mail, alerts or simply succumbing to distractions that lie just one click (or one app) away. That’s one of the tragedies of traditional news outlets: When it comes to retaining the commuter’s attention, for instance, Slate or The Washington Post are in direct competition with addictive products such as Facebook or Angry Birds…

Second, the old “trusted news brand” notion is going away. Young people can’t be bothered to leaf though several titles to get their feed of a variety of topics; that’s why aggregators thrive. The more innocuous ones, such as Mediagazer, mostly send traffic back to the original news provider; but legions of others (Business Insider, The Huffington Post…) melt news brands into their own, repackage contents with eye-grabbing headlines and boost the whole package with aggressive marketing.

Below, see how BuzzFeed summed up the New York Times story on the NSA monitoring social traffic: 80 words in BF that capture the substance of a 2000 words article by two experienced journalists who collected exclusive documents and reported from Washington, New York and Berlin. buzzfeed nyt

(Note that BuzzFeed is serving a more appealing headline and a livelier photograph of general Keith Alexander, head of NSA.) How many BuzzFeed glancers did click on the link sending back to the original story? I’d bet no more that 5%. (Anyway, judging by the 500 comments that followed it, the NYT did well with their article.) This trends also explains why the Times is working on new digital products that take into account both time scarcity and the Gen Y way with news.

This leads us the third reason to wonder about personalization: the economics of digital news. In the devastated landscape of online advertising, it became more critical than ever to structure news content with the goal of retaining readers within a site. That’s why proper tagging, use of metadata, semantic recommendation engines and topic pages entries are so important. More pages per visit means more ads exposure, then more revenue. Again, pure players excel at providing incentives to read more stuff within their own environment, thus generating more page views.

Coming back to the customization issue, should we turn the dial fully to the end? Or should we preserve at least some of the fortuitous discovery that was always part of the old media’s charm?

Let’s first get rid of the idea of the reader presetting his/her own preferences. No one does it. At least for mainstream products. Therefore, news customization must rely on technology, not human input.

Last week, I spoke with Richard Gingras, the senior director of news and social products at Google (in other words, he oversees Google News and Google + from an editorial an business perspective). Richard is a veteran of the news business. Among many things, he headed Salon.com, one of the first and best online publication ever.

gingras

According to him, “Today’s news personalization is very unsophisticated. We look at your news reading patterns, we determine that you looked at five stories about the Arab Spring and we deduct you might like articles about Egypt. This is not how it should work. In fact, you might be interested in many other things such as the fall from grace of dictators, generation-driven revolutions, etc. These requires understanding concepts”. And that’s a matter Google is working on, he says. Not only for news, but for products such as Google Now which is the main application of Google’s efforts on predictive search. (Read for example With Personal Data, Predictive Apps Stay a Step Ahead in the MIT Technology Review, or Apps That Know What You Want, Before You Do in the NYTimes).

The idea is to connect all of Google’s knowledge, from the individual level to his/her social group context, and beyond. This incredibly granular analysis of personal preferences and inclinations, set in the framework of the large macro-scale of the digital world, is at the core of the search giant’s strategy as summed-up below:

google infos2

On the top of this architecture, Google is developing techniques aimed at capturing the precious “signals” needed to serve more relevant contents, explains Richard Gingras. Not only in the direct vicinity of a topic, but based on center of interests drawn from concepts associated to individuals’ online patterns analyzed in a wider context. In doing so, Gingras underlines the ability of Google News to develop a kind of educated serendipity (term is mine) as opposed to narrowing the user’s mind by serving her the unrefined output of a personalization engine. In other words, based on your consumption of news, your search patterns, and a deep analysis (semantic, tonality, implied emotions) of your mail and your posts — matched against hundreds of millions of others — Google will be able to suggest a link to the profile of an artist in Harper’s when you dropped in Google News to check on Syria. That’s not customized news in a restricted sense, but that not straightforward serendipity either. That’s Google’s way of anticipating your intellectual and emotional wishes. Fascinating and scary.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

 

Memo #3 to Jeff — Data & User Profiling for The Washington Post

 

For customer-related technologies, the financial and intellectual backing of Jeff Bezos, and his Amazon experience can give The Post a huge competitive advantage. Here is what should be at the top of the to-do list. 

Every digital manager must plan to tap into Amazon’s fantastic engineering firepower. (Even though Bezos bought the newspaper out of his own pocket, the first thing he’ll do — if he hasn’t already — will be drafting some of his techies as “advisors” to The Post.) The key point being: the influx of engineering brainpower must not be limited to the digital side of the house, or to the newspaper’s IT infrastructure. It should impact all activities: editorial, marketing, subscriptions and paid-for products. Let’s dive into details.

Turbo-boosting the editorial. Let’s start with the basics: What characterizes media outlets playing in The Washington Post’s league? It is their ability to line up top journalistic resources to cover stories that matter, in-depth, with multiple angles and treatment modes (text, features stories, photographs, graphics, multimedia storytelling, live blogging, opinions, etc.), while deploying the best expertise on topics covered. These are the five items that make the difference between the bulk of pure players and true legacy media.

In many ways, the above is anti-economic, it is loaded with inherent inefficiencies — dry holes, dead ends, waste of time on promising leads —  that drive nuts “quant zealots” obsessed with KPI’s and productivity measurements. At this point, the difference between great newsroom managers (i.e. editors) and average ones lies in their ability to make some room for “managed inefficiencies”. An editor’s key, delicate duty is weighing the purpose of resource-intensive tasks such as flummoxing the competition, pursuing a worthy story, or launching a months-long journalistic project aimed at a Pulitzer prize. Unfortunately, weak leadership, balking at tough choices and yielding instead to a sorry attempt to spread an even level of (dis)satisfaction among constituencies causes inefficiencies to grow like weed.

The foremost goal of technology-enhanced news content is smartly weaving together all components of a topic. The idea is to keep the reader aboard by encouraging multiple levels of reading, with different angles for a subject, calls to essential archives or to other forms of journalism such as blogs or infographics. In this field, Amazon is light-years ahead of the news industry. By raising the number of editorial treatments seen by the reader, almost twenty years of Amazon’s e-commerce recommendation engine refinements will undoubtedly benefit The Post.

Another key item will be the level of news personalization. What should a Post reader see mostly? News that matters to him or her, or everything the paper’s staff collects? How to define mostly? Fully tailored contents based on past navigation? Stated preferences combined with the preserved serendipity that together make the core of news construction? This is a deeply involved problem — and the subject of a future Monday Note.

Reader profiling. All digital publishers dream of knowing exactly what reader sees what content, where, at what time of the day and on which vector: web, smartphone, tablet. The finer the granularity, the better. Slicing and dicing readership in segments of age, professions, residence, income, interests yields three types of uses:

  • increasing news content stickiness by serving customized content as mentioned earlier
  • smarter customized advertising, as opposed to dumbly drowning users into a flood of ads for months by using data collected during the shopping season. This practice, known as “retargeting”, is one of the internet “seven plagues” and the most potent repellent to advertising
  • channelling the reader to the catalogue of ancillary products any news outlet should operate. For example: once a reader is identified (even anonymously) as working in the legal field, for a media group struggling to fill the last seats of its conference on privacy laws, why not show this loyal reader a one-time only, 50% discounted ticket, valid for 24 hours only? Simplistic as this example might seem, its large scale application is far from trivial: it requires super-accurate analytics, the deployment of “event engines” that will trigger the display of the right offer, at the right time, to the right segment of the population. Fortunately, this is the kind of work Amazon geeks are particularly good at.

For The Washington Post, the benefits are numerous. Research shows that serving the right ad to the right profile can raise its value by a factor of 1.5x to 2x. And the performance of ancillary products (conferences, business events, news-related ebooks or professional products, education packages, etc.) will become easier to measure.

Impact on paywall and subscription models. Paywall theory can be summarized as follows:

  • deploying a wide range of tactics all aimed at significantly raising the number of news contents items (not necessarily articles) a reader watches every month. Let’s make no mistakes: the main dial is under the newsroom’s control, marketing wizardry won’t do the trick
  • finding readers most likely to convert to a paid-for subscription and, week after week, serving them (I write serving, not bombarding) offers they can’t refuse: an extended test-period, or a news-related bonus that reflects the breadth of the company’s line of products.

As with most theories, practice is much harder. A paid-for system is a long-term, investment-intensive, staffing-critical effort. Two legacy media did it particularly well: The Financial Times and The New York Times. The former built a subscription base that now surpasses the paper’s; the latter added $100m a year in revenue that did not exist three years ago. Most paywall strategies underperform for two reasons: first, an error in predicting the editorial contents’ ability to retain readers beyond a free threshold of 10, 15, or 20 stories a month; second, a failure to build the data-driven infrastructure that is mandatory for any paid-for product. The Washington Post does relatively well with the first test. For the second, the backing of Amazon tech brains will give it the best chances to succeed.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

Memo #2 to Jeff Bezos: Let’s talk about news products and design

 

Should the new owner of The Washington Post dump the print edition? What should its digital online strategy and tactics look like, both in terms of contents and platforms? 

The questions stated above might not fall into Jeff Bezos areas of sharpest expertise. But there is no shortage of smart people within The Washington Post — at least a core group eager to seize their new owner’s “keep experimenting” motto and run with it.

What can he do? For today, let’s focus on editorial products.

#1. The printed newspaper. Should The Washington Post dump its print product altogether? The short answer is no. At least not yet and not completely. Scores of digital zealots, usually with a razor-thin media culture, will push for the ultimate sacrifice. But in every market — Washington, London, Paris — there still exists a solid base of highly solvent readers that will pay a premium for the print product. This very group carries two precious features for newspaper economics: One, they are willing to pay almost any price to have their precious paper delivered every day. For a proof of that statement, see how quality papers repeatedly hiked prices in recent years, $2 or €2 is no longer a psychological threshold. Hefty street prices helped many to offset the decline of advertising revenues. Keeping the printing presses running offers a second advantage, the ads themselves: They gave lost ground, but the remaining print ads still bring 10 or 15 times more money per reader than digital versions — which is, let’s be honest, a complete economic failure of digital news products.

How long will it last? I’d say around five years. It actually depends of the evolution of the print product. Look at this weekend paper’s layout:

wapo pages

Is there anyone at The Washington Post who seriously believes this paleolithic visual will help retain readers?

Bezos should bring in a team of modern art directors from abroad. One such example is Innovation Media Consulting, an organization that works in many countries and has a great track record (I know one of Innovation’s partners well, Juan Señor, but I have no interest whatsoever in the firm.) Visually, the Post should consider a new layout (the Berliner format is a much better fit for tomorrow’s print than the old broadsheet). Also, to get a much-needed glimpse on what’s going on outside the Beltway, management should use their Amazon account to buy copies of the excellent Best Newspapers Design compilation.

Regarding the national vs. local/regional question, to me, the debate is settled: There is no point at having a physical daily newspaper with a national reach, period. (This could change if, one day, the Post is down to just one thick weekend edition.) Last August, in a remote trading post of Northern New Mexico, I found a fresh copy of the New York Times, most likely printed in Denver or Santa Fe, four hours truck drive from where I was (just have a look at this Google Map featuring the NYT printing plants locations to see my point). National + global scope belongs to digital.

#2. Digital products. The plural is important because, for a news company such as the Post, no single focus will do. At least three avenues ought to be considered: Web, mobile and tablets. (For the moment, we’ll put the Web aside, where The Post is doing great.)

For all publishers, mobile is way more tricky than initially imagined: as long as we can’t integrate content subscription in cell carrier billing, it will be difficult to have people pay for it — except if we consider some kind of in-app purchase for specialized contents. As for advertising on mobile, it now grows in “spectacular” fashion — going from the infinitesimal to insignificant. Furthermore, when comparing their product line to pure players such as Circa, we see how legacy media experienced difficulties in catching the mobile wave (see a previous Monday Note) or Pocket. The Post better work in that direction.

Tablets promise much better monetization. For this, assess the rate of iPad ownership among the Post’s readers (I bet it must be around 60%). Unfortunately, in the old press, the current rationale calls for flavors of print replicas, usually based on a PDF. As I’m writing this paragraph, I’m trying to download this morning’s Sunday edition of the Post for their iPad app; I’m stuck at about 20% of the download. (I certainly won’t ridicule the Post’s occasional glitches since it still occurs too often at my own paper– and I’m the one responsible…)

Why are digital publishers like us still struggling with this? It’s because we are stuck with a technology — namely PDF — that wasn’t designed for low download times, nor for interaction with the user, enhanced contents, social sharing, etc. Plus, many of us can’t depart form the idea that readers need to find on our apps the exact page look and feel, column structure and general layout of the print version. That assertion becomes less and less valid as the number of online readers keeps growing. That audience can become several orders of magnitude larger than the print edition’s readership: Simply consider that the NYT has 50 million people who are in contact with its online version one way another (including the very long tail), that’s more than fifty times it’s print circulation on any weekday.

Granted, a news product must have a visual identity, recognizable in every possible form, but that certainly doesn’t mean sticking to a 1993 technology with guys like us trying to keep outdated stuff alive, like a Havana car repairman nostalgically tinkering with a 1956 Chevrolet Bel Air

Jeff Bezos must keep one important things in mind: The modernization of print media has always been driven by the magazine industry, not by newspapers: From graphic design, to marketing, to advertising, weeklies and monthlies have lead innovation for decades. Now, as their print vector is dying, many of them tend to innovate on digital. They’re not doing it equally well, of course: a large group such as Condé Nast is pathetically backward — most of its titles offer only ultra-basic and unstable apps — but many publications (Fast Company, Business Week) made the leap forward with digital magazines really designed for the tablets. Even the NYT is about to launch a digital magazine for tablets that will feature great productions such as the Pulitzer Prize winning Snow Fall. So will ProPublica, I’m told.

fastco app

The Post should get rid of the cumbersome PDF legacy and switch to a full blown e-newspaper for iPad, generic Android tablets and Kindle Fire. There is no shortage of inspirational works available in the AppStore and in Apple Newsstand: Longform for the curation (my favorite weekend readings), The Magazine, TNW and more, all filled with interesting ideas or features…

To further stimulate innovation Jeff Bezos should call in firms able to genuinely think outside of the box such as Ideo or smaller shops who design great selling apps like Caroline+Young (the dataviz app mem:o), the people who did the sketching app Paper53… Personally, I’d even go as far as picking up the brain of great architects like Norman Foster, Rem Koolhas or workspace specialists NBBJ who have been commissioned to build Amazon new headquarters… It would be the most enthralling experiment to mix such great and diverse design talent pool with the Post’s journalistic excellence…

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

Memo #1 to Jeff Bezos: Try Washington Post Prime

 

We can be sure Jeff Bezos will try many things with the Washington Post. One could be drawing inspiration from Amazon’s fabulously successful Prime service. (First article in a series) 

Changes at The Washington Post’s will be the most watched media story of the coming months and, perhaps, years. Why? First of all, with the iconic Watergate saga, The Post epitomized a historic high in print journalism. The episode combined the fierce independence of a great media company, the courage of two people — namely Katherine Graham, the paper’s proprietor, and editor-in-chief Ben Bradlee — who together bet on the tenacity and energy of two young reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. For my generation, these times are part of the mystique of great journalism.

wpost_watergate
The grand old days (credit: Washington Post, Watergate Files)

Second, The Washington Post was sold (for cheap, only $250M) because it faced a certain death. Its weekday circulation fell by 60% since 2003 (still 472,000 copies today), and the advertising-loaded Sunday issue lost more than half of its audience (more details in Alan Mutter’s coverage). As for digital advertising, The Post has been unable to compensate for the in print advertising hemorrhage, gaining only $1 in digital while at the same time the print ads were losing $16 — similar to everyone else in the business.

Like most of its peers, The Post was far too slow in its shift to digital journalism, leaving an open field to new, more agile ventures such as Politico, a pure digital player that even managed to snare talent form the historic newsroom. Eventually, management got around to adjust all dials in the best possible manner (see a previous Monday Note on the subject) — alas without inverting the trend.

But the main reasons to watch Bezos’ next moves remain his appetite and proven ability to reinvent aging business models. He did so with the retail business, energized by two of the celebrated obsessions that became religion in his company: maximum efficiency applied down to the minutest of details, and an unprecedented care for the customer.

Can these two ingredients apply to the  news business?

As for customer care, in general, the press has a long way to go. As both a heavy consumer (my many digital subscriptions) and a long time media professional, I can offer many sorry testimonials to the media industry’s backward customer service. From order fulfillment (weeks in some cases) to client-support, media lies at the polar opposite of the digital industry, especially Amazon. From day one, I’ve been a paid subscriber to the Wall Street Journal and an Amazon customer. After gross overcharges for my subscriptions to the Journal, its customer service repeatedly failed to even to grant me an explanation. I finally gave up: As soon as my subscription is over, I’ll walk. Fortune Magazine has been landing in my physical mailbox for many years; sadly, it is apparently unable to provide the codes required to enjoy my subscription on Apple’s Newsstand. Again, I gave up. Another example outside the news sector: Canal+, one of the largest paid-for TV network in the world (I’m not a customer): according to several customers and two consultants I spoke with, the network’s main strategy to retain subscribers is the use every possible trick to prevent them for terminating their subscription. “Even death might not be enough to exit the service”, joked a media professional…

If Amazon had behaved like that, it would have never become the retail behemoth it is today. It started in 1995 with no credibility — actually, it even had a negative image stemming from the suspicion surrounding online shopping at the time. Like others, Amazon had to build its reputation one customer at a time. I was an early adopter and, today, my reliance on Amazon keeps growing steadily (there were a few glitches along the way, quickly fixed.)

Why mention customer service? Evidently not by reason of the need to take good care of a digital or print subscriber — that should be the bare minimum. But because a media outlet such as the Post will eventually sell many other products and services beyond news; therefore, instilling a strong customer service mentality will be a prerequisite to expanding its business into other areas. Also, the move to digital raises the customer care standards bar. More for the Post than for any other media company, customers will use Amazon services as the benchmark of quality.

My bet is Jeff Bezos will use lessons from Amazon’s Prime service. For Monday Note readers outside the United States, Amazon Prime is a special service from which, for an annual fee of $79 (€60), you get free two-days shipping, free video streaming and the right to borrow Kindle titles in a catalog of 350,000 (I can hear writers and bookstore owners faint…) The least we can say is that it worked: more than 10m people joined the Prime program (including a couple of friends of mine who quickly dumped their cable subscription — call it collateral damage…) And that’s just the beginning: Amazon expects to reach 25m Prime customers by 2017. Even more interesting: when you cough up eighty bucks a year to use the service, you also tend to buy more, that’s the juiciest psychological facet of the Prime program. See how it works for the famous tech writer Farhad Manjoo (who wrote an interesting piece in Slate If Anyone Can Save theWashington Post, It’s Jeff Bezos

 I was recently looking back at my Amazon order history. Before 2006, the year I first signed up for Prime, I placed less than 10 orders per year at the site. Prime completely changed my shopping habits. In my first year with the service, I placed 46 orders. This year my household is on track to quadruple that.

These macro level numbers confirm the success: the Amazon Prime customer spends much more than a regular one: $1224 (€930) vs. $524 (€400) per year. Furthermore, Prime accounts for one third of Amazon’profits (see a detailed story by FastCompany on the matter). In short, an immense product line, served by a near-perfect execution (an Amazon order is shipped about 2.5 hours after you clicked the “Place your  order” button), augmented by a psychological incentive smelling of free, fast and convenient all conspire to generate both high ARPU and loyalty — two outcomes newspapers economics are starving for. How can such reasoning apply to our industry? Can the antique “bundling” systems benefit from it and, as an example, open the way to new super-subscriptions? What tools can Jeff Bezos leverage to pull this off?

We’ll explore answers in further columns.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

Data Journalism is improving — fast

 

by Frederic Filloux 

The last Data Journalism Awards announced last week at the Global Editors Network News Summit in Paris established one important fact: The genre is getting better, wider in scope and gaining many creative players.

Data Journalism is thriving. This the most salient conclusion from the second edition of the DJ Awards organized by the Global Editors Network and sponsored by Google. I was part of a 20 persons jury, chaired by Paul Steiger, founder of Pro Publica. We had to choose among a short list of 72 projects divided into seven categories: data-driven storytelling, investigation, applications (all three for large and small media), and data-journalism section or website.

Here are some quick personal findings.

#1: Data-journalism is a powerful storytelling tool. The Guardian won the Storytelling Big Media category, with this compelling graphic showing the situation of gay rights for each state of the US. It did so by analyzing a range of stats and administrative rules or laws such as hospital visits, adoption, schools or housing. (In half of US states, gays have no clearly stated rights). On that matter, no story could have spoken more loudly.

gay_rights_guardian

In a different way, Thomson Reuters collected another prize for its amazing Connecting China project that looks like a visual LinkedIn for the PRC elite. It’s a huge, 18 months endeavor, built on more than 30,000 connections between Chinese power players.

china

#2: Data-journalism extends well beyond the usual economical/social topics. One DJA 2013 laureate displayed the explanatory power of good data-journalism. The French site Quoi? explored aspects of the art market. In its Art Market for Dummies (available both in French and in English), Quoi? explains who are the most bankable artists (since 2008, it’s Picasso, Warhol, Zhang Da Qian); it also shows why it is a terribly dead-male-dominated business; and it illustrates the rise of Chinese artists. It’s both entertaining and information-rich.

art_market2

Another French company, WeDoData collected an award for a great app showing the (terrible) state of female/male parity in France, in a smart, user-friendly package commissioned by France Television.

pariteur

Another great example of clever data journalism expanding to society issues is the Great British Class Calculator presented by the BBC (it won the Data-driven apps category). The project started with a survey of 161,000 persons, conducted with several universities. This helped define seven social classes ranging from the Elite, to Precarious Proleteriat, or more imaginative New Affluent workers or Technical Middle Class.

class_calculator

#3: Tools can be surprisingly simple. In many instances, data-collection and analysis are performed using relatively simple tools such as large Excel or Google Docs spreadsheets (the latter being excellent at scraping data repositories — just google the terms to find tons of resources on how to use those. The Argentina newspaper La Nación, winner of the Data-driven Investigations Big Media category, explained in its DJA filings how it retrieved 33,000 records showing the expenses of senate members by using sets of Excel macro commands.

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For its Art Market for Dummies project, the French multimedia journalist Jean Abbiateci explained how he scraped the ArtPrice database (links are mine):

For scraping data, I used Outwit, a amazing Firefox Add-on. This is very useful to convert a pdf file to an Excel file. I used Google to refine, to clean and merge my dataset. I used the Google API Currency Converter for my uniform monetary values. Finally, I used D3.js and Hichcharts.js. I also reused open source code shared by Minnpost and a software developer called Jim Vallandingham.

The projects mentioned above are just examples. A visit to the GEN Data Journalism section is well worth your time. For once, the digital news sector has fostered a healthy, creative segment, one that relies a lot on small agile companies. I find that quite encouraging.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

The Circa App: News Exclusively for Mobiles

 

by Frederic Filloux

Suddenly, everybody talks about Circa, a simple application that delivers news in an astutely condensed format. Is there a Circa secret sauce? And can it last? 

Circa’s concept is simple. It’s an iPhone-only app, meaning it doesn’t offer an iPad variant. Circa delivers content in the most digestible of ways, for people on the move, eager to quickly drill down to the essence of news. Period. No animation, no frills, but a clever sequential construction. Here is an example from this weekend’s stream: Google’s announcement that, in order to avoid fines in Germany, its News service will only index sources that have decided to explicitly opt-in to being shown in G-News Germany. Here is how it looks on Circa:

Scroll #1 : the nutshell

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Scroll #2 & 3 : a short development and main quotes

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Scroll 4 & 5, the end of the development and related stories

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Now, tap the “i” icon to get source information (in green):

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Of course, sources — “Citations” in Circa’s parlance — are clickable and send the reader to the original article displayed by a browser embedded in the application (a web-view). In doing so, Circa’s editors are able to keep the story in the most compact format possible. Instead of the classical story construction taught at journalism schools that results in endless scrolling, Circa’s pieces require no more than 6 or 7 screens.

In last week’s presentation in Paris at the Global Editors Network Conference, David Cohn, co-founder and editor-in-chief of Circa, provided a comparison between an AP story, viewed traditionally (left) and through Circa’s lenses (right, click to enlarge) :

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“At Circa, we atomize, not summarize”, says Cohn. “Atomization is when a story gets broken into into its core elements: facts, stats, quotes, media [images, maps, etc.]“. Pretty efficient indeed. If the reader wants to check the origin of a piece of information, s/he’ll unfold the sources’ deep links. Because, of course, Circa’s is an aggregator in its purest form: No original reporting whatsoever, just clever repackaging.

When I challenged David Cohn about this very point, he countered that Circa’s stories always have multiple sources and that he and his staff added “a high touch of editorial at every step of the process”, including “serious [web based] fact-checking”. He continued: “In many ways we are at the same level as other news organizations”. He meant relying on third party sources or press releases from various entities… That’s not exactly a consolation to me… At some point, the aggregation ecosystem might simply run out of original news to feed — or prey — on.

With its staff of 14 — including five people on the West coast, four on the East coast, one in Beirut and another in Beijing — Circa produces 40 to 60 news stories every day and, more importantly, 70 to 90 updates. Because, aside of its truncating obsession, Circa’s most appreciated feature is the way it follows a story.  ‘Traditional media always feel the need  to recall all the background of a given story’, adds David Cohn. ‘At Circa, when a reader wants to follow a story he will be served with update notifications each time he reconnects to the app. See this abstract from David’s presentation:

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OK, but what about the revenue side? Circa was launched last October and, as expected, has no plan to yield a single dime before next year. For now, the founders are building their audience base as fast as they can. After the iPhone app, an Android version is scheduled for the Fall, as well as a first redesign that will further simplify its user interface. After that, Circa’s team sees several possibilities. The most obvious is advertising, although David Cohn acknowledges that a poor implementation could swiftly kill the app. A flurry of banners, or intrusive formats such as interstitials would irremediably sully the neat user experience. (I’m still astonished to see how slow traditional media are to leave these old formats behind while native internet projects abandon exhausted advertising apparatus much more quickly…) Circa will rather rely on native ads (see a previous Monday Note on the subject) that blend in the flow of stories, like in Forbes or Atlantic Media’s business site Quartz.

Another natural way to monetize Circa would be a business-to-business iteration of the app. Many companies might be willing to support a lightweight application focusing on their sector, with features encouraging adoption and stickiness within large corporate staffs.

What about a paid-for apps? After all, Circa could be close to a million users by year-end. “We might go for an In-App purchase instead, maybe for niche segments”, says David Cohn. The financial sector looks like a natural candidate. Cohn also notes, in passing, that the rigorous formatting of stories could lead to a well-structured corpus of news, ideally suited for all sorts of data-mining in the future.

Circa is in many ways a contemporary product. First, it neatly addresses the attention span challenge. Remember: it’s 9 seconds for a goldfish, 8 seconds for a human in 2012 — vs. 12 seconds in 2000 —  and let’s not forget that, according to Statistic Brain, 17% of web pages are viewed for less than 4 seconds. Seriously, Circa found ways to save our precious time. Second, its content is more than neutral, it’s sanitized, deodorized. It’s a perfect fit for a generation of readers for whom facts are free and abundant, opinions are suspect and long form stories a relic of the past…

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

Your smartphone, your moods, their market

 

Coupled to facial imaging, the smartphone could become the ultimate media analytics tool, for evaluating editorial content or measuring the effectiveness of ads. Obviously, there are darker sides. 

When it comes to testing new products, most of us have been through the focus group experience. You sit behind a one-way mirror and watch a handpicked group of people dissect your new concept: a magazine redesign, a new website or a communication campaign. It usually lasts a couple of hours during which the session moderator does his best to extract intelligent remarks from the human sample. Inevitably, the client — you, me, behind the glass — ends up questioning the group’s relevance, the way the discussion was conducted, and so on. In the end, everyone makes up their own interpretation of the analyst’s conclusions. As usual, I’m caricaturing a bit; plus I’m rather in favor of products pre-tests as they always yield something useful. But we all agree the methods could be improved — or supplemented.

Now consider Focus Group 2.0: To a much larger sample (say few hundreds), you send a mockup of your next redesign, a new mobile app, or an upcoming ad campaign you better not flunk. The big 2.0 difference resides in a software module installed on the tester’s smartphone or computer that will use the device’s camera to decipher the user’s facial expressions.

Welcome to the brave new world of facial imaging. It could change the way visual designs are conceived and tested, making them more likely to succeed as a result . These techniques are based on the work of American psychologist Paul Ekman, who studied emotions and their relation to facial expression. Ekman was the first to work on “micro-expressions” yielding impossible to suppress, authentic reactions.

The human face has about 43 facials muscles that produce about 8,000 different combinations. None of theses epxressions are voluntary, nor are they dependent on social origin or ethnicity. The muscles react automatically and swiftly — in no more than 10 or 20 milliseconds — to cerebral cortex instructions sent to the facial nerve.

Last month, in Palo Alto, I met Rick Lazansky, a board director at the venture capital firm Sand Hill Angels. In the course of a discussion about advertising inefficiencies (I had just delivered a talk at Stanford underlining the shortcomings of digital ads), Rick told me he had invested in a Swiss-based company called Nviso. Last week, we set up a Skype conference with Tim Lellewellyn, founder and CEO of the company (Nviso is incubated on the campus of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne where Dr. Matteo Sorci, Nviso’s chief scientist and co-founder used to work.)

Facial Imaging’s primary market is advertising, explains the Nviso team. Its technology consists in mapping 143 points on the face, activated by the 43 facial muscles. Altogether, their tiny movements are algorithmically translated into the seven most basic expressions : happiness, surprise, fear, anger, disgust, sadness and neutral, each of them lasting a fraction of a second. In practice, such techniques require careful adjustment as many factors tweak the raw data. But the ability to apply such measurements to hundreds of subjects, in a very short time, insures the procedure’s statistical accuracy and guarantees consistent results.

Webcams and, more importantly, smartphone cameras will undoubtedly boost uses of this technology. Tests that once involved a dozen of people in a focus group can now be performed using a sample size measured in hundreds, in a matter of minutes. (When scaling up, one issue becomes the volume of data: one minute of video for 200 respondents will generate over 100,000 images to process.)

Scores of applications are coming. The most solvent field is obviously the vast palette of market research activities. Designers can quickly test logos, layouts, mockups, story boards. Nviso works with Nielsen in Australia and New Zealand and with various advertisers in Korea. But company execs know many others fields could emerge. The most obvious one is security. Imagine sets of high-speed cameras performing real-time assessment at immigration or at customs in an airport; or a police officer using the same technology to evaluate someone’s truthfulness under interrogation. (The Miranda Warning would need its own serious facelift…) Nviso states that it stays out of this field, essentially because of the high barrier to entry.

Other uses of facial imaging technique will be less contentious. For instance, it could be of a great help to the booming sector of online education. Massive Open Online Courses (Moocs) operators are struggling with two issues: authentication and student evaluation. The former is more or less solved thanks to techniques such as encoding typing patterns, a feature reliably unique to each individual. Addressing evaluation is more complicated. As one Stanford professor told me when we were discussing the fate of Moocs, “Inevitably, after a short while, you’ll have 20% to 30% of the students that will be left behind, while roughly the same proportion will get bored…” Keeping everyone on board is therefore one of the most serious challenges of Moocs. And since Moocs are about scale, such task has to be handled by machines able to deal with thousands of students at a time. Being able to detect student moods in real-time and to guide them to relevant branches of the syllabus’ tree-structure will be essential.

These mood-analysis techniques are just nascent. Besides Nviso, several well-funded companies such as Affectiva compete for the market-research sector. The field will be reinforced by other technologies such as vocal intonations analysis deployed by startups like Beyond Verbal. And there is more in store. This story of Smithonian.com titled “One day, your smartphone will know if you are happy or sad“, sums up the state of the art with mobile apps designed to decipher your mood based on the way you type, or research conducted by Samsung to develop emotion-sensing smartphones. As far as privacy is concerned, this is just the beginning of the end. Just in case you had a doubt…

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

In Bangkok, with the Fast Movers

 

The WAN-IFRA congress in Bangkok showed good examples of the newspaper industry’s transformation. Here are some highlights. 

Last week, I travelled to Bangkok for the 65th congress of the World Association of Newspapers (The WAN-IFRA also includes the World Editors Forum and the World Advertising Forum.) For a supposedly dying industry, the event gathered a record crowd: 1400 delegates from all over the world (except for France, represented by at most a dozen people…) Most presentations and discussions revealed an acceleration in the transformation of the sector.

The transition is now mostly led by emerging countries seemingly eager to get rid themselves as quickly as possible of the weight of the past. At a much faster pace than in the West, Latin America and Asia publishers take advantage of their relatively healthy print business to accelerate the online transition. These many simultaneous changes involve spectacular newsroom transformations where the notion of publication gives way to massive information factories equally producing print, web and mobile content. In these new structures, journalists, multimedia producers, developers (a Costa-Rican daily has one computer wizard for five journalists…) are blended together. They all serve a vigorous form of journalism focused on the trade’s primary mission: exposing abuses of power and public or private failures (the polar opposite of the aggregation disease.) To secure and to boost the conversion, publishers rethink the newsroom architecture, eliminate walls (physical as well as mental ones), overhaul long established hierarchies and desk arrangements (often an inheritance of the paper’s sections structure.)

In the news business, modernity no longer resides in the Western hemisphere. In Europe and in the United States, a growing number of readers are indeed getting their news online, but in a terrifyingly scattered way. According to data compiled by media analyst Jim Chisholm, newspapers represent 50.4% of internet consumption when expressed in unique visitors, but only 6.8% in visits, 1.3% in time spent, and 0.9% in page views!… “The whole battle is therefore about engagement”, says WAN-IFRA general manager Vincent Peyregne, who underlines that the level of engagement for digital represents about 5% of what it is for print — which matches the revenue gap. This is consistent with Jim Chisholm’s views stated a year ago in this interview to Ria Novosti [emphasis mine]:

If you see, how often in a month do people visit media, they visit the print papers 16 times, while the for digital papers it’s just six. At that time they look at 36 pages in print and just 3.5 in digital. Over a month, print continues to deliver over 50 times the audience intensity of newspaper digital websites.

One of the best ways to solve the engagement equation is to gain a better knowledge of audiences. In this regard, two English papers lead the pack: The Daily Mail and the Financial Times. The first is a behemoth : 119 million uniques visitors per month (including 42 m in the UK) and the proof that a profusion of vulgarity remains a weapon of choice on the web. Aside from sleaziness, the Mail Online is a fantastic data collection machine. At the WAN conference, its CEO Kevin Beatty stated that DMG, the Mail’s parent company, reaches 36% of the UK population and, on a 10-day period, the company collects “50 billion things about 43 million people”. The accumulation of data is indeed critical, but all the people I spoke with — I was there to moderate a panel about aggregation and data collection — are quick to denounce an advertising market terribly slow to reflect the value of segmentation. While many media outlets spend a great deal of resources to build data analytics, media buying agencies remain obsessed with volume. For many professionals, the ad market better quickly understand what’s at stake here; the current status quo might actually backfire as it will favor more direct relationships between media outlets and advertisers. As an example, I asked to Casper de Bono, the B2B Manager for the FT.com, how its company managed to extract value from its trove of user data harvested through its paywall. De Bono used the example of an airline that asked FT.com to extract the people that logged on the site from at least four different places served by the airline in the last 90 days. The idea was to target these individuals with specific advertising — anyone can imagine the value of such customers… This is but an example of the FT.com’s ultra-precise audience segmentation.

Paywalls were also on everyone’s lips in Bangkok. “The issue is settled”, said Juan Señor, a partner at Innovation Media Consulting, “This is not the panacea but we now know that people are willing to pay for quality and depth”. Altogether, he believes that 3% to 5% of a media site’s unique visitors could become digital subscribers. And he underlined a terrible symmetry in the revenue structure of two UK papers: While the Guardian — which resists the idea of paid-for digital readers — is losing £1m per week, The Telegraph makes roughly the same amount (£50m a year, $76m or €59m) in extra revenues thanks to its digital subscriptions… No one believes paywalls will be the one and only savior of online newspapers but, at the very least, paywalls seem to prove quality journalism is back in terms of value for the reader.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com